Originally published on Medium

A Personal Productivity System

How to use Kanban and Trello as a to-do list.

Following the publishing of my article on morning routines I got quite a few requests to share my to-do list system. But first let me share the long journey to find a system that worked for me.

The Pain

For a long time I’ve had the view that to-do lists was for the old and forgetful and that I was neither! Unfortunately I kept forgetting things and since I had no desire to be either old or forgetful, I grudgingly acknowledged that to-do lists could not be that bad.

I started with the good old post-it, building up a line of post-its on the bottom of my monitor. It actually worked! Although the downside was that I had to be at home to actually create tasks to do. Good for visualizing tasks, bad for that serendipitous thought I had on the road. For a brief moment I used to-do lists on my phone for thoughts on the road, only to make a post-it at home. Madness!

Enter Trello.

I stumbled into Trello one day and at first I could not see its usefulness. The concept of Trello is quite simple. There are boards, lists and cards. Boards contain lists which contain cards.

To me that seemed too simple to be useful and I held off using it for a long time until it clicked. Kanban boards was the answer. In software engineering, Kanban boards are used to visualize work. A software project could have a board containing lists named In planning, Developing, Testing, In review, Ready for deployment, In deployment and Shipped. The lists contains cards which could be a feature or a bug fix. Say a card called Adding Medium integration could be In planning which means that that feature is currently in the planning phase of the software development lifecycle. Another card called Bug #42, Clicking on log in button deletes all data could be fixed already but needs to be tested and is therefore in the Testing list. As cards move through the process, they get moved from list to list. Having read about this and how it could be used as a to-do list I decided to try it out.

My system

My to-do list that is actually several lists. I use the following lists: To Do, Doing, Weekly, Short-term goals, Long-term goals.

To Do is for all tasks that I will do during the week. This is where urgent and semiurgent tasks appear. Although some tasks might end up staying for much longer, I usually complete these during the week.

Doing is for all tasks that I aim to complete during the day. These tasks are put into the list in the morning for me to peruse throughout the day.

Weekly is for all completed tasks during the week. I clear this list every Sunday evening. This list is for my own sense of achievement and to keep track of how well the past week has progressed.

Short-term goals are tasks that I want to do in the coming year. This might even spill over to tasks that cannot be completed in a year, but ambition is not too bad is it? Short-term goals also contains overarching tasks that contain other tasks.

Long-term goals are tasks that I try to live my life after. These are the goals, wished and dreams that I have for my life. These tasks might never be completed and might even be completely wrong but they are there to remind me of the bigger picture.

How it works

There are two ways for tasks to be inserted into my To Do. Either I create it manually or they go in through various integrations. Two of which I want to highlight is Google Calendar and Github. Both of these are through IFTTT.

Google Calendar I mainly use for inserting workouts, work and appointments with other people. Whenever an appointment is created in Google Calendar IFTTT creates a card in my To Do list. If the appointment is happening in more than a week I put it in Short-term goals, otherwise it stays in To Do. I usually plan out my week with work times and workouts Sunday night or Monday morning which means that Monday morning usually leaves me with the most cards in To Do.

Github I use for my personal programming project. This IFTTT integration takes any issue I am assigned to and puts them in my To Do. As I use it for my personal projects, I keep the current number of tasks assigned to me quite low.

Manual created cards are often one-off items (such as: Write blog post on Personal Kanban).

Now following the kanban principles, when I am in progress with something (which for me means I want to do this task during the current day) I will move it into Doing. Once I am done with it I move it into Weekly. If I don’t finish it I move it back into To Do or keep it in Doing if I want to keep working on it the next day.

So now I’ve explained how I use it, but does it work? For me I use it in a way that suits me perfectly. Some principles that I abide by:

  • Keep the Doing list short, you probably won’t achieve more than five cards a day.
  • Don’t worry if you can’t achieve everything in your To Do in a week. To be honest, I’ve had items in there for a month or more (including the card: Write blog post on Personal Kanban). With such a system I feel you have to forgive yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over something that you don’t feel like doing. Move it back into Short-Term goals or remove it completely if you actually don’t need to or feel like doing the task.
  • Be proud of your Weekly list. The entire reason I started to include cards that was essentially just Go to work was because otherwise it mostly seemed like I didn’t achieve something in the week.
  • Go crazy in what you put in a card. Trello gives you flexibility and you can take advantage of that. I like to put checklists in cards for reading a book where each item on the checklist is one chapter in the book. I also use comments and the card description to fill in the research I make about the task itself.

Long term planning

Now, this system works well for tasks that need to be done quite soon. How about the huge backlog of things we want to do at some point? What to do about that dream of going to a far away place? And those career goals?

My solution for this is two lists: Short-term goals and Long-term goals.

Short-term goals as mentioned earlier are for things I want to do in the coming months. Long-term goals are things I want to do in my life.

These lists contains cards that are different than the other lists. The contain cards that might be very vague (like: Learning Spanish). I tolerate vague cards here because they are either habits I want ingrained or an overall vision which I will create smaller cards to handle the actual tasks that go into that vision. The lists also contain cards that simply hold other cards. I have a cards called Reading for books that I have and need to read. Whenever I start a new book I make a card and reference the card in the Reading card. I use checklists where each item is a card so that progress is visualized.

Don’t worry about deja vu, it’s the same image as earlier. Here I have tasks such as Clean Apartment and Laundry in my To Do. That particular day I already finished working and working out and I put tasks such as writing a book review and working on this blog post on Doing. My short-term goals include upcoming travel, learning Spanish, blogging and getting a scuba diver license. My long-term goals include career goals, travel I want to do, hobbies I want to pursue.

Kanban-mania

I really found the kanban method efficient for me and even applied it to another area. Games! I have many games on Steam, the game distribution platform, that I have never played. This backlog of games annoyed me, so I implemented the kanban method for getting through the backlog of games.

I use following categories: Boring games, Completed and fun, Completed and not playing again, LAN, Never tried, Open ended games, Playing, To Play and Unfinished games.

Currently I use Playing a bit like a To Play list as well, hence the absence of the To Play list. Interestingly half of my games are either boring or I haven’t tried them. The flow for these are To Play which are games that I want to play at some time but never played it before. Playing for games that I am playing. And when completed I move it into Completed and fun or Completed and not playing again depending on my reaction of it. This distinction lets me choose among the completed games if I feel bored one day and want to replay a game. Boring games are for games that I tried and didn’t like. LAN is for multiplayer games. Never tried are games that I don’t even want to try (usually bought in bundles with games I do want to play). This category is for when I feel adventurous. Open ended games are for when games that don’t really have a specific ending (Civilization V, I’m looking at you). Unfinished games are for the games that are not finished but in active development. I don’t play these games until they are finished but they are some that I want to play some day. I keep them in here to remind myself once and awhile to check their progress and see if they can be promoted to To Play.

Now that you’ve seen my system, what is your opinion? Do you think it could work for you? Why and why not? Write a reply to let me know of your favorite to-do system. Share and recommend if you think your friends might be able to use this.