Managing Your Personal Projects with Focalboard

28 November, 2023

While I try to do as much of my work as I can in plain text, one limitation that I run into is project management. I prefer a slightly more visual representation of where moving parts of my projects are while I’m working on them.

For that, I use a simple kanban board. While kanban boards are widely used in software development, manufacturing, and elsewhere they’re also a great tool for personal projects.

On the open source side of the fence, you can turn to applications like WeKan or Nextcloud Deck to do the job. But what if you don’t want to turn to the web and, instead, have a kanban board on your desktop?

The open source pickings in that area are a bit slim. While I found what looked to be a promising open source desktop kanban app, but I couldn’t get it to run. Then I ran into Focalboard, from folks behind the Mattermost collaboration tool.

I spent a few weeks using Focalboard to manage a couple of projects. Let’s dive in and find out what came of that.

Getting Focalboard

There are three versions of Focalboard. The one I downloaded, which was most relevant to me, was the Personal Desktop edition. Grab the file focalboard-linux.tar.gz (there are also versions for the macOS and Windows desktops).

Once it’s downloaded, extract the archive to a folder somewhere on your computer. From there, double click on the file focalboard-app. After a few seconds, Focalboard runs and displays this screen:

Focalboard when you start it for the first time

You’ll learn what to do next in a moment.

(Focalboard doesn’t add itself to your desktop or application menu after you start it. To do that, you can use a little utility like Pin It!.)

With that out of the way, fire up Focalboard and you’re ready to go.

Adding a Board

A board is a container for the tasks in a project. It also defines your workflow for that project — a kanban board is really just a set of columns that represent a stage of work.

As you saw, when you start Focalboard for the first time you need to create a board. You can do that by choosing one of the templates that come with the application.

Of the templates, I only found two that were potentially useful for my purposes — Personal Tasks and Project Tasks. Your mileage will vary. Choose a template and then click Use this template.

That said, you don’t need to use a template. You can click Create an empty board. You get a blank canvas that you can set up as you see fit:

A new kanban board in Focalboard

Click + Add a group to add a column to the board. Then, double click header of column and type a name a name for it — for example, Drafts. You can also click the ellipsis (...) beside the name of the column to select a colour for the column’s header:

Choosing the colour for a column on a board in Focalboard

Repeat that until you’ve added all the columns that you need for the board. Here’s what a simple board looks like:

A board in Focalboard, ready to go

You can add as many boards as you need. Usually, that’s one per project. However, I know people who, when working on big projects, break those projects down into segments, with a board for each segment.

Adding More Boards

So what happens if you want to create another kanban board? Click +Add board at the bottom of Focalboard’s left pane. A familiar window, containing a containing a list of templates that you can use, displays :

Choosing a template to use with Focalboard

From there choose a template or click Create an empty board. Then, add and configure columns.

Adding Cards to Your Board

Cards are the individual tasks on your board. To add one, click +New under a column. A blank card displays, as shown below:

Adding a card to a board in Focalboard

Give the card a descriptive name — for example, Write Focalboard post. You can click +Add a property to insert a field, a date, a URL, or more on the card. On one of the boards I created, I added a text field labelled Publication Date to my cards.

You can also add a description to the card and click Attach to attach a file to the card if you need to.

When you’re creating a card, Focalboard adds an icon to that card (as you can see in the screen capture above). It’s not my kind of thing, so I constantly find myself clicking the icon and selecting Remove icon. More on this in a few paragraphs.

Here’s a card that’s ready to be added to the board:

A completed card in Focalboard

Repeat that for every task in your project.

Here’s an active board:

A kanban board in use in Focalboard

Using Your Board

Focalboard works like any other kanban board application that you might have used in the past. You move cards through a project’s workflow by dragging them to the next column on the board. You can also change the order of the cards in column by dragging and dropping them vertically.

As well, you can show or hide the attributes that you’ve added to a card by clicking the Properties above the column headers. Here’s an example from one of my boards:

Selecting a board’s properties in Focalboard

Other Features

You can create a template by clicking +Add board and then clicking +Create new template. From there, add columns and properties to the board. When you save it, it’s added to the list of template that displays the next time you click +Add board.

If you’ve used another kanban board application — like Trello, Asana, Notion, Jira, or Todoist — you import data from them by clicking Settings and choosing Import. You can also export an archive containing your boards in Focalboard from the Settings menu.

Do you remember me mentioning the annoying icon that’s added to every card that you create on a board? You can stop that from happening by turning off Random icons option under the Settings menu. At least, that’s the idea. Whenever I do that, the setting doesn’t persist the next time start Focalboard.

Final Thoughts

Focalboard is a good option if you want to use a kanban board to manage your personal projects without having to turn to a web-based application — open source or otherwise. It’s easy to use and while it may seem a bit basic, Focalboard does just enough and does it well.

Scott Nesbitt