Steve Bennett blogs

…about maps, open data, Git, and other tech.

Trello Tennis


(Credit: Flickr’s Carine06, CC-BY-SA)

Here’s my method of keeping track of stuff to do. Other tools just didn’t work for me. Most to-do list tools make two assumptions, I think:

  1. Work arrives from somewhere (eg, a manager), and is readily broken up into pieces roughly 0.5-4 hours in size.
  2. Your primary responsibility is processing these tasks without gaps, maintaining a high level of output.

My work, technology for academics, tends to involve  coordinating lots of little projects with lots of different people. At any given moment, there are few tasks “in my court”, and they tend to be small. My primary responsibility is to keep all projects moving, and ensure that projects aren’t held up by a task being with me too long.

So, I ran with the ball in my court / ball in your court metaphor. It’s useful when:

  1. Your work is primarily about projects, and particularly a relationship between you and the main stakeholder in that project.
  2. You anxiously wonder whether you’re supposed to be doing something on a project.
  3. You have trouble remembering all the relevant bits of information for each project.

“Projects” here can be very small, and often include very early stage proposals that haven’t formed into anything very concrete.

Presenting: Trello Tennis.

Trello Tennis in (fictious) action

Trello Tennis in (fictious) action

To start with, the two most important columns:

  • Ball in my court: projects whose current state requires me to do something (as small as writing an email or checking something, or as big as preparing a whole workshop structure)
  • Ball in their court: projects whose current state is waiting for someone else to do something, such as providing feedback on a document, organising an event, or replying to an email.

The goal each day is to move projects from the “my court” column to the “their court” column. I periodically review “my court”, placing the most urgent items at the top. I also review “their court”, checking whether I should follow up or offer assistance.

More columns, that turned out to be useful for me:

  • All good/meeting scheduled: projects whose current state is that both parties are waiting for an event, usually a meeting. Neither of us has to do anything until then.
  • Wut?: the most dangerous column, projects where I’m not sure what the current state is after all. Am I waiting on them? Did I promise to research something and get back to them?
  • Somebody else’s problem (SEP): where responsibility for the project has been shifted to someone else. I don’t need to do anything, and I don’t even need to monitor it at the moment. Someone else may eventually hand it back to me, but until then I don’t worry.
  • Archive: the project is actually finished.
  • Blocked: there is a technical reason why the project can’t advance, and no one is currently doing anything about it.

Using Trello

Trello works really well for this.

The name of each card consists of both the project name, and a quick summary of my current task (if in my court), or what I’m waiting on if in theirs. Examples:

  • WidgetUpgrade – check if compatible with Ubuntu Precise
  • FoobarSystem – Anita fixing DNS problem
  • Maps for Psych – meeting Thurs 3rd 2pm

What’s particularly fantastic about using Trello is that each card can also track all the work on that project. Changing the title automatically creates a history trace, or I can add comments to record more information. Need somewhere to record a server name and login details? Use the card’s description field.

You can also use coloured labels to group projects, such as tagging by university in my case.

Of course, each individual project frequently has its own task tracking system: perhaps another Trello board, Github issues, Pivotal Tracker, Google spreadsheets etc. I link to them from the card’s description, ultimately tying together all information systems for all projects under a single roof.

The rules

Each day (or whenever):

  1. If there is anything in “Wut?”, attempt to clarify its state, then move it to the right column.
  2. Check each item in “Ball in their court” to see if it needs attention. Set alarms if you need. If it’s time to follow up, just move it back to “Ball in my court” and adjust the title.
  3. Review the “Ball in my court” list, ordering them appropriately – most urgent at the top.
  4. Work through items in “Ball in my court” if you have any free time. :)

To make this natural, I order the columns from left to right as follows: Wut, My Court, Blocked, Their Court, All Good, SEP, Archive. Stress is on the left, calm is on the right.

The goal is to get your board to look like this blissful fantasy:

A totally successful day in Trello Tennis land.

A totally successful day in Trello Tennis land.

These examples are actually tiny compared to (my) reality. By the end of 2013, I had 21 active cards, plus another 10 inactive (SEP and Archive). If you find this technique at all useful, or have any improvements, I’d love to hear about it.

Filtering for sanity

(Added 4 Feb 2014)
Sometimes it gets daunting looking at the huge mounds of work in front of you. Filtering can help cut through the distraction. Two types have worked for me:

Filter by organisation

Filter by client

Are you working for a particular client today, and don’t want to see anything related to any other clients? Assign one label per client, then turn on the filter!

Filter by … you

Filter by youTo focus on just one or two tasks that you need to finish, first assign yourself to those cards. Then, filter to only show cards that you’re assigned to. This feature is intended for collaboration, but it works nicely.

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