In our “always-on, always-connected” world, time is at a premium. Most people spend every day jumping from one task to the next, scrambling to get everything done. But just being busy doesn’t mean you’re successful.
On the contrary, most people could be doing far more with the time they have. The reason they aren’t is that their approach to getting things done is all wrong. And while some might attack that problem by applying various productivity tips and tricks to whittle away their to-do list, they’re only treating the symptoms of a larger issue.
The real problem is that they lack the right mindset to organize and tackle their daily tasks and get the most out of their time. As it turns out, the mindset they need to succeed bears a striking resemblance to that of a professional project manager, and that’s good news—because it means that anyone can learn to think like a project manager and supercharge their productivity.
But don’t just run out and sign up for a project management certification course. That would be overkill (unless you’re looking for a career change, anyway). Instead, read on to find out how you can apply a project management mindset to everything you do.
I’ll cover what project managers do, the skills they rely on, and some actionable tips on how you can think like a project manager and get more done. Are you ready? Then, let’s dive in.
What is Project Management?
If you were to look up the role of a project manager, you’d find some vague—if not utterly confusing—descriptions of the job. The trouble is, it’s hard to describe what a project manager does without repeating the word project about half of a dozen times. And any description that doesn’t do that tends to leave a lot to the imagination.
Take, for example, the description offered by the Project Management Institute:
“They are organized, passionate and goal-oriented [individuals] who understand what projects have in common, and their strategic role in how organizations succeed, learn and change.”
That doesn’t help much, does it? But having worked with project managers of all kinds and in multiple industries allow me to give you a more useful definition.
Project managers are people who lead teams (both large and small) to work on well-defined projects with the goal of completing them on time, on budget, and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. The projects they work on can be anything: creating a piece of software, building a building, running an advertising campaign—whatever needs doing.
But what’s more important is how project managers go about their work. It’s their job to assemble all of the resources needed to get their work done, and then to put those resources to the most efficient use to achieve their stated goals.
Think of them as the ultimate coordinators—the producers of the business world, if you will. And they accomplish that using a very specific set of skills.
5 Essential Project Management Skills
An effective project manager relies on a few major skill groupings to do their job. These include:
- Planning Skills – Planning skills involve knowing how to get from a project’s starting point to its completion with a minimum of disruptions and delays along the way.
- Scheduling Skills – Scheduling skills involve understanding how to segment necessary work into smaller tasks, prioritize those tasks, and schedule the right amount of time for each (without under or over-allocating time).
- Budgeting Skills – Budgeting skills involve having a complete understanding of the costs involved in completing a project. This can mean material costs, labor costs, and even indirect costs, and then building a realistic budget that doesn’t overpromise or underdeliver with the resources available.
- Risk Management Skills – Risk management skills refer to being able to spot potential risks before they interrupt or derail a project, and knowing how to avoid or mitigate them when necessary.
- Communication Skills – Communication skills involve knowing how to communicate the knowledge contained in the preceding skills to others and how to listen to feedback from others to avoid unnecessary confusion or delays in work.
In a real-world context, project managers do rely on some additional skills, like leadership ability, networking, and contract management. But since those aren’t relevant to an individual applying a project management mindset to their daily life, we’re not going to go into detail about them.
Now, at this point, you may be wondering: What good is a project mindset without the skills to back it up? And that’s a valid question.
But the truth is that if you’re already doing the work of managing your job and your personal life, you probably already have enough of these skills as they relate to your specific situation.
For example, you should already understand what’s required of you at work, and you have the skills relevant to your job. That means you should also know how to tackle a work-related project from beginning to end, have a decent idea of how long each part of the job takes, and what kinds of things might get in your way.
All that’s missing is knowing how to apply that information to make the most effective use of your time—and that’s what a project management mindset is.
Sounds simple when you put it that way, right?
With that said, let’s get to some actionable tips that you can apply every day to start thinking like a project manager. Before you know it, you’ll have gotten your schedule under control and your efficiency off the charts.
5 Tips to Get You Thinking Like a Project Manager
The best part of all of this is that there are some very specific ways that you can apply a project management mindset to your day to boost your productivity.
You don’t have to take any courses to learn them, and you don’t have to radically restructure your daily life. And once you begin to do these things, you’ll begin to see the logic in how they help you to maximize your productivity in everything you do.
1. Set Aside Dedicated Planning Time
Of all of the ways you can apply a project management mindset to your life, this one is as close to a must as it gets. It’s that you must set aside at least 15 minutes each week to plan out what you need to get done in the days that follow. That means no distractions, no interruptions, and no multitasking. Just you, your to-do list, and your preferred scheduling app.
