Stay Focused With Personal Kanban

Imagine a management system for your life, something that is easy to learnhow to use, keeps everything organized, prevents you from multitasking,and helps you reach your goals. That’s personal kanban. Although kanban is gaining in popularity for project management in offi environments, people are also borrowing core ideas from it to organize aspects of their personal lives, from planning weddings to managing family chores. So what is personal kanban, how does it work, and what can it do for you?


Simply put: With kanban, you write information on cards and then arrange the cards on a board. It’s a style of working that began in Japanese automobile manufacturing plants and is popular today among software developers and people who work in professional services because it creates a visual representation for something that otherwise is not visual at all. Kanban software makes it easy for you to move virtual cards around on the board, and even deposit them neatly into columns. Traditionally, the columns are labeled, from left to right, “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.” Some tools let you customize the purpose or label of the columns. Kanban tools are generally collaborative, so many people can access the same board and cards. A card typically has an assignee who is charged with completing the task on it. Everyone on the team can see all the cards or tasks, where they are in their life cycle, and who is responsible for them. Personal kanban adopts a number of these core ideas, but leaves out or makes optional many of the rules that are specifi to professional productivity and offi work. Depending on what you put onto your kanban board, you might share it with family members, friends, caretakers, tutors, or a wedding planner. Two kanban apps on the market include SwiftKanban and Trello (though the latter is not technically a kanban board but rather was inspired by them).


At the heart of personal kanban is a visualization of whatever it is you need to manage and how it will get done. “There are diffrent forms of visual management out there, and one advantage that kanban gives is it limits work in progress,” says Janice Linden Reed, president of LeanKanban University, an organization that teaches kanban to professionals and promotes its use. “It has a way of addressing issues around multitasking and helps people focus so they’re not overwhelmed. The thing that makes it kanban as opposed to just a task board is limiting work in progress and flw.” Linden-Reed describes kanban as a pull system rather than a push system. “You only take on as much work as you can handle at any given time,” she says. “If you only want to have three tasks at any given time, you have your three, and when you fiish one, you can pull the next one. By having a limited pull system, it can help you stay focused and organized.” In other words, if you use the traditional setup, you would never have more than three cards in your “Doing” column. According to Trello CEO Michael Pryor, the purpose of his company’s tool is to “distill [kanban] down to something very simple, which is just a list of lists, in the same way that a spreadsheet is a group of numbers, and if you change one cell then another cell changes. It’s just a way to visually organize whatever it is you’re thinking about.” In that sense, Trello is ideal for managing your personal life because it doesn’t pigeonhole you into using the structure and lingo you’ll fid in kanban apps made for business project management.


A major reason kanban is effctive at helping people stay organized is that it forces them to think through whatever it is they want to manage in order to map it to a kanban board. Let’s take the example of using personal kanban to organize family chores. The columns might be “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done,” but they could also be more elaborate—say, “To Do Daily,” “To Do Weekly,” and “To Do Monthly.” Perhaps on the fist Sunday of the month your kid is responsible for pulling one chore from the monthly column. Maybe every Saturday your partner is responsible for pulling two weekly chores. Whatever you decide, writing down the process by mapping it to the kanban board forces you to think through how the work happens naturally, as well as how you want it to be managed. Linden-Reed used personal kanban to manage chores when her daughter was just six years old. This gave her daughter agency and also taught her how to tackle just one task at a time. Tonianne DeMaria Barry, author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, says that personal kanban creates a narrative of work. Personal kanban transforms our work into a story, a system. It takes even the most tedious tasks and turns them into a game that’s appropriate and ompelling for all ages,” she told me by email. When someone plots out a to-do ist on a board, “work ceases to be a collection of unrelated tasks and instead becomes a series of events and options that impact each other and flw from one to the next.”


I asked Linden-Reed and Pryor about the kinds of people who are best suited for kanban. They both said that visually oriented people do well with kanban, then added a few more thoughts. “Anyone who is struggling with issues of being overburdened or having quality issues in their work, people who miss deadlines, people who have problems meeting expectations” can all benefi from kanban, according to Linden-Reed. DeMaria Barry noted that kids with Asperger syndrome often do well when they use personal kanban. “The kinesthetic feedback and serotonin boost they get from pulling into and seeing their work in the ‘Done’ column compels them to complete rather than intensely focus on or ruminate over just a single task,” she said. She also said that children with ADHD often succeed with it because “implementing a work-in-progress limit compels them to focus on the tasks at hand rather than get distracted by starting many but completing none.” Pryor said that nearly everyone is well suited for Kanban, because it’s made to match how we already think. “If you look at the way people try to organize their lives—if you look at a computer with Post-it notes all over it, a refrigerator with notes on the door, people making index cards and laying them out in front of them—we have a very spatial memory,” Pryor said. “The visual organization of ideas can be very helpful to people.”
By Jill Duffy