5 tips to become a highly effective project manager

Michelle LaBrosse
April 7, 2016

What habits do you need to develop to become a more effective project manager? Maybe you need to get more organised with your paperwork, or change how you spend your time each day to stay on-track with your projects, or shift how you respond to stressful situations.

Regardless of the kind of habit you’re trying to form, you might find that changing your day-to-day behaviour is more challenging than you expected. It may be the case that you’ve tried before to adopt this new habit, but somehow got derailed from your goal.

Before you can change any habit, you need to first know what habits you would like to adopt. To become a more effective project manager, what habit would you like to adopt to help you achieve this? Frame this in the positive rather than negative.

If you want to stop giving your employees overly negative feedback, for example, re-frame this as, “I want to give my employees five times more positive feedback as negative feedback, every day.” This re-framing makes it easier for you to recognise your progress in developing this habit, rather than only criticising yourself for slipping up.

Next, follow these five strategies for developing a new habit:

1. Set up your environment for success

Let’s say that the habit you want to adopt is to complete your most important task for the day before you do any other work (this is a habit of the most effective project managers). What changes could you make in your environment to facilitate this habit? You may find, for example, that even if you wake up fully intending to complete your most important task first, other tasks come up that distract you from your goal. After spending an hour responding to emails that came in early in the morning, you realise you’ve been derailed from your purpose and have been sucked into helping resolve other people’s problems.

Making a few simple changes in your environment can help prevent this situation. At the end of each work day, figure out the most important task you need to complete the next work day and what you’ll need to complete it, and then get these supplies ready. Close the email tab in your browser (yes, really!), and set a reminder on your phone for the next morning to silence all notifications. Unless it is absolutely imperative that you check your email first thing in the morning, you will likely have more success with adopting your habit of doing the most important task first if you concentrate on this for the first half hour of your day.

2. Don’t despair if you mess up

Especially when the habits we’re trying to adopt are challenging, it is unrealistic to think that once we’ve committed to adopting them, we’ll practice them every day without fail. Research shows that missing a day does not, in fact, have a significant impact on your ability to adopt a new habit. The crucial thing is to recover from the slip-up fast. Missing one day is acceptable, but stretching this to five days will likely hurt your ability to make your new habit part of your automatic daily activity. Leave slip-ups in the past, and focus instead on what you have to gain by sticking with your goal of developing a new habit.

3. Be patient

Be patient if the new habit still feels like a chore, even months later. Psychologist Jeremy Dean conducted original research on what it takes to make new habits and break old ones, and found that to do either almost always takes longer than the commonly held perception of 21 days. Getting to the point where practising a new habit or losing an old one feels automatic, he found, takes an average of 66 days. While adopting a simpler habit, like drinking water every day, may take less time, more complex or challenging habits will likely take 80 or more days before they feel automatic.

In learning theory, a habit is called ‘procedural knowledge’: this is where a skilled behaviour becomes automatic. I like to use the example of learning how to drive a car. At first, you must think of every step of the process, but after a few months of practice, you do not have to consciously think about each step to create the results you desire, like driving from point A to point B. If you question the the 21 days versus 66 days theory, think about getting in the car with someone who has been driving for three weeks versus two months. Who do you think will have better driving habits?

4. Tell others about your new habit

This is also called ‘accountability’.”For the purpose of creating a new habit, though, it’s not necessary to have a partner or group that really holds you accountable; what matters is that other people know about the habit you’re trying to develop, and will know if you break it. Just being aware that others will know if you don’t keep up with your habit is sufficient motivation for many people to stick with their goals.

5. Celebrate small victories

Beating yourself up for missing a day or two in the practice of your new habit is more likely to be more de-motivating than it is to be motivating. A better strategy is to keep track of how many days you’ve successfully carried out your new daily habit and reflect on what you’ve gained by adopting this habit. If the gains from adopting your new habit are less immediate, you can further motivate yourself to stick with your habit by setting up intermittent rewards for yourself, so long as you choose a reward that doesn’t break the habit! Over time, as your habit becomes a more automatic part of your daily activity, the rewards become less necessary.

Following these tips will significantly increase the likelihood that you’ll successfully adopt your new habit to become a more effective project manager. And, as with all important projects, the best time to start is NOW.

Author avatar
Michelle LaBrosse
Michelle LaBrosse (PMP) is one of the Project Management Institute's (PMI) 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World and the founder of Cheetah Learning, a former PMI Professional Development Provider of the Year. She boasts a background in engineering and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managers (OPM) program, as well as a prolific writer and educator, having authored Cheetah Negotiations, Cheetah Project Management, Cheetah Know How and Cheetah Exam Prep as well as numerous articles in publications worldwide.
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