4 tips for working with Trello

TL;DR

Trello is a powerful tool for organizing your thoughts and working collaboratively. It’s great for project management, but it’s open-ended enough to be used for other tasks as well.

What is Trello?

Think of Trello as an endless bulletin board where tasks, ideas and notes can be organized in columns.

Okay, I’ll admit: not so sexy. But Trello has the power to change the way you think about your projects. Promise.

I’ve been using Trello for about a year to manage a variety of projects: websites, events, new business ideas and — fittingly enough — blog posts. I’ve picked up a few tips along the way to help you get more from this amazing tool.

(Oh, and it’s free.)

To share or not to share

Trello can be used collaboratively or alone, privately or publicly. It’s up to you, and there are no cheesy pricing schemes attached to your choice.

When you invite someone to your board, you can grant them editing privileges or leave them as a read-only viewer.

Boards and cards

welcome-board

Trello’s Welcome Board is a great overview of Trello’s features

A board is a collection of cards organized in vertical columns. Some people call these columns “lists” or “swimlanes.”  I call them “stacks.”

Why? Because I associate “lists” with to-do lists, and I think that’s limiting. Stacks are more abstract. Also: you can have a “stack” of cards, but a “list” of cards? That’s just silly.

Cards are deceptively simple. The “front” of card is a line or two of text. But clicking on a card reveals its magical backside. (I like to think all backsides are magical.)

Each card has a title, a description and an activity feed, like miniature blog posts. You can add images, attachments, checklists and even emoji to a card. Crazy.

Cards can have file and image attachments.

Cards can have file and image attachments.

Cards can be dragged around a board and reordered however you like, an action that is at the heart of Trello.

4 Tips for Working with Trello

1. One project = one board

It’s tempting to create one monster board to hold every project you’re working on and then then create stacks for each project.

You could do this. I won’t stop you. But I will be sad.

Trello works best when you think of a project with more detail than a simple list of to do items.

Most complex projects are not linear. They have overlapping components, parallel tasks, tasks that get put on hold, information coming in, information going out. Things are changing all the time.

Trello allows you to embrace that complexity — and, more importantly — to manage it. But you need to treat each project as a board it order to get there.

2. The default setup actually works pretty well.

When I first started using Trello, I came up with all sorts of elaborate schemes for my boards. I completely ignored the default board template, which includes three stacks: To Do, Doing and Done:

default-board

The default board template includes To Do, Doing and Done stacks.

I thought it was weird. “Why would I want a stack for what I was currently doing? That seems… dumb.”

The three-stack structure is inspired by Japanese kanban boards, popularized in agile software development processes. It is definitely not dumb.

When you’re working on projects with steps that might take more than a day to complete, that Doing stack turns out to be super important. It’s a mental bookmark. The next day, when you come in after an amazing night of sleep, that Doing stack jump starts your day.

And when you’re using Trello in a team environment, that really starts to make sense. You might even assign a label color to each teammate so you know who is working on what.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

3. Label your labels.

Trello allows you to attach colored “labels” to any card. These show up as small but noticeable colored notches on the top of the card.

At first, labels just seemed cute. “I feel like this task is… I don’t know, purple. Oh, and this one just kinda feels orange.”

But then I learned that you can add a short textual description to each color. This, it turns out, is huge.

label01

When I’m working on web projects, here’s a scheme I use:

  • Red: Blocker (we can’t launch until this is addressed)
  • Orange: Annoying (technically this isn’t impeding core functionality, but not fixing it means annoying a lot of people)
  • Yellow: Cosmetic (visual tweaks or minor UI improvements that are, if we’re being honest, mostly for my own peace of mind)
  • Blue: Reference (data that I might want to come back to again later in the project)

A simple Low/Med/High system could work well, too. The idea is that when you label your labels, you add an extra layer of visual information that allows you to quickly gloss and prioritize across your entire project.

4. Get creative

There’s no wrong way to use Trello. That’s part of what makes it such a wonderful tool. With it, you could:

  • Write a novel (stacks: Concept, Characters, Plot, Themes, Motifs, Recurring Motifs, Endings, Beginnings, and Research).

