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Daily Kanban for Writers: Managing Big Picture projects, tasks and works in progress day to day

by Mar 29, 2019Evergreen, On Writing: Craft and Commiseration0 comments

Daily Kanban for Writers by

This post is a sequel to my original post about Kanban for writers so you may want to start there. But, if not, here’s a quick recap:

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a project management system that started in manufacturing in which projects are visualized by easily movable cards organized by columns. The idea is to limit the number of projects in progress at a time and focus on moving each project forward through the typical stages of completion (designated by the column titles, usually something like To Do, Doing, Holding, Done) by physically (or digitally) moving the card as you progress through the project.

Sample Kanban board by Hillary DePiano
A digital daily Kanban board might look a lot like this.

What are Kanban boards?

Kanban boards are a system of cards and columns where each card represents a project and the columns represent the status of this project. The cards are then moved from one column to another as you progress. But while that’s how a typical Kanban board works in manufacturing, it’s a system that’s easily adaptable and can be customized to accommodate a variety of organizational style. And while a Kanban board can be digital (and there are a variety of apps and software to help you do it), it’s often a physical board where you manually move the cards by hand.

Kanban board on the wall made with post-it notes
This was the very first Kanban board I made on my wall as an experiment. It’s just tape and post-it notes!

What is Kanban for writers?

If you think about it, churning out articles, books and other words is a lot like manufacturing which makes the Kanban system ideal to adapt for a variety of writing project management needs. I gave you a bunch of examples of ways a writer could use Kanban boards in their writing life back in this post but now we’re going to look more in-depth at one example of what daily Kanban for writers looks like in real life.

Daily Kanban for Writers: In-depth example

How could you actually use Kanban boards in your writing life day to day? I humbly offer up my own system as an example. Overall, there are some shifts in how I am working this year and they boil down to:

  • Big Picture vs Details. This is about not doing anything small without seeing how it fits into the Big Picture of what I want for my career and my life. It means slowing down and taking stock often, doing weekly consultations of the overall plan, slate of projects, and what I want out of my life and career so that I can figure out which details are worth my time to focus on day to day in the week ahead.
  • Projects over tasks. While I still have a lot of daily tasks to do to keep my business and personal life running, whenever possible I group similar tasks into bigger projects. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rush of checking something little off your list and this change is designed to make sure I put in work towards checking off those big things too. And if a task I’m doing often doesn’t fit into the master plan somehow… it’s time to look at why the heck I’m doing it in the first place!
  • Less means more. Specifically, the less projects I am working on at once, the more attention I can give to each of them instead of running around like the proverbial headless chicken. I am limiting how many works are in progress at a time so I can give more focus to each of those projects.

Limiting my focus

One of the mistakes I made setting up my Daily Kanban board last year was I put EVERYTHING on it because there are so many projects I want to make sure I do someday and I was afraid of forgetting any of them. It was a to do list and bucket list crammed into one! But that huge list of unfinished things was like mental clutter and it weighed on me and distracted me from whatever I was currently working on. I was so worried about not getting everything on that list done before I died, I wasn’t even finishing the things I was currently working on!

The solution was to limit the number of projects on my Daily Kanban board. I moved the Daily Kanban board off my wall and into a notebook where I just drew simple columns and used tiny post-it notes for the cards. Because it is physically smaller, I can’t overload it if I try and it helps me to think small. It’s also portable which is nice.

My paper daily Kanban board
I burred all the names of my projects because a girl needs SOME secrets!

Most importantly, I limited it to no more than six projects on the board at once and no more than two at a time in the Hot Seat column. If I really want to start that new thing, then I need to finish another project first to make room! It’s very motivating.

Also, because I’m trying to find balance between doing what I have to do (main goals) and what I want to do (stretch goals), I limited myself to no more than three stretch goals in play at a time. Right now, I am very backed up on things I have to do but, in theory, once I am caught up, I should be able to focus on more stretch goals per month / year and therefore get more of those passion projects done. (I also colored coordinated stretch vs main goals vs items with a deadline with different colored post-its because I am extra like that.)

