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How I used a personal kanban to stop my brain turning into soup during lockdown

McKinley Valentine — 6 min read
the psychological principles that make a personal kanban so effective
Image: Mine, this is my wall.

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Once you understand the psychological principles that make kanbans so powerful, you can apply them to any productivity system.

At its most basic, a kanban is three vertical columns — To Do, Doing, and Done — with tasks moving across as you progress. Simple.

But as with every other methodology that gets popular, people adopt the surface-level practice without understanding the principles underneath it, and so miss all the value. It’s cargo-cult productivity.

If you know why kanbans have the structure they do, you can apply the same principles to whatever system you use and get more calm, more focus, and more things done.

The point of the ‘Done’ column: Make your tasks separate and finishable

Teams need a Done column so everyone can see what’s already done, and so they can hold a ‘reflect’ session where they think about what went well and what they should do differently next time.

If you don’t do reflection, you don’t need a literal visual Done column. But you need to act as though you have a Done column, even if that ‘column’ is the wastepaper basket.

That is: write tasks that could plausibly be moved to Done. It should be immediately obvious what ‘Done’ would like for any task.

“Write article on kanban principles” is a task that can be finished and moved to Done.

“Write Medium articles” has no clear Done point. You’re setting yourself up for failure, because you’ve given yourself an unfinishable task.

The point of the ‘Doing’ column: One thing at a time

The Doing column in a properly used personal kanban only ever has one thing in it. I cannot overemphasise how important this is.

Why is this such a hardline rule? It’s not a rule, it’s a basic law of reality. You literally can’t do more than one thing at a time.

You can flip back and forth rapidly between a few tasks, with a cognitive and focus cost each time, but you literally can’t email the electricity company and update your website simultaneously.

The kanban just forces you to accept reality and work within its boundaries.

As with the Done column, I don’t have a physical visual Doing column. Instead, I take the post-it I’m working on and stick it to the side of my laptop screen.

If I do switch tasks, I have to get up and put the post-it back and move a new one to my laptop. So I’m forced to only task switch intentionally — I have to make a conscious decision.

Regardless of where you actually put your Doing post-it, you have to treat this column utterly seriously. If you use a digital task app, you can still write your One Task on a post-it and stick it in front of you as a reminder: there can be only one.

Entrepreneur Neville Medhora uses a basic pen-and-paper To Do List, but he obeys the ‘one thing at a time’ principle by covering the unfinished tasks with a second piece of paper and only sliding it down to reveal the next task when he’s completed the previous one.

The point of the ‘To Do’ column: A memory-keeper that your brain trusts 100%

The point of any To Do system is that it captures everything and is completely reliable. Humans live in social groups, and our brains have evolved to trust others to be the keepers of certain memories, freeing up our mental capacity.

Old married couples will often remember different parts of their lives, because they know at an unconscious level “the other person’s got this”. There’s been research that we now treat google the way we treat tribe members — we’ve stopped remembering some things because our brain trusts google to keep the memory and recall it when needed. (The term for this is “distributed cognition” if you want to read more about it.)

So you need to get to the point where your brain trusts your external memory-keeper enough to stop holding on to things.

That makes it easier to focus on your One Task.

To trust a system, you have to capture everything. Every task you need to do, every idea for a side project you could start, every thing that your brain would otherwise try to hold on to. That doesn’t all have to be on the kanban. You could keep all your side-project ideas in a notebook. Most people use a calendar to remember events.

But it should be limited, clear and reliable. It could be a calendar + a notebook + a kanban wall, or ToDoist + Gmail, but you have to know exactly where each element is and what it’s for.

Any time you’re like “I know I wrote that down somewhere…” your brain says “okay, I can’t trust this external memory-keeper, I need to put energy into keeping track of everything myself.”

Added benefits to a physical kanban wall

You don’t have to use a physical kanban, but I do think it has advantages, especially during lockdown. And the main disadvantage — you can’t take it with you — is mitigated when so much is being done over Zoom. (If you are still allowed to visit other locations, you’ll need an app or notebook for capturing tasks until you can transfer them to your wall.)

Your wall has way fewer distractions than your computer or phone

When I had an app-based To Do system, the first thing I did when I got up was open up my laptop. Maybe you have a good process for tidying away your work at the end of the previous day, but I don’t. I’d open up my laptop in the morning and see half a dozen interesting tabs open, a Slack notification, my email, and also the automatic urge to open twitter “just to get it out of the way.” Since I hadn’t yet decided my priorities for the day, this was a huge distraction spiral.

Now, the first thing I do is stare at my wall, getting a sense for what my options for the day are. I pull out the post-its I want to get done that day and stick them above the main ‘wall’. By the time I go to my computer, I have much clearer intention and purpose.

Also, I just like to stare at stuff when I think. My bookshelf, the inside of my fridge, the window. If you, too, like to gaze at things blearily during your morning coffee, you might like to have a kanban wall.

Colour cues replace location cues

Location cues are what let you switch your work-brain on when you step into a meeting room, and switch it off when you get home. It’s also why if you read the news in bed in the morning, you’ll sleep worse at night, because your brain sees your bed and is like “ah, the place where we encounter threats and have to remain alert!”

Right now, many of us doing all our types of work in basically the one location. I don’t have a separate office space; I work at my dining table (I’m going to make a physical therapist very rich when this is all over).

So for my kanban, I used colours to represent my different modes:

  • Green = House/Admin
  • Blue = Newsletter, articles, platform growth
  • Pink = Paid client work
  • Orange = Writing fiction

When I’m writing fiction, I know I’m in Orange mode. The colour is a mood trigger. I can look at that section of the kanban and think about fiction, knowing the Pink tasks are in their own section, safe and waiting for when I need them.

There are other ways to maintain location cues in lockdown — you can make a habit of only watching Netflix from your couch, even switching sides of the desk when you check social media, so you have a different view — all of these things can help.

A final psychological principle for any productivity system: It’s okay to abandon it

When I look at my kanban wall, I find it calming and clarifying. But I know — based on past experience with other systems — that there’s a real chance that I’ll start to fall behind on updating it, and I’ll avoid looking at it because it makes me feel bad. Imagine not looking at your own walls, though, because you’re too ashamed! That’s no way to live.

So I made a promise to myself in advance: if I ever find myself avoiding looking at the kanban wall, I’m allowed to take it down immediately.

I think that’s a promise everyone should make to themselves when they try a new system. The system is supposed to help you; if it makes you feel bad instead of in control, it’s not doing it’s job! Try something else without a trace of guilt.

This piece was originally published in my newsletter, The Whippet. Subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox!

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