Project Management – Year in Review article by Kestrel Stone

Kestrel Stone is one of the smartest people working in Project Management. Based in Sydney, Kestrel runs a Project Management training business called Elemental Projects.

Kestrel has recently published an article summarising 2015 from a Project Management standpoint, and looking at the trends that are emerging.

Well worth a read. Smart, insightful and knowledgable writing as always.

Check the article out here. 2015 – PROJECT MANAGEMENT POST YEAR REVIEW

7 signs time is not working

7 signs time is not working

When we’re under pressure and stress levels start to rise, our capacity for self-awareness is reduced. People around us can see the visible signs – the furrowed brow and shoulders that are up around our earlobes. This list shows some of the signals we can read ourselves – like looking at our mind ‘in the mirror’. See how many of these resonate with you:

You find yourself drifting off, losing focus on what is in front of you

This has been written about recently, especially when it comes to constant and ever increasing amount of data our brains are trying to process. It’s changing how our minds work, and not in a good way. Smartphones, laptops, iPads, everything at our fingertips with a constant stream of ‘input’ our brains try to sort through. Overload is showing itself as distractibility.

Feeling ‘frenzied’ at work

In his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick wrote that “the ‘close door’ button in elevators is often the one with the paint worn off”. We are moving fast, racing to get ‘enough’ done each day. We need to be seen to be able to ‘keep up’ at all costs.

You are procrastinating, finding it hard to start tasks you know you need to do

Many of us find it all too easy to put off tasks we don’t enjoy. This naturally means we bring forward tasks we do enjoy. How do you think our to-do list looks tomorrow if we do all the enjoyable tasks today?

You find yourself making simple, obvious mistakes

There’s a lot of re-work being done. When we are feeling stress, our body switches resources from our Pre-frontal Cortex, (Working Memory) to our Amygdala, (where our fight/flight impulse sits). Adrenalin is released, which is very good for lifting cars off people in an emergency, it’s not at all useful for thinking tasks.

You find you have a reduced ability to think creatively

Creative thinking is a higher-order task. Small amounts of stress or pressure might help us achieve a simple task, (think pyramids, slaves and whips). But, it is completely counter-productive for complex, high-order activities like creative and original thinking.

You feel so overwhelmed by your workload that you ‘freeze’

Research has shown that low levels of stress can help motivate us. But, moderate to high levels of stress take us from degradation of performance right up to choking and panic. Not effective, and not enjoyable.

Always running late to meetings

You might find yourself sitting down at most meetings with ‘sorry’ the first word out of your mouth. Not only do your colleagues not appreciate being kept waiting or repeating the first five minutes of the discussion, it doesn’t help perceptions of you being calm and in control. It doesn’t help how we perceive ourselves either.

If you identify with some or all of the above, take a look through our courses. Using time is a skill, and it’s a skill many of us pick more by accident. In the knowledge age, time is our tool. How we apply our time to the goals, activities and tasks is the key to success, however you define it.

Does music help you work more effectively?

And does the kind of music you listen to have an effect on productivity?

The death of the ‘office with a door’ layout and our open plan office existence means noise levels and distractions in the workplace are on the way up. Many of us use headphones and music to block out some of the distracting noises around us. Some of us find certain kinds of music help us to stay relaxed and focussed, increasing our productivity.

Different studies in this area show a range of answers to these questions. Some research conducted by the University of Windsor in Canada showed that background music provided to software developers improved the quality of their work and reduced the time taken to complete tasks. It also increased their levels of curiosity, which is great for people working in creative pursuits.

That said, a study published in the Journal of Music Therapy showed that different styles of music can have dramatically different effects, and these also differ across personality types. ‘Excitative’ music can increase feelings of vigour and tension, which is great for people who work best in slightly tense states, but not effective for those who work best when relaxed.

