Why You Should Use Trello For Damn Near Everything


I have a little secret: my neighbor mows my lawn.

My neighbor and her husband are in their fifties. She works part-time and he’s retired. She first started mowing it two years ago when our first kid was born as a way of helping out a pair of overwhelmed new parents. But it’s been two years, and she still mows it for us. She says she finds it relaxing. I’m definitely not going to argue with her. Except to force her to take a pan of brownies from time to time.

Relaxing? Well, I can kind of understand. Mowing lawns has a certain simplicity.

For starters, it’s clear when it’s done. And not just to the person who does the mowing. When you’re driving by immaculately kept lawns in a nice neighborhood and you pass one house that hasn’t been mowed in six months, it stands out immediately. The “status” of the lawn, if you will, is clear from simply observing the lawn. You don’t really have to set a reminder to mow your own lawn. The lawn itself (or perhaps your annoyed neighbor) reminds you.

Also, if you’ve paid a modicum of attention to lawns in your lifetime, it’s clear what the next thing to do is. When you finish mowing, you’ll notice the grass impinging on the driveway, stretching out it’s green tendrils, and you’ll know it’s time to edge. I don’t think landscaping crews have planning meetings, debating what needs to be done, assigning tasks. Then later, standup meetings, to review progress. Nope. Just walk around the yard and do the next thing that obviously needs doing until it’s all done.

Mowing lawns is hard, sweaty work, but it’s also delightfully simple. But if you’re reading this, chances are your work is nothing like that.

The digital nature of work has introduced a lot of complexity that isn’t present in yard work with it’s direct, physical work products. In the digital world, questions like “Is it done yet?” or “What’s the next step?” or “What did I do last week?” can, at times, be very difficult to answer. Many of us divide our time across a bevy of projects and work products and are constantly switching contexts. Answering the aforementioned questions isn’t optional; it has become critical.

In yard work, the yard, the work product itself, answers those questions. In the digital world, how do we answers those questions?

Please tell me you didn’t just answer “my brain.”

If you’ve been working in the digital realm for longer than a month, you’ve probably figured out that your brain isn’t actually very good at storing all of that information. You’re a smart person, and you’ve probably been doing this longer than a month, so I’m sure you’ve got some system for tracking what you’re doing.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that whatever you’re currently doing to cope with the complexity of your work probably isn’t working.

You might think it’s working. You might even be considered effective at your work. Someone might have once called you a rock star or a ninja. You might not find out that it’s not really working until you get that promotion you’ve been craving. Or things get busy at home. And then you’re stuck with a broken system, underperforming in your new role, overwhelmed at home, and you’re wishing you could just go mow a lawn.

Hold your objections for just a moment. Let me try to convince you that your current system is not really working. Your work could be more like mowing that lawn: clear and observable, obvious to you and everyone else what needs to be done next. I’m going to tell you Why You Should Use Trello For Damn Near Everything.

But first, if you’ve never used Trello before, this article is not an introduction to Trello. Rather, it’s a stick to beat you over the head (for your own good!) and hopefully convince you to start using it. I may eventually write How To Use Trello For Damn Near Everything. For now, all you need to know is that Trello is a simple way to visually organize todo items into lists.

Here’s a picture of a really simple Trello board.

Alright. Here we go.

Offload Your Brain

Whether you realize it or not, you are walking around every day with a bunch of todo lists in your mind. And you’re perpetually afraid you’re going to miss something. This doesn’t get better as you progress in your career; it gets worse. The more success you have, the more you will have to manage, and the greater the consequences when you do miss something.

Your fear is actually justified! As long as you drag all that stuff around in your head, you are bound to miss something. Not if, but when.

Getting in the discipline of creating and updating Trello boards with your projects and task lists allows you to get stuff out of your brain so that you can safely forget them. That’s right. I said forget them. On purpose.

If you make a practice of emptying your brain into Trello, you can stop the perpetual worrying. And your brain can be empty. And that feeling alone is worth the extra work of putting things into Trello.

Trello = Peace

Oh, and how did that task you worked on last week turn out? Oh, you’re not using Trello and you can’t remember? Bummer…

Batch Your Work

How many times have you said “Oh, let me just do that right quick, before I forget about it.”

Stop doing that.

You do a bunch of different things all day long. Just because you’re afraid you’re going to forget something, you sometimes switch tasks while in the middle of another task, merely out of fear of forgetting.

It’s not your job to remember anymore. It’s Trello’s. Go back up and reread “Offload Your Brain.”

The side effect of Offloading Your Brain is that you will start to notice patterns in your work. You put a few items in the Trello board, and they’re actually just variations on a single theme. Same task, subtly different. Man, working on those all in a row would be way more efficient.

When you start using Trello for damn near everything, you get to benefit from working on like items back-to-back. It really speeds things up.

Then you actually start planning for it. At 2pm, I’m going to knock out those pesky items, merely because you can see them all together in Trello.

