Building Organic Software in a Fast-Food Nation

Asana’s commitment to respecting your time

Photo credit: MaraZe/Shutterstock

My friend Tristan Harris is building a movement called Time Well Spent — profiled in the November issue of The Atlantic — to inspire technology companies to consciously design software that helps people achieve their actual goals, rather just sucking up their time. As a mindful company building technology that many people use daily, Asana strongly supports the Time Well Spent movement, so I wanted to share some personal reflections on it and explain how it affects our design of the product.

The problem

Technology is a double-edged sword. Its purpose is to help us accomplish our goals. And, for the most part, that is what it does: from refrigerating food, to communicating in real-time with people halfway around the world. But there is also a dark side: If we’re not extremely vigilant, computers and mobile devices will guide our attention poorly. And I, for one, do not feel that today’s technology is guiding my attention well. It’s not just me: In just the last week, multiple people have confided in me that their mobile phone notifications are giving them anxiety attacks. That’s a consciousness trap — of humanity’s own making.

These are our lives — our precious, finite, mortal lives. Our lives are defined primarily by where we put our time and attention in each moment. Technology’s influence on how we allocate our attention is only increasing; if we want to be in control of our own lives, we must demand that technology help us align our attention with our intention.

Designing software to create time well spent vs. merely time spent is challenging, even with the best of intentions. The Facebook Like button came out of a “hackathon” project I did in 2008. Today’s Like button succeeds at many of the goals of that original project: It draws people’s attention to things their peers found valuable and helps catalyze more positive sentiment in the world: all time well spent. But in other cases, the Like button contributes to time poorly spent: time wasted scrolling through popular videos that don’t nourish your life, or getting distracted during family dinner by the urge to check who liked your recent photo. As I recently told The Ringer in a feature they did on the Like button, “The Like button has had a lot of the positive benefits that we originally intended for it to have, but I think it’s also caused the distribution of things that, even if people Like them, aren’t necessarily time well spent.”

My view has also been shaped by my work before Facebook. When I decided to work at Google in 2004, one thing that inspired me was that (unlike sites like Yahoo!), Google used “time spent on site” as a failure metric. Google defined success as users finding what they were searching for on the Internet, in as little time as possible.

Often, I’ll talk to a technology leader who will (sincerely) define the goal of their company as creating some social good, but use “time spent on site” as their metric of success. This would be like starting a food company whose mission is to improve people’s health, but then defining “calories consumed” as success — without measuring whether the food is, in fact, healthier than what customers would otherwise have consumed. This strikes me as cognitive dissonance.

Building products that guide users’ time well is hard, requiring an ongoing commitment to doing so. We’ve had several evolutions in the history of software: from mainframes to personal computers, then Internet-delivered, then mobile. I hope that one part of what comes next is intentional software — services designed to match the intentions of the user’s rational, higher self (rather than their Instant Gratification Monkey).

Rational Self vs. the Instant Gratification Monkey (from Wait but Why)

Let’s look at how this plays out in software people use at work…

Unintentional vs. intentional collaboration software

Collaboration software has a clear goal: make teams of humans more effective at whatever they’re trying to accomplish. Good collaboration software will guide a user’s attention in a way that helps them accomplish their goals.

But many of us don’t feel that way about the tools we use at work. People spend an average of 28% of time at work on email alone. And though every email pops to the top of your inbox, only 11% need to be read right away, and 24% are totally useless. The average knowledge worker spends most of their working day doing this kind of “work about work.” In some cases, there are active backlashes against collaboration services that distract their customers with alerts about information they don’t need. And software that actively interrupts us is even more damaging to our productivity than we intuitively suspect: It takes an average of 25 minutes to return to a task after interruption, and multitasking may lower IQ by 15 points.

Asana, on the other hand, is designed to be the next generation of collaboration software by bringing intentional design to the age-old collaboration problem. Long term, our goal is to guide your attention to exactly what’s most important to you in accomplishing your team’s goals, at each moment.

How we design Asana to be intentional

Today, the average Asana customer reports getting 45% more done thanks to Asana. We attribute a lot of that efficiency improvement to how we help customers prioritize their time.

All software gives you a set of options for what to do next, for how to spend this moment. Most workplace communication tools show you messages from other people, in the order they sent them. What you do in this moment is influenced primarily by who happened to think to say something to you most recently. This is a really poor heuristic for deciding what warrants your attention right now.

While Asana also suffers from some recency bias, Asana is primarily oriented around prioritized lists. It encourages teams and individuals to make conscious choices about the order in which they want to do things. We want to help you put first things first.

Beyond that fundamental inclination, Asana also has several features that aim to help you align your attention with your intention.

1) Focus Mode. You can only do one task at a time. Being aware of other possible tasks isn’t just useless; it’s distracting. Focus Mode helps you focus on the task at hand.

In the future, we’d like to make Focus Mode the default, and leave “Manage Mode” (i.e. the rest of Asana) as something people access only when they’re organizing their project or their day.

“Focus Mode” inside Asana

2) Inbox Snooze. Long uninterrupted blocks of time are invaluable for achieving flow and increasing productivity. Inbox Snooze hides new notifications from you, for as many hours as you want, so you can focus on getting through your task list (and be less stressed).

3) Today & Later. When I’m clear on my plan for what I want to accomplish today, I’m less likely to get distracted or overwhelmed by the less important things that can wait. Asana lets you mark certain tasks as Today, and then hide the rest until tomorrow. Or if you can’t work on a task until a later date, you can mark tasks as Later. They’ll disappear until then, making your plan clear and your mind undistracted.

4) The Inbox notifications dot. Perhaps because of its indication of danger in our evolutionary environment, the color red induces an unconscious emotional reaction. Many services use red as the color to indicate that you have new notifications, making it even harder to ignore them. To help users check notifications intentionally, rather than reactively, Asana uses orange, rather than red, to indicate that new notifications. (And we avoid using a number, which can be unnecessarily stress-inducing as the number increases.)

The gentle Asana Inbox notifications dot

While we believe that Asana does a better job than other collaboration software of helping you focus on what matters most, we have a long way to go in making Asana help you perfectly match your attention with your intention. In service of our mission — to help all teams work together effortlessly — we are committed to making Asana the ultimate tool for guiding your attention to the things that are most important to your goals and your team’s goals at work. Ultimately, we hope to enable you to accomplish more of the things that matter most to you.