Using Trello as a personal productivity tool

I’ve been using Trello as a personal productivity tool for the past 4 months. Turns out, it actually performs much better than any other tool ever did. Or, rather, I function a lot better with Trello than with any other tool I ever tried. Why? Let’s find out!

Prior tools

Trello is not my first foray into personal productivity tools. Not by a long shot. I used OmniFocus for a number of years. And if you ever want to discover how to use OmniFocus as a pro, look no further than the book Kourosh Dini wrote about it. You can find that here. But OmniFocus and GTD never really clicked for me.

Then I discovered Things and used that tool for a while. Again a to do list application, again with GTD. I even went back to a paper based system when I discovered the Bullet Journal.

And while each of these tools is among the best in its class, they fundamentally remain to do lists. And a to do list is a list of things I need to do, without necessarily giving me a broader context. I therefore often ended up doing the things that found their way into my to do list, without necessarily considering whether or not I should be doing them in the first place.

Now, I know that good to do list practices such as GTD prescribe a regular review, but none of my tools nor my application of GTD allowed for a low effort way to integrate the elements that need to be considered in such a review. So, any time I was under stress, or in a hurry, the review tended to fall by the wayside. And the value of the system decreased. So I kept looking.

What I need in a personal productivity tool

But what was I really looking for? I was looking for a good way to deal with “stuff”, a way which would take me to the place which David Allen describes in GTD, but which I failed to reach: when I want to turn the “stuff” that gathers in my email or any other inbox into actionable tasks, I need to assess its relevance, its feasibility as well as whether or not it aligns with my values and principles, with my roles and fits within my current strategy.

Ok, let’s make that a bit more tangible: Imagine I find an invitation in my inbox from a friend to have a lunch to discuss the behaviour of another friend because they had a falling out. Two of my principles are “deep respect” and “radical honesty” … this translates for me to “not talking about someone I care for behind their backs” which would lead me to say no to the invite, as well as explain why I would say no. Hence, rather than accept the invitation, the task would be “call/email X about why I will not come to lunch about Y”

The example is an easy one. This reaction would of course come quite naturally. However, with so much coming at us it is often too easy to just say yes to everything to the point where you have no capacity left to absorb one more to do and are probably spending time on things that just are not worth your time. Which is the wrong way to go about it. Therefore, my productivity tool needs to trigger me to question myself on whether the projects and tasks I’m about to accept make sense in my wider context.

In other words, I need my reference framework available to me when I review stuff that may turn into projects and tasks, to groom them. I want to be able to determine whether I want or need to do a specific task and how I should approach it, consistent with what is important to me.

Encountering Trello

I encountered Trello as a tool quite by accident. I had known about its existence before, had looked at it but I had never taken the time to dive into it. However, our new CEO used it for managing the agenda of the Executive Committee so I got to use it once a week. At the same time we had started to work on further introducing agile management in my team, based on SCRUM and KANBAN.

Combining that with the issues I had with – at that time bullet journal based – personal productivity systems and intent on improving it, made me decide to build a scrum/kanban based personal productivity system with Trello as the backbone.

My current Trello set-up

Let’s visit my current Trello set-up. When you read through it, it may seem a bit complex at first, but it makes sense to me. Trello, for those unfamiliar with the product, works as a kanban board with lists. You can pretty much use those lists any way you want. This is how I currently approach it. I have three main sections: my inbox, where stuff gathers; context and strategy filters, which are lists with elements on it that serve as reference for grooming and finally the operational layer which is where projects and tasks get dealt with. Let’s look at each of these.

Inbox

The inbox is my first list. “Stuff” gathers here that needs to be qualified. Trello has a lot of integrations, and I push things from other inboxes to this inbox for review and qualification. I am aware that this set-up is suboptimal from a GTD point of view as I touch items at least twice: once in my original inbox, sending it here, and once when I deal with what is in this list. From a process flow point of view, it does make sense. I want one place and only one place where I do clarification. The items in my inbox need to be clarified based on my next lists, the context and strategic filters. Hence, I have all my reference material available to me.

Context Filters

Context filters are one of two types of filters I use. I have two lists for context filters. They describe the reference framework and the areas which are important to me. I refer to my reference framework as my first principles and the areas as my roles. Let’s examine them.

First Principles

First principles define what I believe in, what I am all about, what is important to me. These principles are the principles that in essence guide my life. Of course these evolve, but they do not necessarily evolve that much. These lists contain elements that help to define what is important to me. There is an entire set of blog posts still to be written on how I arrived at them, but suffice this short illustration right now:

A 2005 movie, “Munich” has a character played by Michael Lonsdale called “Papa” who is the head of a large extended family. He is just there, watching over its members, helping them, coaching them, shepherding them. While in the movie he is essentially an agent for chaos (which I don’t like) the role is one that I identify with very much. I believe strongly in my responsibility to support and coach my family, my teams and to take care of them. Therefore, community is important to me.

These principles are important because they help me determine whether or not a strategy, a project or a task aligns with what I am all about.

Roles (Areas of Responsibility)

Roles align with some ideas from Stephen Covey and David Allen. The list shows which main roles I play in my life, the areas of responsibility I am involved in and what I want to achieve in each of them.

