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We could all use a little help in the get-stuff-done department—especially within the first couple of weeks back at school (summer brain, anyone?). What if we told you there’s a free tool that could help you efficiently manage your workflow? One that doesn’t take a long time to make and will help you get and stay organized? It’s called a Kanban board, and it’s going to change the way you get your schoolwork (and everything else) done—from now till June.

What the heck is a Kanban board?

Originating from the Japanese word for “sign” or “signboard,” Kanban was initially designed by Japanese car manufacturers in the late 1950s to help products efficiently move through the production line. Studies show that the Kanban method works, and US manufacturers, software developers, businesses, and even students now use it to manage their workload.

Why should I use it?

If you’re like most students, you might forget to complete certain tasks, struggle to get assignments done on time, or even (dare we say) put things off until the last minute. The straightforward layout of a Kanban board can help improve your workflow and will remind you of your ongoing tasks using a simple, manageable approach.

What’s wrong with the old-school to-do list?

Short answer: Nothing. To-do lists work well for tasks you can complete quickly. But studying for a math exam, for example, is something you might be working on all week. It isn’t necessarily a task you can cross off your list in one sitting. The visual nature of a Kanban board allows you to keep track of ongoing projects (e.g., your nightly algebra practice questions) and observe the flow of work moving through the system. This makes sense considering most people recall visuals better than they do audio, according to a 2014 University of Iowa study.

How does it work?

A Kanban board uses Post-it® notes, cards, or tickets to keep track of assignments. You separate the board into horizontal sections based on what you need to do, what you’re currently working on, and what you’ve completed. Then you write down all of your tasks and stick them in the appropriate sections. As you work on a task, you move it through each section until it ends up in the “done” column.

Post it notes, glasses, and pencil composing a Kanban board“Personal Kanban is based on years of observation and organizational and cognitive psychology,” says Jim Benson, an expert on adapting Kanban for personal use and author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (2011).

Benson says one of the main benefits of using Kanban is seeing the workload. “We can better manage what we can see. Visualization calms a natural tendency to overanalyze the work before us.” He adds that when we write our work down on a note card, it gives our tasks substance and context.

“It’s a simple thing, right?” says Benson. “Post–it® notes on a wall or a whiteboard. But it immediately puts [our] stressful demands into context. There might be a lot of Post–its® there, but it’s a finite number. We look at that and say to ourselves, ‘I can do that.’ As we start to do work, we see the movement; we see the tickets physically move through the board. Each ticket becomes a mini-goal that is super obtainable—and before we know it, we’re almost done.”

How to make your own Kanban board

1. Grab a whiteboard, corkboard, or poster board and separate it into (at least) three sections:
To do, Doing, Done You can name the sections anything you want; the point is to make sure you have a section for tasks you haven’t started yet, tasks you’re working on, and tasks you’ve accomplished. Hint: Consider adding a fourth column by separating the “Doing” column into two sections: One for short-term assignments (e.g., completing your history questions) and one for long-term projects (e.g., studying for the SAT®).
Finished Kanban board

2. Grab a pack of Post-it® notes or 3 x 5 cards and write down all of your assignments, tasks, projects, and to-dos.

Your Kanban board might include tasks like:

  • Write history paper
  • Set up meeting with school counselor
  • Study for physics exam
  • Meditate for five minutes
  • Prep tomorrow’s lunch
  • Form study group for economics midterm

3. Stick your cards into each section of your board, depending on whether the task has been started, is ongoing, or is complete. As you work on projects or add new ones, move them through each section on your Kanban board. Don’t forgo the “Done” column—it’s just as important as the rest. Marking a task as finished could initiate a positive chain reaction to help you get other assignments done, according to research. When participants couldn’t cross a task off their mental to-do list, it hampered their ability to efficiently complete a second task, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Identify bottlenecks and limit work in progress

Now that you’ve laid out all of your tasks and assignments, take a look at your board. Where are your tasks backing up? Is catching up on your class readings preventing you from moving on to the homework questions? Kanban systems are known for helping users identify inefficient areas and challenging people to think of creative ways to resolve them, writes David J. Anderson, in Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business (2010).

