Breaking My Day Into Manageable Chunks

I've been a GTD user for several years now. I recently kind of fell off the bandwagon, so to speak. It got painful enough that I took a couple of hours and re-implemented it.

Once upon a time I used Things.app. It's a great little app and really helped me get on track with GTD. I really got into it for a while there and to be perfectly honest, I don't really remember why I ended up switching to Asana. I think it was because I wanted to assign tasks to my work teammate at the time and because it hadn't gotten a facelift in years (something that for better or worse is something I value in the apps I use). I think this article probably had some influence when I was searching for a Things alternative. It probably doesn't really matter – Asana has been a great fit for me ever since.

Lately though, my life has gotten a little nuts. I haven't taken more on necessarily, but my slip in my GTD methodology made things a lot more chaotic.

And let's be real here, Asana can start out real simple and easy to use, but as you add more to it, it can get complex really quickly. That's what happened in large part. But I managed to find a workflow in it that I've been using this week that I'm really enjoying.

One of the pieces of GTD is applying context to your to-do list items. For example, if you have "Call client X regarding project Y timeline", the context could be "phone" or "office". The idea is that you could get things done on your list even if you're not at your computer or office or wherever. In other words, if you're sitting on a bus or on a train, you could still get things checked off your list if context and time allowed (such as "phone" or "text" or something).

I have never really used contexts in my practice of GTD, at least not the way David Allen has defined them. That sort of changed this week though.

My current task list in Asana

As you can see in the screenshot above, I have 23+ tasks (the entire list wouldn't fit in my browser). The tasks are for various projects – both for clients and for my business. I've learned that looking at that list, I end up with analysis paralysis. And I end up getting very little done.

One of Asana's (many) features is the ability to add custom fields to tasks. Admittedly, I wasn't quite sure how to properly implement custom fields in a way that I would use them consistently. But as I thought more and more about why I was struggling to be productive, I realized that seeing all those tasks without any real – wait for it – context, I would quickly become overwhelmed.

Another critical piece of GTD is energy – the level of attention you can devote to the task. In my experience, while that means how tired (or not tired) you may be, it also means what I feel like working on. 

As you can imagine, running a business – however small – means I take on several roles depending on the project or goal:

  • Operations
  • Project manager
  • Designer
  • Developer
  • Marketer
  • Writer
  • Janitor
  • Etc.

My energy levels for each of my roles are far from equal. There are times during the day where I'm much more excited about or in the mood for doing project management or design work than I am for writing, for example. So for me, the contexts are the types of work I do.

And that's where a critical custom field in Asana has come into play for me.

I set up a custom drop-down field called "Task Phase/Type". It's clearly not the best label ever, but it works for me. That field then has several options to choose from:

  • PM (project management)
  • UX (for user experience work)
  • Content
  • Design
  • Dev(elopment)
  • Delivery (i.e. tasks that relate to finishing or handing off a project)

There is at least one business-related option I need to add, but so far, these have been great.

Unfortunately in Asana, there's no way to see your tasks' assigned custom field setting in the Today/My Tasks view which is where I work out of every day. Fortunately, Asana has a pretty good search function that allows me to save searches and pin them to the top of my sidebar.

So what I did was create a search for tasks due in the past three days for each work context. I saved that search query by marking it as a "favorite" and renamed it to something that made more sense than the name Asana gives automatically. Combined with a separate saved search for tasks tagged as priority, this breaks my otherwise overwhelming task list for the day into several smaller task lists that are easier to focus on and get through.

The psychology of it all is something I've only read about here and there, but it's fascinating. This has made me more productive, which is saying a lot for someone who thrives on discipline and getting shit done at work. A bonus to this setup / practice is that, once I start getting tasks in the context-based lists, the reduction in items of the huge Today list is a huge mental boost.

Now to get back to work...