How to Visualize Your To-Do List with Trello

Editors Note: Today’s post is by Erin Kurup of {re]made by hand.

Let’s face it: most to-do lists are boring to look at. And if you’re a visual person, plain old list format might not even work well for you in the first place.

Enter Trello, a free online project management tool. It turns a boring list into something you can drag, drop, color code, and manipulate in a way traditional lists don’t allow.

Trello is also highly versatile. There are tons of ways to set it up. I’ve developed an approach I like, but really it’s just a suggestion. I hope you’ll feel free to create a system that works for you.

Trello Terms

Like many web apps, Trello has its own vocabulary for different site components. The three most important terms are:

  • Board: A workspace. You see one workspace at a time when you log in to Trello. You can share individual boards with other people if you work on collaborative projects without sharing your whole account. The system I’ll show you uses two boards.
  • List: A sub-region of a board. A list is a way of breaking your bigger workspace down into related sub-spaces, which appear as vertical columns within the board. You can add as many lists as you want to each board.
  • Card: An item in a list, such as a task. You can add a due date, a checklist, notes, attachments, and any of six color-coded labels to each card. You can drag and drop cards between lists and even move them between boards. You can also assign cards to other people, if you use Trello collaboratively.

Take a look at the following screen shot to get a sense for how the various Trello elements fit together:

Board #1: This Week’s Projects

The first of my two main Trello boards is called This Week’s Projects. It’s my go-to Trello board, and it has four lists:

  • On Deck: All the tasks (cards) I want to accomplish in a particular week. I build it at the start of each week and create my daily to-do lists from the tasks in it.
  • Today: The to-do items (cards) I want to accomplish that day. I create it the night before, at the end of my work day, using tasks from the On Deck list.
  • Waiting For/On Hold: Tasks (cards) from On Deck or Today that I’m not working on actively, either because something I have no control over has to happen before I can move forward on them or because I’ve started the task but decided to put it off for some reason.
  • All Done: Tasks (cards) I’ve completed. Moving cards here is like crossing tasks off of a to-do list. At the end of each week, when it’s time to build the next week’s lists, I clear out the cards on this list. (Trello calls this process “archiving.”) It’s rewarding to see what I’ve accomplished each week as I do so!

Here’s a look at part of my This Week’s Project board, so you can see this set-up in action:

But, you might be asking, where do the cards in the On Deck list come from?

Board #2: The Big Picture

I call my second main Trello board the Big Picture. On it I keep a list for every project I’m working on, both personal and professional. (Yes, there are a lot of lists!) When my notes about a particular project become concrete enough that I can break them into discrete and manageable tasks, I create a card for each task, in the order I plan to do them, in the appropriate list in my Big Picture board.

Each week, when it’s time to make my On Deck list in This Week’s Projects, I open up the Big Picture board. Using each card’s “Move” option, I send the cards I want to focus on that week from the Big Picture board to This Week’s Projects. Voila — my project-specific to-do list for the week is done!

The Benefits of Going Visual

What I love about Trello is that it allows me to visualize what I have to do, all laid out in a graphical manner. I can clearly see which projects have the most tasks and decide whether to spread my work amongst several projects or focus on a particular one.

I also like how easy it is to reorder lists on a whim. I prefer to keep tasks in the order in which I plan to tackle them, but you could take a different approach. And if you decide to change your system, Trello’s flexibility gives you room to experiment.

The other powerful visual component to Trello is color coding. My system is based on heat mapping. You could color code by project, how long the project will take you to complete, the location you have to be in to do the task — anything that makes sense to you.

Just a heads-up: Color coding does not transfer between boards, because each board has its own system of labels. On the one hand, this set-up allows you to code different boards in different ways. On the other hand, if you use the same system throughout Trello, you’ll have to reapply any color coding when you send a card to a new board.

For me, Trello has filled a key role in my overall productivity system. I hope you’ve found something helpful here as well.

What about you?

I’d love to hear: How to you keep track of your project-related to-do items?

Erin Kurup is an editor who specializes in helping solo entrepreneurs brand their websites and create digital products that rock. She makes her online home over at {re}made by hand.
photo by: pj_vanf
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30 comments
arlenmark0987
arlenmark0987

Awesome write-up. Productivity apps generate a new enthusiasm in employees as many apps break down the work into simple structures. One productivity tool that I'd like to recommend you is proofhub. It helps employees in being productive as it creates a great communication environment. It tracks progress and one can compare the output.

