Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

📓 Using Trello as a living notebook

Who knew that comments could compete with Outliners, for keeping notes, structuring ideas and findings? Let’s see how “Comment Editor by AJ” can power-up your productivity!


I can’t help it: I can’t stop working on multiple projects simultaneously. 
I need this diversity. It makes me learn faster, and feeds my creativity.

In previous articles, I shared my intention of developing multiple 1-day side-projects, Matthieu introduced the concept of “project journal”, then I explained why Trello become the heart of my productivity system.

Today, I’m thrilled to introduce a new Power-up for Trello: “Comment Editor by AJ.” Let’s see how you can use it to keep both your projects’ checklists and notes in the same place!


Why Trello is awesome to keep track of your projects

When working on any project, there are several types of information that need to be specified and maintained over time:

  • Tasks: steps that need to be followed in order to progress;
  • Status: know what’s been done and what’s still to do, at all times;
  • Notes: traces of the decisions, successes, failed experiments, and findings you’ve made while working on the projet.

With Trello, there are at least two ways to achieve this:

  • One board per project, containing one card per task → columns can be used to visualise the status of each task. (e.g. ToDo, Doing, Done…)
  • One card per project, with tasks listed in a checklist → practical setup to keep a bird’s view dashboard of all the projects you’re working on.

As you may have guessed, I’m using the second setup.

My master board looks like this:

The Trello board that is the heart of my productivity system: one card per project.

Ok, don’t freak out, I cheated a bit… I had developed an add-on in order to display the next task to be done on each Project card: Next Step for Trello.

That being said, you can see that I work on various kinds of projects: professional projects (e.g. EEMI, MOOC), side-projects (e.g. A+Z, OpenWhyd), personal projects (e.g. Personal Development, Burning Man), and hobbies (e.g. Music).

Feel free to chose the right setup (or both), based on the number of projects you’re working on, and the level of control you want to have on those projects.

Now, let’s talk about why notes matter, and how they fit in there.


The importance of notes

In the previous section, we saw that three types of information must be maintained, in projects: tasks, status and notes. And we showed that Trello was an awesome tool to manage tasks and status of those tasks.

What about notes? And why should we care?

Notes are very valuable, in many ways.

Examples:

  • to remember how and why you proceeded the way you did;
  • to document your project and its development process;
  • to keep ideas you may have had and not explored while working on the project, but would be interested in exploring later;
  • or for reference, if you decide later to write and/or share about your findings.

So is Trello well suited to handle notes? 🤔

Yes and no.

In Trello, notes can easily be kept in three forms:

  • in a dedicated card (i.e. one card per note);
  • in a card’s description;
  • and/or as comments of a card.

Best suited for a “one board per project” setup, the first form has the advantage of making the note highly visible.

On the other hand, the two latter forms offer two major advantages:

  • Notes are kept in the context of their card, making them easily findable when searching for keywords that are associated with that card; (e.g. a “don’t forget to test this!” note of a “login system” card can easily be found by typing just “login” in Trello’s search bar, even though this keyword is not part of the note itself)
  • In Trello, card descriptions and comments both support Markdown, meaning that you can add richer formatting to your notes.

Examples of rich notes that can be taken in Trello, thanks to Markdown formatting:

Trello comments allow Markdown formatting, emoji, rich hyperlinks, and multi-level bullet-point lists.

As you can see above, support for Markdown formatting, emoji, rich hyperlinks and multi-level bullet-point lists make Trello card comments a very pleasant place to keep notes!

Now, let’s talk about the darker side of Trello card comments: the editing experience.


What’s missing in Trello comments

Now that we realised how awesome are Trello comments for keeping and finding notes, let’s discuss a not-so-great aspect: the editing experience.

That’s how the two notes shown above look like when you edit them:

Standard Trello experience when editing card comments

Trello’s standard comment editing experience is quite poor, compared to how comments look like after saving your changes:

  • the formatting is not displayed; (e.g. bold text)
  • hyperlinks become hard to differentiate from the rest of the content.

But, most importantly:

  • experience-wise, you feel stuck in a small box within Trello’s UI, which does not make it easy to focus on your notes while writing them;
  • it’s too easy to lose your changes by accidentally clicking anywhere outside that box, or pressing the ESC key;
  • and re-organising bullet-point items involves copy-pasting, and padding sub-bullet-point manually by adding spaces in front of them!

We’re very far away from the ease and comfort of a typical note-taking tool!

And, if you like hierarchical bullet lists, editing them in Trello’s standard comment editor is painful. Especially if you’ve ever used an Outliner before:

Demo of a well-done Outliner: Workflowy. (source)

For those who don’t know what an Outliner is: it’s a hierarchical note editor that allows users to move items up and down the hierarchy by using drag-and-drop gestures, and/or the TAB key to re-indent items.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to edit our notes that way, but still in Trello?


“Comment Editor by AJ” to the rescue! 💪

Frustrated by the standard comment editing experience offered by Trello, I created a Power-up: “Comment Editor by AJ.” (previously announced under the code name “Trello Outliner”)

After activating this power-up, you can use it to edit any existing comment. It will open a full-screen editor with rich formatting:

Adding formatting with Comment Editor by AJ

Like an outliner, this editor allows you to re-organise bullet point items very quickly. This is very convenient to structure ideas and plan complex activities, like trips:

Adding structure with Comment Editor by AJ

With this add-on installed on my main Trello Board, I completely got rid of notes stored as text files on my laptop’s desktop, or emails sent to myself!

Hopefully it will help you too!


Install it today, it’s free!

I’m thrilled to announce that Trello integrated “Comment Editor by AJ” in their list of Power-ups, today!

Comment Editor by AJ is now available on Trello’s official list of Power-ups

So, if you want to take better notes, and keep them neatly in the cards of your Trello board(s), try it now on our public board, then install it! And don’t forget to write about how it powers-up your productivity! 🚀

A massive thank you to the Trello team for crafting this awesome tool, and for the support they offered while I was developing the power-up. And to the people who invested time testing and giving feedback! 🙌