Personal Kanban : a new way to approach life and work

personal kanban

While listening to one of my favorite podcasts recently, I’ve been introduced to a productivity system that is radically different from the traditional to-do list; the Personal Kanban. I was immediately intrigued by this system and decided to try it for myself. I must say that it has dramatically changed the way I approach work and life and I just had to share it with you guys.

What is a kanban

The Kanban methodology is very popular in product and software development after it has been popularized by the automobile empire Toyota. A kanban is a type of billboard with different columns. Some people use a whiteboard, others use a digital software, others use their office walls in lieu of a kanban, any surface with columns will do. You can even divide a page in your Bullet journal and use it as your kanban.

The traditional Personal Kanban uses 3 columns : to-do, doing and done. The principle is simple. When you get a task, or project to accomplish, write it on a post-it note and stick it in the To-Do column. When you start working on it, pull the sticky note into the doing column, and when it’s done, put it in done. VoilĂ .

A visual system

Sticking all your to-dos on the same board allows you to visually represent the whole of your tasks. It can be overwhelming to see everything that you’ve got to do at the same place, but it will give you clarity and control over what you’ll be working on.

Limit your work in progress

One of the 2 rules of Personal Kanban is to limit your work-in-progress, or WIP. The other is to structure your work visually. You decide upfront how many tasks you can work on at any given time, for example, I like to work on a maximum of 4 projects each week. To some, it will be 2 or 3. You’re the only one who knows how much work you can take on. So limit your Doing column to your maximum WIP. This should ease your mind and make you feel in control of your task load.

The Done column will help you visualize how much work you’ve accomplished and give you a sense of closure over your projects. Just the act of pulling your tasks from Doing to Done will feel like a reward.

Analog vs. Digital

I wrote a blog post a while ago about my decision to use an analog system for my personal productivity, the Bullet Journal. I still believe that writing stuff down on a piece of paper allows for better retention of information and create pathways in the brain that digital tools do not.

Although I’m a big fan of analog, there’s a great tool that I like to use for my Personal Kanban, a digital, cross-platform app called Trello. This tool is designed for this system and allows you to create cards and columns to store your tasks, your projects and much, much more. Choose what works for you, but I highly recommend that you take a look at Trello if you’re looking for a free online tool to try Personal Kanban.

Personal Kanban meets Getting Things Done

The Kanban is great because it’s highly customizable. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a big fan of the Getting Things Done methodology. I’ve been intrigued to merge the two systems, so I’ve created a few additional columns to my Kanban board; Waiting For, and Someday/Maybe.

In his excellent book on the topic, Jim Benson, author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, speaks of his column which is very similar to my Waiting for. He calls it the Pen. The Pen is a column in which you put any task that is waiting for something or someone before it can be moved forward to completion. For example, I am waiting for a quote to print a document, before I can choose which company I’ll choose to work with. Printing Document X stands in the Waiting For column.

The Someday/Maybe list stores all the tasks and projects that I might like to work on at some point, but not quite in the near future. Things like travel to Hawaii or learn the piano can go on that list. On mine, you can find stuff like change the furnishings in the kitchen and create a life-planning course for my readers.

kanban board
My personal kanban board in Trello

The Backlog

I also added a column to my board called the Backburner. These are projects that I’d like to work on soon, but not quite yet. What’s on my To-Do column is stuff that I am ready to work on as soon as my Doing stuff is completed, so anything further down the road will go on my Backburner list.

Review your Done column

One of the awesome principles of Personal Kanban is continuous improvement, or Kaizen. When your project is done, you should reflect on what went well, what didn’t go as expected, and what could be improved. This allows to get to a point of deep realization and create major improvements in your work and life. Being a strong GTD advocate, I’ve decided to include Kaizen reflection in my weekly review process. I will pull everything on my done column and reflect on ways that I can improve my workflow from now on.

Do the right thing, at the right moment

Some productivity gurus enforce the idea that you must get as much stuff done as humanely possible. But productivity shouldn’t be about the output of work you can get done. It should be about getting the right stuff done, at the right time. That’s what Personal Kanban allows you to do.

Instead of pushing to check all the boxes off your to-do list, you pull tasks that are ready, important to achieve in your Doing column at the right time. You get to choose the what and when. And when you reflect on your work, you prioritize what’s truly important and get rid of the stuff that don’t propel you forward. You develop efficiency and effectiveness, instead of basic productivity.

So that’s Personal Kanban in a nutshell, let me know if you use this system already, or if you’re willing to give it a try!

Next week on the blog, I’ll have a very special guest over on the blog, the podcaster who introduced me to Personal Kanban, Mr. Zachary Sexton, host of Able Business Radio. He’s coming to talk a bit more about Personal Kanban and what it does for his personal productivity. Stay tuned!


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  1. Thank you so much for this post! Am dedicating a section of my Bujo to the practice of Kanban, as I feel it will help me stay organized. I’m a recent follower of your blog and I am so impressed! You provide many insightful tips and reviews. Keep up the great work!