Master Your Work in Progress

Ever feel like you’re trying to do too many things at once? There’s a good chance you are! You’re only one person, so it doesn’t make sense to try to work on more than one task at a time. If you’ve spent much time reading blogs about productivity, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of context switching.


If not, there are lots of great articles out there about it. In brief, context switching occurs when you are interrupted or otherwise switch from one task to another, and it can have a high cost associated in terms of time and energy.

Today, I’d like to talk about a technique I use to help avoid context switching and other forms of waste. I also reap the benefits of organization and insight into where I need to spend more or less time. This technique is called Kanban.

Kanban originated in the automotive industry as a way to improve process efficiency and has been widely adopted in software development. It can also be fun and easy to apply to your work or personal life!

At its heart, Kanban is about just one thing: limiting work in progress. This has the potential to reduce different kinds of waste in different contexts. If you’re handling physical items, it can reduce the amount of space your work in progress takes up. If you’re working with tasks that require more than trivial concentration, Kanban can help you limit context switching.

At work and home, I use Trello to maintain a prioritized TO DO list. When I have time to work on something, I just pull the top item off the list and put it in my Doing list. Then I work on it until I’m done. During that time, I do my best to ignore other incoming work and e-mails.

I also drink tea at work. Instead of keeping an entire box at work taking up valuable desk space (and potentially going stale while it sits), I keep a baggie with just enough tea for one week. When the bag is empty, I put it in my lunchbox with a Kanban card. Then, whether I or my wife pack my lunch the next day, we know to put more tea in the bag.

For a bad example, see my handling of the sugar for my tea. I could free up an entire drawer if I only kept what I need on hand!

This is an extremely simple introduction to what Kanban is all about and how to implement it. If this topic interests you and you want to find out more, leave your questions in the comments below.

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