Implementing the Second Brain Method in Asana

What’s up everyone – time for another installment of learning with Will!

This time around, we’re taking a new path, and I’ll be sharing insights from an online course I’m taking called Building a Second Brain, taught by Tiago Forte.

The course teaches how to build a system of digital notes that is intuitive, high value, and actionable. For those of us in the digital space, this might sound too good to be true. I am a terrible note-taker, I have been forever, and I never refer to old notes when I work. I realized that I’ve largely stopped taking notes simply because I know I will never refer to them later. A vicious cycle of inefficiency. It ends now.

Building a Second Brain (BASB) has already taught me to be a better thinker, by hammering home the importance of differentiating the non-actionable from actionable information. What does this mean? I promise, I’ll get there. Let’s first look at the PARA method, Tiago’s information architecture. All of your digital information should fall into 1 of the 4 categories:

The PARA Method

  • Projects
    • Projects are time-bound, and goal oriented. For example, “Run a Marathon on March 25th”. Or, “Fix my personal website email capture by April 31”.
    • They are made up of individual tasks, linked to the goal.
  • Areas
    • Areas by contrast, are indefinite arenas where you want to maintain a certain standard. Personal Fitness for example. Or Family. You never “finish” an area.
  • Resources
    • Resources contains information on a topic that is of ongoing interest or importance. No action required.
  • Archives
    • Archives contain anything that used to be in projects, areas, or resources but no longer qualifies.

There were a million places to start applying this framework, but the natural start was at my day job, Perfect Keto, where we use Asana. The funny thing about PK for me is that I don’t feel great about my day to day production, yet in aggregate I am proud of my work. Something felt broken in how I manage my tasks, projects and areas.

My goal was to use a reframe to change my psychology and improve how I get things done day-to-day, and these are the results:

BASB <> Perfect Keto

Pre-BASB, this is what my PK asana looked like:

A big list of my assigned tasks, sorted by due date, tagged by project. Asana is oriented around tasks, and it does an amazing job with this. However as I learned in the course, if you’re treating a project like a task, you will suffer. This is really easy to do. One of the tasks that was killing me because it was on my list for so long, was “Setup an a/b test for cookies multipack”.

Day after day, it wasn’t done, I couldn’t check it off, and I felt really unhappy moving the due date over and over. I was worried that if I moved the due date out further, I would lose track of it, since I sorted by date. So I begrudgingly dragged it with me when I set daily priorities.

If a project is comprised of tasks, and a task is the smallest unit of work, then this a/b test was absolutely not a task, it was a project. I suffered because I wasn’t completing the project as fast as I wanted, yet I hadn’t thought through all the required task work. How could I come up with a realistic deadline before I did that? My monkey brain must have done it. I also suffered because the a/b test only had 2 stages, done, and not done. I couldn’t track any progress. As long as it wasn’t done, I wasn’t happy, and I had nothing to celebrate.

The solve is simple, orient around it as a project, and do some simple planning. What tasks do I need to do in order to drive this project to the finish line? Here’s the list:

  • Create new multipack product
    • Request a new sku for multipack
    • Request creative for multipack
    • Create new product page for multipack product
  • Confirm a/b test parameters with growthrock
  • Schedule a/b test start+end period
  • Report on a/b testing results

ALL of that was in my head, inside that one little task. This is everything I have to do to complete this project. Looking back, my old frame was like using a recipe that was missing directions. How to bake a cake – egg, flour, oven. It’s just not granular enough to be actionable. Every time I looked at that task, I’d have to do that same planning exercise, think about the subtasks and then figure out where I was in those steps. Unconsciously, I know I also worried every time that I was missing a step! Putting it down on paper clarified the plan, calmed me down, and let me celebrate as I checked off the smaller tasks. Progress.

After seeing the benefits from one project, I decided to do it for all my Perfect Keto work. I broke my Asana down by project, and created section headings for each of those, and an Asana project label. When I tried to move tasks around inside my projects, the due date sorting had to go. So I threw that out. The new layout looks like this:

I’ve got project headings, to represent the things I’m trying to get done. For each of them, I spend time thinking and creating tasks that will lead me all the way to completion, no limit on the number. I can drag and drop entire sections up and down, depending on priorities.

I feel 10x more in control of my work now. I can see the progress within projects now, and feel proud that I’m nearing completion, if not totally done. I also maintain an inbox above all the project list where urgent things can do, and also items that I’ve yet to sort.

The next step is to zoom out one level further – from tasks (v1) to projects with nested tasks (v2) to areas, with projects, with tasks (v3). Tiago has a great visual to represent this concept breakdown:

It’s likely my areas are something like:

  1. Web Development
  2. A/B Testing
  3. Shopify Apps
  4. Shopify Admin
  5. Campaigns/Promos

I’ll get there. For now, there’s been some real magic in getting from an all task breakdown, to a task and project hierarchy. I thought it would be hard to manage without due dates up front and center, but it’s not bad yet. I put dates in the title of projects that are particularly time sensitive, hope that’s a good reminder. I also can move projects up and down, so I leave these near the top, and I see them a lot.

Conclusion

I’m only in week 2 of the BASB course, but it’s already making a huge difference in my day to day work. As I alluded to early, the philosophical key is knowing what you can take action on (tasks) and can’t directly take action on (projects & areas). Misalignment here leads to a false sense of underperforming.

Thanks Tiago for the awesome teaching, and I can’t wait for the rest of the class.

Onward!

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