Something I’ve learned over the years is that the processes you use to organize your life can fundamentally change your life.
That’s why when it comes to choosing systems that help you keep your business in order, you must look for tools that can support you long-term.
My favorite? Trello.
Today I’m going to dive into how I use a kanban board on the free Trello platform to keep my business tasks organized. This system has allowed me to do away with traditional project planners, post-its, and to-do lists, and stay focused on exactly what I need to be working on right now.
Haven’t heard of Trello? First of all, welcome to the internet. But in all seriousness, Trello is a super popular, free online tool that lets you organize tasks into lists.
Now, we’re not talking about your standard to-do list. We’re talking macho lists that eat raw eggs for breakfast and probably use your t-shirts as sweat towels when you’re not around.
But less gross, obviously.
In Trello, every task goes onto a “card” that can be moved around to different lists on your board. Each card can hold a ton of details, such as a title, description, colored label, and due date. You can even add a checklist to the card, and there’s a comment section for team collaboration.
Trello is a tool that’s built for managing multiple projects at once. Its features give it huge flexibility, allowing different people to use it in different ways. Unfortunately, this also means a lot of folks give it a go and move on because they don’t have a set system to make all of those features useful.
The solution? Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the kanban board.
What’s a kanban board?
The kanban is a project management method that started in Japan and has slowly taken over marketing agencies everywhere. At a basic level, it’s a big bulletin board that a team uses to keep track of tasks they need to complete. Post-its or index cards with tasks are organized into three columns: “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.” Managers love it because it’s an easy way to see exactly what’s happening in a team at any given moment.
Today, a lot of companies use this method through online tools. There are a few specialized platforms exactly for creating online kanban boards, but they’re built for big teams. Luckily, as a solo business owner or even a small team, Trello is the perfect kanban platform.
In the Trello kanban system, each task or piece of a project is placed onto a card. Then, the cards move from left to right across the list, until they end up in the “Done” category. Because the cards have so many feature options, it makes it easy to stay hyper organized and keep all of your notes for a given task in one place.
Using a kanban board for your business
While the three categories (To Do, Doing, Done) are helpful, your kanban board can be far more effective with just a few extra columns.
Here’s a better version of a kanban board that I’ve used:
I know that image is small, so here are the list titles from left to right:
- Next Week
- This Week
- In Progress
The backlog holds all cards/tasks that I know will need to happen sometime in the future. Then, tasks move left to right, until they’re completed.
The format is straightforward, but what makes it work are the systems and habits that make the kanban run smoothly:
1) Before you start, add all future tasks to the backlog
I did this in one fell swoop when I started, and now continuously add tasks as they arise. Get every piece of every known project onto cards and add them to the backlog. Some cards may have due dates, but most will just sit in there waiting for when the time is right.
If you have a long-term relationship (retainer) with a client, you might use a full board just for them, in which case the backlog will be full of future pieces of projects you’ll be working on together.
For those of you who focus on short-term projects, your backlog will likely hold more cards related to your own business. For example, you might have cards like “Research new website host” or “Watch so-and-so’s webinar.”
2) Keep tasks between 1 and 8 hours
Each task/card should be a bite-sized piece of the project you’re working on. For example, if you’re designing a new website for a client, you might have tasks like:
- Brand discovery meeting with client
- Wireframe the homepage
- Design the homepage
- Revise the homepage
You want to keep tasks small enough to complete in the timeframe of a week, but large enough that you aren’t moving over a bunch of cards for a single piece of the project. (If a piece has lots of sub-tasks, put them in the Checklist feature inside the card.) A good rule of thumb is that no task should take longer than 8 hours.
3) Each Monday, prepare for the new week
First thing Monday morning (or last thing Friday afternoon), you’ll change over all cards into their correct places for the coming week.
This starts on the right. Move the items in “Done” to “Archive,” so that Done will be empty to catch anything that you finish in the new week. Anything left unfinished in “In Progress” or “This Week” requires a decision and a bit of introspection. What happened that prevented it from being completed? Learn from this. Then, is it something that needs to be included in the new week’s tasks?
Finally, move the “Next Week” items to “This Week.” Add any due dates you think are pertinent.
Your board should be looking clean and ready to fill. Your week is prepped!
4) Each morning, select your tasks
What needs to happen today, and what can you reasonably accomplish? Move those cards from “This Week” to “Today.” Don’t overextend yourself. Focus on just what you know you can complete. You can always pull more cards later if you make good time.
Customizing your system
Using Trello for your kanban is ideal because there are many ways to customize it to suit your own work habits. Here are some ways that I’ve customized my board.
Use labels for task type
Trello allows you to use color-coded labels to organize your cards even further, which makes it easy to keep track of things as they move through the board. For example, I use red for internal content: blog posts I’m writing, videos to create, ebooks, etc. Client work is always green, which makes it easy to keep track of my priorities.
Add time estimates
The Chrome plugin Plus for Trello adds a whole layer of additional customization options. It’s a feature-packed tool, but the piece that I use most is the time estimating feature. Once the plugin is downloaded, you just add a number in parentheses in the title of a card, and it gives that card the time estimate. So, if I think a blog post is going to take four and half hours, I’ll title that card “Blog post (4.5)”. “4.5” is added to a small ticker box in the card, and the estimates for all cards in a list are summed up in another box at the top of the list.
I love time estimates because it gives me a clear idea of how much I can realistically accomplish. When I put together my “This Week” list, I can see if I’m trying to accomplish more than I actually have time for. Time estimates also mean that I can see how much I accomplish each week by the hour sum in the “Done” list on Friday. If I were to log my actualtime in each card in addition to the estimates (also a feature available in Plus for Trello), this would be even more accurate.
Add or remove columns as needed
Because I’m regularly writing for this blog, I have a second backlog list that I call “Content Backlog” where I house all of my blog post ideas. Each blog post is its own card, and this provides an endless stream of ideas when I’m looking at what to write for the coming weeks. While I could certainly keep these cards in the normal backlog, there are enough of them that it’s more organized to keep them separate.
Another column I use is “Blocked,” which I keep after my “In Progress” column. This is where I put anything that I started but can’t move forward with because I’m waiting for a client to get back to me.
Work in two-week sprints
Instead of “This Week” and “Next Week,” you could choose to use “This Sprint” and “Next Sprint.” A sprint is any length of time that you set to complete a given set of tasks. Many medium-sized businesses choose two-week sprints, since a lot of project pieces need to go through several time-sucking approval processes before they’re ready to deliver. If you’re finding that your tasks are too big to fit into one week, cut down your task size, or consider working in two-week sprints.
How do YOU keep your business tasks organized?
What have you found that turns you into an organized machine, and what makes your productivity crash and burn? I’d love to know! Share your insights in the comments below.