Career Advice: Coaching By Cath

Strategies For Managing A Successful Project-Focused Career
01/06/2012

In a previous article I talked about the outdated rules for success at work that were established and perpetuated since the Factory Age - the idea that career development should progress in a linear way, where you choose one interest, specialize early and spend the rest of your life getting more experienced and knowledgeable in that one role in that one industry...

Well the world of work is changing and the rules for success at work are changing along with it. There's still space for specialists, but as information has become so much more accessible and ubiquitous, and as we become more and more interconnected, specialization isn't as special as it used to be and being able to synthesize information from different fields and straddle across different roles and industries has become a much more valuable skill.

This is good news for most of us since you no longer have to squeeze yourself into just one role in one department in one specialized industry and instead you can create a project-focused career where you get involved in a variety of projects and roles that interest you - great news for folks who are natural renaissance souls with many diverse interests. Creating a project-focused career will bring you greater variety and stimulation and developing your experience and skills across a variety of roles and industry sectors is a great way to reduce your risks and increase your resilience and ability to adapt and take on new roles in a high-change, turbulent economy where there isn't much job security.

But managing a project-focused career successfully has its own challenges and demands self-leadership.If you're not organized well, it would be easy for this sort of lifestyle to become overwhelming and stressful, for you to end up spending your time playing and generating new ideas but never following through on any of them, and for you to slip into mediocrity and become the jack of all trades and master of none. Knowing how to organize your project-based career with just the right amount of focus and structure to create the core stability that'll make it easy for you to adapt and change gears is crucial, so here are a few tips:

Set Up Healthy Daily Routines
The success of your project-focused career will depend on your mental and physical energy and agility. When you have that strong foundation of good health then you'll think well and you'll be much more effective and creative when you're working. Also, most people running project-focused career are doing creative work and, as much as stress reduces creativity, rest and play improves creativity, so schedule regular periods of rest and play if you want to keep your creative juices flowing.

Another reason why it's a good idea to set up some core, stable routines is because our minds and bodies have a natural resistance to change, because change means unfamiliarity and that could mean danger. Setting up some consistent, habitual daily routines helps to create familiarity in your life and that'll help to reassure your lizard brain that all is well and you'll feel more centred and calm in dealing with the other, more dynamic parts of your life - especially if you start and end your day with the same routines each day.

A project-focused career is ultimately about creating a life that you enjoy right now and you'll enjoy all your work and play pursuits much more if you're healthy and vital, so those basic self-care health-supporting routines are your most important step to being productive, successful and happy in your work.

Know Your Values And Priorities
Know your values and priorities and to be ruthless about cutting out what you don't love and the time-wasting activities that aren't important to you. Obviously you can't do everything all at once, so you're still going to need to make some choices as to what projects are a priority that you want to focus on right now. And being clear on your priorities is especially important for project-focused careers, because you're much more likely to experience occasions where you have to choose what project or life area you're going to give your attention to in that moment when all of them are demanding your attention. Clarifying your values and priorities demands some focused thought work, but it's an investment that'll make your daily life much easier to manage and ensure that you make decisions that are aligned with your values and priorities when you're juggling multiple demands.

Build Your Team
With all the time management systems in the world, you can only ever increase your efficiency in how you use your 24 hours each day, and you can never add more hours to your day. So, at some point, you're going to hit your limit on what you can do alone. If you want to be able to extend your reach and pursue multiple ideas and projects, you need to think in terms of how you can develop partners or a team of colleagues and employees, or outsource to other professionals who can help you make your projects happen.

Become Adept At Gear-Shifting
One of the greatest challenges of having a project-focused career is making mental gear shifts as you change from thinking about one project to another. To use your time most efficiently, you want to be able to quickly and easily shift gears and be able to easily pick up your projects where you left them and run with it, and then easily put them down again and shift to the next project without having the other project continuing to linger and claim some of your attention.

One of the ideas that the author of Refuse to Choose, Barbara Sher, suggests is that you create separate project files where you keep your project plans and notes on all your updates. I really like the idea of keeping actual physical files because then you can print and file articles, pictures and ideas along with your plans and I'm very visual, so physical folders somehow make a project more tangible for me. But if you like to do everything digitally, then the same principle can apply to creating separate project folders on your computer. Whenever you're working on your project, be sure to make some notes about the current status of the project and your ideas for the next steps and research and action tasks that need to be completed.This has two benefits; one the one hand, it'll be a form of mental archiving and completion, allowing you to move onto another project, and on the other hand, it'll make it easy for you to pick up the project where you last left it when you come back to it.

Have a Simple Task Management System
When it comes to managing your productivity on a day-to-day basis, I've explored quite a few different planning systems and frankly I prefer to keep it simple with a good old traditional pen-and-paper rolling "to do" list. Have two rolling lists - one for maintenance tasks and urgent tasks and the other for important development tasks that aren't as urgent. That way you'll ensure that you're not getting lost in crisis-management and mouse vision and you'll always be keeping an eye on future pipelines and your eagle vision.

Notice that I'm calling these "rolling lists" because they're not static lists that you write once a month and work through, ticking them off. Each time you consult the list - and usually this is daily at least, you'll probably be adding research and action tasks to the list as you're completing items or deciding that they're no longer relevant. So don't be precious about your lists. Treat your "to do" lists as living, evolving things that change and grow as you and your projects change and grow.

Do Your Creative Work When You're Most Creative
Once you have your rolling "to do" lists, you're going to be scheduling deadlines for completion and blocks of time to work on the tasks. One of the great things about being a Juggler is that you're in control of what you do and when you do it. And since there are times of the day when you're more creative than others, it makes sense to arrange your day so that you do your creative work when you're most creative. By simply tracking your productivity and creativity over a week or so, you'll be able to spot your most creative times in the day and then shape your day around that.

Take Small Steps
And finally, one of the most sensible ways to manage your changes and your productivity on any new project you're creating is through giving up your all-or-nothing thinking and committing to taking small, consistent steps. Small steps reduce risk, allow for continual adjustment and improvement, create momentum and help you to overcome fear. So, once you've decided what changes you want to make and what sort of juggle life- and work-style you want to create, ask yourself, "What's the next smallest step I can take in that direction?" take the step and then ask again, "From where I'm standing now, what's the next smallest step I can take in the direction of my vision?" and keep going until you've made your vision a reality.

Author: Cath Duncan

Cath DuncanCath Duncan is a life and leadership coach and CareerJunction's resident Career Coach. Through one-to-one coaching and projects like the Bottom-line Bookclub, Cath helps people learn the Agile Living Strategies for thriving at work in this high-change era.

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