LynneHenry
LynneHenry

I love this system but I have one question, regarding the Big Picture Board: you said, On it I keep a list for every project I’m working on. When my notes about aparticular project become concrete enough that I can break them intodiscrete and manageable tasks, I create a card for each task. But where do you keep the notes about each project? As part of the List title? Or as cards? And then create different cards for the actual concrete tasks? Thanks!

michaelwroberts
michaelwroberts

Does Trello sync with Google Tasks? 

I've been exploring a few different task lists / productivity apps and services, and I still haven't settled on one that I completely like. Google's default system gives me most of the functionality, but the design / layout isn't quite there. (Sounds similar to @ethanwaldman's thoughts on Workflowy.) 

I like the fact that Trello can work on multiple devices, but the Google syncing is the one feature I'd love to have.

cjrenzi
cjrenzi

My first thought is, "Holy Crap! My life is complete!" Sorry Tammy. Then I think, "Will I spend more time tinkering with my list or getting shit done?" Guess I won't know until I try. Thanks for sharing this intriguing find. Oh, one more thing. Will it shoot me email reminders? Sorry if I missed this info above.

KimThirion
KimThirion

This sounds rather intriguing and I'm heading over to try it out. I'm not that good with checking back and updating the lists I've made... but I'm convinced that's just because I haven't found the proper method for me yet!

deniseurena
deniseurena

I've been looking for a more visually appealing productivity system and I like that it includes the big picture which is helpful for big projects. I know right now, I have some projects going and it's hard for me to look ahead into the future. Looking past the current week gets confusing for me.

sarahemily
sarahemily

I love how you use Trello... every time I see this explained, I start drooling over it. But for some reason, I don't do well with online-based productivity tools. (Bad project manager! I know...) 

For me, though, I've found that good old fashioned lists seem to work best. I got an awesome day planner, and I have lists broken down by project which I then use to make daily lists. I like writing things. And I have a multi-colored pen set for color coding. Yeah, I know, total Luddite. 

Shanna Mann
Shanna Mann

I have to say, you've really tempted me to try out trello. I think having 'boards' would be better than the nested lists I have in work-flowy. Can you embed links in the tasks? Because I really need that, and I can't leave Workflowy without replacing that functionality. 

It's funny, but the hardest thing for me in a project is just writing down all the things I have to do for that project. I really, really resist that. Maybe because it's pretty tough mental work? I don't know. But recently I've tried Charlie Gilkey's Individual Project Planners, and they seem to work ok. Better than a blank sheet of paper, but not as formattible as putting it in Workflowy or a google doc. 

ethanwaldman
ethanwaldman moderator

@LynneHenry I'm a fan of having a google doc or an evernote doc with notes about the project. Then I just link to it and all my notes are in one place. I see Trello as a great place to manage tasks, but not necessarily the context around those tasks.  

ethanwaldman
ethanwaldman moderator

@michaelwroberts My experience when I was using Google Tasks was that it wouldn't play nice with any other apps or services. Perhaps this has changed, but unless Trello specifically advertises that as a feature, I kind of doubt that it does unfortunately.

erinkurup
erinkurup

@cjrenzi Ha! Nope, it's amazing -- all you have to do is schedule quick daily and weekly check-ins with your list to keep yourself on track. Though if you like to tinker, well...can't help you there! As for email notifications, I believe they've added these recently. They're super good about continually developing new features, to the point that I can hardly keep up!

erinkurup
erinkurup

@KimThirion That turned out to be the case for me. That, and I didn't have regular times to make sure I was updating the list. It really helps to schedule daily/weekly times to even just look at your lists(s) so you know what's there.

erinkurup
erinkurup

@deniseurena Looking ahead is something I've had trouble with, too. I'm still working on it. But I find having a place to write down those further out tasks is so helpful. You could add more levels to Trello, too. I've used whole boards to map out larger-scale projects. 

@ethanwaldman  I know what you mean! And that random time in the future never ends up coming half the time!

ethanwaldman
ethanwaldman moderator

@deniseurena Me too Denise! Basically it's like now.. or some random time in the future. 

joeyjoejoe
joeyjoejoe

@sarahemily Don't feel bad. I'm a former corporate project manager who doesn't do well with a lot of online-based tools too, especially project management ones. Shanna tipped me off to the best one I've found so far (Gantter) and STILL I prefer doing most everything in simple spreadsheets.

@remadebyhand I'm the anti-visual project management tool guy. I tried Trello a couple of months ago and quit about five minutes into it. It was too visual, too "drag and droppy" (yes, I just typed "drag and droppy"), and lacked the functionality I need in a to-do list or project management tool. But I totally get how this floats some people's boat and I keep seeing this tool pop up again and again. Obviously there's a good reason for it.

