Ultimate life hack: How to make time work for you

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We could all use a little help in the get-stuff-done department. What if you had a tool to efficiently manage your workflow—one that’s easy to make and use? It’s called a Kanban board, and it’s going to change the way you get your assignments (and everything else) done from now until June. Also available as apps.

Each term or semester has goals. Not just in class, but in everything you’re doing. Make the board about doing all the things you want to do—responsibly. Get the work done quickly, meet your goals, and make sure there’s time for friends and everything else.
—Jim Benson, Kanban expert, founder of Modus Cooperandi, and author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (CreateSpace, 2011)

“Personal Kanban is based on years of observation and organizational and cognitive psychology,” says Jim Benson, an expert on adapting Kanban for personal use and author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (CreateSpace, 2011).

One of the main benefits of using Kanban is seeing the workload, says Benson. “We can better manage what we can see. Visualization calms a natural tendency to overanalyze the work before us.” He adds that when we write our work down on sticky notes or cards, it gives our tasks substance and context.

“It’s a simple thing, right?” asks Benson. “Sticky notes on a wall or a whiteboard. But it immediately puts [our] stressful demands into context. There might be a lot of notes there, but it’s a finite number. We look at that and say to ourselves, ‘I can do that.’ As we start to do work, we see the movement; we see the tickets physically move through the board. It’s like our work is running down a field toward the goal or like we’re eating that elephant one bite at a time. Each ticket becomes a mini-goal that is super obtainable—and before we know it, we’re almost done.”

A simple, powerful time-management tool

Kanban originated from the Japanese word for “sign” or “signboard.” It was initially designed by Japanese car manufacturers in the late 1950s to help move products efficiently through the production line. Studies show that the Kanban method works, and US manufacturers, software developers, businesses, and students now use it to manage their workload. The power of Kanban is in its straightforward, visual layout.

Visual structure for one-off and ongoing tasks

The old-school to-do lists works well for tasks you can complete quickly. But studying for a biology exam, for example, is something you might be working on all week. The visual nature of a Kanban board allows you to keep track of ongoing projects (e.g., your biology labs) and observe the flow of work. This makes sense; most people recall visuals better than they do audio, according to a 2014 University of Iowa study.

A board and a bunch of sticky notes

Kanban board

A Kanban board uses sticky notes, cards, or tickets to keep track of assignments. You separate the board into vertical sections based on what you need to do, what you’re currently working on, and what you’ve completed. Then you write down all of your tasks on the notes or cards and place them in the appropriate sections. As you work on a task, you move it through each section until it ends up in the “done” column.

1. Separate a whiteboard, corkboard, or poster board into (at least) three sections.

You can name the sections anything you want. The point is to make sure you have a section for tasks you haven’t started yet, at least one section for tasks you’re working on, and one for tasks you’ve accomplished.

You may find it helpful to separate the middle section (“Doing”) into two: “Started” and “Ongoing.” That makes more space for long-term projects. In addition, your tasks seem to move through the system more quickly, which you may find more motivating.

2. Grab a pack of sticky notes or 3 x 5 cards, and write down all of your assignments, tasks, projects, and to-dos.

For example, you might include tasks like these:

Full kanban board "To do", "Doing", "Done"

Break larger projects into smaller component tasks, and give each smaller task its own note. Stick your notes or cards onto your board, depending on whether the task has been started, is ongoing, or is complete.

As you work on projects or add new ones, move them through each section on your Kanban board.

Don’t forgo the “Done” column—it’s just as important as the rest. Marking a task as finished could initiate a positive chain reaction to help you get other assignments done, according to research. When participants couldn’t cross a task off their mental to-do list, it hampered their ability to efficiently complete a second task, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

3. Identify bottlenecks and limit work in progress.

Look for crunch points

Now that you’ve laid out all of your tasks and assignments, take a look at your board. Where are your tasks backing up? Is catching up on your class readings preventing you from moving on to the homework questions? Kanban systems are known for helping users identify inefficient areas and challenging people to think of creative ways to resolve them, writes David J. Anderson in Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business (Blue Hole Press, 2010).