The time you spend planning will determine how efficient you are for the rest of the week, so it’s important to get things right. And that’s not just my opinion. There are volumes of research that demonstrate the direct link between planning quality and project success. And besides, it just makes sense. You can’t manage what you haven’t planned for, right?
When you’re making your plan, it’s also important to break down the work you have to do into as many smaller sub-tasks as you can. This will increase your flexibility and help you to deal with unforeseen difficulties and other problems as they arise.
2. Never Begin a New Project Without a Complete Understanding of it
Another thing you can do to apply a project management mindset to your life is to make it a point to avoid taking on any new projects without gaining a complete understanding of what’s expected of you. If you’re dealing with work-related tasks, this means taking the time to speak to your manager or any stakeholders involved in the work to nail down their precise vision.
This is a step that most non-project managers often rush through, preferring instead to dive right into whatever work’s assigned to them. But when you do that, you leave yourself open to disruptions when your deliverables change.
You know that feeling when your manager sends you an email at 4:45 PM on a Friday to let you know that they’ve just remembered a change a client requested to something you’ve worked all week on? You’ll be surprised how many of those nasty surprises you can avoid if you insist on hashing out as many details as possible in advance of beginning your work.
But before you tell me, “I’m not in charge, so I have to roll with the punches!” Let me tell you this: No matter your position at work (or in your personal life, for that matter), people will be generally receptive to answering questions upfront if they know it will result in a better end product.
I mean, you wouldn’t even buy a car without finding out everything there is to know about its history, would you? So, why would anyone ever expect you to work on something you don’t know enough about to get it right on your first try? Just remember that as long as you’re clear about what you’re asking for and can demonstrate why it matters, you should be able to get the clarity you need to get any project off to a solid start.
3. Set Clear Communication Standards and Goals
Now that you know how critical it is to understand the full scope of any project you’re working on, let me add a caveat: no project outline is ever perfect, and you’ll always need to be able to make changes on the fly when necessary. But that’s what makes setting clear communication standards and goals so critical.
Letting every stakeholder involved in your work precisely how, when, and where to address issues with you as they come up is vital. Remember that 4:45 PM Friday email I just mentioned? Even if you were thorough in mastering your project’s details upfront, an unexpected change could come up, anyway. But you don’t have to be blindsided when they do.
At the outset of each new project, let everyone involved know the exact process they should follow for common topics that require communication between stakeholders. The idea is to prioritize real-time communication methods like phone calls and online chat for items that require immediate attention—like those changes the client requested a week ago but that didn’t make it into that email until late on a Friday afternoon.
You can set up a group channel using Slack or the collaboration tool of your choice for daily back-and-forth communications. Also, consider leaving email as the option of last resort for your least-urgent messaging. It’s slow, inefficient, and a major time-waster, anyway.
Think that’s an exaggeration? It’s not. Workers in some places spend up to 5 hours and 52 minutes per day checking and responding to emails. That’s time you could be putting to much better use actually getting work done.
4. Set Boundaries and Take Care of Yourself
Good project managers know that if they make solid plans to get tasks done, they’ll have all the time they need to meet their deadlines. And if they don’t, the solution is to make better plans, not to just throw more time at the problem. They also recognize that setting clear boundaries and sticking to them keeps them working at peak efficiency and avoids burnout.
So, no matter how much work you have ahead of you, it’s crucial to know when to call it quits. That means keeping your work life separate from your personal life and permitting yourself to disconnect from one or the other when it’s time to do so. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with making yourself a priority. After all, you need to eat, sleep, and relax, too.
Also, remember that the people that work to excess are often doing it to cover up some kind of deficiency somewhere else (often, one that’s not their responsibility, anyway). So, make it a point to take care of yourself. Play a game of solitaire or listen to some music to reset your mind or to unwind at the end of the day. It’s okay—you’ve earned it.
5. Use Data to Keep Expectations Realistic
One of the reasons that project managers can consistently meet their goals and get things done on time and a budget is that they don’t commit to unrealistic goals in the first place. That’s another critical part of the project manager’s mindset that you can use to supercharge your productivity—it means never biting off more than you can chew and then struggling to keep up.
But before we continue, let’s be clear: I’m aware that sometimes it’s others setting unrealistic expectations for us, and that we can’t always control that.
Even when the unrealistic expectations aren’t your own, however, you can still work to disabuse others of them. The key is to do your homework and use as much data as you can to explain why your view is correct and theirs is not. The reason I suggest using data is that it makes it more difficult for the other parties involved to use illogical arguments to buttress their points of view.
For example, if you’re called upon to complete a task in less time than you know it will take, don’t be afraid to point to previous work that proves your point. The more, the merrier, in fact. Most of the time when you do this, common sense will win the day. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll have plenty of ammunition to explain why things…