If you’ve ever been staring down a large project, even if not in a professional environment, you’ve likely experienced the overwhelm of having so much to do. It can be difficult to even start a project that seems to daunting to complete. And, sometimes after a setback, you’ll struggle to motivate yourself.
But, in professional project management, as in life, success often accumulates one small step at a time. We celebrate the grand achievements, the completed projects, the transformative innovations, but we seldom give credit to the tiny, everyday actions that make these triumphs possible.
The unsung heroes that pave the path to success are incremental daily tasks, the methodical checking off of to-dos, the consistent habits.
the Power of Consistency for Personal Growth
The principle of small, consistent behaviors starts with personal growth and self-improvement. Making small, incremental improvements should be a habit you exercise in your day-to-day life. This is where you practice and gain the skills required to succeed in the office and in life.
Adopting a Mindset of Consistent Improvement
Embracing the mindset of consistent improvement requires understanding and accepting that grand successes are often the culmination of small, daily actions. By internalizing this principle, you can overcome the intimidation of large tasks and goals, instead focusing on the manageable, daily steps that will lead you towards your end goal.
When you look at a new task, consider how long it might take you to complete, and consider how much time you have each day to work on it. If you only have 30 minutes per day to take an online course, complete a small home improvement project, or even read a book on a topic that interests you, then commit to 30 minutes a day for however long it takes.
Mitigating Overwhelm and Procrastination
The feeling of being overwhelmed by tasks, or the tendency to procrastinate, is not exclusive to project managers. It’s a common human experience. But, studies have shown that the key to completing any daunting task is to commit to a smaller version of that task. Break large tasks into smaller tasks and complete a little bit every day.
If 30 minutes (from the paragraph above) feels like a lot, start with 5 minutes, or even 2 minutes. On days when you’re feeling good, that 2 minutes may turn to 10, which may turn to 30 or longer. On days when you’re not feeling it, you can rest easy knowing you completed your 2 minutes.
By adopting small, daily practices, you can reduce the stress of large or frequent tasks.
Building Professional Success as a Project Manager
You don’t need to wait until you’ve mastered incremental success in your personal life to bring this process to work with you. Becoming successful as a project manager is not solely about making important decisions or taking bold actions. It’s also about the small, consistent behaviors that, over time, accumulate into a significant impact.
The Daily Review Habit
Consider the case of a project manager who is assigned to a project with 200 project drawings, and a contract that is nearly 500 pages. It would take days of continuous reading to understand and internalized everything. But instead of shutting himself in his office until he’s absorbed all 700 pages, he prints them out and commits to reading 15-20 pages of the contract and 3-5 drawings.
Rather than a cursory review of the entire contract drawing set, he meticulously reviews three to five pages, making notes of considerations for future tasks. As he repeats this process over weeks, he builds up a wealth of knowledge through a complete, concentrated review of the entire drawing set.
Once complete, he starts over with the first pages of the contract and the first drawings he looked at. His first review informs his second and third reviews of the drawings, adding nuance and developing his understanding. This consistent, methodical approach significantly enhances his understanding of the project, contributing to more successful outcomes.
Overcoming Overwhelm with Consistent Behaviors
The day-to-day life of a project manager can be overwhelming. Tasks stack up, emails flood in, and it can feel impossible to keep up.
But here, too, small consistent behaviors can make a big difference. Many fall into the trap of saying, “I’ll sort those emails later,” only to find that ‘later’ becomes ‘never,’ and the unsorted emails pile up. A simple habit of spending just a few minutes organizing emails each day can prevent this pile-up and keep your inbox manageable.
Whether you’re a project manager, a team member, or you’re looking to get into project management, these small habits will benefit your personal career and help take you to the next level. Most project managers struggle with staying on top of all the info on a project.
I’m the first to admit I’ve always struggled with starting overwhelming tasks. Sometimes even simple things can sit on my desk, incomplete, for no reason except my own mental blocks.
In other cases, I have the habit of leaving small tasks until they become large tasks through compounding or urgency.
Setting MYself Up for Failure
When I started my first “adult” job, I was a quality coordinator for a large construction company. Day in and day out, I spent filling out quality checklists and taking photos. I’d get back to the trailer each afternoon with a handful of newly filled-out checklists (we still used paper back then) and a camera full of photos.
These checklists were meant to be compiled into binders and turned over to the client at the end of the project.
“That’s 9 months away, I can file these later”, I would tell myself. The checklists sat in a pile on my desk and my photos remained unorganized on my camera.
When it came time to turn over our first set of binders, I had the painstaking task of downloading all the photos and labeling them in a “YYYY-MM-DD – Location – Subject” format (which I maintain is the best format for naming photos). I also had to hole punch each checklist and insert them into different sections across a number of different binders.
These tasks should have taken me no more than 2-5 minutes each day throughout the entire project, but now I was forced to spend days (yes days) hole punching, filing, and renaming photos. I found photos were missing or unclear (some I was looking at for the first time), and some checklists were missing information or missing completely.
All of these would have been caught had I been diligent about completing small tasks. I knew it was bad when my boss actually commented on how long I was taking. Never again.
the rising ride
Years have passed and I’m now in charge of my own projects. While I don’t complete a lot of checklists or take the majority of the progress photos, I do take ownership over the organization of my emails and project files. You can read more about my strategy in this post about project setup.
