GTD & Kanban: Similarities, Differences & Synergies Between The Two

Jim BensonApplications, DesignPatterns, Expert, Featured41 Comments


Let's Work Together

In this article in the “GTD & Personal Kanban Series” we will explore the why? behind bringing GTD & Personal Kanban together.

What is Getting Things Done (GTD)?

GTD emerged as a highly effective and popular personal productivity approach in the early two thousands.  The approach consists of a five stage process, a workflow to guide that process and a couple of techniques for handling choice around what to do at any given moment, what should be progressed as soon as possible or someday/maybe, and also, how to handle life and work’s various horizons – from now at this moment, all the way through to what is important to you in life as a whole.  This article isn’t a ‘101’ on GTD, for that there are plenty of resources available, which are linked to here.

On a personal note, I find that GTD frees my mind enabling me to focus totally on the tasks at hand, and also represents a concrete approach to help achieve Stephen Covey’s first three habits of his famous: The Seven Habits of highly Effective People.

What is Kanban?

This whole site is about Kanban in the context of solving personal and group problems around the home and workplace,  for a great 101 head over to here.

Kanban has allowed me to increase the throughput of things getting done.


Though targeted at different problems, there are similarities between Kanban & GTD.

  • The breaking down of “stuff” into discrete items to be processed – With GTD this happens as part of taking each item from the physical and/or electronic inboxes and asking if it is actionable, and if so, what is the next physical action.  With Kanban, we create stories which form the Kanbans themselves, to then be placed on a backlog.
  • Inboxes & Backlogs – These are both areas where potential work is collected, and represents the start of either a GTD process with inboxes, or a Kanban process with backlogs.  The similarity here will differ based on context, and it’s fair to say that with a backlog, some initial processing of the material onto the backlog may have taken place.  With GTD, raw material is added to the physical or electronic inboxes.
  • Lists, lists & more lists – Both GTD & Kanban utilise lists.  In GTD’s case it can take any form as the process is not prescriptive in it’s concrete implementation.  In Kanban’s case, there are lists, though they are split into dimensions, such as stage/state/work station the story is at, and there is additional process related information, like WIP limits and checklists.
  • Contexts – Kanban & GTD are very flexible in their applications.  Both can be shaped to fit various situations.  For example, manufacturing cars, or managing your reading list in the case of Kanban.  GTD can have a “context list” for pretty much anything you can imagine, from a specific location to a situation you find yourself in, where certain work makes sense.
  • With both GTD & Kanban granularity is important – For GTD, it’s not about writing lists of goals: “buy milk”, “fill in tax return”, but rather, GTD is concerned with determining the next action required and given the right context or time, just performing that action without having to constantly figure out the next step each time.  In Kanban’s case, it favours work items that are discrete, unambiguous and ideally of a similar “size” to reduce variance.
  • Support for levels of granularity – Kanban can achieve this with a kind of nesting of Kanbans and horizontal swim-lanes.  Or, multiple Kanbans, one representing a higher level of granularity than the other, whereby the items in the “Kanban in the large” are related to those being processed in the “Kanban in the small”.  I use an approach like this with my current projects and their related current actions being processed.  GTD achieves multiple levels of granularity with lists.  There is: purpose, vision, goals, focus, projects and plenty of contexts, for example “At work” & “At home”.
  • Addressing Waste – Kanban addresses waste explicitly as does GTD.  Kanban using WIP limiting and “stop the line” techniques with a general attitude of continuous improvement.  GTD insists that any piece of “stuff” that enters your world should be processed once and once only, by using techniques like a ‘Zero Inbox’ policy and the ‘Two-Minute Rule’.
  • Pull – At the most abstract level, both approaches exist to process work to fulfill a demand.  Both approaches pull work through a process to achieve the goal of getting valuable stuff done.

This is encouraging, it would appear that we have a lot to work with in terms of bringing these ideas together.


There are obvious differences in the two approaches, given they are aimed at different problems. However, I find little that is polarised or in conflict but rather the differences are complementary in enhancing areas of non-existence or weakness in the other, when applied to personal productivity.

