If the traditional task list doesn’t work for you, try kanban, a Japanese method of managing productivity that adds images and interactivity to task management.
Imagine having methods for organizing your life that are easy to use, keeping ideas and projects organized, preventing you from taking too much at once, and helping you achieve your goals. That’s a personal kanban.
Kanban is a methodology for organizing and tracking work. It started in Japan at car manufacturing facilities and later became popular among software developers. This differs from other organizing methods in two important ways. First, it looks different. To use kanban, we need kanban boards or kanban applications, which allow people to visualize work in new ways. I will explain how it works in more detail in a few moments with a few pictures. Second, it is very good to limit how many jobs are assigned by one person at a certain time. In this way, kanban is great for people who tend to take too much at once and hence sabotage their productivity.
You can use kanban in your personal life for various uses, such as:
- share task lists with other household members
- holding a wedding or other big event
- running group projects (such as collaborative school work, activism efforts, or voluntary work)
- Sort and track ideas in any form (from what can be made for dinner to your holiday shopping list)
So, what is kanban and how does it work?
What is Kanban?
Kanban is a method for organizing and tracking work, usually with a group of people, although it can be used privately by one person. We started with a board containing columns. Each column has significance. The simplest example we can use to understand kanban is to give the To Do, Doing, and Done column names. This is just an example. You can name whatever column you want and use it however you want.
Next, we have a card. Each card contains a task. You put these cards on the board in one of the columns. So, if we write down a list of all the things we need to do today, we will have a set of cards in the Activity column and no cards in the other two columns.
As we work on assignments, we move the related cards to the column that best presents their working conditions. Ongoing tasks enter the Conduct column. When the task is complete, enter the Completed column. You can delete cards from the Done column as often as possible.
Each card can have more details than just the name of the assignment. Imagine we use the kanban board here to manage a family list of tasks. Every household member is given an assignment. Everyone wrote their name on the card, and maybe the card also had a due date. Now, when we look at the board, we see who is assigned to each assignment and the state of all assignments. In this way, we get a big picture of the state of all work.
Here’s the key: The Kanban Board makes a visual representation of something otherwise not visual at all. It’s also interactive because you have to move cards when completing various stages of work.
What Can Kanban Do?
We already know that kanban boards can help us manage work and see working conditions throughout the team. Let’s imagine a few more examples of using kanban at home to see what else can be done.
Process Ideas Through Movement
Another benefit of kanban relates to physically moving cards from one column to another. People who don’t think linear sometimes find that moving ideas helps them process information.
For example, you are planning a wedding. You might have a column titled Pending where you put assignments that are waiting for confirmation or rely on other tasks that are completed first. For example, you might have the task of making a seating arrangement diagram, but you cannot complete it until you have a confirmed guest list created. When you move these tasks from one column to another, it might help you process the status of each task and have a mental understanding of what needs to happen next.
Combining More Visuals
Let’s stick with the idea of wedding planning for a moment to show the further benefits of using kanban. Most kanban applications allow you to add images to your task card. The task card for making seating arrangements may also contain actual work diagrams so you have a visual reminder of the assignment and its status. Likewise, you can add examples of images of wedding cakes or bouquets to help you really see those tasks too.
Prevents You from Taking Too Much Work
One of the benefits of using kanban to manage work is that you can create a work-in-progress limit (WIP). The WIP limit is a stamp on the number of tasks that can be assigned by one person to them at any given time. In other words, if the WIP limit is three, and you have three tasks assigned to you, you must complete one of the tasks before you can accept new assignments.
Effectively, the WIP limit reaches two things. First, this prevents individuals from being assigned more work than others on the team. Second, the WIP limit requires you to complete the assignments given to you rather than delaying strenuous tasks for the sake of newer and easier ones.
Some kanban applications have tools to set WIP limits. Two examples are Kanban Flow and LeanKit. After someone reaches the limit, the application prevents them from getting a new assignment. Some applications only make it as a suggestion by adding a red mark when you exceed your limit. WIP limits can also be an informal rule that you follow. That doesn’t have to be a feature with the tool.
Brainstorm and Sort Ideas
You can certainly use the kanban board for more than tracking tasks. In the classic example of how to use kanban, each column on the board represents a phase or step in the workflow. However, that does not have to be the case. You can easily use the kanban app to exchange ideas, sort ideas, or even save pictures on a virtual board (like having a private Pinterest board, but without content feeds from other people).
Not long ago, I tested the food-kit delivery service. When I review other products, I can easily take notes about each and maybe make a spreadsheet to compare products. However, when I eat, I find it much easier to take notes and remember the various dishes that I eat when I look at their photos. So I started the kanban board with all the food I made. Each column matches the company name, and each card represents one food. I added pictures, notes, and links to recipes.
In this way, you can use the kanban board to store ideas about future vacation destinations (or record holidays that you have taken in the past). Or you can make a collection of your favorite recipes and choose some to put in a column that represents what you will make for dinner every night this week. The sky is the limit for using kanban to exchange ideas and sort ideas.
What is the Best Application for Personal Kanban?
Kanban applications are abundant, and many of them are free or at least have a free service level. Some are better than others, depending on how you intend to use them.
Trello is one of the most popular kanban style applications because it is very user friendly. For this reason, it’s probably my first choice to use kanban for private organizations (as opposed to in a business setting). The free version doesn’t come with many features, but you can add the features you want through “power-ups.” Some examples of power improvements are calendar views, time tracking, and special fields. Free accounts come with one power-up per board, and you get more with paid accounts. If you are interested in using Trello to stay organized, see my tips for getting the best out of it.
Zenkit is another great option for kanban applications for personal use. Similar to Trello, Zenkit is very easy to use and highly customizable. I also like it is not too focused on business. Light, friendly and colorful look and feel.
Asana did not start as a kanban application (this is a collaborative work management application), but in recent years, it added a feature called Boards so people can use kanban to manage their work if they want. Asana is a great tool for tracking assignments among groups of people, especially if you use a lot of text-based information, such as writing a checklist in your assignment.
Leankit has more features than many other kanban style applications, so this is great to use if you care deeply about WIP restrictions, swimlanes (that’s the ability to automatically sort content on your board not only into vertical columns, but also horizontally), and etc. There is no level of free service with Leankit, but you can get a free trial.
Wrike is a great application for kanban. However, this focuses on business, making it a good tool if you plan to use it for business and personal organizations. There is a free service level with limited features, although it is quite feature-rich if you pay a subscription fee for premium services.
When Traditional To-Do Lists Fail, Try Kanban
If the traditional to-do list doesn’t work for you, I would highly recommend you try the kanban board. What I like most about kanban is that it serves various types of people. If you are a non-linear thinker, it works best when you can see lots of information at a glance, or need touch actions to help you process information, then kanban might be right for you.