Why I stopped tracking my to-dos online
In this post I’ll try to explain my evolution from being a project manager obsessed by online to-do apps to a Scrum Master that prefers a simpler paper notebook version of it.
How it all began
When I first started my career as a web project manager, I discovered a world where to-do items were created and assigned at the speed of light. Back then, I thought that if you wanted to succeed and be good at your job, you had to track, assign and master a humongous list of action items and make sure that deadlines were respected.
My journey improving my productivity
To help me manage the huge flow of things to do, I read the classic book ‘Getting Things Done – by David Allen‘. This so-called “Bible of business and personal productivity”, helped me structure and optimize my to-do item tracking process at an engineering level, but it wasn’t enough. Staying on top of things was an uphill battle, as it seems like there were more things coming in than coming out.
Following what I learned from the book, I tried different tools like : ‘Remember the milk and ‘Toodledo to track my to-dos. I used them for a few years but none of them was good enough for me. I even created my own custom Excel Spreadsheet that calculated and assigned a “priority score” for each of my to-do items based on time created and importance. Back in the days, I was tracking around 30-50 to-dos at the time, some of them were assigned to me, others to my clients and my team. As soon as I closed a couple, a bunch of new ones just appeared.
I spent a lot of time building and improving my own recipe and it worked fine for a while. But one day I grew bored of this never ending “ballgame” of catching every to-do items (including the one from my project team and my clients). I felt like it was a repetitive task and that it prevented people around me to be fully committed and responsible.
These tools and techniques help you extend the amount of to-dos that you can track and manage but none of them helps you work on what truly matters: Reducing the incoming flow of tasks.
My transition from project manager to Scrum Master
When I did the transition from being a traditional project manager to being a Scrum Master, I just found out that I was tracking to-dos that were supposed to be tracked and owned by my team.
In the Scrum framework, the Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules.
The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. He helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. He helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.
In a traditional project manager rôle, you must take full personal accountability for what the team does or forgets to do. In a Scrum Master rôle, you truly believe in the team self-organisation and you make sure that the team understands the importance of their commitments. So instead of acting like a safety net that protects your team from affecting the project negatively, you act like a coach that defines with them the rules of play, clarify the objectives and make sure that they learn from their mistakes.
By doing this I truly reduced the amount of To-dos I had to track so I decided to simplify my approach.
Bullet journal to the rescue
From now on I carry around my Moleskine notebook and I no longer use any online to-do app. In the paper version it’s easier to see the amount of action items you commit to. On paper you see the amount of pages that are filled with action items standing beside unchecked boxes. When you see an action item listed a few pages aways from where you are, you know that it’s been rotting there for a long time and that you need to act on it or just discard it. It’s so easy in the digital version to hide a huge list of old to-dos behind categories and filters.
To structure my notebook, I used part of the Bullet Journal technique and adapted it to my own needs and preferences. This technique is simple, adaptable and really efficient. I recommend it to anyone who feels overwhelmed at work and can’t focus on what to do next. Don’t forget that tracking to-dos is good, but you need to keep in mind that multitasking is a lie and that you need to learn to say ‘no’ to stay on top of what you want to do.
Online to-do app fans might say that if you lose your notebook you’re screwed because you lose all your “precious” to-dos. From my point of view, it’s a risk I’m willing to take for the gain in efficiency. When you’ll find out that you’re way more efficient at closing to-dos with a notebook that with an app, you won’t mind losing the few to-dos left in it. It might even be a good thing because you might remember only the important ones and purge all the other that weren’t that memorable.
A notebook helps you reduce your screen time
When you track your action items on paper, it reduces the amount of screen time required to do your job and it will make you feel more in control of your day. You’ll feel less at the mercy of an app and it will help you fight your digital addiction. Each small actions that reduces your dependence to digital devices is a step in the right direction. In this day and age you can’t avoid technology but you need to be selective and smart about your usage.
The Moleskine bookmark trick
I use the notebook integrated bookmark to show where my last unchecked to-do is located. The closer the bookmark is to my current page, the more on-the-ball I am! This trick helps me focus on closing to-dos quickly to bring the bookmark as close to my active page as possible.
And best of all, nothing compares to the feeling of crossing an item off a paper to-do list.
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