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How to Use Trello to Boost Personal Productivity

In everything, whether it’s our careers, our children, our hobbies, or even our downtime, we try to maximize productivity and efficiency. Productivity during downtime? Yes, even when we are feeling a little lazy, we try to reach peak laziness. No one wants to feel like they could have given just a little more effort. But with all of our competing priorities in today’s increasingly demanding and connected world, it’s difficult to keep track of what we’re doing at any given moment let alone reflect on the past or predict what we’ll do in the future.

In video and role-playing games, this called “min-maxing”:

Min-max

verb (used with object) min-maxed, min-max·ing.

(in a video game or role-playing game) to optimize (a character) by assigning all, or nearly all, skill points to the ability essential to that character’s success in a specified role and environment, and no points to other skills, rather than distributing skill points more evenly across attributes.

— Dictionary.com

While our need for personal productivity is huge, there’s also a demand for peak efficiency in businesses as well. All the above is especially true when you start branching out into team-based projects and environments. Careers in software engineering often require interacting with others in an effort to complete common goals.

Sometimes your project will have dedicated product owners and project managers, but often that luxury isn’t afforded to you as a software developer. Instead, you may be required to manage your own tasks in a way that makes sense to you and benefits the overall company’s goals.

So what’s the best way to stay organized and productive in a digital world? Napkins and pencils? Notebooks and pens? Laptops and keyboards? Tablets and phones? The possibilities are endless. Fortunately, we have collectively built tools and processes that suppress our inner disorganization demons and make up for our forgetful natures by forcing us into habits of collaboration, coordination, and control.

In this guide, we offer you with one application that may help you in your quest for personal and professional productivity: Trello.

Further Reading: Pairing Trello with GitHub to organize and build a portfolio of your greatest hits can prove to potential employers that you’re serious about your work and have practical experience with tools that will help you go that extra mile when you need it.

What is Trello?

Trello is an advanced list-making application. That sounds very basic on its face, but there’s a lot more nuance when you dig into the details.

So what does Atlassian (the owners of Trello), say about it?

Trello is the easy, free, flexible, and visual way to manage your projects and organize anything…

Trello.com

Most list-making applications are just simple and plain to-do list planners. Create a list, add some bullet points, add some text, and you’re done. If you’ve ever wanted to add more details such as nested lists, images, reminders, due dates, or visualizations, you’ll probably run into trouble quickly. Such applications simply weren’t meant to be used as a complex project and task management system.

But Trello was built with exactly that in mind. Whether you’re planning a family vacation, a new software project, or just organizing your next class assignment goals, Trello’s got you covered.

For reference, here are the four terminologies that you need to know:

A board is a representation of a project to track. This could be a new website, a vacation, a honey do list, or your classwork. Think of it as your workspace on which you will organize lists (see below), tasks, due dates, and assignees.

Lists are the first objects that make up a board. Made up of cards (see below), these can work as collective organizations of tasks and ideas. When paired with other lists, you may build and represent a workflow where tasks move from list to list. Imagine you have a workflow like “TO DO”, “IN PROGRESS”, and “DONE”. Each of those categories could be represented with a list.

Lists are full of cards that represent tasks or reminders. Each card can represent something you need to complete such as “mow the lawn” or simply a reminder to read a contract for the next big business meeting. Cards can be dragged and moved across lists in case you need to promote the task to the next stage of a workflow. Further, cards can be categorized and highlighted by assigning colors and labels. Finally, cars can be marked as due on a specific date and to be completed by a specific person or team.

The menu controls all settings and permissions of the board. You can assign or revoke access to team members, enhance your board through power-ups (see below), filter cards, and flip the board between public and private viewing.

Let’s get a visual reference to compliment the descriptions above. Reference the image below to get an idea of a common board, list, and card layout.

The entire screen is the board. The board consists of vertical lists. Lists are made up of white boxes called cards. And the menu is accessible in the upper right via the Show Menu link.

Those are the basics. That’s pretty straight forward, isn’t it? List-making is an age-old organization concept, but Trello kicks it up a notch by making it intuitive, visual, and super flexible. You can add, remove, move, and edit boards, lists, and cards quickly and easily so that you aren’t struggling to erase and rearrange your previous pencil and paper or TO DO application lists.

