Posts Tagged ‘project management’

A Faster Way To Get It All Done

Most people's days are so filled to overflowing with responsibilities, that there's is almost no way to get it all done in the hours available. Some things (like work and school and appointments) eat up big chunks of your day, and you have little control over when or how they happen. Others can be squeezed in whenever you've got a few free minutes here or there. The trick to successful time management is making effective and productive use of “micro-moments” — little chunks of time scattered throughout your day, in-between the other bigger commitments. Instead of watching TV, why not get something meaningful accomplished? Any time you can cross a to-do off your list during one of these normally “wasted” periods of time, you're one step ahead of the game.
  • wrap and mail a gift you've been meaning to send off
  • pay the bills that have been sitting on the counter waiting for your attention
  • clean out a cabinet or a drawer that's been driving you up the wall
  • repair a ripped hem
  • respond to a couple of emails or return a few phone calls
  • set out your clothes for the next day
  • make tomorrow's lunch today
  • sew a missing button
  • tackle a small home “fix-it” project (tighten a screw, hang a picture, etc.)
  • do the dishes and wipe down the counters
  • run the vacuum or sweep the floor
  • throw a load of laundry in the washer or dryer
  • put away a pile of clutter that's been staring you in the face for too long
  • clean out your purse, briefcase, or backpack
  • read that magazine article or book you haven't had time for
  • schedule an appointment you've been putting off
  • sort through your incoming mail, separating to-do's from trash
  • reorganize your CDs or DVDs in categorical / alphabetical order
  • gather up outdated magazines and newspapers to put in the recycling

See how easy that was? Wink

Finding Balance

Let's start by determining exactly what “multi-tasking” is. Merriam Webster defines this as “the carrying out of two or more tasks at the same time by one person.” This kind of multi-tasking occurs, for example, when you're talking to someone on the phone while writing an article — or when you're adding up a column of numbers and also watching TV. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's the sort of fractured mental activity that sets you up for guaranteed failure. Aside from “low load” behaviors that require very little attention and occur almost automatically, at a sub-conscious level without you thinking about them (like walking, talking, breathing, or chewing) — the human brain just wasn't built to do more than one thing at once (or at least do them well!)

The brain only has so much mental RAM to go around — so throughout the day, your capacity to focus is constantly being divvied up and re-apportioned among all the activities in which you are currently engaged at that moment. When you ask your mind to perform two or more activities that require a high level of conscious concentration (like reading, writing, listening, hands-on mechanical tasks, mathematics, or logistical analysis) at the same time, it's likely that you're trying to use more computing power than you actually have available — and your brain is going to end up overloading. Whenever you attempt to simultaneously engage in multiple “high load” behaviors like this, one of two things will happen. Either the brain will shut one activity out in favor of completing the other (this happens when you're trying to carry on a conversation while doing something else, and you find that you can't remember a word the other person has said!) Or if it does actually manage to struggle through both tasks, your brain is going to accomplish each more slowly than it would if allowed to focus fully on just one activity at a time. It's the same thing that happens with your computer — if you  tell it to run a search AND back up your documents AND perform a complex calculation at the same time, every task slows down to a crawl. And, as with your computer, concurrent multi-tasking is more likely to bring up an error message (or more likely, the “blue screen of death”) — you will find yourself making stupid mistakes, forgetting important information, and failing to fully complete a task when your mind is occupied with more than one thing at a time.

Stop Banging Your Head

But the dictionary also includes a definition of multi-tasking that is more in line with my way of thinking — “the interleaved execution of two or more jobs.” Interleaved — ooh, I like that word! This means “to perform two or more actions or functions in an ALTERNATING fashion” — working first on one, than switching to another, then switching back to the first again. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's a great way to make progress on multiple goals while avoiding becoming bored, stuck, or blocked a project.

However, I'm not talking about the kind of mindless and unplanned bopping back and forth between activities that causes you to waste 3 hours surfing the web when you should be doing your bookkeeping. Wink Allowing your brain to become interrupted in the middle of a project, letting it lead you away from the task at hand toward another (usually less important) activity is “distraction,” not “multi-tasking.” It then takes time and mental energy for your brain to make the shift back into gear, to remember where you left off, and what you need to do next — that's when “multi-tasking” becomes unproductive.

