Asana Helps Teams Stay in Flow

Summary: Uninterrupted states of flow are critical for productivity in knowledge work. Asana helps teams reduce a significant source of interruptions to flow.

Paul Graham writes in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

James Slavet of Greylock identifies “Flow State Percentage” as the first of five key metrics in Five New Management Metrics You Need To Know:

Metric 1: Flow State Percentage

Jobs that require a lot of brainpower—software programming for instance—also demand deep concentration. You know that feeling when you’re “in the zone,” cranking on something. That is flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Unfortunately, most of us are constantly interrupted during the day with meetings, emails, texts, or colleagues who want to talk about stuff. These interruptions that move us out of “flow state” increase [knowledge work] cycle times and costs dramatically. Studies have shown that each time flow state is disrupted it takes fifteen minutes to get back into flow, if you can get back at all. And programmers who work in the top quartile of proper (ie uninterrupted) work environments are several times more productive than those who don’t.

Ideally … knowledge workers can spend 30% – 50% of their day in uninterrupted concentration. Most office environments don’t even come close. To get started, ask your [knowledge workers] to track for a few days their personal flow state percentages: how many hours each day are they in flow, divided by the number of total hours they’re at the office. And then brainstorm ways that the team can move this number up.

One category of activities that continually takes us out of flow is organizing work either our own or our team’s–prioritizing projects, breaking project work into tasks, splitting up and queuing tasks, resolving task-related issues or barriers as they come up.

There are many approaches for organizing one’s own work that reduce time out of flow; I personally like David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Here’s a summary of the Getting Things Done workflow:

Flip through the book if you really want to understand and implement the system. There are a bunch of tools to help implement it personally, ranging from paper-based to cloud-based.

Organizing a team’s work adds complexity–particularly in agile contexts when priorities were adjusting each week or in some cases like media relations every few hours. There are many project and team collaboration tools have appeared over the years. In previous roles and projects, I’ve implemented Basecamp, Central Desktop, and others. Each of these seeks to address collaboration pain points–file sharing, shared project plan & dashboard, etc; it squeezes waste out of the collaboration process and provides greater visibility to the project manager. But my sense was that with each, makers–myself included–continued to have separate task lists–on paper, a text file, or something else–that better reflected what they needed to get done.

That’s where Asana comes in. It’s a project and team collaboration tool that feels like its designed starting with how makers work and what they need to stay focused on getting things done. It builds essential collaboration features around that. Asana helps with all kinds of communications that avoid email overload, phone calls, and meetings, including status updates on projects, tasks, and priorities; comments & questions; etc.

The Asana team has also really nailed the user experience. If Pivotal Tracker is as Nivi called it “the iPod of project management” then Asana is the iPad. Here’s the short video intro:

How do you organize work to optimize for flow?

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Asheesh Birla, co-founder of Fancite, for comments on an earlier version.

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