Project Management for Real Life

by | Sep 9, 2020

This month is all about project management at Ideas on Fire and we’re focusing on the workflows, habits, systems, and tools that help you organize all your tasks and meet your goals. Our approach to this is a bit different than some others, however, in that we’re coming at project management from a holistic perspective. Project management needs to fit into your real, messy, embodied, and complicated life—the shiniest, snazziest tool in the world isn’t worth much if you never use it.

So to kick things off, below I share what a project management system looks like that takes your unique situation into account, including the global pandemic we’re all living in.

Why do you need a project management system?

Perhaps up to this point you’ve gotten by keeping all your projects, deadlines, and tasks in your head or scribbled on the backs of random envelopes. A few things slip through the cracks, but overall you’ve been okay.

Many of our clients and colleagues were in this position earlier this year, but when they hit a giant life change like assembling a tenure review packet or having to pivot to online teaching on a dime, they realized their project management system wasn’t up to the task.

There are three big problems with the keep-it-in-your-head system:

  1. It relies on your constant vigilance so you feel like you always need to be scanning. This can make you always worried you’re forgetting something. It drains your energy, causing you to feel scattered.
  2. It has no tangible form; you can’t ever point to it because it lives entirely in your own head. This makes it hard to adjust your system when needed or share it with others—especially when doing so would allow them to help you.
  3. Completed tasks disappear, leaving you no record of having accomplished anything. This drains your confidence and denies you the ability to celebrate your achievements. Plus, when it comes time to update your CV or complete your departmental review, tenure packet, or job application, you have to conjure all those projects from memory and inevitably will miss things.

In addition to these problems that apply no matter the season, the current pandemic has introduced a staggering amount of uncertainty and overwhelm to all of our lives. Expecting your brain to function like normal right now, and keep track of everything you have to do across your professional and personal lives, is unrealistic. Give yourself a break and find a system that makes your life easier.

What makes a good project management system?

A good project management system lets you keep all the puzzle pieces visible but prioritize which one is the next step. It provides a clear representation of how individual tasks fit into the big picture and add up to your big goals. It allows you to track your progress and see your achievements, which builds confidence and momentum.

Most importantly, a good project management system fits your unique life. One-size-fits-all approaches to project management almost always fail. What works for your colleague may not work for you, and finding your right system requires identifying your unique needs.

What does this look like in practice? If you work on multiple devices, for example, you probably want syncing capacities so you can access your materials from anywhere. If your eyes or your brain hurt from too much computer time (particularly common these days), you may need an analog component—a physical tool like a notebook, Post-it system, or paper calendar to accompany your digital tools. If you tend to get distracted or absorbed in your work and need reminders to switch tasks during the day, you may need popup notifications across your devices. Conversely, if you are already overwhelmed by device notifications, you may need a system without distractions.

You may prefer a combination of notebooks, whiteboards, sketchpads, mind-mapping software, spreadsheets, file folders, or to-do apps. The point is to find a system that suits the way you work best.

Mash-ups can be great

A project management system can be digital (on your phone, computer, tablet, and/or other devices), analog (on paper or in some other physical form), or a combination of both.

For example, the Ideas on Fire team’s project management system is Asana, a cloud-based app. But some team members also use a paper notebook to capture ideas and notes during the week, reviewing that notebook at the end of the week and translating the ideas into concrete tasks and deadlines for the following week. Those tasks and deadlines then get entered into Asana and any needed work time for those tasks is blocked out on a calendar.

Experiment with combining different tools to find the system that fits your needs the best.

What to track

I encourage you to put both your professional and personal projects into your project management system. All of those wellness, relationship, activism, family, and home tasks should go in there alongside your research, teaching, and service tasks.

Given how interwoven our work and home lives are these days—with book writing, homeschooling, and business calls happening in the same room as dinner prepping and Zoom family gatherings—it is unrealistic to pretend they don’t affect each other. Seeing all these projects in one place lets you be realistic about how to schedule things and often shows you when you need to ease up on some things before you burn out.

If you want some separation for organization’s sake, consider multiple versions of your project management system that are placed alongside one another. For example, maybe you have two giant wall calendars: one for personal projects and tasks and one for work projects and tasks.

This also works for digital systems. I keep two Asana workspaces myself: one for Ideas on Fire and one for my personal projects. These both stay open in my browser throughout the day so I can easily move between them. This lets me see ahead of time that those ten work tasks I had originally scheduled for tomorrow will have to get adjusted as my dog’s socially-distanced veterinarian visit will take most of tomorrow afternoon.

Regularly review and adjust

Like any system, your project management system should be regularly reviewed and adjusted. Schedule time in your calendar each month or semester to check in with yourself about how well your system is working for you.

A quick ten-minute review can go a long way in getting rid of annoyances and improving your life. Find that you hate all those “helpful” notifications you set up? Ditch them. Realize you never check the elaborate digital app you signed up for? Switch to a paper notebook for a few weeks and see how it goes. Discover you want more creative time each month? Consider adopting a colorful bullet journal format that lets you get artistic while you plan your schedule.

Many of our lives right now are more unpredictable than normal and our daily routines change often. Let your project management system change with you.

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