Trying out GTD for the 4th time with Asana and Instagantt…

OK, so found out quite a lot about what’s wrong with day to day taskings in Outlook, and how to fix them. Also tried out Asana. Read on for a complete review!

Interesting things I found out about my outstanding tasks

Had 260 tasks in Outlook, one dating to March 2015, but most in the last 6 months. Some things fell through the gaps, like reviewing content for other teams.

Some other pieces of reference information useful for tasks also slipped through the gap – if only there was a good way to attach this to a live task?

Asana supports linking a content, but you can’t easily send it to add to an existing task via email, only create a new task. Workaround I found was giving the task and the email subject similar names then merging the tasks – but the notes in the email aren’t merged!!! You need to click on the merged link to open the original email. This feels clunky.

How I went about using Asana

Collected last 3 months work of tasks: – Did this in a single pomodoro! (i.e. a 25 minute slot) Then managed to get my Doctor prescribed stretches done too – the ticker was very useful for maintaining the correct length of stretch, and for not over exercising them in each session. Turned ticker down to volume level 2 on the Mac. Works quite well.

Strangely, I tried the second pomodoro without the ticking and I was more easily distracted, and felt the need to keep checking the time remaining. The ticking doesn’t tell you how much is left though, but you feel reassured by its being there, so you never check the time. Very odd, and I’m sure some psychiatrist can explain this, but it really does help with concentration.

I used the “Be Focused” pomodoro timer app on the Mac app store. This is free. My only grip is you can’t drag the timer circle to reduce the time. E.g. if you actually have 7 minutes before a call but the timer says you are taking a 15 minute rest – I’d like to change it interactively to what I’m actually doing. Good free app though with a satisfying (optional) tick! (disabled by default).

So here’s what I did in my pomodoro’s:-

1st – Log tasks for last 3 months

Went through everything I could think of, plus everything from a project’s excel tracking spreadsheet, plus every Outlook flagged for follow up task.

2nd – Process/Organise

I assigned tasks to projects. I had to assign each project to a team, which was a bit frustrating. I created a ‘Team Adam Fowler’ rather than use a Personal Project, as Personal Project’s don’t appear alongside non-personal ones, which makes assigning tasks an absolute nightmare. Separate workspaces are very frustrating, so I decided to just use the main MarkLogic (company) workspace for everything.

Creating teams seems rather strange for a piece of software strong on collaboration. Orgnanisations, teams, and Projects don’t sit right with me. Projects really need to start and end, and thus a Sprint or Release is a better unit of task groupings. Like many people I’ve created a Project-Sprint as a project. This means I can eventually finish a project.

I work as a Solution Architect. I work with people from Sales, Engineering, PM, pre-sales, Consulting, Support, Marketing – all at the same time, with various mixes for different projects. This is far too wide a concept for a team structure. I created a team for a very large group but which didn’t align to my organisation’s structure, as this was too rigid.

E.g. “Solution Frameworks” team for anyone that contributes code to open source projects across the company. Another good example (which I’ve not added) would be “Account – CUSTOMER NAME” for anyone who works on a particular customer account.

I’ve ended up creating 7 ‘projects’ across 4 ‘teams’ in Asana. This makes my left hand project listings very complex. I’d prefer an option of a collapsed view on the left. To be fair, you do have this with ‘recent projects’

3rd – Checking against GTD steps…

I started organising my tasks like in GTD described here:

Turns out I’ve not logged anything against someday/maybe. Nothing waiting for, but some are in a project assigned to other people. Because I have a project with assignees who can see it, there is no ‘waiting for’ – it’s just not assigned to me! No need to review this unless it gets assigned back to me. +1 for Asana over an individual’s GTD app.

I cannot explain just how much I like not having a waiting for box of crap just festering away. Assigning and forgetting is a much better way of working. Problem of course is that is therefore forces everyone you’re working with to use Asana. Shame you can’t say “They are outlook droids” and send it automatically as a task there, unless them sign up for Asana. This would make adoption independant of relying on co-workers using the same tool.

The premium version does have a ‘waiting for’ option hidden within each task’s settings – but WHY? What does this serve? Why is it not in the base version? The ‘please upgrade’ page doesn’t really explain why I’d find this valuable enough to pay for.

I’ve added context – Priority (Low, Medium, High priority tags), time (in hours – 0.25, 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 8), energy (low, medium, high energy) and ‘today’ as tags. (ASAP may be better…)

Asana Bug: Adding tags to tasks and hitting enter only works if the tag already exists, and is IGNORED if you need to create a new task – cost me a lot of time to find this behaviour, and go back and retype missed tags.

Would be nice if expected duration was supported: E.g. 15 minute intervals. This should also be supported in search. E.g. “I only have 45 minutes, what can I do!” – “Here, Sir, are two high priority tasks that will take a total of 40 minutes – get cracking!” would be a nice search response.

Asana task search is limited to a single tag with exact value. No range queries of duration to search through.

I would really like an option to lay out my free time or when my next hard line (meeting, lunch, end of day etc.) is, and have suggested tasks queued up for me to see and do.

I’m not using place or ‘internet’ as a context tag, as I always have my computer and interwebs in order to get anything done!

4th Time for some actual work now I’m organised for the week!

OK so I have 14 minutes, or 0.25 hours – what can I do now? – Send slides for a past event…

Moved 13940 inbox items (1757 unread) in to an OLD folder, to try and get inbox zero – starting from here. Assuming anything not flagged for follow up over last 6 months requires no follow up.

Now looking for other work…9 minutes left…

Have a read of ‘do it!’ Makes some great points about Time needed (not supported by default in asana) and ASAP (I just have ‘Today’ as a tag).

