“I am confident saying that there is nothing I have wasted more of my time on than studying how not to waste more of my time.” – Dan Leone, Amazon reviewer.
Amen to that. So who can fault us for giving the side eye to news of yet another productivity tool?
Like Dan, though, who shared my pain over organizational systems that worked until they didn’t, I was lured in by something that sounded so suspiciously basic that I had to investigate: Personal Kanban.
I felt like George meeting Fred for the first time.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
It cannot be this simple, I thought in disbelief. Or low tech. It looked so…so…1987. Where is the calendar grid, broken out in daily, weekly, monthly increments? The A/B/C task prioritization scale? The automated reminder alerts?
Nope. A whiteboard, marker and post-it notes. That’s all you need to get started. So simple a first-grader can grasp it.
A visual learner, I almost wept when I saw it in action. Perhaps this was the 20,000-foot “picture view” of my work that my right-brained, primitive self had been craving all along. Nonetheless, I braced myself for disappointment. I’d been here before.
The only thing worse than dragging around that bible-thick planner was the nagging sense of disconnect from the big picture. Where the hell am I going with all this? I remember thinking as I furiously filled in line after line of daily and weekly planning pages. And God help me if I missed a day. Or two. Or ten. The pages and pages of blank lines felt like a mounting indictment on my very existence. Success was no longer measured by actually getting things done. It was all about keeping the beast fed with more and more documentation.
Fudge it. (Actual word used unprintable.) I tossed the $85 brick in a bottom drawer, and went back to my ad hoc system of mental notes and panic.
Then there was GTD. I loved its underlying concepts (keep nothing in your head, mind like water, etc.), but just couldn’t keep up with the physical folder system and division of work into various location “contexts” (@home, @work, @errands, @calls, @travel, etc.). Too many overlapping layers, too many views. Plus, there was no “dabbling” in GTD. It was like joining the Church of Scientology. The full conversion took weeks, if not months. You were either all in, or not at all.
There’s no question that somewhere out there, very driven and successful people are rocking the hell out of these two systems, and have been for years. I applaud them. They just weren’t for me.
This Kanban, though. Clean. Logical. Simple. And incredibly flexible. So I decided to roll the dice. (Again.) I drove to Costco, grabbed one of their $19.99 whiteboards, found some post-it notes, and got started.
What is Personal Kanban?
Expert Jim Benson best describes it on Personal Kanban 101 as a simple way to visualize, organize and complete work. Kanban was developed and first used at Toyota in Japan as a way to improve and maintain a high level of production, by managing and communicating workflow and status to all workers, from the top brass to the guy on the assembly line screwing in bulbs. The goal was total transparency, and to empower workers on the front lines to improve the way things were done. (For more details, check here.) The word Kanban actually means signboard or billboard in Japanese. Personal Kanban borrows from these basic lean production principles, resulting in a time and work management system individuals can use to be more productive, efficient and stress-free in their day-to-day lives.
How does Personal Kanban work?
The most basic Personal Kanban system only needs three column categories for work tasks – to do, doing and done. It explains itself, really, but for the sake of thoroughness let’s walk through it with the help of a photo and quick 13-second, time-lapsed video demo (below).
Using stickies, you write down all the individual tasks you have to do and place them in the “to do” (or “ready”) column. Once you choose something to start working on, that sticky moves into the “doing” column. When you’ve completed that task, you then move the sticky to the “done” column.
As you can see from my personal example in the photo above, there are countless variations and customizations one can apply to both the categories and the stickies themselves (color-coding, tagging each card with a certain level of detail, etc.), but the process – or value stream – works the same. And no matter how much you tweak it, all Kanban boards have at minimum the core three buckets (to do, doing and done). The point is to move every single sticky from left to right on the board, in the most efficient manner. Simple enough, right? That said…
There are only 2 core rules to Kanban: (1) Visualize your work, and (2) Limit work-in-progress (WIP).
Big deal, you’re thinking. That’s pretty basic stuff. Well…it IS a big deal, and here’s why: most other tools I’ve tried encourage users to do a massive brain dump of all the things they need to do, categorize them, and then begin working through them, systematically. But none, in my opinion, do a good enough job of ridding us of our crock delusions right from the start.
What delusion, you ask?
The delusion that we can be *effectively* working on any infinite number of to-do items, nibbling away here and there like a mouse in a cheese factory. Also known, and in recent years debunked here and here, as The Myth of Multitasking. One guy even wrote a business fable about it.
Maybe you and others just suck at it, Terri, you might say. I happen to be a GREAT multitasker. See? It even says so right here on my resume, next to bullets 3, 4 and 6. And in my Career Highlights. And the first sentence of my Objective Statement.
Are you? Really? When people claim they’re multitasking, what they really mean is that they’re task switching. And frequent task switching has been proven a drain on focus and productivity (more below), which runs counter to everything you’re trying to accomplish. Top earners and astute hiring managers – the very ones reading your resume – have already figured this out.
Maybe my brain is bigger than everyone else’s, and can hold and keep track of more stuff at the same time.
Ummm…no. Multitasking, or task switching, pretty much has the same universal effect: wastes more time than it saves (takes you twice as long to do the same task); keeps you in a perpetual state of distraction; creates rework; kills concentration and creativity; increases error rate by 50%s; and saps your energy over time. In short, it doesn’t work. Which makes sense, now that we’ve established it’s not even a thing.
To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously. ~ John Medina, author of Brain Rules
Which brings us back to Personal Kanban, and why it succeeds where others fail. It’s the first system that forced me to place hard limits on the amount of things I work on at any given time. There’s no escaping or getting around this fact, since my “DOING” column is the skinniest one on my board, making it physically impossible for me to overload tasks. (Arguably, even I’m pushing the envelope with “6” to-do placeholders on my board; I could probably stand to cut that in half. Baby steps.) Standing before a board like this every day – with delusions of grandeur around how much you’ll accomplish seeking to pry its way into your mind – is like having someone splash cold water on your face. This is the kind of visibility lacking in traditional to-do lists and calendar-based systems.
Personal Kanban has forced me to face inconvenient, yet long overdue, truths about my own work habits and shortcomings. It is actionable, and results-driven. Nothing on the board moves until I get off my ass and actually do something. And by “do something” I don’t mean “work on something” until I become distracted by this other thing over here I forgot I had to do, and start working on that instead. I mean actually focus on the singular task at hand until it is completed. Which is very different from writing down lines and lines of to-dos on a sheet of paper, the very act of which lulls you into a false sense of having accomplished something.
Try it yourself. No whiteboard? No problem. Go down to your basement and get that roll of blue painter’s tape from your last DIY home project. Find a patch of white wall (or it can be any color wall, really) somewhere in your home that doesn’t see a lot of guest traffic. Then find some yellow stickies. EVERYONE has laying around a random yellow sticky pad that they stole from the office.
Remember my earlier comment about Kanban and first-graders? A concept so simple even a child can understand (see below), leaves clues. Whatever your current time management or productivity system is, sit a kid down today and try explaining to them how it works. If you get nothing but a blank stare in return, maybe it’s time for a change.
Personal Kanban. There’s no better time than right before the New Year to set up a new organization system, so test it out before you commit to an actual board. If it works for you…Win. If it doesn’t, you’re only out the cost of a few yellow sticky pads, a marker and some blue tape.
*raises glass of champagne to toast*
Here’s to getting sh** done in 2015. And lots of it. (Just one at a time, though.) Let’s meet back in a few for more Kanban tips!