This board is set up just like a traditional Kanban board. Whenever a project changes states, I simply pick up its post-it note and move it to the new column. Very low tech but it works!

These are my columns…

  • Queue: projects on my radar that need to be done soon but that I haven’t started yet
  • Hot Seat (usually called “Doing”): projects currently in progress, usually what I am working on that day
  • Pending: projects where I’ve done everything I can but now I’m waiting on someone or something else before I can do the next step, ie if I’m waiting for beta comments to come back before I write the next draft of a story
  • Done: Projects I have finished <- This column gets filled up very fast. Thinking of making it its own page next time!

But when I finish a project, how do I know which project to start next? How do I choose what project will replace the one I just moved into the Done column? That’s when I turn to my SECOND Kanban board.

The Big Picture Kanban Board

Screenshot of my Ultimate Projects List Kanban board
The background of my digital board is also multi-colored post it notes to keep it meta!

Remember that Kanban board I made last year with absolutely everything I ever wanted to do on it? I re-made that as a digital board on Trello (which is free Kanban board software and I love it). That serves as a list of every single project on my radar (even stuff I don’t expect to get to for years) so I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything. Then I organized all those projects by size by naming the columns as follows:

  • Small: something I could finish in about a week or less
  • Medium: something that would take about a month
  • Large: something that would take multiple months
  • Massive Undertakings: these are projects that I know could take a year or more to completely finish like a novel

Within each column, the projects are organized by priority. Priority here means both projects I have to get done (because of deadlines and other external forces) but also projects I want to get done, ie the ones I am currently the most passionate about.

I reevaluate the order of all these projects whenever I finish something to make sure I’m really working on the right stuff and so I don’t forget anything. This helps me stay in tune with the Big Picture of what I want to accomplish regularly but still lets me ignore this whole board the rest of the time so all these unfinished projects aren’t a distraction or source of stress like they were before. Day to Day, I only look at the little paper Daily Kanban and my To Do list (which we’ll talk about in a minute).

When used in conjunction with my tiny paper limited focus daily Kanban board, the Big Picture Kanban Board makes it incredibly easy to choose something from this huge board of everything on my radar to focus on next since I already know about how long it will take and what priority it is. But how do I move a project from one board to another? Well, there are two more columns on my Big Picture Kanban board:

  • Hot Seat
  • Finished

Whenever I start work on a project in real life, I drag it into that Hot Seat column on Trello and then create a post-it note card for it on my little paper Kanban board. All of the up to six projects in play on my paper Kanban board would be in that column at once while I work on them. And then, once I completely 100% finish each project, I move it into the Finished column (which is very satisfying). Trello helpfully date-stamps it at this time. This gives me a digital record of everything I’ve finished and when.

Big projects are made of tiny tasks

Now one of the features of Trello is that you can embed checklists and notes into each card on the board and, whenever I think of something I need to do related to a project, even one I won’t be starting for a long while, I make a checklist for it within its card. This way I don’t forget it and, when I am ready to start that project (whenever that might be), the checklist for it is already started. This way less things fall through the cracks and all my notes are organized in the same place for when I actually do start that project.

I also make very in-depth checklists for any project in the Hot Seat column. These can often change as the project goes on but should include every little step that I would need to do to make this project completely finished (and by steps I mean small, concrete tasks you could do in a single work session like “revise dialog on page 20”, not “edit whole book”).

For example, a sample checklist for a 10 page play I was working on recently looked exactly like this..

