On Using Personal Kanban to Organize Your Work (and Life!)

There are many types of productivity methods and resources for how to use them.  I’ll touch on others another day but for now I want to talk about the most basic productivity/organization method I use: Personal Kanban.

I first discovered Kanban two years ago while attending a Philadelphia Self Quantifiers meetup at The Action Mill. The first thing I noticed when I stepped foot into The Action Mill was tons of sticky notes of all different colors covering every wall, separated by tape in varying ways. I was immediately drawn in and asked what this was all about. I was given a quick explanation and told to check out the Personal Kanban Webinar on their blog.

From that point on Personal Kanban completed changed my life, both at work and at home. I’ve talked about this ad nauseam to friends, colleagues, random folks who stop by my office and ask what the heck the tape monstrosity on the wall is, and even did a presentation on Kanban during a job interview (I didn’t get the position but I did make a good impression on some folks there). And now I want to share this knowledge with you!

What is Kanban/Personal Kanban?

Kanban is a productivity method with two main components: 1. Visualizing your Work 2. Limiting your work in Progress. Kanban was developed in the 1940s by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota as a system to improve and maintain a high level of production5. While I’m sure there are some folks who use Kanban the way Toyota originally structured it to be used, it has evolved and there are now a plethora of resources and ways to personalize Kanban to your needs.

How do you set up a Kanban? 

The very basic way to use Kanban is to have three main bins (also called lists, boards, etc):

1. To Do (also called Backlog)
2. Doing (also called Work in Progress)
3. Done.

These bins can be physical or electronic (more on that in a minute). Each bin contains “cards” (Post-Its) with items that need to be completed. Cards move from Bin to Bin as your workflow progresses.

One of the most important points when using Kanban is that your Doing/Work In Progress bin can only have a certain number of items on it (determined by you). I try to limit this to three. This doesn’t necessarily mean I have to finish those three items before I can do anything else, but it means I can only be actively working on three tasks at one time. This is important because it keeps me from overloading myself and doing too many tasks at once while making little to no progress on any of them (my home Kanban cheats a little with this because it has some inspirational phrases that live permanently on my Doing board)

A slightly more advanced Kanban may have a “Scheduled” bin for tasks you already have on your calendar and a “Waiting” bin for tasks which cannot be completed until someone replies to an email/finishes their portion of the task/etc. You can customize your Kanban to fit whatever your needs are. For example, I manage a lab and am in charge of inventory/etc (in addition to a million other things) so I have a bin for Orders in addition to the bins mentioned above (see my work Kanban below – you’ll notice I have a happy and sad face to warn my interns when I am in a good or bad mood, it’s been surprisingly useful).

My boss was skeptical about my Kanban when I first started using it, but eventually he started adding things to it for me. Coworkers and my younger sister have also added some non-sensical items to the board to be funny (“Take More Naps”), this may annoy some but it usually makes me laugh so I keep them on there. My lab members have also used my kanban as a way to track me down if they can’t find me and need something right away. Another useful way I’ve used my work Kanban is by assigning each lab member a specific sticky-note color, this helps me keep track of experiments I am performing for specific people’s projects.


If you find any of this confusing I highly recommend the aforementioned Personal Kanban Webinar by The Action Mill.

Using Kanban At Home

I initially began using Kanban to help with my productivity flow at work, and it worked so well I decided to make one for home. I started using Kanban at home in hopes of keeping better track of art projects, chores, events, etc. I use it in combination with my visual door calendar shown in the meal planning blog post to keep track of what I am doing each day and what needs to be done. For my home Kanban, I wanted it to be slightly more visually appealing than just tape on a wall, so I got some cheap frames at IKEA and used some decorative paper I got at Blick to make my bins (See photo below, also note those photos are at least a year old). I made sure to buy a super tiny frame for my Doing bin so I wouldn’t have room to add too much to it.

I have to admit my home Kanban could use some cleaning up. For example, as mentioned earlier, I have some post-its with daily tasks and inspiration quotes that live on my Doing board and clutter it up. In the future, I’d like to use specific colors for different tasks as I do with lab members at work (IE One color for art projects, one for chores, etc) to organize my home Kanban further.


My home Kanban and workspace


Close up and slightly changed arrangement of home Kanban

Why Kanban?

While there are tons of different productivity methods, Kanban works well for me because I am a visually minded person with ADD. Being able to visualize all of my tasks helps me not only keep track of everything I am doing/need to do, but also keeps me from getting overwhelmed and completely forgetting tasks as a result. I am also a reward-driven individual, and being able to move a post-it into the Done bin makes me ridiculously happy and motivated to do more. But Kanban doesn’t necessarily have to be your only productivity method, it can (and maybe should) be used in combination with any other methods you prefer.

