using trello to organize and track my work

Earlier this year I decided–for about the 100th time–to try to find a way to better organize and track my work to reduce stress and increase productivity. This time, however, it seems to have worked, so at the request of some colleagues I’ve talked to about this, I’ve decided to write it up.

I chose Trello as my central tool, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s free–and I didn’t want to spend another penny on software that I was sure would work for me but then never used. Second, it’s cloud-based and cross-platform, so I have it on my phone, both my computers, and my iPad. Third, I’ve been using it as a project management tool in development projects (and requiring my students to use it) for years.

Trello works on a board/list/card model. You create a “board” for a specific project–in this case, I have a board called “Personal Task List.” In each board, you can have as many “lists” as you want. And each board has “cards” that represent specific tasks. At a minimum, a card needs a title–e.g. “Write plan of work”. It can also have a description, a due date, one or more labels (that you customize, attachments, links, checklists, comments, and more.

The challenge for most people is deciding how to organize their boards. Some people decide to organize Trello based on project stage–“to do”, “in progress”, “done”, “on hold”, “awaiting review”, etc. This works well if you have multiple people who are trying to keep track of the status of other people’s work as well as their own. For my personal purposes, however, it was not useful–it actually increased stress because there were so many things in the “to do” pile and it looked unmanageable.

Another approach is to organize by type of task–“Writing Tasks”, “Errands”, “Email/Phone”, “Course Prep”, etc. This isn’t bad if your list is reasonably short, but it didn’t work well for my purposes either.

What I went with was a breakdown based on the types of work professors are expected to do–“Teaching”, “Scholarship”, and “Service”. I also added a “Personal” list, and a “Completed” list.

Each card (task) I add to a list gets a due date and at least one label. I have a fairly long list of color-coded labels that I use, most of which address the type of task it is–email, phone, reading, writing, errand, on-campus, grading, online action, etc. I have a few that are status related, like High Priority, and Waiting for Response. Trello allows you to filter the displayed cards based on a number of criteria, so this allows me to quickly display all the cards that require me to send email, or all the ones that need to happen when I’m on campus.

The free Trello account allows you to incorporate a few addons, and I use one called Butler that allows me to automate some tasks, and to assign a series of tasks to a button. (So, for instance, I’ve got a button on my cards that says “done”, which checks off the due date of a card, adds a custom field to indicate what type of task it was, and moves it to the top of my completed list.

The completed list is wonderful, because on days when I feel like I haven’t gotten much done, I have a visual reminder of all the things I’ve accomplished lately! It’s also a great source of information when I’m getting ready to write up a self-evaluation, because I can filter it to show me all the service work I’ve done, all the scholarship tasks, etc.

Once I had this set up, my next task was to figure out how to stop using my email inbox as my defacto todo/reminder list. My standard process was always to leave something in the inbox if I needed to take some action, thinking that by leaving it where I could see it I wouldn’t forget to respond. Of course, this doesn’t work very well when you start to have hundreds of those “reminders” in your mailbox!

I decided to start limiting my time checking email to three times a day–when I started work in the morning, right after lunch, and at the end of my workday. If there’s something that I need to see more quickly, my colleagues will usually text me, and my students can use Slack to get my attention. When I checked email, anything that was a “todo” got put into Trello immediately, and the email got archived. That worked really well over the summer, when the load was lighter, but I realized I was having a harder time with it now that classes have started up. And if I was checking email on a mobile device, it was more difficult to move things into Trello on the fly. So I tweaked my workflow by adding a “From Email” list to the board, and setting up Trello’s email-to-board feature so that incoming emails went to that list.

Now when I check my email, if I can’t answer immediately, I forward the email to Trello. That creates a card in the From Email list that has the email’s subject line as the card title and the body of the email as the description. It also attaches any included files to the card. The next time I open Trello, I move those into their appropriate lists, and give them labels and due dates.

As a result, here’s what my daily workflow looks like:

  • At the start of the workday, check my calendar to be sure I know where I need to be and when.
  • Check my email, respond to anything I can deal with quickly, archive the things that need no action, and forward the pending actions to Trello.
    • Open Trello
    • process the cards in the From Email list.
    • Sort my lists by due date (I have a single Butler button that sorts all my lists at once), and skim to see what’s coming up. If necessary, add a “High Priority” label to make sure the important stuff gets done.
    • If I have a meeting coming up, check the card to see if there are documents I need to review. (If so, the document is either attached to the card, or there’s a link to it.)
    • If I have time to make phone calls, display the cards that have a Phone label and make the calls.
    • If I’m headed to campus, display those cards to make sure I have anything I need to bring.
    • If I have time for errands along the way, make sure I have a plan for where I’m going and when.
    • If I have a block of time that I can use to focus, look at the cards for reading and writing tasks.
  • Based on the card review, do whatever tasks I can in the morning. As I finish a task, I make sure to mark it as completed. (I leave Trello open in a browser window, so this is quick and easy.)
  • After lunch, check email and repeat the process.
  • At the end of the day, check email and repeat again, but adjust due dates if there are things I didn’t finish.

I’m happy to say that after months of using this approach, I’ve been able to stay at or near inbox zero for months now. (I just checked, and there are currently four messages in my Gmail inbox, and only one in my RIT email inbox.)

This process GREATLY reduced my stress about remembering tasks. Every time I say “I can do that,” I add it to Trello. It has also significantly increased my productivity–time spent in front of the computer is more focused, and I’m better able to remember that there are errands that need to be run either on campus or off.

There’s one more thing I’m hoping to implement soon, and that’s an Amazon Echo to Trello action. (In large part because I almost always think of things that I need to do while I’m in the shower, and I’ve got an Echo Dot in there.) It looks like I’ll be able to do that using IFTTT. (And I’ve just added a low-priority task to my Personal list in Trello so I’ll remember to do it!)