How I used pivotal tracker to organize my life

Technology Director
New York

I have always had issues with cleaning my apartment. As an eternally messy person, only the guilt of roommates being disappointed in me would induce me to put in more of an effort. Moving into a one bedroom in Brooklyn did not help my situation, and once my life partner moved in, all bets were off.

Keeping myself focused is an issue — those who know me well would say I don’t have a great attention span for things I’m not excited about. Typically, I would do these large scale cleans that would last an entire day, and I would dread them in the lead up to those moments. Finally, Mitto (my life partner) made me come to the conclusion that this “bulk” cleaning approach was no longer feasible. I needed a more organized, daily approach, to keep up with my new roommate’s uncanny ability to make a mess.

Given that I am a developer who spends most of his time releasing products, I started to wonder: could I simply use this same successful organizational approach to creating new digital products, but apply it to managing my offline life?

The thought sparked a solution. I would try using the exact program that I employ to manage client projects: Pivotal Tracker.

For those of you who are not familiar with product development, here’s a few anecdotes that will help you navigate my story:

  • Pivotal is a digital tool for agile software development.
  • A product manager would break down each feature into what is called a “user story”. For example: “As a user I would like clean kitchen counters” and then there would be explanations / checkpoints inside that story on what it would take to accomplish that. Each user story is encapsulated into a “ticket” within Pivotal’s software and can be categorized as features, bugs or chores.
  • To accomplish a main piece of functionality, a group of related stories are bundled together, and called “epics”.
  • Typically, a product manager will create stories that would go into standardized blocks of time called “sprints”. Sprints are often a 1 or 2 week window of time that enables the developer to prioritize set tasks that will eventually achieve an epic.
  • Pivotal tracks velocity based on points. For instance, the easiest of features to develop is a 1 (technically it’s a 0, but I personally believe that everything takes time. If I did 10 zeros, that would equate to something more than 0). Something that you imagine will take twice as long as a 1 would be a 2, and then a 3, 5 and 8 (I also do not totally believe in 8s. If a story takes that much time, I’d like to break it up into smaller sizable chunks). You get the idea.
  • The amount of points you complete during a week is your weekly velocity. This means you can now forecast how long things should take.

Now, I need to come up with a “release” date; when will I release my new shiny apartment into the wild? At first, I considered having a party. But a party requires a lot of planning, and I’m not sure if I want that many users interacting with my apartment. I check my calendar and realized that my parents were coming in five weeks for a visit. Perfect. Now, I can plan my sprints based on that weekend to release my MVP (minimum viable product). In this case, my MVP is the essential cleaning I’ll need to do in order for my mom to be impressed.

Creating my epics will be my first task. As I said before, epics are a group of user stories that make up a large piece of functionality. To make it easy, my epics were rooms in my apartment: front hallway, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room and closets. Next on the agenda was building out user stories for each one of my epics. An example looks like this:

“As a user I’d like to have a clean kitchen floor..”

Inside that ticket would then make up what it would take to accomplish this story. In this case, I would need to sweep and then mop (in that order obviously). To keep me honest, I had a friend come over and play a game called “planning poker” to equate time to all of the stories. This is an agile tactic where everyone simultaneously calls out what they think the difficulty of a certain task may be (in points). If there is a discrepancy, we discuss why it should be one or the other. In this case, cleaning my kitchen floor was a 5. To give some context: wiping down my coffee table was a 1, organizing my desk was a 2 and scrubbing my shower was a 3. Usually this exercise is more effective with a larger group but I had to make do with one other person. Unfortunately, Mitto was asleep during this process and provided no help.

Now that I have all of my stories pointed, it’s time to prioritize these in weekly sprints in order to hit my release date (my parents visiting). It turns out that I have to complete 280 total points in order to clean and organize every stitch of my house. That breaks down to 70 points a week and then further to 10 points a day. To give an example, I would need to clean my bathroom sink (2 points), vacuum my living room rug (3 points) and then sweep and mop my hallway (5 points) to accomplish my daily velocity goal. Doesn’t sound so bad, but then I realized that washing dishes, making my bed, cleaning Mitto’s bathroom, picking up clothes; are required to be done on a daily basis. I decided to change these tasks from features to, for lack for a better word, “chores”. Unfortunately, because these “chores” are recurring, they get no point value and thus do not count towards my total velocity. This timeline just became much more daunting.

Along with my “chores”, I felt like I could accomplish 6 points a day to maintain a reasonable velocity. That means that I would need to cut back my total achievable points from 280 to 210 (6 points x 7 days x 5 weeks). This presented a dilemma: what non-essential stories could I cut, while still retaining my critical features to hit my release? The first to go were the closets. I know my mom would not see them and thus are not important for this release (I have three and they were all “8’s” in Pivotal). On a side note, my same friend did bring up a point that if I cleaned my closets, I would be able to “scale” my organization over sustained period. I agreed, but in reality I didn’t have the time and deemed my closets as technical debt that I would release in a version 1.1. The next was washing all of my walls, with the exception of my bathroom (also allocated as 8s). This one was tougher to give up but in the end, it was the easiest thing to kill. For the amount of effort it took, it would not have a ton of return. My walls are white and they still look white.

This is an extremely important lesson to learn: does the importance of the feature match the length of time it takes to create? Once I made those two decisions, I was able to go from 280 to 200 — providing me a little wiggle room for unforeseen setbacks (like being hungover and not wanting to clean).

So by now you’re probably wondering — did I achieve my goal? The good news is that I was able to clean my house in the amount of time allotted. The bigger win was that my mom was extremely impressed (I believed she gasped when she walked into the apartment).

I’m now convinced that this approach can be used to organize and achieve almost anything in my life, so long as I keep some key principles in mind. Here’s what I learned along my cleaning journey:

  • Like software development, breaking things down in small accomplishable tasks helps build morale and delivers winnable moments every day. Spending 20 minutes a day was much easier to tackle and achieve, as opposed to 5 hour cleaning sessions.
  • Unlike software development, I kept things fresh by doing only one story from an epic on each day (i.e: I cleaned the stove, wiped down my coffee table and made my bed). Typically, you wouldn’t want your product development team jumping around like that on a daily basis, but in this context the variety helped keep me motivated.
  • Pairing stories makes sense if it’s relatable to save time. Vacuuming my bedroom and living room rug teamed up nicely. I only had to bring out the vacuum once.
  • You can teach agile product development to anyone as long as you give them a relatable context.
  • My life partner, Mitto, is a cat. Although, I knew that all along. Maybe you didn’t.