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What Is A Workflow, And Why Do You Need It?


Today’s the day! You’re getting your productivity in order. You’re finally going to wrangle all your to-do lists. You’re going to clear everything off your plate, and you’re going to do it in the correct order to maximize your time. You’re going to remember all the things you’ve left off your list, too.

So you sit down to do some research on the best productivity methods. Whatever that method is—you’re going to DO IT. Only thing is, everyone keeps telling you the same thing: “Set up your workflow.”

Huh? What’s a workflow?

Fear not. Let’s take a second to break down the basics of what is a workflow, and why you need it. From there you’ll be able to look at some examples and decide what works best for you:

What Is A Workflow?

A workflow is, ahem, “the sequence of processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.” To put it plainly, it’s the method you set up for getting your stuff done.

Your “stuff” can be anything: from a weekly to-do list to a more in-depth project like writing a book, or setting up an invoice system for clients.

In fact, you probably execute real life workflows every day without even realizing it. For example, let’s say your dry cleaners is on the way to your kid’s soccer practice venue, which also happens to be the route that passes your favorite dessert shop. So every Wednesday, when your kid has soccer practice, you drop off your dry cleaning on the way and then treat everyone to a fun dessert splurge on the way home. This route-to-experience optimization is essentially a workflow in its simplest form.

When it comes to daily productivity, you might not even realize how much easier your life would be if you had a workflow. Digging through emails or a stack of papers to find information is a waste of your time. There’s an easier way!

Top Workflows & Examples To Know

Here's a roundup of different types of common workflows that might inspire that "a-ha!" moment:

Simple To Dos And Personal Productivity

Here’s one of the most fundamental workflows, in Trello board form: To Do, Doing, Done. Cards are moved across these lists as they’re being worked on.

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You can change the name of your lists to anything you’d like. In addition to To Do, Doing, Done, some people add lists like “Long Term To Dos” or “On Hold” to keep initiatives they’re not actively working on, but don’t want to forget.

For a more advanced personal productivity workflow that puts everything in one place, check out this great play-by-play workflow write up from a very reliable source: one of Trello’s own co-founders.

Scrum and Agile Methodology Workflows

Many business teams use a workflow method called agile, which basically structures project tasks in short (one or two week) bursts. These bursts are called Current Sprints. Before going in the sprint period, all task cards are queued up in a “waiting area” called the Backlog list.

As the project progresses, cards move from the Backlog into the Current Sprints list to be worked on until the allotted time is up.

sprint board

Once the current Sprint ends, progress is recorded and reviewed. Together, the team reflects on what went well and what could be improved (this exercise is called a retrospective). Retrospective ideas are implemented and then the process starts right up again with a new sprint.

This is a great workflow for a group of people, each with a different set of individual tasks, to stay aligned towards one goal with regular opportunities to check in and keep the process running smooth.

Check out this full write up on how to get your team up and running with Scrum and Trello.

Managing Incoming Requests Workflows

Another popular workflow is one that involves keeping on top of many frequent incoming requests that need to be filtered out to different people or handled in an organized order.

For example, let’s say you’re a popular flower shop and orders are coming in as fast as humanly possible. The best way to manage this is to have all the orders coming into the same place, and then moving them to where they need to go next.


So whether the requests are email inquiries, online order forms, or even voicemails, they are all automatically becoming a card on the leftmost list of a Trello board. From there, depending on the order’s needs, it will be funneled to a different list.

The Incoming Requests workflow can be applied to all sorts of use cases: managing your email inbox, generating leads, handling asks from managers or other teams, or any kind of incoming ticket systems.

Check out this write up on how to send all different types of tasks onto a Trello board automatically.

Handoff Workflows

Another collaborative workflow is one where, after you’ve completed your part of the work, you assign the next part to someone else. When they’ve done their part, they pass it to the next person, and so on.

So for example, let’s say you and a group of people are working on the company’s new website. The first person is in charge of writing the text for the site, and then they pass it to someone else to copy edit it for grammar and typos, and that person sends it to a designer to create a mockup, and so on.

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Each of these assignments can be broken into a different list on a Trello board. So when the card enters the list for which you’re responsible, you do what you need to do, comment and attach relevant communication, and then drag the card over to the next step for the next person.

In order to make sure the next person knows it’s now their turn, you can remove yourself as a member on the card and add them to it. When you add the next person to a card, they will receive a notification. You can also leave them a comment saying something like, “Hey @ericasue, I added in my edits. This card is all ready for your design brilliance!” so they’re clear.

Handoff workflows are awesome for smooth project management. It reduces the need to have one person overseeing the flow of work, while avoiding confusion or having two people doubling up on the same tasks. A popular handoff workflow is managing an editorial calendar. Read more about that here.

Hopefully this crash course provides a framework for thinking about what kind of workflow might work best for what you need to do. Oh, and remember: all workflows are flexible, and should be adapted as your needs change. The most important aspect of any workflow is how effective it makes you. Good luck!

Next: How To Use Multiple Boards for A Super Effective Workflow