How To Use Personal Kanban and Become Insanely Productive

Personal Kanban can help a creative balance running their business with work on their craft. This guide explains how it works.

Are you searching for the perfect personal productivity system for your creative business?

First the bad news: It doesn’t exist. Much like with landing page software, you have to do the work no matter your system.

Now the good news: Kanban is an easy-to-use and -learn system that can help avoid feeling overwhelmed by those endless To Do lists. You can use a whiteboard or a tool like Trello to do it.

Let’s dive in.

What is Kanban?

Kanban is an agile method for creating products based on continuous deliveries. This system originated from the Japanese manufacturing system.

Toyota industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno created the system to help busy factory managers deal with complicated projects and workloads.

What Is Personal Kanban And How Does It Work?

Personal Kanban is an adaptation of the agile method for individuals and even small business owners. It works by forcing users to visualize work in one place and constrain what they’re working on.

Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry offer these two rules using this productivity system in their rather excellent book Personal Kanban.

  1. Visualize your work
  2. Limit your work-in-progress (WIP)

They said about rule one, “When we see work in its various contexts, real trade-offs become explicit. We now have a physical record of all those demands on our time. This larger view of our work and our context allows us to make better decisions.

And they added about rule two “Limiting WIP allows us the time to focus, work quickly, react calmly to change, and do a thoughtful job.”

Step 1: Prepare Your Kanban Board

Divide a whiteboard into three columns. If you don’t have one, consider buying a Magic Whiteboard and affixing it to your wall or even dividing up a large A4 or letter-size notebook.

Label the first column “To Do”, the second “Doing” and the third “Done.”

The first column is for capturing a work item on your new To Do list. The second for deciding what you’re going to working on right now and the third for recording what you finished.

Remember to avoid the classic productivity mistake of turning a project into a task. It takes a series of tasks (or cards) to accomplish a project. You can use sticky notes to represent a Kaban card too.

A Personal Kanban board
My Personal Kanban board

Step 2: Work Using Kanban

Add items or cards to the “To Do” column on your Kanban board using a marker or Post-It notes.

Use an action verb and write down the task in question. If you’re moving a house, this could be “Hire a removal company”. Alternatively, if you’re preparing a big presentation, this could be “Source stock images.”

When you’re ready to work, drag an item or task from the “To Do” column to “Doing”.

Typically, I find it sensible to keep no more than three items in the “Doing” column. This limits my work in progress and helps visualize what I’m working on. (Remember the rules!)

When you finish working, drag a complete task from the “Doing” column to the “Done” column. Then pull another Kanban card from “To Do” to “Doing.”

Step 3: Review Your Board

As you work, you will naturally drag tasks from the left to the right of your board.

The simple act of dragging a task from one column to the next forces you to prioritize. It also encourages regular reviews of your To Do list.

This way of working encourages a state of flow. The act of moving cards from one column to the next feels gratifying. You can see quickly the tasks easy to accomplish, those that take up a lot of time and even tasks where you’re stuck. Benson told me,

“The most common mistake would be to not limit work-in-progress…People sometimes skip the second one because there is “too much to do”, which, ironically, is what the WIP limit is for in the first place.”

Jim Benson

Once you become more comfortable with the Kanban method, add additional columns to your personal Kanban board or Kanban app.

For example, I created a column called “Waiting For” to capture tasks that I’m blocked on and ones where I need somebody to get back to me. I also created a “Next” column for tasks I wanted to work on during the working day but not immediately.

Pro tip: If you need inspiration, search Google Images for “Personal Kanban board”.

Trello Graphical user interface, application
a Trello for Kanban board

Recommended Kanban Tools

When I started using Personal Kanban, I road-tested a large whiteboard and a notebook. Both tools work just fine and will help you master the basics of Kanban. Anyone can record an open and completed task with this method.

Once you get a feel for how this productivity system works and it’s part of your working week, you’re ready for a digital personal Kaban Board.

Trello is a web-based project management application. It’s basically a type of Kanban software. You can upload files to your tasks or cards, label them, set due dates and so on.

Uploading attachments to cards is useful for gathering all of your work in one place. Similarly, I’ve used the collaboration features of the Trello app to work with third-party contractors.

As much as I like Trello for personal productivity, I recommend getting to grips with Kanban on a whiteboard or an analogue system first. After all, the tool is always less important than doing the work. Then, you can move onto a dedicated app or software.

Try Personal Kanban Today

There’s no such thing as the perfect Kaban tool. If your simple To Do list helps you get the job done, stick with it.

I’ve tried lots of project management software over the years. The biggest issue is that a large list can sometimes feel overwhelming.

If this is happening to you, Personal Kanban doesn’t take long to learn, and it will help you manage your day-to-day work without feeling overwhelmed. This personal productivity system also helps with visualizing work in one place. Or as Benson said,

“The system was designed to specifically provide flexibility by having a small set of rules. That’s the main reason why we’ve seen it adopted in every country and every vertical on earth – including the home. Kids have fun completing their chores. Teams intelligently work out complex problems.  Project and ambient work are both easily visualised and completed.”

Jim Benson

A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.

It’s also an edited extract of a chapter from my new book This Is Working: Focus on What Matters and Get the Results You Deserve.

This Is Working: Focus on What Matters and Get the Results You Deserve
  • Collins, Bryan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 296 Pages - 05/27/2019 (Publication Date) - Nielsen (Publisher)


Who can use personal kanban?

Anyone can use it because it’s easy to learn and doesn’t require expensive tools or software. It works particularly well for people who feel overloaded by all of their uncompleted work. It’s also ideal if you want to visualize work in one place and like continuous improvement.

Why is it called kanban?

It’s called Kanban because of the colored cards that industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno used to track car production at a Japanese manufacturing plant. It’s the Japanese word for a sign.

What are the benefits of kanban?

Kanban helps people at work limit how much they’re working on at anyone one time. It’s ideal if resources or time is an issue. A personal Kanban board also helps users see how much work they need to do at any one time. It’s possible to apply personal Kanban with a whiteboard and a sticky note, so it’s not expensive or technical to implement. Alternative use the project management software Trello or other open source software.

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  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.