I just knew I wanted to go to the Olympic Games. In reflection, I would say that I was trying to prove something to myself. I think that ultimately, I was trying to prove that I was enough.
It was great to be a guest on Jeff Bullas’ podcast recently.
Jeff is an online entrepreneur, influencer, author and speaker on all things digital. He has been featured on Forbes as a “Top 20 Influencer of Chief Marketing Officers” and ranked #1 Global “Digital Marketing Influencer”. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Inc., and Huffington Post. Having built a social media tribe of over 700k followers, he now advises startups on marketing and influencer strategy.
Jeff and I met back in my Bluewire Media marketing days and have become great friends, sharing highs and lows of our journeys both personally and professionally.
In this interview we cover a bit of ground:
The three questions that have guided my professional journey.
But defining importance doesn’t mean a thing if I don’t put it into practice.
Without a system to convert importance into repeated and sustainable action, it becomes like lots of other things: just another interesting experience…
a meditation retreat is just a quiet weekend away,
a diet is just a temporary loss in weight,
a values discovery process is just another feel good exercise,
a training workshop is just edutainment.
What a waste.
While awareness is helpful and necessary, nearly all of the value is created in the ongoing implementation.
The next question then is: How do I take what’s important to me and put it into practice?
After 17 years of working for myself, I’ve experimented with tonnes of ways.
What survived is what’s on this page.
I’ve found a combination of four “tools” – Daily Practice, Calendar, Kanban and Scrum – that help me translate what’s important into action. They enshrine reflection on the work, the process and the system itself. They provide me with the right mix of structure and flexibility for dealing with uncertainty. They help me walk the line of tension between time management and prioritisation.
If I can hit some or most of these in a day or week, then I know I’m at least setting myself up to stay on track.
As always, please take and adapt for your own purposes.
The primary purpose of my daily practice then is for me is to reconnect to my values, who/what’s important to me, purpose, what energises me etc. I can then keep them front of mind as I work through a day.
So most days I try to:
Say my values to myself with my first glass of water in the morning. (10 secs)
An alarm goes off on my phone and watch at 5pm every day to remind me to bring love and gratitude into dinner time with the family. I’m a morning guy, so the evening transition back from work into home is when I really need the reminder. (2 secs)
I meditate before bed. (20 mins)
I write one thing I’m grateful for to my wife and three daughters into four moleskine notebooks – one for each of them – before bed. (5 mins)
You might notice that only one of these has a specific time attached to it.
I’ve found it far more effective to to attach my daily practices to an existing event rather than a rigid time (eg first glass of water rather than 5:30am.) The event will definitely happen, but the timing of it will vary depending on kids’ wake up times, life etc. [For more on habit formation check out Atomic Habits.]
Calendar – managing time
Time is a non-renewable resource so my calendar is only for time based events, never tasks.
Firstly, I check my note and set non-work commitments that matter to me as recurring appointments: school pick ups, exercise, cold bath, family commitments. This means they become the default in my calendar rather than having to be squeezed in around everything else. It creates positive friction for me to move these which means I’m more likely to adhere to them.
Next, I add my weekly work cadence as recurring appointments. I use the Scrum rhythms – Planning, Retro and Review, Refinement, Daily Scrum. (More on this below.)
The rest I leave free.
I also use Calendly to allow people to book times directly into pre-allocated blocks in my calendar. This saves me the tedious back and forth of aligning diaries and allows me to protect blocks of longer, deeper work in my week through customised availability settings.
Kanban – managing work flow
Kanban is how I visualise my workflow process and the work itself. I love it because I can see at a glance the status of everything. It’s my central source of truth too so I can rest easy knowing that things aren’t going to fall through the cracks.
I began with a version that looked like this:
My hand writing is terrible, so here are the columns (left to right) and a brief description of how I use each. The lines in the columns represent items of work.
This is where I capture all the ideas I have for things I could do. It’s the place I put an idea if I wake up in the middle of the night and don’t want to forget something. I add to it any time and then refine and reprioritise weekly. The most important work moves to the top of the list.
This is the prioritised work I commit to getting done this week.
Once I start a piece of work I move it to In Progress.
This is where I move a piece of work when I need feedback or input from others to make progress. I’ll move it back into In Progress once the feedback comes in and I’m working on it.
When the work is complete. (Obviously!)
I set up my kanban in Notion. Trello and Jira are also both great tools. All have free options.
Alternatively, I’ve seen people use post it notes or excel too. The tech is secondary. It’s the philosophy that counts so whatever minimises the friction to getting started is the best option.
