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How to Think About Digital Project Management: Getting Into Asana Part 1

In Work Process by Georgene Nunn

In this article:

Asana is a robust, freemium digital project management tool for teams of many sizes.

The three keys for using a project management tool effectively are:

  1. Consistency
  2. Simplicity
  3. Buy in

Asana has a lot of features, but no project management software can do these things for you! So let’s get started covering how you set up your Asana organization for success.

Consistency, Simplicity, and Buy-In: Repetition is easier to commit to than novelty

Think about trying to build a new routine in your life like bullet journaling or going to the gym. Which sounds like it would eventually become a habit – trying a little bit of everything on an inconsistent basis, or choosing a few things and doing them the same way? The latter, right? Even doing things consistently can still be challenging. Getting groups to change is even more challenging, because everyone brings their own habits and quirks to the process.

So how do you get people to use Asana in a way that builds from a routine into a habit and actually improves workflow?

Develop a consistent structure, keep it simple for people to follow, and get people excited and invested in using it.

Digital Project Management doesn't have to be scary, don't hit the panic button
It’s ok! We all start somewhere!

In Asana, tasks are the main point of interaction. Which sounds very simple, but there are also projects, sections, multiple views in each project, dashboards, overviews, milestones, messages and files. Plenty of ways to get lost in the weeds.

So what does this mean?

It means its up to you to develop patterns. In a group environment, that can seem daunting; after all, if anyone can add things to Asana, won’t it get messy fast? Then how will anybody find anything? How will I know what’s happening? First of all, don’t panic.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Assign an Asana Manager
  2. There is a hierarchy of information in Asana to help you structure your work flow
  3. Pick an work flow and stick to it
  4. Believe in yourself!

Tag! You’re It! – Choose an Asana Owner/Manager

Even in a team as small as two people, the first thing you need to do is decide who is in charge of Asana. That means assigning a single person to call the shots for how Asana is organized and managed. That means there’s always a point person who can be reached to clear up confusion or connect things.

As the Asana owner, you coordinate with the team to find out which methods will provide the most clarity. You also get to be the leader, meaning as the person whose role it is to keep it all organized, you can (and should!) pick a structure that works for you and teach people to work within that structure, then revise as you get feedback.

Work Process - digital project management
Loincloth optional

Take ownership of the structure of information early on. This will help you explain Asana more easily to others and helps you avoid design-by-committee pitfalls. As the owner, be open to feedback and take note where people are struggling. The goal is to improve the experience for everybody and make your job easier. If you find yourself fixing the same mistakes over and over again, the problem is likely with the process, so revise it! You. Have. The Power!

The Asana owner or manager should

  • have the admin controls for the group
  • set up new teams, projects, and sections in projects to manage the flow of information & permissions
  • be the only person adding custom fields and templates
  • be in charge of other customizations like adding app integrations, implementing rules, and creating forms
  • set the default views for projects
  • add, move, and remove information to keep everyone on the same page

A digital project management role in Asana doesn’t necessarily have to own or monitor the actual daily work of each team member like a traditional project manager, but rather they steward the information people use to get the work done. People can add their own tasks to keep things flowing, but you’re in charge of the big picture view. (If you work out a good enough template system with the team, you can even get to the point where other people set up whole projects!)

Work Process - digital project management

Think of it a little bit like a chore board in a household. One person may be in charge of putting the chores on the board, but the chores themselves done and reported as done by the people doing them. (Note: this analogy might work better for families than roommates. My condolences if you’re in the latter camp, the struggle is real.)

This may sound daunting, and at first it can be, but once good patterns are established, this ownership is more like nudging things into place and regular check ins to make sure everyone has what they need.

Going with the Flow, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Digital Project Management Information Hierarchies

Asana put out a guide last year on this very topic.

One thing to keep in mind: Information in Asana is always in a hierarchal structure. From least specific to most specific. Take that into account when you’re setting things up.

