How to Use Trello to Stay Organized

Keep track of personal tasks and professional projects with this tool

Woman using Trello on laptop
Photo: iStock

Trello is a Kanban-style project management tool that is a visual way to see all the tasks that you or your team need to accomplish, which makes it easier to see what everyone on the team is doing at a given time. It's also free, which means that it's accessible to small and large groups as well as to individuals who run businesses or who want to track personal tasks. Among project management tools, Trello is one of the easiest ones to use and implement, but its blank-slate interface can be a bit daunting. Luckily, we have some tips to help you and your team get the most out of Trello, no matter what you're using it to track.

What is Kanban?

The Kanban style of project management is inspired by a Japanese manufacturing process that Toyota implemented in the late 1940s. Its aim was to increase efficiency in its factories by tracking inventory in real-time, using cards that passed between workers on the floor. When a particular material ran out, workers would make a note of that on the card, which would make its way to the supplier who would then ship the requested material to the warehouse. These cards were often called Kanban, which means sign or billboard in Japanese.

So how does this translate to project management? Software like Trello takes this concept of passing around cards and puts it into a visual interface, where tasks are laid out on a board and matched with a team's work capacity. At its most basic, a board will have three sections: to do, doing (or in the process), and done. However, teams can use this tool in any way that works for them. Some teams may prefer a real board, while others want the convenience of a virtual solution, like Trello.

How to Use Trello

Trello utilizes boards, which contain lists, which are made up of cards. Boards can represent projects (website redesign, bathroom renovation), lists can be used for tasks (graphics, tiling), and cards can contain sub-tasks or options (hire a designer, tile sizes and colors).

Once you've decided how to organize your lists, you can start adding cards, which in turn can have checklists and labels. Checklists are a way to break down tasks into sub-tasks. For example, if you're using Trello to plan a vacation, you might have a card for a restaurant you want to try, with a checklist that includes making a reservation, researching the best dishes to get, and checking if it's child-friendly. Labels can be used to represent a card's status (approved, submitted, etc.) or category (science, technology, arts, etc.) or any tag you want. Then you can conduct a search that will bring up all science-related cards or all approved cards, for example. You don't have to add a title to a label, though; you can also use them for color-coding (up to 10 colors are available; a color-blind option is available).

As you start working on and completing tasks, you can easily drag and drop cards from one list to another, and eventually archive cards and lists once the interface becomes unwieldy.

You can assign cards to team members as well as add comments, file attachments, color-coded labels, and due dates. Team members can @ mention others in comments to start a conversation. You can upload files from your computer as well as from cloud storage services including Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, and OneDrive.

Also included is a nifty email integration. Each board has a unique email address that you can use to create cards (tasks). You can send attachments to that email address as well. And best yet, when you get an email notification, you can reply to it directly rather than launching Trello.

Notifications, including mentions and comments, are available from mobile apps, a desktop browser, and via email. Trello has apps for iPhone and iPad, as well as Android phones, tablets, and watches, and Kindle Fire tablets.

Trello offers more than 30 add-on features and integrations, which it calls power-ups. Examples of power-ups include a calendar view, a card repeater for recurring tasks, as well as integration with Evernote, Google Hangouts, Salesforce, and more. Free accounts include one power-up per board.

All of Trello's core features are free, though there is a paid version called Trello Gold ($5 per month or $45 per year) which adds some perks, including three power-ups per board (rather than one). It also includes attractive board backgrounds and stickers, custom emojis and larger attachments uploads (250 MB rather than 10 MB). Trello offers one free month of Gold membership for every person you get to join Trello, up to 12 months. 

As we said, at first glance, setting up Trello is a bit intimidating because there aren't many restrictions on how you can use it. On the one hand, you can create boards that simply show what you've finished, what's you're working on, and what's next. On the other hand, you can go deeper, creating to-do lists divided into categories or departments. 

You can use Trello to track anything from personal tasks to professional projects to event planning, but here are a few real-world examples to get you started.

Using Trello to Manage a Home Renovation

Let's say you're planning to renovate one or more rooms in your home. If you've ever survived a renovation, you know there are lots of moving parts, and plenty of surprises, no matter how carefully you prepare. Organizing all the decisions you need to make in Trello, can help keep the project on track. Let's say you're planning a kitchen renovation. In this case, you could create a board called Kitchen Renovation, and then add lists dedicated to each element that you're replacing.

The Kitchen Renovation board can include lists for:

  • Potential contractors
  • Each appliance that you're replacing
  • Cabinetry
  • Countertops and backsplash
  • Flooring
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical

The cards for each list would include the dimensions, budget, and must-have features, as well as any models that you're considering. Cards for plumbing could include pipe replacement, new water line, as well as the estimated price, and related concerns, such as water shutdowns. You can easily attach images of the materials and appliances that you're considering, and link to product listings so you can price shop. Once you make a decision, you can use labels to name or color code the product or material. 

Finally, for each card, you can create checklists. For example, a refrigerator card could have a checklist that includes the disposal of the old refrigerator and installing a water line for the icemaker.

If you're renovating several rooms, just create a board for each one, and list out everything you need to consider; continually add lists and cards and move elements around as needed.

Invite other family members to your boards, and assign them cards to distribute the necessary work, such as product and pricing research, scheduling, and other logistics. Trello has a public home renovation board that you can copy to your own account.

Planning a Vacation with Trello

Traveling with several family members or friends can quickly get complicated. Use Trello to choose a destination, plan activities, and schedule transportation. In this case, you could have one board that contains possible places to visit, and another for the trip once you've decided where to go.

The Trip board can include lists for:

Under the potential destinations board, you would create a list for each place, with cards for travel time, budget, pros/cons, and any other considerations. The lists in the trip board would include cards for airlines, rental cars, notable cuisine in the area, and attractions such as museums, shopping, and neighborhoods to explore. If you decide to go on a cruise, you can create lists for things to do onboard and for the planned stops, as well as the transportation necessary to get to the ship. Use labels to indicate chosen items, or to highlight contenders after you've narrowed your choices down. Add checklists to cards for booking and scheduling tours or cruise events. Trello also has a public vacation board that you can use as a starting point.

Tracking Personal Goals and Projects

Whether you're looking to clean out the clutter in your home or garage, take up a hobby, or exercise more, you can easily track it in Trello. Create boards for New Year's resolutions, or for multi-step projects, such as attic cleanout or home office organization. 

For a resolutions board, create a list for each resolution, and then cards for how you can implement them, such as joining a gym, going for daily walks, or buying home exercise equipment. Use the lists on a personal project to break down the big tasks, with cards for sub-tasks. For example, a spring cleaning board could include lists for rooms and other areas of the home. Lists would have cards for associated tasks, such as cleaning supplies needed, an inventory of items you want to sell, donate, or throw out, and tasks you want to outsource such as window cleaning or tree removal.

Managing a Freelance or Consultancy Business

Finally, if you run your own business, Trello can be your top-notch assistant. Boards can represent projects, with lists for each stage or milestone, and cards for related tasks. Freelance writers can use Trello to manage story pitches and published works. 

Let's say you have a project board for a website redesign. Your lists could include important tasks, such as hiring a designer and other important roles as well as milestones, such as choosing a color scheme, managing layouts, and getting approvals along the way. Cards would include proposed color schemes and layouts, and the steps needed to prepare for meetings. A freelance writer could have boards for story ideas, publications, and marketing. Lists can represent stages, such as in process, submitted, and published, or you can use labels to do that. 

Trello is a simple, but powerful tool, and it's worth spending some time tinkering with it. If you're not sure where to begin, browse through Trello's user community, which includes public boards that you can copy to your account.