Getting Things Done with Trello and Remember the Milk

I’ve been using Remember the Milk for years. It’s an extraordinarily useful way to keep track of discrete tasks. Some of my favorite features are:

Integration

Remember the Milk can work with emails, calendars, twitter, chat, and rss feeds. That alone makes it wonderful. If I’m reading an email I want to follow up on later, I can just forward it to remember the milk. It’s just perfect.

Quick Entry

Especially when I combine RTM with tools like Quicksilver, I can remind myself to pick up milk at the grocery store tomorrow with one line:

pick up milk ^tomorrow #errand

So no fiddling with drop-downs or anything. For a keyboard-centric guy like me, that’s a big deal.

Repeating Tasks

Every task manager does repeating tasks. That’s great for time-bound tasks like taking out the trash. It’s terrible for things that don’t have a natural end-date, like “call your mother every week”. RTM solves this with “repeat after”. That means I can set a reminder that will automatically re-book itself once I’ve completed:

call mom *after 1 week

So I can call my mom, and immediately have a reminder created for a week later. I have like three dozen of these: checking fire extinguishers, replacing the filters on my air conditioner. You get the idea. It’s life-changing.

So I love RTM. But.

Even after years of work, I haven’t been able to use RTM to get a good sense of what my flow is like. Unless I tag them just right, I find tasks stay hidden for months until I stumble into them. Maybe I just need better filters or whatever, but after years of fiddling, I haven’t figured it out.

Trello

So that led me to Trello. Trello’s a basically a kanban system. You have cards for each thing, and those cards live on lists and those lists live on Boards. Lists are arranged in a particular order, and so are the cards. For workflows that are well-defined, like GTD, this is perfect. You can at a glance see where your bottlenecks are, and task discovery is much easier. You can also share boards with other people, which is super-handy.

Here’s how I’ve laid it out:

Whole Trello Board

I’ve made this public template so you can make a copy of your own.

So how to use it? We’ll take each list in turn.

Projects

Projects List

These are GTD-style projects. It’s just a list of everything that I’ve committed to. I keep it prominent so I can always check my inbox against the list. Is this new thing going to help me with any one of the projects? The answer to that question ensures that I’m focusing on the right things.

Inbox

Inbox List

This is the Inbox in the purest form: a dumping ground of all the stuff I need to process. I use the email-to-board feature to fill this up with all kinds of things: photos of stuff I want to buy, documents I need to read (more on that later), and emails I need to follow up on.

When I’m processing, I try to rewrite the item so it has a subject, verb, and object. So in this case, “Wortabet dictionary” becomes “Buy a Wortabet Dictionary”, and “Anna’s contractor friend” becomes “Get # for Anna’s contractor”. That ensures that the item is actually something I can do, and I’ll know when that something is done. That’s important.

If an item can’t be phrased like that, it’s probably a “Someday” item, which is where it will go. I’ll look at it again during my weekly review.

For everything else: if it takes less than 2 minutes, I do it. If it’s longer than that, it goes into Next Actions (the > key makes this super-easy) or becomes a checklist item on another card.

Next Actions

Next Actions List

This is all the stuff I need to actually do. I spend most of my time during the day scanning through this list for the next thing I need to worry about. Labels get really important here.

I use labels to determine context, which for me is:

  • phone: Someone I need to call or email
  • quiet: Stuff I need focus and quiet for
  • home: I need to physically be at home for this to happen.
  • waiting: Something that needs to get done, but is waiting for someone else to act. Almost all of these are reminders that someone owes me a call or an email. “waiting” items work best when they have a timeout date, so you don’t just wait forever.

As I finish items, > sends them to the…

Archive

Archive List

This is where I drop items that I’ve completed. Remember how I rephrased everything with a subject, verb, and object? That makes weekly review really easy. I can answer the question “What did you do this week?” which is much, much more comforting than you think it will be.

After weekly review, I archive the list and make a new one. Everything nice and organized in weekly junks.

Someday

Someday List

This is where I keep track of items that will someday become Projects, but for today have to cool their heels. None of this stuff is very well-defined, which is exactly the point. I won’t forget it, but I don’t have to think about it too hard, either.

Tricks

Three things make this system very, very awesome.

Trello by Email

When you ask someone to do something, BCC Trello in the email. The email address is in the “Email-to-Board Settings…” on the board’s menu. Emails to that address create a card with the contents of the email, including any attachments, and stick it in your Inbox. Slap a “waiting” label and a due date on it, and you’ll never forget to pester someone again.

Trello by Calendar

If you enable the hokey “Calendar Power Up”, you’ll get a URL you can feed your favorite calendar app that presents all the items with a due date. It won’t permit all-day events (which is how RTM does it), but I’m beginning to like the specificity that requires. I’m forced to decide if this is something that’s actually due that day at 9am, or if it’s something due at the end of the day.

Trello by Dropbox

This one is just awesome. I have an IFTTT recipe that watches one of my public folders. When I add an item, IFTTT sends an email with the file attached to Trello. This solves my huge document review problem: someone sends me a PDF by email, and I need a reminder to read it at some unspecified point in the future. With this hook to Dropbox, that problem is elegantly solved

Trello isn’t perfect.

Despite all the wonderful things I just described, Trello is terrible at recurring tasks. Like, it doesn’t have them at all. That’s a showstopper. Since I’m obviously not going to use two different systems to keep track of what I’m doing, I was stuck… until I realized:

RTM is a tickler.

I was reviewing some GTD material for my office hours on productivity last week, and realized that RTM was a perfect tickler. It’s outstanding at managing recurring tasks, and setting reminders. So I could manage my regular GTD workflow with Trello, and use RTM to manage my ticklers. Now we’re cooking.

Creating ticklers in RTM is so dead easy, that part didn’t require any special work. The trick was getting the ticklers back into Trello, so I’d have a new card appear in my inbox just when I needed it.

This is where email is a blessing. I told RTM to send me an email for reminders, but instead of giving it my address, I gave it the email address of my Trello board. Shazam. Now, instead of getting an alert on my phone or desktop from RTM, I get a new card in Trello.

So now Trello and RTM work together perfectly and I’m feeling very, very comfortable.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this; I’m diggin’ RTM and Trello both.

    Alas, Trello does not work on my gov’t-issued Blackberry – so I can now email my todo-list while ont-the-go, but I can’t see it.

    And it’s not open source, although I’m not enough of an ideologue that I’ll do anything about that.

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