agile tools to make you happier and more productive
May 7, 2018

4 Agile Tools to Make You Happier and More Productive

The modern world of work can be a treacherous place to navigate.

It’s easy to get caught up demands to produce more and work longer hours, or to succumb to task-driven drudgery that isn’t personally satisfying or professionally valuable.

Typical productivity “hacks” often fail under the strains of interrupt-driven departments (ahem, marketing), meaning we need systems designed to help us be our best professional selves without the rigidity that makes them impossible to stick to.

By taking the principles that underpin Agile project management, we can create flexible structures to govern our days.

These four somewhat unusual tools can set you up for increased productivity, greater professional satisfaction, and a quicker route to your next promotion:

  1. An Agile Mindset
  2. Personal WIP Limits
  3. Managing Work With a Backlog (Not a To-Do List)
  4. 15-Minute Daily Reviews

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What it Means to Have an Agile Mindset

People with an Agile mindset (note the capital “A”) are not bound by adherence to a particular set of ceremonies or a specific methodology. Instead, they look to the ideas that inform all Agile approaches to structure their days, weeks, and professional lives.

This takes the form of:

  • Delivering value, to both the customer and the business, rather than mindlessly completing tasks.
  • Constant learning and adaptation, including a willingness to embrace failure as a feedback mechanism.
  • A commitment to processes, such as a personal backlog and daily reviews, that increase their effectiveness and happiness.

Leanne Howard defines some additional specific characteristics of the Agile mindset:

  • Attack work with a positive attitude, providing suggestions to overcome obstacles. Provide options. Don’t say it can’t be done, explain what can be done.
  • Gain as much information as possible in order to deliver a quality product. Don’t assume that what you’re doing or how you’re doing it is best.
  • Be willing to move outside your comfort zone for the overall good of the team.
  • Train others where needed.
  • Tackle highly valuable projects based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.

It’s important to note that these characteristics don’t just work on Agile teams. Employees who can apply Agile thinking will find success in just about any situation that’s worth being in.

Agile Tools to Power Your Day

Of course, a way of thinking is only one component of managing our professional paths. We also need tools and systems that allow us to turn a mindset into a way of getting things done.

We’ve tackled the requisite mindset, now let’s look at three tools that we can borrow from Agile methodologies to put it into practice:

  1. Work in Progress (WIP) limits
  2. The Backlog
  3. Daily Reviews

Personal WIP Limits

A Work in Progress (WIP) Limit is a tool from the Kanban methodology that restricts how many pieces of work can be in a state at any one time. So, in this example:

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Three things can be in progress, while six things can be up next. When used on teams, WIP limits help maintain a consistent flow and regular releases, but they’re also extremely valuable for individuals who want to avoid the bane of the modern knowledge worker: multitasking.

The thing about multitasking is that it isn’t really a thing. Our brains actually can’t process more than one thing at a time. That means that when we jump back and forth from one thing to another we’re not doing things simultaneously, we’re just doing a lot of context switching.

Jeff Sutherland has used his Scrum methodology to kickstart the productivity of hundreds of teams, and he’s seen more than his fair share of effort lost to context switching. Here’s what he has to say about this nefarious component of modern work:

“if you have five projects, a full 75 percent of your work goes nowhere— three-quarters of your day is flushed down the toilet...That’s pure waste. Not a thing more is produced. Not a dollar saved. Not a new innovation implemented. It is just a waste of human life. It’s working for no purpose.”

But, by forcing yourself to finish something before moving on to the next task, you can structure your day to avoid context switching.

Your WIP limit for your “Doing” column doesn’t have to be one, of course, but it definitely shouldn’t be more than three, and if you can keep it down to two that’s even better.

Force yourself to finish something completely before moving on to the next thing with a strict WIP limit. After all, doing half of something is the same as doing nothing. 

Use a Backlog, Not a To-Do List

Consider this disheartening fact about to-do lists: Just half of all to-do list items are completed within a day, and 41 percent are never completed at all.

When we make lists that never get checked off, our motivation suffers, making us even less productive than before. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that we can break by implementing our own personal backlog.

An Agile backlog is often described as a prioritized to-do list, but unlike regular to-do lists it shouldn’t be updated on a moment-by-moment basis. Instead, every week we should revisit it to make sure it’s in a ready-to-work state.

Then, each day as we finish a task, we pull the next piece of work from the top of the backlog, confident that it’s the most important thing for us to work on right now. It prevents us from having to stop and review ongoing projects/emails/chat windows for the next task we should tackle.

That’s a good thing, because every time we dive into email or chat, we’re opening ourselves up to distraction and derailment.

The Daily Individual Review

Finally, let’s talk about performing your own mini-review at the end of each day. On an agile team, the Sprint Review meeting is an opportunity for the team to show off a little bit.

They display the work they completed, increasing visibility and providing some psychological momentum for the team as they move into their next iteration. As it turns out, this can work for individuals too.

Teresa Amabile points out in her book The Progress Principle that progress is more important than productivity. The feeling of making meaningful progress in advancing our professional work has a much greater impact on engagement and motivation than simply checking items off a list (which, as we’ve seen, we usually don’t get to do anyway).

In a 2015 article, Leigh Buchanan of Inc. magazine discusses some of Amabile’s newer research. According to Buchanan, it suggests, “that the simple act of looking back on progress also positively affects your sense of accomplishment and how competent and effective you feel at work.”

So, by simply taking 15 minutes at the end of the day to look back at what you’ve done in a mini-Sprint Review, you can improve both your mindset and your performance.

In fact, when Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor, asked employees to spend 15 minutes writing down what had gone well during their day while others kept working, those who reflected on their accomplishments had a 23 percent higher performance level.

Just as Agile teams benefit from taking time out of their week to appreciate the fruits of their labors, Agile individuals can improve their overall output by pausing to review their results each day.

An Agile Employee is a Happier Employee

Jeff Sutherland argues in Scrum that there are three things that “actually make people happy” at work: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In other words, “it’s the ability to control your own destiny, it’s the feeling that you’re getting better at something, and it’s knowing that you’re serving something bigger than yourself.”

Agile teams get these feelings, but individuals who approach their own work with tools and processes that are guided by an Agile mindset can get them too. 

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