To-do lists are 'Spawns of the Devil'

To-do lists are 'Spawns of the Devil'

Big Thoughts

24 January 2014 • Written by Peter Sellars

Peter Sellars explains how Personal Kanban replaces dreaded to-do lists with a highly visual and effective flow-based alternative...

“To-do lists: the last bastion for the organizationally damned. They’re the embodiment of evil. They possess us and torment us, controlling what we do, highlighting what we haven’t. They make us feel inadequate, and dismiss our achievements as if they were waste. These insomnia-producing, check-boxing Beelzebubs have intimidated us for too long.

And they must be stopped.” – Personal Kanban (p60)

Faced with a daunting mountain of tasks, most people turn to their tried and tested to-do list. Personal experience has me firmly entrenched in the to-do lists are ‘spawns of the devil’ [1] camp. Numerous times, a list’s sheer size overwhelmed me. Prioritised lists only added to my anxiety.

What tools exist to aid us in our war against these satanic to-do lists? In truth, several. But in this article, the focus will be on Personal Kanban to replace your to-do lists with a highly visual and effective flow-based alternative. Personal Kanban enabled me to regain control of my work by switching the focus from productivity to effectiveness [2]. So, what is Personal Kanban?

Personal Kanban

Personal Kanban (PK) is a tool used by individuals with two very simple rules:

  • Visualise Your Work
  • Limit Your Work-In-Progress (WIP)

The flow of work from beginning to completion is represented by a visual value stream. The simplest value stream ‘Ready, Doing, Done’ is a common starting point for most PK implementations. Once the individual value stream has been identified and a backlog of work created, users benefit from a pull-based mechanism aimed at maximising the flow of work through the system. WIP limits ensure impediments to flow are highlighted and dealt with effectively. Limiting WIP also reduces stress; focusing on fewer things alleviates stress associated with having too many things in flight. While PK shares many concepts with organisational Kanban, the personal nature of the work presents users with some subtle differences in implementation [3].

“I have never drawn the same kanban twice.” – Corey Ladas

Kanban at an organisational level originated from Microsoft in 2004 when David J. Anderson implemented a pull-based system within a software engineering team. Don Reinertsen persuaded Anderson that he could implement a full Kanban system, which Anderson refined during his time at Corbis before sharing it with the community in 2007. PK has its origins in 2004 when Jim Benson noticed differences in how he was using Kanban. Jim focused on communication of value as opposed to the flow of work. In 2009, Jim used PK as a consultant for the first time before it became mainstream with the release of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-authored by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry in 2011.

In this article, the main focus is on PK rather than organisational Kanban and how individuals can use different PK visual approaches to manage variability in their work and condemn their evil to-do lists to the trash bin.

Board 1 Basic

A simple Personal Kanban board

PK boards are used to visualise the work within a value stream container. WIP limits are applied to steps in the value stream, creating a flow-based focus. The flow of work through the system is more important than the effort involved. WIP limits can be enforced numerically or spatially (as in the board above). The value stream can be personalised to meet user needs.

Work flows across the board through the use of a pull-based system. Work is pulled from an adjacent column – unless WIP limits are reached, at which time an impediment to flow exists and needs to be dealt with. Unexpected but important work – work that varies in size or effort, work with different value rewards and your personal motivation levels – can all impact the flow of work across the PK board. These variabilities impact on productivity, visibility, effectiveness and morale.

PK boards can help manage variability to ensure work continues flowing across a board. Different approaches can be used to manage identified variability; this thought piece will outline several approaches based on personal experience in my ongoing PK journey. Continuous improvement through adaptation and tweaks to your PK board approach is a fundamental concept in the use of PK.

Managing variability with Personal Kanban

Exploit Variability [4] is one of Don Reinertsen’s Principles of Flow [5]. Reinertsen advises that, rather than avoid variability, we should look to manage it. In order to manage variability, we need to understand the type of variability we are faced with. Discovering and identifying the types of variability occurring enables us to investigate management solutions. Managed variability can then be reduced or exploited to improve outcomes. Application of WIP limits, reduction in batch size and fast feedback are other Principles of Flow that contribute to PK board effectiveness.

It is 3pm. Stan is sat at his desk and the day is going well. Suddenly a colleague phones to inform him that he is sick and won’t be able to carry out the service demonstration planned for tomorrow. Suddenly Stan’s need to familiarise himself with, practice and prepare the presentation for tomorrow is his highest priority work item! Glancing at his PK board, it is immediately apparent that Stan’s ‘doing’ WIP limit has been reached. He does not have a mechanism to deal with this variability!

Variability happens. As Reinertsen teaches us, rather than ignore it, we should look to manage it. On his PK board, Stan could exploit an expedite ‘swim lane’ layout to deal with this variability. Different variabilities require differing PK board approaches. Recognition and management of variability can ensure work continues to flow across a PK board.

