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Everything You Need to Know to Work Productively in Trello


Most todo list apps are too linear and structured. If you want to go beyond the “done” and “not done” status for your tasks—say, to show things that are in progress or have several steps before they get completed—then they're far from optimal. One of the best alternatives is the low-tech solution of sticking Post-It notes on a whiteboard to help to visualize the lists in logical lists you can easily move around.

Trello is a great web app that give you a digital workspace that’s as easy to use as a whiteboard and Post-It notes, but full-featured enough for distributed teams to take the ideas to a real project. This tutorial will help you get started using Trello, and how to put it to work for your team.

Why Trello?

When I was employed as a lecturer in college, part of my job was to look after the computers with my fellow colleagues and see if they were working in a proper condition or not. I experimented with several tools out there, including to-do lists, mind maps, database apps. To some extent they all helped but they weren’t without their shortcomings.

Of all the tools, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards covered in to-do lists proved to be the least effective. This is because the lists offered our work zero context. They reminded us to do a certain number of tasks, but didn’t show us valuable real-time information necessary for effective decision making.

We then experimented with mind maps. While we were able to manage a shared backlog and understand what was going on, the information conveyed was not obvious. It didn’t help us to complete tasks or distinguish between work shared by my team, and essentially offered us little ability to get a status-at-a-glance. What we need was a dynamic system, one that would help us prioritize and shows us what we are currently working on, what we have completed, what is being delayed and so on.

With the Kanban (in Japanese, kan = “visual” and ban = “card”) system, though, we were able to see larger view of our work. The mere visualization sparkled our thoughts and the clear contextual message allowed us to make better decisions. At its simplest, Kanban is implemented using a whiteboard with Post-It notes. Rows are drawn on the board, and a Post-It scribbled with some task moves from row to row as work gets done. Trello takes this concept and makes it something as simple that anybody can use for just about any project.

Understanding Trello’s Terminology

Screenshot showing a complete Trello board 1. Red colour depicts board 2. Green colour depicts lists
3. Pink colour depicts cards 4. Yellow colour depicts sidebar and activity section

Trello is based on three underlying elements: boards, lists and cards. A board is used to house a project, product, resource, or organizational structure that is under continuous development. It's the digital whiteboard for your fake Post-it note tasks. You can use a different board per project, per team member or you can use just a single board for personal project.

Within board are lists, which simply give you columns to organize your tasks into lists. They categorize and track your tasks (cards) in a visual way, which can be moved around as you want inside and between the lists. Cards are the equivalent of to-do items which populate your list. The cards are the basic building blocks of Trello, where each card is one of the little projects or tasks a team member is working on.

When you click on a card, the properties of the card appears and you’ll be able to add items like a checklists, due date, add team members, attach files and more. There's a sidebar on the far right which contain options for customizing your board behavior, look and feel, and permission settings. The sidebar also has an activity section, in which you can see all the activities going on the board in real time.

These basic elements will remain same irrespective of any number of board you create. The board represents your overall goal and cards are your to-do items, which can be moved among lists, depending on their progress in the project. But because Trello’s flexible and free-form design doesn’t tell you how to work, you can come up with whatever system makes sense to you for the project you’re trying to manage.

Build Your Own Productivity System

Your first step in using Trello is to create a new board. Click the (+) button next to your profile name in the top right corner, choose New Board and give it a name. We’ll call this board “Blogging Workflow.”

Creating a new board

A Trello board can be either public or private. If you’re the only one using Trello then you can make your board private, as Trello boards are a great way to organize your personal projects as well. But if you have a team to work with, then Trello gives you an easy option to collaborate with others. To add members, select Add Members from the sidebar and if your colleague isn’t already on Trello, enter the email address to invite them to your board. Once the member accepts the invitation, you can start to engage them in your project.

Or, if you want to work publicly—perhaps to share upcoming features your team is adding to your product, or get suggestions from your audience about what your team should do next—you can set the board as public. The Trello team uses a public board for their development roadmap so you can see what's coming up next, and suggest features you'd like to see added.

Working With Lists

When you first create a board in Trello, it has three lists: ToDo, Doing, and Done. A default board is great for planning parties or some small project, but Trello also lets you rename and add new lists to a board. To add a list either click the Add a list… button next to the rightmost list on the board or double-click any open space on the board to add them.