Other Ways to Use Kanban

There are a lot of different electronic forms of Kanban available, but my favorite and the one I find the most user-friendly is Trello. After you sign up for Trello you can either use one basic page or make different “Boards” if you want different Kanbans for different areas of your life. For example some of my Boards are: Home Life, Food, LifeBook 2015 (a year-long art course I’m taking), Bills, and Blog. Once you have set up a board you can create personalized lists (see below for a basic Kanban set-up using Trello) and then add Cards/Tasks to each list. Trello is great because you can add reminders and due dates to cards. You can also have shared boards on Trello for projects involving multiple people, and there’s a Trello Business Class option for companies that may want to use it to organize projects. It took me a minute to figure it out but you can change the color of each board, this is a small feature but it’s one that I really liked. If you try out Trello and have any questions feel free to comment or email me for help!

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.28.42 AM

Another way to use Kanban electronically is Kanbanote. Kanbanote is an application which organizes your Evernote notes into Trello-like boards. Evernote is an essential part of my personal organization system, so it’s great to be able to combine Evernote with Kanban if I want to (I don’t do this right now because I am really into Trello, but it’s good to know I could).

That’s the jist of (Personal) Kanban. If you want to get started and have any questions feel free to comment or email! If you already use Kanban and have any specific customized bins you use please share, I am always looking for ways to improve my personal organization methods!

(Most) References and additional resources

  1. Five Best Productivity Methods
  2. Personal Kanban Webinar by The Action Mill
  3. Personal Kanban 101 (PersonalKanban.com)
  4. What is Kanban? (Kanbanblog.com)
  5. Kanban (Wiki Article)
  6. Trello
  7. Kanbanote Organizes Your Evernote Notes in Trello-Like Boards
  8. Kanbanote download link 
  9. (Book) Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Tonianne DeMaria Barry & Jim Benson

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About tamarahala

Tamara is currently living in Pennsylvania working as a Scheduling Coordinator/Payroll Supervisor with Live Nation Entertainment. Looking for fun short-term opportunities during the off season from November to March.

6 responses to “On Using Personal Kanban to Organize Your Work (and Life!)”

  1. JenMcCleary says :

    I use kanbanflow.com to track my work projects and absolutely love it. It also has a built-in timer which is great for projects where I need to track my hours for billing. (I have a paid version- the timer might not be included in the free version) I tried also using it for home/personal projects and didn’t like it so much. I think I might try a sticky note version for that soon!


  2. jeanneheffron says :

    Hi there, I found your blog by searching for RescueTime Premium reviews, but I followed links to the Kanban post and am really intrigued by Kanban. I also respond best to visual stimuli to stay on task.

    Have you had much success using Trello on your smartphone? I use my phone to basically keep my schedule/life together. The drawback is that it isn’t always I my field of vision. I have been trying Wunderlist for a few months but too often things languish in my lists instead of moving through to completion.

    It is an interesting world we live in. As a freelancer who works at home, on one hand I know I want to better use my “work time” so that I have guilt free off hours, yet on the other hand doing at 2pm on a Tuesday isn’t necessarily unproductive, but perhaps not the best use of my time!

    Productivity is a loaded word for sure!


    • tamarahala says :

      Hi! Thanks for reading!

      Kanban is definitely awesome if you’re a visual person. I have Trello and have used it a little both online and on my phone, but found I haven’t stuck to it too much lately, this is partially because I have A LOT going on, and partially because the things I have going on aren’t so much task-based so I don’t need Trello as much. I got a friend into Trello (And Zapier/IFTTT) to organize his life, he uses it on his phone and LOVES it. He uses it in a much more detailed and strategic way than I do because his work is much different (IE I set up Zapier for him to add any Google calendar invites to his Trello, because he has a lot of planned meetings for work) and it seems to be really great for him, even just using the mobile version.

      I think it really depends on how your brain works and the best personal organization methods for you (and omg there are so many!). Some people are better with electronic forms than others (funny, because we have our phones with us all the time yet checking things off in apps is difficult). In the past, I have found that I am not as good at keeping electronic to-do lists going. There’s something about having a tangible list I can physically check off that works for me. I use both Kanban, and more recently a Bullet Journal (check out http://www.bulletjournal.com) for this. I REALLY like how the bullet journal system works but again, like with Trello, the things I have going on aren’t really task-based so I don’t need lists as much right now.

      I can see working from home being tough to manage. This is somewhere I can definitely see a physical Kanban coming in handy because it’s right in your face (I made my home Kanbans with pretty paper under some cheap but cool looking IKEA frames and I stick post-its to them). Rescuetime premium is also really good for this because you can track your offline time. Have you read many articles or any books about time management? There’s something to be said for tracking your time (Rescuetime to the rescue!) and finding out what your peak productivity hours are so you can schedule focused work for those times. I am reading 168 Hours by Lisa Vanderkam and it talks a lot about this.

      I am going to be unemployed soon and facing a lot of time working at home. I know that given an entire unstructured day I tend to do less, so I came up with a (slightly insane) schedule for each day and made some rules about how many tasks I can change or skip per week/etc. I am planning to use Trello for this because I can easily move tasks around, but I laid it out in Excel originally, you can see it here. Maybe making a structured plan for each day could help you with your work at home?


  3. jeanneheffron says :

    Doing laundry*** at 2pm. Haha.


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