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30 Days With: Asana

30 Days With: Asana

    (Editor’s Note: This is a featured post in our ongoing series “30 Days With…”, which outlines the use of a productivity tool, service, or product that we have used for the past 30 days. We want to provide our readers with an in-depth view of tools and products that they are interested in, provide them our thoughts anod offer ways to use these products faster and better. Enjoy.)

    When I was working independently, I really didn’t have much need for a task manager that could handle communication and collaboration across the miles. However, since I started to be involved in many more team activities – so much so that I tend to spend more time in a team environment than not – I found that my task manager I was using (OmniFocus) was leaving some of the much-needed tasks on the table. In addition, a lot of the people I work with aren’t on a Mac or iOS device, which made using OmniFocus a moot point.

    I tried other task management solutions, such as Flow and I even waded into Wunderkit for a bit. But nothing captured all that I needed in a solution better than Asana, the brainchild of former Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and former Facebook employee, Justin Rosenstein.

    There was a lot to explore in my 30 days with Asana. And while I did dive in pretty deep, I don’t want to overwhelm you with all of the finer points. Instead, you’re going to get many of the highlights I discovered during my use of Asana during the last 30 days, and I’m leaving some breathing room for more exploration as the product develops.

    Let’s get started…

    Workspaces

    Asana allows you to create Workspaces – which are really more than projects. In fact, you can put projects inside of Workspaces. The best way I can describe Workspaces is that they are really “areas of focus” that you need to keep tabs on – and have several layers to them so you can manage tasks and projects within them. I have created several Workspaces:

    • Personal: Contains personal projects and tasks
    • Professional: Contains individual projects and tasks that are work-related
    • Family: Contains family projects and tasks
    • Multiple “Team-Based” Workspaces: Each of which contains projects and tasks associated with the team I’m working with in that Workspace

    On that last point, Lifehack has its own Workspace, my podcasts that I have co-hosts with have their own Workspaces, and so on. Basically, any professional area of focus that requires sharing (as a whole) gets its own Workspace. I made the mistake of putting them under Professional at first, but then had to make all of my Professional projects and tasks private to me as a result. So if you’re going to use Asana as both a team and individual task management solution, keep your Workspace solo and add Workspaces for the different clients/partnerships you need to collaborate on and add those involved to those Workspaces.

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      I also have Family separate so that I can share that with my wife and she doesn’t have to see all of my other stuff that doesn’t directly impact her. Sure, I can share individual tasks and projects with her under that Workspace, but having a Family one basically makes her and I teammates in an area of focus instead.

      During my first couple of weeks with Asana, I wasn’t able to move around Workspaces on the sidebar; they stayed in the order in which they had been created. Yet just before I finished up my initial time with Asana, they had made reordering of WorkSpaces (among other things ) happen. That’s how actively developed Asana is.

      Each person you add to a workspace will receive an email invite, and you’ll be able to see whether they’ve accepted by checking the Members tab in your workspace settings.While someone can be a member of more than one Workspace, the tasks and projects of each are independent – so they can only see them within that Workspace and not throughout Asana as a whole. I find that – despite not digging getting a ton of email – a regular update email from Asana on Workspaces helps out with this if you’re not used to working in multiple areas of focus. You can turn on or off email notifications in your Asana Account Settings under the Email Notifications tab.

      Tip: The great thing about Email Notifications from Asana is that you can send them to whatever email you’d like for the Workspaces you choose. All of my Lifehack notifications come from and go to my Lifehack email account, making the managing of that area of focus far easier.

      Projects

      Projects are essentially the backbone of Asana, as opposed to tasks in other systems of note. You can view prjects in several different ways: by priority, by assignee, or by associated tags. The filtering that Asana has built-in allows for a great deal of customization so that you can look at what you want and how you want.

        Once you figure out how Workspaces work, slotting projects in them is easier to grasp. You can create both public and private projects within a given workspace, the former of which are viewable by all the members of that workspace. You can also create a project by duplicating an existing one – which is great for repeating projects (such as managing a podcast or a weekly blog posting schedule, for example). Just click the arrow dropdown at the top of the project you want to copy, and select “Duplicate Project.” Then you’ll get a list of what items you want to duplicate, as well as the opportunity to change the name of the newly-created project.

