Is your ‘to-do’ list as smart as Kanban?

I recently decided to try using the concept of Kanban into my daily routine.


Like many of us I have a system which had served me well over the years: a to-do list in my notebook! For the most part this weekly list consisted of a number of large tasks that could all fit onto an A4 page. By week’s end the page often came to resemble a patchwork quilt, with scribbles, deletions and side notes but for the most part, it was contained on the A4 page.

Some weeks however, were much more chaotic – the list started to grow across multiple pages. Even worse, sometimes with clusters of client and internal meeting notes scattered between the day’s “to-do list”. It felt like I was spending more time rewriting and reworking the “to do” list than I was actually “to-doing”. (is that a real word?) – constantly transcribing the list to keep it all together and actionable from one location in the notebook.  At times I considered multiple notebooks, but that just seemed a step too far…Here’s the thing: – The system did work.  Most of my tasks got done. Some of them, while actioned, to this day remain unticked and lost in the pages between internal meeting A  and client meeting B.

Kanban, however, has provided me with a new structure. One I’m loving!

Kanban is based on the Japanese principle of “just in time”. It literally translates to ‘signboard’ or ‘billboard’ in Japanese and describes a scheduling system for lean and just in time manufacturing.  Developed by an engineer at Toyota to improve manufacturing efficiency, it has been widely adopted in software development and IT environments – and its use in all sorts of industries is growing.

Its power lies in its ability to balance the need for work to be done with the available capacity to do that work. Rather than have work ‘pushed’ to them, Kanban users (both individuals and teams) ‘pull’ tasks as time permits.

This “pull” concept has revolutionised the way I approach my working week.

I’m using Schedullo, but there are a number of Kanban tools out there.  I like Schedullo for a bunch of reasons. One of which is the inbuilt calendar which allows me to switch seamlessly between the Kanban and Calendar functions.

Now my work days start with me opening Schedullo to my Kanban view.  Schedullo comes with four “stages” or “statuses” of completion and task life cycle.  These are:

  • Not Ready
  • Ready
  • In Progress
  • Complete

To this, I’ve added two statuses:

  1. Future Ideas and Concepts – you could also call this Backlog; and
  2. Waiting on – means exactly what you might think – I can’t do my bit until a colleague does theirs. (I can further classify each task that I assign to my task list in terms of priority and task type.)

At the start of my day or when I find a small window of time, I review my Kanban list and start work on tasks that are “ready”. If the task was a sizeable piece of work – say an hour or more – I block out time in my calendar – we use Outlook at work.  But for the most part, I have a whole range of tasks they are anticipated to take less than an hour to complete.  Kanban provides me with a format that is both visual and intuitive that my notebook can’t compete with!

One thing Kanban has taught me is to aim to only have two or three tasks on the go or “In Progress” at any time. If a task is pending with someone else, I transfer it to “Waiting on” and give myself 10 minutes at the end of each day and 15-20 minutes on a Friday to circle back on these tasks for follow up for reforecasting. As simple as it sounds the “Waiting on” alleviates a level of stress around my list allowing me to focus on the “Ready” and “In progress” tasks.

My “Future Ideas and Concepts” is something I keep an eye on – especially if I find the time I have available is not enough to make real inroad on a “Ready” or “In Progress” task. Any time a concept or idea pops into my head of something I would like time to think about later or don’t want to forget, I record it as a “Future Idea and Concept”.  This way I don’t lose it.  No more falling into the cracks of notebook pages.

If you’re interested in trying Kanban for yourself here is a great article on the Principles of Kanban.