Thursday, March 5, 2009

On Transparency and Staying On Task

The Problem
If you've ever wondered, "What the heck is Justin doing right now?" ... you're not alone. I often wonder what it is I do every day.

The Tangent
Sorry, this reminds me of a scene from Office Space, that I would be remiss to miss quoting:

Bob Slydell: What would you say ... ya do here?
Tom Smykowski: Well look, I already told you! I deal with the g*dd*mn customers so the engineers don't have to! I have people skills! I am good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?

The Problem (again)
Most of the time, a day passes and I am absolutely exhausted, I feel like my mind hasn't stopped running all day and yet I don't feel like I've actually accomplished anything. I know that I have ... just probably not what I was supposed to be doing. Well, I'm tired of that feeling. Over the years, I've tried every possible system to help me with time/project management: simple ToDo lists, GTD, Agile, Agile + GTD, GTD + FYI + BTW, and even Tony Robbin's tapes. I've worked with systems like Jira/Trac to keep track of the larger tickets/projects, GTD with Day-Timers, GTW with hipster PDAs (moleskin), GTD with real PDAs (BlackBerry 8830) to keep track of the daily tasks, and SlimTimer (which is awesome, by the way) to keep track of actual time spent on tasks. I've used online todo lists with RememberTheMilk, simple todo lists on $1 notepads, electronic todo lists on $200 BlackBerries or in Thunderbird Tasks, or even in Notepad (ala Yaw Anokwa, who also incidentally gave us Bacon-wrapped OpenMRS).

Nothing seemed to work.

And I'm not entirely sure why these technologies and processes haven't helped, but I think it might to do with the fact that I have too many inputs: email, e-task list, paper-based task list, jira, trac, skype, meetings). Another problem is that I'm always "too busy" to follow up on the tasks I've worked on or completed, to leave notes about where I was or to close tickets, so my inbox just keeps growing and growing and the contexts for those tasks keep getting lost. Still not sure how to handle that problem other than to schedule some time every week for "cleanup" and assessment. Unfortunately, the time gets scheduled away with something else. How do others deal with that issue? I guess it's just a matter of will-power and stopping yourself when it's time to move onto the next thing.

The Solution (Staying on Task):
Anyway, I've come up with an approximation of a solution to the problem. I recently decided to try to integrate all of these various task/time/project/life management tools into something that will help me stay on task and keep everyone informed of what it is that I'm up to. It involves integration of a few key systems that each, by themselves, help solve a little piece of the puzzle and together, I'm hoping for better throughput and transparency all around.

Storing Tasks
I love Remember the Milk, but I hate logging into a web site to manage what I should be working on. Ideally, I'd rather have someone (or maybe something) tell me what I should be doing at any given time during the day. Unfortunately, I still haven't found a solution to that. However, RTM at least gives me a way to manage my todos, a database for all of my tasks. Which is a good first step. I've now got an @OpenMRS context in RTM with all of my daily todos from some of my in-progress and future OpenMRS/PIH tickets.

Managing Tasks
Now, I just need something to help me manage tasks, that doesn't require me to log into a web site several times a day. RTM has a great feature that allows you to sync with the BlackBerry (as well as iPhone). I am now using that service to manage tasks when I'm away from my computer. Unfortunately, it doesn't work so well when I'm sitting in front of my computer because it takes a few more seconds to type in the task using the BlackBerry's tiny keyboard. And seconds are hours in the software world (or maybe just in my world). So, I needed something that was sitting right there in front of me, on my laptop, whenever I needed it. I tried using the Thunderbird RTM Provider that integrates with RTM, but ran into a few bugs that were showstoppers. The add-on definitely has promise and I would highly recommend it once it matures for a few more weeks/months.

That brought me to Tasque, which is a neat Gnome project (for Ubuntu) that was developed during the 2008 Google Summer of Code. Tasque integrates with the RTM backend and allows me to add/remove/edit tasks from my desktop. There are still some quirks in Tasque (it won't let me move tasks to different contexts once they've been added), but the pro's far outweigh the con's.

Managing Time Spent
The final problem to tackle was that of "time spent" on tasks. This one was easy. Since, I always have at least one FireFox window open at all times, I use SlimTimer in the sidebar of Firefox to keep track of the time that I spend on individual tasks. I haven't perfected the system yet, but I current track high-level task categories, like Code Review, Design, Development, Testing, Meeting, and Troubleshooting. I will probably get more fine-grained at some point. Unfortunately, there's currently no way to integrate SlimTimer with RTM, so I have to add tasks to the SlimTimer sidebar manually. Keeping the tasks as high-level categories gives me the consistency I need to actually use SlimTimer every day.

The Solution (to the other problem ... "Transparency")
The other nicety from all of these systems working together is that I now I have a way to show what I'm working on all in one place. You can see some of the feeds I've set up for open tasks/tickets, as well as completed tasks/tickets (coming soon). Hopefully that will provide some needed transparency and help others give me feedback on what they think I should be working on.

The Conclusion
So in conclusion, what I settled on was a combination of Jira/Trac to manage big tickets, RTM + Tasque + BlackBerry Tasks to manage daily todos, and SlimTimer to manage the time spent on those tasks. We'll see how this new system goes.


Ben Wolfe said...

Gnome Do has a Remember the Milk plugin that might be helpful as well(or at least as helpful as Tasque).

Justin Miranda said...

Cool. I tried the GnomeDo Tasque plugin but it doesn't seem to work for me. I'll give the RTM plugin a try.

Adam Monsen said...

Tasque looks rad! Having some problems fetching my tasks from RTM; I just asked what's up on their mailing list.

You've inspired me to blog about tasks and tracking.

@Ben, GNOME Do is quite handy; I hadn't heard of it before.