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Productivity hacks weekly in bite-size chunks. Just up your alley if you're at least slightly geeky or a tad bit obsessed with Evernote or WorkFlowy!

Kanban Calendar: task management at its simplest

Frank Degenaar

This post is a preamble of sorts. It is a reference article which will be linked to in each "Kanban Calendar" post hereafter. Weekly I will be posting on how to apply "Kanban Calendar" in a new application.

Who hasn't tinkered with half a dozen task applications? It's not the easiest job in the world to sift through and choose one that's a good fit for you personally. However, I do believe that there are some practical principles to keep in mind that can vastly improve almost any app's "to-do-ability".

Enter: A mashup of Personal Kanban, GTD's Tickler file and the Eisenhower Matrix. Read on if you would like to see how these practical hacks bundle effortlessly into a Kanban-like system with one particular added extra, which is only really practical in the digital arena.

Kanban: seeing the bigger picture, seeing it all

                              For our Lord of the Rings fans

                              For our Lord of the Rings fans

"The Eye of Sauron" also known as "The Great Eye" and (I like this one...) "The Eye", was a giant flaming eyeball in "The Lord of the Rings". It was used as a metaphor to show how Sauron could see all. In Peter Jackson's film adaptation, the Eye featured as a physical, living object between the pinnacles of Barad-dûr. It could be seen sweeping the lands with a red light. Sauron, for his own personal reasons, felt he needed to see it all - to get a bird's-eye view - and so it is for us with the first of two core Personal Kanban principles, when we need to get a broad overview of our tasks: 

1. Visualize your workflow

Some apps do it better than others. Some allow you to see segments of your workflow, (which may or may not piece together seamlessly in your mind's eye) while others let you see the whole of your workflow - all of your tasks in one go. That's what Personal Kanban is known for. It lets us survey all tasks in one broad sweep. If your task management application does not allow for this (not really practical on an iPhone, for example), still, basically we're looking for a system that allows us to see the following: 

  1. All of the stuff you'd like to get around to doing sooner or later
  2. The stuff you intend to do today, and
  3. The stuff that is plotted on specific days ahead of you - according to due date.

Normally the Classic Personal Kanban system does not include the latter - a calendar of the foreseeable days ahead - however, that's the logical place for all tasks to go that have any sort of due date or up-and-coming deadline. Therein lies the secret to minimizing continual list revisions when looking to transfer tasks from our backlog of stuff to do into our list of tasks to be tackled today. Below is a simple outline of my Kanban Calendar system:

This is a concept which can be applied in a variety of apps - it's not an app itself.

This is a concept which can be applied in a variety of apps - it's not an app itself.

So what is a Kanban Calendar?

A Kanban Calendar is a basically a digital mashup of a Kanban board... and a calendar. It is extraordinarily simple - in the sense that it is one of the "leanest" task management system (for both complex projects as well as simple miscellaneous daily tasks) that you will ever use. David Allen, in his book on GTD (Getting Things Done), talks about the calendar as being "sacred"... that only date-and-time-specific tasks should go into your calendar. The thing about the "calendar" section of the Kanban Calendar is that none of the tasks that go into it are necessarily time specific. In that sense, this calendar section in more like a "tickler file", a system of either physical or digital folders that groups together documents, bills, lists of tasks, etc. that need our attention on any specific date in the near future. We don't need to decide on specific times just yet, especially since we don't know how tomorrow or the next day will play out anyways. We'll cross that bridge when we get there.

What app or software do you use?

Chances are, the app that you are already using can be restructured/ repurposed to the proposed Kanban Calendar concept (whether it looks like a sprawling Kanban board of not). Weekly on my blog I showcase a different app that gets the job done with the least of fuss. Some of the apps may be unconventional, and not even considered task management apps... The thing is that the Kanban Calendar system is simple enough to be housed within almost any app. Not all apps are created equal. Some do the job better than others... But guaranteed the Kanban Calendar will (to borrow a phrase from P90X's Tony Horton) "kick the panties off" the way most people are currently using any given app.

What is "lean", and what makes the Kanban Calendar lean?

