What's a Backlog, and Why You Should Care

Agile developers know that keeping all of your work in front of you at all times is counter-productive. It's confusing, it keeps you defocused, and serves as a constant reminder of all the things you still have to do, which allows your mind to drift to places it shouldn't go.

Preparation

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Which is why you need a backlog.

What's a Backlog?

Simply put, if you use a to-do list of any kind to manage your daily routine, you need a place to keep the items that are of immediate interest to you, the items that are your focus right now. The things commanding your attention.

The things you want to spend your time on.

Everything else is your backlog.

In agile teams, the backlog represents the pool of work to be done eventually, but which isn't currently getting any of your effort. It's the stuff that's going to be done tomorrow, or next week, or eventually. It may have deadlines or it may not. It may be well thought-out or not. It may be highly detailed or roughly sketched.

But while you're working through your daily routine, you're not going to spend any time thinking about it.

Focus Where it Matters

The idea here is to bring laser-like focus and gazelle intensity to the tasks you've picked to work on. You don't want to be distracted by thinking about what you're going to be doing next week or on that long-term project.

By placing those tasks which are your chosen work for the day into a separate container, the daily list, you have isolated them so that they're all you can see. They command your attention. As you work through them and check them off, take a moment and feel good about each one you've accomplished.

Which brings up a good point. Each item on this list needs to be scoped so that it can be accomplished within the amount of time allocated for this list. If it's a daily list, then no task on it should take longer than a day. In fact, the list take as a whole should be completable within a day's time.

Which means that at some point, you have to refine your tasks to get them properly scoped.

Grooming for Success

At the end of each day, I suggest spending 15 minutes or so grooming your backlog.

Grooming?

Yes. Go through each item on the backlog and see if you can add any specificity to it. See if you can split any items into subitems. Can "Plan Cross-Country Vacation" be split into "Finalize Route" and "Book Hotels"? These are more bite-sized tasks which have definite ends to them, where "Plan Cross-Country Vacation" is more nebulous. What else needs to be done before that task would be complete?

Look for opportunities to add specifics. To drill down. To break tasks into smaller chunks. To throw away chunks that no longer make sense. To add detail to the most sketchy thoughts in the backlog. But be careful that you don't take this too far.

Spend the most time on the most near-term items, as they'll be the items coming up next. If you use priorities, consider those as well when deciding where to spend your 15 minutes.

By separating your immediate work from your longer-term plans in this fashion, you'll find you're better able to focus, and to use your time more effectively.

What do you think of the two-list backlog idea? Leave a comment and let me know!