Unlock Your Potential with a Personal Kanban Board

Mar 31 / Rumyana Dancheva
Reaching a sustainable work-life balance is tricky. We’ve all struggled with productivity at some point. Everybody deals with the expectations of colleagues, family, friends, demands, obligations, and much more. 

Often, we find ourselves overwhelmed by professional and personal obligations because we don’t know how to properly juggle them. One main reason is the struggle to visualize tasks and wrap our heads around just what needs to get done.
Alongside visualization, prioritization is another difficult activity for the brain. Without a functioning system to efficiently decide what to do first, we don’t know where to start or how to push through to completion.

A personal Kanban board addresses both challenges, allowing you to instantly see what's happening and make it less intimidating. This is a great approach to effectively managing personal work and enhancing productivity. Let’s dive in to learn how you can use it.

Personal Kanban

Kanban is one of the most popular Lean/Agile methods for efficient project management. What makes it so desirable are the two simple yet powerful rules - visualization and limiting work in progress (WIP). We’ll get into more detail about them later on. For now, let’s just say that the same management approach can be used on a personal level as well. 

In 2011, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria published the book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work, Navigating Life. They introduce a new productivity concept that actually works. Personal Kanban is a system for managing individual or team tasks. It takes the same Lean principles that led the Japanese auto industry to become a global leader and applies them to individual and team work.

Personal Kanban is about choosing the right work at the right time, recognizing why we do the things we do, understanding the impact of our actions, and creating value - not just products for ourselves, our families, our friends, our co-workers.

Why It’s Effective

Visualizing work allows us to transform workloads that feel vague and threatening into an actionable, context-sensitive flow. Limiting work-in-progress helps us complete what we start and understand the value of our choices. By setting a limit on cards in progress, we’re able to avoid context-switching, focus and get things done one after another. Combined, these two simple acts encourage us to improve the way we work and the way we make choices to balance our personal, professional, and social lives. 

Why should you use Personal Kanban? 

Personal Kanban provides a light, actionable, and achievable method for understanding our work and its context. With visualization, everything makes sense and it’s easier to get organized. You’re able to focus on the right things. This saves you valuable time that you can spend doing other things which improve your life and mental health, like relaxing with loved ones.

How You Can Use Personal Kanban?

You can truly do almost anything with a Kanban board. You can use it to organize your to-do list better, collect new ideas, or manage multiple areas of your life. In addition, it functions great as a tool for planning your family life, vacation, or event. Essentially, it works for breaking down and planning any activity.

How Do I Create a Personal Kanban Board? 

Before creating your first board let’s go over the two main elements of it. We have cards that represent each task and columns that track the progress as you go. Be mindful that if one card represents a task that will take you a week and another a task that will take 20 minutes, your flow will be uneven. You want to see progress, so think about breaking down complex items into smaller, more actionable pieces.
You can use a physical or digital board depending on your preferences and needs. For most people though, digital is the best choice. There are plenty of free and paid Kanban project management software and apps you can use.

The great thing about Personal Kanban is how simple it is to set up and work with. The easiest way to start with your board is by adding the infamous three columns:

  • To-Do
  • In Progress
  • Done

The first step of populating your personal Kanban board is adding cards to the “To-Do” column. Everything you plan to get done should be there. Use a card for each action item. For even better clarity, you can use colored labels for “High”, “Medium” or “Low” priorities on every card. 

Next, you decide what you want to work on now by pulling a card from the “To-Do” column and moving it to “In Progress”. Ideally, you would take on one task at a time. However, this is far from realistic. So, what you can do is be honest with yourself about how much you can take on at a time. Then, plan your capacity by setting a limit of a maximum 2-3 cards allowed in progress. This allows you to focus on completion and not be overwhelmed by having too much going on.

Once a task is finished, move the card to “Done”. Now you’ve opened up the capacity to pull another one and start working on it.

There you have it! Your first personal Kanban board is ready to support your journey to better prioritization, organization, and balancing work and life.

Support Personal Kanban with Better Time Management

Kanban or no Kanban, we need to learn some time management skills so we’ll be able to function happily and efficiently. In general, we all want the same things - to find a good flow, finish our work, do a good job, and be rewarded for it. In order to do that, we need to have control of our time. This is where it gets tricky. There are a lot of different ways our time management can work. 


The best way to approach short term planning is by asking the following two questions:

  • What do you expect from yourself?
  • What do you want to promise others?

This is especially important when you’re planning your tasks for the day. The goal is to plan your time and what you can tackle. The idea is to avoid getting in situations where you let down yourself or others. So, it’s important to commit with cards you know you can finish

Also, we don’t live in a bubble. Interruptions will happen and we have to make space for them as well. Don’t plan to be at full capacity at all times. Leave room for unexpected calls, emails, or blockages. 