But a planned shift from one activity to another (which occurs at a natural “stopping point” in your work and is accompanied by a few notes as a “memory jogger” to help you dive back in quickly when you return to that task) can often be the best possible thing for boosting your productivity and increasing your energy levels. Have you ever tried to force yourself to plow ahead with a project when you really just didn't have it in you to continue? Your brain is fried, you can't concentrate, and you're essentially banging your head against a wall — but dammit, you're going to “make” yourself get it done! Then you look up several hours later, only to find that you're still right where you started, and haven't made even one step forward during all that time.The better choice would be to walk away and do something completely different, giving your brain a chance to rest and re-charge. For example, let's say you're stuck trying to put together a proposal for a new client, and your thoughts just keep going in circles. So you quit what you're doing and devote a half hour to that pile of papers you've been needing to file. You're crossing an important to-do off your list, but using an entirely different part of your brain (giving the lobe that was starting to hurt a rest.) Of course, your mind will subconsciously continue to work on your proposal, while on a conscious level, you're busy accomplishing something else. Then when you finish that task and return to writing, you're seeing things with fresh eyes, and the words just slide out of your pen (or clack out of your keyboard, as the case may be.)

I use this technique myself all the time in order to stay productive throughout the day. If I try to spend 8 straight hours on any one type of task, I burn out much more quickly than if I mix things up — so I actively plan my day to include these sorts of shifts. I'll spend an hour writing a blog, then move on to some phone calls, then switch to color-correcting photos or even washing dishes, and back to writing again — but I'm still only ever doing ONE of these activities at a time. Consecutive, not concurrent — that's the key to success with multi-tasking!

Getting Started

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — and the same is true of your project. You have to start somewhere. Maybe your first step will be working out a schedule or drawing up a list of tasks. Or you might want to have a meeting to brainstorm with your team. Don't spend too much time worrying about exactly which step to take first — any move forward is a good one. You may feel stuck at the beginning of your project, but just getting started often provides the momentum you need to keep you moving in the right direction. Of course, the first thing you need for any journey is a road map. So start by examining the project and asking a few simple questions:

– What are my goals? What result am I trying to accomplish?
– What is my deadline?
– Who will I need to include in this project?
– What supplies/resources will I need to get this done?

This is a grounding exercise — designed to help you get a basic idea of what this project will require of you. You will then find it a lot easier to break these “big picture” ideas into actionable steps.

Your Itinerary

Most long journeys actually involve a series of smaller trips, stopping to see this site or visit this town along the way. The same is true for your project's journey. Every project, no matter how large, is just a series of smaller tasks – and your job is simply to figure out what those tasks are. For example, if you are putting together your company's annual budget, the steps might include items like creating a chart of accounts, gathering financial data from each department, listing big expenditures for the next year, calculating cost projections, and compiling the report. Each one of these steps constitutes a “milestone,” and each milestone helps get you a little closer to your end goal.

While you never want to lose sight of your final destination, your project will be a lot less overwhelming if you simply focus on your next milestone (bit sized is always easier to swallow!) Once you accomplish that task, move to the next — in no time, you will find that you have systematically worked your way to the end of the project. Andif a particular step still seems too big, break it down even further.Get to the cellular level, if that's what works for you.

On any journey, you also have some idea of how long you plan to spend in each location and when you will need to arrive at your next destination. The same is true of your project — but instead of scheduling from your departure date forward, you will schedule from your arrival (or deadline) date backward. Ask yourself when each previous step must be completed for the next step to happen on time — as well as how long each step will realistically take to complete, and plug each of those mini-deadlines into your calendar. If your deadline for the budget is 11/1, you might need the cost projections by 10/20 so you have time to write the report. You must have the list of expenditures and financial data by 10/13 to give you time to calculate cost projections, so plan to finalize your chart of accounts by 10/7. By setting smaller milestones along the way, you can see progress toward your goal, know that you are on track to complete the project in time, and remove some of the pressure of “the deadline.”

Coordinating Your Trip

Just as you would have a place to keep your travel paperwork when preparing for a trip, you need a systemfor storing all of your project files in one location so you never haveto waste time searching. And like travel paperwork, project files aretemporary — they will only be used until the project is completed. Soassign a separate drawer or hanging file box for your projectpaperwork. And of course, the best possible project organizing systemis portable — so you can take them with you wherever you go on yourjourney. You may also need storage for larger project tools — when remodeling the kitchen, you might have a tub with flooring samples, wallpaper swatches, paint brushes, and cabinet hardware. Give yourself as much room as you need.

