Life & BusinessSelf Care

Three is the Magic Number: A Kanban Primer

by Caitlin Kelch

I’m turning 50 next month and I can’t believe it. It’s all good, but I had no idea that my subconscious would take five decades so seriously. I haven’t become a somber, serious woman — but I’ve noticed some changes that I didn’t consciously enact. One of the major ones is the feeling that I’m simply not that flexible any longer. My schedule has finally become just that. My schedule. If it hasn’t been scheduled and isn’t an emergency that affects what I hold dear personally or professionally, it moves to the rear of the queue. In that spirit of only supporting what I truly love and value, I’ve found myself back into the Kanban method. (Kanban literally means billboard or signboard in Japanese.)

Kanban is a visual productivity method developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, and it was originally used as a way to track projects or systems, where it was helpful for detecting issues that clog production. The method made its way into the world of software design here in the states at a time when design thinking was being considered as a plausible approach for managing one’s time and stress in everyday life.  When our daily to-do lists exceed one digit, it can produce stress and lower our productivity. It’s why we pull the covers up over our head and hit the snooze bar.

If you know each day you’re going to be doing or moving forward only three things, life becomes manageable. When life becomes manageable, it also becomes more enjoyable and allows you to more easily identify the sources of that joy. Armed with that positive knowledge, you’ll know how to and when to recharge. This is exactly how I want to spend the rest of my life.

Here’s how you can incorporate a little Kanban into your life. These are the big ideas to keep in mind as you read and consider practicing this method everyday.

  1. Try to do as few things as possible at a time
  2. Finish the work you have stared before taking on anything


To get started, grab some Post-Its or uniform size paper squares you’ve cut out. On each of the squares, list all the things, projects, tasks and worries that you’re responsible for at work and/or in life. Only include one project, task or to do on a square. You may want to break large projects down to the tasks that it will take to complete the project as a whole. This activity should be pretty simple. It might be a bit painful, so have a reward lined up for when you’ve completed it to thank yourself for taking this step towards creating less stress for yourself.

For those things in the To Do column that have a deadline, make a note of the due date in the corner and estimate the time you think it will take you to complete it. If it will take days, add an extra day. If it will take several hours, add an extra hour. If it will take 60 minutes, add another 30 minutes.

In other words, give yourself some extra time so that the inevitable roadblocks don’t derail you & have you question or abandon the system.

Next create some type of grid pattern with masking or washi tape if you’re using a small section of wall. Of course, a grid on paper will work too. Clearly label the columns TO DO, IN PROGRESS and DONE. If you’re like me and get overwhelmed with the amount of To Dos, feel feel to cover that column with a blank piece of paper and only uncover it as needed to populate your In Progress column. I do prioritize the tasks in my To Do column so I don’t have to spend much time in there when I go to grab something that I’m moving to the In Progress column.

So, working this method, you’re going to work on only one thing at a time. While your working, you’re not going to check your phone or email. You will only have three things in your In Progress column at any given time. That means you should create a note for even things like checking email and move it back and forth from the To Do to the In Progress column multiple times per day. If you can, limit your email checking to 2 – 3 times per day, unless you’re waiting for some timely information.

Don’t worry about what anyone will say regarding this new system when you explain that you can’t get to their request immediately. You can tell them this is how you do your best work — by completely focusing on one thing at a time. Let them know that when you’re focusing on their request, you will be exclusively focused on that work and that’s how you can best serve them.

At the end of the day, break at least 30 minutes before you plan to leave your desk. Take this time to review what you’ve done, see if your priorities in the To Do column have or need to be changed and pull the three To Dos you plan on working on tomorrow. Don’t move them into the In Progress yet. You’ll do that first thing to get oriented and start your day. If you still have leftovers from the day in the In Progress column, move them back to the top of the To Do column.

After doing this daily for a week or two, you’ll have insights that a consultant would if they observed you and your business. My insights were astounding. I knew email was a endless stream, but I didn’t realize I spent almost 40% of my time reading and answering emails. That’s insane, and leaves me set up to be behind on projects that my team has identified as important and we’ve designed to advance our shared values. By giving away 40% of my time, I was not living according to my values so, of course, I felt stressed. (I now profusely use Canned Replies as much as I can.)

I also realized that I always needed to take a break after doing my email tasks. Once I took a break, it was harder to go back and start a new task. After I limited checking my email to twice per day, I had my lunch break and end-of-the-day to recover and reward myself with a big stretch and long, slow deep breath.

Here’s hoping this method can help you tame your day so you can enjoy it more! If you have any tried and true methods that help you manage your time or organize your day, please share them in the comments. I’d love to know and have them in my arsenal as I approach the big 5 – 0.  –Caitlin 

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