But that’s not all. There’s a lot more involved in Trello, especially if you move up to the paid tiers (which we’ll cover in detail below).

  • Export/import boards to CVS and Excel
  • Creating template boards for reusability
  • Integrations with tools like Jira and Confluence
  • File attachments on cards
  • Checklists on cards
  • Power-ups and other enhancement integrations
  • Build rules for “Butler” to automate tasks like list organization, card assignments, due dates, and custom buttons

Pricing? It Can Be Free!

Well, the good news is that all the major features of Trello are completely free. All you have to do is sign up and get going. You can invite your friends via email invites to easily streamline the team setup process as well.

See below for a detailed pricing sheet between various levels of personal and business level tiers.

Free

$ 0 / month
  • Unlimited boards
  • Unlimited lists
  • Unlimited cards
  • 10MB per attachment
  • 10 team boards
  • 1 power-up per board
  • Simple automation
  • 50 command per month

Business

$ 12
50
per user / month
  • Everything in Free, plus:
  • 250MB per attachment
  • Priority support
  • Observers
  • Custom backgrounds
  • Board collections
  • Team board templates
  • Unlimited power-ups

Enterprise

$ 20
83
per user / month
  • Everything in business, plus:
  • Advanced automation
  • Unlimited command runs
  • Single Sign-On for SAML
  • Power-up administration
  • Attachment restrictions
  • Organization permissions
  • Public board management

See the full pricing table.

Some of the terminology in the pricing sheet isn’t immediately obvious (observers, collections, templates, power-ups), so let’s break down what some of them mean.

  • Priority support: Email support with responses within one day. Trello claims this is “guaranteed.”
  • Observers: Members that can view and interact with cards but cannot edit or move.
  • Collections: Ability to group together boards by team, organization, or business division.
  • Power-up: Calendars, customizations, automations, plugins, and integrations to make a more enhanced board.
  • Attachment restrictions: Ability for administrators to restrict which types of attachments can be uploaded to a board.

In summary, you can do most of what you need on the Free tier. If you need larger attachments, customizations, and automations, go with the Business tier. And finally, if you need advanced automation, various ways to login and integrate with Trello, and need advanced administration features, jump up to the Enterprise tier.

There is actually a fourth tier which adds a bit of confusion to the pricing mix. Trello calls it the “Trello Gold” plan. It seems to be an option for personal users that want some better features without spending the amount required at the business tier. One unique way of obtaining the Gold tier is by sharing with your friends. For every person you share Trello with, you’ll get 1 free month of Trello Gold up to a maximum of 12 months free.

Gold (Shared)

$ 0 per month
  • Share Trello with a certain number of friends and get up to 12 free months

Gold (Paid)

$ 5 per month
  • or $45 per year

Whether you have Trello Gold via the paid option or the shared option, the features are the same.

  • Three power-ups per board
  • Custom backgrounds, stickers, and emoji for boards
  • Premium stickers
  • 250 MB attachment limits
  • Saved searches
  • Advanced automation for Butler rules, buttons, and scheduled commands

Simple Kanban Example

Trello fits perfectly into agile project management styles. Sometimes your projects and your teams may not need all the power of a full agile system like VersionOne, Jira, and Azure DevOps. Instead, a slimmer version of a straight forward Kanban board via Trello is all you need.

In fact, some authors of this blog organize their tasks using Trello in a Kanban style. It’s great for individuals and small teams that don’t have a need for a lot of structure or ceremonies during the development processes. Just grab the next item on the board and go.

Have you ever seen a Kanban board? It’s nearly exactly what Trello looks like by default. The board is split into columns and populated with various cards for task representation. Tasks move between columns as the tasks progress through the project lifecycle. Eventually the tasks are completed and archived from the board.

Sound familiar? Since Trello gives you the ability to split a board into lists and populate those lists with cards, you’re good to go.

You can easily set up your lists and swim lanes in whatever workflow suits your project. In the software development team example below, there are six workflow steps organized into six lists.

