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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

How to Use Airtable, Trello, and Other Apps to Fix Your Life

This story is part of a collection of pieces on how we work today, from video conferencing to Silicon Valley culture to appeasing our robot overlords.

Office productivity tools are great for office productivity, but they're also great for personal productivity. We asked WIRED staffers for their favorite off-label uses of various work apps.

Airtable for Wedding Planning

Some people have fairy-tale dreams about getting married, but let's be clear: Planning the Big Day is a job like any other. You know what I dreamt of? Efficiency—and multiple-select dropdown menus.

Enter Airtable. It let me tabulate my budget; track my to-do list, guests, and vendors; and map out rehearsal and wedding day timelines, plus plan the honeymoon. Oh, the organizational ultrapower of color-coding and checkboxes, list and calendar views, itemized receipts and contracts, and restaurant recommendations all in one place.

Sure you could use Google Sheets, but the Inception-level of layers that you can fall into are unlike anything I've known before. Airtable empowered me to delegate (read: relinquish control) to my now-husband, bridesmaids, and day-of coordinator.


Take the first tab, Guests: There's your Name, Address, and Email fields, but I also had 27 more fields to filter into views for things like whose guest (bride's, groom’s), invitation (wedding, wedding maybes, bridal shower, bachelorette), dietary restrictions, song requests, table assignment (seating chart v1, v2, v3, and v4), and thank you cards (engagement, bridal shower, or wedding? written? sent?).

Bonus: When you also use Slack to communicate with the bridal party (#bridesmaid-dresses, #hair-makeup, #where-what-when, private channel #time-to-vent-about-the-bride), it's great to have Airtable links to pin in each channel.

Overkill? Maybe. But the day's minor disasters (misplaced venue payment, cake delivered to the wrong address) were no match for my app. Even then, everything ran ahead of schedule. I'll take a workflow management tool over a glass slipper any day. —Kimberly Chua, Managing Digital Producer

Trello for Household Chore Tracking

You have to be organized to call in, store, test, and send back all the gear that the Gadget Lab tests for multiple concurrent stories. But those tasks pale in contrast to the administrative tasks and manual labor that it takes to keep two toddlers, two adults, and a dog healthy, fed, and dressed (or not, as needed) every day.

One day after work, my husband expressed his displeasure with the mess in the kitchen, and I began to wonder if he failed to fully grasp how unfairly the household chores were distributed. So I used the same system that I use to organize my gear. I created a Trello board, with daily, weekly, and monthly chores.

Trello uses a simple task management system called Kanban, which allows you to drag and drop task cards from a to-do pile, to an in-progress pile, to a done pile. Unlike Airtable, which allows you to plug in a huge amount of data that you can sort ad infinitum, Trello boards are deliberately simple. Most importantly, they also let you keep track of what everyone is doing at any given time.

I started with daily tasks, like walking the dog and picking up toys after the kids were in bed. I made labels for chores that required sub-chores, the way that cooking also included meal planning, grocery shopping, and washing dishes. I attached spreadsheets to the cards, like a packing list for weekly swim lessons, and added notes, like contact information for our babysitters. Finally, I pinned tiny pictures of our faces on the chores that we were each responsible for.

However, I can’t recommend passive-aggressive software use as a method of resolving marital disputes. When I invited him to join the board, my husband signed in, looked at how many of the cards had my tiny face on them as compared to his, and sighed. If he weren’t such a gentle person, we might have devolved into a household card-making Trello war—I guess “Do Taxes” does require a few sub-chores—but he refused to look at the board again. I got him to cook dinner once or twice a week the old-fashioned way—by talking, instead. —Adrienne So, Senior Writer

Google Calendar for Fight-Scheduling

My boyfriend and I use Google Calendar to schedule monthly fights. These aren’t your prim relationship check-ins. I’m talking devastatingly honest, no-feelings-spared blowups.

It’s not that we’re argumentative people—quite the opposite. He and I both have the sunny, agreeable nature of summer camp counselors. So when he thinks I’ve said something curt, or if I think he’s not doing his fair share of chores, then we’re more likely to clam up than to disturb the calm. We are, in fact, so desperately peace-seeking that we used to go for months stewing on issues in our relationship, only to have them resurface explosively.

So if two humans can’t be relied on to initiate conflict, why not outsource the responsibility to Google’s Office suite?

Here are the rules of GCal Fight Club: We automate the event to recur on a monthly basis. We’re not allowed to reschedule. We are the only guests.

