Reading this HBR article reminded me that although so much of what I do is computer-assisted, the fundamental task of keeping things moving, what I call turning the wheel, is a practice that requires discipline. And some tools.

Here are the tools and practices I use. I take a lot of inspiration from Plaintext Productivity and GTD, but my process is constantly evolving. I do most of my work in Vim and I use awk, sed, and other GNU coreutils for text processing, generating reports, and the like. I’ve written more about these and other tools in Casual Programming at Work for Fun and Profit.

To-Do List

A to-do list is the bedrock of a personal productivity system. If you do only one thing, get in the habit of maintaining a to-do list. This is a place to keep the list of next actions I need to take. Once something is done, it gets removed from the to-do list. Each to-do item should include a few words of description, at least. A to-do item might also have a due date or be associated with a project.

Make sure your to-dos are things you can actually get done. It might sound obvious, but it doesn’t happen automatically. There are frameworks, like the SMART criteria to help you set yourself up for success.

To-Do List Format

I use the todotxt format. It strikes a balance between human-usability and legibility to text-processing tools. This format provides conventions for associating metadata to to-do items, like due dates and projects. I also keep my list prioritized, with the most important items at the top.

Example:

xSend out sprint review summary
Update process docs with QA process changes due:2018-12-01
Follow up with SK re retailer locator testing due:2018-12-05 +locator

To-Do List Tools

Vim mappings:

Move a line up: nnoremap _ :m .-2<cr>

Move a line down: nnoremap - :m .+1<cr>

Mark an item complete: nnoremap <leader>x Ix<esc>j

Move completed items to the end of the list: nnoremap <leader>e :g/^x/m$<cr>gg

To archive completed items before deleting them (usually used with a range): :w >> done.txt

The monday script:

This script takes the content of the weekly file and inserts it into my to-do list. I have a header on my to-do list, so this script inserts the weekly items below that. I just run :!monday in Vim.

#!/usr/bin/env bash
sed -i -e '3r weekly' todo.txt

Project List

This is a list of high-level initiatives that the organization is working on. I keep this list separate from my to-do list because I may not have any to-dos for an active project, but that doesn’t mean that the project is over. Each project should include a few words of description, the name of the project’s owner – the decision-maker, and other stakeholders (consider a RACI for large groups). Identify a next action for each project. Optionally, you could keep a project journal that summarizes project events and changes.

Project List Format

How you structure this document depends a lot on how you intend to use it. For example, I’m currently using an Excel spreadsheet that is stored in SharePoint. At minimum, it should be a list of high-level initiatives that are likely to have an impact on your work. My text-only format uses key-value pairs on each line within a project, separated by a colon. Projects are separated from each other by a blank line. This format is inspired by GNU Recutils and is easy to edit and easy to process with text-processing tools.

Example:

Name: Retailer Locator
Owner: DB
Target Date: 2019-02-15
Next Action: Feasibility assessment by SK expected 12/7

Name: New Campaign Templates
Owner: GG
Target Date: 2019-01-15
Next Action: Meeting to define templates 12/21

You could augment this with single-line, time-stamped journal entries that record project progress. Just remember to separate projects with a blank line.

Project List Tools

This awk script creates a report from a file in the above format.

BEGIN {FS=": "; OFS="\t"; idx=1}
/^Name: / {name = $2}
/^Target Date: / {date = $2}
/^Next Action: / {action = $2}
/^$/ {
  print name, date, action;
  date = name = action = "";
}

We can sort the results by date using sort.

awk -f script.awk <projects.txt | sort -k2

Imagine beefing this up with HTML. You could also format it using markdown and then run it through Pandoc to create HTML or a Word document. You could also output it in some value-separated format and open it up in Excel.

Meetings

Have an agenda for every meeting and send it out to everyone before the meeting. An agenda sets the stage for the meeting, allows people to come prepared, and saves time by organizing the conversation. During a meeting, I try to capture as much relevant information as possible. I use the one-sentence-per-line method to keep capture simple.

