Cramming It All In: Project Management Techniques for Surviving the Year-End Madness

The end of the year is rapidly approaching, and you know what that means: not only is it time to shop for a new calendar to hang on the wall (as someone who loves to travel, I’m a big fan of calendars full of photos of far-off locales!), but it’s also a time of great stress for many of us. There are so many things vying for our attention and energy over the next several weeks, such as holiday-related festivities, work deadlines, and many other personal and professional commitments (and of course calendar shopping, too—ha ha!).

Fortunately, you can survive (and even thrive) during the next month if you follow this simple three-step process:

  • Focus on the positive 
  • Prioritize
  • Use lists to manage your time and energy

Let’s take it from the top.

Focus on the Positive

I firmly believe that when I am positive, it not only makes me better, but it also makes those around me better.
—Harvey Mackay

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I am a big believer in the power of positive thinking and have long touted the many benefits having of a positive outlook in both personal and professional domains. During those first terrifying months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I leaned hard on “look for the positive”—a perspective that has helped me (and many others) weather the uncertainty and fear that has dominated our lives for nearly two years. At this time last year, when it was looking likely that most of us wouldn’t be able to travel and see family during the holidays, I encouraged everyone to look for ways to create joy during that difficult time. 

Even when—or, rather, especially when—things are looking bad, it’s critical to stay on the lookout for the positive moments in life.

One year later, I’m looking back on one of the most difficult years of my life. Professionally, I’ve seen my business plummet (worse than it did in 2020, even), as the business world continues to wrestle with all sorts of pandemic-related challenges. But that pales in comparison to the sudden loss of my mom in early spring. She was by best friend, my favorite traveling buddy, and my biggest cheerleader, and not having her around has been one of my most difficult experiences of 2021. Losing my mom really tested the limits of my ability to focus on the positive, and for a while I was worried I might not be able to find joy again. Fortunately, a vacation with friends provided a much-needed reminder that finding the positive even in the face of grief can help you achieve balance.

One of the last moments with my mom before she passed in March 2021. Beautiful times.

Even though I still miss my mom every day, I’ve managed to keep moving forward by focusing on the positive. Sure, my business took a hit in 2021—but I still have plenty of terrific clients and many promising leads, and I’m hopeful that in-person conferences and training will come roaring back in 2022. And even though we are still in the middle of a pandemic, I’ll get to spend this holiday season with my two nieces, my brother, and my sister-in-law, thanks to vaccines and more refined safety protocols that are mitigating the need for most social distancing (hooray!).

Think about the challenges you’ve faced—personally and professionally—over the past year. No matter how many negatives you see on that list, there are also plenty of positives to find too. Once you identify them, try to put them front and center in your mind. Keeping your focus on the positives makes it easier to spot and foster even more positivity in your life—which then sets you up to succeed in the second part of the “survive the end-of-the-year” process.

Prioritize

Nobody is too busy ~ it’s just a matter of priorities.Unknown

When you come across the word prioritize, I bet that one of the first things you think of is making lists. Lists are certainly a big part of managing priorities, but there’s more to it than just figuring out the things that are most important to you. If you don’t also take into consideration how much you can control or influence those things, you may find yourself with a list of impossible tasks.

For example, winning the lottery ranks pretty high on my list of “Things I Want to Accomplish.” But beyond buying a PowerBall ticket, there really isn’t anything I can realistically do to make myself win the lottery. (Believe me, if that were possible I would have done it long ago and would currently be writing this post from my villa in Tahiti!) Therefore, when I identify my priorities, unachievable pipedreams like these don’t make the cut. I still aim high, of course, but not so high that I am simply chasing rainbows.

I use a couple tools to help me figure out the real priorities. 

On this chart, use a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest) and rank the tasks or goals in relation to the Urgency, Interest, Importance and Impact to the Company (you can also use this as a way to prioritize personal goals – what has the greatest urgency, interest, importance and impact to YOU!). Those with the highest Total should dictate where you focus your time and attention. Calculating an estimated time to complete will let you schedule getting it done on your calendar (see the next section). 

This second tool forces you to think about the amount of effort needed vs. the impact to the organization (or for you personally). The goal is to ensure you’re spending at least half your day on those items that have impact to your career, company or personal life. If you’re not, it’s time to let those lower impact items sit (or scratch them off your list for good) so you can focus on the real priorities that matter. 

Tying Your List to Time Management

Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days. Zig Ziglar

During the run-up to end-of-the-year deadlines, finding the time, energy, and focus to handle your various commitments can be more challenging than usual. A couple of years ago, I addressed this topic in a post (“How to Stay Productive–and Sane—During the Last Month of the Year”) that presented several strategies for keeping on task. 

One of the main suggestions in that post was “make lists.” I’m repeating it here because, as far as I’m concerned, the ability to create and use well-structured lists is key to being organized, productive, and efficient. 

