Field Notes

The Three Post-It Rule

January 05, 2015 | In 30 days

I've been in the midst of an epic project at work. The huge list of stories in our issue tracker can be overwhelming, and I get diverted by rearranging tickets to make the load seem more manageable.

I've found Post-It sticky notes are a good tool for controlling overwhelm. Here's how it works:

At the beginning of the day, check the list of tickets on the issue tracker. What are the priorities? Have they shifted since yesterday?

Write down the next steps, one to a sticky-note. If a step doesn't fit on a sticky-note, it's a sign that you need to break it down into smaller tasks.

Three sticky-notes MAXIMUM. The issue tracker will remember the rest. Close the issue tracker.

Lay the steps out in order of priority. Start working on the first task.

If a new to-do or another task comes to mind, capture it on another sticky note or create a new issue in the bug tracker. Put it someplace out of sight. I stick them in my notebook with the day's notes. If it's really urgent, swap it with one of the next three steps.

No more than three steps in view at a time.

When a task is completed, draw a big, satisfying checkmark and put it in the finished pile. You may replace the completed task, if you like to keep a steady view of what's ahead. If you're motivated by completion, work until the pile is gone and replenish them en masse. I prefer them to be gone at the end of the day so I don't keep thinking about them.

This system has several advantages. I stay focused on the task written down in front of me. It limits the work in progress, so the current task gets my full attention. The next few steps are clear and reflect our priorities. I can stop being hyper-vigilant and put my energy into writing code.