Saving Customized Views in Project

Saving custom views is easy when you plan ahead. Modifying a built-in view and then saving it as a custom view is still easy, but it does take a few more steps.

If you set out to save a customized view to use again and again, the steps are easy:

1. Display the built-in view that’s closest to what you want, like the Detail Gantt view.

2. On the Task tab or View tab, click the bottom half of the Gantt Chart button, and then choose Save View.

3. In the Save View dialog box, name the view, for instance, C_Updating, and then click OK.

I like to add C_ at the beginning of each custom view, so they’re easy to spot in drop-down lists and in the global template.
Project creates the new view and a new table (C_Updating Table1) to go with it.

4. Now you can customize the view and table however you want.

The custom view is available to use in the future – and the original built-in view is still available.

What if you display a built-in Project view and go wild building a super-cool customized view with filters, groups, timescale settings, table columns, and formatting? THEN you realize you want your creation to be a custom view and you want the original built-in views definition back. No biggie. A few more steps get you where you want to be.

Suppose you want a view for updating tasks. You’ve displayed the built-in Tracking Gantt view, applied the In Progress Tasks filter, set the timescale to days, and added and rearranged columns in the table. Remember, when you modify a built-in view, Project saves copies of the modified view and table in your Project file (using the built-in view and table names). The global template still contains the original built-in definition of the view and table.

Here’s what you do to save the modified view as a new one and bring back the original built-in view:

1. On the View tab, click the bottom half of the Gantt Chart button (or any other view button like Task Usage or Resource Usage), and then choose Save View.

2. In the Save View dialog box, name the view, like C_TaskUpdating, and then click OK.

Just like saving a view before you add all the modifications, Project saves the new view and a new table, in this example, C_TaskUpdating for the view and C_TaskUpdating Table 1 for the table. If you have the “Automatically add new views, tables, filters, and groups to the global” option turned on (it’s in the Project Options dialog box Advanced category), Project also saves the new view and table to your global template.

3. To get the built-in view (Tracking Gantt in this example) back to its original definition, click the bottom half of the Gantt Chart button (or the appropriate view button on the View tab) and choose the built-in view.

4. Click the bottom half of the Gantt Chart button (or other view button) again. This time, on the drop-down menu, choose Reset to Default.

5. When the message appears telling you that you are about to revert to the view from your global template, click Yes.
Now, you have your new view with all its customizations, and your built-in view is back to the original definition.

Outlook Rules Rule

Microsoft Office rules can take the drudgery out of managing emails. Say you get a gazillion emails from the treasurer of the board you belong to and you want all those emails to go into a separate folder. A rule can automatically move emails from that email into the folder you specify. Even better, suppose you get emails from someone you’d rather not hear from. You can set up a rule to delete those emails straight away.

Once you’re spoiled by Outlook rules, you won’t want to work without them. If you get a new computer or use Outlook on a desktop and laptop computer, you can move your rules from one computer to another.

Let’s take a quick look at how to create a rule in Outlook 2013.

  1. In Outlook, you can select an email to grab its email address to start your rule. If you aren’t going to use an email address, skip this step.
  2. On the Home tab, in the Move section, choose Rules, and then choose Create Rule.
  3. In the Create Rule dialog box, turn on the checkboxes for the conditions you want to use. For example, if you selected an email, turn on the From [email address] checkbox. You can also turn on the “Subject contains” checkbox and type the words you want, such as “to-dos.”
  4. In the Do the following section, tell the rule what you want Outlook to do with the incoming email. For example, turn on the “Move the item to folder” checkbox, and then select the folder you want, such as To-Dos or Deleted Items (if you want it gone). If you don’t have a folder yet, in the Rules and Alerts dialog box, click New and create the folder.
  5. Click OK. At this point, a Success message box appears. To apply the rule to all existing messages, turn on the checkbox whose label starts with “run this rule now” and click OK.

Now let’s get rules over to another computer:

  1. On the Home tab, in the Move section, choose Rules, and then choose Manage Rules & Alerts.
  2. On the E-mail Rules tab, click Options (just above the Rule table).
  3. Click Export Rules.
  4. Select the folder where you want to save the rules file. In the File name box, type a name for the file.
  5. Click Save. The rules export file has an .rwz extension.