Each list has few more actions that can be handy. To access them, click the small drop-down triangle in any list to show the menu. Copy List makes a duplicate copy of a list, useful if you have a standard template of a list you want to duplicate. Subscribe notifies you when changes are made to cards in a list. Move All Cards moves all cards to another list, useful if you want to shift all the previous cards to new list. And Archive All Cards puts all cards in the list in the archive, useful if you want to archive all cards at once in the list.

List options in Trello board

Before you start making lists, I highly recommend you think about what type of lists will help you organize your work. Does each member need a list (say, “Rahul’s tasks,” “John’s tasks”), or would you rather use a lists for a specific step in the process (such as “unassigned,” “In progress,” “Done”)? There is no general approach in making lists that fits all teams; it all depends on your needs. So for the project “Blogging Workflow” the lists might be: Ideas, Research, Drafting, Editing, Published, On Hold, Someday.

You can add as many lists as you want, and it may be tempting to add a dozen lists. But, remember that the more lists you have, the more you'll lose your ability to see the big picture at a glance. It's best to have a half-dozen or so lists to help you be able to see everything at once.

Working With Trello Cards

Now that your lists are set up, you can add some cards. Cards are essentially individual tasks, and you can add them either via Add a card… input at the bottom of the lists or through context menu at the top of lists.

A card should be a clear, actionable message or task that can be summed up in one simple description. You could write a long description, and you could make a card that covers a large project, but you'd be far better off to add longer descriptions inside the card and to make sure your card contains just one actionable item.

As an example, a card titled “Make a new Facebook page of your website” is too broad. You cannot release Facebook page by itself—you'll need a lot of information and steps to completely make a Facebook page, and thus it's a project in itself. You'd be better to devote a column or even a board to it—or at least break it down into several actionable cards.

As another example, a card with the title "Wifi" that then in the description says that a wifi router needs setup is too vague to be easily useful and actionable. It'd be better to title the task "Setup Wifi Router" and then include further info in the description.

Then, there's a further way to add meaning to cards: labels. These colors with a name let you quickly assign tasks to a section, and give you an immediate visual connection to the type of task. They're also searchable to make it easy to find tasks with those labels.

To add labels click the pencil icon on hover and then select Edit labels. You’ll notice 6 labels to choose from in Trello, but before that you have to name your labels. Click Change label names for board and name them, my project has a workflow from idea to post so therefore I’ll rename them as per the list. But your project may have different needs, so label them as per your requirement.

Add labels to your card

Deadlines are another important Trello feature. To add a due date, click the pencil icon when hovering over a card and then select Change Due Date. You’ll notice a neat calendar layout, from there select your date and time. A badge with the due date will appear on the card. A light grey badge means the card is due more than 24 hours in the future, yellow means that it’s within 24 hours of being due, and red means the card is due today.

Set the due date of your card

When you're working with a team, you'll want to be able to assign particular tasks to different team members. Every person that's a member on a task will receive notifications when anything on that card is changed, or when it's due. And, you can add as many members as you need to a task—a great way to start group discussions around something you're planning.

To add members to a task, click the Change Members button when you hover over the card, then search for the team member you want or click their avatar. Click the avatar again if you want to remove someone from the card.

Assign task to other members

Now that you have assigned task to other member, you can keep in touch through comments. Each card has its own comments thread, and when you want to mention anyone on your team, add their username with an @ symbol before it to make sure they'll be notified. Along with comments, you can also attach files directly to cards to keep important stuff together.

Then, as you're working and assigning tasks, you'll likely want to move your cards around. Depending on the columns you setup, you might want to move cards into the column of tasks that's assigned to a particular person, or move them as they're nearing completion and moving through your workflow. Moving a card is as simple as dragging and dropping it into the list and position you'd like. Otherwise, you can click the Move Card button and select the board, list, and position where you'd like the card.

Move your card freely to different board, list or position

There's one more neat option in your cards: checklists. If your task has sub-tasks, you can add them as a checklist inside the card, right alongside your comments and attachments. Then, if you decide you'd like that task to have it's own card, you can click the Convert to Card link.

Convert checklist to a card

Email Cards to Your Trello Board

One other nice feature is that you can create new Trello cards via email. Each Trello board comes with a special email address; simply go to the sidebar, click Email-to-board Settings and grab the email address. When you are composing an email, the subject of the email become the card title and the body become the card description.

