Writing books using agile principles

LiLi Kathleen smiles broadly directly into the camera. Selfie.

I’m using agile principles for writing. I decided to inspect what I’m doing: Looking at what I apply in my writing practice, as well as how and why. Because I’m writing 3 books and I want to get better at it.

I approached this in different ways. I cover a few at the end of this article, in case you want to try them out with something that’s important to you.

Improving my writing practice: What I learned

The agile principles most important to me for writing are these:

  1. Give myself what I need
  2. Reflect & review for continuous improvement
  3. Publish often
  4. Prioritise. Minimise. Do less.
  5. Be sustainable

For those familiar with the principles behind the manifesto for agile software development, you’ll notice that I’ve changed the wording. I’ve centred what’s important to me and removed software references. Original wording appears in the breakdown for using each of the agile principles for writing below.

1. Give myself what I need

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Nº 5: Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

Giving myself what I need is crucial to achieving what I want to do. By definition, if I need it, then it’s of the utmost importance.

I can be more specific. Giving myself what I need means:

  • Be compassionate
  • Create the environment I need to thrive
  • Set myself up for success
  • Get support
  • Do what I need to motivate myself

These are the same things I do for myself and with my teams in my day job, in my capacity as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach.

It’s about staying motivated, continuing when I’m not motivated and motivating myself again. And, sometimes, it’s about stopping.

Staying motivated

When I’m motivated, writing feels easy and delightful. It’s more fun to do things I’m motivated to do. I like that. There are a lot of difficult things I need to do, if/when I can make things easy and pleasant, why not?

When I’m motivated, writing flows.

By embracing flow and not being in constant struggle, writing becomes more sustainable. But it’s not only about doing what’s easy and fun.

Continuing when I’m not motivated

If I were never motivated to write, I wouldn’t do it. But writing is fundamentally important to me. So, regardless of my feelings in a specific moment it remains important for me to continue to move forward with it.

That’s what disciplined writing it about.

Like physical activity, it’s something I’ve learned to appreciate and enjoy over time. It’s like that feeling when my muscles ache from working out, and I feel a sense of achievement. Because I know I’m doing something great for myself. It’s exactly that.

Setting myself up for success makes a difference here. Using apps like Forest and Timebox Timer help me to stay focused and keep going.

And, like any training, the more I do it, the better I get at it. Because motivation isn’t a precursor to writing. I don’t need to wait until inspiration strikes. I can do it anyway.

Motivating myself

Doing what I need to motivate myself is what this is all about. Sometimes that means continuing when I’m not motivated. Doing the thing is one way to motivate myself to do the thing. Because starting is often the most difficult part.

Once I start, sometimes I slip into flow. You know, that state where what you’re doing feels like the right thing and you just want to keep going. It’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s immersive and hours pass by without notice. Sometimes there’s a hyper-awareness and ability to see what I’m doing as I do it: Mindfulness.

Creating the environment I need to thrive is a big part of motivating myself. Some examples: going to Bare Lit festival (and other Artist Dates), drawing inspiration from being in nature with Wild in the City,

Sometimes it’s about taking a break, resting or relaxing. Or doing something else instead.

Getting support from other writers and artists makes a huge difference too.

Stopping

Reminding myself that a balanced life is both action and inaction has changed my life. I make to do lists often, but now I make to don’t lists too, listing ways to do nothing.

https://twitter.com/gobrightly/status/1092018249330499584

Because sometimes I struggle with overworking. This isn’t a humblebrag, and it’s not something I’m proud of. It’s a seriously unhealthy habit that negatively impacts me & those around me when I give in to it.

I now have a collection of bookmarks called ‘Inactivities’ to guard against overworking. It contains links to tv shows I want to watch, fun blog posts I want to read and reminders to take a break. Currently, it’s mostly nature documentaries about alligators and afrofuturist writings.

Because, above all, it’s about being compassionate to myself. Which means recognising when I just need a break, and not pushing myself all the time.

2. Reflect & review for continuous improvement

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Nº 12: Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

Without routinely reflecting, I get stuck with ineffective practices. Because the more I write, the more I understand about how to write – if I pay attention. When I take the time, then I learn and improve what I’m doing.

Just as facilitating retrospectives fortnightly at work helps us continuously improve, so does having time dedicated for the same in my personal calendar. Followed by planning, not too much & just in time.

Reflecting and reviewing is something I do more generally in my life, focusing in on writing as one of my monthly goals.

Monthly review

At the end of each month, I reflect on the previous month and set myself an objective for the next month. I journal about how my month has been, how things went with my goals, how I feel it. I decide what I want to improve and get clear on how I’ll know I’ve achieved that.

Weekly review

Usually on Fridays, I set myself goals for the week ahead. I break them down, sometimes into what I want to do each day. I think about what’s important to me, and how I can get closer to what I want in a small way. I use the GROW method to understand and work towards a way forward.

I reflect on the previous week, or the week so far. I look at how I’m progressing with my goals for the current week, and use that to help me work out what scope of goals to set next time.

