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!

My favorite to-do list manager

Trello To Do

I’ve lost count of the number of To Do list managers I’ve tried over the years—there have been so many. Most recently, Omnifocus and Wunderlist were my repositories, but I eventually grew frustrated enough to dump them; nothing I’ve used has eliminated the time-honored alternative of writing notes on scraps of paper that get scattered around my desk.

Until now.

I have been using Trello for the last six months, and I’m very happy with it. Here’s what I like about this nifty piece of software.

  • It runs on my desktops and mobile devices, syncing seamlessly between platforms. I can update my To Do lists anywhere. (Trello runs on Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, iOS 7+, Android 4+, and, should the spirit move you, your Kindle Fire HD – 2nd Gen.)
  • It works flawlessly. (Wunderlist, I’m looking at you—I shouldn’t need to frantically email tech support when all my lists vanish; yes, you did restore them for me which is very nice for a free service but…)
  • Trello can handle much more than To Do lists. I keep all my To Do’s on one Trello “board”, but you can easily create additional boards for projects that have more than a few associated tasks if that works better for you. (Or you could color code a project’s items so they stand out on your main To Do board. Or you could tag them. Or…)
  • It’s very flexible without being over-complex (Omnifocus, I’m talking about you.) I use a combination of Getting Things Done and Kanban methodologies, and Trello makes it a snap to extend the core Kanban model (To Do, Doing, Done) in any way you like. Each Trello board can have any number of Lists, and each list can hold any number of Cards, which are your basic individual action items.  For an example look at my To Do board above, which includes a set of three priority To Do lists (cool, warm hot), a Brattleboro list (for things to do when I go into town), a Waiting list (off screen) for things I’m waiting for someone else to get back to me on, as well as Doing and Done lists.
  • Moving stuff about is a dream. On a desktop device, drag a card with your mouse to where you want it. No delay, just drag it to a new list and it pops into place. On a touch-screen, use your finger to drag; it works the same way. Wunderlist sometimes had annoying lags  (“did I move it or not?”) while Trello just works—Steve Jobs would be proud.
  • More features are available when you need them, but they don’t get in the way. See this intro Trello board that lists some of the things you can do that maybe I’ll want to do some day.

Trello Welcome

  • Trello is free for the functionality I need. If you start using it inside an organization, you can purchase Trello Business Class, which costs $5 per user per month or $45 per user per year and adds administrative controls and security (plus export in CSV format; see below). That’s how they make money. At the time of writing, Trello has ~5 million users.

Any quibbles?
Of course—nothing’s perfect! (But Trello comes close.) The main thing that’s a little disturbing is that all your data is stored by Trello and if the company’s massive server cloud was vaporized you’d lose all your lovely To Dos. The free version of Trello only allows export to JSON, which cannot be opened by Excel, and you’d need to use a JSON->CSV converter to get your To Dos in a form that us mere mortals can view and manipulate. The only other thing I find a little clumsy is the procedure to add or change a due date for a card, though writing this article led me to discover a world of Trello shortcuts which simplify such operations. (Yup, more evidence that the best way to learn about anything is to try and explain it.)

Conclusion
Sign up today! It doesn’t cost anything, and no salesperson will call. If you’d like to patiently explain to me why the To Do list manager you use is way better than this, then type away in the comments.