How I manage my life with Kanban and Getting Things Done

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists…”
—Umberto Eco, SPIEGEL Interview, 2009

Managing my life
Are you blessed with a perfect memory? Me neither! To avoid unpleasant consequences, everyone like us needs a reliable way to keep track of things we have yet to do. As I age, my memory slowly deteriorates. But my life shows no sign of becoming simpler. There will be entries on my To Do list until the day I die.

Over the years I’ve tried many different methods to implement effective To Do lists and I’m sharing here the system I’ve used successfully for the last 4 years.  I hope it will be useful information for anyone like me who has struggled to track and prioritize their personal life and professional work.

Creating a successful To Do list methodology
One of the reasons why it’s hard to track and prioritize To Dos is that we have a tendency to pick an available tool without first deciding what To Do list methodology will work for us. So many tools exist — simple written lists, elaborate day planners, electronic devices, software, apps, etc. Most of them have built into them an implicit methodology as to how we should manage our tasks. Unfortunately, one person’s methodological meat may be another’s poison.

After much experimentation, I have settled on using a combination of Kanban and Getting Things Done methodologies to capture and prioritize my life tasks.

Kanban was originally developed in the 1940’s to schedule just-in-time manufacturing. In the 2000’s Kanban was adapted to manage and communicate software development. Recently, so-called Personal Kanban has become popular, and I’ve been using a modified version since 2014.

The simple yet brilliant Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology doesn’t prescribe a complete system for organizing your life. Instead, it encapsulates only the essential workflow processes you need to follow to clear and organize your work-life, plus what you need to know in order to choose tools and procedures that work for you. Each person’s implementation of GTD is unique.

Kanban and GTD — a winning combination!
The essence of Personal Kanban is the creation and continual updating of three lists: To Do, Doing, and Done. Tasks migrate from To Do –> Doing –> Done as we work. Most practical implementations (including mine) add a Waiting For list, to capture top-of-mind tasks that currently require action outside our control before working on them.

To these core lists, GTD suggests adding separate lists for each set of project tasks. So I have a Brattleboro list (for things to do when I go into town), a Boston list (for when I am at our apartment there), a Book 3 list (for tasks remaining before I publish my next book) and lists for current client projects. I move tasks from these lists into and between the core Kanban lists through the review process.

Regular review and updating of your To Do implementation is essential for it to be useful. Schedule reviews in a way that works for you. I like to review my Kanban/GTD implementation at the beginning and end of each day, plus at any time when it’s not obvious to me what I should be doing next.

Implementation
Trello is a superb tool for implementing Kanban/GTD; check here for more information on how I use it. When I’m occasionally deviceless (yes, it still happens in this oh-so-connected world) I rely on good old paper and pen to capture ideas and build short in-the-moment To Do lists, e.g. shopping lists. My manpurse holds a Levenger Pocket Briefcase, always filled with 3 x 5 cards, a Reporter’s Notebook, plus a variety of reliable pens, ensuring I can always fall back on a two-thousand year old method of making lists.

Conclusion
Amazing methodologies and technologies are available to us. Effectively planning and managing a complicated life can be easier and less stressful if you adopt approaches like Kanban/GTD and adapt them to work well for you. The choice is yours!

What I’ve learned about working productively

I’ve worked out of my home office for the last thirty years. During that time I:

  • Consulted on information technology for hundreds of companies.
  • Wrote and maintained almost a million lines of code.
  • Ran a couple of small non-profits (still do) and served on my local United Way Board.
  • Wrote Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and am now hard at work on my second book.

Along the way I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with different environments and work processes, always with the goal of improving my productivity. As you might expect of a proponent of the philosophy of risky learning, some things worked and some didn’t. I’ll reserve the things that didn’t for another post.

You may not have as much control over your work environment and process as I do. Nevertheless, perhaps some aspects of what’s worked for me will be helpful to you.

Work environment: Office furniture, ergonomics, and beauty
Twenty-five years ago I purchased two astronomically expensive high-quality office chairs. Until then I had sat on a sagging ancient chair rather like the one pictured. Hours spent in this chair had taken its toll, and a kneeling chair replacement, while an improvement, was not comfortable for long periods. The marvelously adjustable Steelcases that made me gulp when I signed the check paid for themselves many times in adjustability, comfort, and eliminated physical therapy appointments. A few years ago I replaced both chairs, and this time I was happy to sign the check.

In the same spirit, I learned the importance of correct ergonomics for computer keyboards and mice (later, touchpads). Long hours toiling over these machines translate to pain and discomfort if keyboard heights aren’t right and pointing devices aren’t positioned just-so. Don’t skimp on firm work-surfaces, keyboard drawers, and touch devices that are easy to use; you’re body will be the victim if you do.

