How to Boost your Personal Kanban with “Getting Things Done” and Automation
As many people out there I’m applying Personal Kanban to organize and deliver tasks that occur as part of my daily life. This has always worked quite well for me. However, the real benefits emerged after I enhanced my Personal Kanban approach with the ideas of “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and the superpowers of web automation services.
If you like to increase your ‘personal throughput’ towards your goal without feeling stressed out by the work that urges for your attention and if you don’t mind to structure your work and use digital helpers you might find this post worth reading.
With this blog post, I don’t aim to give you detailed instructions on how to change your Personal Kanban. Moreover, it’s meant to be a little inspiration on how to give your Personal Kanban approaches a bit of tailwind, helping you to be more focused and less stressed out.
Why my Personal Kanban needed an upgrade
Whenever you start with your first Personal Kanban board you are most probably going to have the columns ‘To Do’, ‘In Progress’, and ‘Done’. While this is a good starting point, it soon is going to lead to a situation where very different kinds of tasks are lined up in the same column. For instance, one task might be ‘Call Mr. Meyer to discuss the appointment’, the other one ‘Prepare the workshop with the management group’ and ‘Buy groceries for the dinner with friends’.
Although this looks simple and sound, in practice this is prone to create exhausting context switches between these different kinds of tasks which limits the possible completion rate. You might have experienced that in the past as well. It feels hard to finish one task and proceed fluently with the next one. This often results in situations in which you start to rearrange your ‘To Dos’ to find one suitable task that fits your current mood and situation. This costs time and energy and disrupts the valuable flow state. I experienced all that. At first, I couldn’t quite get what was blocking me. Then I realized that the context switches that come along with these different kinds of tasks in the same ‘Backlog’ make using this oversimplified version of my Personal Kanban board impractical.
Having the Kanban practices in mind I knew that making my work visible was going to help me to achieve my objectives. So, I didn’t give up on Personal Kanban easily. Some time ago I re-read “Getting Things Done”, the all-time classic by David Allen, and experimented with combining the core ideas of “Getting Things Done” and Personal Kanban. The result improved my quality of life drastically. With Getting Things Done (GTD) and Personal Kanban the time in which I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work that flooded me is over.
Core ideas of “Getting Things Done”
I’m not going to explain the “Getting Things Done” ideas to the full extent. If you’re interested feel free to read the latest version of the book. However, I’m going to pick some “Getting Things Done” core concepts and explain them briefly to connect them to Personal Kanban in this post.
David Allen claims that to not be haunted by your work you have to achieve a “mind like water”. This means that you should not think of all your tasks all the time. To achieve a “mind like water” state it’s mandatory to have every work item explicitly written down — to “relieve” your brain from reminding you constantly about these items. This is both true for work that is created by someone else for you and work created by yourself. Whenever you ‘find’ any kind of work it immediately should enter an inbox from which it will be sorted out later.
Besides having one single entry point for all your incoming work, David Allen suggests furthermore to cluster your incoming tasks by their similarity of execution. Taking my example from above this would mean having a cluster e.g. for phone calls, writing emails, and buying groceries. In practice, this makes it easier to process all the tasks on one cluster whenever you are in the mood and situation to do. Thus you avoid context switches and improve your flow of work since you don’t have to search for the next action to take.
David Allen reminds us of the two minutes rule, which says that you should close every single task directly in the ‘input queue’ if the time to complete this particular task is going to take you less than two minutes. Every task that presumably takes longer shall be moved into one of the named ‘buckets’ or clusters.
Tasks that landed in your ‘input queue’ and currently are not in your focus are moved to the ‘someday maybe’ ‘bucket’. Allen distinguishes between projects (e.g. having a huge birthday party) and tasks (e.g. buy soft drinks). Projects need further “breakdown” to be delivered. On your board, you can use the color indication to indicate work items that need further breakdown or clarification. If you aim for a flow state with your Personal Kanban there is one thing you need to do for every task on the board: You need to define the next tangible step to get this work item done. If you don’t know this next step immediately move the tasks to a ‘bucket’ that reminds you to do the breakdown when you have the time and the vibe to do so.
To stay up to date with your work David Allen suggests holding a weekly review with yourself to get “clear, current and creative”. This means to free your mind from all the tasks that may be in your head at this review-moment by writing them down, check the validity of the tasks that you’ve already written down, and delete work items that are not necessary anymore.
Combine Getting Things Done and Personal Kanban
You might already see where this is heading. In many business applications, we already have similar lanes like the ones David Allen suggests (input queue, breakdown, waiting for, done). So let’s simply use them for our Personal Kanban as well. Take my current Personal Kanban board as an example (knowing that it changes over time since I am adjusting the board to changing needs).
