It’s been too long since I’ve posted a blog entry. Between work and adapting the curriculum of a venerable training program in my new role as academic director, there were not too many words left in my head or fingers.
The juggling of multiple projects and responsibilities has made me more aware of the challenges of remaining on-target. When managing multiple activity streams which are competing for my attention all the time, I noticed I did not stand a chance of achieving any kind of productive result unless I took the time to consider their relevance now and how to practically move forward on each of them. It turned out to be very easy to be very active yet not make any progress on my priorities. That had to end, and this is how I did it. This is not rocket science. It works for me, and it may work for you:
Step 1 – categorizing my projects
The first thing I did was (re)categorizing my projects. This is a pretty simple application of the Getting Things Done methodology where the higher altitudes of planning correspond with your areas of responsibility.
Actually, I have adapted these areas of responsibility a little bit. I translated them into objectives which closely align with my areas of responsibility, but which are ordered in order of importance for myself. For example:
The first objective on my list is “Ensure a healthy family life”. This corresponds closely with my areas of responsibility “husband”, “father” and “son/brother-in-law”. Now, while I can imagine projects I can do to ensure a healthy family life, it’s a bit harder to imagine projects I can “do” to be a husband, a father or a son/brother-in-law.
And another example:
A bit lower on my list is the objective “Make your clients happy” Now, I have quite a few clients, which align with my areas of responsibility of “Chief audit executive at BTC”, “Executive Professor at the Antwerp Management School”, “Faculty at the Solvay Brussels School” and “Partner at CasMo”. Now, while my clients in each of these areas of responsibility are very different, such as the board at BTC or my participants at both Universities, the key objective is to ensure they are happy. Relevant projects are only those projects that will ultimately lead to the clients being happier than before.
The interesting thing about this approach is that it shows you where you tend to overcommit and where you undercommit to your priorities. There is a reason I put family life soo high on my agenda. If in the daily hubhub of work life I tend to undercommit to my wife or children, I see it immediately. If I put that responsibility further down, I may forget it or ignore it too long. And that would not be honoring my own priorities.
Step 2 – Developing a purpose statement and a description of project success
This one was born out of project management training. I go through my list of projects and for each of them, I try to write why I’m doing that particular project and what success of that project would look like. for example:
I have this project which is titled “Put all your photos online”. I’m doing this to preserve my photos and make them accessible to my family members and close friends. That’s a purpose statement. Success would be if all my good photographs are saved online one month after having been taken, with access given to family members and close friends depending on the content. Birthday pictures get a wider distribution than vacation pictures, for example. That’s a definition of project success.
This exercise takes some time, but it serves a dual purpose. First, it clearly defines why I do what I do and what success looks like. However, if you do this exercise, you may find out that formulating a why on some projects is not that easy. And even if you can define a why, what success looks like is not always that simple either. Think about this: if I cannot define why I am doing a project, perhaps I should not be doing it, because it does not contribute to my larger objectives. If I cannot define what success of a project looks like, that means I will not know when I have achieved that success. I won’t know when it’s done, when I can stop. That usually means I have not adequately considered the project, and it needs to be refined. For example:
Recently, I found a project on my task list which was titled “Assist in developing strategic plan for entity Y” in the context of my work for BTC. When I was considering the purpose statement, I realized that it’s not up to internal audit to actively assist in developing a strategic plan. I actually started a project where I was just supporting the management team by identifying a number of people that could support them. This did not warrant a project, nor the time I would spend considering a next action on this. This was just a to do in a miscellaneous task list. I quickly killed that project.
Either way, I will put this project on hold and I will consider it further during a review. I need to reconsider it before going forward on it, before spending precious time on it.
Step 3 – Defining project outputs
For each project that remains alive after that culling, I define a maximum of three tangible project outputs. I list what I believe to be essential deliverables of the project. These may be intermediate deliverables, but they are things a project should realize in order to be successful. Quite often, a good purpose statement and success statement will hold keys to these project outputs. For example:
Going back to my “Put all your photo’s online” project, I defined my outputs as “A procedure to timely (one month) review all your photo’s, remove the bad ones and put the good ones online”, “Access to the photo’s for all relevant family members and close friends” and “Proper segregation of access depending on status”. These are tangible outputs in the sense that they either exist or they don’t. If they exist, the project can be considered a success. If they are not in place, the project has not (yet) achieved success.
The tangible outputs need to lead to success. They are the larger steps in the project, but by themselves they do not consist of specific actions. They are too large for that. I actually work with outputs instead of activities because it is easier to get lost in activities. If you do not define your activities well, you are likely to lose time in determining what to do in order to “do” the activity. An output is easier, in the sense that actions either lead to the output or they don’t. Outputs tend to make it easier to define actions, which is the next step.
Step 4 – Define the actions that lead to the outputs
Once we know what outputs we need to achieve success, we need to start work on making sure those outputs are produced. That is the development of the actions. It will not always be easy to define what all the consecutive actions are you need to take to develop the output. However, the next action is usually very easy to identify. Once that is done, the next action becomes easy to define, and so on. In GTD parlance, this is runway level stuff, but only after we have done the higher altitude work, not the inverse. If there is too much stuff on the runway, it becomes very easy to get distracted. And stuff on the runway that should not be there will lead to crashes. So you need to ensure that your runway is cleared for take-off, which you do by defining your deliverables, your outputs in a very clear manner. For example:
In my “Put all your photo’s online” project, I defined “Proper segregation of access depending on status” as an output. The next action there is: make a list of people that need access to my photos. The next action after that is: make categories for your photos depending on their nature. The next action after that is: determine who on my list of people gets access to which category …
After having defined the output, the next action becomes easy to define. You are not very likely to get from where you are to your output on all of your projects, but your project actions will become a lot clearer.
Step 5 – Daily top three priority projects
Each day, I go through my list of active projects in all my areas of responsibility and I pick three projects on which I want to make progress that specific day. Only three, and each day is a different day. Take a weekend:
On weekends, for example, my focus will be less on making my clients happy and more on ensuring a healthy family life. I will only look at one keeping clients happy project and put most of my focus on a healthy family life, by working on my photos project and on another project which actively involves the kids. Or I may forego client projects all together and work on some maintenance projects.
Or, for contrast, a weekday:
On weekdays, my focus is solidly on making my clients happy. If this is a traditional working day, I will select two BTC projects and one maintenance activity with a direct impact on my BTC work, such as “Maintain audit working papers”.
I aim to spend 80% of my time that day on those three projects, and I try to clear at least one next action for each of those projects. Quite often, I clear more, because I am very focused on what I am doing.
Today, for example, I was working on my “Make and maintain professional connections” category, which has a running project called “Blog on Exploring the Black Box”. It had a next action which was titled “Write blog post on remaining on target” which relates to the output “Write one blog article per month on personal productivity”.
Procrastination is everywhere, and it hides in the small details. We may work hard but end up unfulfilled because we failed to do meaningful work. Meaningful work becomes easier to define if we know what brings meaning in our lives. This very practical process is one way that helps me ensure I do just that: meaningful work.