To-do lists are 'Spawns of the Devil'

New Thinking 24 January 2014 Peter Sellars

“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.

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

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