Remember that we can only do so much in a day. Focus on completing small tasks or manageable portions of larger tasks and moving them through the board. As you identify the slow-downs in your schedule, think strategically about how you can set aside some extra time to focus on those areas. That way, you can reduce the amount of work in progress and improve your ability to hit your due dates.

“Academics isn’t always crunch times and cramming,” says Benson. “Set up a board with the classes and activities for the term. Use either colors or horizontal lanes to know what work is going well and what might need some attention. If you are crushing it in one class and searching in another, use the board to prompt you to spend more time or develop strategies to help out in the [classes you’re struggling in].”

Get Kanban on the go

To organize your workload electronically, try one of the many Kanban-style apps:

KanbanFlow 

kanboard 

Trello

Find out what one of our student readers thought of the Trello app.

Kailey, sophomore, Farmington, Connecticut
“I hope to study psychiatry in the future, and I also enjoy the visual arts!”

Trello helps you use your time productively by keeping a progress chart (Kanban board) of all your tasks. Trello is your best sidekick when tackling assignments such as new projects, homework, a script for theater class, and more!

What you need to do, what you are doing, and what you have done are all organized for you through notes, memos, progress graphs, and pictures. With Trello, you can also invite classmates and friends to collaborate on projects and make sure that everyone is informed of what needs to be done.

Useful?
Trello is optimized for Apple. For those using iPad Pro, there are great shortcuts for you to take advantage of the large screen and canvas.
4 out of 5 stars

Fun?
Planning out assignments on custom-designed boards, graphs, and pictures gives you a sense of satisfaction. It’s fun to be able to create an agenda page with your own taste for design.
3 out of 5 stars

Effective?
Trello is free and forever stores projects, checklists, plans, etc. However, upgrade to Gold for extra functionality.
3.5 out of 5 stars

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Apple App Store

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Article sources

Jim Benson, personal Kanban expert, founder of Modus Cooperandi, and author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (2011).

Anderson, D. J. (2010). Kanban: Successful evolutionary change for your technology business. Sequim, WA: Blue Hole Press.

Bigelow, J., & Poremba, A. (2014, February 26). Achilles’ ear? Inferior human short-term and recognition memory in the auditory modality. PloS one9(2): e89914. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0089914

Heikkilä, V. T., Paasivaara, M., & Lassenius, C. (2016, May). Teaching university students Kanban with a collaborative board game. In Proceedings of the 38th International Conference on Software Engineering Companion (pp. 471–480). ACM.

Joosten, T., Bongers, I., & Janssen, R. (2009, August 19). Application of lean thinking to health care: Issues and observations. International Journal for Quality in Health Care. 21(5).Retrieved from https://intqhc.oxfordjournals.org/content/21/5/341

LeanKit Inc. (n.d.). What is Kanban? Retrieved fromhttps://leankit.com/learn/kanban/what-is-kanban/

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011, June 20). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved from https://users.wfu.edu/masicaej/MasicampoBaumeister2011JPSP.pdf

Nakamura, M., Sakakibara, S., & Schroeder, R. (2002, August 6). Adoption of just-in-time manufacturing methods at US- and Japanese-owned plants: Some empirical evidence. IEEE Transactions on Engineer 45(3).Retrieved from https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=704245&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fxpls%2Fabs_all.jsp%3Farnumber%3D704245
Peterson, D. (n.d.). What is Kanban? Retrieved from https://kanbanblog.com/explained/

Student Health 101 survey, June 2016.

Vista Success. (2015, December 17). How to stay organized in college with Kanban. Retrieved from https://www.vistacollege.edu/blog/online-learning/how-to-stay-organized-in-college-with-kanban