If you enjoy the dopamine hit of ticking off a to do list then you’ll love getting extra dopamine for moving items from To do > In progress > Done. (I’m guilty of creating to dos to cross them off so this works a treat for me.)
Kanban and leadership
From a leadership standpoint, I’ve seen kanban become a powerful tool to create psychological safety by allowing full transparency into work and work flows. It allows the question to be asked of 1 or multiple parties whether it’s up, down or sideways in an organisation:
Given our constraints, what is most important to us to get done?
It also enables both aspects of accountability: celebration of great work delivered or feet to the fire conversations where delivery is not met.
Scrum – managing prioritisation and uncertainty
Scrum is a framework for addressing complex problems. I love the way it helps me plan to work with uncertainty and focus on what is most important right now.
A few years ago, I signed myself up to a Professional Scrum Master course to add some depth to my novice “agile” skills.
Most of the people on the call were members of software development teams. We were half way through the first day.
I raised my hand.
“I realise Scrum was originally designed for software teams, but I’m the only full timer of my own consulting business. Is it possible to run Scrum with just one person?”
My trainer Ferzeen chuckled. “Yes. That’s called Scrum of 1. It’s possible but…” We explored it briefly in the session and then some more in breaks and follow up calls.
I have practiced “Scrum of 1” ever since.
My Weekly Structure
I follow these four Scrum rituals with my kanban open each time:
Planning – This forces me to interrogate my capacity for the week. I check my calendar and commitments to make sure I organise and prioritise my work for that week accordingly.
Daily Scrum – This is a very quick daily check in with myself for progress.
Refinement – This is an interim prioritisation process of checking the backlog of ideas to see which ones are most important and prioritise them for the coming week. They’ll be checked again in Planning.
Retro and Review – This is how I enshrine reflection into my week. I love it. The aim is to reflect on what has happened and what has been learned in the work. At the end of this session, I close the done column once I’ve reviewed the week and start afresh.
I’ve found that I work really well on a 7 day cadence from Monday afternoon to Monday afternoon so my timings reflect this.
Retro and Review (4-4:30pm Mondays)
How did the week go? (Start at the Done column and work backwards through Awaiting Feedback, In Progress, To Do)
What have I learned?
What worked well?
What could be improved?
Anything need to be updated in the Backlog?
Archive the Done column and create a new one.
Empty the kanban entirely back to the Backlog column.
What I’ve learned then feeds directly into Planning immediately afterwards.
Planning (4:30-5pm Mondays)
Check the diary for the week ahead – anything I need to be aware of that impacts capacity or priority?
What is the Sprint Goal for this week? [Add this to the Sprint Goal column]
What are the most important pieces of work in the Backlog that need to be done this week?
Add these from the Backlog to the To Do list.
Refinement (4-4:30pm Thursday)
What is looking most important to do next week?
Prioritise my backlog accordingly by moving the items to the top of the list.
Daily Scrum (9am each day)
What happened yesterday?
What needs to happen today?
Are there any blockers?
I can’t tell you how powerful Scrum is. What I’ve outlined here is just the beginning of understanding the nuances of Scrum. It is a framework gifted to the world through Scrum.org that has helped create trillions of dollars in value. It has completely changed how I work.
I also have a slight confession to make.
Right now, Ferzeen my Scrum trainer in the early days, is my Scrum Master for work for one hour a week. She helps me run my Retro/Review and Planning processes.
Because while coaching myself in my Scrum of 1 is possible and I’ve done it for long periods, I also find it hard at times to pull myself out of the weeds. I’ve found her Scrum coaching helps me get clearer and better outcomes each week. That’s a huge compound effect over a year.
Inbox = 0 – managing other people’s agendas
Finally, I hear a lot of people complain about their inbox and fair enough. As they say, your inbox is everyone else’s agenda for your time. This is a clear obstacle to doing my most important work.
I use a really simple technique to triage my inbox and get it to zero in a few minutes, often less. This allows me to separate comms from work.
I use Gmail, so as I look through a list of emails:
I add a star to anything I need to action.
Then I archive everything.
Inbox = 0.
Philosophically, time is one of the great tests of importance. What I’ve starred will show up in my starred folder for attention later on. If it’s truly important then, I might add an event to my calendar or an item to my backlog on the kanban for action.
The same principle applies for MS Outlook, just use a flag instead.
So there you have it.
I’ve gone through long periods of coaching myself using the interplay of these tools. They have helped me be more productive and focus on the most important.
I hope it’s a useful reference to help translate importance into action.
