It only takes one key item to make a day successful. Often for me it is a project management tool such as a well written e-mail that outlines a problem and drives a set of actions. As busy as the rest of the day may be, this one item makes the day a success and often, if it was insightful enough, makes days or weeks successful.
At the Software Engineering Institute I gained some insight into how project studies were accomplished. What I noticed was that studies of successful software projects had a tendency to down play the unique items in each effort. Instead the studies seemed to try and find what was common among the successful efforts. The belief was that if we implemented those common activities success should follow. It never seemed to worked that way however. Instead I found in my own practice that it was what was unique in each effort — tailored to the particular situation — that enabled the success. The other factors were important and necessary but the critical factors for success were the unique things that were done (see more on getting perfect project management by tailoring it to the organization or team).
I was managing the Information Technology (IT) division for an organization that spanned five countries. We were implementing an upgrade to all our IT and had a multi-year plan to do it. I had worked myself sick. This was pretty normal for me, but this time I was really sick. I would get in at 6 am in the morning and by 8 am I was totally ineffective. I ended up doing this for about a week, working from 6 am to 8 am everyday. I would read and sent out e-mails, leave folks notes on their desks and then go home and collapse.
Even today, I recognize this as one of the most productive weeks of my life on one of the largest projects I ever managed. I still look back at it and wonder how that could be. I came to understand that the critical part of my day was not very long. I also finally realized that the other 80% of my day was important also but, at least in my case, that other 80% dealt with things that would be important in the future. What was important now, to cause success to be a reality today was only about 20% of my day.
Along these same lines, I once carried a Daytimer. This is a little notebook that had each day of the month in it for taking notes and tracking tasks. I was reading about time management and one exercise was to track everything I did during each day for a week. So I went about filling in an entry in my Daytimer for each 15 minutes of my day. Boy, did I waste a lot of time each day I discovered. Boy, did I easily get distracted. I ended up keeping these 15 minute increments for many, many, months. Yes, this sounds like a simple time accounting system. The only difference was that it was my time accounting system, so I could be as precise and as honest as I was willing to be. (Check out more on the benefits of brutal honesty in project management.)
These experiences drove home for me that what made the biggest difference was doing a few things right every day. The time doing the few things right was always very small in relation to the total time in the day. It is important to note that the rest of the day might be spent participating in related activities and validating that those few things done were the right things to do.
See more benefits of Paying Attention
Realizing that the most effective part of our day might be only a few selective acts can help us recognize and leverage those acts. Pay attention to how we spent our time and what makes a difference. It can help us make our projects hugely successful by doing the few critical things each day that make the real difference.