I am for example the academic director for a master class on internal auditing at the Antwerp Management School. This is a role, a specific area of responsibility which comes with its own objectives, such as getting students to enrol in the class.

Strategic Filters

In addition to the first principles, and structurally slightly below them are the strategic filters. Again, this lists has elements which are not tasks by themselves, but rather act as filters to assess the stuff that finds its way into my inbox and allow me to clarify what that stuff is and whether or not I engage with it.

Strategy

The strategy list contains the key strategies I am pursuing in each of the areas of my life.

One of the strategies I am working to implement with my team is the development of an eco-system around the service vouchers, where we integrate third parties with our systems which allows users to interact with us in different ways.

Strategies are ways to advance in achieving fulfilment of one’s roles. This one strategy aims to fulfil the role I have as director public benefits of Sodexo Benefits & Rewards Belgium.

These lists of filters needs to be seen as just that … filters which allow me to assess whether or not stuff in my inbox need to be dealt with now by me and how.

Operational layer

Contrary to the prior layers, the operational layer shows the process that should lead to value creation, effectively furthering the fulfilment of my roles based on my contexts. The operational layer should be read as a progression, as follows:

Projects (Epics, Features and Themes)

Strategies remain very high level. A strategy becomes reality through very specific projects, which aim to realise a strategy, which in turn fulfils a role. Because there are quite a few projects I am currently doing or would like to start, I’ve actually arranged them in four separate groups: now, later, much later and probably never. Probably never could likely be suppressed, but these are projects or ideas I just cannot let go of yet.

In addition, the projects filter list allows me to check completeness on actions related to projects as well as identifying (like in GTD) the next action in order to further the project. In addition to clarified “stuff” the actions identified on this basis find their way into the backlog.

Backlog

The backlog list contains actionable tasks derived from my inbox or from my project list, based on context and strategic filtering as described above. Anything which does not align with my context or does not fit in my roles should be a no, unless the roles are not complete. If however it is in my backlog, I have chosen to do it … if it adds value. It all comes down to Apple’s product strategy as presented at WWDC 2013, which states that “There are a thousand no’s for every yes”.

Ready (Current Sprint)

During the weekend, depending on my load for the next week, I pull actionable tasks I am ready for now, which can be executed in the next focus period, usually a week, from the backlog into the ready list. This is what I commit to doing this week and the load is also based on the weight of the tasks (how much time I believe they will take to finish.)

Today

Every evening I pull tasks from the Ready list to my today list. Based on time availability and physical, emotional and mental capacity, this is what I commit to doing today.

Doing

This is a highly dynamic list that I intentionally limit to maximum 3 items. It is what I am actually doing now. Why 3 items and not 1? Well, reality is messy. It is quite normal that we do multiple things at the same time.

Right now, I am writing, but I am also engaged in reading a book on Kanban systems. Both are in my doing list. The book is likely to stay there for a couple of days.

I need to keep track of what is currently going on, because I don’t want anything to fall through the cracks.

Review

Review is actually an optional list, but it is relevant for many of my tasks: I often want or need a self or a third party review, which depends on their availability. When they are reviewing, the action goes into this list. If not, the action goes into the next list. What is self review. Well, actually I wrote this article, then put my Trello card in the review list, and this specific sentence was written during the review to clarify this point.

Blocked or Waiting

This list contains any action that cannot proceed without input from outside. As long as the input has not been received, the task cannot be considered done. This is a list that I also try to limit, to avoid it becoming a graveyard of half fulfilled intentions. I now limit the list to maximum 10 actions.

Done

Every task that I took from beginning to end rests here until the end of the week. I review this list at the end of the week, as it gives me an idea on what I have focused on this week as well as some idea on my overall productivity, although I could measure that a lot better … a project in its own right which is now in my project list, albeit it in the “later” section.

At the end of each week, I export the entire list of “done” actions via markdown into Day One, my journaling tool, where I can provide some additional comments if necessary. The entire list then gets archived in Trello, but Day One allows me to link to each Trello card, even the ones archived.

Describe

This last list covers an optional step: it is a list of all the actions or lessons learned that I want to write or blog about. The purpose of this list aligns with the retrospective step in Scrum. It allows a record of what I have learned about my process, about my areas of responsibility or about myself. When I want to share that, you can find it on my blog. For example, this article is based on such an entry.

Considerations

Why do I stick with Trello for personal productivity, while the tool was not really designed with that in mind? There are a couple of clear advantages to using Trello, as well as some limitations.

Advantages

Trello is a visual Kanban board tool. It allows for easy daily and weekly review, because when properly configured it allows for a good view on what is going on. It also allows for a good view on context, which assists in questioning what you are doing and why you are doing it. It allows me to focus on what is really right and relevant for me and what I try to accomplish.

Using it also feels right. You just get a sense of accomplishment when you move a task in the operational layer from one list to the next. And knowing your filters are complete gives you the sense that you have all information necessary to assess the stuff that comes into your inbox.

Limitations

There are however some limitations. Trello does not have the ability to nag you to do what is in your list like a traditional to do list can. It does not push you, as the main idea, like a good kanban board, is the pulling of tasks based on capacity.

Conclusion

Trello works really well for me now. I have the feeling I am on top of my tasks, without fearing to drown in my own task list. Of course, the system is likely to evolve, as it should. But for now, this works.