Project Management, Priorities, and Office Hours

Recently, a friend emailed me to ask about GTD. He was tasked with a presentation on project management, and had heard of GTD from my writings and from others. I had good and bad news for him.

The good news is that GTD is an excellent system for keeping your tasks organized. The bad news is that it doesn’t do much else. Sure, the GTD books talks about these different altitudes, about taking different views of your goals, projects, hopes, and dreams, but it doesn’t really offer much insight into what you’re supposed to do at those ‘altitudes’.

On top of this, I’ve had some problems recently with becoming sidetracked. I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people in lab lately, I have some exciting side-projects that I’ve been coaxing along, and I’ve not been hacking away at my most important projects with the necessary zeal to really move them forward. Serendipitously, Readeroo recently sent me to an old bookmark on Slashdot — an excerpted chapter from the acclaimed The Art of Project Management. I can see why they sent the chapter excerpt out — it’s Project Management gold in and of itself.

Here are the points that really grabbed me:

  • Prioritized lists at the goal, ‘feature’ (software-oriented, yes), and task level are the ultimate arbiters of what to do next
  • There are really only two priority levels — necessary (or 1) and everything else (2 through infinity or whatever). Priority 1 must be done. The rest is fluff after priority 1 items are accomplished.
  • Rigorous separation of the prioritized lists into priority 1 and everything else, both at the outset of a project and during any reviews and revamping, is essential.

Between managing the cluster, helping lab members with things, and getting caught up in my own little side-projects, I have not been doing these things. Priority 1 items have been submerged below a sea of other things. Yesterday, inspired by that excerpt, I re-focused. I refined my project lists and drew the all-important dividing line between priority 1 and everything else.

In order to help stick to these priorities, I’m enacting “office hours”. I’ve found myself doing this lately anyway, and it’s been working well. I’m declaring before-lunch time my time. If someone comes to me with an issue (other than “there’s a fire in the server room”) before lunch, my reply is now, “I’ll talk to you about it after lunch.” Since I’m a morning person, and most people in my lab are not, this works pretty smoothly. Most people aren’t here in the morning anyway. This gives me a good 4-5 hours of priority-1 time, without neglecting my “team” duties. Perhaps if I do this long enough, people will naturally come to me after noon all of the time.

As a last side note on The Art of Project Management, it unfortunately does not seem to be offered on Amazon directly from them anymore. I have no idea why. Luckily the Hopkins library has it, so I’ll be checking it out soon.