I don’t know about you, but I’ve always struggled to find a to-do list system that worked for me.
I tried making a strict schedule and trying to stick with it, but I found the heavily organized structure to be limiting and confining. I also tried keeping no schedule at all, but the total lack of structure wasn’t motivating and gave me no accountability. Finally, I tried all the basic to-do list apps such as Wunderlist and Todoist — which worked okay, but not great.
It wasn’t until I came across this post by Marc Andreessen that I realized what I was doing wrong. Marc Andreessen is one of the original creators of the World Wide Web, is a co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and is a certified billionaire. In his post, he details a productivity system where he keeps no schedule and only three lists. This provides him (and you, if you use it) with the capacity to work on what is most important and interesting at any given time.
Nevertheless, his system isn’t perfect for me. For one thing, he uses index cards to keep track of his tasks. As a digitally inclined person, I find index cards agonizing to use, and I’m sure many others who have used technology for a long time reject analog options too.
Luckily, I’ve transformed Marc Andreessen’s brilliant old-school index card system into a modern digital version using Trello (which is free). It has worked brilliantly for me, and I hope it does for you too.
👋 Introducing Trello
Trello is a project management system that allows you to create boards, lists, and cards. While it’s commonly used for collaborative projects, the extreme customizability allows it to be used as an effective to-do list app by an individual. Trello is basically a software implementation of a Kanban board — a simple but powerful project management tool that can be created with just a whiteboard and post-it notes.
The problem I had with other to-do list apps is that they forced me to focus on one list at a time. The amazing thing about Trello is that you’re able to visualize all of your lists on the entire board. When you’re able to see all your lists at once, the sum suddenly becomes greater than the parts. Your lists operate as parts of a productivity system.
This might be a lot to take in, so I’m going to first show you the board that you can easily create using this guide, then give you all of the details on how to do that. Here’s what it might look like in:
In Trello, you’ll create boards, lists, and cards.
- Board — might be described as a “list of lists”, but is typically your entire working space; it’s what you see in the screenshot above.
- List — these function like any other to-do list; they’re a group of cards arranged in columns. In the screenshot above, you see the lists “Done”, “Today”, “Todo”, “Watch”, and “Later”.
- Card—these are the items that make up each list. For our productivity system, these are tasks. They’re analogous to paper index cards. In the example above, “Task I’ve finished today” is a card. Cards are easily moved to other lists or reordered simply by dragging and dropping, and they act as storehouses of any information pertinent to that task.
With those basic definitions out of the way, read on to learn how to create and set up your own productivity system.
Set up Trello
I’ve downloaded Trello on my MacBook as well as on my phone; you may find it easier to start with web app first. Eventually, you’ll want to get the desktop and mobile apps, as they provide you with faster access to Trello and enable you to easily access it from multiple devices.
When I’m looking at tasks I have to do throughout the day, I’m typically looking at it on my phone—even though I can only see one list at a time in portrait mode. For daily planning, I use it on my MacBook where I can easily see the entire board.
Create a board
Trello will open with a default board. (If you’ve already been using Trello for other projects, then go ahead and create a new board for this).
You can name the board whatever you want. If there’s a name that will help you remember what the board is used for like ‘Productivity System’, then use it. I name my board ‘Bryan’ to designate it as my personal board.
The default board for a new user looks something like this:
If it doesn’t, don’t worry. We’re going to start with a clean board anyway. Archive those lists by pressing on the “meatball” menu at the top right of each list (the three dots to the right of the list title in the screenshot above) and selecting Archive This List.
You should now have an empty board that looks like this:
Now that you have a clean slate, you’re ready to start adding things to it. Remember that if there are any steps you want to skip, or any steps that you think you could do better, please feel free to experiment. This Trello setup is built for your flexibility.
📋 Create Your Three Most Important Lists
Marc Andreessen’s productivity system is a minimalistic one with only three core to-do lists:
- To-do list — containing all ‘must do’ commitments that need to be prioritized.
- Watch list — containing everything that has a blocker stopping you from doing it right now, but that you need to keep tabs on.
- Later list — containing literally everything that you might want to do ‘later’ but isn’t a priority.
The purpose of these lists is to help you prioritize and focus on what’s important. You know that all tasks in the ‘To-do list’ are things you can do right now, that you need to keep an eye on everything in the ‘Watch list’ and that everything in the ‘Later list’ is something to do when you have free time.
Create the three lists
Add these lists by selecting +Add another list and typing in the name of the list. Your board should now look something like this:
These are the three lists that I use to keep track of everything that I need to do. Everything else doesn’t matter.
