The goal of incorporating new technology into your business should be to streamline your work and increase efficiency, not create additional tasks for yourself or clutter your phone with the latest-and-greatest apps you read about on a blog. Between the time you spend searching for that one “game-changing, cutting-edge application” and the time spent learning how to use it, you would have been better off using the cutting edge technology of the 1800s instead: a pen and paper.
The problem is that we’re always looking outside ourselves to find the missing ingredient that will turn that small business into a productivity machine a Chinese sweatshop couldn’t compete with. We see others integrate cool sleek apps into their operations and immediately assume that we must be behind the curve. This is no different than running home to your mom and asking to get the same new toy your friend just got – it’s a fine way to fit in at school, but running out to buy the latest toy isn’t a great business practice, especially since you’ll get bored of that toy and want a new one a week later.
The key isn’t to find an app for every single thing your business does. Instead, find one app that does as much as possible as simply as possible. Why shop at eight different stores when there’s a perfectly good supermarket down the street?
One place to start could be a project management app like BaseCamp or FreshBooks. These allow you to collaborate with a team on projects, tasks, files, documents, deadlines, etc. The only thing they can’t do is DVR this week’s episode of Honey Boo Boo. These are nice full featured suites that allow you to run and track your entire business in one place and that in itself will simplify your life. Still, these can get a bit cluttered which can turn a simple project into an overwhelming headache. Minimalist designs are less overwhelming and don’t make you feel like you’re in a race against time when you look at all the things you have to finish.
Enter Trello. It’s designed to be a simple organization tool that helps you visualize the progress you’re making on any specific set of tasks. I use it as a virtual bulletin board that can break down, track, and manage just about everything. Other apps like KanbanFlow or AgileZen do the same things but I’ll focus on Trello for now since it’s the one I use.
Boards and Lists: When you create your first board, it will be divided into three lists: To-Do, Doing, and Done. You can name your board whatever you want, and you can change the list titles and add as many lists as you like.
The basic layout (To-Do, Doing, Done) is a great a great way to divide projects up into actionable tasks and track your progress. I use the default layout to track what I’m currently working on, but I use other boards to manage ideas, clients, and appointments. Essentially, there is nothing that you can’t use the board for.
I know people who use Trello to organize presentations, track sales, create every type of list imaginable, schedule employee work shifts, vote on company policies and agendas, organize materials, and a ton more.
Cards: Lists are made up of cards. Let’s start with a basic project. Divide the project up into actionable tasks that can be added as individual cards on your list. Then, you can use the simple drag-and-drop interface to prioritize the most important tasks. For better organization, you can label cards, color code them, add comments, and attach files. In other words, this allows you to use your board like a regular project management tool but in one minimalist view.
If you work with a team, you can also use Trello (or the other apps) to delegate tasks and collaborate with your team members. With the permissions settings you can allow your team to view and edit any boards you like. You can set varying permissions for different members and assign specific tasks to members as well.
Tracking: Once you’re set up, you have a great view of what’s happening in your business, what’s on the agenda, what’s in progress, and what’s done. Of course if you customized your lists you can view whatever the board is set up for. One of my boards helps me see ideas I have for blog posts and I organize it based on how developed and ready the ideas are for publication. I use another board as a makeshift CRM, organized into New Leads, In Talks, Working, and Past Clients. There’s no limit to what you can organize and track on your board.
The app also has task and deadline reminders for you and your team. This is especially handy since dealing with employees and freelancers can be touchy. No one likes to remind people of what they have to do, and no one likes to be reminded. Let the app do it for you with email reminders that are set for specific times. You can also subscribe to specific cards to receive notification every time there is new activity and you can add checklists to cards for larger tasks so you can track every little detail.
Which App is Right For You: I use Trello because it’s free, has a sleek and intuitive interface, it works great on my computer and phone, and is completely unlimited.
KabanFlow is essentially the same app but also helps you track hours and includes a Pomodoro timer that creates 25 minute work segments followed by a break. It’s a better app when it comes to tracking time and estimating the time needed to complete a certain task. Their free version allows you unlimited boards and users but the $5 Premium version allows you to assign different permission levels, provides more detailed activity and revision logs, and let’s you filter and search easier.
AgileZen isn’t quite as sleek as the other two but does offer more features for a cost. Their free version only allows you one project. Plans cost from $9 to $99 depending on your team’s size.