Welcome to the blog. If you’re unfamiliar with what we do here, make sure to check out my first post detailing why I decided to open up this new section of the site. This is the third part of a larger series that we’ve planned detailing our journeys through different productivity strategies and workflows. Today I’ll be writing about my personal journey through Kanban boards. I’ll talk about how I got started, the pros and cons, how you can implement it, and ultimately why I didn’t settle for it. If you just want to jump to a specific part of the article, no worries, there’s a table of contents below.
How I Got Started
Kanban boards have been implemented in many different areas, from large scale business projects to the smallest of personal projects. Created by Toyota automotive engineer Taiichi Ohno, the system focused on visualizing the workflows in the factory and identifying potential bottlenecks in the process. How did it do this?
The kanban system relies on a set of boards that represent steps in a process for a project that you want to finish. Most of the times, the boards will have some variation of the following:
- To do
In the To Do column, you’ll stick a list of your cards (Whether digital or physical) with projects/tasks that you need to finish. In a publication, for instance, this section may contain items like “interview CEO of X company” or “Review edits before publication”. When you start doing these tasks, you move them to the Doing column, to remind yourself that these are being worked on. When you finish, you put these into the Done column. Pretty self explanatory right?
The reason why you might want to do this would be to track where your time is being spent, which cards are getting stuck in the doing column, and how much you can handle in a specific period of time if you are timing your project deadlines. If you hadn’t finished four or five tasks by the deadline, you might refine your working strategy to either minimize tasks that take up a lot of time or refine your workflow.
Now this is the most basic–and probably popular–way to use this strategy. It keeps it simple. You don’t have to worry about excessive lists and complicated procedures. It’s also pretty low friction. But once you start using these boards more, you might find that you will need some customization. That’s how I found my relationship with the system evolve over the years.
My first encounter with kanban boards was in my freshman year at high school with Trello. At the time, my knowledge of productivity workflows and strategies was at a bare minimum to say the least, and so when I tried to go all in, learn all the keyboard shortcuts and advanced tips to integrate Trello into my daily life, I failed quite miserably. I picked up the technique once again towards the end of my sophomore year, and that’s when I made it stick. The flexibility and visual appeal of kanban boards and cards helped me better see my timelines and where I was for certain steps in the writing process.
Unlike most kanban board tutorials had preached, I found that the “To Do”, “Doing”, “Done” format didn’t quite work well for me so I customized the boards to fit my particular needs. The beauty of the boards was based on their singular ability to track a multitude of projects in a linear fashion without seeming cluttered.
I specifically used the system to track progress on my articles. I split up the board into seven columns: emailing, interviewing, transcribing, outlining, writing, editing, and published.
Although this proved to be slightly higher friction than the easy three column set-up, I found that it fit my needs much better. I discovered that I was spending a disproportionately high amount of time on transcribing and writing, while steps like outlining and interviewing could go by quite fast.
Moreover, my previously disorganized and confused approach to writing articles which consisted of trying to remember who I had interviewed and where I placed the interview audio file was replaced with a ruthlessly organized approach that helped me visualize everything I was doing and what needed to be done. I didn’t just settle for the bare bones cards; I integrated checklists, descriptions, and deadlines into every one of the cards so that even when a task was in the transcribe section, at a quick glance, I could tell how far along I was on that transcription.
Unlike time blocking which I found to be significantly more convenient during weeks when my schedule was completely open, the kanban system worked in pretty much any circumstance that I needed it. Despite the fact that I still found it a bit difficult to use in my everyday life for school projects or other extracurriculars (I’ll talk more about that in a future post), the productivity strategy was remarkably good at cleaning up my BWS publishing schedule.
The Good and the Bad about Kanban Boards
Every productivity strategy has its pros and cons; some may work perfectly for you and others may be a dismal failure. In the below list, I’ll talk about some of the unique things that I noticed while I was using the kanban system.
You can use the kanban technique for pretty much any project you want no matter the size. Although I primarily used it for my writing, I had also used it when I was in a time crunch to finish a school project and needed a way to track what tasks still needed to be done. Furthermore, as shown before, there are infinite ways to customize the columns to fit your workflow needs.
There are so many different services that offer kanban boards as a way to improve your productivity. Ranging from Asana to Trello and even Github, the popular system can be utilized on a variety of platforms. The two places I have personally implemented the system are on Asana and Trello. Asana is incredibly good for team projects and integrating the checklist system with the kanban board, although many of its more useful features are premium. Trello has an incredible breadth and depth of use for just its free service as well as Zapier and IFTTT integrations with other software so that you can do things like turn reminders on your phone into cards on the app.
Most kanban board platforms offer an incredible amount of customization and give access to numerous features that can up your productivity game. Since I use Trello the most, I will use the features there as my examples. Trello has basic features like deadline setting and tagging, but it also has useful features like card checklists, task assignments, keyboard shortcuts, insanely easy import functionality, and fast integration with numerous different services like gmail.
The Learning Curve
As you might have noticed, the kanban system has quite the learning curve if you want to go beyond the basic “to do”, “doing”, “done” system. If you just want to use the absolute basics, it’s quite easy to implement, but going beyond that can prove to be a challenge.
I have personally always preferred productivity strategies that are easy to access and low maintenance. Kanban boards are not like this. Indeed, that’s why I pretty much only use them for one part of my life. Sometimes, it can get tiring to constantly have to go on the boards, move cards, check off tasks, do comprehensive reviews, and keep it organized. It’s a hassle. If you have a hard time maintaining habits, this might not be right for you because there’s a medium to high level of involvement in order to reap the benefits.
If you’re the kind of person to like pen and paper, then this may not be the best for you. In order to get the most out of the system, a digital service with syncing capabilities is pretty much necessary. While you can do everything from bullet journaling to time blocking and checklists in a notebook, it’s quite difficult to do the kanban boards all by hand.
I will go through the most basic way to get started with kanban boards on trello and then link on the bottom so more advanced tools and tips to help you maximize your output.
To Do, Doing, Done Method
First open up trello and click on the plus sign to create a new board for a project that you’re working on. Choose whatever background suits your taste; I prefer pictures. Once you’re in on your board, create three lists/columns:
- To do
This is where you will keep track of all your taks. Now it’s time to populate the board! Make some cards in the To Do column for tasks that you want to get done.
If you click on the card, Trello will open up an interface for you to explore that allows you to add features like members, labels, checklists, due dates, and attachments. If you want, you can add a description and some comments for context.
That’s pretty much all you need to get started! Once you have all the tasks you can think of down, you’ll be able to move them into the Doing column using the drag and drop interface and then into the Done column when you’re finished. Periodically (for me that’s at the end of every day), review your board and think about what needs to be done and when. If you have any other thoughts, quickly put them down into the To Do column so you don’t stress out about it.
Cool Tools and Tips
IFTTT – This platform allows you to integrate your trello boards with other parts of your life like your email or task lists.
Zapier – Similar to IFTTT, this software just has more customization and integrations, although the more advanced features cost money.
Trello – My favorite kanban board system.
Asana – I use this kanban board integrated productivity suite for team projects. The premium version costs money, but it is also significantly better than the free version.
Board Tips – This is literally a trello board of the best trello tips to improve your experience with the kanban system.
Why I Still Use It
Kanban boards are incredibly flexible. Moreover, my workflows are so ingrained in the system that I probably couldn’t stop using them if I wanted. However, the complexity and high friction nature of the strategy means that I probably won’t be using them for any more than high level projects or Businesses With Stories.