The I rose in my career, the more information finds its way to me. As a junior engineer, I received about 10 emails a day. Now I can see as many in an hour. Staying on top of everything isn’t just a matter of convenience, its unavoidable.
The three things that I’ve found can most easily get away from me if I don’t commit to them every day are:
2. Project files
3. Activity logs
In the beginning of a project, there are a lot of files to manage, but not a lot of logs. Emails feel pretty consistent throughout the project, though active responsibility does drop off as you delegate away major scopes.
Setting MYself Up for Success
Having a good system for storing files, emails, and progress is only as useful as my dedication to managing it.
So, every day after our daily standup meeting, I have a short checklist of activities that I commit to completing. The list is hand-written and taped to the wall of my office. I scratch off activities that are no longer needed and I write in new activities. Occasionally, I’ll re-write the list if the old one gets too messy.
But, by posting it in a public place (right next to my face), I’m constantly aware of it. If I skip the list one day, I remember it the next morning when I walk in.
I also keep an active alarm on my phone at 4:45pm to remind me, in case I don’t get to it right after the stand-up.
The list includes items like::
- Update document register (this is a log of the submission and approval statuses of all project submittals)
- Sort all unsorted e-mails for action, deferral, delegation, or archive (a setup I learned from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, possibly the best book on productivity and the topic of a future post)
- Update all project logs (or verify that logs have been updated by responsibility party)
- Confirm receipt of daily report from site superintendent (usually from the previous day)
I spend only about 5 minutes completing all of these tasks. Its a small enough commitment that even if I’ve had a busy day and I’m working late, I can easily complete them. I’ve written some simple scripts and macros to speed up the process of updating the logs, but even if I wasn’t able to do this, they’d be easy tasks to complete manually.
Building Project Success through Consistency
Once you’ve got the systems in place for yourself, and you’re confident in your ability to remain consistent, you can apply them on a larger scale, by bringing them into your project culture.
Whether you’re the manager or a team member, encouraging others to engage in consistent behaviors play a critical role in the successful completion of projects.
Encouraging Small, Consistent Behaviors in Teams
As mentioned above, the skills of breaking up large tasks into small ones and completing routine tasks a little every day can benefit everyone on a team. Not only that, but the benefits compound when everyone is engaging in these habits.
Help setup the shared project drive and coach your team members on how to make the best use of it. If you do it right, you can help your team spend less time searching for documents and info, and more time actively building.
Even if you’ve broken your activities into small tasks and you’ve begun tackling them a little at a time, there’s usually too much to do on a project for one person to complete alone.
If tasks are too large for you to manage on your own (even broken up), leverage your team to help you. The biggest benefit of breaking up tasks is that you can share the smaller tasks amongst the team.
By breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable parts, they become less intimidating. The practice of dividing and conquering not only makes the task feasible but also allows for thoroughness in execution, and gets the entire team involved.
Building a Culture of Progress
As a project manager, one of your key roles is to motivate and guide your team. Encourage the behavior of small, consistent progress by rewarding team members who exhibit these skills.
The rewards can simply be private praise and recognition, but public acknowledgment of an employee’s consistent effort can boost morale and encourage others to adopt similar habits.
The routine activities on the project are often taken for granted. Most companies hire “fire fighting” rather than “fire prevention”. So take some time to build a culture of small, incremental progress by rewarding those who keep the project organized.
How does one bring these principles of small, consistent behaviors into everyday life? Here’s how you can get started this week.
The End-of-Day Checklist
One practical strategy is the implementation of an end-of-day checklist. I talked about my end-of-day checklist earlier, but this is a super easy thing you can implement right now.
This checklist should comprise small tasks that can be completed in a few minutes but will significantly contribute to your productivity and organization.
Examples may include organizing your emails, reviewing your schedule for the next day, or simply tidying your desk. These tasks might seem insignificant in isolation, but their consistent completion can contribute greatly to your efficiency and peace of mind.
When I started this practice, my checklist was actually just one item. A reminder to clear out old emails. As the project grew, I recognized other small tasks I could add.
If the checklist gets too big, consider a morning checklist and an evening checklist. You don’t want to be spending more than 5-10 minutes at a time committing to these tasks.
Utilizing Physical Reminders and Alarms
To ensure you stick to your end-of-day checklist, consider setting an alarm on your phone or computer to remind you. We’re lucky to live in an age where nearly everyone has a phone.
You can use an app to track your checklist, or you can do what I did and pin your checklist to the wall of your office, cubicle, or even the dashboard of your car (if you spend most of your time in the field). Apps are great, but I find keeping it within sight offers a constant reminder that’s harder to ignore.
By using highly visible checklists and hard-to-ignore alarms, you’re not relying solely on memory or willpower; you’re harnessing the power of external reminders to maintain your consistency.
Success in project management, personal growth, or any other field, is rarely the result of a single grand gesture. More often than not, it’s the accumulation of small, consistent behaviors that, over time, yield substantial results.
The power of these consistent actions cannot be overstated. From reviewing project drawings to sorting emails, these small steps pave the path to success. By incorporating these practices into our daily routines, you can lay the foundation for personal, professional, and project success, bit by bit, day by day.
And remember, no step towards progress, however small, is ever wasted. Embrace the power of consistency, and witness the transformation it brings to your work and your life.