How To Trello Your Project

What to do when your todo list won’t do.

Jess Martin
May 16, 2019 · 11 min read
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That’s *actually* me writing on the whiteboard, probably bringing forth another Shining Idea.

Principles, Not Prescriptions

I have personally battle-tested the below principles in many, many projects. This is not intended as a prescriptive “framework” or set of rigid processes. It’s just a starting point.

Trello + Projects = ❤️

These principles don’t exist in a vacuum. They have to be embodied, en-fleshed in some sort of tool. I’ve previously written about how great Trello is and why everyone should be using it, and we’ll use it as starting point.

  • Start with Four Simple Lists arranged left to right: To Do, Doing, Review, and Done.
  • Work Right to Left, always working on the card that is furthest to the right, yet not done.
  • Divide the work into Goldilocks Cards that are one to two days of work each.
  • Start Cards With Why to provide important context.
  • Don’t get bogged down in the how; Describe The Finish Line, Not The Route.

1. Document All Work In Trello

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Write it all down!

2. Four Simple Lists

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Just four! No More!

To Do

Now that you have all the work for your project in Trello, put it all in a list named To Do. Once you start, you can happily watch the work in the To Do list shrink as everything steadily moves to Done.

Doing

Rather than moving a card directly from To Do to Done, move it to Doing as soon as you start working on it. The main advantage of Doing is it helps you recognize when you’ve got too many irons in the fire. You can only work on one thing at a time. So ideally the number of things in Doing should never exceed the number of team members that you have on the team.

Review

In my article about Why Trello I described this as “growing a second set of eyes.” Whenever a card is done, move it to the Review list. Review is an opportunity to check the work. Is it truly done? Is it done well? Review is a built-in opportunity to leave and receive feedback. And feedback is how we get better.

Done

And finally my favorite list: Done. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as moving something to done. This is the equivalent of checking off the item on your todo list or crossing it out on a piece of paper.

3. Work Right to Left

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No love for starting on the left!

4. Goldilocks Cards

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Find that just-right-size!

“This one’s too small…”

Cards can be too small. Remember, cards are not checklists. Cards can contain checklists. If you make cards too small (for example, where every card just takes a few minutes to complete), you’ll spend just as much time in Trello moving things between lists as you will actually doing the work.

“This one’s too big…”

Cards can also be too big. A card that’s too big can sit in Doing for days or weeks, killing that all-too-fleeting feeling: momentum. A long-running card can also mask a lot of complexity and start to feel like a project unto itself.

“This one’s just right.”

Now some of you are snickering under your breath and thinking “Easier said than done!” And you’re right. Breaking down work into Goldilocks Cards takes practice. But let me encourage you: if you’re going to be the one doing the work, you already have a pretty good idea of what you can accomplish in a single day. Try this: look at any particular work item and ask yourself “could I get this done if I worked on it for an entire day without interruption?” If so, then it’s about the right size. If not, then find a way to split it up into two smaller cards. If you laughed to yourself and said “Self, of course I’d finish that in a day! I could knock it out in a few minutes.” Then it might be too small.

5. Start Cards With Why

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Why start with anything else?

6. Describe The Finish Line, Not The Route

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Tell me where we’re going!

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  • Start with Four Simple Lists arranged left to right: To Do, Doing, Review, and Done.
  • Work Right to Left, always working on the card that is furthest to the right, yet not done.
  • Divide the work into Goldilocks Cards that are one to two days of work each.
  • Start Cards With Why to provide important context.
  • Don’t get bogged down in the how; Describe The Finish Line, Not The Route.
  • Principles 4-6: Break down work into day-long tasks that start with why and describe a clear finish line.

What now?

  • ✨ TRY! ✨ If you’re not already using Trello, take Trello for a spin here.
  • 📖 READ! 📖 This article grew out of Why You Should Use Trello For Damn Near Everything. Check that out for a refresher on why Trello changes your brain for the good.
  • 🗣 SHARE! 🗣 I was a project newbie once. I’m sure you know a struggling someone who needs this article. Share this article with them! I had them in mind as I was writing it.

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