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stacks of boards leaning against every wall; it’s a great way to track big team projects, and fits well with today’s agile software development methods. And as it turns out, there’s a increasingly popular system called Kanban—originally born at Toyota as a way to coordinate just-in-time manufacturing—that relies on the same idea of putting notes or cards on a board.
The typical Kanban board has three columns, for Ready, Doing, and Done, and the idea is to move the notes from left to right across the columns as you work. I have friends who use their office or cubicle walls as their Kanban boards. Others use whiteboards, or they stick cards on their refrigerator doors with magnets.
There’s a Web and mobile app called Trello, from Fog Creek Software, that lets you do Kanban with digital cards. I haven’t used Trello yet, but I’m interested in the way the cards have a “front,” bearing the task name and key details like due dates and categories, and a “back” where you can add comments, checklists, attachments, and more. It’s a little like Evernote, except that every note/card represents a task rather than a document.
But while the idea of digital Kanban is intriguing, I think it’s important to acknowledge the psychological resonance of physical actions like crumpling up an old sticky-note. My friend Robin Seaman is director of content at a non-profit called Benetech that, among many other things, helps people with disabilities get easier access to e-books and audio books. Robin’s job involves managing relationships with hundreds of publishers, and at one point she says she wound up with more than 1,000 items on her old, linear to-do list (she used an app called Toodledo).
“It became impossible for me to figure out what was a priority,” Robin says. “The list had become such a monster that I was almost ceasing to look at it.” In the world of personal productivity tools, that’s a big fail.
Then an engineer friend tipped her off about Kanban. With Kanban boards, she says, “you can survey your world and somehow it just feels more real. You have an engagement and you write it down with a pen, then you move the stickies. Ripping the sticky off and slapping it down in the next column; tearing it off and slapping it down on the next column once it’s been completed—it was all so incredibly satisfying that I just embraced it hook, line, and sinker. I felt like I had gotten my world out of my computer and in front of me, where I can relate to it viscerally.”
That’s also why I like my own Post-it boards. But I wouldn’t want to do without the digital copy inside Evernote, which makes my whole system portable. (In fact, the blending of the physical and digital worlds that the Post-it camera enables is an emerging theme at Evernote, as I explained in a 2012 piece about the company’s collaboration with Moleskine.)
If you like the sound of my system, or of Kanban, give one of them a try. I’ve used many to-do list apps and task management systems over the years, and I’m sure my current one won’t be the last. The key thing, for anyone who wants to be more effective in their work, is to have a process that feels comfortable—and that, ideally, adds a little aesthetic pleasure to your life. That way, work will feel a little more like play. And you might even have some time afterward to give yourself over to random provocations.
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