Trello – My secret to keeping myself organized

I’m a pretty disorganized person. At every company I have ever worked at, the chaos of my desk has been the butt of jokes. When my wife is traveling, I depend on telling Siri to remind me to do important things like “make the kids’ lunches at 8:30 pm”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone down to the basement to get something, noticed something else that I needed, and then completely forgotten about the original reason I went down.

Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of systems for keeping track of all of the things I need to get done. Back in the 90s, I bought a Palm Pilot, convinced that its to-do list was going to solve all my problems. I’ve also tried Franklin-Covey’s paper-based planner, and I have tried services like “Remember the Milk”, but none of them have lasted more than a few months.

And then, two years ago, I discovered Trello, and I have never needed another tool. It’s magical.

Unlike prescriptive organizing systems like GTD where you follow a specific method, Trello is an “anti-system”. It has no specific methods. It adapts to you, rather than you adapting to it.

Okay, so what is it? It’s a super-flexible card organizing system. You create cards, which you can order however you like, in lists titled whatever you choose. You can set up whatever system feels right to you, and Trello just makes it super easy to manage.

To illustrate, let’s start with the simplest of boards, just to manage a basic to-do list:

A simple sample board

A simple sample board

In this example, I have three columns: “Doing”, for things I am doing right now or very soon, “To-Do”, for things I should do at some point in the future, and “Done” for things that are completed. As new tasks come up, I would add them “To-Do”. When I try to figure out what I should be doing next, I would pick things from “To-Do” and just drag them over to “Doing”.  Once they are completed, I could drag them over to “Done”.  Nothing is quite as satisfying dragging cards into a “Done” list.

But these titles I have made are completely arbitrary. I can organize anything with Trello, in any which way I would like. Take a look at these sample boards from Trello’s twitter feed:

A recipe board

A recipe board

A goal setting board

A goal setting board

A weekly project board

A weekly project board

So, what does my Trello board look like?  My job is very interrupt driven, with many tasks waiting on information from others or handed off to other people from completion. I use a five column board to keep the chaos under control:

This five column board has been the key to getting things done for over two years

This five column board has been the key to getting things done for over two years

On the right, there is the classic “To-Do”, “Doing”, and “Done” columns.  I generally live each day in Column 4, “Doing”.  As new stuff pops up, I will either put it into the “Doing” column if it needs to happen right away, or into the “To-Do” column if I should expect to get to it in the next few weeks. As tasks are completed, I move them to “Done”.

I have added two new columns, however. The first is “Waiting for Response”.  These represent tasks I am responsible for, but I cannot proceed on them because I am waiting on input from someone else.  For example, I might have a task to set up a new data feed for a client. However, I have a list of questions about some of the data elements, and I have emailed them to ask. I don’t want to put this in my “Doing” column right now, because I can’t actually do anything about it. However, I am still responsible for the task and don’t want to lose track of it, so I will put the task into this “Waiting for Response” column.  When they finally respond, I will drag the card back into the “Doing” column so that I can keep working on it.

Periodically, I will scan my “Waiting for Response” column to look for items that have been in there too long.  When appropriate, I will send a “Hey, any updates?” email to follow up.  Arguably, this column could be called “People to Nag”.

My other column is “Other People Doing”.  These are for tasks that I am responsible for, but I have delegated the work to colleagues. I want to keep an eye on these projects and remember to check in on them periodically, but I don’t want them cluttering my “Doing” and “To-Do” lists.  If someone else wants a status update on one of them, they are going to come ask me about them, not the person I have delegated to, so I had better not forget about it.

There is one other column that is hidden off-screen.  It’s called “Back Log”. Basically, if something sits around too long in the “To-Do” list, it’s a sign that it is one of those “good to do, but not urgent and not that important” items that we never seem to really get around to. I don’t want to delete it from the lists, since that would be kind of like saying I will never do the task. So I hide it in the backlog. Eventually, they either become urgent/important and make their way back onto the main lists, or they become unnecessary.

For some additional color, I will occasionally add some labels in the form of colored bars. I use “orange” for time sensitive issues that I need to really make sure do not slip, and red for urgent fires that need to take top priority over all other tasks.

Each week, I archive my “Done This Week” list and start a new one for the week ahead. It’s a nice way to start a Monday morning by seeing how long the previous week’s list was and therefore how much I got done.

The amazing thing about Trello is that I am using just a fraction of its power. It’s really built for teams to collaborate around the world, and it has a whole boatload of features I haven’t even touched on here:

  • Checklists
  • Due-dates
  • Card owners (for multi-user boards)
  • Tagging
  • Voting
  • Attachments
  • Comments
  • and much more…

And the best thing about Trello?  It’s free.

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