When the alert lights up our phones, we assure one another that we’re disagreeing from a place of respect and emphasize the importance of necessary disharmony in healthy relationships. We sit opposite each other at the dining room table. He takes a deep breath; I tie up my hair. We begin. —Pia Ceres, Web Producer

A Programming Editor for Writing

I spent years searching for the perfect note-taking app. I used Google Notebook for a while, but Google axed it in 2011. I tried Notational Velocity, but wanted more structure. I tried Evernote, but worried it would meet the same fate as Google Notebook. I finally found it in the least likely place: Microsoft Visual Studio Code, a code editor for programmers.

The “file managers” built into most code editors like VS Code make organizing notes simple. I like having a folder for articles I’m actively working on, and a separate folder for finished articles. Within those folders, I create a folder for each notebook with my drafts, notes, and any additional resources like press releases all in one place. When it’s time to reference those notes, I can open them in tabs, just like in a web browser, or easily display two text files side by side. When I finish a story, I can just drag it from the active folder to the old folder.

I know what you’re thinking, but code editors really aren’t all that complicated. You don’t need to be a programmer to use one. In fact, it will probably save you a bit of tech work later on. Programs like Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, and Google Keep store your notes in a database. If your database-driven app is discontinued, like Google Notebook was, or if the company that owns it loses all your data, as Microsoft almost did with T-Mobile Sidekick data back in 2009, you’ll be left to figure out how to migrate your backups into a new app. But unlike fancy note-taking apps, code editors save everything in plain text documents that you can open on just about any device. Decades from now when your preferred note-taking app or word processing program has been forgotten, you’ll probably still be able to open those plain text files. Need to access them on your phone? Just sync them with Dropbox, Google Drive, or any other cloud backup service you like. Plus, using a code editor will make you look like a hacker, and you get extra cool points for that. —Klint Finley, Contributing Writer

A Dating App to Find a Job

It happened to my friend: She was looking for love on a dating app called The League and was chatting with a cute guy, but before she knew it, he began talking about the potential for them to collaborate on work stuff together. Their conversation ended with him asking, “ever thought about using my new startup to implement automation in your business? haha.” It kind of makes sense—The League reviews each user’s Facebook and LinkedIn profiles before accepting them, and the app showcases the person’s current job under their name on their profile. Identity and career: aligned. Multiple friends in San Francisco have told me about similar interactions on The League, where conversations take a sudden turn toward career goals. Amanda Bradford, The League’s CEO, is all for this shift. She says that many users have written in to tell them about dates that have turned into business partnerships rather than romantic ones, and they’ve even updated their “Groups” feature to include a global Angel Investors group, where multiple entrepreneurs have found funding for their ventures. It’s the ultimate work-life balance; a literal melding of business and pleasure. That same friend was on one date, which was really suffering romantically (imagine close-lipped smiles and far too many watch glances), but suddenly thrived when she brought up career goals. Their date even ended with a resume swap. “I wasn’t mad about it,” my friend says, “It felt like an impromptu mock interview which resulted in actual improvement for my interview skills.” The pair still exchange How To Develop Your Career Plan! articles to this day. —Stephanie Cher, editorial operations assistant

Google Sheets to Make a Spotify Playlist

My wife handled the planning of our two-part destination wedding with such serenity that when she asked me to create the playlist for our reception dinner, and that I arrange music from upbeat to mellow over the five-course, four-hour meal, I felt compelled to mimic her grace. Sure thing. Got it, I said. Trust in me! I felt an enormous pressure. Top 40, or personal favorites? “Maybe I’m Amazed”? “Butterfly Kisses”? “Don’t Stop Believing”? Barry White? I promptly called a friend. Asked him to take on the job. He said I was crazy. Told him I’d pay him. Still no. Told him he was uninvited from the wedding and hung up. Sent him a text message: JK.

He suggested making a Spotify playlist, obviously, but searching for every song and individually adding them to a playlist was sheer madness: To line up four hours of music, I’d need to spend a day, at least, of systematically choosing each song. Besides, my taste in music—metalcore, pop punk, symphonic—was not compatible with our audience. I put a call out to friends asking for ten of their favorite songs. Plus a few from my wife, I soon had 80 track names which I pasted into a Google Sheet. Rather than plodding through every album and every song to find what I was looking for, rather than searching for each individual track, I copy and pasted the lists provided by friends into Google Sheets. Then, thanks to Zapier, an online automation tool I used to program the task, every new or updated spreadsheet row populated a corresponding wedding playlist in Spotify. The process took no time. I toasted my friends. I looked forward to my wedding. I told my wife I was slaving over the playlist as I went searching for an embarrassing photo of her for the playlist cover. It featured a dinosaur. —Kenneth R. Rosen, contributing writer

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