Personal Kanban & Some Goodies About Your Brain

Simple Personal Kanban

Sharing some thoughts around my weekly homework from my neuroscience studies

Knowledge work is all about attention. Unfortunately that is a scarce resource, easily high jacked by any distraction. Multitasking, i.e. using focused attention on two different targets basically does not exist. What you are able to do is to do a lot of things on autopilot (i.e. walking, breathing, looking) while your executive network (incl. working memory) is doing something else (i.e. discussing). When you think you are multitasking you are actually attention switching, with a high cost in performance. For this you will allocate attention toward or away from interference, maintain relevant memory in mind, and reactivate representations if the maintenance of what you are doing is disrupted (Clapp et al, 2010). So when you are working with a need for cognitive logical thinking, minimizing any distractions is a great preventive method.

Kanban is a method for managing knowledge work with an emphasis on just-in-time delivery while not overloading the team members. The core mechanisms in Kanban is to start where you are at, work in an evolutionary and incremental way to develop the system, limit the work in progress, and finish one thing before starting another. (Wikipedia, Kanban, 29.10.2014).

While Kanban is used on a team/organizational level and longer time spans, the same logic applies on personal level and short time spans, too. From a neuroscience perspective, Kanban is too interesting to fit in a 300 words homework.

A couple of Kanban-insights from the neuroscience perspective

  • Limiting the number of similar things you work on will lessen the cost of attention switching and thus positively impact performance on the task at hand. (a no brainer) (Clapp et al, 2010).
  • Focused attention means you are using your long-term learning mechanisms (Medial temporal areas) to encode the experience. This makes the knowledge accessible by conscious thought later on (vs. using striatal habit learning, creating more unconscious and automatic learning). (Forde et al, 2006)
  • A “healthy” backlog is genius from a neuroscience perspective. Attending to an issue (backlog item) then leaving it with the knowledge of that you will return to it, seems to activate your unconscious processing. So while you are consciously focused on your work in progress (WIP), your unconscious works on items, which you know you will attend to later. (Backlog) (Ritter & Dijksterhuis, 2014)

Kanban definitely requires more in-depth analyzing from the neuroscience perspective. My hunch is that Kanban fits many of our biological & neuronal requirements, so I will definitely be dissecting Kanban some more in my studies.

Where’s the scalpel?



  1. Clapp, W.C, Rubens, M.T., Gazzaley A. ,(2010),  Mechanisms of Working Memory Disruption by External Interference, Cerebral Cortex, April, 20:859-872
  2. Foerde, K. , Knowlton, B. J., Poldrack, R.A.(2006), Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. PNAS, August 1, 2006, vol. 103, 31, p 11778-11783.
  3. Ritter, S.M., DIjksterhuis, A., (2014), Creativity – the unconscious foundations of the incubation period, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, April, Vol 8:215, p.1-10.

Picture: Photo credit: o.tacke / Foter / CC BY

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Take the RealWIP Test

If you are already using Personal Kanban or another kanban system, you are likely at least thinking about limiting your work-in-progress (WIP). You are likely finding that challenging.

We know that the more work we take on, the more our brains’ resources are taxed. That tax limits our ability to focus, to process, and to complete quality work. We want to limit our work-in-progress so that we can finish quickly and with quality.

One thing to remember is that if it were easy to limit WIP, we’d all be doing it already. Limiting WIP is challenging in a world filled with demands and distractions. Often we’ll be watching our Personal Kanban and, as long as there’s three things in DOING, we’ll feel pretty good about ourselves.

Then, one day, we’ll catch ourselves working on something that isn’t in DOING and we’ll realize … oh no, I have hidden WIP.

Write Down Your WIP

Write Down Your WIP and Be Honest

Hidden WIP is that work you do all the time that you don’t tell your board about.

So it’s helpful once a week to sit down and write down your WIP.  Simply write down everything you are really doing right now. Write down everything you are currently working on or is making you think. (You may be starting tasks before you pull them). See what that real load is. If you work with a team or manage them, sit down and do this with the team.

You’ll be surprised at how much work you are actually taking on.

I can’t stress how important this is even for experienced kanban users. I visit teams and counsel individuals regularly who are overloaded with work and have very nice WIP-limited Personal Kanban boards. Their hidden WIP is killing them.

So, sit down, write down your real WIP and do something about it.

