by Leon Rosenshein


As important as what we do as developers is, what we don't do is equally important. There are a fixed amount of seconds in the day, and you can't spend them on two things at once. The corollary of that is that you need to guard your time.

I've talked about the fact that a backlog should be an ordered list of work, and how to use Priority and Severity to help you order it, so no need to rehash that. Today's topic is the cost of the size of that backlog.

Some of the cost is very measurable. Periodically you go through your backlog and make sure that things are in the right order. Let's say it takes 30 seconds per item for the small, well defined ones and 5 minutes for each vague idea. You quickly get through the front of the backlog, then spend 2 hours shuffling the last 30 entries. If those items weren't on the backlog you'd save 2 hours every time.

Other costs aren't so measurable, but very real. Having hundreds of items in your backlog, many of which everyone knows will never get done, is depressing. Talking about them repeatedly even more so.

So what can you do about it? One simple thing is to say No and keep them off the backlog. Figure out what the scope/ROI limit of your backlog is and if a new item doesn't meet it then don't add it. If the idea becomes more important later it will come up again. At that time you can revisit if it meets the threshold. If it does you add it, if not, it will come up again. Until then you can ignore it. And if it doesn't come up again then you haven't wasted time and have kept the cognitive load low.

Of course, TANSTASFL, and  this does impose some rigor on your process. You need to make sure you understand things when they come up. You need to understand their cost and their ROI. You need to understand the timescales of both. You need to think about how you would approach the work and if there are steps along the way that are above the threshold even if the end goal isn't.