Turbocharge your Personal Kanban with GTD


Personal productivity and time management tools/methods have always been a subject of interest. Numerous methods and tools have been developed over the years. However, few seem to stick over time. Given that any tool or method needs a certain level of discipline at an individual level, is there a method that can really help you manage better, visualize what you need to do and most importantly, stick? In this blog, I am going to share my own experience of tackling this challenge.

I got exposed to Lean thinking when we first started using the Kanban Method for our software development. That was about 8 years ago. Since then, I started using Kanban Boards, visualizing work, limiting the number of things on our plate, etc. It was transformational in terms of its impact on the team.

A few years later, I came across Jim Benson’s adaptation of the Kanban Method to personal productivity, called Personal Kanban. Personal Kanban adopted 2 principles from The Kanban Method. I will talk about these in brief:

  1. Visualisation
  2. Limiting Work-In-Progress (WIP)

Visualization – A Picture is worth a 1000 Words!

Visualization helps you do 2 things:

A. See your work items as cards, physical or electronic. Suddenly, amorphous in mind memory ToDo’s (work-items) that you know you have to do become something that you can see, track (or even touch and feel, if they are physical – like actual paper). In the picture below, you see a few examples of a person’s ToDo’s such as “Use Kanban”, “Try Kanban Tool”, “Learn About Kanban”, “Get Some Sticky Notes” and “Get a White Board”.

Gtd With Kanban

B. Put the ToDo’s on a board where you can see the process you follow and track the progress of your work. In the most simple form, the Board will comprise of the Backlog (ToDo) -> InProgress (Doing) -> Done stages, as shown in the picture above. Of course, depending on the nature of your work and the sophistication of the workflow you follow, you can make it more elaborate. But, better to start simple!

You can use an electronic tool like SwiftKanban to build your Personal Kanban board. An electronic tool can make it easier to maintain your Kanban board and make changes when needed. More importantly, it is accessible wherever you are – at home, work or in-between. With my SwiftKanban mobile app, my Personal Kanban system is always with me. If something comes to my mind when I am shopping in the mall, I can add it on the Board immediately, without the burden of having to remember it till I get to a computer!

Getting Things Done In Swiftkanban

The next step in Personal Kanban is to create a “Next” lane. Introducing a “Next” lane between Backlog and the In-Progress Lane helps focus on what I really need to work on. In the process, it consciously deprioritises what I cannot work on now. That helps reset expectation with other people if I was supposed to get back to them. It helps bring down stress levels!

Getting Things Done

Limiting WIP (or Stop Starting! Start Finishing!)

Contrary to the conventional thinking that multitasking is great, current behavioral science tells us otherwise. In fact, HBR says that multi-tasking brings down personal productivity by as much as 25-30%. Multi-tasking increases stress levels and people get burnt out. Defining a WIP limit, i.e., how many things we are going to work on at the same time, helps prioritize what we must do now. Once again, like the Next lane, it gives us a list of cards that we will NOT be working on and set expectations to yourself/others.

Kanban, with a clear focus on improving flow, strongly emphasizes defining and adhering to WIP limits in order to make sure that work that has already been taken up is completed first before starting new work. The WIP Limits serve as constant reminders (and as actual constraints in an electronic tool such as SwiftKanban) of this important concept. Nowhere are WIP limits more important than when applying to oneself. We all believe in and love multitasking. It is completely counter-intuitive to us that doing one thing at a time actually helps us accomplish more in lesser time!

Jim Benson took these basic – but crucial – aspects of Kanban and applied them to be used for us to manage our own work. And with dramatic effect. If you want to learn more about Personal Kanban, just go over to Jim’s website! You can also read up this excellent post on the topic on our own blog.

So, where does GTD fit in?

For those of you not familiar with it, GTD (Getting Things Done) is a popular tool for help you – as the name suggests – getting things done! The Brainchild of David Allen, it is a very popular tool for thousands of people around the world. Those of you who would like to learn about it can find out more at the link referenced above.

GTD helps us in “Getting” the prioritized card done. There are a few key practices from the GTD body of knowledge that tremendously boost the effectiveness of Personal Kanban. I will discuss a couple of these below that I have found to be most useful:

1. Mind-sweep: GTD strongly recommends clearing everything from the mind and moving them to a system of our choice. The mind should be used to doing things; not trying to remember things. For a Personal Kanban user, the system of choice is our Personal Kanban system.