  • Cut down on conference call lengths. Each person or team gets a stack, each card is an agenda item.

  • Organize recipes (stacks: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Snacks).

  • UX designers and product managers can keep track of user stories. Each stack could be dedicated to a theme or a specific use case for your project.

The Takeaway

Great tools unlock new ways of thinking about the world. Trello fits that criterion.

The more you use it, the more you begin thinking in terms of Trello boards. That paradigm shift is perhaps the greatest single benefit of the software — one that pops up even when your computer is off.

I still can’t believe Trello is free. There’s a Trello Gold option if you really want to throw money at them, and a Trello Business Class option that turns on powerful collaboration features.

NOTE: I didn’t get paid to say any of this. When I find a good thing, I share it.
Header image credit: Dennis Hamilton

  • sieva

    Nice post! How did you make/embed that sweet little Gif? or did you just find it out there?

    • Thanks!

      I made the GIF by doing a screen recording with Camtasia and exporting video from there. I then brought that video in Photoshop and, using it’s Timeline feature, edited the video down to a few key frames. I then exported that to a GIF.

      A little crazy, right?

  • The more I use Trello I find myself being more and more productive. Integrating it with Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, or OneDrive… the thing is build like a tank! The ability to post links, or embed videos is a great feature as well. Great article.

    Robb

  • Arlen Mark

    Check out proofhub.com to manage your work effectively. Very simple intuitive and feature rich. Highly recommended

    • Thiago Davoodifar

      Man you guys have posted on EVERY single trello discussion..

  • Thiago Davoodifar

    Great post, thanks for sharing! I have been looking to tweak my current set-up. I have been using one board per project, broken up into 5 phases for designing a website. I have been considering adding a ‘doing’ tab to each board but not too sure yet!

  • Frank Ferenz

    Trello is great, but my teams prefer to use another Kanban online board. It offers integrations with Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, or OneDrive and additionally provides over en different power-ups and time tracking module!

  • Egor Ufimtsev

    Great post, hands down!

  • This was help for a Trello newbie. Thanks!

  • May L

    I am a newbie and find the post very helpful. Great thanks 🙂

  • Some one just told me about Trello to help with my overload of ideas for my blogs. This article has been a great help thank you so much.

  • fiatjaf

    Ok, Trello newbies just discovering you like the tool, every thinked about hosting your blog or website from content on a Trello board? The Trello possibilities are endless: http://websitesfortrello.com/

  • Ric Johnson

    Thanks, I’ll take your advice on how to organise trello- board a project seems better than my mega board…. And I just decided I’d leave the to do, doing, done stacks ….I need something nice and simple that I organise consistently and actually use! Wish me luck and thanks for the straightforward, interesting article

  • Pingback: Trello for “simple” Kanban | Craig Harffey()

  • Jennifer Stringer

    Justin: I am a new project manager. I work with IT development teams. I am looking for something easy for me and the teams to use for both collaboration and managing our projects. I am comparing Trello to other tools, like Yammer and Basecamp. Are there any limitations to Trello in the free version?

  • Pingback: Trello | Pearltrees()

  • cyberstreets

    Hello. I am reading on the Internet because I can’t really figure out why my org is using Trello. The main thing we do is have meetings. I can’t figure out how to tell when we have meetings. Sure, I get a notification AFTER the meeting. But… Now I am wondering, if this tool is for scheduling meetings at all. If a small org has a lot of meetings each week, how can a member(s) see quickly, what they have to do that week so they can schedule other things. I am so confused. Thank you for any suggestions.

  • Crea Studio

    Great tips, signing up now! : )

  • Peter Stock

    My 2 cents? So far I find Trello annoying and pretty lame (so lame that 6 months after I first signed up and tried it for a while, I could not even remember the name of the application when I wanted to try again today.). But I expect that is due to lack of experience and trying. But really, we are taking a trip and I want a dead stupid LIST of all the crap I need to take: Bike gear, clothes, various chargers, dictionary, sunscreen…. and on and on. this is not some great collaborative moon-shot project. I JUST want a simple list to remind of all the crap I have to pack. and I cannot for the LIFE of me find an easy way to do it using Trello.
    But maybe the answers is: This is not for Trello. This is for a piece of paper and a pencil.

