Chances are you use lists to inspire you and keep you on track. But how effective are your lists?
- Do you make lists only to cross of a few items every day?
- Do you transfer the rest of today’s list to tomorrow’s list?
- Do you have a zillion ideas for new projects, blog posts, content, or activities, but you don’t know which one to start?
- Do you have trouble finishing projects on deadline?
- Do you have trouble keeping all your jobs organized?
I was guilty of all of these. While my clients’ jobs were and are, usually under control, that was about it. If I wanted to grow my business or focus on accomplishing some writing projects for myself, I always felt like a failure. I repeatedly wrote list after list, filling notebooks, and file cabinets with notes and links, resources, books, recipes, etc. that definitely had a purpose… just not right then… just not until I finished this other thing…
I even started to buy into that little voice telling myself that I’d never retrieve and act on even a small portion of my “good ideas.” I’d write things down knowing in my bones that I’d forget them as soon as they were filed.
Ugh! How demoralizing is that? I was literally becoming the crazy bat who wrote down every thought, and filed it away. Like the woman with the jar of strings “too short to save.”
Lists are great, but for a lot of us, they’re not effective.
Thanks to a friend of mine (who runs this school carnival supplies business) I discovered a new way to deal with all the things that need doing. Not just in my work, but in my family and personal life, too. The great thing about my new system is that I can keep as many ideas as I want, and store them within an organizational method that makes me feel like the type-A person I’m not. (You really can fake it till you make it.)
It’s called Kanban Flow, and it resembles a grid-like organizational chart where you move components from one section of the chart to another as you finish them. At least that’s the way this novice is using it. It’s not a bulletin board, though you could visualize it that way. It’s called a Trello board, an online chart where you can see your entire newly- categorized life laid out like the yellow brick road.
This Trello thing could make you crazy effective! The longer I use it, the better habits I have, so I just have to share it with you. This might change your life…
The Kanban system was created in Japanese manufacturing plants as a way to keep track of inventory. As it turns out, kanban (sounds like “bonbon”) is a great way to manage all your to-dos, brilliant ideas, shopping lists, team meeting agendas, car maintenance schedules, or family calendars as well!
Name your project or whatever you’re working on now; you can probably get it done better with a Kanban flow.
Although there are a few Kanban apps out there, I use Trello because it’s free and easy to learn. In fact, I’ve used if for a couple of years now, and I’m just beginning to really embrace how to integrate it into my daily routine and allow it to help me be more productive.
How Do Kanban Flows Work?
Here’s the idea. First you create a board and give it a title. This is your overarching category or theme. Say you are a content writer or copywriter. You might call your first board…
- Blog Post Ideas
- 2017 Blog Content
- Guest Blog Categories
- Get More Instagram Followers…
Pick some goal or project you imagine conquering.
As you begin creating your first Trello dashboard, you’ll find there a learning curve regarding how you set up your boards.
First there’s the “problem” of being too general. You might start with boards titled, “Things I need to do in October” and then discover that it makes more sense to actually have two boards: “Personal Things I Need to Do” and “Professional Things I Need to Do.”
You may also realize that each project should have its own board. As soon as you begin adding lists to each board, you start seeing how simply and quickly a project that previously seemed out of hand could actually be accomplished.
On the other hand, you might realize that a project requires more steps than you originally thought.
Here’s where you learn to love lists again.
Every board consists of a panel of lists laid out from left to right. Lists consist of cards. Not mere jots and scribbles, but actual separate areas where you can place images, thoughts, get comments from team members, add articles and links found on the web, add checklists, and PDFs or Google docs, etc. from your computer
With the ability to add cards to a list, you are able to flesh out every item on your list with supporting material. It’s list-making for clean freaks. Everything looks tidy and your work is suddenly streamlined, but you still have everything you need. You don’t have to kiss goodbye all those tangential thoughts, and sparks of fancy. They all have a place where you can retrieve them if necessary, but they’re not yammering all over the place disturbing your concentration. (We creative types struggle with that.)
Lists might include background research, questions, hypotheses, history, etc. They could also include active working areas, like components of a project to which different team members are able to make contributions.
I personally like to add a “Done” list to just about every board I start so that I can swipe a task from a working area to that oh-so-satisfying “Done” column. Bliss.