Remember that you can only do so much in a day

Focus on completing small tasks or manageable portions of larger tasks and moving them through the board. As you identify the slow-downs in your schedule, think strategically about how you can set aside some extra time to focus on those areas. That way, you can reduce the amount of work in progress and improve your ability to hit your due dates.

Figure out how you should reallocate time

“Academics isn’t always crunch times and cramming,” says Benson. “Set up a board with the classes and activities for the term. Use either colors or horizontal lanes to know what work is going well and what might need some attention. If you are crushing it in one class and searching in another, use the board to prompt you to spend more time or develop strategies to help out in the [classes you’re struggling in].”


Article sources

Jim Benson, personal Kanban expert, founder of Modus Cooperandi, and author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (CreateSpace, 2011).

Anderson, D. J. (2010). Kanban: Successful evolutionary change for your technology business. Sequim, WA: Blue Hole Press.

Bigelow, J., & Poremba, A. (2014, February 26). Achilles’ ear? Inferior human short-term and recognition memory in the auditory modality. PLoS One, 9(2), e89914. Retrieved from

Heikkilä, V. T., Paasivaara, M., & Lassenius, C. (2016, May). Teaching university students Kanban with a collaborative board game. In Proceedings of the 38th International Conference on Software Engineering Companion (pp. 471–480). ACM.

Joosten, T., Bongers, I., & Janssen, R. (2009, August 19). Application of lean thinking to health care: Issues and observations. International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 21(5).
Retrieved from https://intqhc.oxfordjournals.org/content/21/5/341

LeanKit Inc. (n.d.). What is Kanban? Retrieved from https://leankit.com/learn/kanban/what-is-kanban/

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011, June 20). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved from https://users.wfu.edu/masicaej/MasicampoBaumeister2011JPSP.pdf

Nakamura, M., Sakakibara, S., & Schroeder, R. (2002, August 6). Adoption of just-in-time manufacturing methods at US- and Japanese-owned plants: Some empirical evidence. IEEE Transactions on Engineer, 45(3). Retrieved from

Peterson, D. (n.d.). What is Kanban? Retrieved from https://kanbanblog.com/explained/

Student Health 101 survey, June 2016.

Vista Success. (2015, December 17). How to stay organized in college with Kanban. Retrieved from

Your fall fitness fix: How & why to make it happen

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Moving much? Ninety percent of college students say physical activity makes their life better (two-thirds said much better), according to a recent CampusWell survey. Consistent physical activity means more energy, better mood, and less stress. But research shows that many of us struggle to be active through life transitions—like going to college.

Good news: Students who believe they can make it happen are more likely to be active, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of American College Health. How can you build faith in your own intentions and goals? Behavioral research shows us: Incorporate activities that work for you, keep your goals realistic, and create a specific plan that anticipates likely obstacles.

Student Health 101 joined up with Bette Vargas, a college fitness trainer, to guide three undergraduates through this process. To see their strategies and plan in full, click on their images. In half an hour, you can make your own fitness plan and set yourself up for a dynamic, low-stress semester.

Bette Vargas Bette Vargas is a certified personal trainer at the University of California, San Francisco.

We all want to stay active—what hurts and helps?

You know the value of planning your physical activity
In our summer survey, two out of five returning students said they had already planned their fall fitness schedule. Close to that number of students were actively planning it. Most of the rest said they hoped to be physically active through the fall semester, but hadn’t yet figured out what that would look like.

Why planning is important
For many students, starting college comes with a drop-off in physical activity, research shows. That’s the biggest reason why some students struggle to maintain their fitness and manage their weight through school, according to a 2016 study in BMC Public Health.

What gets in the way?
With so many demands on students, physical activity tends to fall off their to-do list, says a 2015 study in the Journal of American College Health. In our survey, two out of five respondents said aspects of college life (most frequently, assignments and tiredness) make it difficult for them to be as physically active as they’d like.