To import the rules on another computer:

  1. Copy the rules export file to that computer or make sure it’s available on the network.
  2. Open the Manage Rules & Alerts dialog box on that computer, click Options, and then click Import Rules.
  3. Select the rules export file.
  4. Click Open.

Ta-da! You’re rules are available in Outlook on this computer.

Type Faster with AutoCorrect

Does your brain produce words faster than your fingers can type? Are you tired of correcting your fat-fingered typos? Microsoft Office AutoCorrect not only fixes typing mistakes. You can take the tedium out of typing by building shortcuts for long words of phrases into AutoCorrect.

Out of the box, AutoCorrect has fixes that change misspellings like abotu into about, or replaces “:)” with a happy face. If you consistently mistype words, you can add the typo and the correct entry to AutoCorrect. That way, AutoCorrect automatically fixes it next time around. A couple of my consistent typos are cateogry and accoutn.

Why not use AutoCorrect to speed up your typing, too? When I’m working on a QuickBooks book, I use phrases like dialog box, dialog boxes, financial institution, and “On the Home Page, click Create Invoices” a gazillion times. But I don’t have to type them out every time. I create AutoCorrect entries for phrases like those, and let it do the heavy lifting. When I type dbx, AutoCorrect changes it to dialog box. Dbxs turns into dialog boxes. Finin expands to financial institution. And hpci bursts out into On the Home Page, click Create Invoices.

By the way (AutoCorrect shortcut btw), when you set up AutoCorrect entries, they work in Word, Excel, Outlook, and so on. Try it. I think you’ll like it.

Here’s how to create AutoCorrect entries:

  1. On the File menu, choose Options, and then choose Proofing.
  2. In the Word Options dialog box, click the AutoCorrect Options button.
  3. In the AutoCorrrect dialog box, type your shortcut in the Replace box.
  4. Type the expanded phrase in the With box.
  5. Add additional entries it you want.
  6. When you’re done adding entries, click OK to close the AutoCorrect dialog box.

AutoCorrect entries

That’s it! The only downside is when you work on someone else’s computer and dbx stubbornly refuses to expand.

If you get a new computer, it won’t have all your AutoCorrect entries. No problem! You can copy a file with your AutoCorrect entries to another computer. The hard part is knowing where to look for the AutoCorrect file.

It’s in C:\Users\<your user name>\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Office. The file you want for English is MSO1033.acl. All you have to do is copy that file onto a thumb drive, plug the drive into the other computer, and copy it into the same folder on the other computer. (If you’re copying to a brand new computer, overwriting the file is perfectly OK. If you overwrite a file that already has custom AutoCorrect entries, those entries are gone.)

Working with Multiple Project Baselines

I wrote a guest post about multiple project baselines for Erik Van Hurck’s blog, The Project Corner. Follow the link to learn about the contest we’re running: we’re giving away two copies of my books. Here’s the post:

A baseline is the key to staying on top of where your project is compared to where it should be. When you set a baseline in Project (you can set up to 11), the program takes a snapshot of schedule and cost values, which you can then use to see how current values compare to what you originally planned. What can you do with Project’s baselines? And how do you view them when you have more than one?

Saving more than one baseline comes in handy in several situations. Suppose you incorporate a big change request into your project plan. Keeping your original baseline is a good idea, especially when you want to answer stakeholder questions about why the big difference from the original dates and cost. At the same time, you can use the new baseline with the change request to track performance for the plan with the change request in place.

An additional baseline might be called for when a project experiences other types of changes: stakeholders dramatically increase or decrease the project scope or a higher priority project puts yours temporarily on hold. The original baseline values no longer produce meaningful variances, so you need a new baseline that reflects the revised schedule and cost.

Multiple baselines can also help document trends over time. Suppose your project has fallen behind schedule and you implement a recovery strategy. You can keep the original baseline, but set a new one using the values in place before you start the recovery. That way, you can compare your original variances to recovery variances to see whether your course correction is helping. Another way to evaluate trends is to add baselines at key points in a project, such as at every fiscal quarter or perhaps at the end of each phase.

Setting Multiple Baselines

If you’re going to use multiple baselines, it’s a good idea to store a second copy of your original baseline, for example, to Baseline 1 fields. That way, you have a copy of the original baseline for posterity. At the same time, you can keep your most recent baseline in Project’s Baseline fields, so it’s easy to see the variances from your most recent baseline in the default Variance fields.

