Step off the hamster wheel with Agile and Sturgeon’s Law

Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. 

It applies to books, restaurants, TV shows, movies, tweets, YouTube videos, and everything else humans produce. I spent some time thinking if it was true in my life. And… I tend to agree.

When was the last time you encountered something outstanding? Something that was so unexpectedly good, it made your day. Doesn’t happen often, does it?

  • Most restaurants you go to are quite average at best.
  • Most books recycle the same ideas over and over again.
  • Movie directors are playing it so safe these days it’s painfully boring to watch.
  • The clothes you see in stores deteriorate significantly after the first wash. 
  • Don’t even get me started on modern architecture…

The Sturgeon’s Law and our to-do lists

But don’t be too quick to judge everyone else around you. The law applies to OUR work equally as much. And it applies to our ideas about what we should be doing with our time – our to-do lists.

Whenever I look at my backlog (an Agile version of a to-do list capture), I remind myself of Sturgeon’s Law. I assume that 90% of the tasks on my to-do list are crap.

sturgeon's law

90% of these tasks don’t improve my life in any significant way.
They don’t make me happy.
They don’t improve my relationships.

Most likely, I’ll be totally fine not doing them or doing them haphazardly. What I definitely don’t need is habit trackers, productivity apps, or a complicated productivity system to address those tasks.


Sturgeon’s Law helps with overwhelm

Overwhelm occurs as a result of putting too much focus and importance on the numerous non-essentials.

We feel like hamsters running in that wheel. Always running. Always exhausted. Yet not seeing any significant changes in our lives.

If 90% of my backlog items are crap, it’s the remaining 10% I should think about. It’s the remaining 10% I should be planning, tracking, and executing.

I design my productivity system around these 10% tasks.

A good productivity system ensures that:

  1. the most impactful tasks (10%) are regularly identified and the rest are ignored
  2. these tasks are thoughtfully planned out
  3. daily and weekly systems are implemented to ensure the execution of these few selected goals.


Agile and the Sturgeon’s Law

I find that agile is the perfect system for that.

These 10% goals are what goes on your sprint board. There is a physical boundary on how many sticky notes you can put in a to-do column. For me, it’s no more than 5. The sprint goals are the goals I look at every day. These are the only things I seriously obsess over getting completed. 

scrum board
Example of a scrum board

There is always this tension that comes up between my students and me when I tell them to limit their sprint goals to 3-5 (depending on their sprint capacity). They don’t like it. Their to-do list has at least 50 tasks they want or need to do. And all of them seem so urgent and important.

I understand them. It’s still difficult for me even though I’ve been doing it for years. My brain always wants to negotiate with me.

“How about we do 6 this sprint?”
“What about 5.5?”
“How about we do 7 this sprint and 3 next sprint?”


Benefits of limiting the number of monthly goals

Having a strict limit on how many goals you pursue each month is the single best thing you can do for your personal productivity.

  1. It drastically simplifies everything. No productivity apps to update. No fancy habit trackers to keep. You can do all your tracking on a simple piece of paper or a wall scrum board (my personal preference).
  2. It forces you to focus on what’s truly essential. Warren Buffet says you can build a comfortable life on just 4-5 good financial investments made at the right time. Similarly, I’m confident you can build a good life by focusing on very few projects each month. 
  3. You are less likely to “productively procrastinate”. When you only have 3-5 goals to complete instead of 100 tasks, it’s much harder to fool yourself into doing something other than the most important things. Cleaned your bathroom instead of working on your PhD dissertation? Great. But you don’t get to move any of the sprint sticky notes to the done column. (This is the fundamental flaw in most productivity apps. They treat cleaning your bathroom and finishing a chapter of your PhD dissertation the same way. You get the same dopamine reward for checking off a checkbox no matter the importance of a task.)


Tackling the other tasks of life

Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly more than 5 things that need to get done each month (sprint).

Dinners need to be cooked.
Laundry needs to get done.
Emails need to get answered.
Receipts need to be entered. 

However, your productivity system for these less impactful activities should be DIFFERENT from the ones that move your life forward in a significant way.

I personally just stopped tracking these non-essential goals. What’s the point? I don’t want to get a false sense of progress when I haven’t worked on my most important projects.

Laundry gets done when it gets done. If towels don’t get washed on Monday, it’s not a big deal. They will get washed on Tuesday. Or even Wednesday. There is no drama around it.

Emails get answered.
Client calls happen.
Admin work gets done in batches a few times a week.
Blog posts like these get written in my downtime when I have something to say.
I have a few time blocks on my calendar for admin work throughout the week. They serve as a reminder that some things need to be done at around that time (+/- 1 day).

There is no obsession with completing these less important tasks. I want to reserve a limited amount of self-discipline and deep work muscle for my carefully selected sprint goals. I want to limit the number of checkboxes I can check off each month. 

The mantra that I adopted when dealing with these tasks is “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” I talked about it here.


The Sturgeon’s Law humbles us. If we accept the idea that 90% of our thoughts and ideas are crap, it’s much easier to start prioritizing what’s truly important. If 90% of everything human-made tends to be crap, we are more likely to accept that a lot of our ideas and tasks are not that groundbreaking either. We are no longer so serious about getting every single backlog item completed. 

If you are new to Agile philosophy, you can find the core principles on the Start Here page. 

If you need guidance applying Agile and Scrum to your personal goals and projects, check out the step-by-step process I created for planning and running your first sprint. 

You might enjoy this:
  1. My 9-step decision-making framework
  2. How to prioritize goals
  3. Don’t break the chain rule with an Agile twist
  4. Mind trick for starting new habits and building consistency
  5. The Happy Path Concept

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