  • Backlog to save all items that are still in the brainstorming and ideas phase. Basically, use this as reminders of things that need to be prioritized and eventually completed.
  • Requirements Gathering to indicate that tasks are beyond the ideas phase and actively being looked at by a product owner or stakeholder.
  • In Progress to see which tasks have enough information and are currently being worked.
  • In QA to indicate that active development has been completed and is being tested for quality.
  • Complete lists which tasks have been developed, tested, and released successfully.
  • Blocked is a special out of band step which shows any tasks that can’t be worked for whatever reason.

Cards can be assigned and dragged across lists as the progress of each task goes beyond different control gates.

Remember that Trello is flexible. You start with a blank canvas of a board and are expected to make lists and cards based on whatever your use case is. You aren’t required to stick to the example above, so be creative! If creativity isn’t your thing or your workflow is adopted from previously solved project management problems, feel free to use public domain templates or create your own.

Maybe your personal workflow is as simple as maintaining three basic lists: to do, doing, and done. It’s up to you, your team, and your project’s needs. Don’t feel pigeonholed into any specific workflow.

Creative Scrum Examples

Another popular type of agile project management is Scrum. If you’re looking for a more formalized process with specific stakeholders, owners, and meeting ceremonies, this might be a better fit for your project.

Kanban and Scrum boards are extremely similar with a few subtle and important differences. Instead of a “ready for dev” or “global backlog,” you might have a backlog specifically for a single sprint.

Trello doesn’t exactly fit into a Scrum framework, but you can make it work with a little creativity. Also, there are power-ups that you can install to your Trello board which eases your way into Scrum.

For Scrum specifically, any good board has three things: a sprint backlog list, a work in progress list, and a done list to celebrate your wins. And while Trello certainly supports building these lists, the problems are obvious when you realize that each of these lists is specific to a single sprint. So, what is a sprint in the context of Trello? Unfortunately, there’s nothing native, so let’s get fancy.

Instead of creating a new board for each sprint, we could instead create lists like the following:

  • Global backlog
  • Active sprint’s backlog
  • Active sprint’s ready for development
  • Active sprint’s in test
  • Active sprint’s done
  • Archived done lists

The workflow would dictate cards to start in the global backlog and be promoted to the active sprint’s backlog each time a new sprint starts. Cards could also be carried over from sprint to sprint by simply keeping them in whatever list they were in at the time of the sprint ending.

But what about keeping track of which items were completed in which sprint? If every card gets eventually gets dumped into the Done list, how will we know the originating sprint? There are several options:

  • Never archive the Done list and instead just pile on all completed cards for eternity. This isn’t optimal because you quickly lose track of what you’ve done as huge lists become unmaintainable.
  • Archive at some regular long term cadence such as every month or every quarter. This really depends on your team’s velocity since waiting a quarter might be an eternity’s worth of cards stacking up.
  • Split the Done lists up when each sprint completes and place completed cards into the relevant Done list. So you might have lists like “SPRINT #1 DONE” and “SPRINT #2 DONE”. Again, this builds up over time, so it’s suggested to eventually archive the lists when their value diminishes to near zero.

Conclusion

There you have it. For all the disorganized among us desperately seeking for a solution to juggling the endless tasks in their daily lives to the hardcore organization wizards that want another tool in their toolbox, Trello is where it’s at.

From Kanban to Scrum to basic check lists to your own special sauce of a workflow, you have the completely free power to build flexible boards, lists, and cards. Even if you never move cards around and just want a note taking application, Trello can be used for that use case as well. And it won’t cost you anything but your quick patience and time.

Make no mistake, it shouldn’t be your exclusive go to for all your organizational dreams. It’s yet one of many that you should use in your quest for chaotic reduction. To compliment Trello in your software development arsenal, consider looking at OneNote, Jira, Confluence, and, quite frankly, notes extensions in Visual Studio Code. See how you can fit those tools into the rest of our huge guide to some of the best developer tools.

Justin Skiles

Justin Skiles

Justin has been developing enterprise application software for over 10 years primarily using Microsoft stacks, Azure, and various open source tools. He has most recently been trying his best as a Manager and Director of Software Engineering in the health care industry.

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