Here’s how to set multiple baselines while easily keeping track of variances for the most recent one:

  1. Head to the Project tab’s Schedule section, and choose Set Baseline –> Set Baseline. The Set Baseline dialog box opens.
  2. In the “Set baseline” drop-down list, save your first baseline by choosing Baseline1.
  3. Make sure the “Entire project” option is selected. This option saves baseline values for the entire project, which is what you want the first time around.
  4. Click OK. Project stores the current values for start, finish, duration, work, and cost in the corresponding fields, such as Baseline1 Start, Baseline1 Finish, Baseline1 Duration, Baseline1 Work, and Baseline1 Cost.
  5. Immediately repeat steps 1 through 4 to save the original baseline a second time, but this time as Baseline.

When you open the Set Baseline dialog box after saving at least one baseline, the “Set baseline” drop-down list shows the last saved date for the baseline. For example, baselines that have been set have “(last saved on mm/dd/yy)” appended to the end of their names, where mm/dd/yy is the last saved date for that baseline.

If you try to set a baseline that has already been saved, Project warns you that the baseline has been used and asks if you want to overwrite it. Click Yes to overwrite the baseline’s existing values (for example, if you’ve used up all 11 baselines and want to reuse an older one). If you don’t want to overwrite it, click No, and then, back in the Set Baseline dialog box, select a different baseline.

When you’re ready to save another baseline, here’s what you do:

  1. In the Project tab’s Schedule section, choose Set Baseline –>Set Baseline.
  2. In the “Set baseline” drop-down list, choose Baseline2 to permanently save the second baseline. Make sure the “Entire project” option is selected, and then click OK.
  3. Immediately save the current project schedule again as Baseline. That way, The Variance fields like Start Variance, Finish Variance, and Cost Variance show the variances between your current values and those for your most recent baseline.

Note: For each additional baseline, save the project schedule once as Baseline and once as the next empty baseline.

Viewing Multiple Baselines

When you want to compare your current progress to your most recent baseline, Tracking Gantt view is perfect. It shows colored task bars for the current schedule above gray task bars for the baseline start and finish dates.

A Tracking gantt view with one baseline

However, if you save more than one baseline, you may want to view them simultaneously so you can compare performance from one to the next. Multiple Baselines Gantt view displays different color task bars for Baseline, Baseline 1, and Baseline 2. To display this view, in the View tab’s Task Views section, choose Other Views –>More Views. In the More Views dialog box, double-click Multiple Baselines Gantt. Multiple Baselines Gantt shows task bars for only Baseline, Baseline1, and Baseline2. It doesn’t display task bars for the current schedule.

A Gantt chart with multiple baselines visible

To see different baselines or more baselines, you can modify your view in several ways. From the ribbon, you can display any baseline you want in any Gantt Chart view. Display the Gantt Chart view you want and then choose the Format tab. In the Bar Styles section, click the Baseline down arrow, and then choose the baseline you want to display. For example, if you display Tracking Gantt view, by default it uses Baseline for the baseline task bars. However, if you choose Baseline2 in the Format tab’s Bar Styles Baseline menu, the baseline task bars reflect Baseline2’s dates.

But what if you want a view to show task bars for Baseline1 through Baseline4 to evaluate trends over time? In that case, you can modify the view definition to do just that.

  1. Copy Multiple Baselines Gantt view and give it a name like FourBaselines. (With Multiple Baselines Gantt view displayed, in the View tab’s Task Views section, choose Other Views –>More Views. In the More Views dialog box, click Copy, type a new name in the Name box, and then click OK. Back in the More Views dialog box, click Close.
  2. On the Gantt Chart Tools | Format tab, in the Bar Styles section, click Format –>Bar Styles. The Bar Styles dialog box opens.
  3. Select the row for the task bar you want to duplicate (for example, Baseline2), and then click Cut Row.
  4. Before you do anything else, click Paste Row to insert the cut row back where it was originally.
  5. Select the row below where you want to insert the copied row, and then click Paste Row again. Project inserts another copy of the row immediately above the row you selected.
  6. Edit the new row’s Name, From, and To cells to match the baseline you want to show. For example, to display Baseline3, change the name to include Baseline3, and then, in the From and To cells, choose Baseline3 Start and Baseline3 Finish, respectively.
  7. On the Bars tab in the lower half of the Bar Styles dialog box, choose the shape and color you want for the bar. Baseline1, Baseline2, and Baseline3 already use red, blue, and green, so choose a color like teal, orange, or purple. In the Shape box, choose a top, middle, or bottom narrow bar.
  8. If you’re including more than three baselines in Multiple Baselines Gantt view, you have to add a second task bar row to the view. In the Bar Styles dialog box, in the task bar’s Row cell, type 2 to tell Project to place the baseline’s task bar on a second row in the Gantt Chart.
  9. Repeat steps 3 through 8 to create task bars for split, milestone, and summary tasks for the baseline.

