A civic-minded citizen seeking the singularity

An entry

A Mountain of Work

Series: On Work
Date: 2016-05-22
Status: release
Tags: work process GTD quantified self Trello
This Entry is part of the Series On Work.


"Buried under a mountain of work" is a phrase I've heard uttered numerous times in real life #irl and on television alike. The metaphor communicates "a lot of work" that a person is responsible to.

At times, I've also felt buried under work; too much to do in a fixed amount of time.

As a quantified selfer, I was interested to explore just how much work am I buried under? How might I approach it?

Getting Things Done GTD offers very helpful guidance here. I suppose it may have been my introduction to quantified self. Be observant of your work habits, and iterate to improve those habits - is my general takeaway from GTD.


I've written about my personal workflow before, and I'm continually looking to improve the way I handle and process information.

Email and Trello are key tools in my digital workflow. I've tracked my email counts for a while, and it has helped me reach and Inbox zero weekly #personalassertion. What if I do something similar with Trello? What might this look like?

  • Tracking number of cards
  • Tracking number of Boards (I try to have 1 central/canonical Board, but have realized it can be helpful to create Boards for projects that have several Cards of their own.

What else? Hmm.

Well, if I'm "buried" under work, how might I quantify that?

Counting the number of Cards alone is not sufficient, because Cards can represent varying amounts of effort - from a few minutes, to a project that may span several years, to a lifetime.

In agile practice, teams often "size" cards based on the complexity of a feature. I can size cards by the estimated time I think it may take to complete. It follows that I'll need a way to add that information to a Trello card somehow, so I can ultimately calculate a total amount of estimated effort, which should give me a better indication of just how "buried" I am at a given time.

I can use Trello's API to access my Boards and Cards. I decided to use Card Labels to indicate my time estimate for each Card.

  • Green - 10 minutes
  • Yellow - 1 hour
  • Orange - 4 hours
  • Red - 1 day
  • Blue - Ongoing
  • Purple - Ill-defined

Green - 10 minutes

Having a Card sized 10 minutes is liberating. It's a small enough piece of work that I feel confident I can get it done in 10 minutes - reading an article, making an appointment, returning a message. I found I can do a lot in 10 focused minutes.

I've found having more green Cards leads to greater satisfaction & productivity for me. In this zone, I have a lot of options and little things to keep me busy and and maintain the feeling of productivity, which is satisfying. And, having green Cards is a good indicator that I've defined a task to a great level of detail, where I feel confident and perceive little risk in sizing something 10 minutes.

Something to beware of though, is focusing only on green cards. A few times, I've slipped into churning on small tasks that are not the highest value items I should be working on. Having many green tasks can tempt a person into yak-shaving.

Yellow - 1 hour

Similar to green cards, but for things I think will take an hour. Reading long articles or books, trying a new coffee shop, running an errand, getting a haircut.

Orange - 4 hours

I've found estimating four hours of work is where estimates can shade toward guesstimates.

Frankly, working on Cards estimate 4+ hours becomes more like exploration, and less like execution, which is a slippery slope, because exploratory work typically leads to additional ideas and tasks --- which adds to the "mountain of work".

Red - 1 day +

I've never completed a Red card. Red cards are like "Epics" in agile planning. An estimated day+ of work deserves to be decomposed into smaller, doable pieces of work.

Because of the fuzziness and potential upside on the size of work, Red cards represent the largest uncertainty in terms of estimates. I calculate 1 day of work for 1 day + labels, but the reality is many of these cards could span weeks or months.

Blue - Ongoing

Some things are ongoing. A client relationship, a service account. I have blue cards to remind me to revisit things from time to time ; or just be aware of.

A have blue cards for Clients that I provide monthly support for. I also have blue cards for "AWS" and "Heroku", and "GTD" and "Yoga" (ongoing processes I'm committed to), and "afomi.com", for the Maintenance of this website.

As I think about it, blue cards are basically objects that I have a relationship with, from which tasks emanate.

Purple - Ill-defined

Ill-defined tasks probably shouldn't exist. But I try to be honest with myself and found that having un-doable ideas are okay, as long as I know they are such.

Examples of my purple cards include product ideas, ideas for companies, or a project I've started but am not sure if or where to go with.


Fragments of thoughts, and loose notes go here.

I use Trello from the desktop and I use the Trello Card widget on my Android phone.


Using the Trello API, I can read my Board, the Cards on it, and the Labels on those cards. It was straight-forward to tally the time estimates - 10 minutes, 1 hour, 4 hours, and 1 day tasks, to calculate a lower-boundary for the amount of work I've committed to, at least via Trello.

My initial estimate tally was fifteen 40 hour weeks! 600 hours of work.

"Buried under work" rang true. I work full-time (~40 hours) per week, and my Trello board reflects 600 additional hours of work to do. A weeknight might yield 0-4 hours of work, and an empty weekend day (which rarely happens) can yield 4-12+ hours of work. So, maximally, I can squeeze in another 30-40 hours per week, which would take 20 weeks to complete, given no additional work and the aggregate estimate is not woefully short.