Project Management

Three tricks to help sort out work from activity

Over the years I've written a great deal about the difference between activity and work. However, I don't know if I've ever actually explained what the heck I'm muttering about or why it's important. We'll start with the last question first, since it gets straight to the heart of the matter.

Like all project managers, my work life is bound on three sides by available resources, the scope of work which needs to be done, and the time which we have to accomplish this work. Note the shift from I to we; a project manager leaves behind the conceit and control of individual accomplishment to take on responsibility for a team.

Time and resources form two of my three boundaries, and they are the two I can actually influence. Influencing work requires adroit political maneuvering, something I'm not overly talented at. However, I can to some extent influence what my resources do, how they do it, and how they invest the time we have to accomplish the mission we face.

The word invest there is key. I'm not into “time management.” Almost every method I know cannot help someone who is not an executive in charge of a multi-national corporation figure out what they need to accomplish today to make tomorrow better. We flirt around with the idea of “principle” driven lives without talking about what that might really mean here, now, in this moment.

So, how do we invest our time (perform work) rather than just get whatever done we need to do to stay afloat (stay active)?

One way is through the use of gating question like what I proposed last week. There are dozens of them, each one designed to help shape the task list of a particular role. As tasks come in, the question acts as a gate keeper – anything which does not meet the criteria gets booted over to someone else. If I form the questions right, everyone knows what they need to do and can quickly identify when they are about to head down a rabbit hole.

Another trick I use is to maintain a running “project task list,” which I manage just like a person's task list. This is different in both function and scope than the horrid project plans which pop up like potted pansies all over the corporate world. Those static contracts and monitoring tools do little to help us to manage the constant flux of work we need to manage on a daily basis. Instead, have a little tool I pulled together in Access which allows me to allocate and reallocate tasks based on the resources' skills, available tools, and gating questions. Its handy, but not necessary – I started doing it on a bunch of note cards and could easily go back to it.

Finally, and this is a mental trick, I've let go of the need to justify all of the activity going on around me. Our tendency as human beings is to retroactively decide that whatever we did was important enough to pour our time into. We also make these excuses for those around us. Unfortunately, this blinds us to the unfortunate reality that most of what we do doesn't go anywhere at all. That secret frustration we feel with all the meetings, the endless paperwork, and the constant second-guessing? Yes, that's our lives draining away one second at a time. Accept it, embrace, it, and we can finally STOP it from happening rather than trying yet another fad which might or might not actually help for a little while.

Okay, enough ranting. Next week I'll post some gating questions for developers, field techs, and others who need to get things done without getting overwhelmed by the constant influx of activity coming their way.


Thirty five years ago I had the idea that I could keep my work seperate from my home life and vice versa. Now however I have come to realize that this really isn't possible and I was fooling myself. I spent working hours dealing with customers that had all manner of problems, from wire rewinders that had no brakes to circuit breakers that were popping for no apparent reason and computers that were developing a mind of their own. This really kept me jumping 24/7 and really left little time for the home type of activities. Thankfully a loving wife helped keep the home a place to rest free of commitments that might be interupted by these all important midnight callouts and many, many recurring nightmares thanks to combat induced experiences. Today I fill many off time hours with diversions that serve to build the body and quiet the mind. I shut off the work experiences so effectively that I hated computers and wanted nothing to do with them once I was off the clock. I distanced myself from them and refused to even have one in my home until 15 years ago. Having conquered my demons and exiting that line of work, I reversed the effects and began to enjoy all manner of computer hardware and peripherals to embrace them as a pastime and not an employment. Today I am able to mix the two joyfully and encouraged others to try this tack. I realized that I really didn't seperate the two but was living both side by side, hence the mental turmoil. I am a firm believer that deversion is never an effective escape but just a cover up for real torture. One persons job should be a delight not a burden. If you are not happy at your job you cannot be effective. I still have nightmares that will be with me forever and I still fix perplexing problems in my dreams but I enjoy my work and can't believe I get paid for what I do. My family has found a father that comes home from work happy and needs no encouragement to be part of the family instead of shrinking to another room to answer urgent calls and dash off at all hours to handle someones headaches. I am able to talk with others about their problems and will help them sort out computer faults but refrain from those "housecalls". Working just for the sake of work will end in burnout and hatred and as I have seen in others, a ruined family and uncooperative coworkers which led to suicide.

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