Here’s what the bar styles definitions look like when you add another baseline to the view:

Picture of the barstyles for baselines

And here’s what the view looks like with more than three sets of baseline bars.

The multiple baseline gantt chart with an explanation of the bars

What About Interim Plans?

The Set Baseline dialog box has a second option: “Set interim plan.” Unlike Project baselines, interim plans save only start and finish dates, not duration, cost, and work. Interim plans are a holdover from earlier Project versions, when the program offered only one baseline.

Even with the 11 baselines that Project now offers, interim plans may come in handy. If you import a project schedule from Project 2002 and earlier (it could happen), any additional baseline information ends up in interim plan fields (Start1/Finish1 through Start10/Finish10). You can copy that data from the interim plan Start and Finish fields (Start2/Finish2, for example) into baseline fields like Baseline2.You can also save interim plans as partial baselines in between the full baselines you save.

Don’t forget: for a chance to win a copy of one of my books, visit Erik Van Hurck’s blog, The Project Corner.

Git ‘em done!

todo_listAt a recent work reunion lunch, two of my former colleagues looked at me sheepishly as they confessed that they hadn’t made any progress on their respective book ideas since the last time we met. Yeah, like I get everything done that I intend to…but their confessions did make me reflect on some of my self-motivational tricks.

Sometimes, my workload looks like an unfortunate wild pig in an anaconda’s belly (except that, unlike the snake, I don’t get to rest for weeks afterward without additional input). My ability to chew through work isn’t due to genius, drugs, output of minions, or Santeria spells. Deadlines are a huge motivator for me and, hooboy, do publishers have deadlines.

However, I also have a few tricks that help me git ‘em done. If some of your New Year’s resolutions are starting to smell overly ripe, maybe one of these techniques will help.

1. Break a big project down into pieces.

Big projects can be scary: write a book, revamp a website, end world hunger, stop the zombie apocalypse.

Don’t let the big picture paralyze you. Take a sledgehammer to a big project and break it into pieces that aren’t scary. You don’t have to do everything at once. You don’t even have to build a plan in one sitting!

  • Start by jotting down what you know about your project.
  • Write down what you don’t know but need to find out.
  • Any time you think of something else (a task, goal, result, and so on), add it to your notes. (Use your favorite tool to store this stuff: a word processing document, spreadsheet, a spiral bound notebook, an electronic notepad, whatever.)
  • Once you have some manageable project to-dos, add them to your to-do list (read tip #2 for the how-to).

Hint: If you aren’t ready to tackle a big project, don’t force it. Add an entry for the entire project to your to-do list (tip #2), so you don’t forget about it. If the project is something you can’t put off, like preparing your tax return, then hammer away (and give yourself small rewards after you finish each small step).

Here’s how I tackled modernizing my web site (which, by the way, had been on my list for about four years). I was a tad overwhelmed by what’s changed online since I first set up my website: Web 2.0, search engine optimization, responsive web pages, and so on. So I started by finding someone to help me. I have a lot of friends with web pages, so I asked around. Scott Baird ( was the unlucky, but very competent soul I chose to work with.

A few phone calls and emails were all it took to come up with project to-dos: choose a Word Press template, plan the new layout, build the site, add content, review, test, and tweak. Scott recommended a few templates to consider (out of tens of thousand), so that step wasn’t too bad.

My next to-do was more involved: I had a good idea of the web pages I wanted, but I needed to figure out how I wanted each page laid out and gather the content for each one. I tackled this task one web page at a time. It went something like this:

  • Create a Word document for my notes.
  • Add a heading for a page.
  • Write up notes about the page layout.
  • Edit the notes.
  • A sip of wine.
  • Edit the notes some more.
  • Another sip of wine.
  • Copy existing content into the file.
  • Track down links to insert.
  • Another sip of wine.
  • Find the images to include, copy them to a folder, and add the image filenames to the doc.
  • Some more wine.
  • Continue until too tired, bored, or tipsy to do more.
  • Rinse and repeat on following days until all the pages were done.