Variability manifests itself in queues and lack of flow. Queues and lack of flow are symptoms that variability is present. Variability comes in many guises, including work size, work effort, information delays, waiting time for feedback and even personal motivation/procrastination tendencies.

PK boards' approaches assist us to manage such variabilities to support continuous flow. Managing variability enables us to handle specific types of expected work, unexpected work and work delays with minimal impact to flow.

PK board approaches, layouts and templates

How can we lay out our PK boards based on approaches that will enable us to manage different variabilities? In this article, a number of approaches with associated board layouts in the form of templates are outlined. These approaches can help to manage variability. Each approach will outline a particular variability and how to layout a PK board that manages it while maintaining flow.

List of approaches outlined are:

  • The Pen
  • Fast-track
  • Multi-value
  • Pool Me
  • Procrastinator Buster
  • Queue Jumper

The Pen approach

Board 2 The Pen

Identified variability

Queues caused by time delay: the flow of work is blocked due to work waiting for feedback or information.


Introduce ‘The Pen’ area to the layout where items awaiting input from third parties are placed.

Queues caused by a number of work items waiting on information, feedback or approval can eventually block the flow of work across a PK board. This is a symptom of time delay variability. The introduction of ‘The Pen’ area on the board can unblock the queue enabling flow to be re-established. Work that requires others’ input is moved into ‘The Pen’ and other work can now flow past the ‘blocked’ work.

Strict adherence to placing work items that requires other people’s effort is required. ‘The Pen’ is not a dumping ground for putting work off. Patterns of work being put into ‘The Pen’ should also be monitored in an attempt to identify strategies that may address the cause for this work delay. While a review column could be added to the value stream, there is no doubt that this would just move the queue within the board rather than solve the variability issue.

As a consultant on a team that values input and feedback from all members, use of ‘The Pen’ approach is common on my PK boards. In Personal Kanban, ‘The Pen’ materialises itself as a column which feels like a flow interruption, hence the preference when using this approach to place ‘The Pen’ in a corner of the layout.

Fast-track approach

Board 3 Expedite Swimlane

Identified variability

High-priority pieces of work are continuously blocked by a queue preventing them from completing their journey through the value stream.


Introduce an expedite mechanism that overrides value stream step WIP limits.

Some urgent piece of work needs to be completed, but a full queue prevents the work flowing across the board. This is important and needs to be completed ASAP. A number of symptoms could be responsible for this variability, including unexpected work, dealing with real-time issues, poor planning or even a psychotic manager with unrealistic expectations! Introducing an expedite mechanism that overrides value stream step WIP limits enables the work item to flow across the board under such circumstances. Limiting the expedite mechanism to a single work item is also important – only one such item should be in play at any time.

While expedite requestsare often viewed with negative connotations [7] the crux of the matter is that, in reality, this kind of variability is common. Enabling a single work item to ‘break’ WIP limits deals with this variability. As with ‘The Pen’ approach, it is good practice to review and analyse the type of unexpected work in an effort to reduce the variability occurrence. Ask yourself regularly what actions could be taken to reduce this variability based on the specific symptoms.

Board 4 Expedite Indicator

During recent house renovations, I utilised an expedite mechanism to prevent delays in the building project. The expedite mechanism was vital when incorrect estimation meant we needed to get more materials or a tradesman was required to do a job which could block work in flow. Visualisation of the work spotlighted the need to expedite work items – and enabled us to maintain flow rather than block the main flow of work. Expedite mechanisms often suit specific scenarios, such as those that exist in the customer support and service industry due to their inherent prioritisation variability.

There are two common expedite mechanisms available. In the first, a swim lane for the expedite items is placed onto the board, in the second an indicator of some sort is used to clearly mark the work item in question. Both explicitly identify that the work item in question is excluded from existing WIP limitations.

Multi-value approach

Board 5 Multi Value

Identified variability

Work items of different size/effort appear on your board, especially regular large pieces of work resulting in slow-moving work items.


Implement an approach called ‘sequestering’ to break down large pieces of work through the introduction and visualisation of multiple value streams.

The Sequestering Approach [8] enables work item size/effort variability to be managed. Slow-moving work items are a symptom of this variability. Often large, regular or re-occurring tasks sit in the ‘doing’ step of a value stream for substantially longer periods of time than the majority of work items. In order to visualise progress on these slow-moving cards, it is beneficial to display an additional value stream on your PK board.

The introduction of a second value stream provides insight and visualisation of the work required to complete the large work item, as well as visualisation of progress towards completion. Without this second value stream, it would be hard to understand why the work is slow-moving and how much work is left to complete the large work item. Motivation is also impacted by the introduction of the second value stream as, instead of seeing a slow-moving work item, we now have a flow visualisation enabling us to see that the large work item is not stalled and progress is being made.

