tl;dr I do a lot of lists.
Since a few years now I spend a week discussing startups in a business school, trying to make my time and the students’ useful I started to discuss about time management. Which brings us to lists - to do lists.
Usually the “structure your work” discussion is not half as impacting as showing Trello. This post is here to explain how I leverage this tool, it will be about project management in general, and sometimes Trello more specifically.
Trello is a list tool that is quite simple and flexible, that is why I will describe most used cases.
My usual philosophy of work is about agile. Project management is often about engineering projects, but most things can be seen from a project management angle.
I try to keep my tasks:
- Deliverable, which means that there is a reusable output out of this task. This should help avoiding super vague tasks, like “Market our product”, and push more fact based tasks like: “Setup a Facebook page with some advertising”.
- Measurable, “Setup a campaign reaching 15€ / day spendings”. Some exploratory tasks are hard to made deliverable, yet its easy to say “Spend 2 hours learning about image recognition”.
- Limited, if they can be broken in smaller, still deliverable, pieces. Then they should be broken into pieces like this.
- Unambiguous, because ambuiguity can be break the above rules.
All those criteria aims at ensuring that you are able to deliver when you start working and that you will avoid time sinks.
Then all my tasks are evolving from one state to another (similar to what you can see on some project management board covered by post its).
They do not need to be complex, just to have the right level of description. Often the title is enough, any documentation, or discussion that has happened around a task are likely to be stored here.
Suggested reading about SMART tasks.
This first stage is very important, that is where people are allowed to write new tasks.
Tasks here are allowed to have no priority, but otherwise priority is key. Priority in many project management software is represented by some label like “critical”, “urgent”, “major” and “minor”. And in the end, almost all tasks have the same priority and this system does not reply to the question “what should I do next?”.
Execution from the list of tasks should be straight forward, and thus there should always be “the most important task” ready there. So here “priority” means sorting every tasks from the most important to the least important.
This “unsorted zone” prevents people to mess up with the existing organization elsewhere, when you are working in team, it is usually a best practice to have only one person keeping the product vision and setting up priority.
Here comes all the prioritized tasks.
Working in iteration is usually a good practice: picking on a limited batch of tasks and getting them all done before starting a new one.
When you are developing a product with a long release timelike an iOS app, you usually trigger a release after each iteration. It forces a fix rythm in the product evolution, to keep close to the market, and avoid those endless development cycles were months are spent before releasing anything.
I try to have rule for this list, “To do” and “Pending”, never more than five tasks here. This avoid scope creeps and ensure focus.
This is the current to do list as well. Usually this gets refilled with the “Next iteration” tasks only when “To do”, “Doing” and “Pending” are empty.
The above rule helps focusing on what has been decided, in practice it is hard to respect it.
This contains a single task, what you are currently working on.
This single task here is to remind that you can only do one thing at a time and to really focus on it.
The task here comes from “Pending” if any is available and can be process, otherwise from Doing.
Sometimes … even often, you are blocked by something external. The tasks here are not done, you need to wait to work back on them. For some clarification, feedback, information or help. Any “doing” task that gets stuck moves here to wait for an unblocking event.
Pretty obvious. When tasks are done, they arrive here.
I usually keep them around and purge this list every now and then.
Archive / Note
Sometimes some tasks are complex and need to be kept because you will need to get back to this for reference.
Many “next iteration” lists
When you are working on complex projects, you may need to plan strategy ahead its often convenient to represent the next two or three versions.
Sometime a task is done, but not released and accessible for the customer. Especially when third party are accessing your list, you will want to make it explicit that this has been considered and will come soon.
Similarily you can consider most of your contacts has something that can live inside lists. Trello easily makes a a poor man CRM system - if you want to pay for the more advanced version I recommend checking out Pipedrive CRM.
I used to have the following lists:
- Potential contacts
- To contact
- Contacting: where you list all the contacts that you need to reach out as soon as possible
- Pending follow-up
- Keep in mind
Very useful when things need to be sorted, and the tags are linked with colors and thus visually easy to read.
You have typed this super long email, the good news is that you just need to bcc the current card (the name of the item in Trello’s list) and the magic happens.
The text of the email will be appended as a comment and the files attached to the card.
This is especially useful when you are managing contacts, just to see them red when it makes sense to reach back.
How many lists?
The first time you make a list you tend to put everything inside. I usually try to have one for major block of work, you don’t mix product development and marketing or your personal things. Different teams, different topics must mean different list. Even working alone, it will prevent your mind from wandering from one topic to another.
For some topic or some more high level, I also like to have to do list, which I will go do and see less often and where my tasks will be less simple, less deliverable and more abstract. But often going there will show me that the big picture is moving forward.
As a conclusion, I will just remind you that doing list is a very good thing because it enables you to put things of your mind. But making the list is the easiest thing, using it, maintaining it is key to productivity.
You need to integrated them in your daily routine. For the longer term list, setup monthly events, just to allocate a time to review them.