At the very top of every Asana setup is the account for the group: the organization. Then if you have a large enough group you might split things into Teams, like Sales, Marketing, and Operations; splitting things into teams means that projects and tasks Sales is responsible for aren’t popping up in the Operations team’s to-do lists, etc. Then it starts getting into the real structure of how work is organized.

Basic structure of Asana: projects, sections, tasks, then under tasks descriptions, custom fields, subtasks and comments
In any setup you should have many more tasks than any other type of item. To paraphrase Cookie Monster, projects are a sometimes food.

Think of a project like a folder. When you make a folder on your computer, or in your file cabinet, you typically group together all the related things like photos from a trip, items from a given month, or items from a specific source like phone bills. Digital project management gives you a lot more freedom than file folders, which is a blessing but can be a curse if you don’t develop good habits.

Effective projects group together tasks so that they all make sense when looked at in a single list. Use your team’s current habits as a jumping off point. Does your team organize best by time? By client? By big event? Some mix of those*?

(* By the way… Yes, you can have tasks in more than one project!)

Examples of Project Structures

  • Quarters: Q1 2021, Q2 2021, Q3 2021, Q4 2021; with sections for organizing different categories of effort, e.g. marketing, sales, operations, etc
  • Months: Jan 2021, Feb 2021, etc; with sections similar to quarterly organization
  • Client: each client gets their own project, & work for that client is organized in sections
  • Event: each event gets a project so each piece needed can be tracked together
  • Projects: this is anything that requires multiple detailed steps to complete, some examples include a Return to Office Plan, and New Employee Onboarding
  • A mix of the above: for example, a project for each month to capture lots of smaller to-dos and a couple discrete projects set up for big efforts to keep all that information together.

In each project, you have a lot of features, but let’s stick with the basic List setup for now. The next step down in the hierarchy from Projects is Sections. A section is like a folder divider. It serves as a visual break in a long list, and as a header for a group of tasks. It can be expanded or collapsed to show or hide tasks.

Work Process - digital project management

Sections allow you to have projects that hold a lot of tasks without it becoming visually overwhelming. Tasks can live in a section, like “all blog posts in the blog section” or tasks can be moved from section to section like “move this task to the ASAP section because it is due today”.

What method do you think will help your team most? Fixed categories where certain types of information can always be found, or having movable categories of information where the things are placed when it’s time to work on them?

Examples of Sections

  • Different outreach efforts: blog, email, social media, press releases, print material
  • Websites: on-page changes, new page requests, design requests
  • Information sharing: idea parking lot, design resources, tool logins & billing
  • Mini-project lists under a bigger project like an event: email promo, securing venue, guest info resources
  • Blocks of time: months set up as sections in a quarterly project, list of weeks under a month
  • Priority sections: to do, doing, done; asap, this week, next week, later

Below these two organizational layers are tasks, where most of the real action in Asana lives.

A tisket, a task-et, what goes in a task’s basket?

You’ve set up projects (folders), and your sections (dividers) and now you need to start actually putting things in those folders – the team’s tasks.

Tasks are like work orders. They’re made up of a title and a description. You can also add an assignment, a due date, tags and custom fields, and subtasks. You can mark items as dependent on other items or as milestones in a project if you have the paid version of Asana. Files can be attached and follow up comments can be made. Subtasks can be nested inside the task. Everything you could possibly want about a single achievable goal can be contained in a task.

Best practice tips for titles

The title of a task should describe in brief what needs to be accomplished. A good rule for task naming is “If I saw this line by itself later, would I remember what had been done?”. We’ve all had that one to-do list where there’s just an item called something like “shampoo” and you don’t remember if it was about dog shampoo or shampooing the carpet or remembering that the one brand of shampoo your spouse likes is on sale.

Best practice tips for assignments

A task can only be assigned to one person. This is the person who is responsible for making sure it gets done, not necessarily the only person responsible for doing it.

To add more people, go to the very bottom of the task and add them as Collaborators. Collaborators are all notified about comments and changes to tasks. It’s an easy way to keep people in the loop.