Journalling

I journal every day. I could call them Morning Pages, but I’ve evolved my practice a lot, so they’re a bit different. Journalling for me usually involves:

  • Getting clear: What’s my purpose? What’s priority? What’s important?
  • Making a plan, either the night before or at the start of the day. I write down one big thing I want to get done, break that down into 3 smaller things and jot down any other tasks I’d like to get done that day.
  • Writing notes throughout the day as important or useful things happen. I love making notes on TED Talks, for example.
  • Rambling and ranting about whatever’s on my mind. Which helps stop me from ruminating in my head or ranting to the people around me.
  • Keeping track of how I’m getting on with my goals. Part of goal setting for me is how I’ll measure my progress. For writing, that might be word count or time spent writing. For healthier eating, it might be portions of fruit or veg. Keeping track each day helps me do my weekly review.

I have my goals for the month in the same place as I have my journal. It helps me a lot with remembering what I’m aiming for and why.

https://twitter.com/gobrightly/status/1124442702463082496

3. Publish often

Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a  preference to the shorter timescale.

Nº 3: Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

Goals, goals, goals

I set goals because without goals, when motivation stalls it’s tempting to give up. Goals keep me focused, so I don’t distract myself with other things.

It’s the same reason we set goals when making software. We get clear on what’s important and why.

Finish things

Publishing is my definition of done. That’s how I know when I have finished an article. Is it good enough to publish? If yes, then it’s time to share it and see if it helps other people. I tend towards starting lots of things; publishing helps me to finish things too.

Make hard things habitual

Publishing frequently is how I’m improving my writing practice.

  • In October, I published weekly. It was a lot of work and I was (and, am) so proud of myself for doing it.
  • In November, I started writing my novel for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month).
  • In December, I did a lot of reflecting and working out what I wanted. I decided I wanted to write more, and so I would publish monthly. And I did it!
  • January and February I published monthly, but it was a huge undertaking. (You can see that reflected in the dates I published: 24/01 and 28/02. I nearly didn’t make it.)

I decided in March not to publish monthly. Instead, I’d publish weekly. Publishing monthly was hard, so I decided to make it more routine, more habitual. This forced me to focus on the Min Specs of my articles, i.e. what’s the minimum required for success. It’s the same principle as working towards Minimum Viable Products and Minimal Marketable Products when making software. So that we can deliver value early and often, get feedback and adapt.

Publishing weekly in March was a huge achievement for me, because I did it whilst travelling to Seattle, New York and Berlin. I did it whilst leading workshops for 300 people, taking a holiday and working from different cites. I did it whilst jetlagged and fatigued, whilst experiencing insomnia and sleep deprivation. It was only possible because I made it a goal, and because of Min Specs, which takes me to:

4. Prioritise. Minimise. Do less.

Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.

Nº 10: Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

I’m surprised this didn’t appear higher in my list because it’s my favourite one. It’s the agile principle that helped me bond with my former manager when he was interviewing me. It’s something I reiterate in my work life often.

Prioritising is crucial. It makes everything else possible, by making things achievable. Because “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” This principle helps me to conserve energy by not doing less important things.

For me, simplicity is about reducing or eliminating wasted time, energy and money. I’m keen to explore and learn more about lean thinking, which is centred around eliminating 8 different kinds of waste.

For articles, doing less means I use Min Specs to help me stop writing essays. (Or, to help me write shorter essays…). And I use 15% Solutions all the time to help me work out what small step to take first with my writing. It’s invaluable.

5. Be sustainable

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Nº 8: Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

Mostly this builds on things I’ve already covered, so it feels a bit redundant. But sustainability is so important that it’s worth re-iterating separately. It’s something I’m constantly referencing in my professional and personal interactions.

For me, that means having time off writing each week. That’s how I give myself what I need (#1) and create the conditions to publish often (#3). Reflecting (#2) is how I pivot towards sustainability, and prioritising (#4) is how I ensure I’m aiming directly for it.

I wrote about the importance of sustainability for writing last year.

About this article

I learned how important it is to focus on agile principles when developing software as I deepened my understanding. It’s impossible to embrace agile ways of working without them. I wrote about this in What I wish I knew when I was new to agile.

Because I’m a geek, I started using agile practices in my personal life as I learned about them in my professional life.

If you’d like to do the same, you can do what I did to explore agile principles for writing:

  • Write out each principle, then, taking each in turn, ask yourself:
  • Is this exemplified by or well-represented in my work? List what you’re currently doing / not doing that observes, follows, respects, upholds the principle.
  • Is this missing from or under-represented in my work? List what you’re currently doing / not doing that disregards, ignores, overlooks, neglects the principle.
  • Ask yourself: What could I change to adhere more closely to this principle? Could that improve what I’m doing? What might it look like to try? What’s the first step to experimenting with that? How will I know if this makes things better?
  • Ask yourself: What’s the reason behind this principle? Is there a tweak I can make to better express and attain that – something that’s in the spirit of the principle?

Working through agile principles for my writing

You can check out what I came up with for how I’m writing using agile principles for my non-fiction books.

Do you use agile principles for writing? Or for something else outside of software development? Get in touch with me on Twitter, I’d love to hear from you.

I’m fascinated by principles at present, especially noticing behaviours absent of sufficient care and attention to principles. Looking forward to exploring Liberating Structures principles and Emergent Strategy principles in different ways too.

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