Get Ready To Scale Yourself

I know what you’re thinking: “But Jess, it’s just me! Why should I bother putting everything in Trello that I’m doing. My todos are already in my journal / on my dinner napkin / on the whiteboard / in my head / on my desktop in a text document / in my email.”

That’s great. For you. You, yourself, and you. Do you plan to work by yourself forever? If you work at a company where there are any other people other than yourself, you’re going to hand off some of that work some day. Are you going to hand them your journal / dinner napkin / whiteboard / brain / computer / email account password?

And what about when a second person starts working alongside you on those tasks? That will happen when it’s least convenient to change your process: when you are slammed busy and way behind. Not exactly the best time to start inventing a process to track your work.

Start planning to replace yourself now, and you’ll find it will happen much more quickly.

An individual can function off of a whiteboard. Teams function on Trello.

Increase Your Visibility

“What ya working on? How’s it going?”

Believe it or not, other people actually care what you are working on and whether you’re done or not. You don’t work in a vacuum. Other people are waiting on you for this, or waiting ’til you’re done for that. You’re part of a team, an ecosystem, an interdependent group of individuals. Do your coworkers a favor and document what you’re planning to do, what you’re doing, and what you did.

Another way of thinking of this is Show Your Work. When you Show Your Work, others can contribute, comment, compliment, and corroborate.

So what am I working on? It’s in Trello — go look.

Sharpen Your Focus

You think of yourself as a focused machine, knocking out task after task after task, moving seamlessly between tasks.

You prioritize well. You know what’s important, when it’s important, who needs it, and when.

You finish things. You don’t space out in the middle of a task and never come back to it.

Oh really?

Just try the discipline of putting everything you are working on in Trello for a week. Just one week. You will be shocked.

Trello forces you to face Truth.

You’ll realize that you, like everybody, sometimes struggle to know what to work on next. Sometimes you end up working on three things at the same time (which means you’re working at a fraction of your effectiveness). Or you get 75% of the way through something and don’t push it over the line. You get blocked by something, and forget to follow up.

Trello makes all of this glaringly obvious.

It will hurt, but it will hurt so good.

Kill Interruptions

Whenever someone comes up to you with a request, or mentions an idea of something that could be cool, or a way to improve a process, there is a temptation to stop whatever it is that you are doing and have a conversation about that thing.

Or worse, to stop whatever it is that you are doing (that is the Most Important Thing Right Now, or you wouldn’t be doing it, right?) and go start working on that other thing. Or not work on it, just Google it. And then read three articles about it.

Stop doing that.

Put that request, idea, or improvement where it belongs: on a card in Trello.

To be dealt with when it’s the Most Important Thing Right Now.

You can get back to work, and your coworker / boss / spouse / friend can feel like they have been heard.

Grow A Second Set Of Eyes

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could clone yourself? Every time you finish a task, you could check your own work, make sure you didn’t miss anything, suggest ways for yourself to improve, and give yourself a pat on the back. Or a cute little emoji. Yay me.

Mistakes happen. The question is, do you have a plan in place for when mistakes happen? Do you plan ahead for how to catch them early, fix them quickly, and document the catch and the fix so that you and others can learn from it?

Sound complicated? Nah, it’s easy. No cloning required.

Once you start using Trello for Damn Near Everything, you can easily add a “Needs Review” process for your work. Things don’t go straight from “Doing” to “Done.” Ever. The smallest, simplest tasks have a chance for error. And an impact when errors are made.

It’s safer to plan for everything you do to have a Second Set Of Eyes. Whenever you finish a task, move it to “Needs Review” and ask someone specifically to take a look at it.

Oh, can you review this article for me? I know it’s not pefect. It’s in “Needs Review” with your name on it.

Nearly Everything

The title of this article is Damn Near Everything, not Everything.

Compared with todo lists, Trello boards have two powerful advantages: 1. Todo items can have more than two states (represented by which list they are in) 2. Todo items can be organized spatially (again, into and within lists)

That suggests a specific case where Trello may be overkill: if todo items have only two states, either not done or done, and if they don’t benefit from organization into multiple lists.

A good example is a grocery list. There’s only one list: everything you need from the store. No organization required. And you either got milk at the store or you didn’t. Just two states. Now, you could use Trello for your grocery list, but I don’t see that you get any benefit over a simple piece of paper.

If you’re unsure about whether a particular case fits into “nearly everything”, email me at jessmartin@gmail.com.

Conclusion

It’s the end of the day. You’ve been working hard all day. You wipe the sweat from your brow and glance at the pile of cards in the “Done” column of your Trello board. It’s been a good day. Might I recommend a cold beer and a riding mower?

You may think this silly, but when you embrace these principles, you’ll be surprised how much efficiency you discover in your workday, how well you work with others, and how you actually feel differently at the end of a day of work. Joyful. Peaceful. Empty, in a good way.

Life is too short to not use Trello, so please, start using it now for Damn Near Everything.

Convinced? Go sign up for Trello and get started.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jason Rudolph, Evan Kubicek, Mike Schneider, Shay Frendt, Josh Russell, and Nate Massey for reviewing drafts of this article.