Today I want to talk about a product backlog. This is a concept I’ve adopted from Agile methodology. It is used in the SCRUM framework by the most innovative companies of our times. An idea of backlog is, perhaps, the most undervalued concept in personal productivity.
I will tell you what a backlog is, how it is being used by tech companies and how I use it in my personal life.
Product Backlog - Technical Definition
Let’s start with the technical definition of a product backlog. It will sound very technical, but don’t worry, I will simplify it later.
The agile product backlog in Scrum is a prioritized features list, containing short descriptions of all functionality desired in the product. Typically, a Scrum team and its product owner begin by writing down everything they can think of for agile backlog prioritization. This product backlog is almost always more than enough for a first sprint. The Scrum product backlog is then allowed to grow and change as more is learned about the product and its customers.
Product Backlog in Simple Terms
Basically, every product development team has a project they are working on. Let’s say it is a new iPhone app. They start with these post-it stickers where they put everything that is needed to build a successful iPhone app. They will put all the features that the app should be able to perform. One feature per sticker. In simple terms, a product backlog is this huge to-do list that eventually gets prioritized by the product owner.
The backlog is always longer than the number of tasks a team can do in a sprint. A sprint is usually somewhere between 2 and 9 weeks for the companies.
How does the product backlog work in SCRUM teams?
Whenever anyone on the team says “We should add this feature to the App!”, the idea gets recorded on a sticky note. It is put in the backlog column. Whenever, let’s say a CFO stops by and says that he needs a new report built, the task gets recorded and put in the backlog column. No one on the team stops doing whatever they were doing just because the CFO stopped by.
Then before each sprint, a product owner goes through all the sticky notes, all the tasks and prioritizes them. She will get rid of some tasks that are no longer relevant based on the information they acquired during the previous sprint. Based on the experiments they ran. Based on conversation with real customers and their feedback on the product. This process is called backlog refinement.
Then the product owner sits down with the whole team. They select the tasks they will focus on for the next sprint. During the sprint they focus exclusively on completing preselected tasks.
How is it different from the approach seen in most organizations?
You can see that this approach is very different from what you see in most offices. What we often see is a reactive approach.
You get an email, you stop everything you are doing and you start responding to that email.
Someone walks by your desk and asks a question. You stop everything you are doing and focus on solving their issue.
One of your team members says that it would be helpful to add a new feature to the App. You stop whatever you were doing and you switch to developing this new and exciting feature.
See the difference? SCRUM framework for product development is very intentional compared to the reactive approach that is so common these days in the knowledge work sector.
Using the idea of product backlog for personal productivity
We can look at our goals or areas of our lives as separate projects. You pick one goal and brainstorm all the tasks you think you should do in order to achieve your goal. You write them down. Then you prioritize these tasks.
Once a month you select the most important tasks and focus exclusively on completing these selected tasks. Nothing else. You only select the number of tasks you think you can do in three weeks. Under the Monthly method, you select 3 goals for each of the 3 areas of your life and you focus on these goals for the next 3 weeks. It’s easy to remember 3-3-3.
3 goals in 3 areas of your life in 3 weeks.
This is the foundation. This is where you start your first sprint. You commit to the selected goals. You learn to ignore other distractions.
Where the true magic happens
The true magic of backlog happens after. After you decide what goals you want to focus on during the next sprint.
You create a note on your phone that is called Ideas or Backlog. And you record all the ideas, cool projects, tasks, purchases, books to read, everything that you think are so crucial and so urgent in achieving your goals.
You record all of these ideas in a dedicated note on your phone.
I recommend using your phone notes because it is always with you. And it is easy to access and write things down. The friction is very low. You can pin the note, so it is always on the top of your lists of notes.
How it works in practice
One day you are walking to get some coffee and an idea pops up in your mind. You decide that it would be so cool to paint every day as a way to relax and unwind. Plus, you always wanted to have some creative outlet.
But you don’t have supplies. You need to order them or go to the store. Then you probably need to watch some YouTube videos on how to paint.
No worries. Record this idea in your backlog note on your phone. You can put something short such as “paint every night” or “learn how to paint as a new hobby”. You will remember what you meant by it.
It will literally take you five second to pull out your phone and write down that sentence.
