Effective GTD with Trello

Tim Abell · September 15, 2020

Reading time: 8 minutes

  • Learn how I’ve refined the GTD process with Trello for modern living.
  • Get a template GTD board to kick-start your own.

GTD+Trello has really helped sooth my neurotic tendencies around todo lists. I’m often startled by starting off thinking I have more than I could ever achieve and then getting all my top priorities done in one sitting and being able to truly relax afterwards. No more nagging feeling there’s something urgent at the bottom of the pile of papers somewhere.

What is GTD?

Getting Things Done https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done is an old but effective method for organising the flood of todos that enter your life in many forms. We need it now more than ever in our infinitely connected world. And as a middle-aged working parent I need it now more than I ever did.

The point of GTD is to eliminate all the other places that you might have hidden todo lists such as

  • unread emails
  • your memory
  • phone notes
  • bits of paper
  • phone screenshots
  • other unstructured todo lists (Trello, Evernote etc. let me know what you use now that isn’t working for you and I’ll add it to the list)

And then to make your todo list something that you can almost mindlessly churn through, eliminating huge task switching costs caused by badly defined and variably sized tasks.

Trello + GTD

The original GTD method involved bits of paper. But now we have Trello, which is an excellent fit for GTD with its cards, lists and many integrations. There’s a great write-up of using Trello for GTD here: https://blog.trello.com/gtd-getting-things-done-maximizing-productivity-trello which I suggest you go and read first. It’s how I got started, however I found I was still left building my own process and set of lists from there before it really worked for me.

Trello is great for GTD because:

  • You can set up lists how you like
  • There are apps so you have it everywhere
  • You can forward emails to it (yay, inbox zero at last)
  • It supports attaching pictures, PDFs etc.
  • You can add checklists, due dates, date-stamped comments etc.
  • Drag-n-drop sorting and moving of cards
  • Buttons for archive / move on the cards
  • A lovely cross-platform interface
  • It’s free!

Disclaimer

Neither GTD or Trello can give you more hours in the day, help you focus, get you to do things you really don’t want to do, or make your tax return go away. This still requires putting the work in. Having said that, at least you will know you haven’t just forgotten anything really important, it’s just a bit stuck on your list. Personally with life as it is for me now I never get close to the weekly/daily GTD schedule laid out below, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.

My GTD Method

Here’s my actual GTD board (minus details) to give you an idea of what it looks like. You might be able to see I have far too much in Inbox and Action items as is often the case, but it doesn’t take too long to clear down when I actually focus on it.

Blurry screenshot of my actual GTD board

First you need to get everything you might have to do into your GTD board. Don’t think too hard at this point, just ping everything to Trello and deal with it efficiently at your next GTD moment:

Getting Everything to the Board

Emails

Forward emails to your GTD board “send-to-board” email address to get to inbox zero quickly. Make sure your GTD board email address is in your address book so you can just type “gtd” and hit send.

Screenshot of forwarding an email to the GTD board

Using GTD instead of your unread email as a todo list makes inbox-zero possible again.

The subject line becomes the card title so edit that if you want. The body of the email becomes the card description so you can add to that too.

Web based tasks

Install AddToAny to send any webpage from Firefox to your GTD inbox.

Screenshot of add-to-any in action

Documents, physical objects, pictures, screenshots

Install the Trello app and use the native share buttons to share pictures, web pages etc to your GTD inbox. Use this to take photos of paper documents and physical things you need to deal with and send the picture straight to your GTD inbox on Trello.

Screenshot: sharing picture to trello in android

Verbally Received Tasks

For when someone just says to you “oh, can you do this for me?” and you don’t want to be that person that lets them down by forgetting.

If you think you are “the forgetful type” (you aren’t, that’s just a negative self-label compounded by habits), then you can fix it forever by just being more organised, no-one will ever know it was GTD, they just think you remembered for them.

Open up Trello on your phone or laptop and add a card. Or if it’s easier write an email to your GTD board!

Using Alexa/Siri etc

For advanced magic teach your Siri/Alexa/Google to email to GTD by mere voice command

Hey google, email gtd …

Or maybe set up a custom action. (If anyone’s done this send me some details and I’ll expand out this section. PRs welcome!)

GTDing

Inbox Processing (Daily)

Go through inbox cards and triage them as follows:

  • Unactionable or not important?
    • Archive the card
    • or move to reference
    • or move to someday.
  • Less than 2 mins?
    • Do now.
  • For someone else?
    • Move to “waiting”
  • For future time/date?
    • Add to google calendar as event or timed reminder and move to “scheduled”.
  • More than single step to complete?
    • Move to “projects”
      • and add a checklist.
  • Finally if none of the above then:
    • move to “action items”
      • and edit the card to make sure it’s doable in one go (add links, forms, phone numbers etc).

I’ve learned to do more of this in the Trello app when I have five idle minutes during the day so that when I sit down at the laptop I don’t use all the time just getting GTD straight.

I add some Trello labels to the cards so that I can tell whether a card is something I can pick up in any particular situation (do I need the laptop? good phone signal? good internet? do I need to be somewhere in particular?) The situational ones are all black with an @ prefix, e.g. @home or @good-internet.

Projects / Waiting (Weekly)

Go through each project

  • Do I still need this project (move to someday, or just archive the card if not).
  • Create next action card - the “convert checklist item to card” feature is useful for this
  • Chase when waiting on someone (maybe fire off an email or WhatsApp

Rules - Thou Shall Not Scroll

I.e. things that I’ve learned knock me off track when trying to do a “GTD” session.

  • DO NOT READ the articles - send them to Pocket.
  • DO NOT READ the newsletters - leave them as unread in mail inbox.
  • NO twitter/facebook/linkedin FEED reading (posting is okay).

Dealing With Action Items

Once your GTD board is triaged your inbox should be empty and your action items should be prioritized and full of things that you can “just do” without getting blocked. Start at the top and work down as if your boss told you to get on with it.

This is where the magic happens!

What to do when “Action Items” is too long or not getting done

I found that after a while Action items gets overwhelming. Cards end up stuck in there forever, never quite getting to done.

To deal with this, use the “move all cards in list feature of Trello”.

You have two choices here depending on the state of your list and how important thing things in it are:

  • Move all cards back to Inbox and re-triage them.
  • Move all the cards to “Someday” because they actually weren’t that important.

Or you might pick a few to bump back to inbox then move everything else.

This gives you a complete reset, and eliminates the mental overwhelm that results from an unrealistic todo list.

You might initially think this is a failure of the GTD method, but actually without GTD you are just forgetting things that have been on your brain’s todo list, and maybe some of them were actually important. With this approach you have the opportunity to decide what you want to punt to the eternal pot of “someday” with no angst that you are dropping important tasks.

If you have tasks that really are important and they are never getting done, then

  • you’re avoiding it and you need to move them to the top and just do them, a well formed action card is often not as bad when you actually tackle it,
  • or you don’t allocate sufficient time in your life for these tasks, and it’s up to you if you want to adjust your schedule to get more done.

Watch Out For

Spending all your time just arranging your GTD board and never doing any of the action items. Are you avoiding an unpleasant task? Are your tasks too big and need breaking down?

Get started with a template GTD+Trello board

You can easily create your own GTD Trello board from this template I’ve created for you.

The template contains:

  • Preconfigured columns,
  • Labels,
  • Some example cards,
  • A full instruction list in the inbox for daily processing,
  • A butler action button for moving to “someday”.

I reckon using this ready-made template will save you at least an half-an-hour of your time just fiddling with Trello to get going. It’d also be a nice way of saying thanks if you found this article useful.

Screenshot of my template

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