by Tracy Mazur

Working from home can be an art form; being forced to practice that art form when you are comfortable with a well-structured office workday is jarring at the best of times. There just may be two kinds of people in the world: those who flourish in a work-from-home environment and those who do not.

If you fall into the second category, you can tame the ever-growing monster that was your to-do list using a simple project management technique courtesy of the software industry.

Technology industries use a work methodology called Agile. Tech companies love it. Besides sounding cool and literally having a manifesto, it can be more effective for software development than other approaches.

It flips around the typical work process of doing all your planning then starting work and not showing anyone the results until the end. Instead, Agile promotes the idea of short bursts of work, where you do things in chunks, evaluate and test it as you go, then pick new work out of the pile once that component is completed. This approach lets developers gather and incorporate feedback as they work without having to start everything over.

What do cookies for the holidays have to do with your to-do list? Keep reading!

A primary tool in Agile is the backlog. Everything that needs to be completed in a project is assigned to the backlog at the beginning and anything new that comes later is added there, too. It remains a big pile of work that we know needs done, but we don’t sweat it. We instead set up short bursts of work, called sprints, and then grab items from the backlog with the highest priority. If we finish early, we browse the backlog for items that could be completed ahead of time and pick out something else we can finish during that specific sprint.  

So how does a fancy software work approach help you?

This method eliminates part of the stress of a to-do list:  feeling that everything needs to be completed NOW. Instead, throw your to-do list away and make it a backlog. Once a week, sit down and look at your backlog, and pull out everything you must complete on a timeline for that week. Everything else? Ignore it. If it isn’t due this week, it’s not important. Retrain your brain to accept that incomplete work is not “bad” and does not make you a slacker. You get to consider yourself a slacker when incomplete work exists after its due date, but not before. When you find yourself finishing something ahead of schedule, browse your backlog and pull out something you can work on ahead of time, giving you a head-start for the next week.

Now you might be saying that you have items that will take more than maybe a week to finish, so now what? If you have a task that is that large, break it down to smaller bites you can handle in a shorter period. Once you do that, you should see items that can still be done in that weekly timeframe.

This article is an example of that application. I put writing it in my backlog because it needed to be done but didn’t have a defined due date. When I hit a break in regular items I had due, I perused my backlog, grabbed this and started writing.

There are even fancy, free tools online you can use just for yourself to manage a one-person backlog. I like Trello for this--it’s easy to use, has a mobile app and Trello’s free account is more than sufficient for one person to keep their life on track. If Trello isn’t to your liking, even a Google sheet will get the job done. But make sure you move your completed tasks to a completed list somewhere.:it can give you a morale boost to look at everything you’ve completed.

So if you find yourself buried under a pile of tasks that keep building up—because work from home can be hard!—throw them all in a backlog, pick out the ones that are the most important for the week and work away. If you finish early, you can always pick through the backlog some more. And if not? It’s okay, you finished what you needed to finish and even work-from-home employees need to take a break for a job well done.

And yes, you can even use this technique outside of work. Thanksgiving dinner at my house this year was cooked courtesy of backlog management and all the Christmas baking is already at the bottom of my backlog.