Portable Every-Day-Carry Paper Kanban

I found this among my notes from 2013, and think it’s a fun little tool for analog productivity – the portable Kanban board!

It’s a foldable personal Kanban board, suitable as an Every Day Carry in either A3 or A4 size (or US Letter or whatever).

  1. Fold the sheet of paper along the long axis,
  2. fold it again at the short axis,
  3. done!

This produces four quadrants and the folded size is ideal to stuff it into a backpack, book, or maybe even your pants. Thus, it’s convenient to transport to university, school, or work.

Use very small Post-Its for your tasks. These are your cards that move around between the Kanban ‘columns’ (which are actually not columns, but quadrants here).

Label the quadrants like this:

│Backlog │ Done   │
│        │        │
│Ready   │ W.I.P. │
│        │        │

Cards move from Backlog to Ready to Work in Progress (W.I.P.) to Done.

My board’s design is shaped like a “U”. Why not a “Z”?

This layout makes the most important day-to-day action flow from “Ready” to “Work in Progress” visibly easy to track. They are right next to each other.

It offers a clear view of what needs doing and what is currently underway.

Users can focus on the lower half of the sheet, potentially even folding away the top half, during a day at work or studying at the library.

The “Backlog,” serving as a midterm storage of things that will come up, and the “Done” quadrant, which displays completed tasks, fade into the background in daily use. You don’t need to see “Done” all day every day, but it’s important during review; and you don’t need to see the “Backlog” all day every day because you take tasks from “Ready”.

So the two important quadrants are in focus, that’s cool I think.

Application to University Students

We’ve used this Kanban back in 2013 during work and with a couple of mentees (‘clients’) at University as a tool to get organized. The playful and physical nature helped a few of them. Others prefered digital solutions or something else entirely, of course.

If you’re a University student and need to write 2 papers and prepare for 3 tests – first, remember there’s only so much you can do in a day. Your throughput is limited, and your “Work in Progress” quadrant should reflect this.

Mark each of your 5 projects total somehow to focus on something. Examples to differentiate between projects:

  • Use different colors of Post-It,
  • put short marks into the card’s corners to show which is which.
  • Or draw a squiggly, serrated, dotted, dashed, … border around cards.
  • Or use different colored pencils.

Either way, you need a way to know which card is about what so you can decide what to do now, what ought to move from “Ready” to “W.I.P.” next as you complete a task.

You could also carry 5 different foldable boards with you!

A problem I see with separating things into 5 boards is that your personal throughput doesn’t scale like that. You don’t really have a “W.I.P.” in 5 places, you just have 1 thing you can really do at a time, and maybe about 3 tasks that you can consider doing next.

Why more than 1? – Because when you go to the library to research for a paper, you can continue research for the next paper while you’re there, or borrow a book for an upcoming test. You can time-box “library research” in your calendar and fill the available time with relevant tasks from different projects that apply to this particular context.

I’m personally a supporter for analog productivity systems. I love their haptic nature. Moving real cards in real space!

But to be frank, I always, always return to digital, and did so 10 years ago when we tried this foldable board, and also 15 years ago when I got my first Mac and OmniFocus. I like the infinite virtual space of digital, too.

Be as it may, a personal overview system to not get lost in the complexity of one’s life can take many forms, and this is a particularly playful form in my opinion.