Wednesday, October 7, 2015

7: Flex

Previous Post - 6: Focus - hyper focus on one thing at a time, limit your work in progress and blockers

Ah, the realities of a solo artist/creative - big opportunities arise (a large wholesale order!), family crisis arise, a day job might still be a reality, balancing family needs, keeping yourself healthy - all of these will vie for your time. Another scenario that calls for flexibility is when you start developing on Idea that morphs into a better more effective Idea. Being flexible is a key, even if you have to change your ideas mid-stream. How do you adjust without losing the momentum caused by a change? 

Principle #7: Flex

Okay, now you've made your plans, and have started working them. But, as any experienced project manager knows, no plan survives first contact with implementation

One of of the surprising things about this type of project/task management is your ability to flex and change as needed. Most creatives resist organizing and planning because it feels so rigid and inflexible. Not Agile! In fact, one of the core tenets of the Agile Manifesto is "Responding to change over following a plan." Agile is designed to flex with reality, not box you into a corner.

While the overall goal is to complete work and not circle between multiple tasks (see last week's post on Focus,) Agile embraces your natural creative instincts to adjust with changes. The key to success is balancing the tension between your intuition and desire to do something new and intention complete work and put it out into the world. You get better with the tension the more you practice.

I use sticky notes even with writing this post and use them as bullet points for the keys I want to discuss. Being able to move these around and get a clearer sense of how to structure this post is very helpful.

Being able to change your Categories, Focus, Priorities is one of the beautiful things about this process. It's also why I prefer sticky notes over any other tool. Lists are too rigid. With the number of tasks I need to do, a list is outdated as soon as it's written. Digital is as flexible as sticky notes, but it doesn't have the power of being an always-visible reminder of what you need to do. 

Try and Modify 

Once you start something, don't feel too boxed in by what you've started. For example, when I broke my Energy Drain list (below) down into categories, I had four categories. As I started working my "plan" I realized I needed to break one of the categories down into two smaller categories. I plan my week out and my priorities change as the week progresses due to things that come up. Don't worry or overthink it. Just go with the flow.

Don't Overdo the Organization

One of the keys I want to emphasize in this context is don't overdo the organization. Yes, a Type A project manager just said that out loud. Because everything changes. It's really more important (and sometimes harder) to keep everything as simple as possible and no more complex than it needs to be. Complexity kills progress. Keep it as simple as possible but don't feel hemmed in either. Again, balance the tension between the paradoxical states. 

Maintain Momentum

Flexibility as a creative is an advantage and a flaw. It can be a flaw when you are subject to the Shiny New Object Syndrome. Playing with the next ideas leads to loss of focus on becoming really good at one or two things. Context switching and pursuing each new shiny idea really makes for multi-focus. If you multi-focus, pretty soon you end up with a lot of projects started and none finished. 

One of the key points is making sure you have everything written down. If you have to check out from your work for a bit to focus on a family emergency, a health crisis, or an element of your business that takes you away from new business development, having a point of reference is critical. If you maintain your project book or project queue with your Hyper Focus as tightly focused as possible (only one or two sticky notes), when you come back to it you have focus.

When you shift priorities and change up the Hyper Focus, it's good to do a review of your entire queue to make sure you are still focused on the right priority and you haven't forgotten anything. Reviewing and rearranging your sticky notes keeps everything percolating in your brain, without having to worry about forgetting it. This little bit of preparation saves you a lot of time in the long run and keeps you from spinning your wheels on all the ideas you have. Also, because it's written, you don't have to spend precious time remembering your ideas or worse, forget the fabulous idea and start working on the wrong priority.

Next Post - 8: Review - survey the time box of activities, what can you do differently next time?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

6: Focus

Previous Post - 5: Time Box - identify a length of time you want to accomplish things

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” - Steve Jobs

Principle #6: Focus

One of the key principles in the Agile world is focusing on one thing at a time and finishing it. I read a term on someone's blog that really describes a piece of this method. She called it “Hyper-Focus.”

