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Align Projects with Priorities

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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You probably already had many committed projects before you started following these guidelines for picking new projects. As you create your ideal life, there is a stage where you can begin to see a clearing in the woods but still have a long walk through trees to get there. You can\'t just hop to the new area, ignoring your present commitments. Instead, you might have to live a bit of a double life for a while, completing your present commitments and clearing out the debris from the habit of doing too many things at once.   



The posting below gives some great guidelines on choosing new projects to undertake. It is from Chapter 8, Align Projects with Priorities, in the book, The Peak Performing Professor: A Guide to Productivity and Happiness by Susan Robison. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200 San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 []. Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: A Call to Embrace Silos



Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Align Projects with Priorities 


This chapter will help you discern which projects to spend your time on and how to decide on priorities. Having clear priorities would keep you focused on what activities will move you toward your most important goals. 

Which Projects Further Your Visions? 

Once you have decided which vision statement or statements to work on, examine the pages of your Dream Book pertaining to the chosen vision or visions to see whether any projects emerge from the sticky notes parked there. In this context, project refers to a single large goal under a vision with many smaller, interconnected sub-goals that will move the larger goal toward completion. For example, writing an article is a project. It involves many tasks of researching, outlining, rough drafting, and revising.  Similarly, remodeling your kitchen involves collecting ideas, designing, getting estimates from contractors, budgeting, picking appliances and lighting, and so on.  

These discernment questions will help you set priorities about which projects from your highest priority vision statement or statements are worthy of your time. You won't usually need to answer all of these questions to pick an area or two to work on. 

Visions to Projects 

* What is the prime activity or set of activities I need to do to move this vision along? Your choices might range from the many steps involved in a huge project to one very small step. 

* Are there any projects under a vision that would narrow the alignment gap, bringing me closer to my ideal life? Are there any small goals unconnected to any projects that are worthy of my time and effort right now? 

* What are my five top priority goals (for example, income, promotion, new job, happier marriage, a scholarly project)?

* What activities will get me closer to my top goals? 

* What is the next actionable step on each of those top goals? 

Cost-Benefit Analysis 

* Which project or projects have the potential for the greatest return on investment (ROI) for the resources expended (time, money, energy)?  Which will bring me closer to my goals compared to resources expended?  What will be the benefits to me and to others if I work on these goals? 

* What is the opportunity cost - the loss of time, money, energy, and attention that taking this opportunity might mean for other opportunities that I am considering? What is the opportunity cost if I do this project and if I don't?

* Are the costs or sacrifices proportional to the gains?  (Sometimes it is hard to tell what the costs and gains will be in advance, but think it through as well as possible.) 

* What projects, if not done, will bring the most pain? For example, could taking on the department chair role cost you promotion or tenure because of lost research time? 

* Will I gain or lose the good will and support of key people if I take or don't take this opportunity? 

Planning Perspective 

* How does this project fit my long- and short-term goals (Pyramid of Power)? 

* What resources and commitment (time, money, energy, people, and attention) do I need to pursue this project? 

* How will I get those resources, especially time, to do this project: get rid of other tasks or say \"No\" to other opportunities?

You won't need to answer all of these questions, but after answering a few of them, you should become clearer on what you need to be working on at this point in your career and what you should reject or defer until later. 

While you are working on your most important priorities, new ideas will keep occurring to you about your other vision areas. If it is not the right time to work on those ideas, capture them on sticky notes and park them in your Dream Book so that they will be available if those visions become a higher priority. Sometimes new opportunities seem so urgent, and so right, that they cause you to reorder all of your priorities and possibly to rewrite sections of your Pyramid of Power. 

Plan the Goals Within a Project 

By now you have selected a project to work on. You may have started with a big idea, then generated the steps towards its completion (inductive process), or you may have collected a set of seemingly random goals that matter to you to see whether they have a connection (deductive process). Timing is important. You can increase the pressure later, but for now don't commit to more than three projects at this time.  A big project such as writing a book should probably not be done in the same semester as a major course revision, but if you budget your time appropriately, a big project could be worked on during a semester when you are teaching already well-designed courses. 

Here are the steps for working on a project: 

* Once you have a project, name it - for example, \"article for Journal of Environmental Science.\" 

* Use a mind map to outline the scope of a project and capture the beginning thoughts about the project (Buzan & Buzan, 1996). 

* Place the title of the project in the middle of a piece of paper, circle it and then use the circle as a hub of a wheel with spokes radiating out.  Print key ideas on each spoke.  Print secondary ideas on lines drawn out from the spoke lines.  Write the tertiary ideas on lines drawn from the secondary ideas.  You can use different-colored pencils or draw pictures as you go.  This brainstorming technique will allow your brain to fire ideas at random in no particular order while a loose structure gradually emerges. 

* List everything that needs to be done to complete the project.  Break down those goals into sub-goals and the sub-goals into smaller and smaller tasks by writing them on sticky notes.  You can either break down all of the sub-goals from a branch on the mind map or jump around to different goals - whatever you find works the best for you. 

* Using sticky notes on the mind map gives you the ability to move the items around on a \"storyboard\" on the wall, desk, or paper until you are satisfied with the steps leading to the completion of the project.  Picture a novelist's storyboard or the TV detective's crime board, with sticky notes in radiating lines out from a central theme (the name of the project).  This storyboard is sometimes called a concept map. 

* Lay out the goals for the project in logical order and use the Tracking Sheet technique described later in Part 2 to track all the tasks of this and your other projects, personal and professional, in one place so that you can see at a glance when their time lines and deadlines intersect.  Prevent overloading yourself with too many tasks at the same time. 

