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We could all use a little help in the get-stuff-done department. What if you had a tool to efficiently manage your workflow—one that’s easy to make and use? It’s called a Kanban board, and it’s going to change the way you get your assignments (and everything else) done from now until forever. Also available as apps.
Each term or semester has goals. Not just in class, but in everything you’re doing. Make the board about doing all the things you want to do—responsibly. Get the work done quickly, meet your goals, and make sure there’s time for friends and everything else. —Jim Benson, Kanban expert, founder of Modus Cooperandi, and author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (CreateSpace, 2011)

A simple, powerful time-management tool

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

Visual structure for one-off and ongoing tasks

The old-school to-do lists works well for tasks you can complete quickly. But putting together a presentation, is something you might be working on all week. The visual nature of a Kanban board allows you to keep track of ongoing projects (e.g., your PowerPoint slides) and observe the flow of work. This makes sense; most people recall visuals better than they do audio, according to a 2014 University of Iowa study.

A board and a bunch of sticky notesPile of sticky notes

A Kanban board uses sticky notes, cards, or tickets to keep track of projects. You separate the board into vertical 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 on the notes or cards and place 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.

Why it works: The psychology of the 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 (CreateSpace, 2011).

One of the main benefits of using Kanban is seeing the workload, says Benson. “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 sticky notes or cards, it gives our tasks substance and context. 

“It’s a simple thing, right?” asks Benson. “Sticky notes on a wall or a whiteboard. But it immediately puts [our] stressful demands into context. There might be a lot of notes 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. It’s like our work is running down a field toward the goal or like we’re eating that elephant one bite at a time. Each ticket becomes a mini-goal that is super obtainable—and before we know it, we’re almost done.”

3 steps to making your own Kanban board

1. Separate a whiteboard, corkboard, or poster board into (at least) three sections.

Empty Kanban board with the categories: To Do, Doing, and 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, at least one section for tasks you’re working on, and one for tasks you’ve accomplished.

You may find it helpful to separate the middle section (“Doing”) into two: “Started” and “Ongoing.” That makes more space for long-term projects. In addition, your tasks seem to move through the system more quickly, which you may find more motivating.

Empty Kanban board with the categories: To Do, Started, Ongoing, and Done

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

For example, you might include tasks like these:

Full Kanban board. To do tasks: Write history paper, set up meeting with counselor. Doing tasks: Sign up for track tryouts, form study group for economics midterm. Done tasks: Study for physics exam, send get-well card to Dad.

Break larger projects into smaller component tasks, and give each smaller task its own note. Stick your notes or cards onto 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.

3. Identify bottlenecks and limit work in progress.

Look for crunch points

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 (Blue Hole Press, 2010).

Remember that you 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.

Figure out how you should reallocate time

“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].”

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Article sources

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

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Student Health 101 survey, June 2016.

Vista Success. (2015, December 17). How to stay organized in college with Kanban. Retrieved from
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Ally Carlton-Smith, MS is executive editor of Student Health 101. She has a master’s degree in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine.

Diana Whelan is the assistant editor at Student Health 101. Previously, she wrote and edited articles for a stable of print publications and condition-specific guides, distributed in physician offices nationwide. She holds a BA in Rhetoric & Professional Writing from the University of Hartford.