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Trello Remains the Best Free Project Management App for Me

best free project management app

Over the course of seven years I’ve worked on hundreds of projects that involved coordination of several hundred of separate tasks. During this time I’ve worked with pretty much every free project management software available. Podio, Wrike, Bitrix24, Toggl, and Trello to name a handful. I’ve even created and used systems built out of Google Forms and Google Sheets.

Every time I start a new project that requires some level of coordination of multiple tasks, I instinctively reach for Trello as my go to task management app.

Projects and Tasks

Trello is not the perfect tool for every project. Projects with intricate processes, projects with a lot of back and forth communication, and projects that require notifications to stakeholders as the milestones are hit will not work well with free, out-of-the-box Trello and I do not know if they would work with paid features. I’ve never explored the paid features of Trello.

Trello works best for projects with a fast ramp up, where you don’t have a lot of time to fiddle and play with the project management software.  It is great for when you don’t have time to learn a brand new platform and all its nuances. Trello combines the ad hoc nature of Google Sheets with a more robust toolset for document sharing and team coordination.

What are the benefits of using Trello?

Trello has many advantages over the other project management tools available.

  • Cost
  • Ease of setup
  • Ease of collaboration

Let’s take a look at each of these a bit more closely.

Cost of Trello

Trello offers a free plan which allows for unlimited personal boards (a board represents a project), 10 team boards (collaboration projects), unlimited cards (a card represents a distinct task), and 10mb attachments (files necessary for the tasks in the project, which can include spreadsheets, reports, and graphics).

For most projects this is all you would need. The paid versions add some security features, more storage, unlimited team boards, design options, automation options, and app integration with services like Google Drive, OneDrive, DropBox, and Slack.

Free just can’t be beat. Sometimes the limitations that come with free apps are so limiting they prevent you from being able to accomplish much. They give you just enough to become frustrating. I have never experienced that with Trello. The free version gives me exactly what I need for most of the projects I work on.

Ease of Setup

Yes, Trello has 100+ apps it can connect with and power-up and automation features that can all be set up which adds complexity to getting started. Yet, unlike Wrike, which is another robust service I really enjoy using, I can spin up a board for a project in minutes. You don’t need all the fancy gizmos to get Trello to start organizing and visualizing your project.

To be fair, you do need to have a semblance of an idea of how to organize your project. For example, when I start a blogging project, I create a board and 6 lists (lists are a collection of cards). The first list is Ideas. It is a pool of very general topics I want to blog about. I create a card for each idea. For each idea as I do research, I add notes, citations, and links to the description of the card. Once I think I can actually start writing on the topic, I move the card to the 2nd List I create – In Progress.

The In Progress list is an easy way to keeping track of which ideas I am currently working on. This list isn’t always necessary, but I like to feel some level of advancement and moving a card from one list to another feels good. The drag and drop aspect of Trello is one of the reasons why it is so easy to use.

Once I’ve finished writing a blog post, I move it to the Editing list. Sometimes I work with outside editors who review my work and give me feedback. This lets me know which posts are in that phase of the process. Once I get the feedback, the post moves to the next list on my blogging board: Graphics.

I am not a graphics guy but good blog posts have lots of graphics and they also need compelling feature graphics to attract attention on social media. I try to take screenshots and gather images as I write, but in my mind they are two different types of tasks – writing and visualizing. I sometimes rely on my editor to recommend adding specific visuals to help make what I am saying make more sense. Having a Graphics list lets me know I still have some graphic work to do on these blog posts before they are published.

The next list is Publish and here is where I indicate the date I plan on publishing. Pretty simple. And then I move the card to the final list – Promote. These are the blog posts that I can schedule social media promotion for.

So to start a blog project, I add a new board and 6 lists.

  • Ideas
  • In progress
  • Editing
  • Graphics
  • Publish
  • Promote
example of a Trello board used for a blog project

Trello doesn’t get in my way of doing the work and doesn’t become a procrastination tool causing me to fiddle with it instead of writing.

The cards used in Trello can be customized as well to make sure you or your team are getting all the information and performing all the necessary steps.

trello card for blogging example

Ease of Collaboration

If you are working on a project with a group of people, you can invite them to the board and everyone on the team has access to add and move cards. By creating a list for each team member on the board, you can easily assign cards (tasks) to that team member. When they sign into Trello, they will be able to quickly see what tasks they need to complete.

Because Trello allows files to be uploaded to cards, if there are graphics, documents, reports, or spreadsheets necessary to complete the task, they can be included on the card for the team to work on together.

Trello doesn’t require any extra downloads, browser extensions, or plugins to work. All you need is a browser and an internet connection. So your team doesn’t need additional tech support to make Trello work for them.

What are the disadvantages of Trello?

Trello is not a perfect solution for project management. It has its downsides as well.

We are at a point where we just accept we have connectivity, but when you are working on a project and the files you need are attached to a card in Trello, losing access to the Internet really sucks and can really grind a project to a halt.

Trello does not offer any time tracking. Using Trello for projects requiring you to track billable hours is a nightmare. There are better platforms to do that on. Trello does offer some add-ons to do it, but it isn’t part of the free out-of-the-box Trello.

If you need detailed status reports on a project, Trello will not provide them for you. It would be nice to be able to pull a weekly status report, showing the number of cards moved from one status to another. I’d love to see monthly counts on tasks added and tasks completed. It is possible to engineer these reports from activity logs. Who has time for that? If you need comprehensive reporting for a project, then Trello will fall short.

Wrapping Up

when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail

Every project needs to be managed and a good project manager needs the right tools. When I am working on client work or a personal project, I rely on tools I am familiar with and tools with proven reliability. I don’t necessarily start off with Trello right away. The moment I feel like I am juggling too many details or trying to track too many variables in a project I know I need to spin up a Trello board for it. Sometimes just doing the basics to set up the board helps me sort out the project enough so I don’t feel overwhelmed by it.

Costly tools may do everything I need, but those costs are passed on to clients (or absorbed by the personal project I am working on making my hobbies even more expensive). If there is revenue behind the project that allows you to set up and use a more robust project management system, then definitely go for it. I am a big believer in what I call tool agnosticism. Don’t force projects to use specific tools, get the tools you need to do the project right.

Every problem looks like a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer. If you’ve invested heavily into a project management tool then you will try to force every project into that tool, even if it doesn’t make sense to do it. This is why I try to let the project dictate the tool and I try to start off with tools that don’t get in the way of the project. If you need a ‘project management tool expert’ on your team, then that tool better be responsible for a sizable chunk of the revenue you are generating. Otherwise, keep it simple.

I may use Trello in a slapdash fashion. I may not be utilizing all of Trello’s fancy features. At the end of the day, though, when I have to spin up a project fast, I know Trello is flexible enough to meet my basic demands.

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