Order these three lists from left to right in this order so that whenever a task becomes a higher priority—for example when I can move something in “waiting” into “to do”, I simply move it to the left.
Go ahead and create some cards for your lists, perhaps from your current to-do list if you have one. Just click “Add a card”, type the name of the task, and hit enter. Don’t worry if you’re not sure of the list it should be on right now. What’s fantastic about Trello is you can move cards from list to list just by dragging and dropping them. It’s even kind of fun.
Cards are very powerful and are at the heart of Trello. For each card, you can add detailed descriptions, comments, attach resource files, checklists and set due dates. We’ll look at those in more detail below.
🌊 Workflow for maximum productivity
Marc Andreessen prepares an index card with a list of 3 to 5 things from those three lists every night to do the following day. The next day, those tasks are the priority.
To translate this into a digital format, I created two more lists:
- Today list — containing all the tasks I need to get done today.
- Done list — containing all the tasks I’ve done today.
Create those lists as well. Click on the list titles to drag and drop the entire list to the left. Your lists should now look something like this, though your cards will be different (in particular, your new “Done” and “Today” lists will be empty):
The process starts the night before when I move 3 to 5 task cards by dragging them over to the ‘Today list’. Then they’re waiting for me to jump in on the next morning.
Whenever I finish a task, I drag and drop it onto the “Done” list. And whenever a new task comes up, I collect it in “Todo.”
At the end of the day, I do a quick review to make sure everything “Done” is dragged over, then I archive all cards in the ‘Done list’ by pressing on the meatball menu at the top right and selecting Archive All Cards In This List… (don’t worry, they’re not deleted; you can look at cards you’ve archived later).
The practice of doing this at the end of the day actually motivates me to get things done. Since I’ve gotten into the habit of doing this nightly routine, I’ve noticed that I almost feel guilty when I don’t do the 3 to 5 tasks that I want to get done throughout the day.
I also move incomplete cards that require me to wait on something into “Waiting.” And if I decide to postpone a task indefinitely, I move it into “Later.”
Then I set up for the next day by making sure “Today” is populated with my next to-dos. I scan “Waiting” and “Later,” in case anything there should be moved over.
But what about those things I do that aren’t on my board?
The Anti-To Do list
Andreessen mentions that he uses what he likes to call an ‘Anti-to do list’. I don’t like the name, but the idea behind it is fantastic. The ‘Anti-to do list’ is a list where you write down everything useful that you do throughout the day but never made it onto your core three lists.
I see doing this as rewarding myself for doing something because seeing a task get placed in the ‘Done list’ just feels so damn good.
In fact, with our currently Trello board, we don’t even need to create a new list. Whenever I’ve done anything useful, such as go to the gym, clean my room, or even take the trash out — I simply create a new card under the ‘Done list’.
This works extremely well with Trello because it helps you get into the habit of actually using the app — something I struggled with before using this technique.
That’s the basic workflow, but there are some additional features of cards that are worth noting.
✅ Use Checklists to Track Details
One of the most powerful features of cards are checklists — you can set up a checklist for any task that requires multiple steps by clicking a card and selecting Checklist on the right.
When you click on “Checklist”, you’ll see the option to create a checklist or to re-use a checklist that you’ve already created on another card.
Re-using checklists is a great way to ensure all of the steps are completed on recurring types of projects. This is extremely useful if you ever have to re-use checklists. The folks here at Better Humans shared a screenshot of one of their publishing checklists with me:
Of course, sometimes you might just want to create a one-off checklist for something that will take a longer time to do. Having the checklist lets you note all the parts of the task that you don’t want to forget while freeing up your mind to focus on the step that you need to do next.
Not all cards warrant a checklist, but they are insanely useful for tracking details on multi-part tasks.
🤖 Automatically create cards for repetitive tasks
You might have some tasks that you repeat but are too much of a hassle to create all the time. For example, you might want to meditate every day, write a weekly Medium post, or even just take the trash out every week.
Luckily, Trello has Power-Ups, which are a fancy term for extensions to help you. There are many Power-Ups that are capable of repetitively creating cards but I use the simplest one: Card Repeater.
To do this, press Show Menu at the top right, click on Power-Ups and search for Card Repeater, and press the green Add button.
To repeat a card, simply press on the card and find the Repeat button under Power-Ups on the right. You’ll then find options to configure how often you want to repeat the task.
Something special about Card Repeater is that it also repeats checklists. If you have a checklist attached to a card that you set to repeat, the new card will be created with the same (unticked) checklist.
For example, if there are weekly groceries that you have to buy and you’re tired of creating the same list every time, just create a checklist in a card and repeat it weekly.
