Lists on Lists on Lists: Trello and how it saves me every day

I was told this week that I had the most meticulously kept notebook list a coworker had ever seen – I highly doubt this is true, but it made me stop and think about the strides I’ve made to keep myself and my thoughts in order.

I endearingly call myself scatterbrained from time to time, but it’s definitely no blessing. If I don’t write down everything, I will forget it, and when I feel like I’m forgetting too much, I get overwhelmed and tend to shut down. I feel like this may not be unique to me, but everyone I know seems to handle the stress of juggling different tasks a lot better than I do.

I eventually figured out that when I start feeling overwhelmed, I need to take a step back and think about all the things I have going on. This typically results in me making a list. Then another list breaking down the tasks in the various list items. Maybe then a list of things to remember to do on certain dates. Before you know it, I’ve got a whole notebook full of lists, and I haven’t actually completed anything on them.

After a while of going through the same cycle (of forget, stress, lists, forget, …), I decided I needed something a bit more sustainable than a handwritten paper list. I wanted something easy to keep up with and change (an easy-to-use interface means everything to me), something I can open on any digital device, and most importantly something free. This would bring my ecological footprint and my spending on notebooks to 0 (ok I’m exaggerating, but maybe I’ll just buy fewer notebooks – they’re just so pretty!).

While I was in the midst of one of my “I need a list” stress outs, a work friend came to my rescue and told me about a free website called Trello.

Trello is a collaboration tool (that can be used for free or through an Enterprise version) where your project management or to-do list crazed mind can run wild. It can be used on any team, as long as users are invited through a team name, or just as a personal platform – which is how I use it for my day-to-day task organization.

Personal Use

Trello organizes its projects into “Boards”, similar to Pinterest, where you can put everything you need to know about a project in one clean place. I, personally, have 2 boards at the moment that I use regularly: one for to-do lists (as I mentioned earlier), and one for Wedding Planning (you can find a similar Board here).

Drilling down a bit, you can include movable “Lists” in each Board. This may be as simple as a Due this week and Due next week for a personal list, or I can imagine a chef organizing their recipes into lists by meal genre. The possibilities go on and on.

Next, Trello allows you to drill down and include “Cards” in your lists. These are your tasks – what you need to do in your list to complete the project on your “Board”. This is typically as far as most tools allow you to go. Maybe you can add a description or an alarm in your iPhone Reminders section, but what if it’s a big task?

I needed more than the basics to replace my ever-customizable handwritten list of lists, and boy oh boy was I surprised! Trello lets you add seemingly unlimited amounts of extra information to every task: descriptions, due dates, alerts, user assignments, attachments, and even checklists! I was thrilled to find a tool that lets me customize my to-do items so easily.

Anything you want to change in Trello can be moved around through click-and-drag, and everything is easily color-coded or duplicated as needed. If you forget to hit “add” on a list or card, it auto-saves your half-written text for you. This thing has checked every box for me (ok, I’ll stop with the puns).

Team Project Use

My team at work started using Trello as an agile project management tool (similar to Rally or GIRA, but so much easier to operate), so I have, through that, had the opportunity to see the full range of features it has for a team’s use.

Adding new boards to a team group is easy – you just have to note which team you want to include the project in, and it drops your new board in a pool of already-created team projects. Digging deeper, you are not automatically added to a new project if you’re on a team unless you choose to be or your name is manually entered on the board.

In the cards, you can assign a certain user to a task or a checklist item, making it easy to separate group projects or anything where multiple people depend on one another to get something accomplished. The tool can be used in just about any industry or education level as long as Internet access is available.


Trello has a mobile application as well as a web-view, so you can edit and update your to-do lists or team to-do lists on the go in real time. This was one of my requirements for the tool – the ability to use it quickly on the go as well as on any computer.

Many tools integrate directly with the interface: Google Drive, Slack (team communications), Confluence (project documentation) and GIRA (owned by the same company). Through work, I have also found an integration with Smartsheet, a licensed tool that acts like Google Sheets, that is a bit clunky, but still works if you already have a Smartsheet account. The full list of Trello tool integrations can be found here.

Old Habits Die Hard

I still use my handwritten notebook to jot down in-meeting action items at work, so I don’t seem too rude using my phone when my computer isn’t available, but I do my best to stay with the digital version as much as I can. It’s a tough transition, mentally, but Trello definitely is making this easier than any tool I have attempted before.

Staying Caught Up

One thing I have tried to do recently to keep my Trello boards up to date is to schedule a 15-20 minute block of time every Friday to read through every item and clean up my lists as much as I can. Sometimes this is as easy as checking off completed (but forgotten) tasks, and other weeks, I go through and create my own deadlines for all my checklist items or cards to stay on track. This has definitely helped my mental state – I like knowing that everything I needed to remember is right in front of me, and, with Trello’s “archive” feature instead of an actual “delete”, is never forgotten again.

If you’ve had experience with an organization tool you’d like to recommend, I’m happy to hear more about it in the comments!


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