Todo Zero

What if I suggested that you finish each day with nothing left on your todo list? This is the only rule of Todo Zero.

You might find yourself biting back some choice words. This sounds like unhelpful advice from someone with a much simpler life than yours.

Not so fast. Picture a world-class juggler with half-a-dozen balls in motion. How many balls do they have in their hands at once? None, one, or two. Never more than two. The remainder are in the air.

By analogy, work on just one or two things at a time. The remainder can be scheduled for some time in the future. In this way, it’s very possible to finish what’s currently on your list.

Otherwise, all of the competing priorities of a long list clamour for your attention. They clutter one another, making it impossible to focus. When you’re pulled in many directions, you’ll end up immobilized and demotivated.

At least that’s what has happened to me. My implicit solution was to procrastinate until panic seized me, and then enjoy its temporary clarity of focus.

So, here’s a recipe for Todo Zero that will take an hour or two to start with:

  • Go through your todo list and pull out anything that’s going to take less than 10 minutes.
  • Pick out the one or two jobs that you really want to tackle – these should be the most important or urgent things on your list. Break them down into pieces that you could tackle today if you really put your mind to it, and note them down.
  • Schedule everything else as future events in your calendar (I usually just assign them to a date without a time). Give yourself enough room before the deadline to finish them without rushing. Don’t be over-optimistic about how many or how quickly you can work through them.

So, that leaves you with quick tasks that take less than 10 minutes, along with the one or two most urgent/important jobs for today.

Marvel at your wonderfully shortened todo list. Look away, take a deep breath. Do not look at your email. Make a coffee. Feel a little calmer than you did, and enjoy it.

Now, let’s do the same for your email.

  • Find any emails that are going to take less than 10 minutes to reply to, and boomerang them for 2 hours’ time.
  • Pull out one or two emails that are urgent or important, and boomerang them for 1 hour’s time.
  • If you have the energy, boomerang each of your remaining emails for future times individually (tomorrow, a week away or a month away, depending on urgency). If you don’t have the energy, just boomerang them wholesale for tomorrow morning.

Stand up, and take a deep breath. Walk around for a few minutes, and make a cup of coffee. This is going really well.

  • By the time you get back, you should be staring at a short todo list and a pretty clear inbox. [If anything new has landed, or any have boomeranged back, send them away for an hour. We need a clear head]
  • Now, let’s dispatch the less-than-ten-minute odds & ends tasks. Do some of them, most of them, all of them, it doesn’t matter. Just a few, to get back a sense of momentum.
  • Your most urgent emails have boomeranged back. Deal with them.

Take a break.

At this point, you’re close to the point where you have a clean slate, and just your important tasks. You probably have some meetings and stuff. Have lunch. Refresh.

  • Now, it’s time to tackle those one or two important high-priority tasks-for-today.
  • Picture yourself at the end of the day, leaning back in your chair with your hands knitted behind your head, smugly. For that to happen, double down on those one or two most important things, and the rest can wait. You will feel great.
  • Don’t do anything else today. Don’t check your email if you can avoid it. Your goal is to boomerang away (by email or calendar) anything but them.

With any luck, you made progress on those one or two most important tasks.

Armed with this approach, you can triage your own life. You can choose to focus on the most urgent or important things first, and ignore the rest. They’ll shamble back when their time has come, and then you can dispatch them in turn.

P.S. There are a few tools that will help:

  • Google Calendar – add a new ‘Todo’ calendar, whose notifications are set by default to email you at the time of the event.
  • Any simple todo list app or text editor of your choosing. It doesn’t matter.

P.P.S. One final note. I can’t juggle two balls, let alone six. So take that into account, seasoned with a pinch of salt, in reading this.

P.P.P.S. Of course, there is nothing that’s original here. It’s a death-metal-mashup of Inbox Zero and GTD. It’s not always feasible to work like this. If you don’t procrastinate, you probably don’t need it. Etc.

“Oh, that should be easy – maybe a few minutes…”

Hearing those words makes me feel like I’m tied mutely to a railway track, unable to scream for help as a train thunders towards me. We humans are walking sacks of blood, bile and bias, and estimating how long things will take brings out the worst in us.