Off the wagon already! After my 4th Pomodoro I didn’t have enough time to walk the dog due to a scheduled call, which got interrupted from a call from an unknown number but which I had to take – it was some urgent info I needed for one of my tasks.

This means for the last hour I’ve been ‘off the clock’ as it were. It’s now 14:46 though, so I’ll make a few phone calls and get back to tomato-ing it up to the max…

Asana and indeed no GTD app, or the pomodoro technique, supports this reality of working – there are some calls you just gotta take now, else it’ll be days before you get synced again.

These pop up tasks are very familiar to anyone who has sat the RAF Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre’s computer based tests for multitasking! Being able to keep context of the wider task in the background whilst answering an immediate question/task quickly. They do exist, and are very common in fast moving organisations like sales.

Low energy levels hitting now. Think my pomodoro sprints earlier in the day wore me out. Going to do one more call then have a longer break…

Now for the final task of the day – writing up my initial findings…

Using Asana

Overall the app is very usable on the website. Great natural interface, everything worked fine.

Sub tasks

One annoying thing: When creating sub tasks you have to hit enter for the sub task to be saved. Doing so creates a blank subtask that appear in the instagantt chart and your task lists. Asana – please don’t create/keep blank titled tasks, silently delete them if there is zero content.


I like the way tasks are created as private by default from email, but shared within a project once assigned. This does mean though that you must ensure you create your private projects marked as private! Projects default to Public but forcing people to ask to join a project and not seeing tasks until you let them join, so not a big issue if you forget to mark the project as private.


A bit disappointing that my completed tasks don’t appear on my calendar – would be great to see this, or at least a number of tasks (or even better, summed duration of all completed tasks) done on each day.

Not really obvious about what the calendar is for? I’ll try and link this to Outlook tomorrow and see if that helps. I’ll also try linking to GitHub tomorrow too, and see how that integration works.


As mentioned above, once I logged all tasks in a development project, with sub tasks, in Asana, I tried the companion Instagantt chart application. The sync button when clicked says it is working, but hangs forever.

Turns out this is just bad UX. There is a non-obvious “Connect Projects” button which you need to click first, and attach relevant Asana projects to instagantt. This is great so you don’t get all projects appearing. Would have been better to get a message saying “But you can’t sync – you’ve not Connected any Projects yet!”. Would be nice to see that for new users.

Instagantt is very pretty, and a Microsoft Project killer! Integrates seamlessly with tasks and assignees from Asana. By default, the expected duration column is not shown which is a bit daft, given the first message that pops up suggests you show this column!

Also, as mentioned above, Asana doesn’t have the concept of task duration out of the box, so when you add this in Instagantt it appears as an edit to the task name with “My task name [4]” to indicate a 4 hour expected duration. This feels very clunky. Would like to see Asana simply add this field by default.

Once I’ve used Instagantt in anger I’ll review that in a separate blog post.

The iPad app

This is focussed pretty much purely on getting new tasks in, and is very very limited in scope compared with the webapp. I’d have liked to have seen the main Asana homepage view in this app. That doesn’t seem to be available.

The UI is severely limited. Much better to just be a thin wrapper for the web app I would think, perhaps with HTML5/JS offline capabilities as a backup when offline.

Asana for development projects

I tend to play developer one day and release manager another day for my open source projects. I like the way I can switch between a column orientated sprint planning post it board in Asana and a Microsoft project like UI in Instagantt for resource planning and scheduling.

I’m yet to try out the GitHub integration, but I will very shortly, and report back on a separate blog post.

Other features/niggles

Asana is by far the most natural feeling task planning app I’ve ever used. It’s not orientated for GTD per-se though, so you’ll have to learn those techniques elsewhere then apply them in this app – there’s no GTD features OOTB.

The focus on collaboration is great, but I suspect unless my entire team works in the tool then this may be of limited use – basically a tick list for me to see what is and is not done, just like an excel spreadsheet. To maximise automation you all must use Asana.

I like the seamless Instagantt integration, and the email to Asana task creation integration, which is activated and configured out of the box.

Some feature appear a bit useless, like the Dashboard, as unless tasks are assigned to projects I can’t see how well I, personally, have done over time – only everyone working together on a project. This could do with expanding with better analytics.

Similarly, the Calendar is of little intrinsic value. I would have like to have seen completed tasks appear, or even just a “9 task hours completed today!” message on each day.

I find it hard to see what I’ve achieved. There’s just a list of tasks that never ends. I can’t effectively limit that view other than by a single, simple tag value. Would be nice to hide tasks assigned to projects sometimes, or having weighted views depending on what is important to me (priority or as many small tasks as possible, or near their deadlines) – but I suppose there’s no advanced search engine that can do this like MarkLogic behind the app!

The project board view is definitely my favourite place to live. Hide the list of projects and just focus on the single project, moving tasks between columns as you work on them.

Would be nice if task dependencies or chronologies are enforced by default. E.g. by the order in which subtasks are added below a parent task. This doesn’t exist in the views or in the instagantt integration by default, limiting visibility when working at the subtask level (which is what appears on task boards).

I would class email signature images being added as resources to projects as being a massive bug too. I even added /end in the appropriate place, but must have missed a switch somewhere.


Asana is a great task app, easy to use, good integrations, and a fluid and responsive interface. There are a few practical niggles that need working out, but I’m sure the creators will take all this on board.

I’d recommend you consider this is you have the latitude to have others in your organisation use the tool also. If you just want a personal GTD task app then look elsewhere, unless like me you desperately need solid integrations to other tools.

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