This is my favorite Power-Up because of its simplicity and diverse use-cases. Whenever I find that I’m doing a task more than once, I always ask myself if I can create a card for it. I recommend you do the same.
🦋 Customize your board
If you’ve followed the steps to create your own board, it’s completely functional but might seem a bit bland. In fact, it’s perfectly fine as it is, but it’s not a board that my eyes enjoy looking at.
You could stay with the minimalist approach, but personally, I like the pretty colors and dashing personality that I see in other apps. Part of being ‘functional’ is actually using it, so customizing your board makes it more attractive for you.
Luckily, Trello comes with features that let you customize how it looks.
Change your background
Trello lets you change the background of your board. You can do this by selecting Show Menu at the top right and then Change Background.
By default, you’re able to change it to a selection of colors or source images from Unsplash.
If you’re a minimalist, you might want to leave it as the default blue to match the Trello icon. If you’re a nature freak, you might want to look at your favorite landscape every day. Personally, I use colorful images to entice myself to use the board.
It’s intuitive to say colorful things are attractive to us — something marketers have used in branding for generations. Use this to your advantage by choosing a background that will make you happy to use the app.
Add emojis to lists
We live our lives with metaphors. Our emails are placed in what we call an inbox, messenger apps have a speech bubble and emojis are icons that tell us a story.
Use emojis to add metaphors to your lists so your subconscious can better understand what each list is used for. I add emojis at the start of the names of my lists. To use emojis on a Mac, type Control + Command + Space or go to this emoji list and copy and paste from there.
Here are the names of my lists and explanations:
- ✅ Done — a green tick because you have ticked something off
- ☀️ Today — sun because it’s the first thing we see every day
- 🗒️ Todo — notepad because it’s where we keep our prioritized tasks
- 👀 Watch — eyes because we want to keep an eye on these tasks
- 🗃️ Later — box because they’re stored for ‘later’ use
I hope the emojis I’ve picked make sense to you. If they don’t, I would love suggestions for emojis that are better suited for the lists. That being said, you are by all means welcome to choose your own emojis for your lists or copy mine if you wish to.
Here is the final board (again):
Additional tips to maximize Trello’s functionality
Trello is a powerful tool. It comes with an immense amount of functionality that most people (including me) won’t ever explore fully. However, there are a few things that I’ve found helpful.
While Card Repeater is is an amazing Power-Up, there are many Power-Ups I personally haven’t even started to explore. Power-Ups are add-ons that bring extra functionality to your board.
Something promising ones are:
- Google Drive and Dropbox — allowing you to access any files and their contents and attach them to cards.
- Evernote — enabling you to create, search and attach notes to cards as you wish.
- Calendar — displaying your cards on a calendar to provide you with a visual view of the due dates of your cards.
If there are any apps that you commonly use, make sure to search for it in Trello’s Power-Ups — there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find some cross-functionality between apps.
Create cards out of emails
Trello comes with the functionality to create cards out of emails. This is useful if you want to forward an email message to create a task card, or if you simply want to create cards by sending emails rather than by switching into the app.
To do this, select Show Menu, click on More and then go into Email-to-Board Settings.
Here, you can choose where to create cards when a new email is sent to you by selecting the List, and then choose the position where the card is created by selecting Position. You can also generate a new email address or email the existing one to yourself.
The resulting card shows a few minutes after the email is sent and gets formatted in the following way:
- The subject of the email as the card’s title.
- The body of the email as the card’s description.
- Attachments in the email as card’s attachments.
Learn more about creating cards by email here.
Add due dates to cards
Setting due dates are an important part of my workflow because if I don’t, I end up worrying about not knowing what is due. Being able to see what’s due quickly on my Trello board is an effective way for me to calm this fear.
Plus, any way to lighten the brain’s mental load on repetitive, administrative tasks is helpful, especially if you need to focus on creative work.
Add a due date by going into a card and selecting Due Date. Then you’re able to choose the Date and Time it’s due.
After you save, a badge with the due date will appear on the card. There are a few different colors that badges can have:
- Light grey — the card is due more than 24 hours into the future.
- Yellow — the card is due within 24 hours.
- Red — the card is due and will remain red for 24 hours.
- Light pink — the card is past its due date.
- Green — the card is complete.
I’ve found these badges useful for providing a visual indication for what tasks are due soon and what tasks I’ve completed.
Trello comes with a whole variety of features. This is simply the configuration I use for a process I swiped from Marc Andreessen. It has been a wonderful productivity boost for me.
I recommend you, in turn, swipe my Trello-based system as a starting point to experiment for yourself — it truly is a powerful tool.