How I use Trello to manage and prioritise my time as a product manager

My desk at work doesn’t really look anything like this…

A little over a year ago, I joined DigitalBridge as Head of Product. Having never worked at a startup before I was immediately aware of the importance of managing my time efficiently. I had a lot of different tasks at different levels to deal with, from working with the development team to drive through a new feature to working with the CEO to develop a high level roadmap.

What follows is how I’ve learned to record, track and prioritise my tasks and manage my time as efficiently as I can. There’s nothing new here, but if it helps anyone in a similar situation it will have been worth documenting.

Getting Things Done

When I started the position, I had just finished reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. I won’t go into the details of his methodology (he has a book and there are plenty of articles on GTD to do that) but essentially the idea is to capture everything that you know you need to accomplish in lists and process them regularly and methodically.

As much as I admired the approach, I struggled with tracking my tasks that were currently “in progress”. Maybe I missed an essential part of GTD but it wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t getting things done as efficiently as I should.

Kanban

A simple kanban board

Kanban is a simple system that tracks tasks through a workflow, represented by columns on a board. The simplest example would be a board with three columns: To Do, Doing and Done. New tasks are added to the To Do column. They are moved to Doing whilst in progress and finally moved to Done when they are, er, done.

It is that Doing column that I was missing from GTD. Kanban allows me to keep track of what I’m currently doing. Since I rarely get chance to focus on a single task at any time, this is really valuable.

The other important concept that Kanban introduces is the limit of work in progress. This ensures that you keep focused on moving tasks through to completion. I’ll talk more about this later.

My Kanban Process

A Kanban board can be a physical board, paper or software. Physical boards are great when more than one person is collaborating on it. I however, needed access to my tasks quickly and easily both in the office and on the move.

I chose Trello to capture my board. It’s a free, cloud-based app that works well in a desktop browser and via the mobile app.

My board probably just started out with the typical To Do, In Progress and Done columns but it has evolved over time to fit with how I work. I have also incorporated ideas from GTD which I will explore shortly.

As of now, my board looks something like this.

I have six columns on my work Trello board:

  • Inbox (no limit)
    Inspired by GTD, this is where I dump any ideas and tasks that I come up during the day (maybe during a meeting, or on the move).
  • Backlog (no limit)
    These are all the things I need to do at some point.
  • Up Next (limited to 5)
    These are the tasks that I have identifed as being most urgent.
  • In Progress (limited to 2)
    Things I’m doing right now.
  • Blocked (limited to 3)
    Tasks that cannot be progressed, normally because I’m waiting on something/somebody else.
  • Done
    Completed tasks.

Column Limits

Limiting the number of cards allowed in a column is crucial to making sure tasks get completed efficiently and don’t get stuck or forgotten about.

For example, imagine something new and exciting comes up that needs prompt attention. I, naturally, want to get going straight away but I already have the maximum two cards in my In Progress column. The limit forces me to finish at least one of the tasks I’m working on and moving it to Done before starting something new.

Finding the limits that make me most efficient was a case of experimentation and iteration. It will probably be different for you.

Processing the board

I begin every morning by processing my board. This shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes.

First I ensure each ongoing task is still in the correct column.

  • Are In Progress tasks still ongoing, or are they actually finished or blocked (I’m waiting on something before I can finish it)?
  • Are Blocked tasks still blocked, or can I complete them now?

Next, I process the tasks still to be done.

  • I move all tasks that have accumulated in the Inbox into the Backlog or Up Next depending on their urgency.
  • I ensure all tasks in the Backlog are still relevant, and loosely prioritised. Admittedly, I don’t do this every day.
  • Finally, I make sure all the cards in Up Next are still the most urgent tasks and prioritised from most important to least important. I will hopefully be tackling these items during the day.

And that’s pretty much it. This system allows me to capture, prioritise and drive though to completion anything that needs my attention.

Tips

  • Try to track everything you need to think about and do. This concept is borrowed from GTD; by moving issues out of your head to an external list, you know you don’t have to worry about remembering things and can focus on getting things done.
  • Use the checklist feature in Trello cards if the task is large and can be broken down into smaller tasks. If those subtasks are still substantial, consider breaking them out into their own cards.
  • If you use Chrome as your browser, try the Kanban WIP for Trello extension. It changes the column colours depending on how many cards are in that column and makes for scanning for problems very easy.
  • The iOS app has a great shortcut for adding cards to the Inbox quickly. Force touch the Trello app icon and then tap “New card”. This will open a dialog to add a new card and defaults to the last board and list you added to. If you only use this functionality for adding to your Inbox then this becomes a really quick way to add stuff on the go.

Last thoughts

This process is constantly evolving and improving. I still haven’t introduced the idea of GTD projects or contexts, or consistently use Trello labels which might further streamline the workflow.

If you have any ideas, improvements or questions please feel free to comment!