October 24, 2012

What I Discovered About Personal Kanban and Getting Things Done

Not long ago I wrote about some changes I made to my personal kanban. Today I'm writing about why I do this. Much has been written about the benefits of using Personal Kanban and Getting Things Done (GTD) so I'm going to stick to what I personally get out of it.

I get uneasy when I have lots of unfinished projects around the house, half-read books languishing, things I've started and have forgotten about. ADD runs in the family so I'm likely an undiagnosed sufferer. When I rediscover something I once thought was important and have since forgotten, I remember why I thought it was important and feel bad for having not finished it. I feel stressed about needing to put one thing aside and finish the newly rediscovered badger. It's a little stressful. Not "I can't take it anymore!" stressful. Just a nagging background stress. There are plenty of stressors in my life so I don't want to add more if I can help it. And I can help it.

When I first started using them, GTD and Personal Kanban made matters worse. And better. It made me feel worse because now everything is visible -- all the half finished projects and incomplete initiatives. Yet it made me feel better, knowing that I won't forget anything. It also helped me prioritize my work explicitly and stick with that prioritization for as long as that prioritization made sense. My kanban helps me remember why things are in the state they are in, being intentional about what I choose to do.

After a while, GTD and kanban helped me reduce the backlog of partially completed work. It helps me focus on work already started. It helps me not start new activities that are of equal or lower priority -- or things that have a lower Cost of Delay. Seeing how much I have in process helps me to stop starting new work and to start finishing what I've already got going on.

I also discovered how much longer it takes me to finish tasks than I thought. Oh, yeah, "blog post"; I'll just typety type, a little proof reading, maybe a picture and I'll be done in half an hour. Heh. No, not really. Takes me a bit longer than that for the type of posts I do and the care I put into them. And there are all the other things: tweet it, email it to the person who requested I write about it, put a notice about it on some appropriate LinkedIn group, get interrupted for dinner, go to an Agile Atlanta meetup, decide to finish it tomorrow after work, and ultimately edit this post again because I thought of something else that should go in, like this paragraph. Anyway, kanban helps me understand that I'm an overly optimistic estimator. Understanding that helps me put stuff in the backlog instead of just starting it.

Now I feel much better. Sure, there are new things that come along that are Important, Urgent or have a High Cost of Delay, and I'll increase my WIP for a while. And that can be stressful. But it's a different kind of stress. No more is it "I have all this work and it's out of control". Now it's "I have some important work to do, but I know what it is, what state it's in, where it is stored, when it's due, and I feel in control." I still have a lot I want to do. But I'm in control.


  1. There's lot of literature on prioritization techniques in non-personal Kanban/other agile methods (i.e. WJSF, cost of delay, etc.)

    Any advice on prioritizing for between personal backlog items?

    What if you had to get your garage door opener fixed, write your blog post, or go get lunch with a friend that you promised months ago (as an example). how would you prioritize between these?


  2. Excellent question. The GTD book has some good things to say on this topic. (Wish I could remember them!) One tip I remember had to do with doing what you have the energy and time and opportunity to do in that moment. Your GTD system should help you be organized so that when Bob is nearby you look at your @Bob agenda, and do that. When you are @Home (or @HomeDepot), you do your @Home (Depot) agenda. If you can knock something out quick, do that. I think that helped me prioritize the most.

    On my PK I made backlog columns for Urgent, Important, and Both Urgent&Important. That helped me only a little.

    Some of our priorities we just instinctively know. For example, I value honoring commitments, making appointments, and being on time, so that drives my priorities. I also value engaging with anyone who reads my blog, so I'll drop absolutely everything to respond to a comment.

    What have you tried? What works for you? What hasn't worked?