Organize your life with Trello

in Blog

We’re all leading very busy lives nowadays. There are people communicating with us from everywhere all the time, and there are always things you need to remember doing or need to get organized. Personally, with the little spare time a full time job and a household leaves me, I have a hard time keeping track of the side projects and creative things I want to be doing, which ultimately causes me to waste more of that spare time than I’d like.

I intended to do something about this whole problem, in the form of a side project: a todo-list managing web application where you could label todo items for priority, assign people, and so forth. I was pretty far into the website design and initial front-end coding when I first heard about Trello. It took me only a few days to realize that the people behind Trello had done a much better job of it than I ever would. I abandoned my own project shortly after.

So what is Trello?

Trello lets you organize “cards” in “lists”, on “boards”; that may sound a little bit abstract, so let’s expand a bit on that.

A board on Trello consists of one or more named lists. It is an environment where you keep track of a certain thing, collect information on a certain thing, or simply where you manage something. Where you keep something organized.

A “list” is no more than a named column where you keep a bunch of cards. Such a list can indicate the progress status of the items within, or it can be treated as a category. The purpose of a list depends entirely on what you are organizing.

A “card” can be anything you want it to be: a feature for a piece of software you’re working on, a book you want to read, a holiday destination you’re considering, you can come up with plenty more, I’m sure.

This screenshot gives a bit of an overview (full size):

Trello screenshot

Trello’s interface lets you easily create new cards and move them around, effectively making organization a painless experience. It is filled with very useful features that just makes management more effective. Examples include checklists on cards, the ability to attach files to cards, custom color-coded labels, due dates, I could go on.

While it is great for personal use, a lot of Trello’s power is in the way you can have multiple people being part of a board. This lets you assign people to cards to indicate they are involved with a certain thing. More importantly, you can leave comments on cards, allowing for discussion on the exact topic at hand, which is described in the top area of the card. When a card is moved around, all relevant discussion just stays with it wherever it goes.

Use cases

Keeping a reading list

A simple use case is keeping track of books you want to read, are reading, and have read. In my case, I keep a reading list with a friend of mine. We regularly recommend books to each other in the “To read” list. For each book we create a new card, and usually include an Amazon link where the book can be purchased. We then assign each other to these books to indicate “you should read this”. It works pretty well for me when finishing a book; “what shall I read next” is simply answered by having a look at the board.

Any sort of simple “to do”

The reading list is really just a variation of the to do theme, which is probably the most common use case too. The developers certainly seem to think so, as the default layout for a board is To do, Doing, Done. I keep a board named “Creative”, where I line up ideas for blog posts, as well as music to write. I also have a “Development/Hack ideas” board, which slightly expands on the to do format: it consists of Ideas, Investigating, Doing, and Done.


A recent use case I came up with is collecting little howtos. Things you infrequently have to do, and could do with reminded for their procedures go here. (My use case was setting up an email forwarder on my VPS). You can create a few categories as lists, name your howtos well in the card title, and add the instructions in the description. That way your set of instructions is just a few clicks away next time.

Software development

The biggest use case I can think of is software development. At Digitally Imported we make heavy use of the tool (and that’s still an understatement). We use a number of boards for our process: Development, user story preparation, defect triage, and roadmap.

Development is the most active one which we discuss in a Skype meeting every day. Every feature, bug to fix, piece of design work or what have you goes through 5 stages: Ready, Building, Accepting, Ready to deploy and Released.

In Ready, items are ready to be picked by a team member when they have space for it, that is, time to work on a new item. That team member then moves the card from Ready to Building, where it stays until all acceptance criteria of the item have been met. It then moves to Accepting, where other team members test and scrutinize the work completed, discussing any further changes required for it to be considered done.

From accepting the item moves, if applicable, to Ready to deploy, where it stays until it gets deployed to the target environment (which is usually one of the websites or a mobile app market). Once it is deployed to its target environment, the card retires to Released. The item is then considered to be done.

In User story preparation, items are prepared and fleshed out (specified if you will). They progress from simple ideas to properly outlined features / changes, before getting moved on to Ready on the Development board.

In Defect triage, any bugs come in, either from users, or from the team. They go from Inbox to Investigating (which speaks for itself), get a proper priority label, and then move on to Accepting/On hold, or in high priority cases, go straight to the Development board.

On the roadmap, the larger scale company projects are organized, and feature sets collected to give a broader overview of progress.

It’s free!

One of the most awesome parts of Trello that almost makes it too good to be true is that the whole thing is completely free for anyone to use. There are no premium features or limitations for free users, you simply get to use this product for free. No begging for donations or plastering everything with adverts either. It’s simply an un-monetized product by an awesome company. Fog Creek Software make their money through other venues, which allows them to invest in this tool they heavily use themselves, while making it available for free for everyone else.

EDIT 2016-07-10: While Trello is still entirely free to use, you can now subscribe for “Trello Gold” to unlock some additional features. There’s also a business class that unlocks a whole bunch of features that are helpful in a business context. That all said, Trello remain advert-free, and as fully functional and helpful and ever in the free tier.

In conclusion: Trello is pretty friggin’ awesome, making organizing just about anything you can think of a breeze. If you’re trying to get anything done or want to get more structure in your life, I suggest you go give it a try right now. You will not be disappointed, and you will get your stuff done.