A Trello reading list for learning, and for accountability

In this post I’ll talk about how this library for my professional development has become a powerful tool in holding myself accountable in both my personal and professional life.

This blog post will cover:

  1. Why I started using Trello to track my reading
  2. Objectives
  3. My board and themes
  4. How it’s changed…
  5. Black Lives Matter
  6. Analysis and what I’ve learned
  7. What next?
  8. Let me know what you think!

So let’s get started shall we?

1. Why I started using Trello to track my reading

Around new year time, I saw this tweet by Terence Eden which really interested me (Picture below and quote follows).

A picture of Terence’s tweet and Trello board

“It’s the last working week. So here’s a present I made myself. Every week I create a new Trello list called “Done + weekdate” After every useful thing I’ve done / learned / read, I add a new card. I can look back and see what I’ve accomplished.

It’s really easy to think “I haven’t achieved anything this week!” and fall into self-pity. But when there’s objective proof of what you’ve been doing, it makes 121s, stand-ups, and KPIs, much easier to deal with.

Happy 2020!”

[That “Happy 2020! Reads like sarcasm now unfortunately *facepalm*]

I’m pretty terrible around New Year, it spikes my anxiety and makes me feel like I haven’t achieved enough, or am not being ambitious enough. It’s in-part due to the acknowledgement of the passing of time, and also in-part down to my tendency to compare myself with others.

What do you mean you read 500 books in 2019?! How!?

Generally my brain identifies and amplifies all of the things in my life that aren’t quite perfect, or that I could do better, and sets me on a “should spiral” of things that I MUST FIX… NOW!

So when I saw this by Terence it came at a time when I was thinking about resolutions, achievements, ideas, and trying to stop myself from getting too into my head. I resolved, rather than setting myself impossible goals, to monitor what it is I do do, in the hope of learning more about myself.

So rather than setting myself the target of reading 500 books… a book a week… a book a month… a book…. I considered what I was doing. I realised that I do read a lot, it’s just rare that I will sit down and finish a book, and that maybe those things I’m reading online contribute to my learning and progression at work. So it seemed to me a good way to track.

I wasn’t sure if it would be useful, and I wasn’t sure if I would give up on it, but I thought it would be interesting to give it a go.

2. Objectives

I had 4 main objectives for this work:

  • to record how much reading I am doing and about what,
  • to group articles by theme to see where there are gaps in my reading,
  • to create a publically accessible resource that others may find useful,
  • to create a library for myself that I can return to and search.

3. My board and themes

A very zoomed out screenshot of my board

You can access my board here: https://trello.com/b/BBJ726mr/progress-bookmarks

I started with a few different labels, colour coded to represent different themes:

  • yellow for digital, data and agile,
  • red for new tech and AI,
  • purple for health, mental health and diversity,
  • blue for design and art,
  • light blue for politics and economics,
  • pink for weeknotes, and.
  • black / dark blue for leadership.

Over time I’ve added to or refined those themes, but the colours have remained the same.

I also have a few “hidden” labels (without colour) where things I’ve read have been linked directly to areas of my work, and I’m also using a hidden label for COVID-19 stuff because I thought it might be triggering for people to see (though in reality in the UK pretty much everything I’ve read since March has been related to COVID-19).

4. How it’s changed…

I started with just some themes that I intuitively thought I would be interested in, these were mostly around Digital, Data and Agile but also included feminism and disability.

I’ve expanded and refined my themes over time, so there are now more themes included…

My trello board themes.

When I started this project my plan was to simply include links to the things I was reading, but I soon realised that this felt a little shallow, and/or that I was reading things and dumping them without being an active participant in the reading. If I was going to publish this list in the open I needed to hold myself not only to reading, but to understanding.

As Scott says in his tweet:

So I started to use the “Activity” section in Trello to record key quotes that I could search against and come back to later.

An example of a card with a number of “Activities” included (key quotes)

Trello adds cards chronologically in a list with new cards appearing underneath so also, depending on the week, I’ve needed to rejig the cards to “float the most interesting things to the top”.

At some point I realised that I could use the number of activities or attachments to see what I had commented on the most and float those articles to the top, however it’s not always that straightforward; I might have taken more notes because the content was harder to understand, or there might be something really important that deserves to be at the top (or something a bit rubbish or contentious that I’ve hidden at the bottom, shhhhhh).

5. Black Lives Matter

The perfect example of this came this week where our attention has (rightly) been drawn to the injustices happening in America with the Murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more. The systemic racism of our countries, the pain of our friends, family and colleagues.

It has not been enough this week to float the articles that I have commented on the most to the top. I have had to be thoughtful in curating the list so that the most important and impactful pieces are at the top. Even if nobody reads my list, I will know.

And, while I was considering doing some analysis on my reading anyway, the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred me to think in more detail about what I’m reading, who it is by, what perspectives I am seeking, what I am missing.

The board has provided me with the opportunity to hold myself to account, in public, about what I value and what I want to do, how I want to be better and given me the opportunity to understand better the steps I can take to do that.

6. Analysis and what I’ve learned

It was while I was thinking about the above that I posted an off-the-cuff tweet…

And Jonathan picked it up and offered to help me out with it. Which was very nice of him and I’m really grateful — thank you!

Alas, because of how I’ve structured things I couldn’t download my board as a CSV, but Jonathan took the JSON file and did some magic for me. If you want to, you can read how he did this below [caution: super nerdy — his words, not mine!]

