How I'm Getting Sh*t Done With Trello

What’s this about: Sharing a simple approach (and live example) to manage tasks and projects, using Trello.

I’m a sucker for productivity hacks.

It started with paper, back in the corporate world. Every week I’d take a fresh A4 sheet, and split it into 8 squares. Each square was a workstream, or project. I’d add all my tasks, then take great pleasure in crossing them off when complete. This sheet of paper would go with me everywhere, in the back of my notebook.

This worked for a while. Aside from getting stuff done, one of the great (unintended) benefits was the perception of being incredibly organised. If a task came my way, I could whip out the paper and just add it to the right section. Good upward management, in a world where perception can quickly become reality.

But life changed in a startup. Being productive became an ongoing pursuit: More like a treadmill, with constantly varying speeds and gradients, than a static snapshot that could be refreshed weekly.

Starting the search.

I needed a new solution. A methodology to capture the 1001 things that needed doing at any time, without drowning in demands. An approach to focus on just the biggest priorities, while always knowing what was coming next. Oh, and it had to be accessible on any device, all in real time.

I started by reading a book: Getting Things Done. Some call it the bible of productivity. I got into it for a while, and set out on a mission to find the right tool to fit this new mindset.

Omnifocus. I went straight to the top shelf. Omnifocus had been pegged as the Rolls Royce of #GTD tools. I found it to be a clunky product that wasn’t much fun to use. It seemed I spent as much time organising as actually doing.

Rather than a Rolls Royce, it felt more like my old campervan. It had everything you needed to survive, including a kitchen sink. But trying to drive it around downtown Sydney was a nightmare of 12-point turns (sans power steering) and slow journeys. It wasn’t going to work.

I needed something more nimble, responsive, and FUN. So, over a 12-month period I cycled through:

  • Remember the Milk. Played really well with Gmail. Had a nice ipad app. But the web app UI seemed really stale after a few months
  • Wunderlist. A popular option. Clean UI and great iOS apps. I wanted this to work, but I just stopped using it.
  • Simplenote. Going back to basics, with a plain text lists. Didn’t last long.
  • Orchestra. A beautiful iphone app, but that was about it (for me at least).

None of them stuck.

Asana initially held the most promise. It launched with some hype (and a tonne of funding), about creating a new way of work. Great vision. And the product seems to work well. Super fast; very intuitive.

For some reason I can’t really explain, it just didn’t work for me. It could be the dry, sterile interface. More likely, it didn’t seem to give me the context I needed for a quick snapshot of tasks, projects and progress. I felt myself grasping for some visual hierarchy that just wasn’t there. I moved on.

A simple framework for work that works.

Trello launched last year. It’s a super awesome, visual collaboration tool. Imagine a dynamic whiteboard with columns (called lists), sticky notes (called cards), with a little description on the front, and endless options for content, checklists and discussion on the back. It’s an incredibly simple paradigm, executed beautifully.

I’m not here to sell the product (it’s free). Rather, to share a simple framework for managing my tasks and projects, that’s really stuck. I can’t claim credit, but want to share it anyway. I’ve bastardised ideas from a few sources, including #GTD, Brad Feld (P1s) and a hat tip to Ryan Carson for an original concept.

I use a single Trello board to manage all my tasks. Here’s a link to a public example you can copy.

It has 6 separate lists:

Inbox: New tasks start here. It’s where I can dump something, to get it out of my head. I’ll process it later into one of the other lists.

Later: These are tasks that aren’t urgent, but I want to do at some point. Think of it as the backburner, or ‘nice to do’ tasks that you could jump on when in the mood, but are not 7-day priorities.

Waiting: If I’m waiting on someone else before I can complete a task, or for an important call or email, I’ll add it here. A great reminder of who I need to follow up with.

This week: The tasks for this week. Anything that needs to be done by Sunday, but isn’t due today. The top 3 cards on this list are always my P1s for the week (more below).

Today: The tasks for today. If it’s here, I need to do it. The top 3 cards here are my P1s for the day. I’m not sleeping till they’re done (more below).

Done (wk beg. xx): I split this list into the days of the week. When I finish a task, I drag it into the relevant section. This should be a long list by the end of week.

Getting stuff done:

Each week I start with 3 P1s.

These are the big things that need to be done by Sunday. They sit at the top of ‘This week’, with a red tag to always remind of their importance. They are often mini-projects, that have sub-tasks within them.

Each day I also focus on 3 P1s.

These are the daily priorities. They also sit at the top of ‘Today’ with a red tag. Other bonus tasks for the day sit underneath.

Meetings also get a card. I can add the agenda as a checklist on the back, along with any other context and notes for preparation.

Special projects may get a list of their own. But I generally prefer to give them a card, with checklists on the back.

Whenever I complete a task (or meeting), I drag it to the ‘Complete’ list under the relevant day. There’s something strangely satisfying about dragging a task to completeness, that I don’t get from a simple checkbox.

At end of each week, review the P1s. Give myself a high five (or a stern word). Then archive the ‘Completed’ list for that week. Start again.

Why it works?

For me, it’s:

  • Visual. For a long time, I underestimated just how important this was (at least for my way of working).
  • Easy to scan all tasks and projects, with simple re-ordering of priorities.
  • Lightweight. Drag and drop is great, with some handy keyboard shortcuts to save time.
  • Immediate tactile satisfaction when dragging a card to complete.
  • Instantly available on any device.

And, it’s the only approach that I’ve stuck with for more than 6 months straight. It’s helping me do more, faster.

We’re using Trello in a tonne of different ways as a team. But this is the one board I have open in a separate browser, all the time. Let me know if it’s useful to you as well!

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