A product manager recently asked me if one can get better at knowing whether things are easy or hard, and how long they will take. The good news is that with practice, you can help people estimate much better with your help than they would on their own.

Understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

If you don’t understand the problem well enough, you’re certainly blind to its potential complexities. Product managers are often in a *better* position than anyone else!

Understand what’s involved in the proposed solution(s).

This can be the trickiest part for non-engineers, because the details of the solution may sometimes be pretty arcane. Here’s what you can do:

  • You can go a long way by asking good questions about how things work, and what’s involved in the solution. Listen carefully to the answers. If they don’t make sense, ask for a higher-level explanation, or from a different person. Explain it back – that will make sure you’ve got it right and help you internalise it. Take good notes. Over time, you’ll start to see how the pieces interconnect, and what problems are similar to one another, and this will get easier and easier.
  • Don’t ask for an estimate for the whole solution. Break the solution down into pieces, estimate the size of each piece, and add them back together. In my experience, people can’t reliably estimate how long things will take beyond a few hours – so if the estimates are much bigger than this, break the pieces down into smaller and smaller chunks.
  • Be the rubber duck!
  • Offer to pair-program with a developer during the unit testing. You’ll get a really deep understanding of how the system works, and where the difficulties lie. Better still, if you write your tests before writing your code, your test suite provides a kind of score card for how close you are to a solution, and you’ll reduce time spent in QA.

Be aware and on the alert for pitfalls and cognitive biases that lead to poor estimations.

Human beings tend to be lazy about thinking through all the pieces for a complete solution (just focusing on the major parts, or the interesting parts, and ignoring the detail or the final 20% to make things perfect that takes all the time). They also tend to focus on the best case (if everything goes right) and ignore all the things that might go wrong. You never know what will go wrong, but if you have a sense of some possible pitfalls, you can factor them into your estimate. Possible approaches:

  • Start by asking out loud ‘what are the hidden traps, complications, edge cases, difficulties or things that could go wrong. When we did similar things in the past, how long did it end up taking? Were there surprise pitfalls that made it harder than we anticipated?’ Or run a premortem. You’ll get much better estimates after this discussion.
  • Use Planning Poker as an estimation approach. Each person makes an estimate in isolation – this forces them to think things through, and avoids estimates being dominated by what was said first or most loudly. The discussion afterwards creates an informed consensus view, and provides immediate feedback for people whose estimates are wildly off.
  • As a last resort: make an optimistic estimate and double it.

Learn from feedback.

  • Force yourself (or the project team) to make an estimate in advance, then during the project retrospective, compare the actual time taken to the estimated time. That would be the best way for everyone to learn from feedback! ‘We thought it was going to be X, but it turned out to be 2X’.
  • If things take much longer than anticipated, ask how we could have predicted this in advance. That might help you avoid similar estimation mistakes in future.
  • Notice if certain kinds of tasks tend to take longer than anticipated.
  • Notice if certain people tend to be inaccurate, and give them feedback on this.

Blogging with WordPress and Emacs

When it comes to tools, I am a hedgehog rather than a fox. I like to have a small number of tools, and to know them well.

I recently resolved to start writing again. But I decided that I needed to sharpen my pencils first.

I have plans on how publishing and sharing should work. Grand plans. Too grand, perhaps.

So for now, I wrote something simple for myself. Now I can type away, press buttons… publish.

If you like Emacs, Python and WordPress, this might be interesting to you too. If not, it certainly won’t be.

wordpress-python-emacs GitHub repository

Most of the work is being done by this great Python/Wordpress library. Thank you.

I wrote some simple Python scripts. One grabs all my existing blog posts. One looks through their titles, and checks them against the filename to see if this is a new post.

And then there’s a very simple Emacs function that calls them to save/publish the current text file.

I could add more things: deleting posts, or a proper workflow for moving from draft to published. Maybe later.

I wrote this post, then hit M-x wordpress-publish-this-file.