A common challenge I face is starting the important, but not urgent project, but not finishing. It is easy to get started on the new project. I am motivated, even excited, to start a new and interesting project but somewhere along the way I get diverted or lose enthusiasm and find it difficult to make progress.
Have you had a similar experience? Sitting at your computer doing everything but getting on with what you want to. You answer the unimportant emails, check LinkedIn, search Google — everything but focus on your project and making progress. This is called procrastination! Lots of busy work but not much forward movement on the important task.
So what do we do about it? Search online for productivity tips. Is this the real problem? Not really, I think it is just another avoidance technique. Not making progress is not the problem but the symptom of the problem.
If you step back and take a strategic view and analyse day by day or week by week, it is clear you are not making progress. So you assume the problem is getting things done, getting the project finished. If you look at the task level and analyse what you are doing minute by minute or hour by hour, you will realise that finishing is not the problem — the real problem is getting started.
Every time you sit down to get on with your task everything is in place — you are sitting at your desk or your computer with all the tools you need. This hasn’t changed from when you started out. But you find your self getting stuck.
What is happening? Why are you having trouble getting started? Well, you can’t finish a task until you get started each time you sit down to make progress.
Getting finished is the end result of following a process or a system. You need to consistently start working on the project.
In project management the SMART system is often referred to. It derived from Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives and first referenced by George Doran in 1981 . Smart refers to:
- Specific – target a specific area or focus
- Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress
- Assignable – specify who will do it (this will be you!)
- Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources and time
- Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved – also see time-boxing below.
So let us look at the mindset needed to start, and re-start, our important tasks. You have to get into doing work mode as soon as you can to make productive use of your time. There are four (4) primary prerequisites:
- Purpose. You have to have a good reason to get started. Have a clear idea of why you are doing the project and what the desired outcome will be. Write down the objective somewhere you can review it regularly.
- Priority. Start early on important tasks when you are at your peak brain function and energy levels and have maximum willpower. Your best work will be done when you are at you highest performance level.
- Clarity. Make a decision to work on the project and how much time you are allocating to it. Parkinson’s Law suggests that work will expand to fill the time available so telling yourself you have all day means you lose focus until later in the day and spin your wheels doing busy work. And you probably won’t get to your important work until you are tired and lacking energy. Use either or both of the time-boxing strategies discussed below.
- Commit. You need to commit to doing the work. Allocate time in your appointments calendar and keep to it. Set up a recurring alert in a task management system
Here are two time-boxing techniques I suggest can help you. Create a system under which you will operate, follow the system and you will make progress.
A. Pomodoro Technique This technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. The approach is to force yourself to focus on your project for 25 minutes and not do anything else. Everyone can work on one thing for that long. There are five (5) basic steps to implementing the technique:
- Decide on the task to be done
- Set the timer to say 25 minutes (kitchen time or app)
- Work on the task until the timer rings
- Take a short break (say 5 minutes)
- After four pomodori, take a longer break (say 15–30 minutes)
B. Don’t Break the Chain (also called the Seinfield Strategy) The steps to implementing this technique:
- Pick a goal
- Mark off the days on which you work toward that goal (use a calendar on your wall or an app)
- Use your chain of marked off days as a motivator.
Finishing you important project is a result of a series of small steps, starting and restarting and making progress. Finishing can be achieved by setting up a system, ensuring the four prerequisites have been accounted for and using time-boxing techniques to ensure you start what you want to finish.
Notes:  Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review. 70 (11): 35–36