I love productivity tools. I love getting things done (both the David Allen program and the concept), and productivity tools are useful to that end. I’m also just a nerd and really like playing with new toys, er… tools, and software packages for the novelty of different features and aesthetic beauty of different user interfaces.
Trello is one of those productivity tools that’s novel, really fun to use, and the click-and-drag UI is, in my opinion, kind of beautiful. It’s also super flexible, to the point of being almost too flexible and in adding features it somehow got the worst of several worlds. I enjoy using it, so I’ve tried to use it for several different projects and workflows, but I keep find it coming up short. However, I think I’ve finally landed on a good use case, so I wanted to share. But first, let’s look at what Trello is.
What are you?
Trello is a web-based project management tool that consists of Boards, Lists,and Cards. Within each card, you can track activity, make comments, and track checklists. You can share boards with individual users or within an Organization. The whole user interface is click-and-drag and has lots of customizable colors, labels, etc. In short, Trello is an ultra-flexible tool that allows you to have a shared workspace with collaborators. It even has iOS and Android applications.
Like I said in my introduction, Trello is, in some ways, too flexible. Meaning it can do almost anything, but it can’t do everything well. Here are some things I’ve attempted to use Trello to manage, and have ultimately moved on to other, more robust tools.
Research Management Tool
I was working on a project for work that involved looking at physician and hospital reimbursement for telemedicine services. I tried tracking my research in Trello, which worked really well for the first 5-10 sources I was looking at. Each card was a paper, report, or website. The description was the citation information. Where applicable, I could attach a PDF to the card, and I could store my notes in the comment section.
However, the number of cards quickly got to the point where I had to scroll on my list to see everything. Now, I don’t mind scrolling, and for a quick project with only a handful of sources, this wouldn’t be too bad, but it’s just not scalable. On the other hand, Evernote is designed for exactly this kind of research repository. I can use tags to find relevant topics, but it’s also fully searchable, including OCR searching within an attached PDF (paid version only), which makes it far more scalable than Trello.
Task Management Tool
I even have a post on this blog about using Trello as a task management tool. I tried a couple different paradigms for this. First, I had a list for each project and a card for each task. Again, once you get about 5 projects, the side-scrolling defeats the notion of being able to immediately see what’s on my plate. Then I tried having a card for each project, a checklist on that card for each task, and converting checklists to cards to move to a next action list. In principle this was fine, but it ended up being too many clicks to just complete a task and look at the subsequent one for that action. I read a few other methodologies/workflows online, but they all run into the same issue: it’s just not scalable enough to handle 50+ actions and still be “at a glance.” Just like in the research binder, more specialized products–Omnifocus, Wunderlist, Todoist, even Evernote–are just downright more effective task management applications than Trello.
Project Master List
This would probably be a really good use case if I were a project director overseeing multiple project managers who each had multiple projects. Trello’s click-and-drag card view makes it very easy to see what’s where (provided there are two or three dozen items or fewer), make updates as needed, and keep on top of things. That said, I’m just one person, and while I do have collaborators on several projects and oversee some people at work, I don’t have this need. I track my current projects on my task management tool, Todoist, and keeping track of all my current projects in Trello and Todoist is just redundant.
Despite these failed use cases, I really love the Trello interface and enjoy using the tool… if only I could find something I could use it for where it actually performs better than Evernote or Todoist. Here are a few use cases I have found that seem to be going well.
I work with electronic medical records, part of which includes supporting go-lives. A EMR go-live was described to me during my college internship, long before I had any idea would be working where I am now, as “We plan, configure the software, and send everyone to training for months. Then we go live and all hell breaks loose and shit hits the fan.” I like to think that less shit is hitting the fan with go-lives these days (especially the ones I help to implement), but that’s still a pretty accurate description. When in a go-live command center, total control task management apps like Todoist aren’t at their acme. I need something that’s focused on this customer and this customer only, and I need something I can quickly add to, update, and get distracted from, without losing anything. Trello fits that bill perfectly. Each new issue gets a card, and the details and progress get tracked in comments and checklists. At this point, it is becoming a task management app, but since I should never have more than a dozen things on my plate at any given time, that’s okay. In this case, not containing everything is what I want.
