Scrum for One: Mindful Self-Management

At the beginning of each day, I take a short note.

It looks like this:

Yesterday

  • What did I do
  • Yesterday
  • That I am proud of
  • That I can summarize
  • This morning?

Today

  • Anything I hope to get done today
  • Granular tasks
  • Home to-do items or logistics
  • Things I’m being careful to not neglect (“eat lunch”)
  • Goals like “work X number of hours”
  • Important things like “call this friend”
  • Anything it would be meaningful for me to do by the end of the day

Concerns

  • Context like “not feeling great today, it’s ok to not finish that list”
  • Things that don’t fit on the “Today” list but that are on my mind and I need to write down somewhere
  • Or blocked tasks like “would like to book plane ticket but still waiting to hear from X” which can prompt me to add “poke X about trip” to the Today list
  • Or some days, “not concerned!” when things are good and it feels like a manageable Today list

Taking this note helps me be more present. This leads to both better focus and more satisfaction in my work.

I started doing this about six months ago. At the time I had been an alternately un- and self-employed digital nomad for two years.

Lack of stability can be very challenging! If you control all of your own time, any setbacks or slowness– they’re yours. And the work will be slow, because you’re working alone.

This method is a way of paying attention to the work that you’re doing, and the things you value that you don’t count as “work”. It’s a way of recognizing effort rather than accomplishment, and of prioritizing that effort around priorities you choose consciously.

Management Theory

I’ve written previously about management in teams within a company and about self-management.

“Management” as I see it is a way of having answers for the questions:

  • What should I do today?
  • Is the work I do this week purposeful to the long-term goals?
  • Am I working towards valuable long-term goals?

Originally, I began conducting “self-scrum” with this yesterday/today/concerns framework out of frustration. I couldn’t answer my management questions– or rather, my answers were much too long.

My intent was to better focus my work. If a scrum works to improve the productivity of a team, why couldn’t it also work for me? So I began to make space at the beginning of my day to reflect and set intentions.

Revelations of an overachiever

There is a difference between knowing something intellectually, and understanding it as it relates to yourself.

The process of self-scrum brought me to several obvious realizations. Are they self-evident? Absolutely. But in the first day, week, and month of using this method, I learned to believe them and apply them to myself.

1. You cannot do everything today

My first, immediate realization, was that my list was too long. I sat down on the first day, outlined my intentions, and sat back in my chair: this list goes off the page!

I had self-assigned too many projects. At the end of each day, I would feel disappointed in myself for failing to complete a strict: run every day, cook all my meals, practice foreign languages, practice musical instruments, read particular books, work on a book I’m writing, contribute to this open source project, mentor that coding team, plan this trip … even writing it out here, it’s absurd.

2. If everything is “top priority”, nothing is

The second thing to note: if you self-assign too many things, some of them won’t get done. But if you make a shorter list (just the things that really matter), you’ll probably accomplish them all. So if I was more selective in my intentions, I was also more effective.

3. If you set plausible intentions, you can fulfill them

The third major lesson I learned from this practice: I stopped feeling disappointed in myself for the things I didn’t cross off the list.

In agile/scrum methodology (which I’m only borrowing pieces of here) is centered around the idea that you learn about your pace of work by making estimates and noticing what you do and don’t accomplish. If you don’t finish everything, that’s okay. You learned something. You are intended to revise your time estimates so that your future guesses will be more accurate.

It took me only a couple of weeks to be pretty accurate in knowing what I could really get done each day– and which tasks I should write down somewhere other than “Today” so that I could stop worrying about them and accomplish the things I’d decided to do sooner.

Lapses in Management

I believe firmly that managerial structure (policies, meetings, task management apps) should be instrumental rather than central. If a tool or process isn’t serving you or your team, you should stop wasting time with it– even if it’s accepted practice. All management should be thoughtful.

Scrum isn’t useful every day. It’s useful on days when I’m trying to get something done. It’s great for days when I have a lot of disparate, pressing tasks. So I do this exercise most of the time, but it’s okay if I don’t.

Some days, I realize I should have done a proper scrum. I’ll get towards the end of the day and feel beaten down about the things I didn’t accomplish. It can help, even in that moment, to stop what I’m doing and take my scrum: what did I do yesterday? What have I done today? What do I have the time and energy to complete starting now?

Mindful Self-management

Over this same period, I’ve been learning to meditate.

The principle is the same: create space. Step out of the task at hand. Become aware of yourself, the way you feel, the environment you’re in. Notice which thoughts stay important as you consider them, and which fade away.

Treat yourself the way you might a teammate you care about; celebrate successes, set reasonable goals, and don’t dwell on things you can’t go back and change– your agency exists only in the present moment.

These are the less-obvious realizations, gained over half a year of self-scrum. Like the others, they’re not the sort of thing you learn by reading. Likely, you already know this intellectually. But this is a path for taking these revelations to heart.

I started by looking for a way to accomplish more. But I don’t think my productivity has changed. Instead, I think my productive work has become more satisfying and focused.

I don’t feel guilty about my set-aside work anymore, because I know I’m checking every day: what is important? If it doesn’t make the list, it must not matter so much to me.

And the things that matter? They rise to the top.

  • What should I do today?
  • Is the work I do this week purposeful to the long-term goals?
  • Am I working towards valuable long-term goals?

A daily reflection on these questions helps me do better work, with a clearer mind. I work with purpose, and love what I do.