Do you already have a backlog of things you want to write about or post on your social media account?
This article describes why a backlog is important and how I use Trello and a plain old paper notebook to manage my blog post backlog.
Why You Need a Backlog
Looking up the word “backlog” in a dictionary gets us something like this:
An accumulation of uncompleted work or matters needing to be dealt with.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Who would want to accumulate a heap of “uncompleted work”? Wouldn’t we rather accumulate “completed work” so that we can bask in the glory of what we have achieved?
Let’s see where a backlog helps us and where we should be careful.
A Backlog Frees Your Mind
The first thing that I love about having a backlog of blog post topics (or of any other work items, for that matter), is that it relieves me from having to think about it all the time.
Sometimes, I have an idea while taking a shower, sitting in a bus, or in the middle of the night.
I don’t trust my memory because I keep forgetting things, so if I have an idea, my mind starts to get nervous about losing that idea. That means I start thinking about this idea the whole time to the extent that I get anxious and even can’t sleep anymore.
As soon as I put the idea into a place I trust - a place that I know won’t lose the idea - my mind calms down.
So, a backlog is as much a psychological tool as it is a tool to organize work. It frees the mind from thinking about the things we have to do, so we can instead think about the things we’re currently doing.
Much more productive, don’t you think?
A Backlog Helps You to Get Started
When I started my first blog, I used to dedicate an evening a week to writing a blog post because I had heard that having a dedicated time and place to write helps to get stuff done.
So I sat there and asked myself “What should I write about?”.
I thought of some topics and discarded them because I wasn’t interested enough in them to write about right now.
My mind wandered, and I found myself procrastinating. Instead of writing, I scanned my social media feeds and usually, I finally gave in to playing a video game which was just so much more fun than thinking about what to write about.
As James Clear says in his book “Atomic Habits”:
“We have the brains of our ancestors but temptations they never had to face.”
Temptations are all around me! Why should I write a blog post?
If I have a backlog of topics I can pick the topic from the backlog that I’m currently most interested in, and then get started writing.
A backlog helps against procrastination.
A Backlog Helps To Overcome the Blank Page Syndrome
You probably know the feeling of staring at a blank screen trying to get started. But nothing comes. Your mind is blank.
Stephen King phrases it like this, in his book “On Writing”:
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
This feeling also goes by “Blank Page Syndrome”, “Blank Page Anxiety”, or simply “the fear of the blank page”.
Now, if I maintain a well-groomed backlog of topics, I probably already have thought about each topic a bit. Maybe I have even added bullet points with ideas for each topic, or even created the draft of an outline.
That means I don’t have to start with a blank page!
Once I have chosen a topic from the backlog, I can copy my notes about this topic from the backlog to my blank page and, voila, it’s not empty anymore.
A Backlog Provides Options
Not only does a backlog help to overcome the blank page, but it gives me options to choose from!
I can browse my backlog and choose the topic that I feel most motivated about right now!
Writing about a topic I’m enthusiastic about is half the way to a good blog post. Wouldn’t you rather write about something that resonates with you while you’re writing than about the topic that’s next in line?
A backlog does not have to be prioritized. Give yourself some options!
Don’t Let Your Backlog Control You
But beware! The human brain loves options! Options are the reason I spend many hours in the character creation screen before I even start playing a video game.
If your backlog provides so many options that you can’t decide on a topic in a couple of minutes, do prioritize the topics in the backlog to restrict your options a bit.
Also, since a backlog is “an accumulation of uncompleted work”, it can weigh heavy on your mind.
Don’t let it.
Don’t perceive your backlog as “I have to do all of this”.
Instead, think of your backlog as “These are the things I can choose from”.
How I Manage My Backlog with Trello
Ok, if you’ve read this far (or skipped to here), you know that a backlog of topics is important to be able to continuously create content.
In this section, I share my method of managing a blog backlog with Trello.
If you don’t know Trello yet, it’s a free tool where you put each work item on a card and you can move cards across a board that consists of multiple lists (or columns) of cards.
Here’s a screenshot of the Trello board I use to manage my software development blog:
I’m using this together with some authors that write articles for me, but you can use it also if you’re writing on your own.
Now, let’s look into each of the things on that screenshot in a bit more detail.
A Card for Each Topic
A topic starts its life as a card in the left-most list, labeled “Topics Ready to Pick”. This list is my backlog!
Every time I have an idea for a topic, I add a card to this list. It may only have a vague title at first, but that’s ok.
This list contains approximately 100 topics at each point in time. Some of them are just vague ideas, and some of them I have already thought about a bit and added a couple of bullet points with more concrete ideas of what to write about.
I didn’t think up all these topics in one go. This backlog has evolved over at least a year. If you make a habit of putting each of your ideas into a Trello card, it’s easy to build a backlog!
Trello works on mobile devices, so you can add a new topic even when you’re out and about!
A List for Each Workflow Step
Topics move from left to right across the board. Apart from the “Ready to Pick” list, I use these lists:
- Outlining: topics in this list are actively being worked on by creating an outline for the blog post.
- Writing: once I’m happy with the outline, I start writing on an article and move it to the “Writing” list.
- Ready to Publish: when a blog post is complete (and has been reviewed!), it’s ready to publish, so it moves into this list.
- Published: once a blog post is published, I move it into the last list to mark it as done.
Create the Outline in the Card
I find the step of outlining an article before I write it very important. It allows me to structure my thoughts into a form that makes sense to the reader. I can see from an outline if an article has a logical structure or not.
That makes me a “Planner”. There’s also the “Pantsers” - writers that don’t plan their writing but just start writing. Which one are you? If you’re a Pantser, you might not need the “Outlining” column.
I usually put the outline directly into the Trello card. The outline contains the section titles and sub-titles and a few bullet points to each section.
Since I’m not writing every blog post myself, but working with authors who write articles for me, the outlining step is even more important for me. It allows me to review an author’s outline to see if it makes sense to my audience before going forward and actually writing the article. It’s a checkpoint where I can take influence on the end result.
Use Labels to Group Topics
As you can see in the screenshot, I’m using blue labels on most of the cards to mark them as “Tier 1”, “Tier 2”, or “unpaid”.
You may have guessed that these labels mark the payment tier of an article. I pay authors to write articles for me, and “Tier 1” articles pay more per 100 words than “Tier 2” articles.
I set these labels by estimating how much traffic this topic will generate. It’s not an exact science by any means, but it helps to prioritize topics that I think are more impactful.
But that’s just one example of using labels to structure your cards. You can create any labels you want to group your cards. Use the labels that help you manage your topics best, or use none at all.
Collaborate With Comments and Due Dates
Trello cards support comments. You can click on a card and add comments to them. I’m using this extensively with my authors.
When an author picks a topic, they add a comment to the card, stating their intent to pick up the topic. That gives me the chance to check if the topic is current and if I really want someone to pick it up.
Someone may find a topic in the backlog that is outdated or that I decide is not worthy to write about anymore, so this is an important checkpoint for me.
In each step of the way, the author writes a comment when they’re done, and I can comment back after reviewing it.
Another thing that Trello supports is due dates. I have my authors set due dates to their cards to the date when they expect to have the outline or the article draft ready for review. This expresses a bit of commitment from the authors and reduces the chance that an article becomes stale and no one is actually working on it anymore.
I tried to use due dates on the articles I’m writing myself, but that experiment failed miserably. I guess you always need an external instance to enforce due dates… :).
How Do You Manage Your Blog Post Ideas?
The above works for me, it may not work for everybody. But I still hope that you can take some inspiration from it to build your own Trello board to manage your blog post topics.
How are you managing your backlog? Let me know on Twitter!