12 Feb

Using Kanban to Write

Staying focused is a key piece of writing for me. My thoughts and ideas tend to be scattered, both physically and mentally, and it is easy to work on multiple things at once. Multitasking yields unsteady progress, though. I wanted to be able to maintain a clearer focus on what projects I was working on and know roughly how far they were from completion. More importantly, I wanted more of them to reach that completed stage faster. So I turned to my background in manufacturing for an answer: kanban.

How Not to Do Kanban
Just. No.

Kanban is a means of tracking workflow with a simple visual chart. The system can take a variety of forms: a whiteboard, Post-It notes, or a digital application. The goal is the same, though: present all work that needs to be done, that is currently being worked on, and is completed, in a single glance. Kanban might seem like an odd choice for a writer, but in a career that relies so heavily on self-motivation and self-assessment, kanban (combined another technique we’ll discuss later) is a great tool to keep you honest with yourself.

Kanban: Writing is a Manufacturing Process

In the barest of terms, a writer produces words. Strip out all artistry and purpose and I’m left with the knowledge that my job is to put words on a page. I am a goddamn word factory. And, at any given time there might be upwards of a dozen different projects on the shop floor: paid articles, gaming projects for self-publishing, a novel (or two), reviews, blog posts, and editing for clients and friends. That doesn’t even take into consideration reading and research on related topics.

Kanban puts all of those tasks on a board (physical or virtual), forces you to prioritize, and deliberately limits your work-in-progress (WIP). I’ll admit, there’s a visceral satisfaction in moving an item from one column, To Do, to the next, WIP, and then finally to Completed. It’s like the satisfaction/relief of crossing something off of a regular To-Do list. So why use kaban instead of a To-Do list?

Kanban: Either you are an actual factory for words or you’re doing it wrong.

Undertaking too many projects at once frequently hampers my overall progress. By limiting myself to four tasks at a time, I find that I get a lot more done in a given week. (I’m still adjusting that WIP limit, by the way, but it’s important not to keep increasing that limit otherwise you just end up defeating this purpose of it.) Unlike a To-Do list where you skip around and tackle a piece of this and a portion of that, the limited WIP of kanban imposes focus. And that limit doesn’t mean that when my WIP is cleared that I’m done for the week, or the day, only that I can draw another project forward from the To-Do side of my board.

I’d love to start working on a new adventure concept, but I have two in work already, along with a blog post (this one) and a review to write. My WIP is full (four items) so I mark down a couple of quick notes (two minutes) and tack that adventure concept up in the To-Do column. When I finish a current WIP item, I can pull that adventure idea over, but I also have the opportunity to assess other pending items and determine if anything is more pressing in priority. I have an interview to conduct and it has a more concrete deadline than my nebulous adventure, so I’m more likely to draw that other item forward first. And, if I’m so damn excited to write that adventure, I’d better get moving on the work in front of it so I can make it happen! It’s like co-opting my enthusiasm for one project to drive another (potentially less exciting) task to completion.

Using Kanban to Generate Demand

In manufacturing, kanban is ruled by customer demand. If you are a writer who has enough demand to keep you busy full-time I say more power to you! Your demand is then dictated strictly by deadlines and your prioritization is a simple matter of satisfying your customers within the bounds of their deadlines. For a writer with more time than work, the matter of creating demand in the kanban system falls to him or her instead.

Obviously, customer demand items still take precedence, but it’s equally important to keep a steady workflow. First among your tasks should be market research and querying. In other words, find customers who will begin generating demand for your work. It’s the age-old authors’ task and one that cannot be ignored. If there’s a hole in your schedule, this should be the first thing dropped in.

Beyond seeking more customers, though, you should have ongoing projects so you don’t falter and “let yourself off the hook.” Kanban treats everyone in the manufacturing process as a customer. The people in charge of packaging the widgets are the customers of the people who produce the widgets. As a self-employed writer, you represent every aspect of your business; you are your own customer and can make demands of yourself rather than sit idle eating ramen noodles. Your kanban board will show you just how little you are getting done just as easily as it will reveal how much you accomplish.

If there is a lot of white space on your kanban then you’ve got time to tackle more work by creating more demand for yourself. Write a short story for an undetermined market. Create a roll of additional blog posts for your blog to post in the future when you have more pressing work. Just make sure you are filling your time with something that benefits your business in the long run and keeps you in the habit of writing and tracking your output. Then, when demand arises, you slot it write into your kanban and give it priority.

What Does a Tomato have to do with Writing and Kanban?

Kanban Flow
Here’s what Kanban Flow looks like.

I’ll reveal the answer to that question in a week’s time. But, for those of you prepared to dive into the kanban approach, you’ll see the answer if you start using the very simple kanban board I’ve taken to using: KanbanFlow. It’s beyond easy and it’s free, fulfilling the criteria I set when seeking a good digital kanban board. (It also has the added advantage of linking to a mobile device.)

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