I’ve found it most useful to create one daily list that spells out what I want to get done on that particular day. This kind of list can quickly devolve into an overwhelming jumble of tasks, though, so it’s important to give it structure by focusing on value-add activities—that is, those that have the most impact and are the most urgent. Using an action priority matrix to assess each task before you will help you find the best way to organize and tackle your to-do list according to what needs to be done when. 

Once you’ve put together this list, work on scheduling. Taking in the Big Picture all at once can make a project seem overwhelming and leave you scrambling to figure out how to start it. But chunking it up into small pieces makes it much more manageable—and easier to slot into your calendar. (When I find myself in this situation, I always think of a story that Annie Lamott tells in the introduction to her book Bird by Bird. Her ten-year-old brother had to write a report for school about birds, and “was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” Their father’s advice was “”Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”)

First, figure out what you need to get done before the end of the year. Then break down each of these items into what needs for be done for it each week. And then narrow down that list to what needs to be done for that project each day. Ultimately, you need to break down each task into its smallest components. Once you’ve done that, you can start working through all the “birds” on your to-do list!

Visuals to Help Project Manage Your Time

Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan.Winston Churchill

First, create a list of priorities say for 1st quarter of 2022. The map out by month what needs to get done including the week in which you’ll accomplish it:

Then break each week down by the days in the week and map out what you need to accomplish each day in order to complete the project on time.  Breaking it down by day helps you to know how much time you have for the goofy day-to-day stuff that can be such a time suck (and detract you from getting your major goals accomplished). 

You’re still not done project managing your schedule though! Now it’s time to focus on your day and seize control of what’s right in front of you for the next 8 hours. Note when you’re at your peak and when you’re not. Then plan accordingly to tackle the tougher high impact projects when you’re at your peak (it will go faster and you’re not wasting valuable thinking time on mundane things like email). 

I Love a Good List

Mostly I make lists for projects. This can be daunting. Breaking something big into its constituent parts will help you organize your thoughts, but it can also force you to confront the depth of your ignorance and the hugeness of the task. That’s OK. The project may be the lion, but the list is your whip. Adam Savage

Honestly, I could not function without the list-making methods I use to keep my personal and professional lives on track. You’ll have to figure out which methods best meet your own needs, but keep these points in mind as you plan your time:

  • Structure your day intentionally: decide ahead of time which tasks you’ll do when (based on their importance, your energy levels, other commitments you have, etc.). Don’t try to rely on an “organic” approach that just lets things “flow” along naturally, because you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and effort trying to figure out next steps at the last minute—and you’ll be more likely to succumb to distractions. (“Let me just take a quick look at this thing over here for a few minutes” can quickly turn into a time-suck!)
  • On a related note, keep reminding yourself “I am not a crow!” and don’t let yourself be distracted by shiny new objects. In other words, don’t take on any new projects in December. Why in the world would you embark on a big new thing when you still have a full plate of stuff that’s due by the end of the year? 
  • Ignore the siren call of e-mail. I made this point (using those exact words) two years ago, but it’s so important that I want to emphasize it again here. E-mail structures so much of our personal and work lives that it can be hard to resist the urge to “do a quick e-mail check” multiple times a day. Unfortunately, a “quick e-mail check” can expand to take up several minutes (or longer!) and derail your workflow. Set aside specific time each day to tend to your e-mail—and do your best to keep your focus on your work (and out of your inbox) during other times.
  • Learn to say no. That means saying no to colleagues when they’re asking you to take on more than you can handle at the moment. And it also means saying no to yourself when you’re tempted to pursue new interests or opportunities that will prevent you from meeting your current commitments.

These suggestions are all applicable to your work, but they’re also quite relevant to your personal life as well. One domain has colleagues and bosses vying for your time, and the other has family and friends clamoring for your attention. In both cases, you need to be able to determine priorities, set boundaries, and get your stuff done. Whether you’re dealing with a big work project, rushing to get your holiday shopping done, or trying to carve out some downtime for yourself so you can catch your breath during a busy time of year, these project management techniques can help you manage your time (and your energy) better so you can actually get things done.

Final Thoughts

Smart people focus on the right things. Jensen Huang

Guess what? You can do everything you want and need to do—and without losing your mind. All you have to do is be realistic in your goal setting and keep your eyes on the prize.

As you find the best strategies for navigating your professional commitments to your work and your social commitments to your family and friends, don’t forget to look out for yourself as well. Too often, we focus so much on making our families, bosses, colleagues, and friends happy that we neglect our own needs.

Remember, you are a critical part of all of those equations, so be sure to prioritize yourself too.

We are in the home stretch of 2021! You’ve made it this far—I know you can make it to the finish line. If you know of any great strategies for staying productive (and sane!) during the last weeks of the year, please share them in the comments! 

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