At the end of the meeting, identify next steps along with their owners and target dates. Unless the project is over, you should also establish a target date for the next meeting; any active project should have a future meeting scheduled.

After the meeting, I clean up my notes and send them to all meeting attendees as well as other project stakeholders that may not have been at the meeting. Using the one-sentence-per-line method helps me produce, with some editing, a list of easy-to-read bullet points. This process usually includes adding several items to my to-do list. Sending these notes out should also prompt others to update their to-do lists in case they didn’t do so during the meeting. Consider including the meeting notes with the agenda for the next meeting.

Notes

I take notes at almost every meeting I attend. I’ll also use my notes file to prepare memos and to organize information (e.g. summarizing email threads). I insert a date and time whenever I add new notes. This is incredibly useful when correlating my notes with other artifacts such as past meetings or emails.

Notes Tools

I have one Vim mapping that is critical: it inserts a timestamp at the beginning of the current line and puts Vim in insert mode after it. After I insert the timestamp, I add a few words that capture the meeting topic. I use this same mapping in my journal.

nnoremap gs :pu! =strftime('%Y-%m-%d %H:%M')<cr>A<space>

I also have a trick in Vim for pulling out to-do items. I’ve found that when I recognize a to-do item, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, I tend to use the word “need” on the line. This might look like, “Jane needs to confirm timing with sales” or “I need to send out the updated timeline.” These lines are usually intermixed with all my other notes, and it would be nice to be able to quickly pull them out into their own list.

First, I need to select my notes. If there are no linebreaks within my notes, I can just use vip to select the text. I could also use v{ assuming I’m at the end of the paragraph. Another option is to put the cursor on the line below the last line of notes and use v?^2 to select backward to the previous timestamp.

With my notes selected, I can use g to find the lines with the word “need” in them and then t to copy those lines to the end of the file.

:'<,'>g/[Nn]eed/t$

Reports

I send out unsolicited reports with information that has proven to be useful. Examples include:

  • Project status with next action and target date for each active project.
  • A weekly list of the user stories added in the last 7 days.
  • User stories that are about to go into production.
  • Top backlog items.

Every Monday, I add all of these to my to-do list. Most of these come right out of Azure DevOps. For status reports, I start with the simple PPP method and scale up from there as needed. A similar strategy can be used with process documentation to promote awareness.

Formatting Reports

I compose and edit using plain text or markdown in Vim. For meeting agendas and notes, this is often sufficient. If I need to add some rich formatting, I use Pandoc to convert markdown into HTML or a Word document. Then I will either copy and paste into Outlook or attach the document to an email.

Using Pandoc to create standalone HTML documents is quite powerful. In addition to using custom CSS, I’ve embedded Google Charts into HTML documents.

Charts

I generally use DOT and GraphViz (via plantuml.com or planttext.com) to create charts. I’ve used LucidChart and Visio in the past and they are great tools, but I don’t particularly enjoy pushing pixels and using DOT lets me focus on the data. I’ve written about this in Diagrams from Text with PlantUML. See http://www.tonyballantyne.com/graphs.html for many more examples. Google Charts is another good option for quantitative charts that can be embedded into HTML documents.

Example: Org Chart

Creating an org chart helps me learn people’s names and also helps me understand their responsibilities in the organization. Using DOT, I can denote formal relationships with a solid line and informal relationships with a dotted line. I also try to develop a shorthand, usually a person’s initials, to reference them in notes.