2. Contextualize: GTD recommends contextualizing cards into buckets. Contextualisation helps by clearly having a set of cards that we need to work on when we are in that context. In other words, we are not carrying the burden of full WIP in our execution plate but ONLY what is in our context at the moment.

The two most elementary buckets are: “Work” and “Home”. Of course, if you have a long commute and don’t usually transport yourself, you might also consider “Commute” as a third bucket. Almost everything we do can be categorized into those two (or three) buckets. However, in GTD, we go one level deeper. Almost all work we need to do will have one of the following immediate actionables:

A) “Call” someone as the immediate next step.
B) Use a “Computer” (or some similar device) to do the immediate next.
C) Run an “Errand” for the immediate next, or
D) An “Others” bucket for any next step that doesn’t fit in the above three. I have it but it is rarely used.

GTD asks you to categorize all our work into one of these above buckets so that you have a clear set of all actual “things” we need to do. These are or will become our WIP and hence, must count towards our WIP limits on the Kanban board.

However, in addition to the above, we may have work in progress where the next actionable is not on us. We may be waiting for an external event or a response from someone else before we can do our next step. For example, I may need to get a Passport issued. In India, once I have submitted the application, I need to wait for the Passport Agency to do a physical verification, which is done by the local police. Once that is done, I can proceed to the next To Do item in my list of work.

GTD deals with such work items, where the final outcome is pending, by categorizing them as “Projects”. These work items are not part of our WIP since the next step is not with us. Such Projects may occur under both Work and Home categories.

Overall, GTD recognizes that we work at different “levels” and in different contexts – and it gives us some very useful tools to recognize and organize all our tasks in a manner that makes it easy for us to remember them and do them.

Marrying GTD with Personal Kanban

Clearly, Personal Kanban and GTD both provide some simple yet powerful and effective tools for us to do what we all struggle to do – get our work done! Using them both together seemed to be to be a no-brainer! And that is precisely what I have done – and so can you.

So, how do you put these 2 together? If you are already using a Personal Kanban board and now apply to it the rules of GTD, your Personal Kanban board might look like this –

Personal Kanban Board

As you can see, the Kanban board now contextualizes all the work defined on it – and also provides for “Projects” – and as you identify new work items and contextualize them, you place them in appropriate lanes of your Kanban board.

You might even have a column to the left of your To Do column, where you put down everything you identify during each Mind-sweep exercise you do – perhaps call the column “Mind-sweep”!

Once all the cards have been contextualized in different buckets, we have dramatically increased our focus when we are in any particular context. When I am at home in front of the computer, I know exactly what all needs to get done. When I am stepping out of home to run errands, I have a ready list of errands that I need to act upon. I don’t have to remember anything – it’s all there on my personal Kanban board! It is such a liberating feeling!

Personal Kanban and GTD – A Marriage made in Productivity Heaven!

As a result of applying Personal Kanban and GTD together, you are able to:

  1. Visualize your work.
  2. Prioritize by enforcing WIP limits on yourself.
  3. De-stress yourself by getting back to people who might be expecting you to do something that you have not yet prioritized.
  4. Declutter your mind further by focussing on getting things done; not trying to remember stuff.
  5. Contextualize your work to make your work focussed to the context you are in at any time.

Putting GTD and Personal Kanban together places a simple, powerful and effective tool in your hands. Whether you do it on a physical board or an electronic Kanban software, it helps you stay focused on the tasks at hand.

Using an electronic Kanban board gives you the advantage of potentially have it on a mobile app so that you have it always with you. I will, of course, recommend using SwiftKanban, where I have my own Personal Kanban and from where some of the screenshots for this blog have been taken.

Update – We now have a built-in template for Personal Kanban & GTD in SwiftKanban. If you don’t have an account yet, you can start a free trial here, no strings attached 🙂

Here’s to getting organized – and getting things done!

Anshuman Singh & Sudipta Lahiri

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Sudipta Lahiri

Sudipta Lahiri

Sudipta Lahiri - Head of Products and Engineering, Digite - Sudipta (Sudi) has been in the IT industry for nearly 3 decades. He brings together a mix of experience across various IT Services and product companies. At Digité, he heads our Engineering and Product Management functions. He leads the development of SwiftEnterprise and SwiftKanban products. Sudipta is passionate about Lean-Agile transformation. He led Digité’s transformation process and helps various organizations in that capacity. Sudi holds a Master’s degree from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras. Follow Sudipta on Twitter @sudiptal

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