5 min read

Baby Got Backlog

Baby Got Backlog

In a statement that I'm sure will surprise no-one, I always have more things to do than I have time. Its a common affliction.

It used to be that when it was time to decide what I should do next, I would pull a task from the dark recesses of my memory. I have a good memory, so it felt like a solid way to handle things. Until I sat down for a few moments and actually thought about it.

I realized that while my memory might be pretty good, my ability to reason about and prioritize tasks was very clearly related to recent events. As a result, I ended up forgetting or overlooking things that I hadn't been reminded about recently.

Reflecting on the situation, the nebulous and shadowy collection of tasks that lived in my head was really no different from the list of stuff that a team has to do.

It was a backlog.

No sane team would manage their backlog in the head of one of their members, so why in gods name was I trying to do that?

I could do better.

Oh My God Becky

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of a backlog, its basically a fancy to-do list.

In fairness, its significantly more complicated than that, and involves progressively breaking down larger objectives (epics) into smaller pieces of work (stories, tasks) until you eventually reach a place where each piece can be delivered in a reasonable amount of time.

During that process you're also constantly prioritizing, drawing the most important slices of work to the top of the list, ensuring that as they are actioned not only are you learning more than you knew before, but you're progressing forward with your higher level objectives.

One of the biggest benefits that a backlog provides is visibility into the body of work that needs to be completed, which was one of the areas in which my whole "tasks live in head" model was failing miserably at. Not only was it bad for my own personal use (i.e. reviewing my list and making well informed judgment calls about what to do next), but it was also bad for the people who worked with me (who had little to no visibility into what I thought I needed to do).

Armed with solid reasoning and appropriately motivated to create a personal backlog for myself, the only remaining question was how?

Look At That Body of Work

There are many ways to put together a backlog, from the classic "pile of Post-It notes artfully arranged on a wall" through to more modern approaches, like software.

Because of the nature of my work (keeping the machine running), one of the tools that I'm most familiar with is Jira. I've been using it in some form or another since literally my first software development job out of university. However, for the purposes of managing a personal backlog, its overkill.

Trello on the other hand, is perfect for this sort of thing. It helps that the free version is more than enough to manage a personal backlog, so that's nice. It also helps that you can actually share your backlog around and show other people what you're doing without worrying about money, which is fantastic for getting opinions and thoughts on your backlog items.

To get a little bit more concrete, I actually have a few backlogs represented in Trello right now:

  • I've got one for just plain old Tasks that I need to do. The items on this board are quite light on detail because they move quickly and are really just a way to focus myself on a moment by moment basis
  • I've got one for professional development, which tracks larger pieces of learning that I want to accomplish. The items on this board move slowly, and generally have a decent amount of detail associated with them
  • I've got one for blog posts, specifically to hold ideas about future content that I want to produce. This tends to be fairly frequently groomed, as ideas occur to me or I add information ideas that are already there

I tend to use a fairly similar flow from left to right on all of the boards, which you can see in the following screenshot of my professional development board:

My professional development board, in all its golden glory

The normal progression for an item is To Do -> Doing -> Done, but there is also a bucket for when I decide to not do something. Everything is arranged in priority order (i.e. top = most important/next to pick up) and I try to limit the amount of stuff that I have in progress at one time.

Its So Big

For me, one of the biggest benefits of putting together a bunch of personal backlogs was just getting the stuff out of my head. Computers are much better at remembering things after all.

With the items successfully out of my brain, I can review them at a later date and freely move them around in priority order or flesh them out with more information. My blog post backlog is a perfect example of this: sometimes I'll be walking my dogs and a potential post will pop into my head. Now I just grab my phone, note it down in Trello and get on with my life. Later on, during one of my dedicated focus periods, I can sit down and actually give it some more brain space and then rank it against the multitude of other posts I might one day write.

The other major benefit for me is always having something to work on. Its a simple matter to just look at the list and pick the top thing. I've been getting back into using the Pomodoro Technique to get things done and its great just being able to pick up an item, starting a timer and jamming away on it for a limited chunk of time.

There are some downsides of course. The biggest one I've run into is that it can be depressing looking at a massive list of things. For example, the professional development board pictured above? That keeps going down for another 3 or 4 screenshot heights :( So much to learn...

The other downside is that a backlog is always focused on what is next, not what you've accomplished, especially if you reduce the noise by archiving completing items on a regular basis (which you should). One way to mitigate this is to not just mindlessly archive completed stuff, but to take a few moments to read through it and take stock of the cool stuff that you've managed to accomplish before sending them into the abyss.

Being mindful of your victories and progress is critically important to keep yourself motivated after all.

That's a Rap

Overall, I just feel better now that I have some sort of organized representation of things that I want to get done, and I feel like I'm accomplishing more to boot. I consider it a form of dogfooding for my day to day responsibilities, because doing this sort of backlog management all the time on my own things is excellent practice for doing it with a team.

Which is literally a huge part of my job, so I should probably be good at it.