Managing Projects

Project management is difficult, and often frustrating, work that can get the better of even the most seasoned project managers! Whether we like it or not, we are all handling multiple projects at the same time every day of our lives; work, school, and personal life are three different projects that demand our attention at the same time. Juggling timelines, commitments, and workload between these projects is magic when we do it effectively and chaotic when we don’t. Ignoring these responsibilities is a recipe for disaster, and though we may feel miles away from mastery, the good news is that we all have the capacity to improve the ways we manage our various life projects.

GOAL OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT

The ultimate goal of project management is to effectively use time and resources to produce a quality product. Within the framework of academics, a “quality product” could be a paper that earns high marks, performing well on an exam, or delivering an articulate and well-paced presentation. In general life, however, it can be a little more difficult to define our “products,” which can include a broad range of things from getting enough sleep and preparing healthy meals at home to being fully engaged while spending time with friends or allowing ourselves to be attentive and present for a spouse, partner, or child.

“Don’t lose sight of the forest because of the trees!”

We often get lost in the day-to-day “trees” of our lives and become so busy that we forget to look ahead at the remainder of the week, month, semester, or year. For example, it’s easy to become so worried about a midnight deadline that we ignore other projects or issues that are looming two or three weeks in the future. Therefore it’s important to schedule our days to get the most out of the time and energy we are able and willing to invest, but we plan our months, semesters, and years to keep our bigger-picture goals in mind. Moreover, our longer-term approach to planning allows us to see the complete landscape of all the projects that we are managing simultaneously so we can better make decisions about our daily activities.

DAY V. SEMESTER

In a prior post, we discussed the importance of being able to prioritize specific activities in our lives:

“If we think of ourselves as juggling all these balls in the air, the trick becomes knowing which balls are rubber and which balls are glass. The rubber balls are the tasks, commitments, and goals that we can “drop” temporarily because we know they’ll bounce and we can pick them up again later; the glass balls are the ones that require our immediate attention and energy because if they drop, they’ll shatter and it will be a huge mess.”

A master juggler is able to juggle all of the balls in the air at a present moment, is able to anticipate and plan for new balls to enter the flow, and also knows not to accept any balls that are not theirs to juggle!

In this sense, project management is the planning of the juggling process. What projects and processes need your direct input and which projects are happening on their own? What requires immediate attention and what can be postponed until later? What needs to be handled directly by you and what can be delegated to other team members? What needs to be completed before a project can progress to the next step or phase?

COURSE TIMELINES

The best tool for project management is a Gantt chart, and we’ve provided a few examples throughout the remainder of this post:

Screen Shot 2020-11-14 at 11.03.11 AM.png

Each class (or semester) deserves a timeline/Gantt chart! The figure above provides a very simple timeline. Activities are listed down the left column and each of the major dates and steps of the project are listed in the columns across the top row.

A simple timeline like this allows us to understand how pieces of a single course fit together and how multiple activities can work together toward a common goal of completion. The course syllabus contains the basic information needed to complete a course timeline, but it does not have all the answers! We have to make decisions to fill in the “amount of time needed” and “team member involvement” as is most appropriate for the demands of each task.

The shaded in squares where the activities and dates intersect in the chart reflects the amount of time dedicated to complete a particular step of the project. Visualization of the project in this way is a strong and effective tool that helps us keep the whole forest in view rather than only focusing on the trees that are right in front of us.

LONG TERM PROJECT MANAGEMENT

It’s extremely important to be involved in personal long-term planning. Visioning is a key skill to strategically manage time and resources because it helps us understand how each of our activities interact with each other.

Screen Shot 2020-11-14 at 11.05.15 AM.png

The image above is Jeff’s annual project management plan that is displayed in his office. This plan includes individual activities, partnered activities, and team activities. In this case, Jeff has 18 ongoing projects and there is simply not enough bandwidth in his life to handle everything at the same time! Therefore, Jeff has taken a very strategic approach to meeting his goals. All of the projects have different start times, different deadlines, different resources, and different people to manage.

Visualization in project management does not need to be complicated but it is required. In Jeff’s example, projects #1-5 are individual projects with movable start and finish dates. Projects #6-11 are partnered publications that involve anywhere from 2-8 individuals with overlapping activities and some specific deadlines. Projects #12-15 involve a specific research time, and projects #17-18 are international conference planning activities.

The idea of a long-term project board is not to include all of the details, but rather, the purpose is to get a handle on time and resources. We need to know when our schedule is full and when we can onboard new activities!

PROJECTS BY BUCKET

Our final example in this post is exemplified by the other whiteboard in Jeff’s office, which includes a bucket list:

Screen Shot 2020-11-14 at 11.06.24 AM.png

As you can see, Jeff’s bucket list is divided into three categories: immediate, short-term, and long-term. This categorization is important for many reasons, but mainly, it’s quite easy to worry about what’s getting done, what’s not getting done, and what may never be done! In project management, we need to be able to sort out the items that need our immediate attention, items that can get our attention when we can fit the, in, and items that we will want to make time for in the future. Categorization in this way is the first step toward that big-picture vision that will allow us to manage all of our concurrent projects to the best of our abilities! This approach is ideal for beginners, and we also recommend color-coding when you can.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Project management is not about handling your daily activities, nor is it about how you’re handling each of the balls you’re juggling. Instead, project management is about planning your future activities so that you can handle multiple activities with grace, confidence, and effectiveness when it’s needed.

About Jeff Allen

My mission is to balance the goals of my personal and professional life while continually gaining new knowledge and seeking wisdom. This effort to balance my goals should not dilute the quality of my goals, but should enhance the quality of life for my family, co-workers, friends, and students.
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