If your project involves other people, it's also important to have a system for keeping everyone on track. Create a log of tasks for which each person is responsible — with milestones and deadlines for each. And be sure to schedule regular team meetings so you have time for brainstorming, group problem-solving, and following up with each member to make sure he or she hasn't hit a roadblock along the way.

Get Smart

We're going to do a little role-play, using the example of eliminating debt (a common concern) to take those S.M.A.R.T. goals to the next level! Pretend that you are carrying a pretty heft amount of debt — let's say, $20,000 on your credit cards, another $10,000 owed on your cars, a $50,000 home equity line from when you added on that extra room, and another $125,000 on your mortgage (this may sound like a lot, but it's actually a fairly typical scenario for your average over-extended American these days.) Your goal in the new year is to try to eliminate as much debt as possible, and to trim your budget so that you can pay the maximum toward these bills. A great idea in theory, but how do you turn a nebulous concept like “get out of debt” into a series of concrete, achievable steps? You get smart about it!

  • specific (a resolution called “get out of debt” is too big and vague to be meaningful — you need something to work toward that feels more tangible and purposeful — a goal like “pay off $6,000 of my debt in the next 12 months and adjust my budget so I avoid adding to the balance” is going to resonate with you and motivate you in a way that “get out of debt” just doesn't — it gives you something solid to work toward, a light at the end of the tunnel that you can actually see)
  • making specific even smarter (redefine your goal in more specific terms, but don't just stop there — the next step is to break that one big goal down into a set of smaller mini-goals, making them easier to accomplish — goals like “pay off my highest-interest debt first” and “refinance my mortgage for less than 4% interest” and “stop using all credit cards until the balance is zero” are going to help direct your actions when it comes to accomplishing your bigger goal — the two work together in tandem, one providing the big picture, and the other clarifying the details)
  • measurable (the trick to accomplishing any goal is being able to measure your progress toward completion — how exactly do you quantify “improve my financial situation” so you know when you've achieved that objective? you can't! — your only hope of success comes from attaching a number to your goal so that you can tell whether you're on track, falling behind, or ahead of the game — when you change “improve my financial situation” to “pay off $6,000 of my debt and put a further $2,400 in savings for emergencies,” you're setting a much more measurable goal — and don't forget to actually track your progress each month on a spreadsheet or in an accounting program — measurable is only useful if you can actually see what you're accomplishing, and the impact will be even greater if you can convert your numbers to a graph or chart format)
  • making measurable even smarter (deciding on a measurable end-result of your goal is great, but breaking that down into monthly or weekly increments is even better — looking at that $6,000 payoff and $2,400 in savings might seem overwhelming — how are you going to accomplish that? — by paying $500 a month toward your debts and $200 a month into savings — and taking that measurement each week or month is not only going to help you stay better-informed about your progress, it will also keep you motivated to stick with it to the end)
  • action-oriented (too often, we set goals that are passive rather than active — it's almost as if we expect our wildest dreams to just materialize out of thin air, instead of recognizing that we have to work for what we want most — a goal like “be in a better financial position in December than I am in January” is meaningless — what's going to cause it to happen? — you're more likely to take the necessary steps when you create a goal with a lot of verbs in it, because those “action words” remind you that some effort is required on your part — go instead for a goal like “reduce my spending level so it falls below my income level and devote the difference to paying off my debt” and you'll have more success)
  • making action-oriented even smarter (a single action-oriented goal is better than nothing — but if you really want to blow your goals out of the water, break each one down into a series of action-oriented steps — ask yourself what exactly needs to happen in order to make that goal a reality, then turn each of your answers into its own mini-goal — so in balancing your spending and income levels so you can pay off debt, you might find a series of mini-goals like “review the past year's credit card, bank, and payroll statements” / “create a spreadsheet detailing my income and expenses for the past 12 months” / “review each cost category and look for specific ways to reduce those expenses until total outlay is less than total income” / “pay the difference between income and expense each month toward the highest-interest debt and the minimum on everything else” / “once that debt is paid off, move to the next highest-interest debt, adding the payment for the previous debt to it” / “continue until all debts are paid off” — now that's action-oriented!)
  • rewarding (people tend to set goals for themselves that are more of a burden than a joy to accomplish — but if you aren't having fun, or at least seeing some benefit from your actions, you won't stick with it — and when it's a goal that requires you to give up something that you enjoy like spending, because it's causing something detrimental to your life like debt, you need to replace the lost item with another reward — throughout the process, remind yourself how good it will feel to be debt-free, to have that stress lifted from your shoulders — and whenever you feel the urge to splurge, take a look at your spreadsheets and see how much progress you've made — you'll be less inclined to blow it all when you can see how far you've come)
  • making rewarding even smarter (keeping your eye on the big prize at the end is one thing, but giving yourself more tangible rewards along the way is going to feel a lot sweeter — create a plan right from the beginning for rewarding yourself as you achieve each of your mini-goals — when you pay off that first credit card, you will have some friends over for a nice dinner to celebrate — when you save enough for your emergency fund, you will spend a whole Saturday catching up on video rentals you've been dying to see — once you've refinanced your mortgage, you're going to repaint the kitchen the color you've always wanted it instead of that hideous yellow — it doesn't have to be an expensive reward to be motivating)
  • timely (the final step in achieving any goal is setting a deadline — ask anyone trying to complete their PhD and they'll tell you that projects can drag on forever if you don't have a specific finish-line you're aiming for — unfortunately, with most goals, there's no external task-master cracking the whip, so you have to be the one to choose an ending date — be realistic but also try to challenge yourself to really work for that deadline — of course you can eliminate your debt in 10 years, but why not attempt to do it in five? or even two?)
  • making timely even smarter (sometimes that final deadline can be a bit hard to achieve without a few intermediate milestones — saying that you're going to be debt-free in a year is one thing, but when will you need to accomplish each step along the way to make that happen? — pull out your list of steps and work backward from the end, figuring out a reasonable time-frame for each — if it turns out that you simply can't do them all in the space allotted, extend your final deadline — if you think that you can get them accomplished faster, move it up some — then at each step along the way, you only need to worry about the next milestone, rather than the deadlines for 12 other steps after it — this is a nice way to keep your eye on the prize without becoming overwhelmed)

