When the boss comes around asking for progress reports, your knee jerk reaction is probably to rattle off a huge list of very important, very exciting projects you’ve got in the works.
Let’s be real, though: while these tasks aren’t necessarily a complete fabrication, they’re also most likely not an accurate representation of what you’re truly spending your time doing. It’s natural for you to want to prove that your work is providing value to the company. But ask any manager, and they will tell you that they won’t be impressed by the magnitude of your “priorities.”
As Michael Pryor, CEO of Trello, says, “You don’t need to prove to me that you’re busy. I know you’re busy.” The argument is a classic quality over quantity sentiment: if you’re working on a million tasks, are you really doing any of them effectively?
Consider this: Rather than reporting a laundry list of tasks that are only getting a fraction of your attention, instead you limited your task list to just 5 things.
The Manager’s Dilemma
Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello, oversaw a team at his software company Fog Creek. He was able to see all the various items assigned to each person, but he had no way to tell which ones were actively being worked on at any given time.
“A long list of a thousand individual tasks where everyone is going to take 25 of them doesn’t really add up to knowing what everyone is working on,” explains Joel.
The other dilemma is knowing whether the items employees are prioritizing are aligned with what Joel, as their manager, thinks they should be prioritizing. “I think a lot of times people are working on a long list of little things and don’t know what the company’s big priorities are either,” he says.
When he dug in he saw that it was common that his employees were mixing up short and longer term objectives, and urgent priorities with superficial items, but never truly explaining what they were actually working on. Most of these tasks were not directly in the forefront, and did not reflect the work that was being done.
5 Things Concept
Back then, Joel was already running Fog Creek and StackExchange at the same time, and he came to a point where he needed to quickly understand what was happening in his companies and what people were working on.
Conceptually, this turned into the “5 things” idea: he realized what he really wanted to hear from his team was a list of 5 things:
- Two tasks they were currently working on.
- Two tasks they planned to work on next.
- One that people might expect them to be working on, but they weren’t actually planning on doing.
He would then have only 5 items per person to check on. As a manager he sought to gain a clear perspective of what was happening, and he thought a process like this would help his employees prioritize their work and truly accomplish something.
Why Just Two At A Time?
The brain can really only absorb and process a limited amount of information at once. One concept that all productivity methodologies agree on is that being productive means staying focused.
Prioritizing only two tasks at a time helps to drill down into the specifics of a given day or week. “They can switch off between two major projects, but if they think they’re working on three things then there’s probably one that isn’t getting any major work done,” Joel insists.
Identifying the two tasks you are currently working on orients managers and co-workers to what your brain is currently dealing with. It will prevent them from asking you questions that are not related to your current focus.
Having two things can also help you switch from one thing to another if you become stuck or bored with one. Any more than two and you might give yourself choice anxiety, running the risk of not knowing where to even start.
Looking Ahead To The Next Two
Listing the two things you will be working on after you finish your current tasks is a way of creating a realistic roadmap of your work. It will help you and others assess what’s coming next and act accordingly.
For example, if you are a developer and have listed that next week you will begin developing an amazing new feature, then the marketing team knows that they can start planning promotional materials.
Let’s say you’re on a large legal team reviewing contracts, and you list the two documents you plan to look at next. This makes it easy for your paralegals to prepare the correct materials, your other teammates to know which contracts are already spoken for, and your supervisor to plan for which contracts are nearing completion.
Or maybe you’re a content manager mapping out your editorial calendar, and your photo editors need to know which articles’ graphics need to be touched up. All they would need to do is review your priority list.
Drop The Excess Task
Listing one task that you don’t plan to work on, but that people expect you to work on, is a clear way to let your team know that it’s not happening. It can be for many reasons: lack of time, interest, or simply because you realized it wasn’t the right idea.
“It could be, ‘It’ll never get done because it’s a bad thing,’ or it could be, ‘It’ll never get done because they don’t have time,’” explains Joel.
Most importantly, however, it will help people understand why this specific feature or article won’t go live soon. When expectations meet reality, it’s more satisfactory for everyone.
The Evolution Beyond “5 Things”
The idea behind “5 things” became a way for Joel and his team to conceptually explore new ways to better manage teams.
What they realized is that “5 things” is just one idea of how to do it; the bigger picture involved a way to visually and flexibly view and update tasks and priorities (starting to sound familiar?).
Inevitably Joel’s team, recognizing the need for a more robust, clear solution to managing tasks, developed a little ol’ tool called Trello. It became an easy way for managers to coordinate responsibilities any way they saw fit, and helped them gain a better perspective on the status of everyone and every initiative on their team.
These days Trello boards for team leads boast countless workflows, management styles, and (most importantly) fun backgrounds. It’s easy to adapt boards to work with all styles of leadership.
Joel is now co-founder and manager of 3 successful companies, and is quick to point out that a Trello board can be made to satisfy all forms of business solutions, however you’re managing your team.
If you like the concept of “5 things,” here is a sample Trello board adapting that style of management: