Using Personal Kanban to Stay Focused

When I was 14 years old, a freshman in high school, my dad signed-up for a two-day, FranklinCovey, productivity workshop. He wasn't able to attend, so he let me take his place.

Woman writing on a sticky note.

I walked into the hotel conference room on the first day wearing a short, sand-washed denim skirt, high-top sneakers, and a neon striped cropped jacket that had massive shoulder pads. Everyone else was in some version of business wear: pearl-buttoned sweaters, navy blue sport coats, pressed slacks, and polished loafers.


I didn’t feel out of place though — I felt important! It was like I’d been allowed backstage to the 21+ VIP lounge. By the end of the day I was mesmerized and couldn't wait for day two. My eyes had been opened to a whole new way of organizing my actions and it felt like the key to accomplishing my dreams.


That was almost 30 years ago! Since then, I’ve studied and used many different systems and tools for planning projects and tracking and organizing to dos. I want to share with you what I use now and why I think it can be helpful for anyone.


Below are the Method, the System, and the Tool that will let you take all the things that are swirling in your head, organize them, and create a plan of action.


THE METHOD:

Adapted from the manufacturing world, Personal Kanban provides a way to visualize your work and then limit the things you’re currently focused on. (This link will take you to an excellent, brief video describing Personal Kanban.)

There are two main goals:

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

  2. Limit the number of items you’re actively working on to 3 or 4.

Imagine a cork board that's 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 do. You place all of these cards under the “Options” column on your board and then you choose which 3 or 4 you're going to put in the “Doing” column; those will be the ones you work on first. 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:

The system I find most helpful, which utilizes Personal Kanban, is the SCRUM system. It’s best 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. It's a bit of a heavy read because of all the business examples, however, it also has many examples that showcase how it can be used for personal productivity.

There isn’t nearly enough space here to outline the whole book, so here's my favorite idea, "Build into your working method the assumption of change, discovery, and new ideas." ...And some additional helpful tidbits:

  1. The SCRUM system introduces the idea of a sprint. A sprint is just a defined time period (usually 2-6 weeks): I use two weeks. Instead of trying to get everything done all the time, I look at my master list (the list of all the things that have come to my mind and I’ve written down) and just pick what I’m going to do during my next sprint. Then, I only have to focus on those, a few at a time.

  2. The authors acknowledge that people are terrible at estimating how many hours something will take and offer 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 sprint retrospective to encourage continuous improvement.

  4. This system creates a pathway for moving forward without predicting the future and mapping out what you think you might be working on two months from now.


THE TOOL:

Imagine the cork board from the Personal Kanban section, 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 board can have a different purpose.


Here’s a screenshot of some of the boards I carry 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 bits 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 to buy.

  • The “Chores” board holds descriptions of all the household chores and is also shared with my whole family.

Trello screen with boards: Current Focus, Inspired Storm, Health Plan, Errands, and Chores

Here's a screenshot of the "Chores" board so you can see the virtual index cards organized in columns.

An open trello board with columns of chores: Dining/living/bathroom, kitchen, mudroom/outside, bedroom.

To continue your mental picture, imagine you can flip each index card over and write on the back of it.

Below is an example: If you flip over (click on) 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. C'est la vie!)

Because these are virtual cards, in addition to writing on them, you can:

  • attach a photo

  • embed a link to your google drive

  • allow collaborators to leave comments

  • create multiple checklists

  • assign a due date

  • and many, many other cool features

If all that is not enough, you can also connect these boards and index cards to work in unison with other applications, for example: you can integrate with your email and automatically turn an email into an index card on your board.


Another integration I love automatically creates a card in the "Grocery Store" column on my errands board when someone tells our Amazon Echo Dot (Alexa) to add something to the shopping list. This means no one ever has to tell me that we're out of anything. They just say, "Alexa, add ____ to the shopping list." And then I check this board when I'm at the store or placing an online order.

Trello board with columns as a shopping list: grocery store, done, home goods, project supplies.

Trello is insanely powerful, but also super 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 co-founder's board, so I can see my appointments (automatically pulled over from my calendar) and my actions all on one list. It’s helpful because I often imagine I have 8 hours a day to work, but the reality is, after accounting for scheduled meetings and events, I often only have a couple of hours for focused work. This lets me see that at a glance.


Do I still drop the ball sometimes? 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, most of the time, I know I’m dropping stuff that isn’t mission critical. I know I can pick up things I've dropped, and I know that I’m working on my big rocks instead of chasing my tail.


Having a system also means that when something wonderful pops into my space and I choose to ditch my plan for the afternoon, the day, the week, or longer, I'm clear on all the things I’m choosing not to do, instead of being surprised about how far behind I am later.


Best of all, when inspiration strikes, I can quickly capture my thoughts and take action on them later, leaving my brain space free for whatever's in front of me.