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How to Stay Organized in College with Kanban

Staying organized in college is essential, especially since studies prove that simply studying longer hours won’t get you better grades. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, college students spend 3.3 hours a day studying and taking part in educational activities — compared to 4.1 hours spent each day on sports and leisure. But studies show that even students who spend 20 hours or more per week studying don’t always get the grades they want and don’t always show up prepared for classes.

Studies show that even students who spend 20 hours or more per week studying don't always get the grades they want and don't always show up prepared for classes.

It’s not enough to spend more time on schoolwork — you need to be productive and actually accomplish things in the time you set aside for school. To do that, you need to get organized.

Getting organized means you know what you need to do next and you keep on track to complete everything you need to finish for each of your classes. When you’re organized, you make the most of your study and school time. One way you can get organized is with Kanban.

What Is Kanban?

Kanban is a method used all over the world by people who want to get organized. It’s used in factories, at tech companies and even by students who want to learn how to stay organized in college and get great grades. The method is simple: You write down what you need to do on a visual board and focus on getting tasks moving from “incomplete” to “complete” so you get more done.

Kanban is a system using boards to manage the flow of work. For a student, Kanban means keeping track of all schoolwork, assignments and studying that needs to be done. At the heart of the Kanban method is a simple chart or board like this:

Kanban for college students

Each of the columns may have different headings and the chart may look different for different students, but the idea is the same. With Kanban, you list what you have to do and then move items from the “to-do” list through the system all the way to completion. At every stage of the process, you can see what you’re working on, what you’ve got coming up next and what you’ve finished. At a glance, you can see where you are and what you need to do right now.

Where Does Kanban Come from?

Kanban wasn’t originally a method of getting organized. It was a method used by factories to deliver products on time. In Japan in the 1940s, Toyota factories needed a system for keeping track of the work being done and what was currently being worked on. The factory owners wanted a very transparent system to let everyone see the status of tasks. This way, they thought, it would be easier to see what work was really getting accomplished.

“Kanban” is the Japanese word for “card,” and Toyota factories used cards in what they called the Kanban system to keep track of where the manufacturing process was. This allowed them to reduce waste and order materials only as needed. It also made it easier for teams to know where to focus.

Then, in 2011, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry published a book called “Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life.” This book described using Kanban as a productivity method rather than just as a manufacturing tool. Suddenly, people started using Kanban to organize work tasks, school tasks and even their home lives.

Getting Started With Kanban

To get your college work organized with Kanban, you first have to understand what Kanban is. If you’re like many students, the list of things you need to get done for school is long and pretty random. It might include things such as:

  • Drop off books at the library
  • Set up study group for the business test
  • Start the business administration term project
  • Study for the finance final
  • Write an essay for marketing class
  • Contact professor to talk about the last finance test
  • Contact a tutor to get help with marketing class

All of these tasks might just be floating around in your head, and because there are many of them and they’re all so different, it can be easy to forget something. You might even put off some of them because they’re so big. Studying for your finance final, for example, is something you’re going to be doing for days or weeks. Having it on a simple to-do list is going to be frustrating because it’s not something you’re going to be able to cross off easily.

A Kanban system can help.

With Kanban, you take all these tasks and organize them into things you’re doing right now and things you need to tackle later. Since everything is written down, it’s less likely you’ll forget, and that’s important, since we tend to forget about three tasks, ideas or errands every day. When we take a random list of tasks and put it into a Kanban system, the to-do list immediately becomes much easier to tackle. You get a visual reminder of what you need to do, and longer projects can stay in the “What I’m Working On” part of your board until they get done.

Kanban can even help us manage our time. Studies show female college students spend about 10 hours a day using their cell phones, and male college students spend about 8 hours a day on their phones. About 60% of college students polled agreed they may be addicted to their phones. There’s a lot of distractions in college life, and it can be hard to get motivated. Kanban boards make everything visual, so you get a frequent and visible reminder of the things you’re supposed to be working on for your college classes. It’s harder to ignore what you need to get done, which might be just what you need to put your phone down and dive into your next school project.

The Kanban Board

The Kanban method is designed to be very visual, which is one reason why it works. Our brains process visual data 60,000 times faster than written data, and not surprisingly, about 90% of the information heading toward our brain is visual in nature. We just do better with visuals, and Kanban boards allow us to make our written to-do lists active and visual, making them more effective.

One of the things you will need for your Kanban system is a Kanban board to keep track of everything you’re working on. You can use:

  • An online Kanban program or app
  • A simple whiteboard or chalkboard
  • A large piece of paper
  • A large board with each task written on sticky notes
  • An free online storage and organization system (such as Evernote, Basecamp or Trello)

The advantage of going online is that you can store files along with your visual reminder. For example, if one of your “to-do” items has to do with writing an essay for a college class, you can attach an outline or instructions right to your note so when it’s time to sit down and start writing, you have everything you need.