If different people are responsible for specific pieces of a task, consider adding subtasks so you can assign those pieces to the person responsible and add due dates. Tasks can be sorted by assignment so you can see all one person’s tasks grouped together.

Notes about dates

By default, when you set a date it’s just the date an item is due. This is important for tracking if things are moving smoothly or if there are bottlenecks and holdups somewhere. Due date is also a default sort option in most views.

Other date features include:

  • Start date – specify what day a task should begin in addition to the date it’s due
  • Due time/Start time – you can specify what time something starts or is due by in half hour increments
  • Task repetition – weekly, monthly, yearly, x number of days after completion (periodically) and some more advanced custom repetition options

One downside to task repetition is it doesn’t currently support instructions like “repeat on the last Thursday of each month”, just specific numerical days of the month, or the first/last day. You do have the option to set up a repeat such as “every 4 weeks on Tuesdays and Thursdays” however.

Best practice tips for tags and custom fields

Work Process - digital project management
A sample content approval process for an organization that has to run their written pieces through a compliance department.

Let this be your guiding light: If it doesn’t provide information to get the job done, you do not need it. Labels for the sake of having labels can quickly become information overload, and become a chore in the task management process.

Custom fields are a paid feature. Tags are free. Think of tags like sticky note flags you can use to quickly identify information. For example, you could set up tags for paid or free tools in your tool resources section. Tags and custom fields can be used in searches.

Various Asana templates have custom fields built in that you can add, although you may find they don’t line up with your needs. A good example of where a custom field is helpful is a content approval process.

Best practice tips for subtasks

Use subtasks to break up workload on a single task. If one person is in charge of writing, another for graphics, and another for publishing, then each person can have a subtask assigned to them under the main task of “create x name document”.

If it takes longer to add a subtask in a meaningful way then it takes to do the task: it probably doesn’t need to be a subtask, it could just be noted as a comment. The exception to this is creating a process list for something that needs to be repeated over and over again. For example, if there’s a checklist of must-haves for a blog post, that could be represented as subtasks, and the people working on it would know that if all of those aren’t marked off, it’s not ready to go live.

Features and tips for comments

Work Process - digital project management

Use the like feature to let people know you’ve seen something when you don’t have a follow up remark. Use the appreciations feature to add little touches of fun and acknowledgement.

You can @ mention people to add them to task if they aren’t already a collaborator.

You can also @ mention other tasks in order to link to them. Just type the @ symbol then begin typing the name of the task or a keyword from the task title and you’ll get a list of matches. Click on the title of the task you want to link and it will add it to your comment (or description). (See now why it’s so important to make task names easy to remember?)

Getting everyone in on the action

Sometimes you don’t have a choice, the organization has decided at a high level it’s time to use project management software and that’s that! But if you have a choice? Here’s the recommended order of operations:

  • Get comfortable using Asana with just you and maybe a few team members. Work out the kinks. Think about how it works or doesn’t work with your team’s current workflow.
  • When you feel like you’ve got some solid patterns set up, invite everyone in.
  • Train them using what you’ve learned in the context of how it works for your specific situation. Your comfort helps new people feel more comfortable, especially if you make it clear they can always reach out to you.

A few parting tips for surviving setbacks

Try to stick to one flow. Get your project and sections set up so it’s easy to drop in tasks where they belong. If you have to make adjustments, communicate that clearly and frequently.

If you have recurring tasks, make use of templates and the date-based repeat feature. Make it easy for people to provide the right information every time.

Always push the information flow back to Asana. Got someone who always emails? Push that email into Asana and reply from there.

Check in regularly. Whether that’s a weekly meeting to go through the most pressing tasks, or a more periodic check in to ask people if there’s anything they wish they had.

Find ways to conquer people’s pain points. Look for integrations with tools they do use and like. Be on the lookout for gaps in knowledge or missing information.

And remember…

Work Process - digital project management