File Storage

Whether you're shopping for life insurance or remodeling your living room, planning a conference, or preparing next year's budget — the one thing you can count on with any project is paper! So the first step to a successful project is getting your files in order.

Your system doesn't have to be complicated — just a series of folders, an accordion file, classification file, or set of expandable wallets is fine. If the project is small, everything can go into one file — for larger tasks, break your paperwork out into logical categories, one per folder. For example, hiring a new assistant might include files for “advertising”, “applications”, “interviews”, “references”, etc. — or even a separate section for each prospective employee.  Just remember that project files are temporary — they will only be used until the project is completed. So get organizers that can be re-purposed, with lots of extra labels!

The files you set up for short-term projects do not need to be incorporated into your regular paper management system — they are not long-term reference files, and should be stored separately. Treat these documents more like “to-do” files — your goal is to give them a home until the project is complete, then they will be archived away or tossed. So assign a drawer, section of a drawer, rack, hanging file box, or document sorter for your project paperwork, and store everything in this one location. Of course, the best possible project organizing system is portable — so you can take it with you to meetings, presentations, shopping for supplies, and to all project-related activities. An expandable accordion file with a cover flap or a file box with a lid are two great options.

And if you are engaged in a project that involves more than just paper, you might need a bigger and more expandable storage solution. Larger project tools may require a banker's box or a plastic tub with a lid. For example — when remodeling your office, you might need to store flooring and wallpaper swatches, paint brushes, and hardware. If you're considering a new vendor or product line, you want a place to keep your samples. And even storing books or binders of information for your project is easier with a good, sturdy box (you can't easily put these in a file folder!) Give yourself as much room as you need, and don't forget to clearly label the outside of the box.

Tracking Systems

Finally, with any project, you need a way to keep track of your progress. Calendars and planners are fine for day-to-day appointments, but an ongoing project really requires a more visual method if you don't want to find tasks slipping through the cracks.

The most effective solution is a dry erase board dedicated to either one project or one phase of a project. List out your steps and the deadlines for each, participants and their individual responsibilities, general to-do's, supplies and resources you need to gather — whatever makes sense for your particular project. Completed items can be marked off, and the entire board can be reformatted for the next project as needed. The specifics of the system don't matter, but you want to be able to see at a glance where you stand and what remains to be done — it makes follow-up much easier.

Of course, you can put anything you want on a wipe-off board, but that doesn't guarantee that task will actually be completed. The trick to seeing your project through to the end is using a two-part approach. First, plan out the big picture, the large milestones and deadlines, on your dry erase board. Then, transfer those action items to your calendar — noting deadlines and blocking off chunks of time to work on each step. By planning on both the macro and micro levels, you are setting yourself up for success with every project.