Personal Kanban

So how much work can you really handle at one time? Benson and Barry’s Personal Kanban: Mapping Work, Navigating Life demonstrates an adaptable tool for tracking your workflow. It’s based on two simple rules:

  1. Visualize your work
  2. Limit your Work In Progress (WIP)

Essentially, a kanban is a whiteboard (or piece of paper) divided into three zones: pending, doing, and done. Record each task on a sticky note, and move the note from column to column as you start and finish the task. The result is something like an hourglass on its side. Here’s a kanban I created for tracking work on this website and the book I’m co-editing (and a few other things, too):


My kanban

The authors compare our capacity for work with a highway’s capacity for cars. Traffic moves fastest when there’s lots of room between cars; a road at full capacity is a traffic jam!! So, they argue, we are at our most productive when we focus on only a few things at a time and have room in our schedules to take breaks and tackle the unexpected.

Benson and Barry (unusually) recommend complementary time and task management systems, like GTD. I particularly liked their re-framing of three classic Covey Importance / Urgency quadrants as:

  • Panic (Urgent, Important)
  • Social Investment (Urgent, less Important)
  • Inspiration and Enjoyment (not Urgent, less Important)
  • Long Term Projects and Continuous Improvement (not Urgent, Important)

My next kanban will probably be based on Belcher’s 12-week plan for getting a scholarly article out the door.


“Personal Kanban is:

  • A productivity tool: limiting our WIP helps us accomplish more.
  • An efficiency tool: focusing on our value stream encourages us to find ways to do more while expending less effort.
  • An effectiveness tool: making our options explicit leads us to make informed decisions.”

~Benson and Barry (2011) Personal Kanban: Mapping Work, Navigating Life, p. 89.