Hyper Focus

You have a Project Book and put one single sticky note on the front and work that until it’s done. Maybe you decide you can have more than one (as you might have to wait for something from someone else to move forward). The idea is, don’t put too much on your front page. Maybe even decided a maximum number of sticky notes you will allow on your front page (1, 2, maybe even 4), but by limiting and hyper-focusing, your time will be maximized.

Avoid Context Switching (Commonly Known as Multi-Tasking)

As any good administrative assistant, chef, or mom knows, multi-tasking is a critical survival skill. At it's simplest, multi-tasking involves setting a number of tasks in motion that require minimal attention. One task gets the focus. So, in it's most literal form, we only do one task at a time, while other tasks are set in motion behind the scenes. A virtuoso multi-tasker optimizes her workflow so she can seamlessly switch attention between tasks with minimal down time.

The switching attention from one task to another is the problem. The phrase "context switching" more accurately describes the real issues. In the multi-tasking scenario, it's usually switching between tasks that don't necessarily require full concentration. But there are many tasks we do today that require the majority of our concentration.

Knowledge work is something that is high in mental concentration. To be most efficient with your work, it's best to finish the task you are working on before moving on to something else. One way to manage that is to minimize the number of tasks you are focusing on (limit work in progress) before you start working on anything new.

Pomodoro Technique

Additional techniques like the Pomodoro technique can help you focus for short bursts of time (25 minutes with a 5 minute break)

Next Post - 7: Flex - acknowledge changes and adjust

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

5: Timebox

Previous Post - Summary of Principles 1-4

Principle #5: Time-box

What is a Time-Box? A length of time determined by you (or your team) of 1, 2, 3, or 4 weeks for getting a group of sticky notes done.

You may need to circle back to steps 1-4 to break your ideas down small enough to fit into a single week. The idea is breaking your work down into smaller, manageable, complete-able chunks of work. The only valuable idea is a finished one, and each step or chunk of work brings you closer to completion.

Bringing Work into the Time Box

Go through your list of priorities and pull into your Time Box the number of stickies you think you can get done. If necessary, you might need to break your stickies down into smaller chunks to fit in the Time Box. It's highly likely you will overestimate the amount of work you can get done. That's okay. As you start, you are learning how much you can do. Keep notes on your stickies as you work and move them to the Complete queue with notes. I find my teams never really get to super accurate estimating. I find I'm also not completely accurate in my personal estimating either. But that's part of a future Principle to Review and see what's working, what isn't and continuously tweak the process until it's a fine tuned machine. The goal is to get to consistent, somewhat predictable productivity over the long term based on past history.

The Progress Queue (Wall System)

You can customize the queue to what works best for you, but I usually have these four categories: Queue (list of work to be done in this Time Box), Pending (items that I started but are waiting on outside factors), In Progress, and Complete.

Progress Queue (Book System)

In the the portable book, I use the progress queue a little differently. I use the pink page as the queue of new work and pending items, the front page is the In Progress queue that I need to focus on immediately. At the back of the book is a Complete page where I collect the completed stickies with the notes on how long everything takes.

Optimal Time Box

I recommend one week as the optimal time box for checking progress and continuous adjustments of your overall process.

Ranges of time boxes: You can go up to two, three or four weeks if that cadence and rhythm just makes sense in your creative world. If you have an intense project and you need to see daily progress, you can even break your time boxes down into daily and measure your progress based on daily completion of tasks. Test out what cadence works best for you.

Regular Work Week 

If you're job is a regular 9-5 workweek, the reflexive action is to base your week on a Monday-Friday cadence. Go ahead and work within this framework if it makes sense. But consider some alternatives.

The Weekend Creative

If you doing your creative work as a side gig to your day job, it might make more sense to start your Time Box on a Friday or Monday. Personally, I've been starting mine on Mondays, allowing me a little work during the week and a big push on the weekend with a wrap-up of what I accomplished for the week on Sunday and prep for the next week on Sunday evening. However, I've been experimenting with starting my creative week on Fridays. Experiment each week with whatever day it makes sense for you to start your Time Box.

