How I’m Getting Things Done with Asana

I’ve tried lots of productivity tips and methods over the years but the one I keep coming back to is David Allen’s Getting Things Done method.

It’s not just me. GTD has influenced many writers and software designers and the basic principles turn up everywhere. Daily and weekly reviews, emptying your inbox, storing ideas somewhere other than your head…

Whatever productivity app you’re using, someone will have written a blog post explaining how to GTD with that exact tool. Here’s my contribution, using Asana.

What I look for in a task management tool

I change my software toolkit more often than is good for me. I love trying new things. They might be better than what I already use.

I also love the way a new tool lets me look at how I do things. What routines don’t I need any more? What tasks do I need to transfer to the new app? Switching to a new planner or to-do list is like a review in itself.

Whatever I’m trying out, the first test is: can it handle GTD. Or at least, my version of it.

  • Most of my actions arrive as emails. Can I fire them straight into the tool?
  • I don’t want to look at client work on Saturday afternoon.Can I group stuff into lists or projects for different areas of my life?
  • Stuff that happens weekly or monthly should just turn up on my list. Can it do recurring tasks?
  • Anything I do more than once, with more than one step, needs a checklist. Like my daily and weekly reviews, or writing this blog post. Can I grab fresh checklists easily?

I want one task manager for everything.

Except maybe grocery lists. AnyList is the best grocery list ever. If you’re the catering manager for your household, you really should try it.

But apart from that, I want one tool. Not a to-do list tool and a project management tool.

Having two or more tools adds little bits of effort into everything. When I’m turning an email into a task, which app should it go in? When I’m deciding what to work on next, which app should I look at? When I realise a task on my to-do list is turning into a project, should I move it?

I used to use ToDoist. It’s lovely, but I found it was too simple to handle my larger projects. So that’s what set me off on the search that led to Asana.

Asana is my one tool to rule all my tasks and projects

Sort of.

Asana is simple enough to handle basic chores, like remembering to clean the dishwasher. And it can scale up to handle big projects, like the move to a new digital platform that I’m currently managing.

It's not perfect, though. Here are some things I add on to Asana to make it work better for me:

  • Instagantt for viewing tasks as a timeline. Asana has a calendar view but not a timeline. And the calendar view is only 6 weeks or so. I wrote about how I use Instagantt here.
  • Alfred is a keyboard shortcut tool for Macs. Asana is lacking in the quick-add department. ToDoist and Things are awesome at this and I missed the feature, so I use an Alfred workflow to send tasks to Asana.

Right. Let's Get Things Done.

Daily reviews: checklists, email-to-task and My Tasks

All my reviews are recurring tasks in Asana. Each review task has subtasks: a checklist for that review. The daily review is very short - empty my inbox, check my calendar, plan my day, remember to top up Buffer.

As part of my daily review, I forward any email that needs work into Asana. The email subject becomes the task title. I often overtype that when I forward the mail, to make it more action-y. The body of the email turns up in the task, complete with attachments, so I don’t need to switch back to email as I work.

You can forward tasks to a specific project in Asana. I don’t use this much because these emails skip the New list in My Tasks. And once everything’s in Asana, I use the My Tasks view to plan my day.

Any task assigned to me shows in My Tasks with one of four priorities: New, Today, Upcoming, and Later. If I don't want tasks to show up in my day to day work I don't assign them to myself. Easy.

New is where the new tasks show up for sorting and prioritisation. Asana populates Today and Upcoming overnight with tasks due in the next day and next seven days. All other tasks assigned to me are in Later.

I love this feature. It’s like a helpful person goes through your tickler file (remember that from GTD?) every night, sorting everything into neat piles ready for you to review.

You can move tasks back to Upcoming or Later if you want. Asana will move them back to Today on the right day. (I go carefully with this, though - if you move an Upcoming task to Later, you won’t see it again until its due date. Easy to lose tasks that way.)

Doing the work: grabbing stray thoughts with the Chrome plugin.

“The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” So says David Allen. When I have an idea, I get rid of it as fast as possible.

I work in my browser a lot so I often use the Asana plugin. You can clip a web page to Asana, or just add a task. Elsewhere, I might use Alfred as described above.

If it’s not a task, I use the Evernote Helper instead. But that’s a different story.

Organising the work: projects, sections and sub-tasks

I don’t take the ‘project’ idea too literally in Asana. I have some projects that really are projects, with a start and end date. And I have other projects that are just a way of grouping related tasks together. Like household chores and errands, or financial stuff.

During my weekly review, I go through every project and focus area, weeding out-of-date tasks and checking there’s a next action for everything that needs it.

If I want to make a project more organised I use sections. That's just a task ending in a colon. Some areas are simple - just a straight list. Some are more complicated, with sections and subtasks and repeating checklists.

Weekly and monthly reviews: goals, priorities, and task maths

I like to keep a rolling plan of priorities for the year. My approach is a bit Goal Board, and a bit Bullet Journal, with a dash of Agile Results.

I currently have a project in Asana called Goal Board. It has sections for This Week, Next Week, the months in this quarter, and the next three quarters. There's also a Someday/Maybe section at the end.

I have all kinds of things in this project: reminders to book holidays, dates of major events, general priorities, goals I’d like to reach. It’s my bird’s eye view of life.

During my weekly review, I look back at what I planned to do this week, and I plan ahead for next week. During monthly reviews, I shuffle about the months and quarters ahead, trying not to over-commit.

There’s a joke about freelancers working 80 hours a week for themselves so they don’t have to work 40 hours a week for someone else. I don’t want to be that guy. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of piling too much work into a week or month, without paying attention to the number of days involved.

If you have this bad habit too, take a look at Michael Hyatt's blog. He has a template for creating an ideal week, and another for planning your days on paper.

At a day-to-day level, I use Asana task maths to add up estimates for this week’s tasks on my Goal Board. If you put numbers in square brackets at the start of each task and then select those numbered tasks, Asana adds up the numbers for you. A quick way to check I’ve not planned 60 hours work in 35 hours. (You need to enable the hack in your profile to do this).

I’d just figured this out when I read a post from Michael Hyatt, about how he uses Nozbe to do this same adding up of hours. I was briefly tempted to try Nozbe, but I think I'll stick with Asana. For now.

What are you using for Getting Things Done? Are there any killer Asana hacks I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments.

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