How it works
As I said before, every idea and every task that comes to my mind or that reaches me by someone else lands in my input queue. At least once a day I sort this queue. Tasks that I can do in less than two minutes I complete immediately, the rest gets sorted. It is important to emphasize that I decide on every work item at the moment I touch it for the first time. I avoid touching a work item in the input queue more than once. That’s why the columns ‘will not do’ and ‘done immediately’ are so close to the ‘input queue’. That makes it easier to sort the input queue quickly. This also makes clear that even the act of sorting work needs a dedicated focus. That’s why I do this not all the time but at least once a day.
I start my day with a five-minute daily check-in with myself in which I set the goals of the day and grab some tasks that need my immediate attention. After that, I just do my normal work. Nothing special here. I prepare and attend workshops and meetings, prepare upcoming work at my desk, and write an email now and then. You see that each of these activities has its column on my Personal Kanban board. So when I do my work I just look at tasks that wait in the specific column suitable to my mood and situation. I ensure you that this reduces context switches and increases personal throughput.
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Use automation on your way to a mind like water
I can assure you, at first it seemed ridiculous to me to write down every idea, email, and task that comes to my mind or that is brought to me by someone else. However, it is not. With a little help from automation, I get this done. I didn’t automate my whole workflow at once — Automation is an iterative process. You will figure out what might be worth automating to improve the flow of work through your Personal Kanban board over time.
My first automation activities aimed to collect new tasks. Let me briefly show you some examples of how I automated almost all the tasks-collection:
Catch all the ideas
Whenever I’m on the go and an idea or a task snaps into my mind I just ask Siri to remind me of that idea. Siri adds this idea to my iOS reminders and the reminders get fetched by IFTTT and converted into an email that gets sent to my inbox. Every new item in my inbox is then transferred to my LeanKit input queue using Zapier. The same happens with todo list entries added by Amazon echo when I’m at home.
Using the Do Note App from IFTTT I can quickly collect any idea that comes to my mind right from the lock screen whenever I don’t want to talk to Siri.
To avoid a flooded email inbox, I automated the deletion of emails as well. Whenever a task that originated from an email moves on my Personal Kanban board to ‘done’, that email gets deleted in my inbox as well. This again is done by Zapier.
Want to read something on the web later?
I similarly handle this, whenever I browse through the web and I find an article that seems to be worth reading. Using Zapier I simply push the URL to my LeanKit input queue.
The possibilities are almost endless
Feel free to take time and dive deeper into the possibilities of IFTTT and Zapier. It’s impossible to cover all the crazy ‘recipes’ to automate your everyday life in one article. However, I can assure you that it’s working perfectly for me. Due to automation, I use my Personal Kanban board as my single source of work.
Dealing with the recurring tasks
Dealing with recurring tasks is easy. You can use IFTTT again. Pick a recurring day and a time and IFTTT is e.g. going to send you an email reminder with a detailed checklist on your recurring tasks attached which then is transferred to your input queue again.
The weekly review made easy
The weekly review is done once a week. I have a calendar blocker with myself every Friday afternoon to get clear, current, and creative. The routine is a bit more detailed than that. To not forget one element of the review I have a recurring email reminder that explains what I wanted to check to close the week with positive feelings. One element of this checklist is to look closely at tasks that have not moved for seven days and more. LeanKit provides a neat filter to see those tasks at a glance and thus helps to decide which tasks might not worth doing anymore.
Kanban flow metrics to balance demand and personal capacity
Personal Kanban is Kanban and Kanban is all about flow. So I also use my weekly review to check if I am still in balance or if the demand overruns me. I simply use the LeanKit metrics to check which lanes fill faster than I can clear them. If I notice that the flow gets disturbed or that my lead times start to rise, then I define specific work in progress (WIP) limits to support a healthy balance and bring back the flow.
As you can see, Personal Kanban, David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” and automation make a perfect team. Together they help you to achieve your mind like water, to increase your throughput, and to reduce negative context switches simultaneously. When you know that your Personal Kanban board contains all your tasks, a lot of pressure and stress vanishes. You feel relieved and you get a better focus on working or as well as leisure activities.
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- Getting Things Done by David Allen — This is where I got the reflective processes from and the ideas of Kanban Board columns like ‘someday maybe’
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — This is where I understood the basic conditions that allow a flow state of mind which I later incorporated into the Personal Kanban Board
- The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss — This is where I got the inspiration of automation got from
- Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Jim Benson — This describes the whole concept of Personal Kanban in Depth