What helps?
On the other hand, almost half the survey respondents said access to fitness resources (such as the college rec. center) make physical activity easier. Peer influences are also helpful, students said. This aligns with the research. The physical activity habits of college women tend to carry over to mid-life, and the “supportive social atmosphere” of school fitness programs is likely a key factor in setting students up for long-term success, according to the Journal of Exercise Physiology (2009).

Source: Student Health 101 survey, May 2016; 1,500 responses. This survey is not representative of students nationally.

“Varied workouts rock—varied schedules, not so much”

Sonya M.

Sonya M.

Fourth-year undergraduate
Northern Illinois University

“Physical activity makes me feel strong and agile, free yet in control. I strive to look forward to working out, and I do that by finding variety. The challenge is that every day is different. Things are constantly popping up, in between nursing school and clinicals.”

My strategies

  • Find a workout buddy
  • Work out early 
  • Work out at home

Bette Vargas

“To include the camaraderie of your friends, why not plan a fun event like a hike, swim/pool party, or bike ride? This way, in a stress-free environment, you can talk about how to support each other. You may enjoy taking a variety of group classes to alleviate boredom.”

How I’m going to rock it

Here’s what works for me:

  • Find a workout buddy “Having a friend or family member hold you accountable really helps with motivation.”
  • Work out early “I find it a chore to keep thinking about my workout later in the day.”
  • Work out at home “When I’m strapped for time, I’ll find a blood-pumping workout video on YouTube or Pinterest.”

So here’s how I’ll get moving:

  • I’ll recruit a friend to try a new class at the rec. center once a week.
  • I’ll check my changing schedule each week and reserve two or three days for morning weightlifting or cardio at the gym, before I head to clinical.
  • In nice weather I’ll take my dog for a jog or bike for 30 minutes; in rain or cold I’ll search for a fun online workout video.
  • On weekends I’ll practice advanced yoga for 20–60 minutes (it’s easy to lose track of time, since it’s my favorite!).

“Switching the environment and variety of my workouts will help me stay interested. And waking up early will guarantee I get my workout in for the day, so I’m not fretting about it later.”

ALERT! Are morning workouts realistic for you? Many college students are night owls. How can you make physical activity convenient and enjoyable for you?

“I want to be a powerful athlete—and I want it now”

Wengang X.

Wengang X.

Fourth-year undergraduate
Rutgers University, New Jersey

“Daily workouts help me gain muscle, power, and strength, and bring me one step closer to my dream of being a great American football player in my home country of China. It can be a challenge to fit everything in, and when I don’t see results after a crazy workout I wonder, ‘Am I wasting my time?’”

My strategies

  • Find inspirational music and videos
  • Stay positive through frustration
  • Work out at home

Bette Vargas

“Be patient with your development, and keep it simple. Crazy workouts may be counterproductive because you run the risk of injury. Gaining muscle is a long, slow process and will require patience and dedication. Positive change comes when the body is at rest. Speak with the athletic trainer at your school regarding an exercise program for the specific position you would like to play.”

My breakthrough training plan

Here’s what works for me:

  • Find inspirational music and videos “I listen to ‘epic music.’ My favorite band is Two Steps from Hell and my favorite video is Eric Thomas’s How Bad Do You Want It series.”
  • Stay positive through frustration “I sometimes get in the mind-set that if I can’t make it to gym or don’t see fast results, I’m a failure.”
  • Work out at home “This can save me some time so I can focus on my studies.”

So here’s how I’ll get moving:

  • I’ll go to the gym four days a week, alternating between lower body and core and then upper body. Weekends will be my rest day.
  • I’ll log my progress in a notebook, which will help me see my improvements and keep me from getting frustrated.
  • I’ll recruit a friend to come with me one day a week, especially when I need an extra motivation boost.
  • When I’m strapped for time or if the weather is bad, I’ll use apps. The Big Six and Convict Conditioning are great and don’t require equipment.
  • I’ll share my progress on social media so my friends can provide feedback and encouragement.

