What my hangovers can teach you about Agile

As a survival trait for living and working in the cites1 of London, I have a set of rituals to avoid hangovers. If you are not a single person living in a city like London, you might not understand how vital this is. Most networking, particularly in the financial services industry, is done in the presence of alcohol.

So preventing the inevitable hangover is quite important to the other part of the job – the actual working bit. I'll let you into a secret and tell you my nightly ritual:

  • Floss and clean teeth (OK I'll admit, I barely floss when I'm sober let alone drunk)
  • Cleanse/tone/moisturise (I'm a rubbish girl, this is a very recent ritual for me)
  • Apply cuticle cream
  • Do my calf stretches
  • Drink 500ml of water
  • Eat something, even if it's a dirty McDonalds (quarter pounder with cheese, no pickle no onion).

Prior to all this is the additional requirement “don't drink more than a bottle and a half of wine”. Everyone has their limits, lots of practice means I know full well what mine are.

This actually works for me. I won't claim to feel capable of being quite as high performance as the code I'm working on, but I won't feel like killing myself, and I will make it to the gym before work and do a whole day of productive coding.

If you were trying to solve a similar problem (“no debilitating hangovers”), you might try and follow my rituals. But you might decide that drinking the water was going to mean you had to go to the loo in the night, and strike that off the list. You might be on a diet, so you don't have the food, thinking the alcohol is calories enough for the night. And you'll follow everything else religiously, but still have hangovers.

Or you might ignore the alcohol intake guidelines, thinking the stuff that you do at home to repair the damage should be enough, and drink 12 pints of margaritas. Or you might be the sort of person who can only get away with drinking a couple of glasses of wine / pints of beer, and follow my rules perfectly, but still feel like dying the next day.

And when this happens you'll look at my rituals and think "What a waste of time! This person has no idea what they're talking about", and throw the whole lot out of the window and go back to doing waterfall development (oh wait, I'm getting ahead of myself).

Or you'll do the bits that actually prevent the hangover (the water, the food, restricting alchol) and go around telling the interweb I have no idea what I'm talking about because the other stuff is a waste of time.

The key point here is that this works for me. It's foolish of me to tell the world this will fix all their problems, and pointless for others to copy it without realising why they're doing it.

For example – why on Earth is “apply cuticle cream” on there? It doesn't actually fix the problem of dehydration due to excessive alcohol intake. But it's important to me, because I need to make the time to do the whole ritual to get my brain into the right place for sleep. It's also dead important for my subconscious – alcohol is basically abuse of my body, the beauty part of the regime is to remind my brain that its important to take care of myself too. It doesn't fix the immediate issue of hangover the next day, but it aims to prevent future problems of drowning my sorrows in alcohol. It's an important part of my Long Term Plan – these rituals need to be worked into the daily steps to lead eventually to World Domination.

And calf stretches? Well, I'm injured, have had shin splints for a million years. If I want to run the Royal Parks Half Marathon in October, I need to stretch 3 times a day. Doesn't matter if I'm drunk or not, it's not an excuse. The half marathon is a very important longer-term goal. But you don't need to do it. Well, unless you have the same issue.

The important thing is that all of these rituals are tied to a goal.  But they're not the same goal:

  • Floss and clean teeth. GOAL – don't get told off by the dentist. Don't require fillings - costs money and not great for overall health.
  • Cleanse/tone/moisturise. GOAL – prepare subconscious for sleep and remind brain that body needs love.
  • Apply cuticle cream. GOAL – prepare subconscious for sleep and remind brain that body needs love.
  • Do my calf stretches GOAL – Royal Parks Half Marathon
  • Drink 500ml of water GOAL – prevent Debilitating Hangover
  • Eat something, even if it's a dirty McDonalds GOAL – prevent Debilitating Hangover.

The thing here is that if I didn't do the stuff to aim towards longer-term goals, I might be more inclined to drink more out of boredom or despair, I might have worse hangovers in the future.

To paraphrase Eddie Izzard “...and that's like our Lord Jesus the agile process...”. Agile, in whatever form you take it (actually all processes) is supposed to enable you as a team / organisation to work better. Whichever cult you follow, there are practices designed to work for you to make you more productive. But you do have to continuously improve, gather and act on feedback, and, most importantly, to know why you're doing what you're doing. Otherwise it's just cargo cultism – you look like you're doing everything, but the results just don't arrive. I've worked for a scrum-but company – they had the cards, short iterations, invested customers.  But no single product owner, they never acted on the results of retrospectives, and most importantly the team didn't own the work they'd signed up to. They also had a project manager who told people what they were doing. This doesn't answer the question. This is drinking 12 pints of scrumpy and doing "cleanse/tone/moisturise", and wondering why it still hurts.

You have to understand the problem. You can't blindly follow the stuff that you fancy, the stuff you find easy. If it's easy, it's probably something you were already doing.  If you picked up agile to make a change to deliver more/better/faster, there is going to be some pain. Because if what you were doing before was working, you'd carry on doing it. So improvement is going to be hard. At first.

The key is to stick with it, to check progress, to continuously improve. To find what works for you.

1 Random fact of the day: London is actually two cities, the City of London and the City of Westminster.  But you probably already knew that.


  • Trisha Gee

    Trisha is a software engineer, Java Champion and author. Trisha has developed Java applications for finance, manufacturing and non-profit organisations, and she's a lead developer advocate at Gradle.

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