I used to start the day with a short planning session to pull together a list of the things I wanted to do that day. Sometimes I’d get everything done, most times I wouldn’t. New things would pop up, older things would be become irrelevant. But the problem wasn’t whether or not I got stuff done, it was that I had no feedback loop to tell me whether I was doing the right things. So I redesigned my entire approach.
We humans are pretty terrible at predicting the future and estimating how long a task will take, so this approach focuses on recording what I actually did and then trying to correlate it back to whether I’m achieving what I want to. From this I can learn how to set better goals and make sure I do the work to achieve them.
This is how it works.
The whole point of this system is to answer three questions:
- Did I work on the right things?
- Did I do the right amount of work on those things?
- Is the work I’m doing taking me towards my goal?
I try to answer those questions over three different timescales; daily, weekly and monthly. I hope this gives a more balanced view of the answers to those questions and doesn’t favour one over another.
At the start of the month, I write a goal for each of the projects I’m working on.
At the end of the month, I review whether I achieved the goals or not and colour code them to make it easy to tell. I use green for completed, orange for progressed, and red for didn’t achieve.
This is the longest of the loops for the biggest goals. It’s the hardest to connect with the daily work.
At the start of a week, I write a short description of what I want to do over the week for each project. In fact, I started with doing this for five projects, partly because I know they are moving quickly and I have clearer idea about their direction, and partly to start small.
At the end of the week, I review whether I achieved what I set out to or not and colour-code in the same way as the monthly goals.
This is the middle-sized loop. It’s easy to see whether the work done this week has achieved the weekly goal. I use this to help me write the right goals next week.
Each morning I check my tasks list and yesterday’s done list for things I should do today. Some are things that have to be done, other’s are more flexible and I’ll get to them if I get time. This gives me a bit of short-term guidance and helps me not miss things.
Throughout the day, I make a note of each thing I work on for each project. Sometimes it’s a small thing like a quick chat, sometimes it’s a meeting, sometimes it’s a bigger thing like spending a few hours writing a document.
A formula in my spreadsheet counts these and displays them on a heatmap of tasks done for each project each day.
At the end of the day I do a quick check on which projects I worked on, how many things I did, and how it compares to the average. This is the shortest feedback loop and helps me answer my three questions.
What have I learned
I’ve been doing this for a month, or 22 working days.
I averaged 8 and a half tasks a day. 17 on my busiest day and 3 on my least busy days.
It’s easy to see which projects haven’t had much done on them – they are the long lines of red and low total. You can also see where there have been spikes of activity on a project with a few things getting done in one day. This helps me understand whether I’m focusing my efforts on the right things.
Some projects show constant activity and others a weekly pulse of activity. This helps me understand how different projects require focus at different times.
There’s also a weekly pattern of Monday’s being busiest and tapering off over the week. This helps me think about when to do certain types of work – Monday’s for syncing type work, Friday’s for deep work.
Did I work on the right things?
I would say yes, I am working on the right things. The average number of tasks per project is 13.8 and the 50% of projects that are above that are the ones that are higher priority (each for different reasons, but higher priority still) than the bottom half. This seems like a good, although pretty blunt, measure to show.
Did I do the right amount of work on those things?
Thinking about what the table tells me about whether I spent the right amount of time on the right projects, I’d say that it broadly does but only because I have additional knowledge about the projects such as which are higher priority, which have dependencies, and which I could become a blocker on. Maybe I should think about including that contextual information.
Is the work I’m doing taking me towards my goal?
Over the past two weeks I completed 1 thing, progressed 7 things, and didn’t complete 3 things. Given that I only managed a 10% success rate in the last fortnight, I’d say there isn’t a strong connection between the tasks I’m doing each day and the goals I set at the beginning of the week.
This goes back to the point above about not being very good at predicting the future, not having enough time for five projects (let alone 15). There’s also an important point about some projects being more dependent on other people who are also busy on other things, and doing work that unblocks them but doesn’t achieve my goals.
Lots more thinking required to properly connect the daily work to the bigger goals.
How I might improve it in the future
Measuring average tasks per project
Using the average number of tasks across all projects as the middle benchmark and then ranking projects by how far above or below average they are might give a quick way of seeing if the number of tasks correlates with the priority of the project.
I started and ended the month with the same projects, so nothing new was added. That is a bit of a WIP control, even if the overall number is too high. That some projects don’t get much done but stay on the list shows that there are too many projects to make meaningful, regular progress.
Maybe the table needs a way to differentiate between projects that are in progress but not having any work done and projects that are complete, as at the moment they both show as red.
I’ve decided not to do this so far because I think it’ll drive the wrong behaviour. It’ll make the work more quantifiable and that’s too easy to mistake for value. Sometimes a couple of chat messages that take three minutes is more valuable than three hours spent analysing data. So, if I do start tracking my time I’ll have to think carefully about the right way to do it.