Finally, when I had the opportunity and funds to add a custom home office onto my home I spent serious time and money creating a space that I would find beautiful. Built at the northwest corner of my home, the office receives natural light from two sides and looks out onto a flourishing garden and beautiful Vermont stone walls and woods. Knowing my appetite for workspace, I also took the opportunity to build about three times more beautiful custom desktop space than I thought I’d ever need. (A good thing I did—these days it’s pretty full most of the time.) Having a beautiful space for my work feeds my energy and spirit and helps me get through those times when I’m feeling creatively blocked and work isn’t going so well.

Getting Things Done
No question—until the day I die I’m going to have tasks on my to-do list. Being at peace with this reality in the here and now is hard. I am perpetually interested in exploring more than I can practically accomplish, and as I age, my ability to keep track of and continually re-prioritize what’s important lessens. Embracing Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done has been a lifesaver. I may always be trying to bite off more than I can chew, but GTD allows me to avoid being overwhelmed by the consequences of my curiosity. What many don’t understand about GTD, and what makes it so powerful, is that it doesn’t impose a specific implementation on you; you get a framework that helps you build process that’s customized for your needs. Here’s more information on why and how GTD works.

Highly flexible, continuously-on backup of digital stuff
I have one word for those of you young enough to miss the decades when personal computers were expensive, hard to use, and frequently broke. Lucky! I’ve spent too much time configuring and running expensive and all-too-fallible equipment designed to back up valuable digital data. Today, there’s no excuse for losing any of the ever-increasing quantities of information we entrust to our electronic gizmos. My four computers are continually backed up to each other (local back ups—great for fast restoration of a lost file or two) and to the internet cloud (remote back ups—where I’d go if a catastrophe took out all my computers). The magic that does this can easily be set up to backup to other computers or hard drives in the same location or across the internet (perhaps your friend’s business across town) or to hosted servers sitting elsewhere on the internet. The name of this magic is CrashPlan. (No, I do not get a penny for recommending their service.) If you’re not using a service like this with every computer you own these days you’re nuts.

Work in sprints, not marathons
It took me years to learn that working at a problem or task for hours on end without a break is not an optimum way to work. Please don’t make this mistake (no matter how young you are). My current process is to decide on the task I want to work on, set a timer for twenty minutes and work uninterruptedly until the timer sounds. Then I’ll take a break for five minutes and repeat the process two or three more times before taking a longer break. I came up with this approach myself; an almost identical version is called Pomodoro. The frequent breaks give my brain relaxed downtime to mull over a problem and, often, propose creative solutions. And I find it easier to ignore the lure of the modern environment of constant email and internet distractions by telling myself I’ll just work for twenty minutes first.

That’s my summary of some of the things I’ve learned about working productively. Do you have lessons to add?

Chair photo attribution: Flickr user spyndle

 

One unexpected reason why I like my new iPad

3G apple-ipadEvery couple of weeks, in the free hour between my afternoon yoga class and evening men’s group, I head to the local library to work on my laptop.

Until yesterday.

Having just received a new 3G iPad, I left my heavy MacBook Pro behind and brought the iPad for its first test outside the office. I also brought Apple’s Keyboard Dock which combines a solid external keyboard with a convenient stand that holds the iPad upright. The combination was less than a quarter of the weight of my old laptop. Nice!

Here’s what surprised me while working at the library desk. The iPad, like the iPhone and iPod Touch, does one thing at a time. To switch apps you have to press the Home button, which suspends what you’re working on, and pick the next app. Writing an outline in Simplenote for an upcoming presentation and want to check your e-mail? Press Home, touch Mail, read mail, then press Home, touch Simplenote. Annoying, right? After all, any inexpensive netbook can run several programs at once and flip between them with a single mouse click.

Well, actually, I liked using the iPad better because I got more work done.

On the iPad, the app you’re currently using takes up the whole screen, so I wasn’t aware that more email or Tweets or stock price changes or new blog comments or <enter what distracts me here> had arrived. So I was able to concentrate on what I was working on. And the extra press/touch needed to switch apps acted as a small but significant disincentive to frequently multitask—so I stayed in my outline much longer than I would have done if I’d been using my laptop.

Yes, I admit it; I could use my laptop in exactly the same way if I was more disciplined. But, usually, I’m not. So this behavior of the iPad environment works for me in a situation when I want to stay focused on doing one thing.

I should be clear; the iPad isn’t going to be the optimum platform for all my work. When I’m moderating a chat, and need a Twitter client open plus multiple browser windows to research topics that surface, the iPad is not going to be my preferred computing platform (though dedicating it to one app during the session might well be useful). But my brief experiment confirmed that, for much of what I do away from the office, the iPad is a viable, and in one way superior, platform for getting things done.

Would using an iPad help you get things done better? Or would your life benefit more from the continuous availability of a multitasking computing environment?