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        Tip: Create project templates using the duplication method above; they are extremely useful to have and you can maintain many of the attributes from the original project so that you can work more efficiently with those projects that cycle regularly. Oh, and you can’t add due dates to projects, so let the tasks inside the projects do that for you. Just archive the project when all the tasks are done.

        Tasks

        Tasks are the building block of any productivity-type system, and with Asana this is no different. Tasks are basically “to dos” and you can attach a wide variety of things to them to make them more information-laden. Notes and comments are fantastic aspects of Asana, in that comments allow for teammates to communicate with one another on a task outside of email, and notes let you put hyperlinks and much more in side of a task so that you can provide all anyone will ever need for a task within Asana.

          You can view tasks by project, tag or person, using the tabs in the left-hand pane. You can ensure that you see only the tasks assigned to you by opening “Your Tasks,” which you’ll also find located in the left-hand pane. While in your own task list, click the dot to the left of a task name (or use the icons in the the task details – located in the right-hand pane) to organize your tasks by “intention” – as in, when you’re going to work on them. When you’ve completed a task, click the “Archive” dropdown at the top of a project to hide it from view.

          Something you need to keep in mind when creating tasks is that any you add within Your Tasks (or within a private project) are private by default. But as soon as you add public tags or add the task to a public project, you will make the task public – and viewable by all the members of the Workspace. I add an “x” to tags that are meant for private use (like “xwriting” vs “writing”) so that I don’t accidentally share something that’s meant to stay under wraps. Make sure you put the “x” at the front of the tag so that you don’t auto-complete to a public tag by mistake.

          To add a due date to a task, simply click into the task details field (or use “Tab +D” on your keyboard). You can set the task to repeat regularly – or set it to a pretty cool interval known as “periodically”. That bascially allows you to assign a given number of days after it is marked complete to repeat once more. If you need to keep tabs on others, just check the status of a task in an assignee’s workflow by looking at the icon to the right of their name in the task details.

          Tip: When you make a list of tasks (for me, it is with Simplenote on my iPhone – although you can use any text editor that syncs back to your computer) and drag it to Asana, it creates a separate task for each item. And if you have a space between each list – using bullet points for example with a heading, it makes the non-bulleted point a Priority Heading. While this doesn’t work in the iPhone app, it does allow you to make simple lists with a text editor and then bring them over to Asana for processing when you’re ready.

          Tags

          I look at tags as if they are contexts in the GTD sense. Here’s what Asana says about tags:

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          “Tags provide an additional level of categorization to tasks – they identify important characteristics that tasks share in common.”

          I use locations (or activities, like “Writing”) as tags. But unlike contexts in GTD apps like OmniFocus, I can assign multiple tags to a task by looking at them this way. This is a great feature, especially when you consider that you can change a tag to a project if you ever feel the need to do so. I haven’t done this yet, but if I end up using “twitter” as a tag for several tasks to the point where it has gone beyond its usefulness as such, I can change it into a project and then attack it from that vantage point. That allows me to duplicate it over and over again, should I need to spend a lot of time on Twitter (or it becomes a bigger aspect of my Workspace than what a tag would indicate).

          Tip: This comes straight from Asana: For tasks that are necessary to the completion of more than one project, you can indicate this by clicking the “plus” button to the right of Projects in the task details, or by typing “Tab + P,” and typing the name of the relevant project.

          The Inbox

          Here’s how Asana defines its Inbox, which is somewhat different then what most people would traditionally think:

          (Asana’s) Inbox shows all of the tasks that have been assigned to you by someone else, or from another context.  You can accept tasks from the New Tasks section by clicking the inbox icon and choosing an option.

          The best thing you can do with these is to follow simple GTD practices of Do, Delegate, Defer or Delete. I generally go through each Workspace Inbox every morning and attach tasks to various projects (if that hasn’t already been done by the assignee). Then I attach due dates, tags, etc. to them accordingly. That gets me out of the Inbox and one step further into my Workspaces – which is exactly where I need to be.

          The great thing about Asana is that the Inbox is only there to hold tasks, it is not a viable place to keep them. In fact, keeping them there in Asana is far more transparent than if you were to do that in a regular email inbox. Since notes and comments are updated by team members once a task leaves the Inbox is great for those who just can’t wrap their head around getting things out of email and into a task manager. Asana eliminates the bad inboxes by introducing better ones. That’s why it works so well for non-GTDers – and why it’s counter-intuitive for some to move to it after being in something like OmniFocus, for example, which treats inboxes completely differently.

