Recently, I have been trying to be more productive and have a better memory. Part of this has been trying to keep better notes and organize the various projects in my life. To accomplish this, I have been using Trello as a management tool and augmenting it with The Action Method.
The Action Method
I recently started reading Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality. This book, written by Behance founder, Scott Belsky, aims to help creative people to execute on great ideas, make their ideas a reality. The Action Method, as it is referred to, breaks down ideas into component parts. Following the Action Method, each idea fits into a project. Projects are broken down into three components:
- Action Steps
- Backburner Items
Action Steps are tasks. They are things you need to do. They always start with a verb. This is important. If you think something belongs on your To Do list, but you can’t start the title with a verb, you probably need more clarification. An example of an Action Step could be: “Call John Doe about lunch meeting.”
References are documents, emails, notes, and scribblings that are related to a project or Action Step, but aren’t actions that need attention.
Backburner Items are things that you might be considering or thinking about that aren’t Action Steps or References. These might be things that will become Action Steps in the future.
Belsky and Behance have taken this method and turned it into a fairly successful business. They produced a suite of applications, and paper products that help creative people get organized.
I am a fan of the Action Method. It’s strong focus on taking action has really helped me to start prioritizing my day. However, the software produced by Behance doesn’t really work that well for me. It’s far too rigid. While many creatives may need the hand holding and strict guidelines for each type of information, I’ve found that the overall process limits me when I try to organize information in a way that my brain can understand.
Fog Creek Software produces a fantastic cooperative project management system, Trello. The beauty of this product is its drop dead simplicity. The system has Boards, Lists and Cards.
A Board is Trello’s abstraction for a project. Lists are typically set up for different stages that a task may be in during its life cycle and the Cards are used to organize specific tasks. A card can have attachments, checklists, due dates, and color coded labels. Teams can vote on cards to set priority and a card can be assigned to one or more people to take care of.
What is nice about Trello is that each card can be treated like a miniature project. For example, I can have a card called, “Add comments to my blog,” for adding comment functionality on this blog. As you might imagine, this task is much more complicated than “Call John Doe about lunch meeting.” The nice thing is that I can add a more detailed description to “Add comments to my blog.” I can add a checklist for things that need to be done in order to fulfill this task. So, the “Add comments to my blog” card becomes a miniature project with tasks like, “Write validations on the comment model” as checklist items.
Because Trello lets me attach files to a card, I can attach a database diagram to the same comments cards. What’s more important, is that because of this, I can start to structure my Action Steps hierarchically.
One Pain Point
One of the most powerful aspects of the Action Method, is the ability to carve out a focus area. This focus area consists of up to five tasks that you are currently focusing on. In the Action Method products, this is an actual feature. For Trello, what I have taken to doing is assigning myself to cards that need to be in my focus. I can then view all of my cards by due date to get the a look at what I need to focus on.
It’s important to note that when I’ve moved a card to my “Done” list, I also remove myself from the assigned users. This isn’t ideal, but it solves the problem without much work.
While I am sure Behance would love for me to make use of their Action Method suite of tools, I just wasn’t able to fit them to my work style. But I don’t think that would bother Scott Belsky. In his books, he points out that “Attraction often breeds commitment: if you enjoy your method for staying organized, you are more likely to use it consistently over time.”
Don’t be afraid to take the best of what you learn and mix it with other tools and processes. While the Action Method is helping me take control of my ever expansive To Do list, other methods contribute to my understanding of what it takes to make a good product. A very good example is 37Signals’ Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way To Build A Successful Web Application.