  • research types of birds
  • research stages of grief
  • write first draft
  • re-read draft
  • write second draft
  • submit to beta readers
  • incorporate beta feedback
  • polish for submission draft
  • finalize formatting / convert to PDF
  • write pitch / description / cast size
  • submit to opp

Some people go as far as to make multiple tasks that just say “Write 1,000 words” so they can keep checking things off as they make progress through their first draft but that’s a little much for me. My focus is just on getting every step that’s going to get me to “done” on this project written down so I can stay focused and work purposefully towards finishing without having to stop my writing momentum to think about what I should do next. And sometimes I realize I need to add some more items to that list as I go or could take a few steps off and that’s fine. It can and should be a work in flux.

Now, remember what I said before about tasks and projects? I have an extension that synchronizes that Hot Seat column my Trello board with my daily to do app, Todoist. That means those individual tasks I listed on the project card, each of which take me one step closer to finishing the project, then appear on my daily to do list.

So instead of a massive project looming over me, there’s just one small task at a time for me to complete and check off each day. But once I’ve gotten all of those little tasks done, surprise! I’ve finished the whole big project. It makes the whole process of any big writing project less overwhelming by breaking it down into smaller parts.

Moar Kanban boards!

Beyond these two main Kanban boards, I have a few others set up in Trello to help me organize the other parts of my writing life…

  • Some of my projects are so big, such as my novels, that I have given them their own Kanban boards which I then attach to their card on my main Big Picture Kanban board (Trello lets you attach a board to a card on another board… the possibilities are endless!). Kanban boards within Kanban boards may sound like too much but it’s an effective way for me to manage a really large project within the confines of the system I’m already using.
  • I have a Kanban board just for blog posts mostly because I needed a way to organize my ideas for posts so it was easy to grab one when I hadn’t posted anything in a while and to help me remember what posts I wrote already but just forgot to post. Those are organized by status (written, needs revision, ready for posting, posted, etc).
  • I also have a Kanban board made of tasks for each of my websites, a way of organizing what things I really have to do to keep the sites running and what it would be nice to do someday when I have the time.



Projects over Process

I have spent a lot of time in the past trying to figure out my writing process. Obsessing over charts of my word count, trying to balance focused and non-focused writing and analyzing my schedule for maximum productivity… these all served their purpose and helped me to learn more about myself as a writer but I have a different plan this year. It’s about focusing on individual projects and seeing them through.

I am pretty much ignoring word count (still tracking it, of course, just not setting word count based goals or paying much attention to it) and instead limiting myself to only a handful of projects at a time that I work on step by small step until they are finished. And then I move onto the next thing. It sounds very simple because it is and it’s been great for helping me focus and get things done instead of project hopping all around without much to show for it.

And because I keep checking back in with the Big Picture regularly, I’m less panicked about never getting to finish all those projects on my list. They’re there, waiting for me, and I’ll be able to work my way through them one at a time just like I’ve done with all these other projects. It’s calming, in a way, to have a plan and then just follow it instead of leaping pell-mell from project to project.

It’s not without it’s flaws. I have two projects that have been hogging up space on my paper Kanban board for three months in the Holding column because I’m still waiting for annoying people to get back to me with things I need to complete them and still they sit there, mocking me. But when there is something I can do to move those projects forward, I attack them with a lot more gusto than I would otherwise simply because I can see their role in the big picture and know that finishing them means freeing up more room on my plate for other projects. It’s a satisfying cause and effect that I highly recommend giving a try!

Kanban for… you?

Would the Kanban system work for you? It’s so adaptable, I say give it a try. You’re bound to find at least one use for it in your writing life. The best part about it is it’s so simple to set up and requires very few materials that, even if you set it up wrong (as I did originally) or decide that one method isn’t working for you, it’s not much trouble to start again with another after a few tweaks.

But if you hate it? You don’t have to do it. There’s nothing wrong with just sticking with what works for you!

Note: Both Trello and Todoist have premium versions that cost money but I have been using both extensively for many years and have never had a need for more than what their free plans offer.


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About the Author

Hillary DePiano is a playwright, fiction and non-fiction writer who loves writing of all kinds except for writing bios like this.

Books and Plays by Hillary DePiano