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READY COLUMN: Breaking Out Projects

KanbanLots of tickets in our READY column make a jumbled mess. We’re not sure how close we are to completion or what ticket to pull next, Breaking your work into projects in the READY column lets you see both. You can sequence work (pull the rightmost ticket), see how many tickets are left in the project, and see what projects are ripe for rapid completion.

You can also create better strategies. For example: Sunday can be the day to nuke the “CLEAN GARAGE” project.  But maybe Saturday is the day you look over the tickets and figure out what you need to get from the hardware store for both the CLEAN GARAGE and the RENO BASEMENT projects. One trip to the hardware store gets you a power washer, broom, and shelving for the garage and a drill and sledgehammer for the basement.

Without having the tickets in orderly swimlanes, we instead would have a disordered jumble which is much harder to manage.

This is the final post in the Personal Kanban Tips series.  You can read all the previous posts by clicking on the links below.
DONE COLUMN: How Does Your Work Make You Feel?
DONE COLUMN: Daily / Weekly Review
PROMISES COLUMN: Make Good On Your Promises
THE NEW STUFF COLUMN: What’s Just Come In?
READY COLUMN: Ticket Aging

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READY COLUMN: Ticket Aging

KanbanIn our last post, we discussed a NEW STUFF column. In this post, we are being even more explicit, noting in our Personal Kanban how old tickets on the board are.

We have seen, even on our own boards, that tickets can linger on the board for six months, eight months, even a year! That’s simply too much time.

What we also see is that if tickets aren’t done within the month they’re put on the Personal Kanban, they probably won’t get done. You’re better off making a second board called “Things I might want to do some day” (What in GTD would be a “someday” task) and getting off the Personal Kanban.

An easy way to see this is to make three or four swimlanes in your READY column, each labeled by month. Here you see the months are JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST. This shows us, at any point in time, what tasks are aging or maybe old enough to simply discard.

It also lets us see, over time, the types of tickets we tend to put on the board but never get around to. That’s important because people are skilled procrastinators. If one of those old tickets is “schedule physical” or “talk to Uncle Louie” we know the ticket didn’t age out – we’re not prioritizing effectively.

Watching tickets age tells us a lot about what we choose to do, what we choose to put off, and what we wish we could do but is never going to happen.

Seeing that explicitly can teach each of us what plans we can make that will likely succeed and which will likely falter or never make it out of the gate.

This is the fifth post in the Personal Kanban Tips series.  You can read the fourth post – THE NEW STUFF COLUMN: What’s Just Come In? here.

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THE NEW STUFF COLUMN: What’s Just Come in?


Is your READY column filling up with tasks? Is it hard to figure out what’s new, what’s important, and what’s aging?

One option to deal with this is a NEW STUFF column. This column holds exactly what it says: New work that has come in over the last few days. As new work comes in, simply place those tickets in the NEW STUFF column.

One recommendation would be that at the end of the day or perhaps every Friday you move incomplete tasks into READY – keeping the NEW STUFF as fresh as possible. Once a month, you would look at your READY column and see what tickets have become stale.

What we’ve noticed is that many tasks that wind up on our Personal Kanban are never actually completed, but they stay in READY for months on end. It becomes harder and harder to make sense of the work in the READY column because some of it is fresh and some is nearly moldy.

My favorite example of this was I visited a team using PK and they showed me their board. They pointed at the blue, yellow, and pink tickets and told me what each meant.

I asked, “What does the white tickets mean?”

They told me there were no white tickets.

I pointed at one.

They laughed. It was a yellow ticket that was on the board long enough to be sun bleached!

This is important, the goal of the NEW STUFF column isn’t to merely focus on new tasks, it is to help us see what tasks are fresh and when to clean things off the board.

This is the fourth post in the Personal Kanban Tips series.  You can read the previous post – PROMISES COLUMN: Make Good on Your Promises here.

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PROMISES COLUMN: Make Good on Your Promises


When we get overloaded, it is very easy to promise people work and then under-deliver. Promises are tricky, they bring with them social costs as well as costs for time and effort.

When I promise something to you personally, I am putting myself on the line. I am telling you, “because you are important to me, I will do this thing.”  If I don’t deliver, it is telling you, “I guess you really weren’t that important to me.”

That was never my intent, but we all know when we’ve been waiting on someone and they don’t deliver, we lose a little faith in them. Worse yet, if it’s early in the relationship we identify them as a “non-deliverer.”