Continuous improvement leads me to read a lot of books, learn lots of emerging technologies and carry out a number of hours of self-study. Before encountering sequestering, it was quite demoralising to see work items stagnate in the ‘doing’ step of my value stream with no clear idea of when they would be completed. At one stage, I increased the WIP limit for my ‘doing’ step to cope with the long-running task blocking other work flowing through the system. Adding a second value stream provided me with improved insights into both the work item itself and the progress of that item.

The second value stream does not need to mirror the initial value stream on your PK board. For reading work items, I tend to create a value stream with the days of the week and the reading scheduled each day instead of a ‘doing’ step. In reality, each day is the current ‘doing’ step but it provides me with a visual overview of planned work for the week.

Personally, I tend to use a specific colour to highlight which work item is in the main value stream. But this is not the only way to visualise this approach. Alternatives include smaller stickies and relevant ‘swim-lane’ size for the second value stream.

An alternative to multiple value stream boards is to break the second value stream out into another board. This proves itself to be immensely useful for large collaborative work items. The second board is represented in the main board ‘doing’ step, while it provides additional benefit by enabling all the collaborators tasks to be visualised – not just my own.

Pool Me approach

Board 6 Unstick Me

Identified variability

Queues of work contain a high number of similar work items. Flow of these work items is slow compared to other types of work items.


Represent major work types via swim lanes and limit the WIP for each work type, as well as the value stream limits.

We all have work we enjoy doing and work that we tend to avoid doing until it becomes a necessity. A queue of similar work items appearing on a PK board is a symptom of this behaviour. Dealing with a work bias variability that you may not even have been conscious of, is possible by introducing swim lanes based on major types of work.

Swim lanes are used to limit the number of work items based on type. Within the value stream, WIP limits are pooled across all work types. It is often useful to use a secondary work item indicator, such as different coloured notes to enable quick review of your work bias management. This approach is really about addressing a behaviour that is limiting effectiveness, your ability to address the work bias is reflected in the makeup of items successfully flowing through the value stream.

This approach proved useful when I was faced with several projects with a mixture of fixed, flexible and no deadlines. While recognising that this goes against a number of flow principles, at times reality confronts us with these situations that we have to deal with. To ensure work flowed for each project based on priority, I set the WIP limit for the fixed deadline project highest, the flexible deadline less than the fixed and the no deadline ‘swim lane’ had the lowest WIP. I really liked the work in the no deadline project and, using this approach, a humane compromise was made between my work bias and the need to deliver results.

This approach works really well if you are consistently biased against a particular type of work – the type of work you procrastinate on and avoid starting. While this approach has proved successful, it is not one that I would use often. Once insights into the work bias have been achieved and overcome, I would advise switching away from this approach. This approach is aimed at identifying your bias and fixing as soon as possible.

Procrastinator Buster approach

Board 7 Procrastinator Buster

Identified variability

Flow of work through the value stream feels slow, manifested in work items sitting in value stream steps for long periods of time.


Identify a specific timeframe and add it as a step in the value stream. In the timeframe allowed, limit the WIP and only pull into this step when the timeframe expires.

Ever feel demotivated? Finding it hard to get started on some work? You are not alone. A large number of slow-flowing items or stagnant items on your PK board are symptoms expressing that motivation is low or procrastination tendencies have kicked in! Has the work on our PK board overwhelmed us due to its sheer size? Something needs to be done before we revert back to the evil to-do lists.

In such circumstances, limit the work you take on within a specific timeframe. Usually a day or week in personal circumstances works best. We want to feel motivated by completing work, but drive this by setting deadlines based on realistic capacity. Adding the timeframe to the value stream and setting a realistic WIP adds a sense of urgency without overwhelming oneself. Nothing gets pulled into this timeframe unless all work items that started in it are completed. The focus is clearly on doing not starting. Adjusting the WIP limit based on known capacity during the upcoming timeframe is essential and motivation will increase based on completing what you set out to do within this period. The minimal planning required for the timeframe is offset by the increase in effectiveness.

Being a compulsive starter, this approach is found on almost every PK board I start! Usage for me is more about getting to done than a lack of motivation or procrastination and it helps prevent me from feeling overwhelmed. It also allows colleagues to clearly view my short-term focus and provide assistance or take ownership of work I have planned if they have capacity to carry it out. That to me is a win-win situation.

Regular retrospectives on completion rates are important to maintain motivation. Adjusting the WIP limit based on capacity entails understanding what happens with your time and about your motivation. Can you identify when you feel more motivated? Could you utilise that to improve your value stream? Did you fail to complete work due to unexpected events outside your control? What can you do to increase you timeframe flow while maintaining high levels of motivation? It is not always about measuring flow. Sometimes focusing on what impacts our work can be just as important to our motivation.

