Skip to main content
power points

Tradional to-do checklists may be failing some people who have many tasks to handle in a week. Consider, instead, a more expansive visual system that traces its routes to the Japanese manufacturing scheduling system known as Kanban.

Sven Wiegand, chief technology officer at orgavision GmbH, a company that provides Web browser applications for organizational documentation, was frustrated with the to-do apps that he was using. He found many of them too rigid, countering his desire to be agile and to delay decisions to the last possible moment.

He wanted tasks to come onto his radar at the proper time, rather than having them pop up like a jack-in-the-box, demanding attention when he was working on something else. There also didn’t seem to be a way to handle “mostly done” tasks – those tasks that are essentially completed and just awaiting feedback.

His Personal Kanban approach, as he dubs it on, allows him to visualize his tasks.

Open this photo in gallery:

A card, Post-It note, Excel cell or hand-drawn rectangle might represent a single task. It’s then placed in the appropriate spot on a whiteboard, canvas, spreadsheet or sheet of paper – whatever you devise. That Kanban board, as it’s known, is separated into columns; each column represents the state of a task.

He starts simply by duplicating the common to-do list to an extent. As well as helping to visualize tasks better, the system is expanded to manage tasks in a broader way.

The first board has three columns, reading from left to right:

  • Backlog, for outstanding tasks;
  • In progress, for those being tackled;
  • Done, for completed tasks.

You create a card in the left column, and as the task progresses, it is pulled across the board to the right. The board will include more steps and columns as he elaborates on that base approach.

To take it a step further, you can add a Blocked column for tasks you’ve completed, but you’re waiting on others to do their parts to move the project along. It goes between the In Progress and Done columns.

“This gives you the possibility to move something to the right – which feels like progress – but nevertheless you have a clear reminder that something is still pending and needs to be finished,” he says.

To help with scheduling, you can add a Today column, indicating which backlogged tasks are on the agenda for a particular day. In the morning, you study your backlog and then move a few cards to the right, placing them in the new Today column. During the day, you don’t need to care about the full Backlog column anymore and can concentrate solely on what you’ve planned for the day.

That can be enhanced – or confused, depending on your viewpoint and task load – by adding other columns to cover This Year, This Month, and This Week, between the Backlog and Today columns. So if you have a huge burden, you can pull an item at the start of the year from Backlog to This Year, and keep advancing it to the month, week and specific day columns.

“Personal Kanban is all about you and your productivity. So adjust the board that it works best for you,”he advises.

One trick is to add a Before Vacation column between the Backlog and Today column to highlight items that need to be completed before leaving.

He stresses that Personal Kanban is not for everyone. It requires you to regularly scan your board. But if you have a lot of tasks to manage, it may be helpful or offer some clues for tweaking your current to-do list.

Procrastination: The long deadline issue

You may not like it when your boss asks you to complete a task by the end of the day. But, in fact, that shorter deadline may make it easier to get the job done than one that runs to the end of the week.

Research shows that longer deadlines can lead people to think an assignment is harder than it actually is, which causes them to commit more resources to the work. “This, in turn, increases how much they procrastinate and their likelihood of quitting.” Meng Zhu, an associate professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, reports in Harvard Business Review.

This expands on our understanding of Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Prof. Zhu notes that typically we assume, from Parkinson’s Law, that longer deadlines lead people to set easier goals and decrease effort. But the research he oversaw found that longer deadlines increase an assignment’s perceived difficulty. As well, while Parkinson’s Law makes a prediction only about time commitment, the research found that longer incidental deadlines encouraged individuals to increase the monetary commitment they would make to the item. “As a result, when an assignment includes a budget, it might be better to set a shorter deadline than a longer one,” he cautions.

Those findings related only to single deadlines. When faced with multiple deadlines for tasks that vary in importance, research found people regularly pursue less important assignments with shorter deadlines than more important assignments with longer deadlines

A prime lesson he says is “short deadlines on urgent tasks elicit attention. Those tasked with the assignment are more likely to complete it, less likely to procrastinate on it and less likely to spend superfluous money on it than if they were given the same task with a less-urgent deadline.” When deadlines are distant, you want to shift attention away from the deadline and toward the payoff of completing everyday tasks towards that final goal.

Six things never to say to a recruiter

Here are six things you should never say to a recruiter, according to Amy Elisa Jackson, editorial director at Glassdoor:

  • “I’ll take anything – any role at your company.”
  • “Sure, that sounds like a good salary.”
  • “My previous company was horrible.”
  • “My former boss won’t give me a good recommendation because he/she was threatened by me.”
  • “I know my interview is today but can we reschedule?”
  • “It’s been three weeks since I applied. I thought my application had fallen into a black hole.”

Quick hits

  • When you receive an “out of office” e-mail response, you’ll likely be eager to resend the e-mail as soon as the person is back. But the networking experts at Shepa Learning Company advise cooling your jets. When people return to work, even after a brief hiatus, dealing with the accumulated email causes stress, so give them time to clear their e-mail backlog. If your request is an emergency, pick up the phone.
  • The best advice motivational author Jon Gordon ever heard came from Dr. James Gillis, who completed a double triathlon six times: “I’ve learned to talk to myself instead of listen to myself.”
  • Economist and best-selling author Dan Ariely said the best advice he ever received came when interviewing for his first academic job and was told to pick the department most different from where he had studied, so he would be forced to learn new things.
  • Tech entrepreneur Josh Linkner suggests making a Do Different list, and ask yourself (and others) in meetings or other interactions what you intend to do differently and see how a change in behaviour can produce results.
  • Malcolm Gladwell responds to e-mails only once a day, usually in the evening. “If you don’t answer people’s text and phone calls and e-mails right away, then they learn that, and they understand. They don’t have to respond to my response right away, and I don’t have to respond to their response right away,” he told Thrive Global.

We’ve launched a new weekly Careers newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe