Notes About Trello

I’ve been re-evaluating my task & project management system and Trello is the first tool I decided to take a look at. Trello is a task management and collaboration tool based upon the kanban system. It’s very visual and designed for team collaboration but I would not consider it a true full-featured project management tool, as it lacks the heavy project management features such as gantt charts and scheduling. It’s web based and has numerous integrations with other apps, including Zapier and Harvest. There are both iOS and Android mobile apps.

While Trello does emphasis tracking and planning among teams, I have no need for these features and looked at it as a single user. The collaboration features don’t get in the way or make Trello difficult to use. This overview is from my perspective as a solo user and I won’t discuss any of the collaboration features.

Trello does have a free level. While this let me kick the tires for most of the Trello features I would need, it was a little short of features and capacity if I was to use it as my primary planner. Business Class, at $120/yr., is the least expensive subscription on their main pricing page. But a little digging will reveal a Trello Gold subscription at $45/yr. (or $5/mth). Trello Gold provides the added features and capacity I need. These are mainly repeating tasks and up to three power-ups per board. It also adds saved searches, which may prove useful in the future, along with larger attachments and visual customizations.

At this point I did sign up for one month of Trello Gold in order to continue my evaluation. While it has the benefit of being the first solution I actually used (as opposed to just reading about) it is a strong contender to form the hub of my task and productivity process.

Power-Ups

Power-Ups are the way Trello provides enhancements and integrations to its basic offering. Power-Ups can be enabled on a per-board basis. Trello Gold allows three power-ups to be enabled per board, the free version allows one per board, while the business subscriptions don’t have a limit.

Power-ups can’t be managed through the mobile apps. For the most part they can’t be used at all on the mobile app, although the ones I used did degrade gracefully. For example, the Google Drive power-up can’t be used to attach a Google Drive file, although existing attachments can be opened.

Since Trello is a popular service along with being web based and having a public api there are a lot of integrations with other apps beyond just the Power-Ups. For example, if Harvest isn’t your time tracker but Toggl is, there’s a Chrome extension that will place the Toggl timer button on each card.

Power-Ups I used

Calendar: Displays a calendar with the tasks listed according to their due date. Completed tasks have a line through them indicating completion. Only tasks on the current board are shown. The calendar is not available on mobile apps.

Card Aging: The card will visibly age over time if there’s no activity. Thresholds are 1, 2 and 4 weeks. By default the cards become more transparent over time. There’s also a Pirate Mode where cards visibly age and tear. This (especially Pirate Mode) provides a quick, visible way to identify tasks which have been dormant if you are viewing the board on the web. The mobile apps do not show the card aging.

Card Repeater: Does what it says on the tin. Allows cards to be repeated on a set schedule. More on this later as it’s key to my use of Trello and deserves it’s own discussion. For now I’ll just say that it’s not tied to task completion and due dates are not adjusted. The mobile apps cannot be used to set up the repeat.

Google Drive: Provides links to your Google Drive account to show information about attached files. New documents can also be created from within Trello without having to exit to Google Drive. File can be attached from Google Drive without the power-up but the card will not show updated information as the file changes.

In addition to the Google Drive power-up there are power-ups for Boxand Dropbox that will display current file information for attached files. But unlike the Google Drive power-up, new documents cannot be created from within Trello. Files can be attached without these power-ups enabled, but their info will not be updated. Files can also be attached from OneDrive but there aren’t any enhanced power-up features.

Harvest time tracking has a Power-Up. I enabled this early on but found I could turn off the power-up and still have integrated time tracking on all boards as long as the Harvest chrome extension was enabled, although advanced features weren’t available. Trello help implies that the power-up must be enabled for even basic tracking. Enabling the Power-up does provide additional features such as showing the total time tracked to a board and attaching a time report to a card. Harvest integration is not available on the mobile apps.

Package Tracker: This integrates with Packagetrackr and shows the progress of you shipment. The ETA or status is shown on the front of the card and the tracking detail is shown on the back of the card. The ETA/Status and tracking detail are not shown on the mobile apps, although there is a link to the tracking information on the Packagetrackr website.

There are numerous other power-ups available, but these are the ones that caught my attention as I looked to replace my current system.

Boards

Boards are what contain all the lists and cards. Each board is it’s own self-contained world. Cards can be copied and moved between boards but that’s about it. For example, calendars (if enabled) are limited to the current board. There’s no way to get a view across all boards, at least within Trello.

Board with 3 lists and 1 card
Board with 3 lists and 1 card

If the Calendar Power-Up is enabled then there’s a iCalendar formatted read-only feed. (Some calendar programs will refer to this as CalDav which also uses the iCal format.) Any card with a due date will show in the calendar. Completed cards will have a line through their name. The list name is shown (“Active” in the screenshot below).

Shown in BusyCal
Shown in BusyCal

Generally, each board will be dedicated to a project, and only one project. Boards can be closed when a project is finished, although it can be re-opened again if you need to view it. If you assign cards to yourself then you can see all cards assigned to you in your profile. This profile view can be sorted by project or due date, so it does provide a bit of an overview for your tasks across boards.

Boards can be filtered on labels, due dates and who a card is assigned to. This makes large boards more manageable.

Labels exist only within the board they were created on. Creating a new label, or renaming a default label, on one board will not carry over to other boards.

Lists

Lists are what contain the actual cards and boards can have many lists. Lists must appear side-by-side on a board, no stacking allowed. This can make for a lot horizontal scrolling. To keep scrolling to a minimum I try to keep the most used lists to the left side of the board since the left side always appears when first switching to a board.

All cards in a list can be archived at once. I keep a “Completed” list for most projects and as cards are done I move them to this list. This way I can quickly recap accomplishments at the end of the week. Once I’ve reviewed them at week’s end for my report-out I can archive all the cards at once.

Cards

As mentioned, lists contain the actual cards which are the tasks which need to be done along with any notes related to the task. Boards and Lists are simply ways to organize the cards which are the nuts & bolts of Trello.

Checklists

I love checklists! Much of my work is done using checklists. In OmniFocus I often use sub-tasks as a checklist. In Trello, multiple checklists can be added to a card. The items are displayed on the back of the card where they can be checked off. The front of the card shows the status of the checklist – how many items are checked off out of how many total items.

A checklist with 7 items
A checklist with 7 items
Showing 1 of 7 items checked (bottom row)
Showing 1 of 7 items checked (bottom row)

Multiple checklists can be used on one card and they can be copied between cards with having to copy the whole card. If a card is copied the checklist is (optionally) copied and all items are unchecked. If the Repeat Card Power-Up is used then checklists are copied with all items unchecked.

I’m still struggling with some parts of my Trello workflow, but checklists work really well for me and are one of the features that keep me evaluating it.

Repeating Cards

One of the things I like about OmniFocus is its ability to hide tasks which I can’t be working on. I dislike a long list of tasks, even if I know only the first few need to be done. Just seeing the long list can make me anxious and inhibit my ability to focus.

I like the way Trello handles repeating cards. Although it is limited and required some tweaking to work the way I want.

One of the biggest draw-backs to repeating cards is that they are not tied to completion. If I repeat a card with a due date then it will repeat without any due date. So repeating is a good name, rather than recurring.

Another feature of repeating cards is that any comments attached will also be repeated, as will attached documents. This can be both beneficial or detrimental, depending on your expectations. Generally, I want attached documents to remain, but comments I want to be specific to that instance of the card.

There a great deal of flexibility in scheduling the repeat frequency. They can be scheduled to appear every 1 to 30 weeks, on any or all days of the week. They can be scheduled to appear every 1 to 30 months, on a single date in the month. They can be scheduled to appear every 1 to 30 years, on a single date in the year.

Schedules such as the second Tuesday of every month are not possible.

You’ll notice I wrote scheduled to appear. This is because the card will not appear until the repeat happens. It’s worth saying again that the repeat is not at all related to a completion date.

Repeats are tied to the original card it was set up on. So while I said comments and attachments are copied when a card repeats, they are copied from that original card. Comments or attachments added to the newly created card will not be carried forward to future cards.

Archived cards will continue to repeat. The repeating will stop if a card is deleted or moved to a different board. The history of the card contains a link back to the card it was created from, so it’s relatively easy to go back and change any repeats that are set up.

How I’m Using Repeating Cards

While I’m still tweaking how I use Trello, my current process for repeating cards generally uses the following rules:

My general task board (which I call Tickler) is where most of my repeating happens. It gives me a view of the week, with a list for each day. I also have a list called Templates. Cards which repeat are set up in the Templates list. I typically schedule the repeat for 8PM on Sunday and have the cards appear in the column for the day I will do them the following week. This serves as a quick way to find repeating tasks (cards), especially while I build trust with Trello. I can see what cards are set to repeat and quickly make changes to the schedule or the card itself.

This allows me to achieve my goal of not seeing tasks before I can actually work on them. Although, the out of sight nature of their setup is taking some getting used to. I’m paranoid I’ll miss something so the Templates list at least lets me know what tasks are set to repeat.

So far this seems to be working for me. While cards can be copied and moved to other boards, repeating tasks must appear on the same board as the card that is creating them. If a card is moved to another board then the repeat is removed, it is not continued on the new board.

Summing It Up

I’m liking Trello a lot and it seems like the new task/project manager to beat for me. At $45 per year I find the gold subscription worth what I get. The free level is a little lacking, plus I like to support software I use so that it’s development continues. I would have a hard time justifying the cost of the business plans for my own use.

Likes

  • Simple and intuitive to use.
  • Repeating tasks are out of sight until I can actually work on them. Although I still need to work out my trust issues related to this.
  • A lot of integrations with other web apps. I haven’t mentioned Zapier integration, but Zapier does support a lot of Trello actions, Much more than IFTTT.
  • I like seeing a visual overview of the project. I often plan using sticky notes or index cards and this feels very much like that.
  • Can add tasks or update cards via email.
  • Free version is a good introduction to Trello capabilities without any expiration.
  • Very list (and checklist) oriented which fits with the way I like to work.

Dislikes

  • No view across all projects/boards. Each project is a silo. This can make it a little hard to view my workload when I’m running projects in parallel.
  • Due dates aren’t adjusted and kept for repeating cards. I get around this a bit by having a list for each day of the week and then create the card in the appropriate list. But I would like to have due dates adjusted and repeated so they appear on the calendar and in the calendar feed.
  • Cumbersome horizontal scrolling for large boards. Stacking lists might be nice although then I might complain about differing lists sizes making it hard to know where lists are.
  • Not well suited as a simple reminder tool.

I’ve installed a couple other task management apps but they haven’t seemed as suited to me as Trello. I could waste hours upon hours exploring task management apps and then even more hours tweaking them. My current Trello Gold monthly subscription expires in 10 days. Unless something else catches my attention before then I plan to renew Trello Gold for a year and stop searching.