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Straight Talk on Project Management

Six productivity tips

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Six productivity tips for Project Managing during uninspiring winter days

With the sun rising later in the morning and setting earlier in the afternoon, from your office window the view is dark, grey, cloudy skies, and, as the wind whips the leaves off the trees and blows them onto soggy streets – it can be kind of hard to inspire yourself, let alone your IT Project team and stakeholders.

I’m hearing this from a lot of people right now, not just in our industry, but as I talk most with people working in IT Project Management, of course, it’s PMs, BA, CIOs etc who are telling me the most that they’re tired.

There’s science behind it! Project Management software firm Redbooth carried out a study into productivity and found that winter is by far the least productive season. Also, of all the months, the lowest percentage of tasks are completed in January (as opposed to October’s high – before the clocks go back!)

This isn’t a “woe is me”, moany-groany blog though.

Like all Stoneseed blogs, I hope you’ll find it uplifting and as solution driven as ever because, here’s the thing … you’ve got this.

Winter blues, seasonal affective disorder, daylight deprived lack of productivity, even news and state-of-the-world driven lack of motivation … these are all real stimuli and I’m here to validate them. Just like traditional project management challenges such as scope creep, team conflicts, communication issues, etc, these challenges can be managed and mitigated. In fact, they must be.

So, this is an unusual blog. Unusual in that, save for one paragraph, I won’t be extolling the Stoneseed solution that can save the day and make your IT project delivery a summer breeze rather than a howling gale, but I will share some top tips for staying productive when everyone else is singing the blues.  

I thought of this blog theme, not long after the clocks went back, a few weeks had passed, and I still felt a “bit jet lagged” from the time shift. Then Christmas and New Year, stole my time before I got a chance to put pen to paper.  Now we are back to business as usual, but like many I’m starting to feel those winter blues. Others were feeling the after-effects of COVID, long COVID is energy zapping, and the cost-of-living crisis is all consuming for many (if you are struggling financially, of course that is going to have a knock-on effect on your productivity levels and concentration capacity!).

As I say though, this isn’t a pity-party – I’m going to share some tips for actually increasing productivity throughout these winter months and I’d love it if you shared some things that work for you. I’m not a doctor though, if you are feeling really run down, or struggling with your mental health, or stressed at work – please talk to a mentor, a colleague, your manager, your HR team, or your GP.

I asked my GP why we feel this way at this time of year …

WHY PRODUCTIVITY DIPS IN WINTER

Left to its own devices, productivity for many does decrease during winter and while not true for everyone, feeling proactive and productive in the cold and dark months can take extra effort. Here’s why …

WE’RE LESS ACTIVE

Most people are less active in wintry weather. A lunchtime stroll to the shops or to eat alfresco in the local park is a lovely idea when the sun is blazing down and the birds are singing. Not so much when the wind and rain are lashing against the window – so much easier to pop out to the sandwich van when they bib their horn and eat at your desk. The less active you are, the ‘lazier’ you’re likely to feel. I have a really active friend who goes for a morning run before work in the summer but really has to push herself in the winter.

WE HAVE VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY

When you’re not exposed to as much sunlight, Vitamin D levels take a big dip. There are days that I drive into work in the dark and then drive home after – also in the dark. If you do the same, no wonder you feel jaded. Many IT Project team pros I know benefit from taking extra Vitamin D supplements to ensure their energy levels are maintained – talk to your GP.

POOR NUTRITION!

On a wet and windy morning, perhaps after getting soaked on the school run, the lure of a McDonalds breakfast over those sachets of porridge you keep in your drawer is powerful. Poor eating habits are way too easy to slip into in winter, comfort foods give you a dopamine hit, they make you feel good – but it doesn’t last. If you let good eating habits slip and don’t focus as much on your health as you do in the summertime then you will probably find your happiness and energy levels fall and that can have a detrimental impact on your work. GIGO! Garbage in, garbage out!

SIX PRODUCTIVITY TIPS FOR UNINSPIRING WINTER DAYS

1 – KEEP TO YOUR GOOD ROUTINES 

Happiness and energy are two of the benefits of a good routine. Like my friend Cait who forces herself to stick to the routine of a morning run (whatever the weather) you’ll benefit from greater productivity if you can stick to what you do when you are usually at your most productive!

There are countless psychological studies that point to a subliminal effect that occurs when you change routine. Without you realising, a change of routine triggers a more cautious approach, so if you forego a morning run, for instance, your subconscious registers that something is different and adjusts everything else accordingly (to mitigate other potential ‘dangers’). It’s like if you see a nasty car accident, you drive the rest of your journey more alert and cautious.

2 – SET REALISTIC DAILY GOALS AND TARGETS 

Any little daily “high-fives” I can give myself keep me motivated on the darkest of days. Setting daily achievable tasks during the winter months can therefore be really helpful. They don’t all have to be Project Management based ones either, actually, when you’re driving to work and then home again in darkness, it can help your work/life balance perception to have some non-work-based goals in the mix.