The best way to start feeling that productivity mojo is to just go to Trello right now and start playing.
But if you still need some inspiration for how a freelance writer or blogger can use the Kanban flow, here are some ways to get started.
1. Mind Map
Mind Maps! If you’ve ever used a mind map to develop an idea into a finished outline for an article or post, then you know you can either scribble a main idea in the center of a sheet of paper and draw arrows from there; OR you can jot all your ideas onto post-it notes and stick them on a large sheet of paper in some orderly fashion. Either way, mind maps are helpful, fun, and sometimes messy.
Unless you’re really ready to work on an idea, you might not want to start all that brainstorming. You may not appreciate all those notes and sheets of paper cluttering up your workspace either. If you want to insert some order, just use a Kanban flow. (By the way, Kanban people use words like Lean and Agile to describe productive workflows…but Orderly won me over.)
2. Blog Content
This is why I started using Trello in the first place and where the bulk of my usage is still.
Every company or website I write for has its own board. Usually when I’m writing for a blog (or as a ghost blogger) a good part of the work is coming up with ideas. Sometimes the business owner has a monthly or quarterly theme in mind. Sometimes she’s gearing up for a product launch and so the content will lead up to that. And sometimes, it’s up to me to come up with some interesting content ideas.
I keep a board for each website where I’m a contributor. My first column is typically a smorgasbord of content ideas. I toss them up there in no particular order, using the Trello app on my cell phone whenever a good idea comes to me as I’m mobile. Once an idea is on that first column, and if it’s any good, usually I will start to add supporting ideas to it. It’s weird how easily this happens. As soon as I come up with a sticky idea, suddenly everything I see looks like a green light to write it. For example, I might read an article that supports the idea, or hear a podcast that has some relevance to the topic. I may run across a photo or a tweet that would be nice to include. The post practically writes itself if it’s right.
Once I have added a few notes to a possible idea, I take it as a sign that I should run with it. So I move it over to a list of posts I’m currently working on. From there, it will eventually find it’s way to the calendar, if it hasn’t already been assigned, and then to the “waiting for approval” column, then to “Done.”
At the GO phase, it’s just a matter of progression and time, not so much ideation.
Now another other cool thing about Trello is you can add a calendar to your boards — perfect for keeping tabs on publish dates — as well as invite others to your board so they can comment. While I’m pretty strict about tuning out contributing voices as I write, the overall content strategy definitely benefits from others’ opinions.
Again, for blog content, the arrangement of cards means nothing is ever really lost. I make a new card for every general topic I create for my own blog. Right now I have ideas for about 20 articles that are “simmering.” This means I am not exactly tackling these topics right now, but they are generally on my mind.
Unlike my filing system I mentioned at the beginning of this post, all of these blog topics and “great ideas” are accessible and viewable. When I see something that complements the topic, I simply click the chrome extension on my browser and the link is captured. A small Trello popup opens and I can simply add it to the appropriate board and list. It looks like this (right).
Why is this so effective? Because I can touch it once, and store it in the right place; but I don’t have to think about it again so it doesn’t occupy any more room in my mind.
The major benefit for me is, I’ve dealt with it as much as I’m going to until I’m ready to compile all the facts and ideas into an article. Then I’ll have everything on hand to outline and create a first draft… if the idea ever gets that far.
After that, I include checklists, another feature that I like. Now I can get the post ready with all the pertinent details: Whether it’s formatted for WordPress, the due date, images selected, title graphics, optimized headlines, keywords, tags and meta tags (SEO items), etc. You can see at a glance how close a blog post is to being ready to publish.
You may be wondering at this point, what can you add to a Trello card?
Here’s a list of some things I’ve uploaded: Images, links to articles, comments, PDFs, Google docs, things I’ve clipped to Evernote or Dropbox, quotes, tweets, and comments from clients. The software is set up to help you access and use a lot of the other apps and software in conjunction with Trello, and you can “power up” your boards with them. Yay!
But wait, there’s more…
Here are some other ways freelance writers can use a Kanban system like Trello to get and stay organized:
3. Job and Contact Management
How do you keep your job searches and contact communication organized? When I’m applying for a freelance job, or after I’ve talked with a prospect I want to work with, I start a card under the list “Jobs” under the Board “New Work.”
