When he entered the workforce, Joshua Zerkel didn’t know that productivity consultants were a thing. He was always the organized kid, alphabetizing his comic books and grouping his toys by category (G.I. Joes could never mix with Transformers). But his connection to productivity really clicked when he started working in web design. He quickly became the go-to employee for tips on staying focused.
“There are a lot of great talents that designers have, but one of them is typically not project organization and time management,” Zerkel joked.
Zerkel eventually started his own consulting business, becoming one of the first Certified Professional Organizers through the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals. He grew the community at Evernote, even writing a book on it with fellow Evernote influencer Lindsey Holmes. Now, he’s the head of Global Engagement Marketing at Asana, encouraging users to keep using the project management tool through workshops and trainings.
He doesn’t claim to be the be-all and end-all voice on productivity. How you manage your time is personal and subjective! But as a certified productivity expert and an Asana expert, he’s picked up useful advice. Here are some of his favorite Asana tips as well as tips for organizing yourself more generally.
Organize your tasks by context
Asana’s “My Tasks” section often defaults to organizing sections by time, with headings like “Do today” or “Do next week.” It also automatically sorts tasks by due date. But Zerkel has found that grouping his tasks by context works better for him: for example, putting all tasks related to “email marketing” under one header, and tasks related to “upcoming events” under another.
“I can reduce the context-switching that I have to do by just concentrating on this block of tasks that is related to this topic,” Zerkel said.
Constantly switching between different types of work can be challenging, as you need a mind reset each time. Zerkel said moving through tasks based on their “broader body of work” helps him stay in the zone. This might not make sense for everyone; some people might thrive when they follow tasks by due date. You have to figure out what works best for you.
“In Asana, [‘My Tasks’] is where the work that is literally assigned to you lives,” Zerkel said. “If you can master how you manage your ‘My Tasks,’ you can become so much more productive.”
Set realistic due dates, and use your calendar
There are roughly eight hours every workday: You’re only going to get so much done. But it’s easy to be overly optimistic about how much you can squeeze in. Zerkel said he sees it all the time.
“Through all the years that I've been working in productivity, one thing has made itself abundantly clear,” Zerkel said. “People usually dramatically underestimate how long it will take them to complete something.”
Honesty is crucial in avoiding stress and burnout. Once you come to terms with how long a task will take you, make sure your productivity setup reflects that. At the start of each day, Zerkel looks at his calendar, Asana tasks and email inbox. Then he begins the process of reshuffling or eliminating meetings when possible, as well as blocking out time for specific tasks on his calendar.
“Most people just don't think about the things that live in their inbox as needing a schedule associated with them,” Zerkel said. “I personally think it's critical.”
Asana syncs with the major calendars (Google, Apple, Outlook). But even after you’ve downloaded the right integrations, your tasks will still show up as all-day events, so you have to manually block out time for tasks yourself. If you use Google Calendar, you can download the scheduling assistant Clockwise to organize tasks for you each day.
Don’t assume every meeting will take 30 minutes
Zerkel recommends saving time anywhere you can, even if it’s only a few minutes. One method he swears by is speeding up meetings. Instead of letting calendar events default to 30 minutes, he considers how long the meeting actually needs to take. If it’s supposed to be a quick chat, he’ll set it for 10 minutes. Even if a meeting is more substantial, he’ll try to shave it down by five or 10 minutes.
“Even these little, tiny, seems meaningless, five minutes here and there, it actually adds up,” Zerkel said. “Let me look away from my computer. For even a minute. Let me take a walk around my house.”
Meetings tend to fill up the space that you give them, Zerkel said. Letting people go early, rather than dragging a meeting out to fill the allotted time, can make a meaningful difference in your day.
Sometimes you just need to stop working
The enemy of productivity, Zerkel said, is the never-ending to-do list.
“There’s a productivity fantasy world that many of us have spent time in where we think that if we just make the list, it feels as if we're getting the thing done,” Zerkel said.
Some people might define productivity as completing the maximum amount of tasks in a certain amount of time. But the grim reality of work is that the tasks never end, no matter how fancy your productivity set-up is, with its streamlined automations and integrations. The key to productivity? Acknowledging that you’re not going to get to everything, and being OK with that. It’s a mindset shift.
“The list is never going to end, so when will I finally feel productive?” Zerkel said. “What can I complete that will make me feel like I did a good job today, rather than I have a million things to do?”
In other words, being productive is knowing when to call it a day. “We all need to find a way to feel good about ourselves in spite of the growing to-do list,” he said.
Six quick tips for using Asana
- Integrate your tools. Asana integrates with a whole slate of workplace tools. Some popular ones are Zoom, Slack, Gmail, Outlook and Microsoft Teams. With these integrations, you can easily turn emails or messages into tasks that you can then organize within Asana. Productivity is all about having a cohesive workspace.
- Automate your tasks with Rules. You can set up rules that automatically assign someone to a certain type of task, for example, or you can move a task to a certain section when the due date is imminent.
- Activate Do Not Disturb to avoid receiving pings from co-workers on Asana. You can set Do Not Disturb for specific periods of time.
- Use Goals to compile concrete mission statements for team projects. Sometimes we need a reminder of the purpose of our work. Asana also has a Goals API that connects goals with data from a CRM report, for example.
- Use video messaging in Asana if asynchronous communication is your thing. Asana has a Vimeo integration that lets users record short videos of themselves to provide updates to tasks.
- Put all your projects in one place with Portfolios. The “Favorites” tab allows easy access to your most frequently visited projects, but Portfolios help you collect and organize similar projects.