In my program, Make Time Work, I advise participants to use non-distracting music to create ‘cones of silence’ when they are working on a larger, more complex task that requires longer, deeper thinking. I favour music without words, as I find hearing lyrics distracts too much. Whether it’s ambient, classical, jazz or other instrumental music, something that helps filter out office noise and helps relax us into a task can have a really positive impact on effectiveness.

I would love to hear your thoughts on whether listening to music while working is helpful, and what type of music works best for you. Feel free to suggest artists or tracks so we can try out your favourites. This article was also featured on

6 things

6 things for a Friday – set yourself up

The weekend is almost here

For many of us the Monday to Friday working week sometimes feels like a thing of the past. Still, we get a bit of pep in our step come Friday morning. Relaxing with a buddy and a beverage Friday night. Plus, we can look forward to two days and three nights away from the office.

Fridays also present us with an opportunity to set ourselves up. They give us an opportunity to prepare for a more productive and enjoyable week next week. I encourage all my clients, and you, to invest some time today in preparing for a great week next week.

Dig out your goals for the year

Create mini-goals for next week

We start the year with a decent handle on what our employer expects from us in the next 12 months. And what we expect of ourselves. As the year progresses, sometimes our day-to-day workload takes us in different directions. Take a few minutes on Friday to review your annual goals.

Compare the work you’ve been doing lately with the activities that will help you achieve your long-term goals. If there’s a gap between the two, create an activity list for the week ahead that brings the focus back onto the big issues, the outcomes that will help drive you and your organisation towards what’s important, not just what’s immediate.

Protect your attention

We are all facing an ever-increasing series of demands on our attention. Using our attention in an intentional, focussed way helps us apply maximum mental energy to the task that’s in front of us. This means we can get through more, more quickly and with fewer mistakes. Also, when our attention is dedicated to a single activity, our intuition and creativity levels rise.

So, once you have decided on some major goals for the week ahead, block out some time to dedicate to them. Think about ways to do these tasks at a time and in a place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted. Find a quiet space, or grab your headphones and play some background music to cover the noise of the office around you. Let your team know you have something big you want to crack through, so you’re going into your ‘cone of silence’ for a few hours. You will be amazed how much more productive you can be with uninterrupted time. I will talk more about email in a later section of this post, but from an interruption standpoint, TURN OFF THE INCOMING EMAIL ALERTS – ALL OF THEM. Having your emails ping or pop up every time they land in your inbox is creating a huge distraction for yourself. Get it sorted. Read emails when you are ready, not when they land and take your attention away from what you’re working on.

Get the ugly done early

There is a whole book on time management that’s been written around a quote from Mark Twain. In his book “Eat that frog”, Brian Tracy uses the quote “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” More than 60% of us have a natural tendency to push back the tasks we don’t enjoy, and bring forward the tasks we like. The problem with this is the tasks we don’t enjoy are often the ones that create additional work when not completed on time.

One way to make a less enjoyable task more appealing is to turn it into a game. Think about whether you can time yourself, or measure your accuracy, or both, and keep a score. Next time you go to do that task, you have a ‘personal best’ to beat. Competition, even with ourselves, is a great way to make something boring or unappealing into a bit of fun.

Organise your workspace(s)

A clean desk is not a sign of a sick mind. Quite the opposite. It’s far easier to bring your focus to a particular task when your desk is not cluttered with half a hundred other things. Get your space tidy. Not only will you be able to bring a calm focus to your work, people around you, including your boss, will notice how organised and in-control you are looking. Changing the way others perceive us is a great way to change how organised we actually feel.

Also, invest a few minutes in making sure your filing on your computer is up to speed. A huge amount of time is wasted when we can’t quickly and easily lay our hands on the latest or most recent version of a document. Hunting through hundreds of email attachments for the one that has the latest ‘file saved’ date is an inherently unreliable and time-wasting approach.

Get email working FOR you

Cyborgs are yet to take over the world, so right now, it’s still supposed to be us humans who are the masters of the technology, not the other way around. Dealing with an overflowing and out-of-control email inbox is one of the most common and significant issues my clients are dealing with.