Any questions? Hit me in the comments section below.
[The final section below is really for people who’ve had more experience with these frameworks and are interested in the progression.]
Evolution – Scrum + Kanban [progression]
[NB: This section is a complete distraction if you don’t have the above set up and practiced but some might be interested in progression…]
Over time my kanban + scrum practices have evolved. My kanban now looks like this:
The columns in this one are: Backlog, Product Goal, Sprint Goal, To Do, In Progress, Awaiting Feedback, Definition of Done, Done.
Everything applies from earlier in the article, so I’ll just explain the differences here.
This is my mid term (3-6 months) goal. Historically I’ve had multiple goals. Now I only have one. It doesn’t mean I don’t work on other things but this is my singular focus. This acts as a filter/reminder for how I prioritise and select tasks from my backlog for my To Do commitment.
My goal for the week that will move me closer to my Product Goal. (Only 1 goal for reasons same as above.) This also determines/filters how I prioritise my work.
Definition of Done
This is where I check to make sure I’ve actually done the work. Depending on the work, that definition changes. My current definition requires that for me to classify a piece of work as “done”, it needs to meet one or many of the following criteria:
aligned to my purpose, values, vision etc.
tested (by someone else)
follow up action added to the backlog of things I could do
distributed (to relevant people)
published (Website, Email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Instagram, Facebook)
peer reviewed for content, spelling and branding
It can look a bit daunting so let me explain the logic. It works left to right.
I have a Backlog of ideas of what I could do.
I check my Product Goal and define the Sprint Goal for the week.
I prioritise my work to make sure I’m doing the work that is most important to hit the product and sprint goals. I move the most important ones to the To Do list.
As I work through my To Do list over the course of the week, the work moves to In Progress and Awaiting Feedback.
I review work against my Definition of Done and then move to Done when complete.
All of these three new columns help me to sharpen up my prioritisation and hold me accountable to truly getting a piece of work done.
“You’re not in the official squad Toby. You don’t get swimmers and uniform.”
This announcement from the head coach was in front of 30 of the best water polo players in the country – some of them my great mates. All of us were striving to be a part of the Sydney Olympics just 2 years away.
We were in the briefing room above the pool at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra for an Australian Men’s water polo training camp with Serbia.
When the coach asked if everyone had their gear, I was the only one who put my hand to say I didn’t.
I was on scholarship, living and training at the AIS at the time. The training block in the lead up had been the hardest I’d ever trained. I’d put everything into it but still hadn’t been selected in the official squad.
It was a completely fair response.
“You can join in the conditioning work and be part of the warm ups. But you won’t be getting game time. You can watch and learn.”
I wanted to crawl into a dark corner and hide.
I sucked it up and showed up to the sessions to do what I could.
At the end of the week, everyone was back in the same briefing room. The group was heading to Sydney for official games.
“Does everyone have their travel and accom details?”
I didn’t, so I stuck up my hand again.
“You’ll have to make your own arrangements if you’re going to come Toby.”
Another stinger in front of the group.
There wasn’t much point staying in Canberra by myself. So I organised a lift and one of the Sydney squad offered me a bed at his parent’s place. We’d be able to get to the sessions and the official games together.
One of the assistant coaches put me on video duty in Sydney so I recorded the training sessions and practice matches.
Then it was time for the first official game.
A minute, a few words and an old t-shirt
We were out at Homebush Aquatic Centre, built specifically for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This was an important Olympic preparation event. The whole squad was in a room beside the pool running through game strategy. I stood up the back listening.
Dry land warm ups were done then it was time to go poolside.
As I left the room, one of the most senior players grabbed me in the hallway. I’d only known him for about 3 months since he’d returned from playing professionally in Europe. He was at the AIS too and had been in the Australian team for 4 years. He was considered one of the best players in the world.
He took me aside and handed me a shirt with the Australian Water Polo logo on it. It was an older version, but very similar, to the ones the squad had been given.
“I want you to have this. I think you deserve it. I know one day you will be a part of this squad.”
Then he walked out to the pool deck. It was all over in less than a minute.
What stands out is the impact this had on me as a person first and foremost, and by default on my water polo career.
It wasn’t something that I sought out, or could control at all. I couldn’t ask for help with it.
At a time when I just kept on showing up, seriously doubting what I was doing, and seriously doubting whether I would ever be good enough, he took a minute, a few words and an old shirt to inspire me forever.
I didn’t make the Sydney Olympic team, but revisiting that gesture kept me going in the next 6 years in the lead up to Athens.