I have tried more productivity systems and tools than could possibly be productive. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits are deservedly legendary, and I’m better for every habit I’m able to employ. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology was even more helpful for me, especially because it seems to hone the best of Covey’s principles to a more elegant simplicity. But both of their complete proprietary systems proved too much for me to maintain long-term.
After keeping up for a few weeks—even past the 21 days that supposedly cement a new habit—I always failed to maintain the system after a reliably random task turned into a seemingly wasted day followed by a week of piled emails and unfulfilled pledges (and all of the guilt and shame to boot).
Another reason I’ve failed to maintain well-meaning systems is that after the initial novelty wore off, the checklists and to-dos all seemed to become rote and, well, boring. I needed something more visual and engaging to hold my attention.
Then Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, introduced me to Trello (via blogger Leo Babauta). Trello is a highly visual (free) online collaborative project management tool (with access online and on iOS and Android devices), but Carson re-engineered it to become his go-to personal task management system.
I’ve been using it for five months now without fail, synthesizing everything from Covey and Allen that stuck, along with Carson and Babauta’s wisdom, to create the only task management system that’s ever really worked for me. Here’s how it works for me and could work for you:
1) After creating a Trello account, create a new “board” and call it Tasks. Each board is comprised of vertical “lists”—these will function as your task prioritization system. Then, each new “card” you add to a List represents an individual task.
2) Create your lists. My lists are a conglomeration of what I’ve learned from Covey’s 7 Habits and Allen’s GTD. My first list on the left is called “Big Rocks”—the priorities in life that I want to consume the majority of my time. Next is “Today,” the list of items that I hope to accomplish today, followed by “Incoming,” new tasks that have yet to be prioritized. As you might guess, “This Week” houses the tasks I hope to accomplish this week; “Later,” those tasks I’d like to get to eventually but are not yet urgent; “Waiting On,” that which I’ve accomplished but requires action on another’s part; and “Done,” a list of the tasks I’ve accomplished that day.
3) Whether you call it Big Rocks or Big Picture (Carson) or Most Important (Babauta), create a list under that heading with your biggest priorities in life. Mine are Spiritual, Family, Health, Writing/Speaking, Business and Personal. Now, click on your first prioritization category listed; you’ll see an option to “Edit Labels.” I recommend making each of your Big Rocks a specific color, and clicking “Change Label Titles” will allow you to give each color a name corresponding with your Big Rocks. Now, each time you add a new task, you can color code it with an appropriate label.
4) Add tasks. If you’re importing tasks from another system or just want to do a brain dump, add all of your tasks to Incoming and then decide where to put them later. Click “Add a card…” at the bottom of the appropriate list and type a brief description describing the task to be performed. Before you even hit the green “Add” button, hit the drop down in the bottom right corner and that will give you the option to add a label. Once the task is added, a host of new options can be seen by clicking on the card itself. Here you can give the task a longer description, create a checklist within the task, attach a file or give it a due date. Preferring the GTD approach, I keep it simple and trust my daily prioritization ritual.
5) After adding a bunch of new tasks, it’s time to prioritize each one by placing it in the appropriate list. Simply click and drag the card with the task you’d like to prioritize and move it to the appropriate list. If your lists span beyond the edge of your screen, you can simply hover on the screen’s edge and watch the board traverse in that direction, allowing you to place the card in the list of your choosing. You can also grab and drag the screen in any direction you choose.
6) The one essential habit you must form for this—or any other task management system— to work is to perform a review of your tasks board each morning. Ryan Carson recommends taking 19 minutes to start every day organizing your to-dos. “Limiting this to 19 minutes,” he says, “keeps you focused and ensures you don’t spend all your time prioritizing instead of doing.” First, add any meetings or calls on your calendar that day to Today with a precursor (M) for meetings and (C) for calls, along with the time. Then, relocate new Incoming tasks to the appropriate list. Review This Week to determine which tasks should be completed Today. Then, review Later to see which tasks should be bumped up to This Week and scan Waiting On to determine if you need to nudge someone else. Only keep tasks that were completed for a single day in the Done list, purging this list each morning by either moving the task to Waiting On or archiving the task. You can archive individual tasks by clicking on the card’s drop down, or you can “Archive All Cards in This List” by hitting the list’s dropdown in the upper right-hand corner.
7) Now, the fun part—getting things Done. If you spent 19 minutes reviewing your board in the morning, you shouldn’t need to look at any lists except for Today and Done for the remainder of the day. Throughout the course of your day, move completed cards to Done and reprioritize Today, leaving the next action to be performed at the top.
One of the perpetual faux-tasks that leads many of us astray from the completion of actual tasks is our email. As Claire Diaz-Ortiz reminded me this week, “Email isn’t work.” It certainly feels like it, but email is more a conduit leading us to tasks than a task in itself. Your email inbox is also a horrendous task management venue because it distracts us from the next task on our priority list, but we do often send and receive tasks through email, so Trello provides us with an answer:
Hit “Show sidebar” in the top right of your Trello screen; under the Menu header, click on Settings, then click on Email settings. This will allow you to copy and paste a specific email address that will send emailed tasks from your inbox to the board and list of your choosing. (Be sure to create a contact for that email address—something like Trello Tasks—and you won’t have to remember the email address.)
Trello is intended to be an interactive project management solution for groups, but it has become my highly-individualized, personal task management system of choice. The interactive, visual nature of Trello is what attracted me to it and has kept me using it, but the best part about it is that you can create your OWN system within Trello. Once you do, or if you already have, I’d love to hear about it.