Every email system I ever met allowed for the creation of rules. If you don’t know how it’s done, Google it. I promise you that someone somewhere has written up how to do it or even made a step-by-step YouTube clip about it. Learn how to do it, and then do it. Automate the filing of your newsletter emails into a “Reading” folder that you can get to if/when you have a spare 5 minutes. If you get a lot of CC’s from a particular person and they rarely require input or action on your part, automate the filing of these into a dedicated folder.

Ruthlessly review your attendance at upcoming meetings

Some recurring meetings become a habit. If you’re especially busy for the week ahead, consider politely excusing yourself from a meeting or two. Send a team member along as your representative. Make sure the meeting is not one where your absence will be an issue. Just consider whether it would be good to be there, or essential.

I hope you have come away from this piece with an idea or two for how to set yourself up for a great week next week.  If you have any tips or techniques you use to improve they way the week ahead shapes up, it would be great to hear them. Have a great Friday and an even better weekend.

attention economy

Salespeople & Attention

Mind-space is precious in the Attention Economy

I am training a team of 12 professional business-to-business salespeople tomorrow. In addition to looking forward to the session hugely, I am thinking today about the challenge it represents.

Why a challenge? Because this team, and others just like them, do something every day that most people find very tough. They venture out into the business landscape and uncover and build new relationships. They create opportunities to connect with customers and prospective customers. They compete every day in the Attention Economy.

And they do all of this in an environment where business people are incredibly busy. Getting busier by the day.  Marketing and advertising types have been talking for years about the rapid increase in the number of promotional messages we are being bombarded with every day. But this is only part of the picture.

Getting attention | Protecting attention

While it’s possible to count the number of message we’re exposed to in any given day, it’s not possible to count the number of messages that make it past the filters our brain applies. Getting our attention is the goal, and obviously not every message that approaches us is taken in.

Protecting our attention and applying it in a conscious, structured and measured way is crucial to our effectiveness. And this is where modern life is creating challenges for all of us. There are more devices. Cleverer techniques. Increasingly innovative blends of the social, professional and personal.

Very early on in our session tomorrow, I need to convince the sales team that my program, and my self, is worthy of 4.5 hours of their attention. If I don’t achieve this, the likelihood that my training program will have any positive impact is low.

The title of the HBR article that became a book, “Why should anyone be led by you” can be applied here. For professional salespeople, asking the question: “Why should anyone pay attention to you” is key. It’s key for me tomorrow too. I think I have the answer. Let’s hope I’m right.

time management course time off

Staying focused is tough – time out is key

Life is moving faster, and it’s making it hard for us to stay focused. Not only do we have more meetings per week, more emails per day and more distractions per nano-second, the end of our to-do list becomes more distant with each passing day.

In a recent HBR blog post titled ‘The Upside of Downtime”, Jackie Coleman and John Coleman discuss the problems associated with an unrelenting focus on task completion when it comes at the cost of downtime. Many of us have become so accustomed to the idea of ‘constant connection’ that the idea of time away from work feels strange, if not a bit naïve.

Naïve or not, the fact is we all need to recharge and rejuvenate if we are going to perform well. In her book “Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work” Leslie A. Perlow talks about her work with the Boston Consulting Group and a project called “PTO” or “Predictable Time Off”.

Initially an experiment among a small team of six, the PTO testing scenario has now been rolled out to 86% of the firm’s North East offices. Some of the quoted results from the test include:

  • More excited

    51% of those in the Predictable Time Off group were excited to start work in the morning, versus 27% of the non-PTO control group

  • More satisfied

    72% were satisfied with their job, vs 49 % for those not in PTO groups

  • More balanced

    54% were satisfied with their work life balance, vs 38 %

Participants also found that the work process was more effective, (74% vs 51%), efficient, (65% vs 42%) and collaborative, (91% vs 76%). According to  BCG’s CEO, Hans-Paul Burkner, the process unleashed by these experiments “has proven not only to enhance work-life balance, making careers much more sustainable, but also to improve client value delivery, consultant development, business services team effectiveness, and overall case experience. It is becoming part of the culture – the future of BCG”.