I keep list columns for jobs and projects I applied for or bid on, whether I sent a link to my portfolio, I post a link to my proposal and bid, along with a copy of the cover letter. And then I have a follow up list and/or signed contract list.
4. Long, Ongoing Projects
Ebooks, infographics, and longer projects I’m working on. Here again, regular practice and doing the same things over and over again, will help you make progress. If you’re just taking stabs at the thing whenever you “get a chance” you’re probably going to become frustrated that the project is not gaining traction. I include lists for research, various edited drafts, whether it’s formatted for CMS, milestones and deadlines, and graphic design components.
5. Guest Post Management
If you are a blogger, you probably already know about the value in guest posting to other blogs. Similar to the blog board is my guest blog board. In addition to content ideas, there are other things that are important to keep track of:
- A spreadsheet of blogs accepting posts
- Blogs I’m most likely to get accepted
- Ideas for posts geared to specific blogs (sometimes outside my wheelhouse)
- Sent drafts
- Drafts responded to (or neglected or declined)
- Articles resent to an alternate blog (because why waste?)
Digital Hoarding Collections of Things
As a writer, of course I’m a content consumer, too. I keep a board of books I want to read, courses I want to take, movies I want to see, etc.
7. Personal / Household / Family
My personal projects and goals are perfectly fair game for a healthy Kanban flow, and I’m beginning to use it more for that.
For example, my son is at the age where it’s time to teach him to drive. In Texas, there is a convoluted path to teenage driving. It starts with ordering a parent instruction packet from the DMV. After that, there’s online tests, application for underage permit, logging of driving hours under certain conditions, etc. I will be using my Trello to get us through this.
Another issue that seems clearer thanks to Trello is a household IT problem we’re grappling with these days. Every technician, cable guy, and “geek” has a secondary troubleshooting idea for us. I started a list on my household board dedicated to solving this. I’m keeping the names of specific routers and other products I can try. I’m noting actions we’ve taken to fix the intermittent Internet outages, and network password reminders. Rather than jot notes on paper to transfer later, I just upload the idea or note to a card with my phone. Trello’s mobile app is great!
I’m sure there are other personal and professional goals and projects I could be hacking with a Kanban flow method. Now that I’m beginning to get cozy with Trello, I’ve stopped just throwing things together.
8. Recurring Tasks
Finally, there are those pesky recurring tasks that must be done. Unless you’re a robot or your have extra help with certain tasks, and have your routine so perfectly ingrained in your programming, a Kanban flow could help you with this, as it helped me.
While you can power up a board with Trello’s “Card Repeater,” another alternative is using a Zap or the handy Echo app built by Dennis Martinez. I’ve set this up and it works quite nicely.
I use my recurring tasks board more as a reminder that I have to do these things than as an organizational tool. Just set Trello to automatically open upon login, and you’ll know first thing every morning. Some of my recurring tasks include posting to social media sites, bookkeeping, payments, taxes, filing tasks, etc. I sort them by weeks, months, and quarters.
Are you ready to add an element of organization to your life that you simply can’t touch with lists?
The Kanban method will change your life because it guides you toward changing your habits.
If you want to become a focused freelancer who is ridiculously in charge of your day, you still have to open up your dashboard and take action. Discipline is so important. What Trello does so well is allow you to see the forest of your freelancing business, so you don’t get lost in the trees.
If you’re feeling scattered or unable to keep up with your job searches, invoicing, research, or even your writing, try Trello and begin to know your business — and DO your business — like the true, productive professional you are.
Trello is simple and sleek for easy use. If you have any questions about it, and how to use it in your freelancing business, I’m happy to share more. Just drop me a comment on Facebook.
[NOTE: I am not a Kanban expert (they are out there!) and I don’t make a cent from Trello, by the way. I just like their product. I’m on the free plan now, and when someone I refer signs up (again, for free), then my account is temporarily upgraded to “Gold,” which has a few more perks. When my team gets a little bigger, I’ll be upgrading to the next paid tier for a reasonable monthly fee. This would allow for larger uploaded files, unlimited Power-Ups, the ability to organize boards into Collections, and more control over team members use abilities, privacy, etc.. ]