@startuml
'render at plantuml.com/plantuml
digraph Org {
  rankdir=BT
  "Juan B" -> "Don EV"
  "Gustavo F" -> "Juan B"
  "Hector S" -> "Juan B"
  "Walter W" -> "Gustavo F"
  "Mike E" -> "Gustavo F"
  "Jesse P" -> "Walter W"
  "Skinny Pete" -> "Jesse P"
  "Gale B" -> "Gustavo F"
  "Brendan M" -> "Jesse P"
  "Tuco S" -> "Hector S"
  "Ignacio V" -> "Tuco S"
  "Christian O" -> "Jesse P"
  "Leonel S" -> "Hector S"
  "Marco S" -> "Hector S"
  "Tyrus K" -> "Mike E"
  "Victor" -> "Mike E"
  "Chris M" -> "Mike E"
  "Lalo S" -> "Hector S"
  "Gonzo" -> "Tuco S"
  "No Doze" -> "Tuco S"
  {rank=same;"Gustavo F" "Hector S"}
  {rank=same;"Walter W" "Mike E" "Gale B" "Tuco S" "Leonel S" "Marco S" "Lalo S"}
  {rank=same;"Brendan M" "Skinny Pete" "Christian O"}
}
@enduml

Here, too, it would be good to put a date on the org chart. Organizations change over time, and it could be valuable to be able to look back at how it was structured in the past. Since this is text-based, version control tools can be used to analyze changes over time.

Process Charts

Just as personal discipline is important to keep things running smoothly at your desk, group discipline helps avoid problems within a team. Having a visual aid helps team members internalize a common understanding of the ideal process and their place in it. I’ll usually create a detailed description of the process, and then create a chart that summarizes the written information. PERT and Gantt charts are useful for depicting dependencies within a process.

Example:

The following chart summarizes the flow of backlog items from their initial entry into the backlog through to completion. This should be accompanied by a document that describes the entry and/or exit criteria for each state.

@startuml
'render at plantuml.com/plantuml
digraph P {
  rankdir=LR
  New -> Approved
  Approved -> Active
  Active -> "QA Ready"
  "QA Ready" -> "QA Pass"
  "QA Ready" -> "QA Fail"
  "QA Fail" -> Active
  "QA Pass" -> "Move to Prod"
  "Move to Prod" -> Closed
}
@enduml

Review

Reviewing all of this information on a regular basis is key to turning the wheel. Make time to review all of this information on a regular basis. Several times a day in the case of the to-do list. Daily for the project list. At least every one or two weeks for things like the process documentation. In each case, look over the information and ask yourself, “Is this accurate? Could this be improved? Is there something I can do to move this along?”

Journal

I keep a journal because not everything I do hits my to-do list. I think it’s useful to know what I’ve been doing – if not for my own sake, then in the event that someone asks. I keep my journal in a regular, one-entry-per-line format. This helps me use text processing tools to help me fill out timesheets and create status reports. That said, I don’t use my journal to track how much time I’ve spent on something nor to determine whether or not I’ve done a particular thing in the past.

Example:

2018-12-01 20:27 Wrap up post about tools and methods.
2018-12-01 19:54 Create process digraph.
2018-12-01 18:45 Research Breaking Bad characters. Create cartel digraph.
2018-12-01 07:23 Write example awk script for project reporting.
2018-12-01 06:37 Add to-do list Vim mappings to tools and methods article.
2018-11-30 18:27 Add notes Vim mappings to tools and methods article.
2018-11-30 17:17 Develop tools and methods article.

Journal Tools

See the section on summarizing in my journal-to-timesheet post.

Summary

These tools and methods create a framework for capturing, analyzing, organizing, and disseminating information. They create a platform for the creation of a variety of information products including reference documentation, decision support memoranda, and status reports. By reviewing this information regularly, we can drive action and maintain momentum within and beyond our immediate team.

Tool Purpose
To-Do List Specific, near-term things I need to do.
Project List High-level initiatives that drive action.
Meetings Conversations that establish next actions for projects.
Notes A place to capture and organize incoming information.
Reports Information published for stakeholders to use.
Charts Visualizations of information. Often used in reports.
Review An effort to continuously improve information products and processes.
Journal A log of events and actions.