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code, tech, and getting things done.
May 27, 2012

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Since discovering Getting Things Done four years ago, I've tried just about every task management system out there: text files, Remember the Milk, Toodledoo, Evernote, OneNote, Outlook, paper, hipster PDAs. They all have their strengths, but each was missing some key element that left me wanting more.

The search is over, though. Trello is about as close to a perfect platform for GTD as I could imagine.

Why Trello?

The concept behind Trello derives from the kanban board, which at its simplest is just a cork board on the office wall. Units of work are represented with Post-It notes or index cards, sorted into columns.

In Trello, the team at Fog Creek has maintained the simplicity and flexibility of the real-world kanban board while unobtrusively layering on a wealth of sophisticated features.

This kanban board approach fits well with my workflow. GTD involves managing many small tasks, and most to-do management tools present to-dos as line items in a grid. These rows tend to merge into a solid mass of data that I can't easily parse.

Trello's boards and cards address this by adding a spatial dimension to my lists. This helps me digest the information and allows me to use an item's physical location to assign meaning.

Another major strength of Trello is that it provides several tiers of organization: boards, cards, checklists. This makes it easy to manage groups of related tasks and easily escalate tasks into full projects.

Cards can also hold a wealth of metadata. In addition to the title field, cards include a description field (which accepts Markdown formatted text), checklists, labels, and a comments thread. This makes it easy to keep project-specific information (supporting documentation, thoughts, links) tied to the task or project.

My Trello-based GTD system

Here's how I have my GTD lists set up right now. Top-level bullets are boards, and sub-items are lists on the board.

  • @NextActions

    • Inbox
    • @home
    • @computer
    • @work
    • @errands
    • Waiting For
  • @Projects

    • Active
    • Waiting For
    • Needs Clarification (for projects that need further thought or planning)
  • Goals 2012

    • Personal
    • Professional
    • Family
  • Goals 3-5 Years

  • Someday/Maybe

  • Project-specific boards

    • Backlog
    • In Progress
    • Done

Anything new that I want to capture goes into the Inbox list. Several times a week, I process this list to zero. Cards from the Inbox will move to my context-specific lists if they are single tasks or to my Projects list if it's a multi-step project. When a task or project is complete, I archive the card.

When I'm planning a small project, I'll brainstorm a list of tasks and put them into a checklist in the project's card. During my weekly review, I review each project card and convert the next checklist item into a card on the @NextActions board.

If a project grows beyond a few steps, I'll spin off a standalone board to track all of the related tasks.

Pro tips

Here are some tricks that I've discovered as I've worked with my Trello-based system:

Templates. The Trello team unveiled a nice feature this week: the ability to copy boards. This makes it easy to create template boards. I've always wanted an easily resettable checklist that I could use to walk through the steps in my weekly review, and now I have one. Every week I copy my weekly review template board, which contains about a half dozen cards with associated checklists. For example, I have a card called "Get in to empty", which contains a checklist of lists my various inboxes (email accounts, physical inboxes, bookmarking tools) so I don't forget to empty any of them. I move each card into an In Progress column when I am focusing on it, and put it in Done when I'm ready to move on.

Project-specific boards. Initially I tried forcing a one-card-per-project approach, but now when I start a complicated project I spin off a standalone project board. I have a template board for new projects with three lists: Backlog, In Progress, Done. I add new tasks to the backlog as they come to mind and limit the In Progress column to one or two items that I'm actively working on.

Work the cards. Cards can hold a lot of additional data beyond just the title. On smaller projects, for example, I'll use the description field to hold the project objectives and any notes or thoughts that may have come out of my project planning. Actionable steps go into a checklist. And even though my boards are private, I'll use the discussion feature to hold random thoughts or links to relevant websites.

Managing boards. I try to keep my list of pinned boards (the boards that appear when you click the Boards button in the upper right of the screen) to a minimum. I unpin any boards that I don't use every day, and I close boards that I am not planning to use. It's easy to access unpinned boards either by searching in the boards list or from the All Boards page.

You can also control the way boards sort by prefixing with different characters. I like my GTD boards like @NextActions to sort at the top, hence the @ prefix. I prepend an underscore to my templates to push them to the bottom.

Keyboard shortcuts. Trello has some pretty good keyboard shortcuts for managing cards and navigating between boards. The ones I use most are B to open the boards list and C to archive the current card. Navigating to my next actions board is as simple as hitting B, then typing @N and hitting Enter.

Homework for the Trello team

There are some features that I'd like to see added to Trello to make it even better, including:

  • Better tagging and sorting. It would be nice to tag items and filter based on the tags.
  • It would be great to be able to spin off checklist items into cards while maintaining a link back to the original checklist. And for bonus points, mark the checklist item as complete when the card is archived.
  • Moving cards to other boards is a little clunky and requires a few clicks.

Feedback

Have a favorite Trello tip that I've missed? Let me know in a comment below.

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