Common Time Management Problems at the Project/Task Management Level
Effective project and task management is becoming increasingly important in work settings because it is an essential part of knowledge work, but it’s also proving useful in our everyday life.
The main goals of the project management level are to help you get a clear understanding of all the projects that you are currently working on, help you plan and organize your projects and track them to completion.
The primary purpose of the task management level is to help you determine the best way to use your time at any given moment during the day based on all the different things you need to get done.
Let’s start by reviewing some common problems at these levels. My plan is to eventually provide links to the causes and cures for each of these ailments.
The first common problem is feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed by all the things that we need to do and all the demands on our time and attention. In my experience, we feel stressed and overwhelmed for three main reasons.
First, we feel overwhelmed when we have too many things going on at the same time and we feel like we don’t have a good handle on them. There are only so many things that we can keep track of using only our memory; when they start exceeding our capacity, we start to feel anxious because we realize that we can’t keep up. The anxiety is telling you that the challenges you are facing may be beyond your ability to manage them.
Second, we feel overwhelmed when there are too many new demands on our time or attention. These things could be new projects, new requests, new information you need to process, new emails, unexpected errands, a crisis, etc. If you don’t have a good way to process all this new stuff, it is only natural to feel overwhelmed as you see things piling up.
Third, we often feel overwhelmed when faced with a large new project or task and we don’t have clarity about what needs to be done, how to go about doing it, or where to start. We feel overwhelmed because we are unable to take that important first step.
These feelings of anxiety and overwhelm can skyrocket when the three factors combine together at the same time. When we already feel that we are having trouble keeping track of all the things we need to do, are having problems managing all the new stuff popping into our lives, and are then faced with large complex projects, it is easy to feel completely paralyzed.
Another common problem is running out of time before completing an important project. As the deadline approaches, you may find yourself having to work late nights and weekends just to keep up; even then you may still miss the deadline. While it is normal for this to happen every once in a while, if it happens regularly and has become your normal routine, it may represent a real problem in the way you manage your projects.
Have you ever gotten emails from your boss or a co‑worker asking you about a task you were supposed to be working on, but you forgot about it and haven’t even started it yet? Have you promised your boss you would take care of something important but forgot to do it? Have you missed important appointments or meetings? Have you forgotten about an important action item or idea you got during a meeting only to remember it months later?
Root-cause worst practices: Using your memory to keep track of things.
Do you feel overloaded with too much work? Is your schedule so crammed full of activities that you don’t have any time to breathe? Overload is a common problem for people that have difficulty with the project and task management levels because it is very easy to fall into the trap of attempting to do too much. Overload is also a natural result of many of the other problems at this level.
Do you have problems getting started when you are assigned a new project? Do you have trouble figuring out what you need to do? Do you find yourself procrastinating and putting it off? Do you have problems figuring out how to get it done?
Root-cause worst practices: Poor planning.
A related problem to having trouble getting started is having trouble finishing projects. There are several reasons why this happens: getting sidetracked, becoming uninterested, avoiding the dirty work, trouble with details, etc. People that are capable of starting and completing important projects are more valuable to an organization than those that can do either but not both.
Root-cause worst practices: Drifting into trivia.
Do you feel busy during the day but realize when it’s time to leave that you really didn’t make that much progress? Do you routinely leave for home without accomplishing what you set out to do that day? Are your projects consistently behind schedule? If this happens to you regularly, you may be spending too much of your time working on lower priority items instead of focusing on the tasks with the greatest payoff. This is one of the most common problems for the task and project management levels.
Do you spend more than half your time dealing with crisis after crisis? Do you find it difficult to plan because there is always something unexpected that comes up? Getting stuck in crisis mode is problematic because each “crisis” steals your time and attention away from important things that may not seem as urgent. It is also more difficult to do meaningful planning in the chaotic work environment that results from constantly putting out fires.
Do you feel under intense time pressure as deadlines approach? Do you have trouble starting your projects early enough to avoid the late time crunch? Time pressure is often a symptom of underlying problems at the tactical time management level, particularly if it is a recurring or chronic problem.
Trashing is a term that was first used to describe what happened to large time‑sharing mainframe computers when there were too many people trying to use them at the same time. These systems made it appear to each of the users that they were the only ones using the system by giving each one a small slice of time in charge of the computer and quickly switching between all of them. The act of switching from one user to another imposes some overhead on the computer. The problem comes when there are too many people trying to use the computer at the same time and the time slices are not adjusted properly. When this happens, the computer spends more time switching between the users than doing actual work and can make the whole system slow to a crawl; people would say the computer was “trashing.” Trashing occurs when the unproductive overhead associated with doing something is greater than the actual work performed. An example of trashing in time management occurs when you spend more time organizing, cleaning your desk, or making and rearranging lists than actually doing useful work.
Root-cause worst practices: Overscheduling and overorganization, Efficiency Trap.
Disorganization - Lack of Adequate Organization
Disorganization is a common problem that silently steals your time minutes at a time. The Wall Street Journal reported that the average U.S. executive wastes six weeks per year searching for misplaced information. That ends up being about five hours wasted each week. The US News and World Report found that the average American spends one year of their life looking for lost or misplaced items in the office.
There is a saying that if you throw a frog into a boiling pot of water, the frog will immediately jump out; if however, you put a frog into a pot of cool water and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will get boiled. Because disorganization steals your time slowly over a long period of time, it is like slowly raising the temperature on the frog. You don’t do anything about it because you don’t realize how much time you are really loosing to it, just like the frog doesn’t realize it’s getting boiled.
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