Concentrate.

So I’m a bit of a higgledy piggledy person in general, a messy storm of ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I can be Rand Al Thor with his flame in the void, focussing on one task or feeling until it’s done. But just like Rand Al Thor, I have a tendency to take on too much, juggling tasks until I become a miserable old sod no one wants to be around because I have so much to do, don’t you understand how stressful it is just to be me?

(Rand is a fictional character in the fantasy series The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan)

To help me reign in and control some of the tendencies for picking up more and more tasks until I get overwhelmed by my own stupidity and shortsightedness, I have been using a Trello board to track everything I want to do. I wrote a blog post about it at the time I began, and I suppose this is the update on how that’s going and how my process has evolved since then.


The Toggl Incident

An aside on efficiency and my learning habits: there was an incident, I call it The Toggl Incident. For about a month, I used toggl.io to track how much time I spent on various tasks by separating them into different types. See below for an example from one week:

Manual Testing 43% – Meetings 37% – Personal Development 11% – Devving 7% – Regression 1% (note that on the first day of the week, I started lumping manual testing and manual regression testing together, hence only 1% Regression)(another note, these don’t add up to 100% because I was doing manual testing during remote meetings in order to create time for personal development).

This worked great for a while, and I really felt I was getting value from it. And then… Well, I started to get competitive – with myself.

I logged 7 hours yesterday, but only 6.5 hours today? I’d better stay 30mins late today to make it up. Can’t have old Bruce showing me up like that! But I can’t keep leaving later and later either, so to keep the number up sustainably I’ll have to stop taking tea breaks… And what’s lunch for, anyway? I can work and eat at the same time.

– Bruce, a fool

I was optimising the fudge out of my workday, let me tell you – for a few weeks, that is. I can’t tell you how stressful it was, feeling that you have to justify every second of your day, having that pull to keep working because as soon as you press that pause button you’re gunna be playing catch-up later. I mean, some of you probably work in environments very much like that. I hope not, though. The utterly stupid thing is that I was doing it to myself, because I genuinely thought it would help me do my job better, learn more and be more effective.

I should have read Slack (a book by Tom DeMarco about the importance of slack) about six months earlier than I did. xD


The Trello Incident?

For the first couple of weeks using a personal Trello board to track tasks, I was on a high. This was great. I was getting things done, and the fact I could see them done was helping to combat imposter syndrome. Even when I wasn’t directly affecting or improving throughput of engineering work, I could see what other things I was making progress on.

Shows a task board made of three columns of completed task, sorted by week. The first week has 5 tasks, the second has 7 and the third has 8.
Look at those beautiful, beautiful Done columns!

(There is probably an elegant way to take care of Done items, better than making a new Done column for every week but I like to go back and see what I’ve done over time, and make sure I’m doing a variety of different task types over time. If I see no deep blue markers in the last couple of weeks, then I’ll grab a coding task when I next have time.)

The columns go from right to left in time order, probably because manga idk.

In those first few weeks, I found myself able to do things I had struggled horribly with before. I put in meetings to talk with people in the organisation around different parts of the system, I did an exploratory testing session and wrote BDD scenarios with a developer. I published a blog post every week and jumped forwards massively in progress on Diversity and Inclusion by really taking ownership of the tasks.

But a little bit of me, that little Toggl part, was pleased to see the column sizes grow each week. It whispered in my ear the sweet nothings of improvement. You got 8 tasks done this week, even though you spent an entire day at a conference, it said. That’s 2 per day, so next week you should get 10 things done...

A second image of the task columns, with two more added representing the two following weeks. These have fewer tasks completed than before.
Uh… oh no, wh-what’s happening

Instead of going up, the number of tasks I got done went down. Obviously there are many factors that contribute to this – most of all, the number and size of client rollouts – but my Toggl brain started to panic. The magic of the board wore off, and instead of helping fight the feeling of worthlessness, it was becoming a cause. I’d open up the board and look at the tasks in my backlog every half hour, even when I was too busy to pick anything up.

I did some awesome stuff in the fourth and fifth weeks. I came up with the idea of using Dungeons and Testing as a way to evaluate yourself as a tester, and started writing it up. I wrote out the first little page on my site about the idea. I wrote a blog post on exploratory testing as well, and I updated my site logo. I organised and ran a catch up in the company around our progress on Diversity and Inclusion, and convinced a heap of engineers to watch the Ash Coleman talk from TestBash Brighton.

I was on fire, and yet I walked home on Friday June 21st feeling like a

piece

of

garbage.

