Sometimes, a tool doesn’t need to be complicated or counterintuitive to be effective. Kanban Boards are one of those things. They just make sense.
So today I’m going to convince you to start using kanban boards.
Kanban (which basically means “signboard” in Japanese) was developed by Toyota to keep their production line moving smoothly, without gaps in product creation or overcapacity of the system by doing too many things at once. For a probably unnecessarily and complicated history of Kanban that runs the risk of scaring you away, head over to Wiki.
But I’m not here to bog you down in the details. That’s not what The Consistent Creative is about. By the time you are done reading this blog, I want you USING kanban boards, not attempting to understand them philosophically. So let’s break it down, really basic. While kanban boards were created for teams working collaboratively on tasks, today we are going to look at how to apply them to your solo creative work. Here’s what you need to know.
If you try to focus on too many things at once, you get overwhelmed. It’s hard to get anything done because you are lost in the details.
Conversely, if you have to spend time thinking about what next thing you are going to work on every time you finish a task, you experience gaps in your productivity where you are weighing the pros and cons of what to do next. Which is super counterproductive.
So what do you do? You create a kanban board.
You can do this right now with a magical stationary item called post it notes. Here’s the steps:
1) Create a list of post-it notes for your “priority list” – one item per post-it.
These are all the things you need to do in the near future. Put all the things you can think of in a vertical stack, one on top of the other.
2) Decide your “limit” for how many things you are willing to focus on at a time. This is called your WIP – works in progress limit.
This doesn’t mean at the same time, of course. I’m still a fan of deep work and doing one task at a time. It’s just making a call on how many “top priorities” you want to focus on before you start allowing your brain to focus on anything else. Setting a limit on your WIP reduces the cognitive drain that comes from looking at a big long priority list. My recommendation: your WIP should be NO MORE than 3 or 4 items.
3) Decide on 3 or 4 post it items you want to move into WIP, to the right of the first column.
Once you move those items, you cannot move ANY other items into the WIP column until you have completed one of your items. So you can put aside all thought of those other items, and focus on the task in front of you.
4) As you finish a task, move it into the completed column, to the right.
Every time you complete a task, you can either move another task into the WIP or continue chugging along on the tasks in front of you.
The brilliance of this tactic is that when our minds go “squirrel!” and come up with some random new task that we MUST DO RIGHT NOW, we are quickly confronted with the reality of our WIP limit. We can’t shift to this new shiny task, until we clear up space in the middle column, the works in progress. We just put it on a card, place it in the first column, and return our attention to the task at hand.
Or we decide the task is not actually worth being on the board at all – it is just a unnecessary diversion – so we let it go altogether. It keeps us from derailing ourselves by getting distracted and lost in other tasks – a very common issue for many creatives.
I love kanban boards because they are a healthy alternative to strict and rigid deep work.
While focusing on only one thing at a time (a WIP limit of 1) is the stuff of creative utopia, the reality is usually messier. My WIP Limit is 3, and that allows me to have a few tasks going at the same time so I can shift gears between incomplete tasks without guilt as my inspiration flows from one thing to the next, but without creative resistance getting the best of me by overwhelming my brain with other things to do.
Review your to-do list daily or weekly.
I recommend setting a time, either daily or weekly, to review your first column and make sure it has plenty of items in it that can glide into the WIP when you have a slot free up.
That way you don’t experience decision fatigue in the middle of your creative process. You have all the items right in front of you, and you just need to move one over to the middle column and get back to the grind.
Don’t want to waste paper with a bunch of post-its or work out of locations that wouldn’t appreciate you covering the windows in them? Project management tools like Trello and Asana are PERFECT for kanban. Just create three columns and create cards that you can shift around for each task. This is how I do it, and that way, I have my kanban board with me everywhere I go.
So what do you say? Did I convince you? Now get out there and kanban your way to optimal productivity!