And now I'm off to look at a spreadsheet!

erinkurup
erinkurup

@sarahemily It sounds like you do what I do, but on paper! I really like writing things out. I used to keep a Moleskine planner for organization. But the two pieces about working online that appeal to me are (1) it's so portable/accessible everywhere (well...everywhere I have Internet/phone service!) and (2) it's so much less scribbled-out-y. I love paper systems when they start out, but I hate it when they start to get rearranged. I end up spending all my time re-copying :)

You're totally making me want a paper system again, though. Mmm, excuses to buy stationery supplies...

Shanna Mann
Shanna Mann

Like Denise mentioned, being able to 'see' the big picture is important to me. I don't find that online to-do apps are super helpful in that regard. My little sticky notes on the desktop do that just fine. But I like being able to link to documents because of the way that I can easily open up the project plan, or the "big picture" document. Sometimes breaking things down causes me to lose that vision.

ethanwaldman
ethanwaldman moderator

@Shanna Mann I couldn't have said it better myself. My problem with WorkFlowy is that it's just so damn ugly to look at. I know it sounds fickle, but seriously I dread looking at it.  I'm feeling tempted by Trello myself. I'm also feeling tempted by a minimalist to do app called Teux Do.  It's closest to how I write things down on paper, which I'm really resisting because I usually lose the paper.  

Teux Do:

http://teuxdeux.com

http://vimeo.com/14482552

erinkurup
erinkurup

@LynneHenry What @ethanwaldman said :) I keep a sort of someday/maybe type list where I collect notes about different projects I might want to do. I should probably be more orderly about that piece than I am! Right now I have future project notes in Evernote, Google Docs, and Workflowy. Once a project's time comes, I start moving it over into Trello. Hope that helps!

erinkurup
erinkurup

@ethanwaldman @michaelwroberts Any app I've tried to sync Google Tasks with never seems to work right. I finally stopped using Google Tasks. I actually use Toodledo for anything repeating or day-specific -- Trello handles the bigger project-y things for me. So, I don't use it exclusively.

I don't believe Trello syncs with Google Tasks.

cjrenzi
cjrenzi

@remadebyhand @cjrenzi Fabulous! You're a never ending fount of useful information. Now, about a pro tinkering governor...

erinkurup
erinkurup

@joeyjoejoe Yeah, a lot of people don't need the visual component. I think they're the ones designing most of the list-making apps :) One of my quibbles with Trello is that it lacks the slice-and-dice options that something like Workflowy offers. Some sort of hybrid, or an app that let you change between views like that, would be ideal for me. Isn't it fascinating how differently people prefer to get their information? Even when I end up using something like a spreadsheet, I end up coloring the heck out of it :)

Shanna Mann
Shanna Mann

@remadebyhand @sarahemily I am ALL about the excuses to buy stationary. I was looking at mine yesterday and thinking, "I wonder if it would be motivating to put my writing list on pretty paper." In the end I talked myself out of it, because, then what would I do about the extra envelopes? :)

ethanwaldman
ethanwaldman moderator

@remadebyhand @sarahemily I don't think using paper makes you a luddite! Maybe us online junkies need to separate things out and keep paper for the really important stuff (like our to-do lists). 

Wanna post a picture of your daily planner in the comment thread?I'm sure we'd all like to see it (I know I would)!

Karen J
Karen J

@Shanna Mann  Speaking of "Sticky Notes", is there a way to get them to stay on the desktop like good little pieces of paper, instead of insisting on being on top of any page I have open? (Haven't gone exploring much yet...)

erinkurup
erinkurup

@Shanna Mann Yes! That piece was really missing for me. I need some way to look further out than just the next few days or week. In addition to getting more done, I feel much more like I know which direction I'm heading in in the first place.

erinkurup
erinkurup

@Shanna Mann You can add notes to a card. You have to click on the card to bring the notes up, so there's an extra step. Perhaps I should've included a picture of a card being edited. This'll give you an idea of all the stuff you can add: http://bit.ly/TuaTYl I'm actually really bad about breaking down the steps as well. Oftentimes I'll start listing out a project with just the first few steps and then add as I go.

@ethanwaldman I looked at TeuxDeux. I think it would be great for building a daily to-do list, but what it's lacking for me is the longer-term planning piece. I agree, Workflowy is ugly...but then it's got such cool slice-and-dice capabilities. Trello + Workflowy would, I think, be ideal for me.

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