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Stop Racing the Clock: Tips for a healthier approach to project management

Stop Racing the Clock: Tips for a healthier approach to project management

The field of consultancy attracts a certain kind of person. We’re usually fast-paced individuals with busy schedules, always looking to fill every moment of our days to get on top of our long list of projects.

Many of us – and I know I have been guilty of this – have convinced ourselves that to reduce our to-do lists, we just need to spend an extra 10 minutes or an hour each day or give up bit of our downtime on the weekend. When we have a five-minute window, we try to fill it with small tasks instead of taking the time to regroup and grab a coffee.

Just like the ironing basket, however, I’ve learned that the to-do list is perpetual. That acceptance has helped me to take a healthier – and more creative – approach to how I work. With that in mind, I’d like to take the opportunity to offer my tips for how to manage the heavy and constant workload that typifies the world of consultancy, as well as other high-paced professions that combine desk-based research with client, partner and staff collaboration.

A project management book1 that I read recently offered some very good advice, which is to recognise that you won’t get everything done and instead to proactively build procrastination into your day. Rather than try to work through a long to-do list, packing my day with activities, I strive to actively let go of this expectation. To do that, I write down my perpetual to-do list. That is bound to change from week to week, but having it clearly articulated is helpful.

Next, I turn the page and write down Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc., with three meaty items per day. By meaty, I mean projects or tasks that will take more than an hour to complete. It’s my belief that you can only plan three activities of 1 to 1½ hours per day in consultancy since our days are always filled with other tasks that must be accomplished – whether it’s meeting with clients, troubleshooting, liaising with colleagues or addressing urgent requests and the endless email influx.

The value of lists

The lists help to ensure that the perpetual activities aren’t clouding my thoughts, and that I have a clear direction for my day. If I complete a task faster than I had anticipated, rather than squeezing in another activity under the false belief that I’ll get to the bottom of the list, I take the time to come up for air. I’ve found this approach still allows me time to work through the perpetual list without trying to fill every minute of my day.

In addition to my lists I draw up two large boxes at the bottom of each daily list:

  • One for notes and reminders that crop up on work or non-work items. At the end of the day I consider where these need to be added; to my perpetual to-do list, or to my prioritised daily lists (in which case I consider whether I need to swap something out).
  • One for creative ideas that arise during the day.

That second creative ideas box ideally should be ruminated on and not fleshed out to completion. Jot down some ideas and then revisit it later. If you try to develop the idea in one sitting you are set on a course, but if you leave it unfinished your mind ponders on it, even when you are not working. 2 This helps you to approach problems and ideas in new ways. Indeed, I find a lot of solutions to problems come on my days off, when a lightbulb suddenly goes off. It’s natural to want to work through those ideas immediately, but I’ve learned that it’s not the most effective strategy, nor is it healthy to spend your downtime caught up in a project or idea. Instead, I keep an “ideas” notebook with me, jot down some thoughts with a few bullet points then close the notebook to prevent the world of working creeping too far into my time off.

One other piece of advice I follow is to get that big ugly task out the way1. I know how tempting it can be to put those ugly tasks off, but also how that can hamper productivity. For example, I recently needed to do my annual ethical and legal guidelines update training to re-certify for our market research service which consisted of a review of the new regulations followed by a test. I knew it would take me an hour, but because it's quite dry, I just kept leaving it and so the task loomed over me and felt bigger than it actually was. I finally bit the bullet and told my colleagues I wouldn’t be available for the first hour of the next day. I grabbed a cup of coffee and before reading my emails I got the task out the way. In doing so, my mind was more at ease, and my day and week instantly became more productive.

I hope you find these tips useful to you. I have taken many from advice I have read or recommendations from colleagues, friends and clients and adapted to my own specific circumstances. Consultancy work and similar high-paced and mentally demanding jobs require all of us to find ways to manage our days more effectively, while allowing time to come up for air.

1. Brian Tracy (2017) Eat That Frog. London. Yellow Kite.
2. Adam Grant (2016) Originals: How Non-Conformists Change The World. London. WH Allen.