Tag: Improvement

Staying Productive

Staying Productive


I wrote a post a long while back about how I started to use Google Keep to get myself organized. Google Keep has been a go-to app for me on my phone for a long time now. I love using it to make lists of things, and I find it much more convenient than a paper notebook.

Don’t get me wrong–I think a paper notebook still has plenty of uses! I love my notebook for long running meetings with open-ended discussions or brain storming sessions. It’s great to be able to take a pen/pencil and doodle down any idea that comes to mind. When I’m having a free-form conversation, I need a free-form way to take notes.

However, my phone is something I almost always have with me–and my paper notebook isn’t. My phone allows me to take my Google Keep notes and email them to myself. It allows me to have a reminder right on my homescreen every time I unlock my phone. It’s just more convenient.

But something happened since the last time I wrote about using Google Keep. I use it more and more, and at some point I felt like I was getting less and less done. This is less about in the office and more about how productive I feel at home. So how can I be getting less done (or at least feeling that way) if I’m taking my own advice and using Google Keep to hack my TODO list?

I have tons of lists and no actions.

I think that’s the big take away. I list all the things I’m thinking about, and I keep making more lists. There’s no time frame around actioning things with the lists I’m making! So, in the spirit of continuous improvement, I set out to make some changes.


I know I wanted to make some changes with this part of my life because it was starting to weigh down on me; I didn’t feel productive. But I knew this wasn’t going to be something I’d answer over night. I kept my eyes and ears open for ideas for a little while before I thought up some tweaks.

The first thing I came across while living my alter ego was an Instagram post by Big J. Big J is this guy that’s incredibly big and incredibly strong. He’s lived the bodybuilding life and has a lot to show for it… And because being successful in the bodybuilding and strength world means being extremely motivated and hardworking, it’s no surprise I picked up this little bit from Big J:

Simple idea, right? Put some time into planning your schedule for the upcoming days. It almost seems to obvious to not be doing. I mean, don’t I do this already? I have meeting invites and stuff in my calendar for work… But, that’s right! I don’t have anything in my calendar for my own personal things that I like to do outside of work. Hmmm…

The next little tip to push me along was after a conversation with a teammate of mine at work. Our conversation was mostly about work-life balance, but my colleague was telling me about something he was trying out around forming habits. Essentially, over a period of time he’s been recording his success at keeping on top of good habits and identifying reasons why he’s sometimes missing them. Definitely right up the continuous improvement alley! Another great point he brought up was that good habits need to be introduced one at a time and only once you’ve been consistent with your other habits. By adding too much at once, you can derail the whole good habit process.

The “Staying Productive” Hack

This is the hack I’ve been implementing for a bit over a week now, and it’s helped tremendously with feeling productive!

Every night when I’m laying in bed, I spend about 5-15 minutes with my phone and I schedule personal activities in my calendar for the following day.

There it is. It’s not rocket science or something Earth shattering, but it’s definitely helping. Taking a page out of Big J’s book and a tip from my colleague, I’ve modified my schedule to introduce a very brief planning period every day. And it’s just one change that I think is helping introduce a good habit into my life.

This has helped me:

  • Stay on top of prepping food (which is a big part of the lifestyle I try to live)
  • Schedule time to relax (yes, I even schedule time for things like video games!)
  • Schedule time to blog (I run three blogs, and sometimes finding time to write feels like a chore)
  • Work on personal projects
  • … Feel like I’m being productive.

And no, I didn’t drop Google Keep–It actually helps feed into my scheduling! It’s great to look over my lists of things and try to create actions for them.

Next Steps

This simple hack is not only nothing particularly fancy, it’s also not bullet proof! But that’s okay when you’re always trying to continuously improve. Some snags I’ve run into or things I’ve thought about are:

  • How do I adjust my planned schedule when unexpected things come up? If someone drops in for a visit out of nowhere, or my car breaks down, or my dog decides to tear up the furniture, how do I make sure I can continue on with my planned schedule? Right now some things drop off the schedule or I push other things off to compensate. This hasn’t been too big of a problem so far, but sometimes this has a bit of a landslide effect and it makes the rest of the day feel unproductive. A little bit of dirt in the cogs seems to throw the whole thing off for me! This is something I’ll be thinking about as I encounter it and I’ll try to thing of some easy solutions.
  • How can I be more like Big J?! Aside from being bigger and stronger, how can I plan for more days? Big J plans every Sunday but I plan every night for the next day. Is there a happy medium? Planning every Sunday would potentially amplify the landslide effect I previously mentioned, but it would be a convenient single planning session for the whole week. Perhaps I’ll continue with the advice of my colleague and modify one part of my new habit at a time and look at planning for an extra day at a time and see how that goes!