          A Seemingly Seamless Connection

          As long as people “buy into” Asana, your workflows will improve dramatically. I’ve had one teammate who has jumped in and is playing along with me – and we’re ahead of the game as a result. I’ve had others who just can’t get into it, forget to follow a task or email me back rather than updating through Asana, which creates redundancy. But since I’m using it religiously, I’m able to keep myself on track and am slowly converting the previously unconvertible.

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          Those unconvertible include those using other team task management solutions, those using individual task managers…and those using none at all. That’s because any changes I make under the Projects, Tags and People tabs will push to everyone else in the Workspace. That kind of connection is hard to keep consistent via email.

          That is just one of the things that makes Asana’s barrier to entry exceedingly low (at least by productivity solution standards), and that can only bode well for the company.

          The Asana Wish List

          If you’ve been using Asana already, you know that’s in active (and steadily active at that) development. Still, there are some things that I was curious about when it comes to features that may or may not be coming to Asana. So I asked Kenny Van Zant of Asana to address them:

          Me: Can you convert tasks into projects?
          Kenny: We’ve actually been iterating on the design for subtasks/hierarchy for a long time.  There are a lot of interesting nuances, and we don’t think any of the existing services get it quite right.  At this point we’ve been through a number of designs and prototypes in search of the perfect balance of power and ease-of-use/difficulty-of-hanging-yourself, and we’re really excited about the solution to which we’re converging.

          Me: Exporting of data for offline access – thoughts on that?
          Kenny: We do plan to support that sort of export, beyond the existing Print and multiselect-and-copy capabilities.  But more excitingly, we plan to support offline access, and ultimately even editing, right in the browser through HTML5’s offline support.  Our technology stack makes us really well suited to provide this, as nearly all of Asana’s functionality runs inside the browser.  (Even today, if you disconnect from the Internet while using Asana, you can continue to make changes, leave comments, etc., and your changes will get saved whenever you reconnect.)

          Me: Considering the recent rash of posts on the importance of Start Dates vs Due Dates (mainly with OmniFocus), does Asana have any plans for implementation on that front?
          Kenny: Our plan around calendaring/timeline is one of the most exciting parts of our product vision.  I don’t want to reveal too much yet, but we’ll be giving individuals and teams a shared understanding of time and a confidence in their ability to forecast their projects’ futures at a level that was previously impossible without an onerous and detailed project management process – well beyond just due dates vs. start dates.

          Me: Time of day…why isn’t it there?
          Kenny: We actually don’t see too many requests for due-times, but agree it’s a missing feature, and it will be addressed by the aforementioned calendaring/timeline work.

          Me: What is down the road for Asana in terms of iPad, iPhone, Android…?
          Kenny: The current mobile app is primarily a companion to Asana on your desktop, so you can access your tasks wherever you go.  But that was only version 1: we’re going to build an experience on iOS and Android that’s as responsive and featureful as the desktop app is today.  We’re very committed to providing a great experience on mobile and tablet.

          In Conclusion

          I am really digging Asana. It has the ubiquity, cohesiveness and adaptability I’ve been looking for in a task management solution. It scales up or down, allowing for team and individual task management – and it is lightning fast in both syncing and connectivity (it takes a page from Google Wave and allows you to see when someone else is typing). And it lets those who want to manage tasks via email do just that without hindering progress for those that don’t because of the integration put in place.

          While my 30 Days with Asana are done, my days with Asana are just beginning. I strongly recommend you give Asana a look. It’s a real game-changer.

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          Mike Vardy

          A productivity specialist who shows you how to define your day, funnel your focus, and make every moment matter.

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          Last Updated on August 20, 2019

          Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

          Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

          Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

          This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

          The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

          Curiosity

          Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

          People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

          Patience

          Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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          When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

          Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

          A Feeling for Connectedness

          This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

          A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

          The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

          With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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          1. Research

          Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

          Learning the Basics

          Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

          Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

          What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

          Hitting the Books

          Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

          Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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          Long-Term Reference

          While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

          My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

          2. Practice

          Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

          A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

          Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

          3. Network

          One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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          These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

          Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

          4. Schedule

          For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

          Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

          Final Thoughts

          In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

          If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

          At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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          Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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