frictionless productivity with asana

Wikipedia tells me that asana is a Sanskrit word referring to a body position in Yoga. Six months ago, googling asana would bring up a plethora of websites about Yoga. Try it now, and the first item on the list of search results is likely to be asana, the task management app for teams. Use asana, and you will understand why this app has become so popular.

Asana is a flexible, browser-based productivity app designed to support team collaboration. However, it can be used just as easily for individual task or project management; and its features enable you to set up a workflow compatible with David Allen’s Getting Things Done® (GTD®) approach. Asana is free for individuals and teams of up to 30 users and there is a free mobile app for the iPhone/iPad.

As I have not used asana in a team context, this review focuses primarily on its utility as a task management app for individual use.

In order to illustrate the core functionality of asana I have created a fictitious work project that sees me prepare for a conference in Amsterdam (see screenshot 1).

Asana’s project view. I should have checked myself into the Krasnapolsky hotel on the Dam Square; it’s all pretend anyway…

The navigation pane on the left provides an overview of your workspaces (mine are work, home and writing), with some key projects and frequently used labels underneath each workspace heading. You can click on a workspace heading to bring up its own navigation pane, with the complete list of all projects in that area (see screenshot 2). That more detailed navigation pane has tabs for projects, tags and people working on the project.

In the screenshot above, the central pane shows the tasks associated with my conference project. Adding tasks feels easy and fluid: just type and hit the Enter key. A drop-down box lets you insert sub-headings for your project — a great feature for managing complex projects. Asana supports subtasks, though that feature has not been rolled out to all users yet. You can also duplicate your project, print it or synchronise it with your calendar.

The right hand pane lets you add detail to your tasks. This is where you add notes, set a due date, schedule repeating tasks, attach files or assign the task to a team member. Hypertext allows you to link to people, projects or tasks in asana from any notes or comment field. The activity feed shows real-time comments from team members ‘following’ a project or a task. Asana can send you email notifications to alert you to project or task changes.

The centre pane can also display a person’s task list across projects (as in the screenshot below). Project names show up as tags in the full task list and clicking on the project tag takes you back to the project view. Tasks can be sorted by date, project and priority; or filtered by assignee. You can also mark tasks as today, upcoming or later in this view. The visibility of completed tasks can be toggled, which is a nice feature in terms of project tracking and team accountability.

Screenshot from Asana’s press kit.

Asana is similar to Producteev (see my review), but I found it much faster in switching between workspaces. It works very well as an individual task manager and the collaboration tools may be the deal clincher. You can use one workspace to collaborate with colleagues and another to plan a trip with your partner.

Asana is not perfect, but that is a matter of missing functionality rather than any shortcomings in what has been developed so far. I did not find any bugs in my testing (using Safari and Chrome on Mac OS 10.8.2) but in my broader research I came across users reporting occasional server problems. Asana continues to be refined by an active development team. My personal suggestions for ‘nice to haves’ are, in order of priority:

  • capacity to move tasks across workspaces
  • integration with Evernote
  • capacity to work offline
  • a native iPad version.

For me, that wish list is outweighed by Asana’s many strengths:

  • powerful and flexible task manager
  • clear and logical user interface, a pleasure to use
  • drag and drop (within, but not across, workspaces)
  • ample keyboard shortcuts
  • useful project tools (multiple workspaces, sub-headers, subtasks, multiple tags)
  • supports team collaboration
  • free for teams of up to 30 members
  • calendar integration.

All of this makes Asana into an attractive and engaging app that comes close to the ideal of frictionless productivity, where the mechanics of task management do not stand in the way of achieving flow. On their website , the developers describe asana as an effort to re-imagine how teams get things done, as the modern way to work together, a fast and versatile web application that connects everyone with what’s going on, their shared priorities and who owns each part of the effort. From my own experience, it would appear that asana has the potential to deliver on that manifesto, making the developers’ ambitious claim a statement of fact, rather than hyperbole.

Thank you for taking the time to read this review. Please leave a comment if you are using (or have used) asana, especially as part of a team. What are your impressions? What additional features would you like to see?

Update (23-03-2014): read an updated review on asana’s newest features at  http://wp.me/p25GBG-fa

Update (09-08-2014): Asana and Todoist compared.

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