So I now have a lovely spreadsheet, with my reading up to the evening of 5 June (23 weeks in total), grouped by theme and with the numbers of things I’ve assigned to that theme.

The spreadsheet that Jonathan made for me

Now I’ve colour coded the columns (garishly) to match the theme labels in Trello, so that I can quickly identify them.

From this I can see how many articles I read (read: cards I added) per week and I can see that I read around 30 articles a week on average with a range of 9–58.

And I can see what the most popular themes have been over time. The top 10 are:

  1. Covid-19 (196)
  2. Change / Transformation (156)
  3. Weeknotes / Reflection (156)
  4. Policy / Policy Design (153)
  5. Leadership (142)
  6. Gender / Feminism / Intersectional / Diversity / Equality (134)
  7. Digital / Data / Agile (115)
  8. Mental Health / Health (105)
  9. Service Design (71)
  10. Politics / Democracy (58)

It’s interesting to me that Covid-19 is at the top of this especially as I didn’t tag anything with that label before 17 February, but then, It’s an all encompassing theme and if you’re interested in change work, communities, and more then you’re likely to be reading more. Still I’m shocked it came out at the top.

Next is Change / Transformation, which again is a bit of a surprise but it’s also quite a broad theme that could include a number of things so perhaps it isn’t a surprise. Also, given that a lot of the conversation around Covid is to do with change I’m sure there’s a venn diagram of these themes to be made.

Next is Weeknotes / Reflection which is good because I do pride myself on reading things by individuals and learning more about different contexts, however I see the numbers of weeknotes I’ve been reading has dropped off significantly over the past few weeks, so I should get back into that.

Tags for the top five themes, Covid-19, Change / Transformation, Weeknotes / Reflection, Policy / Policy Design and Leadership.

In fourth position is Policy / Policy Design, which is interesting to me as I would not have though I would have been reading so much on this, but I did also know that I wanted to read and think more about Policy Design so it’s a good thing.

Finally I guess it’s not a massive surprise that I’ve been reading a lot about leadership as I’ve been working within the National Leadership Centre since I started this board.

What I am slightly disappointed about is that Gender / Feminism / Intersectional / Diversity / Equality has only come in at 6th position.

Though it does make me feel better that there has been sustained reading on the topic over the duration of the year.

I can also see a spike in this theme for this week up to yesterday evening when Jonathan took the cut of the data. This shows I’ve read 22 articles this week on that theme. This is in no small part, down to the amount I’ve been reading around Black Lives Matter.

I considered giving those articles their own label specifically, but haven’t done that, instead opting to add them to this theme which has many areas to it. I want to sustain this reading and to do more tracking around it (which I’ll outline in the next section).

But as I mentioned before the colour coding in the sheet shows the broader themes, and it’s interesting if you look more closely at those. For example, when you take the broader groups that appear in the top 10, the top 3 grouped themes look like this:

  1. Change / Transformation and Digital / Data / Agile (271, yellow)
  2. Gender / Feminism / Intersectional / Diversity / Equality and Mental Health / Health (239, purple)
  3. Policy / Policy Design and Politics / Democracy (211, light blue)

I guess these make sense when you consider; my day job, my interests, and the current things going on in the world. While the number 2 position may be increased again by health related things around Covid-19, I’m pleased again to see that I’ve sustained reading on the subject over time.

The bottom of the scale

At the bottom of my reading we have a different set of themes (lowest to highest)

  1. Accessibility
  2. Intellectual Property
  3. Start-up
  4. Advertising
  5. Standards / Assurance in Government
  6. Disability
  7. Language / Linguistics
  8. Data Visualisation
  9. New Uses of Tech
  10. Neurodiversity / Autism / Dyslexia

Now, I know these themes aren’t scientific. I know some are specific and some are very broad, and I think that what we see at the bottom of the scale is made up of hyper-specific themes that are going to come up less often than others.

I can’t even remember why I decided to include Start-up as a theme given that I don’t read all that much about it, similarly Intellectual Property, but I know I included “New Uses of Tech” as a theme because I read something about how school kids were using Apple ear buds to talk to each other in class — when is that going to come up again?

The likelihood is that some of these themes will probably die. However Neurodiversity, and Accessibility are things that I am interested in, want to know more about, and will resolve to do better.

Similarly the theme of Environment sits somewhere in the middle with 30 tags and I want to make sure I do better at reading on this.

7. What next?

Per the above I plan to seek out and read more about Neurodiversity, Accessibility and Environment.But I also want to add to the data I’m collecting, so I’m setting myself some new objectives:

  • to record the publications and types of content I’m reading (articles / Blog posts)
  • to diversify the publications I’m consuming cntent from, and make sure that these are increasing over time
  • to read more by black and minority authors.

A couple of these points will mean collecting new data, and some will mean going back and adding more information that I can use to do more analysis.

That might take time, and depending on how long it takes I may decide not to go back and add this information, just collecting it from now on.

I also commit to running this analysis again (or similar) at the end of the year to see how I’ve done.

8. Let me know what you think!

I’m not an analyst by nature, but I am interested in my personal growth and professional development. Looking at my work in this way gives me some useful pointers that I can consider and directions that I can go.

If you think there is something that I’ve missed, or if you would like to look in more detail, you are welcome to view my trello board and to download the JSON or to get in touch with me about how I might make this even better.

Similarly, if you’ve done anything like this before, in a different way and would like to compare notes, please get in touch!

Thanks for reading.

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