For my Go-Live board, I have 3 lists for storing tasks–one list for each task type. This might be excessive, but it helps me categorize my work based on energy and mood. Then I have “Delegated” tasks that I still need to keep track of, “Done today” for tasks to report at any daily huddle calls, and “Done this week” for any weekly wrap-up calls or issue summary reports I need to put together. Click-and-drag makes it easy to move each issue card through the process, and card views make it easy to keep everything in front of me, without the distraction of email or other projects in Todoist (which still contains things I want to do today after work). The only drawback is that Trello is on the cloud, so I need to be careful to never include unencrypted documents, patient information, or screenshots (which I rarely create anyways, but I do get these things sent to me quite regularly).
I keep my grocery list, which my wife also has access to, on Trello. Either of us can updated it throughout the week, and when it comes time to buy food (or we just find ourselves at one of the two places we shop) we can both check the list. I have one list for each of the two grocery stores we go to, and one card is one item to buy. After that item is in the shopping cart, the card gets archived. I also have a list to store recipes (I do a lot of the cooking, so yeah, this is a pretty short list that’s still manageable in Trello), which I can quickly drag over to the “weekly meals” list to create a meal plan each week. Evernote and Todoist could do most of this as well, but the UI of Trello is easier to use for this narrow case, and the collaboration is much easier/better in Trello.
I don’t have many collaborative projects, but on the couple that I do have, when I can get my collaborators to use it, Trello makes a great tool for organizing ideas. Especially for more creative projects, Trello is an easy repository for new ideas, that can be added to by others and moved around easily. When my friend and I were working on a game (it still hasn’t gone anywhere), we were able to share ideas as we had them, and discuss these ideas in relation to other ideas while we were together or just sitting on the couch looking at our phones.
Someday Maybe Lists
I mentioned before that Trello makes a good project tracking tool, but not a good task management tool. This includes projects that aren’t being double documented in your task management tool: your someday maybe project list. When I see a cool class on Coursera or get an inkling for a new skill, I could add it to Evernote, but it’s liable to get lost in my several hundred notes. Instead, I add it to my Someday Maybe Board in Trello. I can make notes on each card about why I think this would be cool. Even add a checklist to identify how much work it would actually be, and include some resources. Because Someday Maybe lists should be reviewed, Trello offers a clean way to review so it doesn’t get so piled up that it’s impossible to manage. Because they shouldn’t be reviewed that often, I don’t have to worry about things get double-documented.
Last, and possibly most importantly this time of year, Trello is great for goal tracking and visioning. It’s the end of the year, so lots of people are resolving to spend less, save more, quit smoking, and go to the gym more often in 2017 (though they’ve also resolved to keep these resolutions longer than those same resolutions last year). For for those of us who would like to achieve these goals and keep track of it, I’m finding that Trello makes a very easy, effective platform for this.
I have a board for 2017 Goals. As it currently stands, the whole board is just one list with the goals themselves. Each card is a broad goal area, but has more SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-Based) criteria in the card description.
As I make progress towards each goal I can mark that as a comment, or by adding (and checking) a checklist item. For example, each blog post I write will get a link on my Blogging goal card.
Life Time Goals
My wife and I have a shared board where we track some of our lifetime goals. We use labels to identify which one of us has this goal in mind and our ideal timeframe (broken into <5 years, 5-10 years, 10+ years from now). Again, Trello makes this easier than Evernote to review and update when we need to, but it’s not taking up space in our Todoist lists.
Like the Someday Maybe list, I could put these goals on Evernote, but the visual element of being able to move cards around in Trello makes these goals easier organize relative to each other and see how they fit together.
I’m starting this year with a resolution to use Trello to track my resolutions. If it works, I’ll end the year with a blog post about how it went (maybe, or at least I’ll end the year with a blog post).
Trello’s strengths are it’s easy-to-use click-and-drag way of visualizing data. Evernote is more searchable, more scalable, and can store more. Todoist (or any number of other task lists) is cleaner and more streamlined for checking things off the list. But Trello is collaborative and can track things over time that you don’t want in a daily task list but are more actionable than most things I put in Evernote (I know many people use evernote as a task management app as well, but I was never able to get that to work for me). The key is to make sure that the scope for Trello and each board is somewhat limited: too many boards and too many lists can get overwhelming quickly. As long as the scope is controlled, Trello lets you see multiple groups of actions together, which makes it a great goal tracking tool or collaborative project tracking tool.