    • Paper is awesome, but it’s rarely there when you need it. Beyond that, if you’re sharing the list between people, or even yourself on multiple devices, that’s for Wunderlist. There are also about 1000 other apps that do the same thing, but WL is free and the UI is insanely good.

  • Damian Castillo

    I started using Trello with One Board = One Project. This setup is practical and works fine but the problem I had is that I was managing over 20+ projects at once. I have a team of resources at my disposal and tracking that many projects become a little overwhelming.

    What started happening is that my “Doing” list for each project was filled with several cards due to the complexity and type of projects I am running. My “Doing” lists grew for each project and I found myself jumping between boards too often. I am a Trello Gold user so I tried custom saved searches but the implementation is poorly done.

    My focus was on my “Doing” list but because I had so many of them across many boards, I started to neglect or pay attention to other tasks not on the “Doing” list. It’s like my brain was focused on finishing what was on the list rather than adding more to them. This caused some tasks to slip through the cracks and put me in a jam more than once.

    So then I switched to my “Command Central” board.

    Here I list every project as one list. I have a template list that I can copy as new projects come in. Using a combination of labels and multiple checklists, I was able to construct complex projects processes in a super simple way. Each project starts with only 8 cards. These 8 cards cover the entire project workflow which in my case is a Waterfall style process since we manufacture things.

    I now can quickly scan across all my projects, label the cards that are currently actionable or “Doing” and then filter by that label. This allows me to see only the tasks from each project that I am currently doing and then I can drag the projects and reorder them by priority from left to right.

    I also setup labels for Critical, Waiting for, Follow Up and what ever worked best for my process. Now I have one board that I can quickly filter and see everything that needs to be done at once. I no longer need to jump from one board to the next to figure out what I should be working on that day or what my resources should be working on.

    Trello is simple and flexible. Take advantage of this and make it your own.

    • Brian

      I am running into the exact same problem, where I have too many boards it’s hard to keep track of the big picture.
      Can you explain more about your system:
      “Here I list every project as one list. I have a template list that I can copy as new projects come in. Using a combination of labels and multiple checklists, I was able to construct complex projects processes in a super simple way. Each project starts with only 8 cards. These 8 cards cover the entire project workflow which in my case is a Waterfall style process since we manufacture things.”

  • DzafarSadik

    Done checkbox makes task planning much more pleasant: https://github.com/JafarSadik/trello-done-checkbox

  • Peter Wills

    I love Trello but a big downside, in my view, is not being able to see all Board items in one Calendar, so the option of using one main Board, or one Board for all date driven items, suddenly becomes very appealing to me, at least until Trello addresses this issue.

  • Luiser

    If you guys use trello for Project Management, you are going to love our integration for estimations.
    We built a planning poker Tool for hangouts, and it let’s you import your backlogs and estimate them. Then import results to: Trello, JIRA, You track or Pivotal tracker. Check it out! PlanningWith.Cards http://www.planningwithcards.com

  • Justin Oneill

    I ended up creating a small extension called GTD: Trello Card Links that allows you to put any link on the front of your Trello Cards and make it clickable. I always found it really annoying having to click on the back of cards to get to where I wanted to be!

    Extension: https://goo.gl/18FFjb

    **Features**

    – Clickable Links on cards
    – Multiple Links on cards
    – Link to cards and create EPIC stories

    Give it try and let me know what you think!

    **Related Resources**

    – Chrome Extension: https://goo.gl/18FFjb
    – Demo: https://trello.com/b/6DoBxhuZ/gtd-trello-card-links
    – Github (opensource): https://github.com/oneezy/gtd-trello-card-links
    – Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/oneezy

  • Prayank Chopra

    Ok I will give you mine takeaway then 🙂 You know, apart from using just Trello you should often gaze at market with b2b portals like IndiaBizClub
    . You should find it challenging . And you will be far more enouraged to give your best than you would have otherwise gives

  • Valter Barros

    I am reading this in 2017, It is very good, trello is top.