And now the most important step. You keep on walking. You don’t act on this idea. You’ve recorded it. Your brain knows that it is safely recorded somewhere. Your brain doesn’t have to constantly remind you about this idea.
You do this with every idea you want to act upon or the project you want to commit to. Of course I’m not talking about some small tasks like cleaning up your room. You should record tasks that will take more than 30-60 minutes of your time.
Then once a month, when we do sprint planning, we look at all these ideas and go one by one. We sort them into our 3 areas of life:
- Career & Growth,
- Health & Key Relationships,
- Quality of Life.
The lists will be long because you’ve been recording all these ideas throughout the month.
The first reaction
The first question that will pop in your mind when looking at some of the items is “What on earth was I thinking?” This question will be addressed to about 20-30% of all recorded tasks.
What you thought was urgent and important is simply your human brain having a minor malfunction.
Without any regret, you can safely delete those tasks.
This is when you realize how much time you just saved because you didn’t act on these ideas. You recorded them in a safe place and continued with your intentional living.
After you delete all the nonsense, you start prioritizing these tasks.
Apps & Tools
I use Todoist for ideas backlog, backlog refinement and sprint planning. But you can do it Microsoft Word, Excel, in your notes document. It doesn’t matter.
Then you select 3 tasks in you will focus on for the next 3 weeks in each of the areas and commit to those. 9 goals in total. During the month you keep on adding things to your backlog and then you look at it again in 3 weeks when choosing goals for the next sprint. And you do it every month.
Why is using product backlog so effective?
The secret sauce is time. Once you allow for some time between your thought and your action, you can be much more intentional in your actions.
You will only act on things that pass the test of time.
If 2 weeks ago, when you added a particular task to your backlog, you thought this task was important and TODAY you still think it is important, it means this talk is likely to be still important to you in the future, so it is worth investing your time and energy in completing this task.
Very few things are truly important, so you should be ok saying NO to 99% of ideas passing through your brain.
Using ideas backlog saves you time and energy, so that you can act on what truly matters.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
You should check this book it if you are having a hard time saying NO to things. If your schedule is stretched thin. If you are too busy. If you don’t know what things are truly important and what things are just noise.
If you think being busy and tires are requirements for success, check this book out.
How to use product backlog in other areas of your life
I’ve also used the idea of backlog in other areas of my life.
- I use it for cooking and meal planning
- Whenever I see a recipe I want to make, I save it in my recipe app (I use Paprika 3).
- I review and plan my meals once a week. That’s when I look at the recipes I’ve added throughout the past few weeks.
- Every time I am amazed at how many dessert recipes I tend to add. By the time I do my meal planning on Sunday, I no longer want most of the deserts I’ve added, so I just archive those recipes.
- If I’ve acted on my impulses and started baking all those sweets the moment I have found the recipe, my diet would’ve been much different.
- I also use backlog for shopping.
- I now do online shopping on Wednesdays and Sundays.
- During the week if I think that I should buy something, I put it on the shopping note on my phone.
- On Wednesday or Sunday, I look at the list. I see if I can delete something. Most days I delete some items. Then I purchase only the items on the list.
- For anything to be purchased, it has to be on that list first. No impulse purchases.
- I also have a limit on how many things I can purchase in one session. It varies between 3 and 5 depending on my season of life.
- If I didn’t have time to do online shopping on Wednesday, it doesn’t mean I will shop on Thursday. It means I will wait till Sunday. Because the rule is that I do online shopping on Wednesdays and Sundays.
- What do I get in return? It is not a surprise that I have saved a lot by doing this. I only purchase the things I truly need.
- I use backlog for my free time activities – movies I want to watch, books I want to read.
If you want to live a more intentional life this year, I highly recommend using the idea of backlog in the area of your life that is the most overwhelming.
- If it is finance, use a backlog for purchases.
- If it is weight, use the recipe advice provided above.
- If it is time management, use it for your to-do items.
I use it for pretty much every aspect of my life and it allows me to navigate my life with ease and a greater sense of purpose.
If you have any questions or need some clarifications on the concept of backlog, please let me know! I would love to help!
Are you using any systems that allow you to be more intentional with what you say yes to?