Mea Culpa: I, personally, end up overloaded or in danger of being overloaded frequently. Many people place demands or expectations on me and I need to meet them. In many cases, I was making perfectly rational decisions to delay some work and do other work. While that was rational on my end, it was likely infuriating for others.

Therefore, I started explicitly tracking promises to other people. This immediately had to impacts on me.

1. My short term backlog and WIP shot through the roof. Seeing the promises explicitly laid out was stressful and illuminating.

2. I stopped promising so much.

3. I began to seriously consider each promise as I made it.

  • Was the promise necessary?

  • Could the goals of the promise be served with a less costly promise?

  • Could the goals of the promise be served with more collaboration?

  • Were there options to meeting the goals of the promise?

What I learned was that we tend to rashly promise the first idea that comes into our heads. We’re having a conversation. Something sounds like a good idea, like it’s needed, and like I could provide it. So … I promise it.

That promise becomes a tacit social contract … I’ve promised something. You are counting on it, I need to deliver it. So, basically, I just contracted to do work for you without giving it very much thought.

That’s a recipe for disappointment.

So manage your promises by seeing them. A lot of obligations in the PROMISES column mean a lot of work that is very difficult to re-prioritize. That means you have work in your queue that won’t respond well to change. If you have an emergency arise, those promises don’t go away.

This is the third post in the Personal Kanban Tips series. You can read the second post – DONE COLUMN: Daily / Weekly Review here.

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DONE COLUMN: Daily / Weekly Review

Done column review

“When do I get tickets out of my DONE column?”

People often allow their DONE column to get so full of work that it becomes useless – a huge pile of completed work. There are so many tickets in there, you no longer know what happened.

If we’d like to encourage ourselves to empty the board weekly and get some interesting information at the same time, we can create a DONE column that tracks what we do daily. On Fridays or Monday morning, we review and empty our DONE. Now we have set up a system … last week is over and we’d need to clear space for the new week.

We can take a look at the week, clearly see what we did, see what days were satisfying and what were not, and get an idea of what days were interrupted.  We can do a “retrospective” on the work and evaluate where we’d like to improve what we’re doing. We can also plan for the upcoming week.

We can also see how much work we tend to do.  This is very powerful.  Looking over the board above, we see that we reliably complete about three or four tickets a day. This helps us set our expectations for what we can promise others. We know that a promise, any promise, that we make takes up about a third of our capacity for that day.

Understanding that promises have a cost greatly helps us limit our Work-in-Process (WIP). We can see our daily output and limit what we are working on accordingly. It’s hard to say no to work. We tend to like what we do and the people we work with. Understanding how much we actually complete helps us say “No” to too much work.

“I’d love to help you, but I’m working on these other tasks right now. Can I help later after I finish a few of them?”

Your throughput (the number of tickets you do) may be 6, 8, 12, or more tickets a day – so don’t get hung up on the number in this example. The goal here is to find out what your number is, so you can choose work more effectively and not overload or over-promise.

When you over-promise, you under-deliver.

So, take a look at what you’re doing each day, review at the end of the week, and set realistic expectations for yourself and others.

This is the second post in the Personal Kanban Tips Series. You can read the previous post – DONE COLUMN: How Does Your Work Make You Feel here.

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DONE COLUMN: How Does Your Work Make You Feel?

Done Column

When we work, we spend our most precious resources: our time, our energy, and our emotion. Each task we complete takes a little bit of us and we’d like to think that time was not only productive, but impactful.

But we are so busy, so distracted, so overwhelmed that we finish one task and move right on to the next. The treadmill. The rat race.

All too often, we bring this home with us. Home tasks become just more in the endless stream of numbing work.

With your Personal Kanban, you can work your way out of this by asking a few simple questions:

  • What work makes me happy?

  • What work does not?

By simply augmenting your DONE column with three or more simple sections that note what tasks you enjoyed, which were merely okay, and which were upsetting. You can add more gradations (we’ve seen ones with mushroom cloud columns).

Make explicit what you enjoy and what you do not. Then you can create strategies to even your work out. Enhance work that energizes you – that’s the work that gives you the energy (and the hope!) to get through the harder stuff.

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From Daunting to Done: Completing a Dissertation with Personal Kanban

I have never completed anything to date that was more complex, daunting, or onerous than completing my dissertation. From the first day of my doctoral program, I knew that the only way I could complete this monumental task was to break it down into small, manageable pieces of work, and then visualize and track that work over nearly three years.