The ultimate goal is to complete work, right? In order to do that you need to answer these questions:

  • What is the best use of your time?
  • What can you actually finish?

The goal here isn’t to start a bunch of things only to not finish them. We don’t want to pull worк that will just sit there and not get done. We need to understand our impediments. It’s not just urgency that drives us to pull cards in progress, it’s what we can realistically finish


When we get a task that we don’t really understand, we need to consider our options. What can you do to understand the context before acting? Start with these questions:

  • Is this the right work?
  • What options do we truly have?

The goal is to create new options not following a backlog blindly. You should understand the actual context of your work, not just do what somebody else told you to do. Ask yourself: are the things you do right now really important and do they solve a problem? If not, create new options. You can't manage your time well if you’re doing the wrong work.


There are days that turn into disasters. This one is exactly for intense situations. No matter how well we tend our Personal Kanban, sometimes a crisis arises or we work ourselves into a looming deadline and now we have to deliver. Ask yourself the following:

  • What can I get done before this crisis ends?
  • What corners can I safely cut?

Essentially, people can’t do quality work under pressure. That is why you need to focus on what you can actually get done that has value. After all, the goal isn’t to be perfect, it’s to survive the crisis. You also want to be able to delegate some tasks. Focus on what’s difficult and your expertise is vital. Simple tasks can be handled by someone else from the team. 


This allows you to think and solve. Let’s imagine you have a task to do. You can remember how you’ve done it before, or find a new approach. Often, we learn something and we forget what our ways were before. So, it’s best to answer these two questions:

  • What is the best way to do this task?
  • What is the best way to remember what I did?

Take notes on each card on the board even if it seems obvious. Then, take time to thoughtfully solve things, not just rush to get it done. The goal isn’t to finish task after task like robots, the goal is to learn.


If we come to work and tackle a bunch of unrelated tasks from different projects, we will be exhausted by noon because we’re context switching so much. That’s why these questions are critical:

  • How can I avoid burning out early?
  • How should I sequence my tasks?

Your brain processes information in chunks for around 20 minutes. So the Pomodoro technique is great to help you concentrate, ignore interruptions, and just finish what you need to. In addition, group similar tasks on the personal Kanban board and do them one after another. This way your focus and memory aren’t all over the place. The goal here is for your brain to survive the day, not just do important things. 

How to Reach Your Potential with Personal Kanban

Despite our best efforts, life is hectic sometimes. People, obligations, deadlines, and even recreational activities all fight for our attention. The stress of juggling several objectives doesn’t sit well with the human brain. Personal Kanban can help with this. Let's see how you can unlock your hidden potential.


As we already know, the most important part of Personal Kanban is visualization. First, you want to choose a tool or app to create your board. Get everything out on the cards, even the little tasks. Make sure all the information you need is visible and clear. You can step it up by adding further details, labels, images, checklists, etc. to each card. By doing this you can prioritize more efficiently.

Make Priorities

Prioritization is confusing to many of us. There are so many things that seem important and getting all of them done feels chaotic and even impossible. A good starting point is to ask yourself “Which tasks will cause me the most trouble if I don’t complete them?” When you identify a few of these items, tackle them first. 

Start Pulling Cards into Your "Doing" Column

Now that you’ve put the focus on the important tasks, it’s time to actually do some work. Pulling cards is exciting but don’t have too much fun with it. It’s recommended to establish healthy boundaries on how much you can take. 

One of the reasons we’re unable to unlock our potential is having too much on our plate. We rarely manage to finish tasks. After a while they get tedious and we decide to switch to something else. This is a vicious never-ending cycle.

Another great perk of using a method like Personal Kanban is the WIP limits. This means, setting a limit of cards you can have “In progress”. Usually, a healthy number is between one and three. Using this method you can concentrate on one task at a time before moving on to the next one. Your productivity increases and you’re actually saving valuable time because you know exactly what to do. 

The stress of having to juggle multiple tasks at once is removed and you can rock and roll.

Reflect on What’s Done 

Every once in a while, it’s essential to evaluate your progress in order to continuously improve. You can review what went well and what didn’t. Then, you’ll be able to make new adjustments. Don’t forget to be flexible. Personal Kanban is about adapting the system to your needs and making it work for you.

One For The Road

When you see your work, you’re able to understand so much more about it. All we need is to visualize, learn and improve. This will make us better individuals and better parts of a team, whether that team is your colleagues or family. We work best together. We just need to learn how to do that. 

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