Imagine having a method to manage your life that’s easy to use, keeps ideas and projects organized, prevents you from taking on too much at once, and helps you reach your goals. That’s personal kanban.
Kanban is a methodology for organizing and tracking work. It started in Japan in car manufacturing facilities and later became popular among software developers. It’s different from other methods of organizing work in two important ways. First, it looks different. To use kanban, we need a kanban board or kanban app, which lets people visualize work in a new way. I’ll explain how it works in more detail in a moment alongside a few images. Second, it’s very good at limiting how much work any one person is assigned at any given time. In this way, kanban is great for people who tend to take on too much at once and therefore sabotage their productivity.
You can use kanban in your personal life for a variety of uses, such as:
sharing a to-do list with other household members
organizing a wedding or other big event
running group projects (such as collaborative schoolwork, activism efforts, or volunteer work)
sorting and tracking ideas of any kind (anything from what to make for dinner to your holiday shopping list)
So, what is kanban and how does it work?
What Is Kanban?
Kanban is a method for organizing and tracking work, usually with a group of people, although it can be used privately by one person. We start with a board that contains columns. Each column has a significance. The simplest example we can use to understand kanban is to name the columns To Do, Doing, and Done. This is merely an example. You can name the columns whatever you want and use them however you want.
Next, we have cards. Each card contains a task. You put these cards onto the board in one of the columns. So, if we were to write down a list of all the things we need to do today, we would have a set of cards in the To Do column and no cards in the other two columns.
As we work on tasks, we move the associated card to the column that best presents its state of work. Tasks that are in progress go into the Doing column. When a task is finished, it goes into the Done column. You can clear out cards from the Done column as often as you like.
Each card can have more detail than just the task name. Let’s imagine we’re using the kanban board here to manage a family chore list. Every member of the household gets assigned a few tasks. Each person writes their name on the card, and perhaps the card also has a due date on it. Now, when we look at the board, we see who is assigned to each task and the state of all the tasks. In this way, we get a big-picture idea of the state of all the work.
Here’s the key: Kanban boards create a visual representation for something that otherwise isn’t visual at all. It’s also interactive because you have to move the cards as you finish different stages of work.
What Else Can Kanban Do?
We already know that kanban boards can help us manage work and see the state of work across a team. Let’s imagine a few more examples of using kanban at home to see what else it can do.
Another benefit of kanban has to do with physically moving cards from one column to another. People who don’t think linearly sometimes find that moving ideas around helps them process information.
For example, let’s say you’re planning a wedding. You might have a column called Pending where you put tasks that are pending confirmation or rely on other tasks getting done first. For example, you might have a task to create a seating arrangement diagram, but you can’t finish that until you have a confirmed guest list created. As you move these tasks from one column to another, it might help you process the status of each task and have a mental grasp on what must come next.
KanbanFlow and LeanKit. Once a person hits the limit, the app prevents them from getting new assignments. Some apps merely make it a suggestion by adding a red flag when you exceed your limit. WIP limits can also be an informal rule that you follow. It doesn’t have to be a feature with a tool.
You can certainly use kanban boards for more than tracking tasks. In the classic example of how to use kanban, each column on the board represents a phase or step in a workflow. That doesn’t have to be the case, however. You can just as easily use a kanban app to brainstorm, sort ideas, or even save images in a virtual pinboard (it’s like having a private Pinterest board, but without a feed of content from other people).
meal-kit delivery services. When I review other products, I can easily take notes about each one and perhaps make a spreadsheet to compare products. With the meals, however, I found it much easier to keep notes and remember the different dishes I ate when I saw pictures of them. So I started a kanban board with all the meals I made. Each column matched the name of a company, and each card represented one of the meals. I added pictures, notes, and a link to the recipe.
In this way, you can use kanban boards to save ideas about future vacation destinations (or keep notes on vacations you have taken in the past). Or you can make a collection of your favorite recipes and choose a few to put into a column representing what you’ll make for dinner each night this week. The sky’s the limit for using kanban for brainstorming and sorting ideas.
Kanban apps are plentiful, and many of them are free or at least have a free tier of service. Some are better than others, depending on how you intend to use them.
Trello is among the most popular kanban-style apps because it’s so user-friendly. For this reason, it’s probably my top pick for using kanban for personal organization (as opposed to in a business setting). The free version doesn’t come with a ton of features, but you can add the features you want via “power-ups.” A few examples of power-ups are a calendar view, time-tracking, and custom fields. Free accounts come with one power-up per board, and you get more with a paid account. If you’re interested in using Trello to stay organized, see my tips for getting the most out of it.
Zenkit is another great option for a kanban app for personal use. Similar to Trello, Zenkit is very easy to use and highly customizable. I also like that it isn’t overly business-focused. The look and feel is light, friendly, and colorful.
Asana didn’t start out as a kanban app (it’s a collaborative work management app), but in the last few years, it added a feature called Boards so that people could use kanban in managing their work if they wanted. Asana is a great tool for tracking tasks among a group of people, especially if you use a lot of text-based information, such as writing checklists within your tasks.
Leankit has more features than many other kanban-style apps, so it’s a good one to use if you care deeply about WIP limits, swimlanes (that’s the ability to automatically sort the content on your board not only into vertical columns, but also horizontally), and others. There is no free tier of service with Leankit, but you can get a free trial.
Wrike is another great app for kanban. It’s fairly business-focused, however, making it a good tool if you plan to use it for both business and personal organization. There’s a free tier of service with limited features, although it’s quite feature-rich if you pay the subscription fee for the premium service.
If traditional to-do lists don’t work for you, I would highly encourage you to try a kanban board. What I like most about kanban is that it caters to different types of people. If you are a non-linear thinker, work best when you can see a lot of information at a glance, or need tactile action to help you process information, then kanban might be for you.