The Recovery

I’d like to say that I’ve shaken off that feeling completely, but I think it’s just one of those things you have to keep fighting every day. I have made some changes though, or perhaps they’d be better called rules.

  1. Go get that tea
  2. Always take a lunch break
  3. Don’t work more than half an hour extra per day
  4. Walk, don’t bus
  5. Do the things you want to do

I have the extreme fortune of working with a man called Robert Glyndwr Jones (I had to say the middle name, because it’s Welsh and therefore the only one that matters). Like me, he is trying desperately hard to learn, and is fighting his own battle in doing so. But unlike me, he knows when to take a blinking break. He comes up to my desk, or catches my eye from across the room, and he asks “tea?”

Even if I literally just sat down with a fresh cup, I take a walk with Glyndwr out to the communal kitchen to have a natter and a refill. That’s rule number one. There is always time to get a cup of tea.

Image shows me drinking a cup of tea, which is glowing with holy light
Tea: all that is holy and good in this world

Secondly, there is always time to grab lunch. Every day. If taking that half hour out means I can’t get something done by end of day today, then that’s fine because I can’t be expected to get it done today – and I’m usually one of the first in so it’ll get done before standup the next day anyway. Go grab your dry, crumbly supermarket falafel wrap, Bruce.

Following on from that, I don’t work more than half an hour extra per day, and I try not to work extra at all. I’ve been really good with that this week. It helps that I’ve been walking home, so if I leave late then I don’t eat until like 8pm. Speaking of – I’ve always walked where possible, but it’s a really long way to my new flat (3.5miles/5.6km, with hills) so I was steadily falling further and further out of the habit. I’m now firmly back on the walking train, which means I get a lot of me-time every day, walking through the dog park and listening to fantasy or sci-fi novels on Audible.

Last but not least, and well done if you’ve stayed with me so far, I prioritise tasks based on what I want to achieve. This was supposed to be my personal board, but it quickly became full of things I felt I should do, and dragging items into the “Doing” column felt like, well, a drag.

It was making me miserable, and I could have given up on the board. Just thrown it away because it obviously wasn’t working. But I could still clearly remember those first couple of weeks, the glorious shining times of feeling like I was getting stuff done that I’d been meaning to do for months prior – so I reset my mentality instead. This board is for me, for the things I want to learn and the way I want to progress. The things that matter to me, that make me feel productive and effective.

A screenshot of the task board showing the four latest weeks, which have varying numbers of tasks completed.
See that 6-task week? I don’t care! I got three sections of the Javascript course done that week! YEAH!

So I guess the happy ending isn’t really an ending, but me carrying on. I can’t believe how long this post has gotten, especially since this was all supposed to be a quick preamble for introducing my new favourite note-taking tool, Notion.io…

Give me Epics

One thing I’ve been thinking about in the last few days is how useful Epics can be. I’ve tried separating the types of task out using labels in Trello, but looking at the screenshots above I definitely have a tendency to overcomplicate things – and to get distracted. I always feel like I’m making no progress, but that’s because I’m making tiny amounts of progress on a MILLION THINGS. I need to strip it down and decide what I really want to move forwards with.

And so Bruce’s Learning Epics was born. I’ve been playing around with Notion.io in the last week or so, since one of the developers recommended it to me (and everyone else he could get hold of to listen). It’s kind of an infinitely zooming note-taking tool. You create a page, and inside that page you can put a few cards – but then you click on the card and lo! It is a page! It has a tonne of templates, too. Which is very useful, because I don’t have very good things to say about the intuitiveness of the user experience to a newbie. xD I feel like you should take a class before you’re allowed to touch it.

Anyway, for fear of making this too much longer than it is, I’ve made a workspace for tracking the larger goals in a way I can’t really do with Trello. If I wanted, I could transfer the contents of my trello board into Notion (in fact, I tried it and it was amazingly easy. It also kept all of the information, including checklists, labels and comments) but I love the simplicity and ease of use that Trello gives so I’ll stick with that for day-to-day use.

Hopefully, using both of these in tandem will help me be and feel productive, while staying focussed on my main goals.

Oh, and if you want to try out Notion then it has several user plans, but the free version isn’t horribly limiting unless you want loads of photos in there. If you’re tempted to make an account, then you should totally use my referral url because then we both get credit towards the monthly fee of a fancier plan. xD Or don’t. I’m probably never going to use the paid plan, so it’s useless credit for me. I just want to make the dev who recommended it to me jealous…

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