GTD: “Personal Kanban” – Getting Started

image As you can probably tell from my recent post history, I am really on a “Getting Things Done” push.

Current Task Process

I think my general task processing is now pretty slick (or at least it is for me). In short:

  • I use Remember the Milk.
  • I have “Personal” list got general, repeating tasks.
  • I have a “Work” list to track work items.
  • I have my “Tech ToDo” to track technical skills I want to improve.
  • I have a couple of smart lists to filter out specifics tags (such as articles/videos I have tagged for later review).
  • I maintain a list of “Annual Goals”, which contains failures and successes of the last year, and tasks for this year.
  • Other little system “enhancements” like My Dictaphone and Feeding Google Reader Items to RTM.

“Life Tasks” (Our “Stories”)

Now, on the whole, this system does work really well. However, I do find that it generally breaks down with big fluffy “life” tasks – tasks that you want to do, but are really, really broad and non-deterministic route to completion. They can also be lingering around on tasks lists for quite some time if they have a naturally long, slow time to completion.

From here on out, we are going to call these “life tasks” our “stories” to fall in line with standard Kanban language. I also personally find it “fits” nicely, since most life experiences end up as small stories to regale friends and family with :)

For example, here are some of my current stories (most of which have come off the “Annual ToDo”):

  • Sort/review finances.
  • Another trip to Las Vegas.
  • Sort Fitness.
  • Start my own business.

Now, some of these are relatively small, others pretty “epic”. So what’s the problem with these?

I personally find that integrating these in to a “ToDo” rather odd..

Tasks are Too Easy to De-Value

An item on the ToDo list can be easily viewed as “unimportant”. Also it can be hard to create a sense of urgency with tasks, since all you can really do is set a priority flag or due date on it. I think this misrepresents the task. It is not “urgent” or “due”, it simply need’s to “keep moving”. The problem with keeping “square” items in “circle holes” is that it de-values the position for other tasks. This is of course bad.

Tasks are Too Low-Level

Tasks are binary, they are either complete or incomplete. That means they must be deterministic, which we have already established that our stories are not. A lot of time can be wasted trying to flesh out all of the sub-tasks required, not to mention the overhead and management of those tasks.

It’s Hard to See Progression in Tasks

Most task management systems don’t really do a great job of showing progression for these kind of “open ended” tasks. How can they? Once a task has been broken in to sub-tasks it can be then hard to see how the “main” task is progressing.

Enter Kanban

I don’t really want to go deep into the Kanban process here. There are search engines for that. But I have been reviewing the process for a couple of days now to see if I can make use of, and integrate it into my current GTD system.

So, I fired up MindMeister and started brainstorming. Here is what I have so far:

In essence, I think many of the core concepts/principles of Kanban (and Lean) really fit well in to my way of thinking:

Only Do Things That Add Value

Otherwise, what’s the point? We are aiming to improve our lifestyle here!

Establish Pull

This is basically “only biting off what you can chew” this helps keep you focused and prevents a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Delay Commitment

This is in essence, “don’t bother if you can’t complete the task because you haven’t been given everything you need”. Each stage of the process should ensure a quality and complete handover to the next. Each part of the process focuses on doing one thing well.

Seek Perfection

I always endeavour to do this in each and every task I do. If we do not learn from our experiences, how do we ever expect to keep moving as a civilisation? Once we complete something, retrace our steps and learn from our mistakes and remember what caused successes.

Kanban vs. Tasks

This is where things start getting personal. There are many tasks that I have set up on “repeating” just to prod me and remind me to keep on top of it (i.e. “Do Laundry”, “Read RSS”). Now, being honest these tasks actually add very little real value to my life.

Yeah, sure it’s nice to always wear clean underpants but wearing clean underpants does not really get me closer to any of my goals does it? (don’t take this as “I am going to stop doing the laundry and wearing clean underpants”).

Tasks are “Control”

Thinking about it, I basically come to the conclusion that Tasks are really a “Control” mechanism. They exist not to really “add value”, but rather, they make sure we doing the things that can ultimately add value. They are stepping stones across the lake, of which we can only ever see the next.

Kanban Cards are “Value”

This is where things get interesting, contrary to Tasks, Kanban cards can be quite “open ended”. They may have smaller sub-tasks that must be completed to implement them, but they are a representation of a course of action that will result in additional value.

Tasks Need to Stay Lean

Just because Lean is often associated with Kanban, it does not mean that we cannot take the ideas and apply them to our Task management (remember “Seek Perfection” ;). Always keep a close eye on how your task management process is running as well as focusing on the Kanban board.

Others Trying Personal Kanban

While on my travels through Teh Interwebz, I came across Jim Benson’s Blog. He is doing a great job of blogging his thoughts and experiences with Personal Kanban and I wanted to give him a shout-out. :)

If you are also experimenting with Personal Kanban, then please let me know and I will get your name on here!

Wrap Up

You have probably noticed the “PAIR System” on the mind map – I will be posting on that very soon. In short, this I what I have come up with when trying to distil the Kanban process down to something that makes sense for our life stories.

I really think this methodology can work really well and help keep a constant flow of completed stories that actually make a real difference to the quality of our personal lives.

Don’t “chase the dream”, flow into it!

What are your thoughts? Anyone else there taking the Kanban process and applying it to their personal lives?


  1. I use something similar. I use bugzilla with dependency tracking (this task depends on that task, etc)
    then I can see a diagram rendered in graphviz that shows all the tasks and how they relate to each other. I can go as general as I need, and only create subtasks when I start to drill in. I also create subtasks when I can't do a task in one sitting, or if I can do part of a task with the info/time I have now.

    it also shows progress by graying out completed tasks.

    Note that I currently don't do this for personal stuff, but rather for my consulting gigs. I am considering doing that for more involved personal projects.

    I use to host the bugzilla install. $15/month. No other benefit for the plug, just satisfied customer.

  2. Re: Kanban cards expressing value and not tasks


    I totally agree. The problem is that initially people view work in terms of tasks first and value second. With the personal kanban series I'm noticing that if I start people off with tasks in their kanban, they naturally gravitate towards discussing value.

    But ... there are lots of crummy things individuals "have" to do each day that they write off as soon as they're done. I want people to see those tasks in their personal kanban. I want them to know what they did specifically so they can kill off the wasteful ones.

    Your post is awesome, btw. Thank yo for it.


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