The big advantage with paper boards or physical boards (such as whiteboards) is that they stay visible. You can’t just shut them off by powering down your laptop or switching off your phone. They act as a constant reminder of what you need to get done and when, which is a great motivator.

Whatever board style you choose, try something you’ll enjoy using. If you tend to be online or on mobile devices often, an online Kanban board might be right for you. If you want a big visual reminder above your desk, then a written board might work better.

Kanban College Organization Tips

Once you have a board, you’ll want to create a list of everything you need to get completed as part of your school work. Your list will likely have lots of simple tasks (like “Take books back to the library”) and even bigger projects (“Write 3000-word paper for my finance class”). The big tasks can be overwhelming, but again, Kanban can help. You can use the Kanban system to break up larger tasks (like studying or finishing a big project) using a separate Kanban board. For example, let’s say you need to write an essay but you’re having trouble getting started. You’re just not motivated. You can break down all the steps you have to take and create a separate Kanban board just for your essay:

Kanban college organization board examples

As you complete the tasks you need to finish to write your paper, you can move them across the board, so you can see everything you need to do to write your essay.

You can even customize Kanban boards. You’re not limited to three columns. Your Kanban board might be organized by time, by steps you need to take or by anything you like. This is a very flexible system, so make it work for you.

Kanban for Students, Step by Step

Now that you know what Kanban is, you’re ready to dive in. Here is the checklist for setting up your system:

  • Decide on your Kanban board. Decide whether your board will be online or physical and set up your board.
  • Write down everything you need to do. On a piece of paper, brainstorm everything you’re going to have to get done in the foreseeable future. Don’t try to fit it all on your Kanban board. You just want a system for capturing all the important things you need to get done.
  • Decide how many items you’ll have on your Kanban board at a time. With school, a social life and maybe your job, you only have so much time to devote to school work. Writing down everything you could do at school is too overwhelming. Focus on a few things at a time and you’ll find it easier to get motivated. For now, decide how many items you’re willing to have on your board at a time. If you start to go over that number, you’ll know it’s time to finish a few things so you can get them off the board.
  • Decide on your Kanban board headings. Decide how many columns you want and what each column will be called. The simplest Kanban board will have three columns: things to do, things I’m working on and things I’ve completed.
  • Decide what items go where on your Kanban board. Look at your long list of everything you need to do. What items need your time this week? Those things probably should go on your board now, so go ahead. Add deadlines if any of your tasks have deadlines or due dates.
  • Get started on moving items from right to left. As soon as you’ve got your board set up, your goal should be to move things from left to right (all the way to “Done!”). It’s time to look at your “What I’m working on now” column and dive in!

Keeping on Track as a Student

The Kanban method works well with other organization systems. In addition to your Kanban board or your online Kanban setup, you may want:

  • A large wall calendar. A calendar showing you several months at a time lets you jot down upcoming exams, assignments, projects and other important dates. When you turn to your Kanban board to add projects, you can use your wall calendar to find out what you need to focus on next.
  • A daily planner or small notebook. A small notebook or planner can go with you to classes and even out to dinner. If you suddenly remember you need to be working on a project or you suddenly get an inspiring idea, you can jot it down so you can add it to your Kanban board eventually.
  • A space designed for work. A tidy desk with the pens, paper and devices you need makes it easier to actually move school projects through your Kanban pipeline. Choose a quiet space for your desk and make sure you get plenty of light. Surround your desk with a few things to brighten the space up, and don’t forget to hang your Kanban board (if you have a physical one) where you can easily see it.

Kanban Organization Tips for College Students: Making the Most of Kanban

There are a few school hacks to make your Kanban system even more effective:

  • Be sure to include study time and review time in your Kanban system — not just projects due. According to research, we tend to forget 40% of what we’ve learned after 20 minutes, and after six days most of us forget 77% of what we’ve learned. Frequent review and study helps cement the concepts we learn.
  • Keep the number of items on your Kanban manageable. If you have too many, you can’t visualize what you need to do, and the system isn’t as effective.
  • Use color and images. Kanban is meant to be visual. You can use different colors for your different college classes (for example, blue for business and green for your tech classes) or you can use different colors for different types of work (for example, yellow for writing projects and pink for group projects). Choose what works for you!
  • Use your system to find out procrastination problems and other issues. If you’re using the Kanban system but you’re still not getting things done or are still forgetting things, it’s time to take a closer look at what’s going on. Do you have too many items on your board? Are you just trying to do too much? Are you just putting things off, even when you know what you have to do? Kanban lets you figure out what’s wrong so you can fix any problems.

According to research, we tend to forget 40% of what we've learned after 20 minutes, and after six days most of us forget 77% of what we've learned.
Now that you know how to use Kanban, you know how to keep track of everything you need to do to get better grades. Getting organized doesn’t just help you keep track. It also helps you manage your time and reduce stress.

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