How to plan your day – The Kanban Method


This morning I got to work as usual, then wrote down a list of everything I wanted to do on that day. At the end of the day, I looked down at my diary again and noticed that I had only accomplished half of what I wanted to achieve. Does this happen to you? I thought by making a list, it would help motivate me to cross everything off once I had finished. However, I only found myself more confused than when I started. During my studies at varsity, I heard the term “Kanban board”, but it was only related to manufacturing optimisation. I decided to see if I could implement a waste-reducing technique in my personal life and to see what the results would be.

What is a Kanban Board?

Before we get things started, we first need to know why a kanban exists in the first place. Kanban (Japanese 看板, signboard or billboard) is a lean method to manage and improve work across human systems1. In simpler terms, it helps to balance your workload and reduces work piling up in different areas. The way to visualise this is called a Kanban Board. Below is a simple example:

kanban board

A kanban board, therefore, is a tool used to maximise your efficiency and facilitate flow. Quite often, you’ll do work on your PC or different services that are intangible or invisible. This makes it hard to know what is happening at any given time. In comes the kanban board:

Kanban boards use cards, columns, and continuous improvement to help technology and service teams commit to the right amount of work, and get it done!
– Max Rehkopf, Atlassian

From the quote and image above, you’ll see that physical (although not always) cards and columns are used to keep everything in check. Why? Well these, as well as other elements such as work in progress limits, help create visual signals.

Visual Signals

Visual signals are key in providing you with all the information you need to know about what you need to do and by when (and by who in some cases).

  • Columns – you can’t have a kanban board without columns. Each column represents a specific activity that when put together form a “workflow”. Cards will move through the workflow until that task is completed. A simple example of a workflow, as shown above, can just be “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”.
  • Visual Cards – often called stickies, post-its, or tickets, these will be your boards highlighting feature. Here is where your task requirements will be placed. It will provide just enough detail in text form. Other information, such as importance or area of work, can be determined by the colour of the card.
  • Work In Progress (WIP) Limits – depending on how busy you get – you need to set yourself limits. Think about it – if you can only get through 10 tasks per days – giving yourself 20 won’t get any more tasks completed. Setting yourself a limit per day will help you identify bottlenecks (places where work buildup is occurring) as well as ensuring the maximum flow of work.

How to Create a Kanban Board

  1. Plan the structure – start simple. I started with just “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”. You might want to include extra columns if you’re working in a team or would like to break down your task progress, for example, “In Testing”, “Sent For Review”, or “Waiting on Feedback”.
  2. Get Colourful – start with an A4 piece of paper. Draw up your columns so that sticky notes will fit inside them. These sticky notes will be where you write your tasks for the day (or week). Get multiple colours (but no more than 5) to distinguish between importance or area of work.
  3. Write down your tasks – now write the tasks you wish to complete. Don’t over-complicate them.
  4. Create a limit – you need to have some sort of WIP limit (as mentioned above). For example, writing down a 5 underdoing means you shouldn’t do more than 5 of that task a day. Of course, you won’t know what this magical number will be in the start, so give it a few days before writing down this number
  5. Keep it simple – the whole purpose of a kanban board is to visualise your workflow. Too many notes with too much detail can lead to confusion and missing deadlines.

Digital vs Physical?

You might find that you have the handwriting of a doctor, or perhaps you’re constantly on the move. This is where a digital board can be of use to you. Trello is my go-to for this. The whole site/app is based around a kanban method. Naturally, it is a lot more robust than simple sticky notes. You’re able to assign tasks to different people, include due-dates, sync your tasks up between your phone and your PC, plus a whole range or extra features.

Trello board example animated

Both physical and digital boards come with their pros and cons. To me, I prefer a physical board. You have this tangibility that you just can’t get on a digital board. I’ll often use Trello, then forget about it a few days later. However, I did enjoy the collaborative features when working in a team. I’d suggest try using both and then see after a few days which you return to more often.

At the end of the day, no matter what form they come in, Kanban boards are an effective tool for planning your day. I’ve been using mine for the past month, and can easily say it’s been my best decision yet in term of planning out my day. Not only have I been able to get more things done, but seeing the progress of tasks moving from the “To Do” column to the “Done” column is quite satisfying.

Are you using a form of kanban board for your daily activities? Let us know in the comments section below!

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