Friday, May 13, 2016

How to be an Agile Genealogist

Albert Einstein's desk the day he died
Do you have notes and lists all over your desk reminding you of all those genealogy sites you need to visit? Those surnames your need to research? That e-mail you need to write to the family history center in your great grandparent's hometown?

How do you ever get anything done? 

Well, I know way too much about the Agile software development processes. It's the same in the software world. Thousands of great ideas, and only the time and money to do a few of them a week. I can talk about Agile for hours and hours and hours and hours and I won't bore you to tears about why it is so amazing and awesome. Yes, it's based on Lean manufacturing principals, and all sorts of science. So what. For us in the genealogy world, there are just two things you need to know:

1) Prioritize your next tasks. Giant lists are not at all helpful. They are overwhelming. In Agile they call this your backlog. Manage your backlog. If you only research ten genealogy mysteries in the next month, what would they be? Put them in order on a shorter list: your "Prioritized Burn-down List."

2) Work on one thing at a time and finish it. As much as you think you can multi-task, you can't. Genealogists are human. Yes, and humans can only work on one thing at a time. This is called managing the WIP (Work in Progress). Do one thing; finish it, and move to the next. For you, your limit is one thing. That's your WIP limit.  Teams of people can do more than one thing; and you are a team of one.

There, was that too painful? I actually introduced you to some important Agile terms: burndown list, backlog, WIP, and WIP limits. Easy stuff, and you're one step closer to starting that second career as an app developer!

How to Use Trello to Become an Agile Genealogist

Yes, all the kids these days are using Trello. Dropping Trello into a conversation with your granddaughter will blow her mind. Try it!

Step 1) Sign up for Trello, it's free! 

Really, it's free for all the features you'll need for genealogy! Go to and sign up! Do this now. It's the real deal. Millions of people are using it.

Step 2) Create your first board

The dreaded blank screen.  Trello is so flexible, you can do anything you'd like. Therefore, it's easy to get stuck here. Follow me onward friends! Create a board called "Genealogy" or something sensible like that. Once you master Trello, you'll probably want to create another board called "Things for my spouse to do around the house" and then another and another. It's addictive.

Once you create the board you'll end up with this screen:

Step 3) Create your lists

Remember what I said about how giant lists can destroy your life? Oh, I must have left that part out. Anyway, the way to manage a giant list is to spilt it up into smaller lists. In the simplest Agile process, we create Kanban boards that have three lists: To-Do, Doing, and Done.

I recommend for genealogy, that your lists look like this, working in that same Kanban fashion left to right.   All the things you want to do are on the left.   All the things you've done are on the right. And in the middle, instead of just "Doing" you make three lists, Next Week, Tomorrow, and Today.    So, five lists to sort things into:

  1. Someday -- these are things you don't want to forget. They need to be on a list. 
  2. Next Week -- these items actually need to get done this month; they are just that important.
  3. Tomorrow -- the priority short list I need to do when I'm done with today's work.
  4. Today -- this is the one thing you need to do today. Finish it. 
  5. Done -- large list of completed tasks. Yay you! 

Feel free to change the names of the lists to something that really works for you. An important part of Agile is the idea of trying something, reflecting on the experience, and modifying thing to work better for you.   Add another list if you need one. I have one called "Daily" right next to Today that is a list of all the things I need to do every day, like Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

Step 4) Fill in the lists with cards

Now the fun part.  Start adding cards to the list. Cards are the tasks you need to do. One card for each task. These are those Post-It notes that are all over your wall, desk, and computer. Click on "Add a card..." and type them in.

One rule about cards. Each card should be no more than a day's work. "Scan Photos" is a great card, but if you can't do it all in a day, you'll need to break it down into multiple cards. Step it out into things like, "Buy Scanner", "Sort photos to be scanned", and "Scan important photos from uncle's album".

I recommend adding all your cards to the "Someday" list. Type them in as fast as you can. Get them all into that horrible giant list catch all bucket.

Then sort the cards into their proper list. Just drag and drop.  Grab the one card you need to work on today, and move it over to the Today column.

Next, ask yourself, "If I only do four things this week, what are they?"  Find those cards and add them to Tomorrow's list.

Step 5) Do a Task and Finish a Card

Hopefully, the card in Today's bucket is called something like "Try Trello for Genealogy."  Well, that's done.  Move it into Done. Done done done!

Next, and this is important, pull the next card from the top of tomorrow's list. Drag it into the now-empty today column.  Always pull the top-most card. Therefore, always put the most important next task at the top of your lists. Drag the cards around. It's actually fun and easy.  You're a prioritizing wizard now!

I had to sit through two full days of time-management classes to learn how to break through the tyranny of the inbox, and you've mastered it in the ten minutes it took to read this post: take large lists and break them up horizontally into smaller, prioritized lists.

Advanced Features

Trello has some amazing features that will help you along the way. My favorites include the following:

  • Due dates: if something actually has to be done by a certain date you can get a reminder a few days before it's due. This tells you to find that card and move it closer to the top of the tomorrow pile. 
  • Trello Apps: you can install the Trello app on your iPad, phone, or other mobile device and have your to-do list with you wherever you go. You can even add things to it, and it is all synched together.  
  • Teams: Trello was actually built for teams, so if you have another researcher working with you, there is a good deal of communication and collaboration built in. 
  • Checklists: each card can have a checklist of all the little tasks that can be checked off as you do them. 
  • Photos: yes, you can add images to Trello cards. Especially cool when taking photos with your iPhone at a research center. 

Seriously, sign up for a free Trello board today. 

1 comment :

  1. I hate to admit that this is the first time I've read your blog, but it surely will not be the last! I want to share it with a bunch of people and will try trello myself! I'm not a naturally organized person, but lists save the day! and I look forward to seeing how this feels for me. My desk and genealogy "office" is a disaster right now, and organizing it will be at the top of my"someday" list! LOL I've got too many other things, specific things to do! Thanks for this!