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Take Five

Some percentage of project managers can focus all their time and attention on a single project. But for the vast majority of us, juggling multiple efforts simultaneously is the norm. And sometimes, the flurry of activity can cause us to become overwhelmed or lose sight of what we need to focus on. In a perfect world, we would collectively do such a nice job planning, anticipating, and preparing for risks and issues, and adequately resourcing our initiatives, that everything would run like clockwork. 

But ours, my friends, is not a perfect world. 

 While we do have to spend a good deal of time and energy planning for success, we also must stay in control - monitoring, directing, driving, and managing project activities along the's why they call us Project Managers, not project planners. Sometimes it feels like everything happens at once, and we don't have time to catch our breath or truly focus on what we should be doing. Many of us might find ourselves in that boat now. Maybe with several projects or efforts in flight, each of them needing something, and we’re not quite sure how to give them our proper focus. 

Allow me to share this brief, simple, easy-to-remember exercise that might be useful for such a scenario. 


Take Five...Times Five. 

Five steps, five minutes each.  

Who among us can't spare 25 minutes to take a deep breath and get re-focused? 

Before getting started, we will need a pen and paper, as well as a timer of some sort - something that forces us to move on to the next activity after exactly 5 minutes. Sort of like speed dating, for this exercise we either make it work in the first few minutes, or we don't get it at all. 


1. First, take 5 minutes to list out the areas of our projects that we currently feel are out of alignment with where we want them to be. 

Write at least 3 statements that look something like this: "A" is preventing "B".  

It could be that we're waiting on a decision, we haven't found the time to do something, we're waiting on input or action from someone else, or that a project issue that requires immediate attention is preventing us from focusing on things that will be due shortly. Essentially, it's anything that's currently standing between where we are and where we want to be. 


  • The lack of decisions from a steering committee is preventing project X from having clear forward direction. 
  • Excessive absenteeism in project Y is preventing the team from collaborating and delivering results. 
  • Unpublished meeting minutes from the last meeting are preventing some team members from knowing what they're supposed to be doing. 

The idea is, in 5 minutes of silence, to write down the problems and the pain they're causing as efficiently as we can - using the things that are top of mind. By identifying the problems, we can narrow our focus and the scope of our efforts in the future.  


2. Second, take 5 minutes to prioritize them in order of importance.

Consider their urgency and magnitude and consider how much they are impacting any of our projects, the priority of the project itself, and how painful they will be to fix. The idea here is to find our top three barriers - the three things that are most important for us to resolve first. If we have too many items of focus, we run the risk of being overwhelmed. Too few, and we may miss an opportunity to grab low-hanging fruit or deliver value on multiple fronts. Look for about three if possible. 


3. Next, take 5 minutes to brainstorm resolutions, action items that could help us move those barriers. 

Don't evaluate, just document. I'm totally serious here. I don’t think rejecting ideas as improbable or unrealistic is helpful here, rather we should just allow ourselves to freely jot down every possible solution option we can. With just 5 minutes and about three problems to solve, you can only spend just over a minute on each. We shouldn’t waste that valuable time critiquing our own thoughts - just let them flow and fill themselves out. 


4. Then, take 5 minutes to evaluate and prioritize our action item list.

(See, I gave you five whole minutes to do this - aren't you glad you didn't limit yourself in step 3?)  

Review the action items list we just made, toss out the ones that aren't viable, and then evaluate the rest based on the benefits, effort drawbacks, sequence, etc, to put them in rough order.  

Consider things like: 

  • Can you do them on your own or do they require help from someone else? 
  • Will they take minutes, hours, or days? 
  • Do you have the tools, skills, resources (besides time!) at your disposal to get them done? 
  • Will they really help move that barrier? 
  • At this point, if you realize we've got improbable or unrealistic ideas, cross them out or put them at the bottom of the list. 

In fairness, there's another philosophy that says don't bother putting something on a list of to-dos if we can get it done faster than we can write it down. But once we're in an overwhelmed state, we've got to focus on what really needs our attention, and we likely don't have even those precious few minutes to spend doing something that's not our highest priority. Hence: The written list. 


5. Finally, take 5 minutes to hammer out the biggest obstacles within ourselves to those action items we’ve prioritized in step 4. 

We know them instinctively, and we can do something about them right now. If getting started is what's holding us back, then define the first step we need to take and take it. If time is what's stopping us, then block the time on our calendar – we can cancel or postpone something less urgent if we must. If we don't have what we need to get something done, ask for it from someone who can help us get it. If we haven't asked for something from someone else because we don't want to offend them or come across with a different tone or message than we intended, then draft the bullet points of our message and get immediate help from someone we know who excels at communication.

We can use these 5 minutes to remove our excuses. From there, we can act to remove the barriers we've created, and then start tackling our action list in priority order. 

25 minutes to ourselves, prioritizing, organizing, and getting back in doesn’t sound so bad, does it? By blocking our time out, we can give ourselves the 25 minutes we need to organize the rest of our day. If you want to try this method out but need any clarification, please reach out! We’re always happy to help! 

Topics: Sinikka Waugh, Business Skills & Business Acumen, Project Management & Business Analysis

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

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