Mid-Week Start

Another alternative for when you start your creative week might be in the middle of the week. This is something we did on my corporate teams when we normally had one-two people out on Fridays and Mondays due to flex schedules, holidays, Personal Time Off, etc. If you have a more stable schedule where people aren't out of the office regularly on Friday or Monday, a Monday-Friday Time Box is fine. But, this might also fit your creative schedule.


If you notice, there isn't a strict schedule and plan. It's actually a fairly loose weekly plan. In a creative sense, I find this framework is incredibly valuable. I arrange my work around the appointments and find the loose framework is so much more fun and valuable for the way I work in a creative sense.

If you must have a schedule, be careful not to over schedule yourself. Chaos has a tendency to feed creativity than than strict schedules. The beauty of this system is that it allows a lot of flexibility and freedom while still propelling you to completion on tasks. 

With that in mind, only schedule what you must schedule. For example:
  • Deadlines for contest submissions. You might have to "plan backward" and figure out pieces of work you must have done by each week. 
  • Appointments
  • Classes
  • Shows
  • Editorial schedule for social media - this item might even be a hybrid between scheduling blocks of regular time every week to make sure you get all of this done, while not being overly rigid.


  1. Determine your optimal time box for you (I recommend one week)
  2. From the priorities you have set, select a group of stickies you think can fit into your Time Box
  3. Break your work down to fit into the time box
  4. Start your time box on a day where you can maximize your work

Next Post - 6: Focus - hyper focus on one thing at a time, limit your work in progress and blockers

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Resident Adventurer... Florida Edition

Who knew I would enjoy living in Florida so much? My resident adventures have some great locations. At first it didn't seem like much, but if you look, it's there. 


Who doesn't enjoy time at the beach? I have to admit, I've only had one day of quality time at the beach. When you live here, it isn't as easy to spend oodles of time on the beach, but I do make it a habit to run over there, even for a few minutes every so often. 20 minutes away. Only 20 minutes. But sometimes, oh so far when you're in the midst of all the activities of daily life.

My Love/Fear Relationship with Florida

But I do have to admit there is an element of a love/fear relationship. There are a lot of sting-y (scorpions, mosquitoes) or bite-y (alligators, yellow flies, snakes, sharks) things here. But, if you exercise caution, you are reasonably safe. Reasonably. I'm still very cautious and constantly keeping my eyes peeled. I still don't see things easily, so I feel like I would be more susceptible to missing what's right in front of me because they blend in so well.

Palencia Boardwalk

Yet, it's so worth it. I mean, check this out. This little gem of a boardwalk goes out to the Intercostal River and gives you a peek into the stunning salt marshes that are hard to see otherwise. Such a treasure!

Sky Art

And the sky. The sky is constantly spectacular, especially in summer during the rainy season. Florida is flat as a pancake. There is a stoplight that I call the "Monty Python" stoplight because it seems like it never gets closer. And then suddenly you're there. But the clouds. Shift your gaze skyward and you're always in for a daily dose of art.

Now we're getting to fall and it's dropped down to the 70's. I've actually been chilled enough to wear long sleeves! Heh! Who knew I would acclimate to the heat? Well, we do complain in the hot, hot summer. I don't go to Disney in the summer months and I drive in the AC as much as possible. I don't know how people lived in Florida without AC. :-)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Summary of Principles 1-4: The Backlog

Previous Post - 4: Prioritize - focus on work that aligns with your values and learn the art of saying "no"

Congratulations! You have now created, what we call in the Agile software development arena, a Backlog! This is your list of work that you need to accomplish to achieve your goals.

1: Capture - write everything down

2: Categorize - group like items together

3: Summarize - summarize by the end result (not the action / verb)

4: Prioritize - focus on work that aligns with your values and learn the art of saying "no"

Like my coordinated system? If you're sticky note king/queen, get your own Backlog in my shop with coordinating Sticky Notes or get the portable Project Book system that combines the Backlog and Progress Queue.

5: Time Box - identify a length of time you want to accomplish things

Table of Contents for the Sticky Note PM Program