Julien Déray

Julien Déray's blog

All the posts | Written on March 8, 2021

Getting Things Done: Kanban principles adapted to personal productivity

Agile Methodologies are not for professional use only. I have - for instance - used Scrum to plan my wedding and it went really well, maybe I’ll write about it one day. A few years ago I started a very time consuming new role: Co-founder and CTO of an early stage startup. I quickly realised that whatever my definition of “being busy” had been so far, it wasn’t quite right. I had to get more organised, quickly. Luckily I heard about a personal productivity method in a podcast (in French unfortunately) that inspired me. I had very little knowledge of Kanban at that time but this method blew my mind by introducing to me the idea of managing a list of tasks as a stream, rather than a finite list. This method is known as Getting Things Done (or GTD).

GTD provides an explicit process for ingesting, planning and completing tasks. Pretty much like Kanban, the goal is to become efficient, execute every task when it is needed and not drown under a pile of Work In Progress. I’ll share with you a few tips that I have extracted from this method over the years. Keep in mind that I have used a combination of GTD, Bullet Journal, Kanban and other methods together for years to build my own personal method through constant review and experimentation. So I won’t be covering GTD “by the book” here but instead talk about high level principles and draw parallels with Kanban to hopefully show you a new perspective.

GTD in a nutshell

My usage of GTD quickly took a Kanban-ish form that could be summarised like this:

Getting things done diagram

  • Inbox: contains tasks to refine;
  • Someday maybe: for not important & not urgent, one of the weaknesses of my old system;
  • Backlog: very similar to Kanban’s backlog, before the commitment line;
  • Next actions: contains the Work Items for the day, refilled every morning. Note that this must be ordered by priority;
  • Doing: Work In Progress, notice the WIP limit here to prevent multi-tasking.;
  • Done.

As you imagine, the plan is to move the cards from left to right. Every morning you take Work Items from the Backlog to refill the Next Actions column and aim to empty it within the day. Let’s zoom in on a few features.

The Inbox

The concept of inbox is not new, but the way it is used in GTD blew my mind. You can’t always - not to say never - plan your day and then simply execute. Our personal and professional life - at an individual level - are full of unplanned work. We can fight it - like in Kanban -, or we can adapt - like in GTD.

Any Work Item coming in, either to do today, tomorrow, or in 2 years, everything goes in your Inbox. What you do next? You keep doing what you were doing before being interrupted by this new information. Do you get how powerful this is? The truth is, very few tasks require our immediate attention. So let’s not give it to them.

The Inbox must be emptied on a regular basis (once a day? twice a day? Try different configurations depending on you specific situation). Now there are different scenarios, based on Eisenhower’s matrix:

  • if it is just an idea: Someday maybe column;
  • if urgent & important: you probably didn’t use the Inbox and did it right away, it’s okay;
  • if urgent & not important: move in Next Actions at the right place depending of its relative priority, or delegate if you can;
  • if not urgent & important: move to Backlog;
  • if not urgent & not important: just delete it. Few of us allow ourselves to do it but try, it will change your life!

The Inbox helps you to filter your tasks, plan them and most importantly reduce your mental load by allowing you to put whatever task, idea, meeting or chore in a place where you know it will be taken care of eventually.

The Next Actions column

Don’t you recognise something familiar here? This is a commitment line! Anything before this column is planned for the future and therefore not part of the picture most of the time. When you are not planning your day, the only thing you have to do is focus on this column, and execute the tasks one after the other. All the planning has been done upfront, trust your self from the past for having decided to put this task here for a good reason and do it.

It also allows you to delete anything from the Backlog column at any time. Like in Scrum, because tasks are taken from the Backlog to be integrated in the Sprint for every iteration, some tasks are always going to stay at the bottom of the pile. It simply means these tasks are not needed. So save yourself a bit of time and delete them eventually.

WIP Limits, always

This was the first time I heard about WIP limits. I tell you in every single article that WIP limits are not an option in Kanban, and GTD is no different. If you allow yourself to start too many tasks at the same time, you are going to multi-task and you will not be as efficient.

Review and experiment

You should review your process on a regular basis, at least once a month. This will allow you to tweak your WIP limit but also maybe detect custom columns that would help you be even more organised. It doesn’t need to feel like an obligation but more like a tool. The best way to make sure you use it on the long term is to make it your own. Like I said the method I currently use on a daily basis is a blend of many tools I have experimented with over the years. But GTD has been a very eye opening starting point for me.

I find GTD more adapted to personal planning than raw Kanban because it is much more “real-time focussed”. You can use it all day to stay focus and get after it. Though, I don’t find it very efficient to plan on the long term. Which is why I have blended it why the Bullet Journal method.

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