The Art of Getting Things Done with a Kanban Board

Feeling overwhelmed by work and/or personal responsibilities is the new normal. More and more people are experiencing burnout and the relatability of this term has fueled several thoughtful think pieces about its effects on everything from being a millennial (or not) to Black identity to parenting.

But how do you fix burnout? Beyond vague whispers of self-care and the occasional calls to quit your unfulfilling job, practical solutions seem scarce. Before you uproot your life and bank account, try personal kanban.

The Beginnings of Kanban

Kanban (Japanese translations include “signboard,” “billboard,” or “visual signal”) was developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer for Toyota, in the 1940s. This visual workflow process effectively improved their manufacturing efficiency and was a key component in the company becoming a major international competitor.

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In 2004, David J. Anderson started applying this strategy to technology industries, but it soon became popular in fields like marketing and recruitment. Modern kanban was so successful that people started using it in their personal lives.

Personal Kanban

Paring down the clutter of a team-oriented board, James Benson, a former colleague of Anderson’s, and Tonianne DeMaria Barry created Personal Kanban: Mapping Work — Navigating Life. In this book, they outline how to use a kanban board to get through the backlog of your life’s tasks, no matter their size.

Start by writing down everything you need to do. Everything. You only cheat yourself by leaving anything out.

Businesses often use a more complicated kanban structure, but Benson and Barry use three simple columns: to-do, doing, and done. You start by getting yourself a whiteboard and writing down everything you need to do. Everything. You only cheat yourself by leaving anything out.

Stalwarts prefer sticky notes or index cards so you can physically move tasks over, but a dry erase marker works just as well. You can color code to mix business and personal tasks or denote urgency. Dates are personally recommended for time-sensitive items so you can be mindful of deadlines and effectively prioritize.

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Now, here’s the important part: restrict how many tasks go in the “doing” column. Benson recommends three, but there should definitely never be more than five. You should also set a timeframe for tasks in this column and stick to it. This lowers stress by minimizing what you’re focused on while keeping you from piling too much into your schedule.

A big mistake people make with any productivity process is making tasks too big.

“Personal kanban is an information radiator for your work. With it, you understand the impacts and context of your work in real-time. This is where linear to-do lists fall short,” write Benson and Barry. “Static and devoid of context, they remind us to do a certain number of tasks, but don’t show us valuable real-time information necessary for effective decision making.”

A big mistake people make with any productivity process is making tasks too big. If a sticky note gets stuck in the “doing” column, you can learn to break it (and future similar tasks) down into smaller action items. A good rule of thumb is to always have at least one quick task in progress to keep the momentum going.

Finally, you have the “done” column. We all know how good it feels to cross something off a list, but this column does more than that. Think of it as an archive of your accomplishments that you can refresh weekly or monthly. Color coding pays off here and can help you see which tasks are easier than others. You can also see where your time goes and, if it’s undesirably unbalanced, start making moves to alter that.

Virtual Kanban

If you want to take your kanban board with you, several workflow apps have a kanban feature. These apps tend to focus on team-based kanban, but Trello translates well into personal use.

With Trello, you can use one board or create multiple boards for different areas of your life: work, personal, the Next Great American Novel, et. al. The app is the best visual approximation of physical kanban boards that allows you to have more than three columns. The free version should satisfy all of your kanban needs, but you can upgrade to integrate your calendar and other popular apps.

Whether you want your kanban in your pocket or on your wall, it’s time to take control of your schedule and get things done. It’s not as exciting as quitting everything and moving to the Cayman Islands, but it’s definitely more affordable.


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