Train Your Brain to Single-Task with Kanban

Multitasking is a silent killer of productivity, disguised as a ‘life hack.’ In their book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, authors Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore describe how multitasking increases the risk for making mistakes and missing important information and cues. Their research shows that people who multitask are less likely to retain information in working memory, which can hinder problem solving and creativity. Yikes!

Trying to multitask, constantly, during all waking hours, is making us anxious, depressed, and socially isolated -- but it doesn’t have to be this way. At the heart of all of these issues is our inability to focus, which stems from a lack of intentionality. If we can be more intentional with our time and energy, we can regain the focus we need to feel fulfilled by work again - and keep it from bleeding into the other parts of our lives.

But how do we find intentionality in our work when there is so much to do, all the time? It’s not easy - but it is possible. Kanban (pronounced kahn-bahn) is a way of thinking about and managing work that can bring discipline and focus into your workday. By encouraging you to identify, prioritize, and intentionally complete work items one at a time, Kanban can help combat the damaging effects of multitasking in a hyperstimulated world. Here are some of the practical ways Kanban can help us regain intentionality and focus in our work.

Providing the Answer to: What Was I Doing?

Kanban is an ideal system for retraining our brains to practice single-tasking - because it gets us to intentionally think through which tasks we need to complete. Then, these tasks, represented as cards, serve as visual reminders of what needs to get done.

Imagine your usual working process - you sit down at your computer with 30 minutes before your next meeting. You open your email, respond to a few work-related things, get distracted by a flash sale by one of your favorite brands, realize you should probably check your bank account, respond to a text from your kid…. And 30 minutes is gone, like that. What have you gotten done? Very little. At the end of the day, you go home with several tasks still looming over your head. You work on them from 10pm to midnight while your family sleeps.

With Kanban, you would start by opening your Kanban board. You’d see that you have two cards in Doing: One is a larger project that you probably don’t have time to make a dent in. The other is a small task - reviewing a proposal that a vendor sent over. You read through the proposal, make a few comments, and send it back to the vendor with time to spare. At the end of the day, you feel confident about the amount of work you completed that day. You know what you plan to work on tomorrow. You spend your evening with your family and go to sleep at a reasonable hour.

Minimizing Distractions

Unplanned work is another killer of productivity. Without a system to prioritize one task over another, everything feels urgent - making you far more likely to engage in multitasking. All too often, we feel as though we have to be available at all times so that we don’t miss anything - we have to have Slack notifications, email notifications, etc. that follow us everywhere we go.

Kanban can help us to minimize distractions by providing a system by which we can prioritize work. When an unplanned work request comes in, we can calmly say, “I’m working on finishing task A right now, but then I will have capacity to help you with task B. I will reach out to you when I am ready to help with task B.”

The reality is, being “always on” means that we’re actually never fully “on.” At best, we’re on autopilot - technically getting the job done, but without the creativity and innovation of a focused human effort. Using Kanban to manage your work will help you feel more comfortable turning off notifications - because you’ll realize that they do far more harm than good. And unless your job truly requires you to be available at all times, you’ll be far more effective at getting your job done if you have the focus and capacity to do so.

Encouraging Mindfulness

There’s a reason mindfulness and meditation are so popular these days. It’s because as a society, we are overwhelmingly overstimulated. We get so bogged down by the pressure of everything that we bend and break under the weight of it all. We push endless coffee hoping to gain momentum and focus, yet all we get is more jitteriness and anxiety. We take our phones with us everywhere we go because we’re afraid to “miss something” -- and yet we miss so much of the world around us because of our need to be “connected.”

The people who are truly successful in the world today are those who have figured out that the real key to success is focus. Intentionality. Mindfulness. Awareness. In a world full of distracted, over-caffeinated, technology-dependent workaholics, the people who are able to rise above the noise and see the big picture are the ones who win. They’re the Ariana Huffingtons and Richard Bransons of the world. You might have one of these in your own office - they seem less stressed but more productive than anyone else. They see the big picture. They probably enjoy work more than you do - because they feel more in control of their minds and themselves at work.

Mindfulness is used as a therapy to assist patients suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic pain, substance abuse, ADHD, and other mental health conditions. Defined as present-centered attention and awareness, mindfulness emerged from Buddhist philosophy and has been cultivated for millennia through meditation practices. Organizations such as Google, Aetna, Mayo Clinic and the United States Marine Corps use mindfulness training to improve workplace functioning. The results of this latest research indicate that teaching mindfulness in the workplace can improve a variety of functions.

"When you are mindful, you can have a greater consciousness in the present," says Christopher Lyddy, an organizational behavior doctoral candidate at Case Western Reserve's Weatherhead School of Management. "That's vital for any executive or manager, who, at any given moment, may be barraged with various problems that call for decisions under stress."

Those who are mindful are able to do more than just pay attention. They’re able to purposefully stay in the present moment, and absorb information without judgment. This is perhaps the most advanced form of attentiveness, and can result in more effective, less reactive decision making.

Kanban can help encourage mindfulness by forcing us to think through how our work aligns with our goals, how we prioritize our work, how work moves through our processes, how we spend our time, and more. Although practicing Kanban won’t automatically make you a master of mindfulness, it will encourage you to be more mindful about the way you work.

Finding Work-Life Balance

We’re all on an endless quest to find better work-life balance. When we feel like we’re crushing it at work, we’re often neglecting other important things: Such as eating real food, exercising, seeing friends, or spending time with family. When we feel like we’re making progress in our personal lives, we feel guilty that we aren’t giving 110% at work. It’s a constant struggle - one that contributes to our daily anxiety and makes it difficult to truly enjoy life.

One of the habits that makes it far harder to achieve balance in our lives is that we constantly blur the lines between the different areas in our lives. We go to a yoga class, but we bring our phone in with us to be able to monitor our email. We pour ourselves a glass of wine before bed… and bring our laptops into the bedroom with us. This works the other way too - we go to meetings and try to schedule personal travel and contribute meaningfully to the meeting. We check social media at work under the guise of “networking.”

It’s no wonder we feel like we aren’t able to give life our all - it’s because when we try to do it all at once, we can’t.

While we won’t tell you that using Kanban will help you achieve a Zen-like state of work-life balance, we do know that it can help you find more balance within your work life, which can help prevent work from bleeding into the “life” part of your life. Most often, the reason we bring work home with us isn’t because there is just so much to do -- it’s because when we’re at work, we don’t do the things we’re supposed to do. We don’t intentionally plan our days out or set and achieve daily goals - so when 5 or 6pm hits, we feel like we haven’t done “enough.”

Using Kanban can help us plan our days out, so that at the end of the day, we can say, “I planned to complete these three tasks today, and I did.”   

Get Started!

If you’d like to minimize distractions, practice mindfulness, and find balance in your work, it might be time to give Kanban a try. Get started by downloading our Kanban Roadmap, or reading more Kanban articles in our Learning Center!

Maja Majewski

Maja has always been interested in the intersection of psychology and business. After studying Human and Organizational Development and Corporate Strategy at Vanderbilt University, Maja joined the LeanKit team as a content writer, where she was able to dive deeper into her exploration of how people, processes, and technology interact. She has authored over 200 articles and ebooks for several high-growth B2B companies, including LeanKit, Planview,, and Clearbit. She served as the lead writer and researcher on LeanKit's Lean Business Report in 2016.

When not writing about process improvement, Maja practices it in her personal life - finding applications for her mantra "Better than before!" in everything from cooking to exercising. She enjoys spending time at home and going on adventurous vacations with her boyfriend and their German Shorthaired Pointer, Wrigley. Connect with Maja.