A Better To-Do List, According to a Scrum Master
The personal task board helps you see how your actions move you toward your goals
I love to-do lists. I love the instant gratification they offer: complete a task, cross it off, and move on. Throughout my career, I’ve structured my work by making to-do-lists, constantly experimenting with formats — paper journals, spreadsheets, mobile apps — in a quest to find the best, most helpful version.
But there’s one problem that no to-do list, in any of those forms, can solve: They don’t show you the bigger picture. Day after day, you’re simply pushing around individual actions without seeing the “why” behind them. There came a point when I began wondering whether my to-do items were really moving me toward my larger goals.
Until it dawned on me: This is the exact challenge I address in my role as a scrum master. I guide software development teams to work with the scrum framework, as we plan tasks in detail for the short term to support high-level goals. The framework allows us to quickly adapt our plan of action when circumstances change (and they will). Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this for our personal goals, too?
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In Scrum, one of our most important tools is our task board, a visual snapshot that allows everyone to see and analyze the workflow. I’ve created my own personal task board using a similar format. This board lets me see not only what I need to do today, this week, and this month, but it also keeps me aware of how all of my actions push me toward my larger goals. Here’s how to make your own.
1. Gather your supplies. You’ll need a display board. A whiteboard works here, but you can just use a big piece of paper if that’s what you have handy. And you’ll need sticky notes in several different colors.
2. Make your columns. On your board, create six columns: goals, to-do, this month, this week, today, done. It should look something like this:
3. In the first column, write out your goals. These should be key personal projects that you want to work on. My goals included: staying fit and healthy, writing a book, selling my old house, and buying a new house. What projects will allow you to be successful (however you define it) and happy? Rank them from most to least important. This will help later on, when time is limited and you have to choose how to spend it.
4. Identify the actions needed to achieve each goal. Write each action on a separate sticky note in the color that’s chosen for the specific goal. One of the key ingredients of successful planning and execution is to make your actions as concrete as possible. Use the format “verb + noun” to define actionable tasks. For instance, “write newsletter” or “send proposal.” Ideally, each action should be something you can complete in one day. If not, break it down in smaller actions.
5. Move your actions around. Decide whether your actions should be completed this month, this week, or today. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Don’t overload yourself. Even one action per goal in your “Today” column can be enough.
6. Schedule your actions. Put today’s actions in time slots on your calendar. When you complete an action, move it to the “done” column. Celebrate the achievement.
7. Constantly check your progress. Create daily, weekly, and monthly routines to review your task board and move actions around. Can one of your “this week” actions be moved to “today”?
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Apart from just planning and executing your actions, it’s also important to take a step back and evaluate how you are actually doing. Are you satisfied with your current progress toward your goals?
My personal task board started as a physical board in the hallway next to our bedroom. I walked past it every morning and evening, and it helped keep me focused. But when we moved, I switched to a digital board, which also works well. The best task management system is the one you’ll use. Experiment with different systems and keep looking for new ways to improve.