I was familiar with LeanKit when I started my program as I had used it personally and professionally to manage my life thanks to PersonalKanban. Isn’t it funny that once you buy into a system, everything you see is in context of the system? Just thinking about my dissertation plan triggered a visualization in my brain of cards on a kanban board.

The first thing that any academic will tell you about this process is that it consumes your life. You may not be actively doing research or have your hands on the keyboard, but you are thinking about it constantly. The reason why I am telling you something that seems obvious is because it’s critical to illustrate how I constructed my board to manage the process.

Let’s talk about my board—it manages my life and has evolved over time. I have work related tasks and personal tasks in separate Ready/Today columns, and then a Doing column that shows my WIP. I have a WIP limit of 5. I have a Stuck/Critical column, a Waiting For column, and then the typical Done columns.

Branden's LeanKit Kanban Board

When I thought about breaking down my dissertation into manageable chunks, I used LeanKit’s Task feature. I had one card called Dissertation that stayed in my Doing column, meaning that my WIP limit for the last few years was actually 4 (not 5) as my ever-present dissertation consumed one of those spots. Then I built a task board with Ready, Doing (WIP limit of 3), and Done lanes that contained all of the subtasks. There were a total of 22 major work products that needed to be managed. The actual number of tasks associated with my dissertation was significantly higher than that, but these were the major projects that needed multi day/week management.

Breakdown of Dissertation Tasks in LeanKit

My dissertation followed the standard 5 chapter model (Intro, Lit Review, Methodology, Results, Discussion), with the second chapter was treated like a collection of 12 essays of 3-10 pages each in length. Then there are processes like Scientific Merit Review and the Internal Review Board that represented multi-week processes that had to be managed. I hired an editor to review my early work to make sure I was on progress. After committee review, you have to defend your dissertation which requires an oral presentation and Q/A by your committee. See what I mean by daunting?

Each of these items had a card that I moved from the task board’s Ready column, to Doing, to Done. After my last task card (return from Format/Editing and Publication Submission) was done, I moved the parent card from Doing to Done. You can’t imagine a more satisfying feeling than moving a card that you’ve been staring at for almost three years out of the WIP area of your board.

LeanKit helped me keep my life sane throughout this long academic journey, and it can be used to help you as well. I would often build cards for projects, papers, or other deliverables too to make sure I was always on top of my time. Using LeanKit as a task management system can help you translate task management skills into your post-academic careers as well by bringing Lean techniques to your professional career.

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Text a Task Card to Your Kanban in LeanKit using Twilio and Zapier

Today, I’ll show you how to set up your LeanKit/Zapier integration with Twilio, so that you can create a new LeanKit card by sending an SMS (Text) Message from your phone.

First, you’ll need an account with Twilio, a popular programmable voice and SMS Service. Go to, and sign up for a new, free account.

Create a Twilio Account

After you create your account, you’ll be asked for your phone number, and Twilio will send you a text message with a confirmation code, which you’ll need to enter on the next screen:

Verify Your Account

Twilio will then generate a new phone number for your account:

Twilio Generated New Phone Number

Now, open up, and log into your account, and create a new Zap, as shown below:

Create a New Zap

Zapier will ask you to configure your Twilio account, using your Account SID and Auth Token from Twilio, shown below:

Configure Your Twilio Account, SID and Auth Token

Once you have set up your Twilio and LeanKit accounts correctly, you’ll see this:

Accounts Setup Correctly

Select your Twilio number that you’ll send SMS messages to…

Select Twilio Number for SMS

And select the LeanKit board, lane, and card type. In the LeanKit “Title” (card title) field, choose “Body” from the list of available Twilio fields.

Selecting LeanKit Board, Lane and Card Type

Fill in the other required LeanKit fields:

Other Required LeanKit Fields

And finally, test and name your new Zap.

Testing and Naming the Zap

You should now be able to text message your Twilio number (I created a contact in my iPhone for “LeanKit Twilio”, and a new LeanKit card will be created:

Sending a Text to Twilio to Create a New LeanKit card


This is the fifth post in the series by Chris Hefley of LeanKit showing how to integrate tools many of us use everyday with our Personal Kanban. You can read the previous post – Integrating Your Personal Kanban with Campfire in LeanKit using Zapier here.

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