  • Reduced backlog size versus a clear head – Kanban comes from the world of Lean Manufacturing, where the Theory of Constraints philosophy is pervasive.  Large backlogs are considered to be wasteful as the cost of maintaining them and the friction they cause impacts the value that will be generated. A backlog that is sized so that it is processed rapidly and renewed with new stories regularly is considered ideal.  GTD is different to this, there are no caps, implied or artificial.  GTD encourages a clear head, to reduce stress and allow complete focus on the task at hand.  Obviously, there is a conflict there on face value.  In the past I had GTD action lists with hundreds of action items on them, and project and someday/maybe lists with 10s of items.
  • Kanban allows for Work In Progress (WIP) limiting –  GTD doesn’t explicitly try to limit that which is being worked on in any hard manner, rather a softer approach which asks if something is relevant against focus, goals, vision, purpose or just plain want to do it now.  Sadly, GTD can lead to thrashing, when the total number of options for doing is enormous.  Kanban is all about focus, and if used well can seriously reduce the chance, let alone the act of context switching.
  • Visual control – Although I’m sure there are ways this could be addressed currently, as a whole, most GTD implementations seem to be light on visualisation of WIP.  Kanban is all about visualisation.
  • Process definition – GTD has a definite default process, which is not prescriptive in so far it’s not all or nothing.  Kanban doesn’t define a default, but rather provides tools to be used in a greater or lesser extent to get the right result in a context.
  • Prioritisation – In GTD there is no prioritisation as such.  By virtue of the fact something is actionable, it will either appear in a context action list, calendar, waiting for (delegation) or may appear project list.  With Kanban there are  all kinds of ways priorities can be defined.
  • Time critical actions – Kanban is about flow, so specific times and dates aren’t catered for.  GTD does use calendars and possibly tickle files to cater for those things that do need attending to at a specific time and date.

I am certain there are more differences here, so please do highlight any to better our understanding.


Lots of similarities and lots of differences, generally of a non-conflicting nature. The question is, where can we benefit from bringing these powerful approaches together?  Lets see…

Kanban can help GTD a lot! The problem I have had with GTD is flow, thrashing and WIP limiting at all stages in particular contexts, especially the backlog.  I know there is waste there, given the number of times I have conducted a review and found:

  • It takes ages because of the size of the backlog.
  • I find out-of-date actions/projects, again due to the size of the backlog.
  • Feel like i should be getting some of the value of the review just by doing, instead of waiting for the end of the week review.
  • I have also struggled with pulling projects from the someday/maybe into current projects lists.

GTD can help Kanban in a personal productivity context by:

  • Providing a way for people to clear their heads to focus on what is at hand.
  • Excellent techniques for identifying what should be done or not.
  • Doing actions not goals, by forcing the right questions at the beginning of processing “stuff”, instead of constantly asking what do I need to with this?
  • Handle work that needs to be on the calendar and most importantly some simple rules to motivate doing!  The Two Minute Rule being a great example.
  • Delegation.
  • Levels of focus in life and work.  Kanban doesn’t address what it is you are flowing toward.

Over the coming posts in this series I will try to illustrate the above synergies with examples.  Again, please do comment, I’m keen to explore this more myself.

Jim BensonGTD & Kanban: Similarities, Differences & Synergies Between The Two

41 Comments on “GTD & Kanban: Similarities, Differences & Synergies Between The Two”

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  4. Antoine Clarke

    Thanks for this series. I’ve found the same problem of too much on the task list with GTD. Kanban looks like an interesting approach.

    Are you familiar with Julie Morgenstern’s ideas about personal time and space management?

    I’m going to review her DVD and think that might have some ideas to add.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your series.

  5. Paul Eastabrook

    Hi Antoine.

    I’m glad you find this interesting. The next few posts will really start to shed light on using Personal Kanbans with GTD. I’m probably going to throw Pomodoro into the mix too for a real personal productivity fusion of mind maps, GTD, Kanban, Pomodoro and a concrete Web 2.0 implementation example.

    I’ll check your recommendation out! Always keen to find new tools to work more effectively.

    Thanks for the support!


    1. Romain Bisseret

      Very interesting! I’m exactly working on this, myself : GTD+PK+Pomodoro and as far as it goes, my productivity goes through the roof! I can’t wait to read your implementation of all this.

