Sunday, March 30, 2014

Change: A How-to Guide of sorts

The past several years have been ones of great change for my husband and me.  We moved in together and had to combine our personal finances.  We got married.  We had a child.  We started looking at the future: things like life insurance, 401ks, and college savings plans became very important to us, but the more we looked at things the more alien they seemed.  We learned to budget.  We learned to stick to our budget (and no, those are NOT the same thing).  We learned how to save.  We learned how to cut out the extras and figure out what is really important. I started an online business, and my husband took on a part time teaching job.  We got involved in our church and took on responsibilities there.  And somewhere in there I made a New Year's resolution to read more nonfiction. 

You see, my husband is not much of a reader.  I have loved to read ever since I was 4.  My grandmother taught me to read early, and I loved the escape a story could offer me.  My husband was taught to read without phonics, and so he struggled.  He was not very fast at it, and he did not do it for pleasure.  However, he is a smart man, and he likes learning about things.  So once in a while, if a book is given to him or recommended to him, he will read one.  Because I read for fun, I read popular fiction.  Because he reads to learn, he reads nonfiction.  He always has interesting things to say about the books he chooses to read, and because they are few and far between, he gets a lot out of them.  I forget half the last story before I am through the next book.

All of this change forced us to take stock of our lives and learn some things.  I used to live 2 hours away from my husband.  I hated my job, and after we were engaged we started talking about me moving to the same city.  However, after a diligent search, I was having trouble finding a job.  My lease was ending, and we had to determine whether or not we could make ends meet on a single income if I moved.  So we made a budget.  Only the essentials.  The outlook didn't look good, but it was do-able.  We cut out things like cable, eating out, and having any fun whatsoever.  My husband took a second job.  I scrimped and pinched pennies while trying my hand at craft fairs and Etsy.

We got the opportunity to take a class called "Financial Peace University" at our church.  I know a lot of things have been said about Dave Ramsey and his ideas and his empire, but all that judging aside, it really helped us on our journey. We were already doing most of what he recommended, but had we taken his class a few years earlier it could have saved us a lot of headache.

Sometime after that, I decided to do what my husband does and read some things that would teach me something instead of entertain me.  I made a resolution to read one book every 2 months, and while I fell short of that goal, I think I came close - to 4 or 5.  Plus a few articles here and there that caught my eye.  All of which is way more than I had ever done before, so I consider it a positive change!  And slowly but surely, some of the things I read started to soak in to my thick skull.  I realized that many smart, successful, happy, well adjusted, effective people had a lot of the same things to say.  Things like how to manage change, or how to be reliable.  Things like being bold in your choices rather than always playing it safe and within your comfort zone.  Things like how to plan for the future and be financially secure.  Really important life skills, basically.  The things that you don't learn in school, even though they often determine your effectiveness in life (note that I didn't say success which changes based on what you value, but your effectiveness: how well you do what you value).  And I found myself stressing these points to friends and family. Even my parents and older relatives that should have it more "figured out" than I do.  And most of them kind of ignored me.  A few seemed to get it, but my passion seemed to fall on deaf ears for the most part.  But I still think it is really important to share what I learned.

So after that exceedingly long introduction, this post is to let you know that I will be starting a series of posts, probably interspersed with more normal posts for me, all about things that I have learned in the last few years.  I will try to keep it personal but applicable to all.  I think telling my story might give it some more impact, but try to keep an open mind when applying it to your own situation.  Not everything will map properly, but think about it and you will find something of use for you in your situation.

Just as a sneak peak, here are some topics I will be covering:

Be bold.
Do what you say you will.
Practice deliberately.
Invest in yourself.
Learn to budget (time and money).

I look forward to exploring these topics and many more with you.  I know this will probably not change the world, but you can't blame a girl for trying.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Trello and Scrum and time management

I have been BUSY lately.  The end of summer saw Renaissance Faire rush orders followed by Halloween, then a week off, and then starting in on the holidays, a vacation thrown in there and now some custom dresses and of course the handmade Christmas gifts.  Blogging has obviously taken a back seat as my posting has been non existent.

With the new rapid rate of life, I have sought out a new way to manage time.  I need a system to track my projects, keep a list of projects I'd like to (eventually) do, and work in home and family life on top of it all.  Keeping things in balance is not always easy, so I wanted a system that I could see where my time was going and how much time I was committing myself to so I didn't get over-extended.

Enter my husband.  He is a software engineer and his company recently began using Agile frameworks to keep track of their ongoing business initiatives, etc.  He heard my constant complaining about working hard all day and never getting anything done.  So, he scrummed me.  Yeah, its not what you think.  Scrum is the Agile framework he has been using at work for software development with much success for the last two years or so.  I've been doing this whole thing for about 6 months now and while it doesn't invent time (I still barely blog), I do find myself finishing things a lot more regularly.

