To-do lists can be boring and ineffective. You’ve got your standard list of items — many are old, some were just added with eager anticipation, some are satisfyingly crossed out, and others will be crossed out eventually, some day, maybe. If you get fancy with it, maybe you use an app or a whiteboard so you can cleanly remove and rearrange items and even add some flair. But in the end, it is still an unfinished, unprioritized list.
Personal Kanban ensures that your to-do list gets done
Using Personal Kanban, you still have to put in effort. No tool or process is a pure panacea, but this one is pretty close to magic in its effectiveness and simplicity. Kanban, an agile software practice, helps ensure a steady flow of task completion by adding some simple rules and organization to the standard to-do list.
To provide a little context, much of the software world has adopted agile practices during the past two decades, and with it, a lot of sticky notes and a lot of controversy on what true agility is. The debates can get pretty heated, even akin to religious arguments. It is tempting to click on those controversial headlines Agile makes no sense or Agile is ruining your product. As my colleague Jason pointed out, “The problem isn’t agile. The problem is not knowing how to catalyze and cultivate agile minds.”
When people talk about agile, they often use it interchangeably with its most popular variant, scrum. Scrum has some similarities with Kanban, but they entered the workforce decades apart, and the subtleties produce a dramatic difference. Kanban comes from lean manufacturing at Toyota in Japan in the 1950s and was applied to software teams in the 2000s. Unlike Scrum, which is designed for small software teams and is a little more prescriptive, Kanban can be applied effectively on a personal level.
Here’s how it works.
Take all those to-do list items and prioritize them in rough order, top down. Then, take those that you think you can get done in the next few days or sooner and put them in another group. Call it “To Do — Near Term”, “To Do —This Week”, or “To Do — Today”, whichever you like. This is now your selected to-do list to work off — the rest will be worked later.
Here’s where the magic comes in. When you have a few minutes to tackle an item, look at the top of your Near Term To Do list and pick something. One key component of Kanban is to limit work-in-progress (WIP). In Kanban, you never select what you cannot finish in the near term. This is enforced by limiting the number of items you can simultaneously put in the middle columns, e.g. the  noted in each of the columns above. You cannot start working something else until you have worked off what you already started. Similarly, you cannot select anything else for your Near Term To Do list until you move something to In Progress.
Start with a WIP limit of 2 or 3 for personal Kanban, since multi-tasking is less productive than singular focus. You can always adjust the WIP limit, but only make minor adjustments. Like adjusting your thermostat, if you bump it up or down several levels at once, you’re just swinging the pendulum straight through the optimal setting. I prefer using a WIP limit of 2 for my personal tasks. More than that and I’m probably not actually working that 3rd item. Maybe 1 or 3 works best for you. Great!
If you find yourself piling a lot of items into In Progress or you see items linger there for a while, there are a couple of common reasons. Your tasks could be too big. To fix this, break them down when you move them from your initial To Do to your Near Term To Do. Smaller batch sizes get done quicker. It could also mean that you get interrupted often, in which case you may need to readjust your schedule, environment, or boundaries.
My favorite tool to manage personal Kanban is Trello. I have been using it for years, and I recently got my mom hooked on it as well. Since she has spotty cell service at times, she loves using the mobile app offline because it will seamlessly push her updates when she is back online.
We had a family gathering recently where my parents were in charge of coordinating the entire event. I flew out for a weekend ahead of time to help prepare, and I found the number of tasks to do overwhelming. So, I created a Trello board with a backlog, selecting the things I thought I could help with that weekend, like chainsawing some fallen trees and planning out the event’s agenda. By the end of the weekend, there was a well-organized board for my parents to continue using to prepare for the event. My mom loved the idea of visualizing the work this way — she took ownership of the board and used it in ways I hadn’t imagined. In addition to the standard To Do, In Progress, and Done, she created columns for each day of the event, listing what she needed to do to prepare for each. This helped visualize how each activity fit into the overall event flow, enabling her to create and prioritize backlog items based on how the overall picture looked. I helped her set due dates so they would be reminded to do certain things, and we set colored labels so we could group items to achieve efficiencies.
By visualizing and prioritizing the work using Kanban, the preparation was more effective and much less stressful.
In the end, the event exactly achieved its goal. My parents gracefully hosted a beautiful and meaningful weekend for the entire extended family, and my mom continues to use Kanban for her everyday tasks and side projects.
If you are looking for a more in-depth look at how to use Kanban at the team level, I highly recommend Eric Brechner’s Kanban talk at Google. I have been managing teams using Scrum or Kanban for years, and I think Eric does a great job interactively showing how to manage a Kanban team effectively. It is extremely satisfying to pull up the Kanban board in the daily stand-ups and see things progress. Everyone benefits when the work is visualized this way.
Going Above and Beyond
- Keep a To Do — Today in addition to the overall To Do backlog. It reduces feeling overwhelmed and helps narrow your focus to the immediate needs. I picked up this trick from a fellow agile consultant colleague, and I love it. Thanks, Todd!
- Consider adding a Done — This Week as well. This gives a nice representation of what you have accomplished recently without being flooded with everything you have done for all time. If the list looks a little dry, that can serve as extra motivation to push some things through.
- Track actions, not intentions. Move an item to In Progress only once you have started working it. This avoids having tasks linger in In Progress when they never actually started.
- Granularity is completely up to you. I prefer breaking things down where a single task will take me between a half hour and a few hours so that I can get multiple tasks done each day. If you prefer less granularity and like to track bigger items by week, go for it!
- Nothing In Progress. For some projects with granular tasks, you may not even need an In Progress column. You will still select a limited number of items for “To Do — Today”, but those items would move straight to Done. For my Personal Kanban board, I use an In Progress column, but for a separate Household List board I use with my wife, similar to the example above but with more granular tasks, an In Progress column does not add anything.
- Revisit constantly. If something isn’t working, change it. Try using physical stickies on your wall if that helps. Set some stakes, e.g. no orange mocha frappuccino until you get 10 more things done. Personalize every part of the process to fit your style, and experiment every once in a while to see the impact of a tweak or a simple change of pace.