Disconnecting from work for an agreed, predictable amount of time each week was at the heart of these experiments. The teams then met to discuss how they were going in achieving this goal. Simple.

Ask yourself; how close to the time you went to sleep last night did you check your emails on your smartphone. And how long after you woke up did you check again. It doesn’t have to be this way.

mindful time management

One month down in 2015 | Are we being mindful of our time?

It’s almost February already. It feels like only yesterday that we were celebrating New Year’s Eve. Time seems to fly faster with each passing year. If you think about it in relative terms, it is, in fact, moving faster.

When you are 5 years old, the total amount of time you have experienced is 5 years. The time from one Christmas to the next feels like an eternity. That’s because one year is 20% of the total amount of time you have experienced.

When you’re 32, one year is 3.1% of the total amount of time you have experienced. At 43 (cough) it’s 2.3%. The longer we’re around, the shorter a year feels to us.

How we feel about the relative speed at which time moves for each of us is important – primarily because we don’t do our best creative thinking or problem-solving when we’re under time pressure. Even if we’re putting that pressure on ourselves.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness at its core is about paying attention to how we are paying attention. What are we focused on right now. Is our mind actively and fully engaged in the task at hand? Or, as is often the case for my clients, are we really thinking about the past or the future. Sometimes, lack of clarity around our goals – the objectives that guide our efforts – means we are often focused on relatively unimportant things.

Daniel Goleman – the world-renowned psychologist, science writer and author Emotional Intelligence – is a leading light in how mindfulness applies to each of us, and how it can benefit us in our working life. At the core of Goleman’s approach is taking time out, in a structured and conscious way. That is, through meditation.

For some people, the idea of meditation feels a bit new-age and fruity. The reality is that organisations like Google, 3M, and Oracle train their people in the practice of meditation. A recent article from strategy+business magazine (a booz&co company) talks about how important meditation is for enhanced focus, attention and self-awareness – the keys to truly innovative thinking.

Applying mindfulness to managing your time

There are a few techniques we share with our Make Time Work course participants, to help them become more mindful in how they use their time, and how to increase their levels of focus:

Get brutally clear on your goals

Most people we train have a pretty good handle on the goals they need to achieve in their work, and they are normally written goals. But, when we ask people whether they have written goals for their personal lives, less than 5% do. If we do not write down and regularly revisit our personal goals, we can’t easily and quickly prioritise how we use our time. Spend an hour soon, away from everything, thinking about what you would like to achieve a year from now. Write it down. Revisit regularly to implant your goals in your subconscious. That way, you will naturally bring your focus back to what’s truly important to you.

Be aware of your most effective times of day

Some people are late risers. Given the chance, they would get going about 10am each day, slowly emerging from the cave. These people are usually at their most effective in the afternoon and evening. The vast majority of us are early-risers, hitting our straps about 8am and doing our most creative, insightful and intuitive thinking until about 11am. Given this, why do so many of us spend the most energetic, productive part of our day READING EMAILS??? Emails in our inbox are not ‘to-do’ lists that have been hand-crafted by us to reflect our priorities. Don’t waste the best part of your day on email. Devote yourself to the biggest, hardest, most challenging task on your list. Ticking it off your to-do list gives you an instant motivation and momentum boost.

Take some time out for yourself

Our willpower is a muscle – it gets fatigued with over-use. It needs some time to recover from exertion, in the same way that our arm muscles need a break from bicep curls once we hit our limit. Forcing our minds to undertake complex tasks for extended periods of time is one the key reasons for the mental fatigue that builds up during the course of our work day. Take a short break and use it to clear your mind. Meditate for 15 minutes around lunch and you will be amazed at how much more energy and clarity you have for the afternoon.

So, heading in to next week, think about taking some conscious time-out to refresh your mind, plan a structure for your day and remind yourself of your goals.