Cards sent to the email address will be sent to the bottom of the first list by default, but if you want to change that, open Email-to-board Settings and change the default list and position from there. In addition, attachments are added to the card, and you may use labels with hashtags in the subject i.e, #labelname, #labelcolour. You may also assign members using “@” in the subject.

Email cards to your Trello board

In Chrome Web Store there is a Gmail to Trello extension. This free tool for Gmail provides an extra “Add card” button in the Gmail UI to add the email you're currently reading to a Trello card easily. That's a great option if you want to quickly turn your emails into actionable Trello tasks.

Integrate Gmail to Trello for simple and effective project management

You could even, say, have your support emails automatically get forwarded to your Trello board email address, so they'll be turned into tasks. There's many ways you can put this to use.

Search and Shortcuts

You may have started your board with best intentions and thoughts but eventually as you add more stuff, the most well-managed organization or private board can make it difficult to find what you are looking for. Trello has a search box in the top left and is really a powerful tool in your hand. By knowing a few search operators, you can quickly find the information that is relevant to you. You may either search across all the boards using the search box or filter the current board using Filter in the board menu on the sidebar.

Type @username to search for cards assigned to a particular user. For example @rahul will show only Rahul’s cards. Type #label to search for cards with a certain label. For example, @rahul #red shows all Rahul’s cards labeled red. Type is:open or is:archived to search open or archived cards. For example, @rahul #red is:archived returns Rahul’s archived cards with a red label.

Type has:attachment to search for cards with attachment. For example, @rahul has:attachment returns Rahul’s cards with attachments. Type due:day to search for cards due within 24 hours. Similarly due:week, due:month, due: overdue also work as expected. For example, @rahul due:week shows all Rahul’s cards due in a week. Finally, you’ll notice that as you type in a search, Trello will suggest you additional search operators. Take your time in learning all these search operators, as they can be really useful to you in long run.

Search in Trello board is effective and has a beautiful user interface

Trello is loaded with keyboard shortcuts as well. They let you do everything on a card, from archiving and moving it, to changing members and labels, with a simple keystroke. There’s complete list on the shortcuts page, so make sure to check them out.

Integrate IFTTT With Trello

So many tasks you do everyday can be automated using tools like IFTTT. It's a tool that can automatically do something in dozens of apps whenever anything else is happened—so, say, it could make a task in Trello for you when a new file is added to a specific Dropbox folder. If you've never used IFTTT before, be sure to check out our tutorial to help you get started with it.

We have already discussed that every Trello board can receive email to generate a new card in the list, now what is left to do is to create a recipe in IFTTT that takes, for example, a favourited tweet and sends an email with it to Ideas list. There is an another recipe which will send text messages with a hashtag to your Trello board, great for those times when you are travelling or want to send a quick task without opening the app. Want a card to remind you do a weekly review every Monday? Then you can use this recipe to schedule trigger an email to your board weekly.

Make a Trello App For Your Computer

Trello works great from any browser, and has native iOS and Android apps for your mobile device, but there's no native app for your Mac or PC. Instead, you could make your own semi-native app using Fluid on your Mac. Fluid lets you create desktop apps from your favorite web apps or website. Check our tutorial on Fluid to get started with it, then come back here for some Trello specific tips. There are two important aspects I want you to remember before you create Trello desktop app.

In the URL field instead of adding https://trello.com you should add your Trello board URL, if you are not sure how to do this click any board and take a note of the URL in the address bar of your browser and paste that URL in the URL field of Fluid app. By this way you can make desktop apps of multiple Trello boards.

Create desktop apps of multiple Trello board

Another great feature is that if you have multiple Trello accounts, then you know that it can be a pain have to log in and log out everytime. To solve this issue, create your Fluid app then go to Preferences → Security, choose to separate cookies from Safari and relaunch the app. Perform the same steps depending upon the number of Trello desktop app you want to create, and now you can work with your own Trello board as well your company’s Trello board simultaneously.

Create multiple Fluid apps of same web app with different accounts

Alternatively, on a Mac or PC, you can make a similar nearly native app with Chrome. This tutorial covers everything you'd need for that.


Trello can be a bit confusing to get started using if you're coming from traditional to-do lists, but if you've always loved managing your tasks with pieces of paper tacked to a board, you'll find Trello works the way you're already accustomed to working. This tutorial has given you the basics you'll need to get Trello working for your projects, and we'd love to hear how you put it to use. Or, if you need help getting started with Trello, be sure to let us know in the comments below.

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