In my experience leading a remote team of over 50 people, the project management tool Asana can greatly reduce email overload.
That’s certainly part of the reason why we have adopted this as the premier project management tool on our team..
However Asana will only reduce email overload if you use it correctly. Most of the time project management tools lead to MORE emails and a greater level of email overload.
When most people use Asana they will keep their business email account notifications ON. This means the tool will generate a flood of email. So the obvious solution is to turn off all the email notifications right?
If you turn off all email notifications for your team it fixes the email problem, but it causes another issue with the adoption of the tool. The comments can easily be ignored. So now when you add a comment to a task in Asana, no one will see the comment. So it feels like you are talking to a brick wall.
This is the simple two step solution that we have adopted in our team.
First, we turn off all notifications OR keep notifications and automatically archive the emails using filters. The automatic archive option allows you to search your emails in the future if you need to find something.
The second part of the solution is a rule we’ve implemented here at Time Doctor. If you write a comment on a task that needs to be read by a particular person, then you assign it to that person for them to read it. This gives you the confidence that the comment will be read and you will not have to notify the person via email.
This simple rule goes a long way to solving the problems with adopting Asana into your organization. However there some other challenges that I have found are also important so make sure that the tool is effective.
The root of the issue is …
The problem with any communication tool, including Asana, is that if you don’t have confidence that your message will be read and action taken then the tool loses it’s power.
Just a quick note: the same problem exists with email. If you send an email to someone and you’re not sure if the person will read it and take action on what you wrote, then email is a worthless communications tool.
To increase the chances that the recipient of your email takes action, chances are you will have to follow up with a phone call or some other communication method.
With Asana, you need to know that you can 100% rely on the tool. This means that when you assign someone a task, they will read it, prioritize it and take action on it. This way it won’t get lost or ignored.
Here are some other rules we have implemented to make sure that this happens:
If there is one list of tasks in Asana and another list that kept separately with some other system, then that can lead to a disaster. Chances are, you’re going to automatically ignore Asana as it’s not what the person is “really” working on.
If your team is not reviewing their list of tasks every day and likely multiple times during the day, then it is in indicator that they have not properly adopted Asana. It simply won’t work if your team is reviewing the task list infrequently because the comments will not be read. This will force you to revert to activating email notifications, which will increase your email overload.
If the answer is that they look at the active task list on Asana, then great, the tool is working. If the answer is something else, such as a mental list in their head or written down on a scrap of paper, then they are not properly using the tool and it will not be effective in the team.
Why is this important? When team members have a very long list of active tasks then it causes “task list fatigue”. Even looking at the task list takes mental effort to figure out which tasks are in need of immediate completion and which tasks can be put off for another time.
An alternative way to handle this is to assign all tasks a person needs to complete. But to combat fatigue, you will need to clearly delineate the tasks the person needs to work on now versus the tasks that are on hold and can be completed at another time.
This isn’t a terrible solution, but I find that it’s a slippery slope to the person not actually using the tool effectively. Why? If the task is not assigned to the person then it’s clear that they don’t need to think about it, it’s not active and it’s not in their mental space. However, if the task is assigned there is a good chance that your team member is going to devote some form of mental effort to thinking about this task. This will distract their mental focus from the list of tasks they are working on now.
Prioritization is 100% clear when the only tasks that are assigned to a person are tasks they are working on right now or in the near future.
The most effective strategy I have found is to create a category for “on hold” tasks. These can be tasks that are not assigned to anyone, but are prioritized for potential action in the future. This keeps them out of the person’s immediate mental focus. At the point of time when they need to work on something new they can review this list of tasks to check which ones they want to work on now.
It’s really part of the same concept that only active tasks should be assigned. If the person is waiting on someone else then the tasks should be assigned to the person who is actively working on it. Why is this important? Again, it’s because it causes “task list fatigue” for a person to see combination of active tasks and tasks where they are waiting for someone else. Also it means that it’s not crystal clear who is responsible for the tasks right now. Whoever is responsible should be assigned the task.
If two people are responsible then two separate tasks should be created with a separate description of the exact responsibility of each person.
My experience is that when team members get stuck on a task the most common way to handle the problem is is to ignore the task. It sits there for weeks festering in their task list and causing mental anguish without any forward movement. This is obviously not productive and it’s far more effective if the task is assigned back to the team leader with a comment about the reason why they are blocked.
You can’t expect people to use it perfectly. They need follow up and training to understand the importance of adopting Asana in your organization. Someone needs to review tasks that are waiting without any updates and politely bug the person that has not updated the task.
So far each of the above points have been talking about task management strategies and how they apply to your team. This is the primary function in a tool like Asana. However some of these tools also have messaging functions. For example we use Basecamp in our team to send messages to the whole team because it helps to organize messages into projects and different teams within our company. It also allows you to easily go back and search for messages within a project. And it’s easy to select to send a message to the whole team.
In this case we have not found a way to eliminate email notifications for this type of message. Because of this, we only send messages to the whole team once or twice a month. And typically, these messages are high value and we need to ensure they’re delivered to the team members inbox.
The answer for our team is yes, but only if you use it correctly. In our next article, I’m going to show how using a combination of a project management tool such as Asana with messaging tool such as Slack can be a killer combination, and when used correctly will massively reduce your email overload.
Rob Rawson is a co-founder of Time Doctor which is software to improve work productivity and help keep track of what your team is working on, even when working remotely.