Low tech tracking

For a while now I’ve been thinking that there has to be an easier way to track stuff. And things.

Last week, while rereading the excellent “Agile Software Development with Scrum” by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle, I started wondering just how simple and technology free I could make the process. So armed with a small pad of stickies, some coloured pens and a plastic wallet I decided to give it a go.

Its still early days, but its making a big difference to me already. 


  • 1 pad of small stickies (post-it notes)
  • 1 pencil or pen (coloured pens can be useful)
  • shiny surface
  • notebook, notepad or diary. This can be electronic if you need to go high tech, but I’m finding the lower the tech the easier

The method

Any time I become aware of something new that needs to be done, I will:

  •  Write a one sentence summary on a sticky
  • Add a rough time estimate
  • if not specifically time related: find a place for it on the shiny surface (with top being  highest priority, and  bottom being lowest). This ordered list of stickies is the backlog. 
  • if has a time it has to happen stick it into an appropriate page in notebook or diary (make an electronic note if going high tech)

At the start of the day, I then

  • Set out the backlog in priority order (or check the priority order)
  • Add in any new tasks and remove any redundant ones
  •  Go through the backlog starting at the top and make a separate working list of 50 mins worth of work.

Each hour  I take a break from what I’m working on and:

  • Look at the backlog, and shuffle the order to reflect current priorities. 
  • Top up the working list from the backlog so that I have 50 mins worth of work ready for the next hour.
  • If tasks are too big break them into smaller tasks  at these hourly review points. Write each new smaller task on a new sticky and rip up the original. 

This whole process takes no more than 10 minutes

As tasks are completed I move them into a completed pile. At this point noting down the actual time taken for the task to help with estimating for the future.

At the end of the day

  • Make a list of the completed items and the noted time for each. 
  • Ritually destroy the completed stickies. 
  • Check the notebook/diary for any items due tomorrow and add the stickies to your backlog.
  • Re-prioritise and weed out any irrelevant items
  • Store away the backlog somewhere safe.
  • Celebrate in some way even if this is just a mental pat on the back.  

Thoughts on the basic method.

These feel like they should be self evident, but I still find I have to repeat them to myself on a regular basis.

  • Not everything belongs on any tracking system. Some of my repeating tasks like reviewing my inbox or filling in my timesheet are things which I have to do daily as a side-effect of working. If I left my job they would dissapear without trace or be automatically covered elsewhere. These tasks now live on a separate checklist and are part of my review time.    
  • I’ve started keeping a backup copy of my backlog on a spreadsheet. It stops me worrying about my stickies and is easier to see at a glance just how much work is still to be done.
  • A simple coding system of the stickies (colour, number or title)  might make it easier to see when tasks relate to specific projects or time buckets for reporting purposes. At the moment I do this manually as part of my end of day writeup.
  • Round down available time. Things like rest breaks, conversations and phonecalls take up more time than you think.  At the moment a resonable day for me has about 300 useful minutes, or about 75% of the time I’m working. Plan for on the actual amount achieved. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking ‘tomorrow will be better than today because…’ 
  • Aim for a zero backlog. I’m not yet convinced it’s possible, but it does make you think about each task in a different way. I now think long and hard about each task that has to be moved back onto my list at the start of a new day. Why is this taking some of my time each day?  Can be elimitated, delegated or automated?

Since writing this I’ve found a superb article on creating a post-it-note-calendar. I’ll have to give this a try next week to see if even the notebook is now redundant. 


East Lothian dad. Likes bad jokes and comic songs. Mostly tired, tries to stay cheerful. Thinks space is awesome. Would like to write more code and better docs.

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