How my to-do list got a make-over and changed my life

For several years now I have been struggling to find a workable system for my work to-dos. I’ve tried a simple Word doc, a note-book, a GSD (“Get Shit Done”) book, Trello, Wunderlist, Post-it note lists on my desk, email flags, and any number of combinations of the above, and now I have finally latched on to the kanban. Which is funny as I’ve been using a kanban for the UX team’s research for years but never thought to apply it to my own work.

The ‘before’ state

I’d already worked out that I needed a tangible hand-written list that I could see in my physical space… digital lists just didn’t do it for me and felt too hidden to be useful, or used.

I’d also worked out that I didn’t want a list I could carry around with me as this would mean a note-book, and a list I couldn’t see in its entirety.

So, before its transformation, my to-do list was a collection of Post-it note lists on my desk that were vaguely prioritised.

This worked ok… to a point. The problems with this approach were:

  • the Post-it notes were inconveniently positioned and kept getting in the way
  • crossing off items wasn’t enough to remove them from my sight as there were multiple items per Post-it note
  • I couldn’t easily re-prioritise items
  • the list kept growing and taking up more space

Ultimately this didn’t make me feel like I was getting things done.

My old to-do list(s)

The make-over

Then one of our wonderful Agile Coaches Stephanie BySouth presented on Personal Kanbans at a recent UX Dojo and I was won over. I promised myself I’d implement it as soon as possible.

This involved clearing half of my desk (a mean feat in itself) and creating a space for my kanban, on the side of my cubicle.

I had to ‘massage’ the flow a little bit to support the physical accessibility of the different columns, but I was pretty happy with the result:

My personal kanban at work

The key principles here are:

  • no more than a few cards in ‘Doing’ at any time
  • only 1 card in ‘Urgent’ at any time
  • different colour cards for different types of work
  • different colour text to indicate priority

The placement of the kanban also meant it was out of the way, and having one item per card meant things felt like they were getting done more quickly and readily.

Most of all, I could easily see my to-dos as a whole, and easily re-prioritise.

It’s not a panacea, but it’s pretty close

My process isn’t perfect — I still have to-dos I need to transfer from my note-book and my emails to my kanban, but I feel much more in control of my work and feel I can better manage ‘just-in-time’ requests, which are a good proportion of my work.

One last, but important thing

Not only did Steph tell us about kanbans, she also brought home a huge point about the downfalls of multi-tasking —it ultimately makes you less productive and efficient. This made me realise that I constantly interrupt myself at work, answering emails and Slack messages while I’m in the middle of other tasks, or just trying to do several things at once.

I’ve now put a stop to that, and force myself to focus on one thing at a time, sans interruptions, until its completion. This provides a bigger sense of satisfaction and has also made a big difference to my mental clutter.

(I haven’t quite got to the point where I tell unexpected desk visitors to go away though… I like visitors ;)).

Adopting a kanban and a ‘one thing at a time’ policy has really made a difference to my stress levels and reduced my mental clutter (something I should know from clearing clutter at home) and given my years-long struggle with to-do lists… I am super proud of myself.