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  12. J. B. Rainsberger

    I think GTD limits the size of the backlog by encouraging me to face the fact that I won’t actually do 90% of what goes into my backlog. That’s what the weekly review gives me. Rather than artificially limiting the size of the backlog, when I see that I’ve reviewed the same project a few times without acting on it, then I either drop it or hide it (move it to the tickler). Over time, I review many of these projects only a few times per year, which is just enough to give me a chance to decide “I finally have enough energy to make enough space over the next month to do this”.

  13. Magne

    GTD uses push, not pull. Pull is to add stuff when the work / external demands requires it. In GTD David Allen talks about collecting all your thoughts, someday/maybes etc. which is inherently a way of “pushing” all your mental inventory/stuff into the system.

  14. Magne

    There is actually prioritisation in GTD. David Allen writes about natural prioritising in the order of 1. Context, 2. Time, 3. Energy, and 4. Priority (according to horizons of focus). He also advices against prioritising by relative importance and using numbers.

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  27. Leisa

    (Postcript up front: I wasn’t intending to be so long winded). I appreciate your post here, and I’m responding many moons later having found it by doing some searching on Kanban. I stumbled upon Kanban quite accidently. Felled by the flu, I was doing some online searching on Pomodoro software (as I was looking for some better implementations than what I was using). ON Pomondorium, there was a link to I spent 2 minutes on the site and I was hooked. (It was like discovering a treasure). As I do business consulting (and not factory stuff), the applicability of this method to any business process was immediately apparent to me AS WELL AS the benefit of such a system on a personal management level.

    I am also a practitioner of GTD (like I’m an excerciser and better nutritioner, etc). Meaning simply that my intentions are great, and follow through at times…not as well as I should. I only wish that I had been introduced to KANBAN earlier in my career.

    While this post is an exposition of the differences between KANBAN and GTD, I would simply posit that GTD nestles quite well into KANBAN. In fact, that was the very thing that struck me about the two when I implemented. I attended David Allen’s seminar. I was so impressed with his method (I just never was going to do Covey’s A1, B1, C1, and tired of the repetitive nature of it), that I hired him as a speaker for our organization to speak to our senior level managers. (This was back in 2004). He was quite inspiring and energizing. I recommend his work and his system to stressed out colleagues and clients to help them think of their work demands differently.

    Had I known about KANBAN at the time I would have overlayed his system with KANBAN for my personal use as well as for organizational planning. KANBAN absolutely belongs in the strategic planning area of the organization both for individual plan components as well as for tracking the larger pieces.

    The Kanbanflow software is a good fit for me because it includes the Pomodoro technique that trains focus (or at the very least makes you aware of your distractions so that you can develop that muscle memory of focus), and really helps with time management. I like to know how long it takes me to do something–particularly if it is repetitive so that I can find ways to improve processes etc. (And that fits in quite well with process improvement etc). Further, as I have a brain that goes in a thousand directions (both a help and a hinderance) as well as one that can get lost in the rabbit hole, the Pomodoro is a great way to keep time defined. It helps you get started, stay focused, and most importantly to disengage periodically. Disengaging builds perspective, and perspective is every in solving complex problems.

    With Kanban boards (and I’m all for automation–so I use Kanbanflow and no, I’m not affiliated with them, but to me this is the greatest thing since sliced bread), one can use GTD time frames or altimeter views (runway, 5k 10k 50k feet) as swim lanes. Everything can go into the inventory, and then segregated into the appropriate swim lane. The in process and today governs the things that we have to do that are calendar driven. One could even add the ever important “Waiting for” as a column, but I simply use a different color, and truthfully, I’m still developing my utilization of the board for my personal use. Same would be true with delegated tasks. The beauty of a matrix design (columns/swimlanes) along with color coding allows individual practitioners to fit the tool to his her needs.

    The weekly review is one of the most powerful parts of the GTD system. I believe that the powerful visualization of the Kanban board makes the weekly review a very, very efficacious process. Also, because the interface is so facile, the ability to customize quite robust, and most importantly, the ability to edit, move etc so effortless, it is an easy system to remain engaged with. That the software that I use integrates Pomodoro technique is icing on the cake.

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