The concept of a sprint comes from the Agile product development. I first experienced it being used in a startup I worked for years ago. I saw the power of short-term planning and how fruitful it can be if implemented strategically. Back then I decided to find a way to adopt the idea of sprint planning for my personal life. I want to share what happens when you choose to ignore the conventional productivity advice and focus on something completely different instead.
How Sprint Planning Works in SCRUM Teams
A sprint is a short, time-boxed period when a scrum team works to complete a set amount of work. Sprints are at the very heart of scrum and agile methodologies.
A product development team selects a fixed length of time for which they plan their activities. It is often somewhere between 2-6 weeks.
Let’s say a team decides that their sprint length will be 3 weeks. They plan out the tasks they can complete in the next 3 weeks. Again, they only focus on what they can do in the next 3 weeks. There is no major long-term plan in place. Because these plans never work. The team selects a limited number of tasks and lock them in. It means they don’t add anything new to the list till the sprint is over.
I talked more about the power of locking in your tasks in Using Product Backlog for Personal Productivity. It covers another SCRUM concept called a product backlog and how you can use it for your personal productivity.
All the goals, all the metrics, all the efforts are scheduled for the next sprint only. The team “sprints” for three weeks. They get as many of the sprint tasks done as possible.
If they are working on an app, they build new features.
Then they pause.
They ship their work to the world and see the feedback that they get from real customers.
Yes, their product is not perfect when they ship it. But they want to see the real feedback about the features they’ve built. And based on this new set of knowledge, based on the real feedback (and not their assumptions), they decide what to focus on next.
Now let’s compare it with a traditional operational approach you see in most workplaces. Let’s say a company wants to launch a new app. They would spend several months creating “the perfect plan”. It might be the plan for the next year, two or even five. They make it look nice. They email it to the entire company. They set up a bunch of meetings to talk about the plan and its execution. They go through hundreds of revisions. After several months, the plan is finalized and signed.
After they start implementing the plan, it becomes clear that they didn’t account for a bunch of things. What happens next? There are more meetings, more documents, more revisions. It is not a surprise that no one can ever meet the deadlines listed on this document. It’s stressful. It’s a waste of time. And why is that? Because people bought into the idea of long-term planning. It might’ve worked in the 19th century but nowadays the world is changing too fast. These long-term plans are almost never accurate.
Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland
I hope you now understand the difference between the traditional corporate culture and SCRUM/Agile culture. The first one tries to create a long-term plan for creating the perfect product. People waste a bunch of time creating a long-term plan only to find out that the plan is not accurate the moment they actually start executing it. The second approach embraces the idea of short-term planning and a constant feedback loop for product development. SCRUM teams are ok to pivot as much as possible if this is what the real world and their real customers are wanting.
My journey of implementing short-term planning
It was incredible to see the speed at which new features were released when I was working at that first startup. Another thing that amazed me is how little time was spent on useless meetings. Sprint brought the intensity of focus and execution. I loved it. Seeing all that, I had decided to implement this idea for my personal productivity.
This turned out to be not so easy. Not because the approach was not effective. It was difficult because it was the opposite of what I’ve been hearing all my life. All the productivity experts talked about long-term planning. That you should always have a 10-year goal for yourself. I’ve never heard anyone mention the benefits of a short-term timeframe. And because it was so different from the popular advice, it felt very counterintuitive.
I understand you might be very skeptical when I say to embrace sprint planning instead of traditional long-term planning. It’s not what you hear every day. I am not here to convert everyone to short-term planning, I just want to showcase how it helped my own productivity.
My Sprint Planning Process
My sprints are 3 weeks. I work hard for three weeks and then I take a week to take it easy, to recharge, reflect, and plan my next sprint. I only do maintenance work during my fourth week, the bare minimum so to speak. This allows me to have shorter days and more time to myself. Taking it easy during the last week of every month gives me the energy to do a lot of work during the next 3 weeks (my next sprint).
When I plan my sprint, I select 3 goals in 3 areas of my life:
- 3 goals for Career & Growth
- 3 goals for Health & Key Relationships
- 3 goals for the Quality of Life. This involves my hobbies, travel, leisure, upgrading my home environment, etc. Basically, anything that makes my life NOW (not one day one when) more enjoyable.
It makes 9 goals in total for each sprint. Then I lock them in. I don’t add anything to the list. I might remove some stuff if it is no longer relevant but I don’t add or change goals. I commit to making as much progress on these 9 goals as possible.
The Magic of Short Term Planning
The magic of short-term planning happens during the sprint. Let’s take one example from my last sprints.
I wanted to try intermittent fasting. I’ve heard many great things about it, I’ve seen what it can do to people’s health and I thought it might be great for me, too. In fact, I’ve tried intermittent fasting two times before and I failed. That was before I embraced the sprint planning. This makes it a good example of why the very same activity failed under the traditional goal setting technique and worked under the sprint planning.
Back in December 2020, I decided to try intermittent fasting under the sprint planning method. I wanted to start slow, so I thought a 14/10 split would be a great place to start for the first 3 weeks. It means I wanted to fast for 14 hours a day. 14 hours multiplied by 21 days is 294 hours. Let’s round it down to 290 hours. One of my goals for the December sprint was to fast for 290 hours in total.
What happened during a 3-week sprint?
Week 1: I am full of enthusiasm, things are easy. I’m excited. I watch a bunch of videos on the benefits of intermittent fasting. I’m all in. I have my rose-tinted glasses on.
Week 2: The novelty wears off. I don’t see any results yet. Things are hard. I want to give up. And this is where the magic happens! This is when I tell myself “I only have to do it for 3 weeks. After that I can stop doing it without any regrets”.
When I was operating under the conventional productivity advice, my mind would always go into this gloomy place. It would ask me questions “Do I have to do it FOREVER??? There is NO WAY I can live like that for the rest of my life”. My brain would use words such as always, never, for the rest of my life. It was black-and-white thinking. When you think you need to do something that seems hard at the moment for the rest of your life, it is practically impossible to convince yourself not to give up. No wonder my previous intermittent fasting attempts have failed.
So in week 2, when the motivation wears off, all I need to do to convince my brain to keep going is to tell that I only need to do it for 3 weeks. And if I decide to stop after that, I have my full permission to do that. You’ll be surprised how cooperative your brain becomes when there is a clear deadline for when the hardship will stop.
By the end of week 3, I start seeing the first results. In the case of intermittent fasting, my jeans fit much better. I woke up much easier. I could focus on my work for longer. I felt great. Plus, I was more or less used to the activity. It almost became a habit. It didn’t seem as hard as it seemed in Week 2. This motivated me to keep doing this activity. For the January sprint, I decided to try the recommended 16/8 split. That meant 330 hours of fasting in 3 weeks. And now it is a habit. I don’t set it as my sprint goal anymore.
Sprint Planning – Other Examples
I used the same approach for my podcast. Back in December, I wanted to launch the podcast. I had to learn how to record episodes and get into the weekly routine. Right now, as you can see, there is a fresh episode every Monday. And recording a podcast is a part of my weekly routine.
I implemented sprint planning to build my website. Each sprint has specific goals and features I am working on. My website is not perfect but it’s improving every single month. And most importantly, I don’t procrastinate.
Under the traditional method, I would want my website to be perfect. And this pressure would paralyze me. Under the sprint planning, I know the exact pages, and exact features I am working on during the next three weeks. And I know I only have 3 weeks to get them done. I can improve on them later, but they have to live by the end of the sprint.
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