It’s the little things that make some tools great

I recently took another look at Asana, the team task management tool, and realized that I had missed some new features they had released. I last wrote about Asana in Asana adds calendar visualization, and before that I had chronicled their steady advance in features and maturing the product in several earlier pieces like (see Asana redesigns the task paneAsana adds Hearts to tasks for simple social gesture, and Asana announces Organizations. I was actually reading something on their blog, when I stumbled across an announcement from last summer that I had missed, and because of that I have now switched back to using Asana.

The post was this: Beyond complete & incomplete: Move your tasks through any process or workflow with Sections, and it describes an apparently small feature that makes use of Asana incomparably better.

Sections are the new name for what Asana had been calling priority headings. The idea was that a user could annotate a list of tasks in Asana with priority headings, that could allow the list to be broken into subsets. For example, I might break up a list of research items into categories, like Big Data, Coworking, or Economics (to use only a  few examples from my research list). In the old Asana, these priority headings were an artifact of the list, and could be used manually to organized the task elements, but they those categorizations were not treated like metadata for the tasks themselves.

Screenshot 2014-03-22 11.18.12

However, Asana’s developers found that users were applying the priority headers as states in a sequence. For example in the project above, my writing queue, I am now ordering my tasks as passing through a pipeline from idea, to posted. I could have indicated that in the old version, but now the state is indicated in the task metadata, as shown in the top right panel ,where ‘writing > research’ shows the project name and then the section, the task’s state.

Note that the state can be changed by either dragging the task from one section of the task list to another — which is how it was done before with priority headings — or, now, I can pull down on the section indicator in the task panel, like this:



Pipelined work makes up the great majority of what I do. For example, I manage a seemingly endless queue of calls and briefings, which are all in some state in the sequence ‘proposed -> discussion -> scheduled -> completed’, with the occasional ‘-> cancelled’ and the common backwards movement from ‘scheduled’ to ‘discussion’. Otherwise, I couldn’t possibly keep track.

Pipelining is something like a process, but not in the sense that the work is routinized. For example, the black box of what happens when I actually write something is not being handled by algorithmic rules. But the pipelined states offer a great scaffolding for me, even when there aren’t exact rules involved.

As a final note, the second reason I decided to change back to Asana was the capability to share a task in multiple projects. I won’t elaborate much, but the number of times I want to do that is high, and the alternative — making a duplicate (or triplicate) task — is not a good path.


Think Small, Change Big

The impact of this seemingly small change to Asana has huge impact on my task management. For example, in Todoist, the competitor that I have been using for most of the last year, I had implemented something like these state changes by using tags. That is a very flexible mechanism — and indeed, Asana implements tags, as well — and in Todoist, I could search for all the items in my writing queue that were tagged ‘@idea’, for example. But they can’t be used to order them in sequence, which is the basic model in Asana.

And the folks at Asana ended that blog post with this:

Sections are just a first step towards accommodating any process or workflow, look for more new features soon.

I will keep my eyes open.