Personal Kanban board revisted

I’ve had my personal Kanban board up for about four months now.

No, it hasn’t revolutionized my life. And no, I haven’t become a scary productivity junkie, either. But there are a couple of good lessons to take away from the exercise so far.

  • One, it’s actually helpful to arrange the list of stuff you want to accomplish, and sort through it. You may decide not to do half of it, but at least you’ve taken the action of throwing it out.
  • Two, don’t buy the normal Post-Its. Use the Super Sticky kind. It is mildly annoying when notes continually fall off of your wall.
  • Three, there is no magic approach to getting organized. Find one that works for you. Throw it out if it doesn’t. The Kanban board is working for me, so I’m going to keep it for now.
  • Four, you need to review your to-do list regularly to make sure it’s in sync with what you’re actually doing. If there are any conflicts, whatever’s really happening in your life wins.

Anyway, that’s the lessons learned. Now onto what I really want to dig into: the thinking behind personal goals and to-do lists.

When I set up the board, it was a way to organize a lot of different projects I had going (or, at least, wanted to have going). My main problem was that I wasn’t organized and wasn’t really motivated unless I was in a good mood and had a large chunk of downtime to waste. And, what’s worse is, I wasn’t able to force myself to let go of any items entirely–it really takes a certain amount of opportunity cost analysis to do that. That’s where the task list approach comes into play.

So the main benefit of creating this complex organization scheme was to force myself to simplify. And it did. Sort of. Except not quite as much as I needed, apparently.

The first realization came through reading Anxiety, Phobias, and Panic1. The book’s first chapter goes over a number of otherwise beneficial personality traits that, out of moderation, can cause serious problems–among them extremely high expectations of self, perfectionism, and excessive need for approval (which, in turn, makes it hard to say no to other people). All of these should probably sound familiar if you’re even slightly tempted to jump on the latest fad in personal productivity.

The lesson here is, there’s a balance. You can lock yourself down if you only sit around talking wistfully about things you’d like to do someday, when everything settles down (hint: it never will), and never do anything. But you can also lock yourself down if you set the bar too high, and put too much pressure on yourself. There’s a sweet spot, and you usually have to lower your expectations to get there.

The second realization came through reading Searching for God Knows What2 by Donald Miller. One of the recurring themes in the book is what Miller calls “lifeboat mentality”3. It’s the tendency to compare ourselves to others; the high-school-popularity-contest way of thinking about things. And his point is twofold: (1) it permeates our culture more than we’d like to admit, and (2) it’s completely invalid.

It’s not so much that this thinking drives your to-do list, but it does seep into the way you prioritize each item. Maybe you think it’s expected by the people around you. Or that it’s expected of someone in your position. Or you promised someone you’d do it, because you didn’t want to let them down. Or you added it for the marketing or networking opportunities.

Whatever the case, you’re giving it more weight than it really deserves–or, at least, more weight than the effort you’re willing to put into it. And it’s not because it’s something you necessarily love to do or that you’re uniquely qualified to do–if it were, you’d have no problem. You do it because you want to get ahead or (as is more the case for me) not fall behind. (Don’t get me wrong, there is some place for that, but only in moderation.)

So, a couple of weeks ago, I eliminated several tasks that I thought violated one of these issues: either my expectations were excessive, or it was driven by perfectionism, or I was doing it for someone else who really didn’t care about it as much as I did, or I re-evaluated my reasons for leaving it on the list in the first place. (I made sure to finish up anything I had made a hard-and-fast commitment to do.)

And then I noticed my board was really empty–except for the “DONE” column, which had greatly expanded. Which, strangely, made me breathe a little easier, even though every item on that board I put there voluntarily.

So, oddly enough, I started on a new XNA game two weeks ago. I’ve now got a real, playable engine–not just playing around, something useful. This wasn’t even on my to-do list and it wasn’t something I obsessed about, I just did it.

I didn’t get there by using my to-do list, but I also wouldn’t have gotten there without my to-do list.

1 I’ve realized I’ve become a more tense and nervous person over the past several years, and when I saw this book mentioned in a completely unrelated discussion thread I was following, I picked it up. Like I said in a previous post, it’s not a motivational-speaker self-help-panacea book, so it’s the type of approach I was looking for.

2 I picked up this book knowing very little about it, only that I’d read two of Miller’s other books, Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. The book is basically an apologetic for Christianity, asserting that our culture has taken a relational narrative and turned it into a set of checklists and rules.

Incidentally, A Million Miles is a great book if you’re one of those types that sits around wistfully talking about doing things someday, but never gets around to it. The idea of living a story seems a bit simplistic, but ultimately helpful–so long as you take it as one alternative perspective on life rather than a panacea and the basis for your worldview.

3 The name comes from the game/exercise referred to as “Lifeboat”–you can read a dry written example here, or you can have it explained by a satirical 80’s Christian rocker dressed in drag.