“I know I still have a long way to go before becoming a football player. With support from friends and family, I’ll be able to eliminate the unrealistic expectations about gaining a large amount of muscle in a short period of time.”

ALERT! Support from others is key to developing healthier routines. Tracking your workouts and progress helps a lot with maintaining motivation.

“Missing a workout’s a bummer—but I can be active en route”

Taylor R.

Taylor R.

Fourth-year undergraduate
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York

“When I need to relieve stress from studying, I throw on my boxing gloves. Biking or taking a long walk around campus also helps calm my mind. Staying active makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. But between classes and multiple jobs, I usually rely on a canceled meeting to get to yoga. At the gym, I feel uncomfortable, like people are watching me.”

My strategies

  • Get it in my schedule
  • Work out at home
  • Walk or bike where I can

Bette Vargas

“For some people, a missed session brings discouragement and can spell doom for their workout regime. Be gentle with yourself. Keep it in perspective and get back to it the next day. And walking or biking instead of driving incorporates activity organically. Remember that you have every right to be in the gym. Plus, the people who you think are looking at you may just be staring into space waiting for their next set!”

My moves for staying chill

Here’s what works for me:

  • Get it in my schedule “Seeing it in writing makes it feel like an obligation I can’t miss.”
  • Work out in my room  “I’ll search YouTube for a cardio or yoga video to get in a quick workout.”
  • Walk or bike where I can “I haven’t had a car in the past year, so I rely heavily on walking or biking everywhere as my exercise—whether downtown to get food or to campus for class.”

So here’s how I’ll get moving:

  • I’ve scheduled gym sessions for Mondays (my free night) and Wednesdays (I have time during the day).
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays are busier, but a home yoga session will help me unwind.
  • Friday mornings are free, so I’ll either head to the gym or take a fun fitness class.
  • Keeping in the habit of walking everywhere, I’ll avoid taking shortcuts and increase to a brisk pace.
  • Two weekends a month, I plan to get outside for a hike or bike ride.

“My plan seems realistic for my schedule. I’m very calendar-oriented, so if I can make working out a planned event, then I won’t have the excuse of not having time. It’s also that I do what I enjoy, or else I’ll become bored or frustrated. Enjoying biking and walking helps me plan to do them more often.”

ALERT! You don’t need to be active every day. Realistic plans and goals are key: Once a week is better than never. Scheduling anything into the calendar makes us more likely to do it, research shows.

Your best instagram

“I plan to stay fit this fall semester by training for the an event in Hawaii. Lots of swimming, cycling and running will be involved as I prepare for the race!”
—Anthony Chan, graduate student, St. John’s University, New York

Follow us on Instagram and don’t forget to use the hashtag #fitforfall

[survey_plugin] Article sources

Bette Vargas, certified personal trainer, University of California, San Francisco.

Crozier, A. J., Gierc, M. S., Locke, S. R., & Brawley, L. R. (2015). Physical activity in the transition to university: The role of past behavior and concurrent self-regulatory efficacy. Journal of American College Health, 63(6), 384–385.

Godman, H. (2014, April 9). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from

Hultquist, C. N., Duckham, R., Stinson, C., & Thompson, D. L. (2009). College physical activity is related to mid-life activity levels in women. Journal of Exercise Physiology, 12(4), 1–7. Retrieved from https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineAugust2009Hultquist.doc

Kemmler, W. (2016, January). Impact of exercise changes on body composition during the college years: A five-year randomized controlled study. BMC Public Health, Retrieved from https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-016-2692-y

Kwan M. Y., Cairney J., Faulkner G. E., & Pullenayegum, E. E. (2012). Physical activity and other health-risk behaviors during the transition into early adulthood: A longitudinal cohort study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 42(1), 14–20.

Student Health 101 survey, June 2016.