Asana tip: How to plan your day based on required effort

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Setting realistic expectations is critical when planning and prioritising your day’s work. It’s particularly important to consider the time/effort required to complete each task.

At a glance, to-do lists have no clear way to distinguish effort. Without closer inspection, every line looks much the same.

An extreme example:

  • Text Bob the keycode for the camera room
  • Write the company business plan for 2021

One of these things takes under a minute. The other will take ages! This does nothing for our motivation and can make to-do lists with even just a few items seem daunting.

The solution

✅ Add colour-coded time estimate tags to every task or subtask.

Like this:

Diagram of time estimate tags showing the scale of intensity from quick to intense.

As you can see, these tags help you to visualise which tasks involve the most/least effort.

Take, for example, this list:

Screenshot of an example task list.

Yikes, that’s a lot of tasks! Doesn’t fill you with optimism, does it?

Here’s the same list again, with some simple time-estimate tags added:

Screenshot of example task list with time estimate tags added.

As you can see, the two blue tasks will take no time at all.

You could also complete the green and yellow tasks in one short 45 to 60 minute sitting.

That leaves three larger tasks (the orange and red) that may span two or more blocks of Deep Work.

📝 Note: Notice how we’re using tags​​ for this rather than custom fields. This is because tags are visible in the “My Tasks” section of Asana, whereas custom fields are not.

📝 Note: Tags are a standard feature in Asana. However, time estimate tags don’t exist by default. You’ll have to create them the first time around. From then on, you will be able to select them from a list of existing ones.

Why this works

Consider the above example. Applying these tags will enable you to quickly estimate the total time required. In this case, about 5-6 hours.

If you then open your calendar to check your schedule, you’ll know how much time you have available today. If you have other commitments (i.e. meetings), you may only have 4 hours of workable time today.

In this case, there would clearly be a conflict; 6 hours of work will not fit within 4 hours of time. Seeing this conflict early in the day forces you to make the difficult decisions ahead of time. This allows you to prioritise more effectively.

In summary, it helps you spot timing conflicts. The earlier you spot it, the better your ability to adapt.

Added benefits

There are psychological benefits also. Knowing that you have enough time can reduce stress and allow you to “just get on with it”.

It also helps to identify the many small, easy tasks clogging up your list and making it seem worse than it is. Quickly checking off many small tasks can give you a helpful dopamine boost.

However, perhaps the most important benefit is that it highlights the big stuff. You know, the big, scary chunks of work that will make the biggest impact, but are also the hardest to get started on. Making significant progress on this work requires long periods of uninterrupted time. Thankfully, time estimate tags will help to highlight the reality of how often it must take place.

📝 Note: Deep Work blocks should generally last at least 90 minutes. Although, in some cases, they can take up many hours, or even a full day. This is why they are at the far end of the scale.

Dealing with quick tasks

Don’t worry about incessantly tagging 1-minute tasks. It’s more efficient to do them right away. In the GTD methodology, David Allen refers to this as the “2-minute rule”; if it will take less than 2 minutes, do it now.

📝 Note: If you prefer, you can use a “2-minute” tag instead. It doesn’t really make much of a difference.

However, that doesn’t mean 1-minute tags don’t have a place. They are actually useful for recurring tasks. For example, downloading a software invoice once per month. These take very little time. Tagging them as such helps to reduce coordination every time they pop back up in your to-do list.

Helpful tips

  1. Always round up, not down (if you think it’ll take 10 minutes, put 15).
  2. Try to break down big chunks of work into smaller, more achievable tasks or sub-tasks. Aim to be able to finish each one in a single sitting.
  3. Stick to simple pre-set intervals (i.e. don’t estimate that it will take “23 minutes”.
  4. Use the keyboard shortcut TAB + T to quickly add tags (think “T” for Tag).

Try it out and see what you think!

Dave J Mason
Solutions Partner
How to plan your day based on required effort

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