Scrum basically helps you plan how much to do in a certain time frame.  I am really oversimplifying a complex system here, but this is how I use it, so bear with me.  It uses numbers to estimate how much work a project is.  You don't estimate time, you estimate difficulty.  They are correlated, but are not the same thing.  You pick a fairly simple task you do frequently or are familiar with and make it equal to a 3.  Then, you go through your list and compare each item to that baseline item.  Is it easier?  Is it harder?  How much?  Is it half as hard?  Twice as hard?  The beauty of this system is that it uses Fibonacci numbers only to assign to tasks.  It can't be a 4.  It can only be a 3 or a 5.  That way you don't get bogged down in the back and forth decisions about how many points something is. 5 represents something that is roughly twice as hard as your baseline 3, and a 1 or 2 is half as hard. Don't worry if you are not sure... things generally balance out, and over time, you will get better. You can use .5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and 21 (I rarely use .5 or 2). Generally, items that are bigger than 21 must be broken down into smaller tasks.  These numbers represent how many "points" a task is worth.  Assigning number values seems complicated, but as you go on it gets easier.

From here, you can choose a number of points to do in a time period called a sprint. I use a week since many of my tasks repeat on a weekly basis.  Each week or sprint, you should try to do a certain number of "points".  Doing a number of points rather than a number of tasks helps protect you from the "I only got ONE THING DONE ALL WEEK... I must be lazy" syndrome.  If its a gigantic project, you get mega points for it.  And I feel deep down like I'm playing a video game.  Who doesn't like points?  you determine how many points you can handle by doing a test sprint and guesstimating how many points you can do then seeing what you actually accomplish.   This number (points per sprint) is called your velocity.  Since everyone's baseline (what they consider 3 points) is different, it is important to note that your velocity will be vastly different from mine.  Just because I do about 40 points per sprint and you do 15 doesn't mean I get more done (in fact, it could be the opposite!).  It just means we are working on different scales.  Don't compare apples to oranges!

But how do you organize everything?  Ahh. The best part.  I use Trello to track my work, a free web application.  It is simply a list system in which you can make different boards containing multiple lists, which contain cards which are the individual tasks.  It sounds a bit confusing, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  A board can be a large project (how my husband uses it at work) or a person (how I use it at home).
The main page of Trello shows all your boards. I only have one lonely board.
I only use one board since I want to track how much home stuff I do as well as how much business stuff I do, and it makes no sense to split them apart.  I need one place for everything.  In that board, I have lists.  My lists are: someday, soon, to do, doing, and done.  I use these lists to organize my cards.  Cards are individual tasks that I put into lists.  My lists help me know when I will do certain tasks, or cards.
FYI: I have way too much to do.  And yes, this is my real list.
Individual cards also have things like labels which can further help sort them, and they can contain notes or checklists to keep ideas or track progress of a complicated project, but those are totally optional.  Play around with them once you get comfortable with the general stuff.
Trello by itself is not a Scrum tool, but I use a Scrum for Trello plugin that allows me to assign points to individual cards and then totals up the number of points I have in each list (those are the blue numbers on the cards and the lists).

Okay, so I have points, a sprint, and lists.  But there is more to the mysterious way of Scrum... you still need a process, right?

So here is the deal.  My someday list holds all my projects that are currently tabled.  They may be UFOs (unfinished objects) or just ideas for new products, they may be administrative tasks like taking pictures and getting new listings up, or they may be long term chores like spring cleaning.  Each week, I go through my cards and try to decide what is important and time sensitive.  I usually end up with about 3 times the number of points I can do in a sprint (the lists above are a perfect example of that - I have way too much and need to sort), so some of the stuff goes into the "soon" list which hypothetically will get done in the following sprint.  Like I said, I need to sort.  Badly.

The "To Do" list is the tasks I have taken on for the week.  This is my sprint.  I take tasks from the "to do" list and move them to the "doing" list, and then when complete, they go to "done" so I can keep track of my progress for the week.  At the end of the sprint, I archive all the cards in my "done" list. (I also record my progress week to week, but that's another optional thing.)

Here is the catch, and quite frankly, the best part. You can only have 2 things in your "doing" list at once.  I used to say 1, but practically speaking, I think 2 or sometimes 3 works better.  Why only 1 (or 2 or 3)?  Well, Scrum is focused on getting things done.  If you try to make progress on 30 different things, you will never finish any of them. If you focus all your energy on one (limit yourself, Jennifer!!), you are forced to complete it before moving on to something else.  In my practical life, I usually have to switch between tasks a bit because I cannot sew while baby sleeps or I don't have internet access right now or things like that, hence the 2 or 3 rule.  But the beauty of it is that it gives you focus.  You pull one card at a time, complete it, then move on.  It means you get #$@% done! And we all want that!

I know this is a whole wazoo of confusing to throw at you, but I LOVE this system, and I think it has really helped my creative crazy get a little more defined and easier to manage.  It keeps me from over booking and it shows me how much I really DO accomplish on a regular basis.  It keeps track of all those awesome ideas I have, but never remember when I have time to spare.  And it also helps keep important stuff from falling through the cracks.  If you have questions, please ask, and I will update this post as needed!  Give Trello and Scrum a shot!  After all, its free!