My friend Gareth has a “What Success Will Look Like Today” list of goals that can include booking a car service or putting a load in the washing machine alongside his IT project goals. Keeping score of daily wins can boost your morale, remind you that you are, in fact, being productive despite the winter weather and sustain the mindset that you are achieving what you set out to achieve. Setting and achieving realistic tasks each day maintains a sense of accomplishment and productivity.

As you know, your overall IT Project Management goals should be challenging yet achievable, and never more so than in winter. Make them too easy and your team will be bored, make them unachievable and your team will get demotivated – finding the sweet spot of stretching your team with goals they can achieve yields amazing productivity benefits in the wintry months.  

3 – CELEBRATE YOUR TEAM’S SMALL WINS

Even small wins can boost work life and morale enormously and, flipping this, small setbacks can also have a tremendously negative effect. In “The Power of Small Wins”, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer explored the value of praising these meaningful wins, gains and achievements.

They wrote, “If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she achieved something, however small. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is likely to blame. This progress principle suggests that managers have more influence than they may realise over employees’ well-being, motivation, and creative output. The key is to learn which actions support progress—such as setting clear goals, providing sufficient time and resources, and offering recognition—and which have the opposite effect.”

Praise your team, even for the smallest wins and watch their productivity levels soar – especially at this time of year. Greeting a team member with gratitude for yesterday’s “job well done” as they take off their soggy coat can cancel out the grimmest of morning commutes!

 4  – LET THERE BE LIGHT

So important! Ensuring that your workspace is not as dull as the weather outside is vital to productivity. Another Project Manager friend, Michaela, swears by her S.A.D. lamp that replicates sunlight, others just make sure that the blinds are up to let in as much natural light and that their desk is well lit at all times.

I take every opportunity to wander outside and just let real light hit my eyes and skin! Vitamin D helps you use calcium more effectively, improves your immune system (less absenteeism), and aids brain function.

An expert, Dr. Phil Maffetone, writes “Seeing the natural light of the sun helps the brain work better”, adding, “Photosensitive cells in the eye also directly affect the brain’s hypothalamus region, which controls our biological clock. This influences our circadian rhythm, not just important for jet lag but for normal sleep patterns, hormone regulation, increased reaction time, and behaviour”. So better sleeping patterns and the Vitamin D bounce – you don’t have tell me twice!

5 – PLUG CAPABILITY GAPS aaS SOON aaS POSSIBLE

OK, my one bit about how Stoneseed can help. Winter bugs, flu and colds can lead to increased absenteeism. Teams can cope picking up the slack short term, but team members can become stressed during extended staff shortages. Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) can plug any gaps on a flexible basis. PMaaS allows you to align resources as and when needed, on a cost effective, full-time or part-time basis. We flex to support your project needs, from a single Project Manager, Business Analyst, Technical Advisory or PMO expert for a few days, right through to a large team of fully utilised project professionals. 

Heidi Grant, writing for HBR identifies, “research in neuroscience and psychology shows, the social threats involved—the uncertainty, risk of rejection, potential for diminished status, and inherent relinquishing of autonomy—activate the same brain regions that physical pain does. And in the workplace, where we’re typically keen to demonstrate as much expertise, competence, and confidence as possible, it can feel particularly uncomfortable to make such requests.”

My own anecdotal research leans into the idea that winter is the season where you are least likely to identify a need for and solicit help – it seems those tasked with resourcing projects are more likely to ‘hunker down and muddle through’ at this time of year.

Lorie Corcuera, a learning and development specialist, writes “When you ask for support, you maintain focus and energy … You create more FLOW making the journey fun and easy.”

6 – GET YOUR HAT AND SCARF ON AND GET OUTSIDE!!!

PM Kyle sets an alarm that goes off every 50 minutes during his working day. “I get up, put on my coat and walk out of the front door and around the building. A short blast of fresh air, perhaps feeling the sun but even a bracing wind or rain on my face perks me up.”  

Cold, wet weather doesn’t sound very enticing, but for Kyle it is game changing. Wrapping up warm, with a cosy scarf and bobble hat, even if you just pop into the local coffee shop for a Gingerbread Frappuccino, you’ll come back to the office more refreshed, ready to work and more productive.

Important to reiterate, I’m not a doctor! Nothing here constitutes medical advice. If you are feeling really run down, stressed, overloaded, or struggling with your mental health, please talk to a mentor, a colleague, your HR team, your manager, or your GP.

If you have any tips to banish the blues, or if Stoneseed can help reduce stress levels in your team by plugging any capability or talent gaps this winter, I’d love to hear from you! Stay happy and healthy!

Sources

https://www.stoneseed.co.uk/project-management-as-a-service

https://philmaffetone.com/sun-and-brain/

https://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/08/asking-help-makes-stronger-leader/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/priceonomics/2017/12/08/when-do-people-actually-get-work-done/?sh=534dfc53742e