If you’ve been making checklists and find that you’re unable to action items, try this approach! It takes only a few minutes every day, and so far I’ve been having great success in feeling productive. It’s not difficult, so it’s worth a try!

Yeah, We’re an “Agile” Shop

Everybody Has Gone “Agile”

If you’re a software developer that’s done interviews in the past few years, then you already know that every software development shop has gone agile. Gone are the days of waterfall software development! Developers have learned that waterfall software development is the root of all evil, and the only way to be successful is to be agile. You need to be able to adapt quickly and do standups. You need to put story point estimates on your user stories. You need retrospectives… And agility! And… more buzz words! Yes! Synergy! In the cloud! You need it!

Okay, so why the sarcasm? Every single software development team is touting that they’re following the principles of agile software development, but almost no team truly is. Is it a problem if they aren’t actually following agile principles? Absolutely not, if they’re working effectively to deliver quality software. That’s not for me to say at all. I think the problem is that people are getting confused about “being agile”, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with how they’re operating if it works for them.

Maybe We’re Not So “Agile”

I work at Magnet Forensics, and for a long time now, I’ve been saying “yeah, we’re an agile shop”. But you know what? I don’t think we are. I also don’t think that’s a problem. I think our software development process is best defined by “continuous improvement”. That’s right. I think we’re a “Continuous Improvement” shop. Our team has identified the things we think work well for us in how we develop software, and we experiment to improve on things that we think aren’t working well. I’m actually happy that we operate that way instead of operating by a set of guidelines that may or may not work for us.

So, why aren’t we agile? When I look at the Agile Manifesto, I feel like there’s a few things we actually don’t do, and we don’t even worry about them. We don’t necessarily have business people working with developers daily through things, for example. Our delivery cycles are much longer than a couple of weeks most of the time. Sometimes people on our teams don’t communicate best face-to-face. I mean, just because we’re not focusing on those things isn’t necessarily proof that we aren’t agile, but I truly don’t think we’re trying to embody all of the components that make up agile.

As I stated previously, I do think that we try to focus on continuous improvement above all else, and I’m absolutely content with that. I think that if over time we continued our retrospectives and our team ended up operating closer to a traditional waterfall process then it would be the better thing for our team. Why? Because we make incremental changes for our team in an attempt to keep improving. Switching to waterfall is a bit of a contrived example, but I definitely stand by it. Another example might be that maybe working with business people daily isn’t actually effective for our team. I don’t know, to be honest, because we’re currently tweaking other parts of our development process to improve them. Maybe we’ll get around to worrying about that at some other point.

I do know that the way we operate, we’re always trying to improve. Whether or not we get better sprint to sprint is for the retrospective to surface for us, but if we took a step back, at least we can try a different path when we try to take our next step forward.

So, We Don’t Need To Be Agile?

I think my only point of writing this post was to get this across: If you’re not actually an agile software development shop, then don’t call yourself that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not living and breathing agile. Maybe you’re a software shop that’s transitioning into Agile. Maybe you’re moving away from Agile. Maybe you have no parts of your software development process that are agile. Who’s to say that because you’re not 100% agile your setup is bad?

I can’t advocate that agile software development is the absolute best thing for all software development teams. I personally like to think that it’s a great way to develop software, but… I don’t know your team. I don’t know your codebase. I don’t know your products, services, or clients. How the heck could I tell you the best way to go make your software?

Again, there’s nothing wrong with not being 100% agile, but we should try to be honest with ourselves. Find what works for your team. Find out how you can effectively deliver quality software.

