All project managers know that time management is one of the essential project management skills to develop if you want to be successful in managing projects. If you can’t manage your own time effectively then you will find it difficult to manage a project. You will always feel as if there is just too much to do, you will find it hard to focus on the main priorities and you won’t be controlling the project – it will be controlling you.
But just how can you “manage time” – you can’t change it or make more of it, you can’t make it slow down or speed up so what do we really mean by time management?
Perhaps what we really mean is that we need to ensure that the tasks we have to do are under control? That means the tasks we are currently working on not ones that are planned for next week or next month – although clearly what we do this week can have a knock on effect on tasks planned for next week and further into the future. So how do you make the most of your time today and in the immediate future?
One way is by documenting what the aim of any particular task is and reminding yourself every day why you are doing the task. This will prevent you from being distracted by other tasks that don’t contribute to completing your current task, or aren’t even related to your current task. This isn’t the overall project objective that we are thinking about here but the aim of each step along the way to the final deliverable.
So if, for instance, you are analysing the effects of some scope changes (as I have been doing this week) – stay focussed on the “why”. Time management and control is all about focusing on what is important, and that is very different from just focusing on a task at hand. The data I have been analysing this week is in many ways overwhelming but most of it is irrelevant for the task at hand so I have to avoid being distracted by 80% of the data available to me. It is all useful data but will not contribute to what I am trying to achieve this week and distractions really are the enemy of progress.
As a project manager, to give yourself a competitive edge and a better chance of completing your projects consistently successfully, control your time by focusing clearly on the task at hand. I know that can be easier said than done when there are many tasks competing for your attention so being able to effectively prioritise those tasks also comes into the mix. That will enable you to control the very next task that you do.
Prioritise + Focus + Control = Success
That sounds so easy doesn’t it?
Real world projects are never quite so easy but, in my experience, successful project managers – those that consistently deliver successful projects – are very good at prioritising tasks, focusing on what is important and hence maintaining control over the project and here is how you can do the same:
- At each stage of the project write down your goals which will make it easier to prioritise competing tasks and, therefore, complete the most important tasks.
- By staying focused on the goal so that you will be taking a step closer to achieving it and this will make you feel more motivated for the next day. And that higher level of motivation will help you accomplish more – and so the cycle of control and success continues.
- By focusing on what you can control, not being distracted by low priority issues, issues beyond your control or even issues unrelated to your project. This way you will also keep stress levels to a minimum for everyone on the project and lower stress levels have to be a good thing.4
Never Enough Hours In The Day?
How many of us have said or thought that there are never enough hours in the day to get everything done that needs to be done? Elizabeth Keenan in her excellent article Manager’s Guide: How to Overcome the Challenges of Working with Millennials and Technology discusses how managers can deal with millennials who expect more (and almost constant) feedback and generally more of a manager’s time and attention than older colleagues.
It is a common enough feeling but one that is, actually, within our control to change. If, at the start of each day, we choose just to focus on the really important task(s) then we will make progress and achieve something by the end of the day. Again, that sounds simple and granted the task may not be complete (how I would love to be working on tasks that could be completed and ticked off my list in just one day) but it will be a step further towards completion.
It is when we either take on more than we can ever hope to complete in a day, week, month OR we get distracted by other issues that are not important, or not as important that we have that feeling of “not enough hours in the day”. But this is all within our control as a project manager – we can choose to not be distracted and choose to focus only on the top priority task. If one day we feel we have made no real progress then the next day we can choose to change how we worked the previous day. Good time management means being ready to change our old working habits. People who cannot develop good time management habits are usually just reluctant to change how they work.
It may not be easy to change the way you work – many working environments expect instant reaction and resolution of problems as they arise without looking at the bigger picture of how that type of working environment will affect the outcome of the project. But, as the project manager, you make the choice of whether to work that way or stay focused on the goal of a succesful project delivery. It is your reputation as a project manager that is on the line. When the project runs past the deadline, over the budget or doesn’t deliver on it’s promises then the stakeholders are unlikely to be appeased because you expended energy on resolving various problems along the way without a thought for their importance to the overall project.
So the problem is not that there aren’t enough hours in a day but, rather, that we are not making the most of the hours available to us; i.e. making the right choices about what we work on at any particular time. It is impossible to squeeze more activities into a day than there is time for – even if we could somehow manage to find more time in the working day, each activity would likely be of poor quality because it would have been rushed to be completed.
So we come back to prioritising what we do – basic project management tasks are within our own control to prioritise. Say there is a status report due at the end of the week, for instance, we can decide how long we need to be able to complete that, but there will be other tasks that we have less control over. For instance, the scope of the project work may have changed and we need to rework the schedule to fit the additional tasks in. This may have been a decision taken solely by stakeholders and senior management and we may not have had much influence over the addition of features, or whatever the change happens to be, but we now need to make it work within the project schedule and budget.
So when I said that all sounds easy:
Prioritise + Focus + Control = Success
there are, realistically, times on a project when you can’t control every facet of the work but you can be influential in prioritising and focusing on what is important; trading off one task against another to try to regain control of the project schedule and your own time.
This will require difficult choices – for you and the project stakeholders – but a project manager has to be able to say “no” to some activities, especially if there is no flexibility in the schedule and the budget. If a project manager cannot take a firm stand then they are doomed to delivering failed projects and forever feeling there are not enough hours in the day and that wouldn’t be a motivating or satisfying position for anyone to be in.
It can be hard in today’s world of work not to end up busy all day without achieving much – we read emails, attend meetings, respond to and update details in our PM software or apps and generally have a raft of information coming our way. But if we only respond to information coming at us then we will never achieve our main aims (remember we have written that down at the beginning of the day/week). One way I stay focussed is to only check emails intermittently (apologies to those people to whom I have responded slowly in the past) and I definitely don’t have notifications switched on in my email and apps to distract me.
I believe that by not instantly reading or responding to distractions ( I mean emails) I can actually do a better job because I respond when I have the time to do so properly – not in a rush. And any task that requires my dedicated focus will also be completed properly because I don’t let the distractions get in the way – this is fundamentally good time management.
Achieving Your Objectives
Start every day/week by confirming to yourself what your objective is for that time period; this can simply be a written note – on paper or in a phone or tablet. It doesn’t have to be too detailed as it is just an aide memoire – something you can take a brief look at each morning before the day’s work begins. Post-It notes are still hard to beat as you can stick them up above your desk as a constant reminder.
Every day focus only on those activities which are necessary to achieve your stated aim and ignore those issues that are unrelated to that aim. Making this conscious choice can help you make the most of the time available to you and will give you a greater chance of delivering a successful project.
Of course, when I say “ignore” unrelated issues this, clearly, has to be handled diplomatically. Take an example of an issue I had recently. I needed to get approval on a time-sensitive matter and had contacted the person in question (who is located in a different region) by phone and email – both an initial email and then a follow up email. That person could not deal with my request because a key project team member had left and he was busy filling in whilst also trying to recruit to fill the gap. What he did was to drop me a quick email explaining the situation but assuring me he would get back to me when things had returned to normal. This was all I needed – I didn’t feel ignored, I knew he had received my request and knew it was important but something outside his and my control had come along to disrupt our priorities so I realised my request had to take a back seat for now.
Unexpected things can, and do, happen but wherever possible stay focused on the project aims. This will ensure you make better decisions on the use of your time and also the time of the project team members. By always focusing on what will help achieve the project aims the quickest it will be easier to prioritise issues that are genuinely important rather than just respond to the people who shout the loudest (I’m sure we’ve all been there!) or, worse, end up dealing with other people’s problems which don’t benefit your project.