Project Management Skills
As a born procrastinator, I have struggled with the need to “get started” most of my life. I know that sheer determination and discipline do not necessarily work for those of us who share this challenge. I also know that it is extremely difficult for non-procrastinators to understand why procrastinators don’t just buckle down and “get to it”, because that is what they do. They don’t realize how fortunate they are; to them, it is a simple thing. To procrastinators, a project can be an unimaginable behemoth, with no clear place or way to start. It’s especially important to understand that most procrastinators really want to get things done. For some, it’s the enormity of the project that is the obstacle; they need to find ways to make the unmanageable manageable. For others, the compulsion to create perfection stands in their way; they need to accept that perfection can – and might have to be – compromised to get things done.
How Project Management Can Help?
One of the wonderful things about the Project Management profession is that our central skill set includes best ways of dealing with procrastination breaking daunting tasks down into manageable pieces. By doing so, we provide ourselves and others with identifiable, concise, goal-oriented tasks that are approachable and provide a quick sense of satisfaction.
Another fundamental of Project Management is the definitive need to get things done. To succeed as project managers, we must learn to focus on completion with an appropriate level of quality, rather than arriving late with a perfect product. There certainly are exceptions to this, but generally a late arrival is a failure, regardless of the quality of the results.
There are many techniques for preventing the tendency to procrastinate that can be employed by the procrastinator and those who manage them, depending on the circumstances and the person/people involved. I have found that understanding the people dynamics is the key to success. Here is my current list of techniques:
1. Assessing the Project
- Prioritize the overall project. Just because it needs to be done, doesn’t mean that it is the most demanding thing at hand. If it’s not the top priority, add it to your “pending projects” list, and forget about it until its time is near.
- Determine whether you should really do the work, or if someone else really owns the project. Taking ownership is good, but it’s important to let people own the things they’re responsible for (even if they fail).
2. Resource-Skill Matching
Are the available resources really suited to the tasks? If you’re being asked to do something you are completely unfamiliar with, should you push back? If not, how are you going to overcome the learning curve? Tap into your professional resources – ask the requestor for orientation, use the web to learn more, contact colleagues and friends who have dealt with similar projects. Don’t overdo, just get enough so that when you do dive headlong into the tasks, you will be able to swim rather than sink. Make it clear to the requester that the first try won’t be perfect, but that you’ll give it your best shot. Then do what you can, and focus your need for perfection on meeting the time constraint.
3. Resource Capacity Planning
Many procrastinators are also over committers, which simply makes the problem worse. Perhaps you need to make a commitment to carve out time for yourself, and to learn to use that lovely little word – “no”. It’s hard to disappoint someone who’s asked you to do something, but that is better than disappointing them by not delivering. After all, someone will step up to the plate if it’s important enough (even if you know you could have done it better!).
4. Establishing Your Goals
A great motivator is the desire to avoid the angst of missing deadlines and being perceived by others as unable to meet deadlines. That doesn’t mean that you’ll always meet deadlines (some are unreasonable, and should be challenged), but it does give you a goal to shoot for, and something to focus the need for perfection on.
5. Building a Plan
- Before doing anything else, break the project down into manageable pieces. Decide what maximum task size can be tolerated (2 hours? 2 days?) and keep the tasks within that limit wherever possible.
- Choose initial tasks that are relatively quick and easy to do, so your resistance to starting is lower.
6. Know Your Project Team Members
- Some of us prefer working with other people. To accommodate this, set up assignments that provide opportunities for teamwork.
- Some prefer to work alone, so set up assignments that allow for that.
- Some people prefer to work in their “comfort zone”, so set up initial assignments that capitalize on existing skills and knowledge. It is much easier to start on something you’re comfortable with rather than something that you’re uncomfortable tackling.
- For those who prefer to learn new things, set up initial assignments that allow you to explore new territory. A new skill or new knowledge area can offer a good challenge that will get you going.
7. Maintaining Momentum
- Provide rewards at milestones. Rewards may consist of a project team party, a monetary reward, a positive e-mail from a senior-level manager, or a simple “thank you”. Self-reward is important, particularly if there is no team involved or if a team-level reward is not forthcoming. Waving your own small flag is often enough – tell your family, co-workers, boss, or friends about your achievement and how much it means to you. Or choose a little treat for yourself, such as a five-minute walk. These rewards are accomplishment markers, and can be re-energizing.
- As soon as a task is finished, immediately look towards the next one that needs to be done. Allow small breaks between tasks as a reward and an opportunity to refocus. For those people who find small breaks distracting, just plough into the next task without the break.
- Keep looking forward. If you focus on those things that are already done, you can lose the vision of what the whole project is about, and you will lose steam. Maintaining forward momentum is the key to finishing the project.
Managing the human tendency toward procrastination is not easy, but it is an essential skill for all project managers. Without understanding the issue and exploring potential solutions, projects may not be successful, interpersonal relationships will undoubtedly be strained, and the overall stress of the team will be much higher.
I’m sure there are other techniques for overcoming procrastination; these are simply the ones I’ve personally found successful over the past few years of project management.