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Gainfully Unemployed: Making Progress on Priorities with Personal Kanban

Every day people struggle with prioritizing and completing tasks. Everything is urgent. Everyone has demands. People feel like they’re spinning their wheels, or delivering lower quality work than they’d like to deliver. There simply isn’t enough time.

For unemployed people looking for work, the challenge is often one of “too much time.” And while many of us have expressed a desire to take a sabbatical from working, the realities of days, weeks, or months of unstructured time are rarely discussed.

As an unemployed job seeker, the expectations I had of myself – hours and hours of job search related activities every day – were unrealistic. Honestly, there isn’t much you can do on a day to day to day basis. Meaningful activities like networking, and crafting your resume and LinkedIn profile, can’t be done for hours a day, every day. These activities are replaced by scrolling through job boards which barely change from one day to the next, and rarely result in employment anyway.

After a couple of weeks of scrolling, I heard some women in my network discussing Jessica Abel’s book Growing Gills and Tonianne DeMaria Berry and Jim Benson’s Personal Kanban method. Abel’s book, while focused on helping artists and writers find creative focus, is tremendously valuable even if you don’t self-identify as a creative person. Berry and Benson’s method addresses more conventional productivity and value challenges.

Abel’s tools are designed to help you work beyond what she identifies as the consequences of inaction – anxiety, busyness, guilt, distraction, feelings of failure. DeMaria and Berry want you to move from “cognitive stress” to “cognitive ease.” For me, Abel’s book, with its activities and worksheets, is meant to “go deep,” and as such requires a greater (and worthy) investment of time. DeMaria and Berry’s method is more immediately practical, and I put their Personal Kanban tool to use as soon as I finished the video.

The bottom line for Personal Kanban is this: You must visualize your work and limit your work in progress. You can certainly use the method to focus your job search. But you can also use it to bolster your confidence and make progress on true priorities outside of the workplace. Because, let’s face it, you’re out of the workplace.

So here are the basics on Personal Kanban:
1. Get something that you can put three columns on. I use a dry erase board, but you can use a spreadsheet, a document, or a piece of paper.
2. Make three columns and label them “options,” “doing,” and “done.”
3. Put your options on your board. I use Post-Its.
4. Choose three (and only three) options to put in your “Doing” column. (Why only three? Because you can’t do everything at once, and if you put everything in your “Doing” column you’re right back where you started – overwhelmed and stressed. Why not one? Because in reality you can’t do only one thing.)
5. As you complete something, move it to “Done” and move another from “Options” to “Doing.” Repeat.

After a while you’ll have lots of things in the “Done” column, which feels great. And you may learn some things about yourself.

Here’s what’s in my “Options” column right now:
• 30 minutes of online research/reading re: compliance and analytics
• One lesson in the Udacity course I’ve identified as valuable to my career development
• Facebook time
• LinkedIn time
• Laundry
• Return library books
• Write this blog post
• Get alumni library card
• Write thank you note to X
• Find article to post on my LinkedIn profile
• Clean bathroom
• Walk at least 2 miles
• Bring dress to get altered
• Email Z and ask them to look at my LinkedIn profile
• Practice organ to prepare for recording with Lys Guillorn
• Read the “There Is No Finish Line” chapter in Growing Gills
• Scroll through Indeed (no more than 10 min!)

When I first started Personal Kanban, I could guarantee that all the things that didn’t have deep meaning to me (social media, laundry, library books, cleaning the bathroom) would be in the “Done” column by the end of the day. Meaningful things stayed in the “Choices” column and I still felt overwhelmed and stressed. That was eye-opening, and prompted me to change my behavior. Now I pair active and meaningful tasks with more passive tasks. For example, I can do laundry while working on my Udacity class or practicing the piano; “read” while walking or driving around doing errands.

At the end of most days I can look at my board and say “Wow. I got a lot done and I did things that really matter.” Visualizing my work and limiting my work in progress has brought great structure to my unstructured time as an unemployed job seeker. It has also enabled me to strengthen relationships, improve my musical performance, and be prepared to bring in-demand skills to my next job.

About the Author:

Julie Beman helps organizations incorporate best practices, analytics, and regulatory intelligence into their regulatory compliance programs. While she works to find her next job, she is studying data visualization, writing music, and kayaking. She considers herself to be gainfully unemployed and is currently working with Careerfolk coach, Tava Auslan, on personal branding and job search strategy.

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