Queue Jumper approach

Board 8 Queue Jumper

Identified variability

Lack of a priority filter leads to low value work being completed while higher value work items do not remain in the backlog – (or) lots of time is spent trying to figure out which item to pull into the value stream from your backlog items.


Introduce a priority filter. A priority filter implements a waterfall of priority with decreasing bucket size to ensure high-value items enter the value stream and reduce time spent prioritising and reprioritising items in the priority queues.

Low-value items being completed at the expense of high-value items is a symptom of a lack of or poor prioritisation. Corey Ladas [Scrumban] outlined a flow system of prioritisation that can be used to address this value focus variability. This system contains ‘Buckets’ with limited capacity tricking down into the value stream [9]. The focus is on visualising the priority assigned to items. When pulling a card from the highest priority column into the value stream, a decision is made: the next piece of work to pull on to my board needs to be the highest priority from the preceding priority. Items may now not flow across the priority side of the board, but the value stream should maintain a constant flow of high-value work.

Large project undertakings lend themselves well to this approach and this is close to being an organisational Kanban board. This board helps to ensure that the highest value work at the time is being done. Tasks on projects tend to have time dependencies or internal dependencies that can now be managed more efficiently. Being able to see all the priorities and quickly re-prioritise for each pull enables work to jump to the head of the value stream queue.

Other approaches

Having outlined a number of approaches, it needs to be emphasised that there are many more waiting to be experimented with and tried out such as the Balanced Throughput [10], Time Capsule [11] and Emergency Response [12] approaches.

Getting more done

Tailoring a PK board’s value stream to cater for identified variability makes it possible to manage, rather than avoid variability. Variability is no longer something to fear or label as a risk. Different approaches can be used to deal with inconsistent types of work, work delays, unexpected work and even our own tendencies for procrastination! Each enables work to continue flowing through the value stream within which variability exists.

Each approach outlined is tailored to minimise the impact on flow. Acknowledging the existence of variability is necessary and an approach tailored to deal with it is required. For unexpected, but high priority work, we have seen how an expedite implementation works to minimise the impact on flow while ensuring we deliver the unexpected work.

We have seen how to utilise colour, visual indicators and layouts to deal with variability. PK boards are incredibly flexible and encourage an agile mindset. Design your board your way – make it work for you. Be innovative. Review your board regularly. Consider the type and flow of work on your board. Do you need to deal with a new variability? Has a variability you were aware of declined? Is your board working for you? Constant retrospective time will provide insights and learnings that can help you redesign your board to become even more effective.

Your PK board is for YOU! It should help YOU be more effective and alleviate stress. Managing variability can help your PK board deliver value to you. Decreasing variability using the approaches outlined can also help decrease stress associated with unlimited WIP. Take time out to consider your current board, or create your first board and start getting more done today!

If you use other approaches for managing variability, we would really like to have you share them with the community by adding them in the comments section below.



Anderson, David J. – Kanban

Benson, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life

Ladas, Corey – Scrumban: Essays on Kanban Systems for Lean Software Development

Reinertsen, Don – The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development



[1] P60, To-do Lists: Spawns of the Devil, Benson, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life

[2] A more comprehensive PK vs. to-do lists comparison can be found on p60-66: Benson, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life

[3] Jim Benson lists unruly tasks, WIP limits that are harder to manage, the only way out is often through and the short-lived nature of personal projects as some of the differences between Personal and Organisation Kanban

[4] Chapter 4 – Exploiting Variability; Reinertsen, Don – The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development provides valuable insights into managing variability in product development if you have a desire to learn more about the principle

[5] The Principles of Flow from Reinertsen, Don – The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development are The Economic View, Manage Queues, Exploit Variability, Reduce Batch Size, Apply WIP Constraints, Control Flow under Uncertainty, Use Fast Feedback and Decentralised Control

[6] P42-43, The Pen; Benson, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life provides more in depth information and advice on using The Pen

[7] P125 Expedite & p227 Expedite Requests in Anderson, David J. – Kanban outlines in more depth the causes and impacts of Expedite Requests

[8] Jessica’s Story: Appendix – Design Patterns, P154-160, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life

[9] P163, Ladas, Corey – Scrumban: Essays on Kanban Systems for Lean Software Development

[10] P166-167, Balanced Throughput Approach; Benson, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life

[11] P164-165, Time Capsule Approach; Benson, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life

[12] P161-164, Emergency Response Approach: Taming Unexpected Workloads; Benson, Jim & DeMaria Barry, Tonianne – Personal Kanban, Mapping Work | Navigating Life



PK Personal Kanban

WIP Work In Progress

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