Some weeks ago I received a confirmation to join a workshop that I’ve always wanted.  I was so excited at first. Yet joining a full-time workshop then also meant I had to put my already cramped schedule on hold. After the workshop, I had an endless list of pending tasks for my full-time job, freelance projects, volunteering work, my 0% complete thesis, oh my goodness, I’m reliving all the panic now. My life was literally falling apart, but a friend, who’s also a good planner, advised me to go Kanban, and it worked very well.

What is Kanban?

 

Kanban (看板) is a project management technique that relies on visualizing the workflow on either a physical or digital board. Typically, the Kanban board is divided into three columns. The main goal of the Kanban technique is to help you identify and avoid the bottlenecks that are likely to happen during your workflow; and accordingly, the kanban way should help you achieve higher throughput and lower lead times. The term literally means “billboard” in Japanese.

Kanban dates back to the late 1940s. The concept was introduced by a Toyota guy called “Taiichi Ohno” as a simple planning method to better manage and control workflow.

 

Three core concepts of Kanban

  • Visualize your work  

It is quite exhausting to let your brain have the sole responsibility for everything. The philosophy of Kanban is to have your tasks listed before your eyes, so you can easily arrange them, rather than having them tangled in your head. You can use a physical board or a digital one that can be found in online project management tools.

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  • Divide your board into columns

One of Kanban’s basic philosophies is to have a simple work plan. So when you divide your board into columns, you don’t do that in a way that may complicate your work. Typically, it’s advisable, according to the Kanban way, to divide the board into three main columns (to do, doing, done). You can add one or two more columns, if necessary, though.

  • Limit the work in progress

You don’t simply get yourself overwhelmed with thousands of tasks at a time (a thing that I casually do), you finish one after the other. In other words, a complete task is better than tens of incomplete ones.

Why did I go Kanban?

I usually use trello (web and mobile project management application) to manage my workflow. However, during that messy period, my Trello has been crowded already with many boards. I usually create a board for every mission I am committed to. That was not helpful; it was as disorganized as my mind.

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All I needed then was to detangle the pending tasks and have a bird-eye view over my very urgent commitments. And, the golden rule of Kanban was to create three main columns for your workflow, remember? Since I had a very long and very disorganized to-do list, I decided to Kanbanize my Trello, relying on this golden rule of THREE.

How I used Kanban?

First, I decided to use only one board, where I can list all my commitments. I named the board “Things are Falling Apart” (I should pay tribute to Keats and Achebe here), needless to say, things were literally falling apart. My main challenge was that I had a very long “to-do list” and 4 main commitments, so I decided to kanbanize my to-do list itself into three columns, namely: full-time tasks (the purple column), freelance tasks (the violet column), volunteering work (the blue column), along with the fourth column for my thesis (the sky blue column), which I decided to put on hold at first. Under each column, I listed all the relevant pending tasks and arranged them based on their urgency. Then, I labeled the top urgent tasks in red, to remind myself whenever I look, I need to focus on these three items for now.

Another main aspect of Kanban that really saved me is that you don’t have to multitask, you don’t have to tear yourself among tens of things at a time to feel productive. I bore in mind that to finish my long to do list, I need to complete only one task after another. Once I finish a task, I move it to the done list and label another one in red to focus on it then.

I also tried to focus on one commitment at a time. During my 9-5 job, I SOLELY focus on my WUZZUF column. When I got home, I finished one item of my freelance list. In the weekend, I could concentrate on my volunteering list.

In a week, I finished my pending projects, delivered four articles, and found room for my volunteering work. And then, I could find some space for my thesis. Check my done list colored in green below. Everybody loves long done lists, though.

How Kanban saved me?

Things always seem bigger and messier in our heads. When my brain was so distracted, and my energy was so consumed in panic, I felt so drained with minimal productivity. Even if I’m a multipotentialite, I don’t have to think of myself as different selves, or can I? Actually, Kanban helped me find this balance with a bird-eye view on my schedule that made feel in control, yet the possibility to columnize each commitment helped me be more focused on each project.

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Things I love about Kanban

  • It’s simply simple. I didn’t have to spend much time planning, a thing I couldn’t afford anyway.
  • It helped me arrange things when I had to focus on a limited number of tasks at a time. It sounds easy when someone says just finish one task and then move to the other. However, in the ugly reality, it is not easy at all. I didn’t know where to start, LITERALLY.
  • Its real power lies in its limitedness, i.e., a limited number of columns, limited tasks in progress etc.

Things I didn’t like about Kanban

With such a messy life, I cannot complain, yet let me list the inconveniences I experienced with Kanban here.

  • Things went a bit messy sometimes, because of unexpected pop-up tasks or I just get immersed in my overwhelming schedule again that I forget to plan it first.
  • On the task-level, I had to spend some time doing minor divisions. Sometimes it is not just possible to finish the entire task and move to the other. Some tasks need another level of planning, especially when I have to deliver part of some task, yet this does not mean that the whole task is done.
  • Kanban helps you plan things in a way that enables you to be productive. Some days, Kanban wasn’t enough, especially in days when I had lots of distractions. So I had to think of other productivity techniques, along with Kanban.

Now the hard days are gone, I think I’ll go on using Kanban. I might need to support it with Pomodoro or other productivity technique.

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However, till the moment, it works very well for me. If you want to give it a try, use a physical board or a project management application like Trello, create three columns, arrange them your way, focus on one task at a time, and have a finishable pipeline.

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