It’s the middle of the workday when a mobile notification pops up on my phone: “Luke created ‘Rocking chairs’ in ‘Inbox’,” it reads. It’s from the Trello app, which means it’s not urgent and it doesn’t really disturb my work – I know if my partner wanted my immediate attention he’d text. For us, a Trello note is a placeholder for something to talk about later.
My partner, Luke Abrams, and I use the list-making app as our common digital memory. It is where everything we need to do, buy, talk about, or remember, goes. And it updates on both our computers and phones in real time. That afternoon I add a few more notes myself – cat food, printer paper – to a list aptly called ‘Shopping’.
My tool of choice used to be pen and paper before Luke introduced me to Trello. He says it’s “the best issue-tracking software out there for small projects”, a category in which he includes our personal life.
Luke used to use Excel and has tried lots of different list tools over the years, but “for a bunch of geeky technical reasons”, Trello is now his favourite.
Task management apps such as Trello have digitised the old-fashioned to-do list becoming shared and always accessible repositories for everything from what’s needed from the cornershop, to the plumber’s phone number, to the login details for the electricity bill to the stray thought you want to share later.
“You start using these apps for one thing, and then it creeps into other areas of your life,” says Jo O’Connell, who lives in Bournemouth with her husband and two children. O’Connell uses Trello extensively in her PR business and with her husband, with whom she also has a private Facebook group where they document the progress of renovating a vintage caravan.
Lots of couples and families use other sharing apps from simple joint calendars to noting apps like Wunderlist and Evernote to shopping lists like OurGroceries.
“We’re big fans of lists. We enjoy making lists so we can cross things off them!” says Will Carson, a Wunderlist fan who lives in Lymington in Hampshire. “But practically speaking, it allows my girlfriend and I to always have a list, be it shopping, things to get for the house, or things for our daughter. The ability to have everything synced on both our phones is a godsend, as I have a memory like a sieve.”
One of the added benefits of shared task-management apps is it can make it easier for couples and families to truly share the admin of daily life. This goes beyond splitting practical tasks, it also means sharing the mental work of keeping track of everything. Picking up printer paper is just half the job – equally important is noticing it needs doing in the first place and planning when to get it.
This form of emotional labour has historically fallen disproportionately on women. Storing everything in a shared task management tool means you’re far more likely to actually share the work of remembering all the event details, login passwords, food preferences and children’s friends’ parents’ phone numbers than have that burden fall on one partner.
“This is something I think about a lot. I’m definitely the more organised partner, and I think part of why I initiated [sharing apps] is that I hoped it would take some of the mental load off me,” says Franki Cookney, who lives in London with her husband. “You’re not going to alter people’s personalities with this tech, but at least once it’s on the list, it’s our responsibility, not just mine.” Shared Googlesheets have been invaluable for preparing for the birth of their baby, says Cookney, and they use Wunderlist for everything from shopping to meal planning with recipe links. “We sound really fun don’t we!” Cookney laughs. “But I think if you can get the boring admin stuff in your life sorted, it frees you up to do more fun stuff.”
Technology is often blamed for causing trouble in relationships with people spending too much time on their phones. But Xiaolin Zhuo, a Harvard University Sociology PhD candidate in whose research focuses on how technology affects relationships, has found that that’s not the whole story. “People [in a study] acknowledged that their partner sometimes got distracted, but they still said technology played a positive role. A big component to this is sharing tasks,” said Zhuo. Key to task management apps is the ability to assign jobs to individuals, and Zhuo points out how “a shared calendar with reminders means you’re less likely to shirk your responsibilities”.
Zhuo is quick to add that none of this is new behaviour – task sharing is as old as time – but sharing tech does have unique benefits: “Because of the logistics that can be dealt with using technology, couples can save in-person, quality time.”
Grocery lists and household admin are the most common things for couples to share in list form, but these apps are also full bucket lists, creative goals, books, courses, or memorable things that happened. “If you can write it in a list, it’s been created by someone,” says Simon Chan, senior product marketing manager of Microsoft To-Do. To-Do will soon replace Wunderlist after Microsoft acquired the list app two years ago. “The key is simplicity,” says Chan. “There’s a lot of tools for task management, but our biggest competitor is paper. It’s beautifully simple: elegant, tactile and convenient. When we build Microsoft To-Do, we want to recreate that feeling.”
The Trello inbox I share with my partner is an ongoing brain dump: light bulb, pharmacy, China, mid-season coat, eye test, Captain Janeway. Eventually it will be filtered down into shopping, chats and memories, but getting it out of our heads and into the app is the first step to ensuring it’s no longer just down to one person to remember.
As someone who’d never even share their email password, it’s been a surprise to find myself sharing what’s basically a journal with another person. But my partner and I also have private Trello boards that we don’t share, and it’s not like we’re one of those couples who share a Facebook profile. But, as Luke says, our shared tech tools do reflect the fact that we’re pulling in the same direction: “That philosophy drives our tech decisions, not the other way around. We started out wanting to be a team, and the tech helps us do that.”