The concept of "lean" is that of being more efficient, working smarter, doing more with less, focusing on what really matters, eliminating what does not produce value, avoiding the wasting of time and resources... The Personal Kanban system in itself is a lean system, however it can get leaner with an addition. There are many systems that require daily and weekly revisions of lists. I personally think that can be almost entirely eliminated - and that's what I'd like to show you with the Kanban Calendar system.

As already hinted at previously, having a "calendar" section on a Kanban board or as part of a Kanban-orientated system, significantly lightens the load of having to do list revisions. This can be explained by the 2nd core principle that Personal Kanban offers:

2. Limit your "Work in Progress"

Limiting the amount of tasks one focuses on at any given time or day is in itself a common-sense productivity hack - since we often tend to bite off more than we can chew. In Kanban terminology, one "pulls" tasks from the "Backlogged" section into your "Today" section. Likewise, if you have too much on your plate for today, you would "push" a task back into the "Backlogged" section. The problem therein is that as a consequence, that backlogged list needs to be scanned again at a later stage to pull any task out... AGAIN! Some people use a Kanban board for just one project - in which case that would not be an issue. You would simply "pull" the next task in line for that project into your WIP (Today) section. If, on the other hand, one uses a Kanban board for all miscellaneous personal tasks as well as multiple projects, the "backlogged" section will become rather large and cluttered, and would require regular revision to make sure that important tasks do not get overlooked and fall through the cracks. 

What makes the world of difference, is having a "Calendar" section, with a panel or notebook for each of the next 30+ days. That way if we are snowed under with commitments, the not so urgent and important tasks can be put off to specific upcoming days (instead of back into the backlogged section). Most likely to tomorrow or within the next few days. The rest of the month's worth of panels or notebooks serve to visualize where certain recurring weekly or monthly tasks are plotted - such as bills to pay, etc - each of which, in turn, will be dissolved and brought into the Today section when tomorrow becomes today. So in the above diagram, the tasks sitting in the "Monday 1st" panel/ notebook will be transferred into today's section and then that date deleted. In so doing, the "push" and "pull" dynamic happens between 3 distinct sections, each with their own specific function. Additionally, the "backlogged" tasks section primarily serves as a repository for the "next actions" of any given project which can be pulled into Today's section one at a time, as our tasks in the Today section are completed. 

Gollum teaches us about single-mindedness and prioritization

All we can do is live one day at a time and use our limited time available to the best of our ability. Not being busy just for the sake of checking tasks off our lists - but truly doing the things that matter.

One little guy I respect a heck of a lot, is a character everyone knows as "Gollum" or "Sméagol" from the Lord Of the Rings. He knew what he wanted, and I dare say, he got it in the end. He knew what was of supreme importance to himself personally. He focused on his priorities.

Many of you are already familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Covey Quadrants or Time Management Grid. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." Later this concept was made popular by Stephen Covey in his book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and dealt with in depth. I mean really, really in depth. So there's something worth looking into there. 

There are many ways to prioritize the tasks you intend to get done today. I just like this one. I'm not going to rehash all the details here, except to say that you should take some form of prioritization method and stick with it. Looking at the graphic below, you will see that I have adapted the Eisenhower matrix to fit my Kanban Calendar layout. This can also be achieved with a series of notebooks or folders in many task management apps. What's important is to find some way of consistently deciding which tasks you deem most valuable each day. I have the matrix ingrained in my mind. I am familiar with its layout - and switching to a linear structure makes little difference to me. Some of you might want to represent quadrants 1-3 and forego the 4th. Some of you might want to include a "Done" space... or "Working on". Whatever gets the right things done for you.

           Urgent and Important Matrix/ Eisenhower Matrix/ Covey Quadrant - repurposed into a linear Kanban structure

           Urgent and Important Matrix/ Eisenhower Matrix/ Covey Quadrant - repurposed into a linear Kanban structure

Weekly, over at least the next 6 months I will be showcasing some really awesome apps that I have not only tinkered with, but also used extensively with the Kanban Calendar method. I hope it fascinates you as much as it has me. Most of all, I hope that you will have finally found the most ideal system for you (even though I am highly biased towards my own!). If you can salvage any spare parts from what I've laid out, good on you! I encourage you to put together the most unique task management system that does it for you. Happy doing!