One on One Evolution


I’m a “middle manager” where I work, but that means a whole bunch of things. My everyday tasks primarily consist of programming, but I do a bunch of work to interface with other departments and teams, and I play a role in managing people on… well, the “people” side of things. For the latter part, I refer to that as people leadership.

I think it’s pretty easy to look at some of the aspects of people leadership and dismiss them as “fluffy” or needless… I consider myself a logical/technical thinker, so I have that frame of mind sometimes. However, I do see the value in actually being able to support my team so that they can operate at the best of their abilities. I try to find ways to do that without it seeming to them like I’m doing “fluffy leadership things”, and in turn, I don’t feel that way about it either. With that in mind, I had previously set out with ways to accommodate team feedback in a way that works best for them.

One on Ones: The Early Days

I worked with my HR manager a couple of years back to establish a one on one template that I could use with the developers on my team. The goal was to be able to identify points of conversation since the last time we met, the individual’s current situation (both positive and concerns), and then identify goals. Ideally, the individual is able to fill this out on the form in as much detail as necessary for us to be able to have a conversation about it later.

I didn’t want this to seem like a chore for people so I’ve tried to identify why this is useful for the individual and for myself. For the individual, it gives them an avenue to discuss anything that’s becoming a problem over the period of a few weeks (i.e. something not obvious all at once) or be able to identify successes in their work. It also allows them to reflect on their goals that they want to set in their career, current projects, or even things outside of work (because improving your abilities outside of work is a good thing too). For me, it provides better insight into the trend of problems people are experiencing, their contributions to their current projects, and even helps me see where people are at with their career goals. Both parties are able to benefit from these!

I’ve left it open in the past as to how people submit them. Written? Sure. Digital? Sure. Whatever is easiest for the individual provided I can get it a couple of days before we meet. I’ve also left it open ended as to how much of the form they fill in. Based on the trends, I think people see value in having more content but sometimes the goal setting is a bit of a grey area. People might be between setting different goals and want to wait to discuss those things. The best part is, I don’t need to hassle the team to fill in more… They just do a great job of providing information for me!

One on Ones: Continuous Improvement

I’m all for continuous improvement in our development processes that we have as well as our management processes. With that said, we’ve made a few tweaks to the one on ones recently that I think have had a great positive impact.

  • Digitized: I’ve got everyone on board with digitizing their one on ones. This is incredibly handy for being able to search for content later on (instead of sifting through paper), so I get a huge benefit from it. Each individual can probably benefit from this too if their ever looking for things we discussed. Archiving digital documents has so many benefits over the paper counterparts that it’s hard to imagine going back to these mostly being paper-based. I can easily print off copies for the individual if they lose them (or if I lose them) and it makes life easier for me at year end. I can quickly scan over documents on my computer to get a good overview of a person’s year right on my laptop.
  • Nick’s Notes: A little tweak to the one on one process is that with the digital copies, I can put in highlighted notes. This allows me to get down my feedback to the individuals before we meet. In the past, I requested documents a couple of days before we meet so I can try to action what I can ahead of time. However, adding my notes and getting it back to the individual before we meet let’s them know things I want to dive deeper on. It gives them an opportunity to prepare their thoughts, and from what I’ve heard, this is really beneficial for them. The other positive thing is that it let’s me provide them kudos on certain things that I don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of time talking about them with one on one. It’s improved the efficiency of our meetings, and I think it benefits both sides.

What’s Next?

I’ll be honest in that I don’t have any next steps planned for these one on ones. But that’s okay! I’m going to let a few more rounds of these go through before I try to tweak the process. This let’s me get a feel for how the changes are playing out and then from there I can see where I might need to make some improvements.

If you don’t have a semi-structured system in place for your one on ones, I highly recommend it! Make it something you can at least get a feel for how successful they are. If you can gauge their effectiveness, then you can try to tweak the process over time to improve it! You’ll benefit from the information, and your team will benefit from you providing support for them.

  • Nick Cosentino

    Nick Cosentino

    I work as a team lead of software engineering at Magnet Forensics (http://www.magnetforensics.com). I'm into powerlifting, bodybuilding, and blogging about leadership/development topics over at http://www.devleader.ca.

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