I use a lot of the ideas of David Allen’s Getting Things Done as the basis for my system of capturing, organising and checking off projects and tasks. I like it; it helps make sure that I’m not missing anything.

I do, however, find it somewhat lacking in the area of giving me a day-to-day tactical feel of what I need to get done. Recently I’ve been trying to fill that gap with a simple tool called personal kanban.

What is personal kanban?

Kanban board
Kanban (看板 — literally “billboard”) is a scheduling system developed by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota to direct the manufacture of vehicles to minimise work-in-progress. Personal Kanban (PK) is an adaptation of the ideas behind the original kanban system for the type of knowledge work done by the majority of typical office workers.

PK has two key principles:

  1. Visualise your work
  2. Limit your work in progress

The idea is that if you can see what you’re doing (and not doing yet) you’ll feel more in control, which will give you the confidence to make a conscious decision to focus on just a small number of things at once. That in turn helps to alleviate that nagging feeling of being overloaded, while still letting you get work done.

The implementation involves moving cards or sticky notes between columns on a wall or whiteboard, a concept which is probably easier to understand with an example.

PK and web publishing

A piece of content (blog post, news article, whatever) typically moves through a fairly fixed workflow. It starts life as an idea, then the time comes when it’s ready to write, after which you might outline it, draft it, send it round for review and finally publish it.

On your whiteboard, draw up a column for each of the stages highlighted in bold in the previous paragraph, and assign each article its own sticky note. Then simply move the sticky notes from column to column as you work and experience the satisfaction of watching the system flow and seeing work get done.

It’s a great way to ensure a sensible flow of content without either working yourself to death or running out of things to publish. I’ve used a variation of this system at work for a while now to get news items and blog posts published, and I’m just starting to implement it for this blog too.

It works very well with teams too, as everyone can see the whole team’s workload. I use this to assist in coordinating a small team of PhD students who contribute stuff to our website, using the excellent Trello in place of a physical board.

PK and generic tasks

Once you’ve understood the basic concept, you can basically use it however works for you. You’re encouraged to experiment and adapt the basic idea in whatever way seems to make sense, in a kaizen-like continual improvement fashion.

While it’s useful for sets of similar tasks like blog posts, you can also adapt it to a generic task workflow. I use the following:

Tasks which could potentially be done now
Tasks actually in progress
Tasks which can’t be acted on yet because they’re waiting for input from someone else
Completed tasks

I have this up on a whiteboard in my office, with each task on a post-it note, which allows me to see at a glance everything that I’ve got going on at the moment, and thus make sure that I’m balancing my priorities correctly — in accordance with PK principle 1 (“Visualise your work”). I also have a limit on the number of tasks that can be in “Doing” and “Waiting” at any one time (PK principle 2: “Limit your work in progress”), which helps me to make sure I’m not feeling overloaded.

I try to keep this as simple as possible, but occasionally introduce little codes like coloured stickers to help with visualising the balance when I need to. The whole point is to use the basic ideas to make a system that works for you, rather than anything that’s too prescriptive.

Of course, I can’t carry a whiteboard around with me, so when I’m out of the office for a while I’ll transfer everything to Trello, which I can access via the web and on my phone and iPad, or even just take a photo of the board.

Combining PK with GTD

GTD is a great system for making sure you’re capturing all the work that needs to be done, but I’ve always been dissatisfied with its ideas about prioritising, which are based on:

  1. Context (where you are/what facilities you have access to)
  2. Time available
  3. Energy (how tired/refreshed you are)

Organising tasks by context has always felt like unnecessary detail, while worrying too much about time and energy on a task-by-task basis seems like a recipe for procrastination (though managing time/energy on a more general level can be useful).

I’ve ended up with a two-level system. GTD is for strategic purposes: tracking projects, balancing long-term priorities and making sure nothing slips through the cracks. Kanban is a much more tactical tool, to help see what needs to be done right now, this week, or later on.