What do you need to do?

When I was a freshman in high school, my dad had purchased for himself a two-day productivity training given by the folks who are now FranklinCovey. For some reason he was unable to attend so he let me go in his place. 


I walked into the conference room on the first day and the woman running the training put her hand out and said, “Hi Christine, welcome.”

The room was standard issue hotel fair: tan walls, and wildly printed carpet, rectangular banquet tables arranged in rows classroom style, flickering fluorescent lighting and that funny stale-air smell that only old hotels have. I was wearing a short, sand-washed denim skirt, high-top sneakers, and a cropped jacket that sported massive shoulder pads; thank you Madonna. All the other participants were in some version of business wear… sweater twinsets, sport coats, slacks and polished shoes. I didn’t feel out of place though, I felt important, like I’d been allowed backstage to the 21 and over VIP lounge. 

“I’m Sarah, I’ll be leading your training today,” the woman said; and proceeded to shake my hand. That training opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about how to get done the things I'd dreamed of.

Little did I know how fortunate I was to receive that information at a young age. So much of life is about doing stuff. We can have the most incredible ideas and the biggest dreams, but if we never do anything with them, then they’re lost forever. 

It’s been almost thirty years now since I took that first training, and since then I’ve studied and used a number of other systems and tools for planning projects and keeping track and organizing to-dos. Many people have heard of the Getting Things Done Methodology, and while there are a number of things I love about GTD’s founder, David Allen’s motivation: to keep your mind like water — and his tagline: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” His process (at least 7 years ago) wasn’t a good fit for me.

As I get older I tend to automate and streamline further and further. I wanted to share with you what I use now and why I think it can be helpful to anyone.

Below are the method, the system, and the tools that will let you easily keep track of what needs to get done, which in turn will help leave your mind free for your next great idea.

Adapted from the manufacturing world, Personal Kanban provides a way to visualize your work and then limit the things you’re currently focused on. 

There are only two main goals:

  1. Keep track of everything that you want or need to take action on. 

  2. Limit the number of items you’re actually working on to 3 or 4. As soon as you’ve finished one action then you can bring over another action from your master to-do list. 

Imagine a cork board that is divided into three columns; the titles of the columns, left to right, are:

  • Options

  • Doing

  • Done

Now imagine that you have a stack of index cards and each index card has written on it one thing that you’d like or need to get done.  

You place all the cards under the “Options” column on your board and then you choose which 3 or 4 are going put in your “Doing” column, those are the ones you work on right now. 

When you’ve finished doing one thing, you move that card from the “Doing” to the “Done” column and then select another card to move from the “Options” column to the “Doing” column. 

This method is brilliant in it’s simplicity because it’s infinitely adaptable.

The system I find most helpful, which utilizes Personal Kanban, is the SCRUM system. It’s most known in the software world, but one of the creators wrote the book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time and brought his system into everyday life. This is a bit of a heavy read and intended for business professionals... however, it has many examples that illustrate how it can also be used for personal productivity.

There isn’t nearly enough space here to outline the whole thing, but here's my favorite idea, "Build into your working method the assumption of change, discovery, and new ideas."

And these are some of the pieces I find most helpful:

  1. It makes use of the idea of a “Sprint.” A sprint is just a defined time period… I use two weeks… so instead of saying “What are all the things I’d like to get done ever?” I can look at my backlog (the list of all the things that have come to my mind and I’ve written down) and pick what I’m going to do over the next two weeks. Then I only have to focus on those, a few at a time.

  2. It acknowledges that people are terrible at estimating how many hours something will take and offers a simple way to prioritize actions based on relative effort.

  3. Implementing this system when working with groups is incredibly helpful because each team member understands what needs to get done and there's a feedback loop.

  4. It creates a pathway for moving forward without requiring you to project out what you think you might be working on two months from now.

Imagine the cork board from above, with the three columns, “Options — Doing — Done.” Now, imagine being able to put that cork board in your pocket and carry it around. That’s what the application Trello allows you to do. Not only can you carry around that cork board, you can carry around as many cork boards as you like and each cork board can have a different purpose. 

Here’s a screenshot of some of the boards I carry around with me. The "Current Focus" is what I’m working on during my current “Sprint,” the “Inspired Storm” board is what needs to get done for my business; I also store blog ideas and other tidbits of information there. The “Errands” board holds shopping lists and is shared with everyone in my family, so no matter who’s out and about they know what we need to buy. The “Chores” board holds descriptions of all the household chores.

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Now imagine you can take your cork board to another level, you can flip each index card over and write on the back of it… or you can attach a photo to it, or link it to your google drive, or allow other people to comment on it, or create multiple checklists, or add a due date, or- you get the idea.

Here’s an example from my “Chores” board; if you flip over the “Clean Bathroom” card you can see all the tasks that need to get done for that chore to be complete. This is for the kids because even though they can remember every map for every video game ever created, they somehow can’t remember the steps necessary to clean the bathroom.

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Now, add to your image that you can connect these boards and index cards to work in unison with other applications, so if you get a certain email it will automatically generate an index card for you with a reminder. One action I have set up allows me to tell our Amazon echo dot to add something to the shopping list and a card automatically appears in the grocery list on my errands board.

[You might notice there's a Curling Iron in the grocery list. Alexa's not quite integrated enough to post to multiple lists, but the Trello drag and drop let's me pull this over to the Target column.]

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Trello is insanely powerful… it’s also infinitely adaptable, so if you want to keep it simple, you can; alternatively, once you're comfortable with it, you can power it up, automate, and flex a little muscle. I’ve made my “Current Focus” board to mimic the Trello's co-founder's board, so I can see my appointments (automatically pulled over from my calendar) and my actions on one list and decide when during the day I’m going to do certain things. It’s helpful because I always imagine that I can do 5 hours worth of work in a one hour time slot. 

Do I still drop the ball on some things? Yep, without a doubt! (If you’ve ever emailed me and expected a timely response, you’ll know keeping up with email is my biggest weakness) However, 98% of the time, I know that I’m dropping stuff that isn’t mission critical… and I know that I’m working on the “big rocks” instead of chasing my tail with busy work. 

I also know that if something wonderful pops up in my space, and I choose to ditch my plan for the afternoon, the day, the week, or longer… I can see all the things I’m choosing not to do. Sometimes we don’t realize we’re making a trade-off until it’s too late. 

But best of all, when inspiration strikes at an inconvenient time, I can quickly capture it and take action on it later, leaving my brain space free for the next great idea.