How to Use Definition of Done for Personal Productivity

I wanted to share one other concept I’ve adapted from Agile/Scrum product development that can increase the chances of achieving your goals. Let’s talk about the definition of done and how you can use it in your own life. 

definition of done

How the Definition of Done is used in agile product development

First, let’s see how the definition of done (DOD) works in agile product development. The main problem with product development is that there are many people involved in the process. There are many departments and stakeholders who have a say in which new features should be built and how they should look like. 

Of course, every person has his/her own idea of how a certain feature should look in the end. And it is crucial that all these ideas are discussed and written down. Otherwise, software engineers create a product based on their idea of what should be included in this product. Other departments might have a very different idea of the final product. Everyone thinks their exception is common sense. But it’s not. Common sense is not so common when you compare different departments which have very different objectives.

I found a great write-up of what the definition of done is: 

The Definition of Done is an agreed upon set of items that must be completed before a project or user story can be considered complete. It is applied consistently and serves as an official gate separating things from being “in progress” to “done.”

There should also be an element of transparency, since everything can be tied back to that done-ness checklist. If a release or feature hasn’t checked off all the boxes, then it can’t move forward and everyone knows why.

Source: Product Plan

Basically, the definition of done is an unbiased, fact-based checklist that can be presented to anyone from any department and they will agree that these boxes listed on the checklist can be successfully checked off. 

When I learned about this concept, I was amazed at how effective it is at avoiding ambiguity and unnecessary perfectionism. I heard a saying “The worst thing you can do to a song is to keep working on it.” And this is precisely what the definition of done prevents us from doing. 

It brings so much clarity to know when you are done with a task. 

Recommended reading:

How to use the Definition of Done for personal productivity

I’ve been using this concept for my own goal-setting. I use sprint planning for my personal life. You can read more about it here. Every month I set 9 goals in total. 3 goals in each area of my life:

  1. Career and Growth
  2. Health & Key Relationships
  3. The Quality of Life

The final, and probably the most important, step for me is writing down the definition of done for each of these 9 goals. 

This is how I like to explain it to my clients. My clients and I work together on setting and achieving their goals. One month at a time. We keep in touch almost daily. We have weekly progress update calls. In short, there is regular and frequent communication between us. But I don’t live with them and, most importantly, I don’t live in their head. That’s why we need to find some metric that is unbiased, that doesn’t have a story behind it, something that my client and I and every other person on this planet can agree upon. 

Example of using DOD for goal setting

For example, someone wants to get back into a good running shape. The most common definition of a goal is something along the lines of “run more” or “get back into a great running form”. When a client says something like this, she might think that she has a very clear idea of what she means by a good running form. But I, as a person who is very far from anything related to running, have no idea what it means.

For me completing 5k under an hour is already a big achievement. For some of you 5k under an hour is not even running, it’s more like a walking-after-dinner type of exercise. The goal of getting back into a good running form is not something you and I can agree upon. If we bring a third person in, he might have a third opinion on what this goal will look like once completed. 

completion checklist

That’s why we need a clear definition of done. It will remove all the ambiguity, all the bias, all the fiction related to a certain goal. This is something you, as a person who knows everything about running, and I, as a person who doesn’t know a thing, can agree upon. At the end of the month, when we look at this definition of done, we can 100% agree whether it’s completed or not. And if we bring a third person in, she will also agree with us. If it’s snowing outside, we all can agree that it’s snowing. If you bring 100 people into a room, they will all agree that it is snowing. Because it is a fact. The same clarity should be there when you evaluate whether your goal is completed or not. 

Remember, we are setting a goal for 3 weeks at a time. How would we know that this goal is completed in the first 3 weeks? Remember, we should both agree that it is done.

What we can do is to establish a number we want to see in the Strava app by the end of the month. Let’s sat we want to see 50k total distance run at the end of her 3 weeks. This is something she and I could agree on. She could send me a screenshot of her Strava app. And if it says 50km or more, then we know that she achieved her goal. If it’s a little less than 50km, we still know she was pretty close and can count it as a success. Next month we can focus more on her speed. Again, it can be measured using her running app. 

small goals

More examples

When I wanted to try intermittent fasting, I wanted to fast for a total of 300 hours during my first 3-week sprint. That meant 14 hours of fasting every day for 21 days. And I measured it using a special app. Again, all I had to do at the end of the sprint was to login into my app and count the total hours fasted during a three-week period. 

When I wanted to build a website for, I listed all the pages that needed to be live by the end of a sprint. They didn’t have to be perfect. But they had to be live. During the next sprint, I would improve on some of the pages, but again I had a very clear definition of done for each of the pages. 

Why is it worth taking the time to write down the Definition of Done for each of your monthly goals?

Clarity & Action

Because it clears out any confusion we might have about our goal. Our goal becomes very clear. And we can’t trick ourselves into our favourite activity of doing research and not taking action. It also protects us from at-the-moment emotions. Plus, we don’t have too many options to beat ourselves down anymore. 

Let’s look at the example of getting back into a good running form. If I don’t have a clear definition of done for this task, I might spend a week or two doing all kinds of research on different workout routines. And you know the internet. There is always another article I can read. There is always another opinion that contradicts everything I’ve just read. I can never be fully done with my research.

Emotional Stability

Not only that, my emotions can severely affect my performance. My mind can always go into “I am doing enough” or “I’m not good enough” state. Without a clear definition of done, I don’t have a metric of what good enough is. But when I have a clear definition of done, in this case running a certain distance during a 3-week sprint, I can feel confident and calm throughout the process. As long as I am on schedule, I can just forget about this goal. It doesn’t have to occupy my mind all the time. I simply have no reason to think “I’m not good enough”. If I don’t think such thoughts, my life becomes a lot more enjoyable. I can finally move away from the black-and-white thinking.     

time blocking

Using the Definition of Done in time blocking

I also use this concept in my daily time management. I am a big fan of time-blocking (some people call it timeboxing). Basically, you allocate some time in your schedule to each of the tasks you have on your to-do list. For example, right now I am recording this episode. I gave myself 90 minutes to record it, do preliminary editing and send it to my podcast editor. And I have put this task on my calendar from 1 – 2.30 pm. You probably heard about this technique before. But here is the most important thing that is not so widely discussed. 

The worst mistake you can do with your schedule

The worst mistake you can do with your time blocking is to “work on something”. For example, I could’ve scheduled 90 minutes to work on my podcast. The moment I look at my schedule and see the phrase “work on my podcast”, my brain is instantly confused and overwhelmed. I have no idea where to start. In my mind, it looks like I have to revamp my whole podcast. That’s why you need to use the definition of done for your time blocking as well. 

What will I complete in those 90 minutes? In my case, during the scheduled 90 minutes, I will do the final edits to the script. I will record the episode. I will cut out long pauses and repeats. Then I will upload it to the google folder and send it to my editor. Once these 5 steps are done, I am done with this task. There is no ambiguity. An absolute stranger can observe me during those 90 minutes and also agree that I have completed those 5 tasks. If a complete stranger and I can agree on the completion of the task, then it means I’ve created a good definition of done for this task. 

Don’t sit down to work on something. Sit down to produce something. Have a clear definition of done, so you don’t have all the inner chatter of unnecessary perfectionism. Because the other side of perfectionism is procrastination.  And have a clear understanding of when you are done. It is a great feeling to know that you’ve completed a task and you don’t have to think about it anymore. 

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