* Park the mind map and Tracking Sheet for the project in your Dream Book so you can refer to them as you complete the small goals on your Tracking Sheet.  Archive the completed goals on the back of the relevant pages in your Dream Book.  As you pull out more goals from the mind map, move them to the Tracking Sheet. 

* When this project is complete, dip into your Dream Book for other projects and repeat the process. 

Byron chose to work on two of his vision areas concurrently, family and teaching.  His project in the family area was caring for his elderly father.  This family project required many sub-goals to implement his father's care such as decisions about medical treatments, housing, and staffing for home health nurses to check on his father. 

His project in his teaching vision was a new course design.  In this project there were also many tasks.  Starting with exploring the Big Questions about why the course mattered, he went on to define the course goals, study possible textbooks, review sample syllabi from other teachers, design learning activities and assessments, and explore media resources.  During this time period, while he committed to these two new projects drawn from his two vision areas, he kept his six other vision areas on a maintenance level.  He taught his classes, completed some preliminary writing on an article he was already working on, grocery shopped, and played with his kids.  But he didn't commit to any other big projects until his father's care and his new course were at the maintenance level. 

Anchor Your Projects with a Time-Focused Theme 

Once you have picked some projects from your vision categories, you might create a sense of urgency by fitting the projects into a specific time frame such as a year, semester, or month.  Here are several suggestions about how to establish a theme for the year (semester, month). 

* Look backward in time to see if you can see a theme for a previous time period (week, month, or year) that lays the foundation of a related theme for the next period. Does any theme summarize your accomplishments of this period?  If last year was the \"year of the tenure application,\" this year might be the \"year to reconnect with my long term research project.\" 

* Establish a central theme for the current time period, e.g. \"the year of course revision.\" You might create one theme around work and another for home.  Your teaching theme might be to \"get graded papers back within two classes,\" while your home theme might be to \"monitor children's homework while dinner is cooking.\"* Ask yourself what you would like to be able to say about the present time period at this time next year. 

Once you have established a theme for the time period, ask yourself, \"If this is the year or semester of this theme, what should I be working on?\"  The answer will help you break the theme down into projects, goals, sub-goals, and tasks. 

Amy, a midcareer professor at a leading medical school, decided on this theme: \"the year of recognition.\"  Amid working on her normal job requirements, she spent some time that year applying for and receiving awards that her research deserved but that she had not taken time to pursue.  The increased visibility of the awards at her institution resulted in cinching her promotion to full professor and got her several outside grants and consulting jobs that brought money into her school and led to a book contract. 

Live Your Double Life - Temporarily 

You probably already had many committed projects before you started following these guidelines for picking new projects. As you create your ideal life, there is a stage where you can begin to see a clearing in the woods but still have a long walk through trees to get there. You can't just hop to the new area, ignoring your present commitments. Instead, you might have to live a bit of a double life for a while, completing your present commitments and clearing out the debris from the habit of doing too many things at once.  

As you gradually pursue your new life, the key to closing the alignment gap and decreasing its related anxiety is to work from meaning and purpose in your new ventures at the same time as you complete your current projects.  Eventually, a clearing in the woods will appear where you will no longer feel perpetually overwhelmed. 

While you are living this double life, these questions will help you integrate the new projects with the old. 

* What are the most important projects I have already committed to that I need to complete or maintain while I begin to establish the new priorities of one or two vision areas? 

* Do I need to replace or postpone some of my current commitments until I complete some projects from my new vision or theme?* Which new projects do I need to postpone until I complete the ones that fit my current priorities? 

* What new roles, professional as well as personal, are most important to me at this time in the cycle of life? 

Allen, an accounting professor, consulted me because of an interesting dilemma over priorities.  He had an idea for an accounting textbook based on material he had developed for his workshops at accounting conferences, but he felt conflicted about making such an intense commitment to a book at the same time as taking on a new role of half-time director of a new faculty development center.  It seemed obvious that the book writing needed to be deferred until he settled into the new job description. 

However, a publisher was interested in his ideas and Allen was afraid to let the opportunity slip by. Following my suggestions, Allen continued his conversation with the publisher, while he gradually built a file of ideas, exercises, and scholarly support related to the book.  Because he was still teaching 50% of the time, he auditioned these new materials as handouts and worksheets in his classes.  After a year in his new job, he had developed ample class materials to form the foundation of the book and was ready to write a contract-winning book proposal. 

Relate Your Ancillary Goals to Your Top Priorities 

While your goal is to spend a good part of each day or week working on your highest-priority projects and goals, not every minute of every workday will be spent in total bliss connecting your vision and mission.  There are many ancillary activities that support a good alignment between your Pyramid of Power and your activities. 

Here are the principles for staying close to your priorities as you attend to tasks: 

* Meaning and Purpose: What level of meaning and purpose does this task have for you - direct, indirect, remote?  Stay close to tasks that are directly or indirectly connected to your purpose.  Be cautious about engaging in tasks that are only remotely connected. 

* Essentialness:  Is this task essential to your projects?  If not, reconsider whether to do it. 

* Uniqueness: Where are you most uniquely needed or indispensable (sitting with your child during a medical procedure or attending a campus-wide faculty meeting)? This question can help resolve conflict between two worthy tasks.  (I am presuming you are not the provost running the faculty meeting and that you normally attend such meetings.) 

* Source:  Who is the source of this task?  You will sometimes do things that are only remotely connected to your sense of meaning because your boss asks you to, but beware of doing things for everyone no matter who they are. 

In a pinch, when time is limited, those principles will help you resolve most conflicts.  Only you determine their relative weight. 

Robison's Rule Put first things first. 

Buzan, T., & Buzan, B. (1996). The mind map book.  How to use radiant thinking to maximize your brain's untapped potential. New York, NY: Plume.