An Ode To Hill Charts

Basecamp came out with a new kind of to-do list called a hill chart. This is what they look like.


Things on the left are being figured out, anything on the right means it’s being done. Stuff on the far left is vague and need a lot of figuring out while stuff on far right is almost finished.

Every time you do some work, you manually move the task a little further along the line. There no science to it, it’s not automatic, you just ballpark it and move it to where it feels right.

That’s it.

What I love most about the hill chart is that it has turned my workload into a menu. Some days I wake up and feel like figuring things out, other days I just want to get stuff done. Depending on how I feel I can pick a task with just the right consistency for the day.

Sometimes I need a boost so I’ll pick a task on the far right. Finishing stuff that is almost finished makes it feel like I’m getting loads of work done. Then I use the momentum to slingshot myself into more important tasks higher on the hill.

This is so effective that I’ve just stopped finishing things. Now I only take them 95% of the way and then I leave them at the bottom of the hill. I only close up the last 5% when I’m having a slow day and need a win to get me started.

Hill charts are useful in teams. You can use a hill chart to share a clear understanding of what is going on. It tells you what is almost done, what could really use some figuring out, and where everything is in relation to each other. Usually, the effort-to-reward ratio is the other way around, you end up complicated Gannt charts and messy excel tables when all you want is a snapshot of what’s going on.

With a hill chart, it’s relatively easy to onboard people into an active project. Contributing to things on the right of the hill is straight forward, everything has been figured out and you can jump in and help roll the task down the hill. A few tasks in, once you understand how things work, you can begin helping the team figure out things on the other side of the hill.

This deciding-vs-doing framework is a brilliant way of thinking about work. The next time you find yourself procrastinating on something for longer than you would care to admit, ask yourself if it’s because you are being lazy and stupid, or if its because you don’t really know what you are supposed to be doing anymore. If it’s the later then you’ve prematurely moved a task to the right side of our metaphorical hill, you need to go back and figure things out first.

Personally, I have a constellation of todo apps that I migrate between every few months. It starts out great, then a week or two in I start falling behind. It’s gradual at first but eventually, the app devolves into a painful daily reminder of all the stuff I’m falling behind on. Eventually, it serves as nothing more than a nagging source of periodical guilt. This relationship sours to the point where the only thing left to do is wipe the slate clean, purge all my tasks that are too far gone, and migrate anything left to a new todo app. Then I repeat the process. I’m probably a little more dysfunctional than most here but if this sounds vaguely familiar then you are going to love hill charts.

The key thing to understand is that every day you don’t do a task on the right side of the hill you end up wiser and more informed to make the right decision. Figuring things out quickly is just hasty work, and hasty work is usually shit work. The idea is to let things marinade on the right side of the hill and figure them out properly. The majority of my tasks get taken off the chart before they ever get over the hill. Taking your time to figure out what you are doing is better than doing the wrong work. You only want well-formed ideas to make it over the hill.

As soon as a task is over the hill then you clamp down and get it done.

The imagery of getting something over a hill makes so much more sense than crossing things off a list. Getting something done is pointless if you haven’t figured out why you are doing it or the best way to go about it.

If your work is a checklist of todos then there is an army of increasingly sophisticated bots that are coming for your job. Anyone can cross things off a list, the real work is figuring out what ends up on the list. A hill chart makes sense for the kind of work expected of today’s knowledge workforce. Combine that with the fact that not getting things done can be a win and you see why I’ve become such a fanboy.

As far as I am aware, the only place you can use them is on Basecamp. I am not affiliated with them in any way, I just have immense respect for anything Ryan Singer works on.

You don’t need Basecamp to use a hill chart. It’s a picture of a hill with dots on it. I’ve littered notebooks with them. I have a giant one on a whiteboard in my office at the moment. They are fantastically low-tech. You can’t get too much onto a hill chart, so it limits what’s on your plate in the same way that a kanban board focuses your workflow.

Basecamp. Kudos.

I don’t have a comments section but you can hit me up on twitter if you have questions @joshpitzalis.


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