I used the same technique for my review. Small doses of reviewing each page and documenting the changes needed. Scott made a lot of the changes initially. As the tweaking continued, I edited more so I learned how to maintain my site.

All told, it took about three weeks — an hour or two each day — to complete the work. If you’re trying to cut back on your wine consumption, the next tip shows you how to coax yourself into gittin’ your to-dos done.

2. Pester yourself.

Have you ever been harried by someone impatiently waiting for you? A small child in a snowsuit in desperate need of a bathroom, for example. You do whatever it takes to get them out of your hair, off your back, or out of your back hair for that matter.  Keeping to-dos in view is one way to apply that same kind of pressure. You may be surprised how much you get done just for the sake of shortening that list.

The reminder tool I use is a Windows 7 electronic sticky note on my computer monitor. I throw everything into one note that sits at my primary monitor’s top-right: work, personal, important non-urgent stuff, honey-dos without a honey to do them, and fun stuff like learning Italian, playing the accordion, or training the neighborhood mountain lion to fetch. (Only one of these fun things is on my actual to-do list.)

I add, delete, revise, and rearrange to-dos as often as I want. I move to-dos with looming deadlines closer to the top of the list. The ones at the top tickle my attention: “Hey! How about now?” I sometimes knock out a simple to-do, because crossing something off my list gives me a boost of energy, which can kick-start a tougher to-do. I delete to-dos when they’re done (or I decide I don’t need to do them anymore).

Remember tip #1 and those projects that aren’t ready for primetime? Put them in the bottom half of the list. They might sit there a while like my website modernization. I scan the entire list several times a day, and eventually, those projects’ time will come.

What if you aren’t chained to your computer? Take a photo of your sticky note to-do list with your smartphone. If you have some spare time while you’re out and about, dig into one of your assignments, which leads into the next tip…

3. Carry a notepad at all times.

Reporters and cops carry notepads and you should, too. If you remember something you forgot to add to your list, write it down. If the perfect chapter opener comes to you, write it down. If you’re in line at the department of motor vehicles, write a whole damn chapter.

For something really quick like that perfect chapter opener, turn on your phone’s voice recorder and record it. A notepad app on a smartphone will do in a pinch. My issue with smartphone notes is that typing intelligible notes on a phone keyboard demands so much concentration I might forget some of what I wanted to document.

4. Get colleagues to apply pressure.

Let’s get back to my former colleagues who were embarrassed by their lack of progress. I wasn’t calling them every week asking “How’s it going? Are you done yet?” But they felt guilty about not making progress, because they had told me about their plans. Committing publicly to goals can be a powerful motivator.

If you aren’t living at home with your mother keeping after you to get things done, invite cohorts to help. It’s a win-win. Everyone in the group feels peer pressure to do what they told the group they would do. (Face-to-face is ideal, but Google Hangouts, conference calls, and even email exchanges can work, too.)

Each person commits to goals and timeframes. Then, at meetings, each person talks about what they’ve done, what they haven’t done, and what they’re going to do about it. Another plus, members can help each other get unstuck by answering questions, making suggestions, or holding an intervention.

OK, enough. *My* to-do list is peeking from behind my document window and I feel the urge to get something done.

The Gravitational Pull of a Caloric Black Hole

I was going to talk about how to get things done for my first post of the year, but 2014 is when I balance work and fun. So I’m starting things off with a tale of the calorically dense foodie delight that I cooked on New Year’s Day: Butternut Squash Duck Confit Wraps with Brown Butter Sage Sauce.

Several years ago, I had ravioli filled with butternut squash and duck confit, and I’ve been salivating over them ever since. I had some duck confit in the freezer left over from last year’s duck cassoulet. So I decided to give the ravioli a try.

Fat overload #1. I tracked down a butternut squash ravioli recipe.  (I have become a huge fan of Emeril Lagasse. I’ve made quite a few of the recipes he’s posted on the Food Network and they are all fabulous.) The pureed butternut squash is to die for. It has heavy cream, Parmagiano-Reggiano grated cheese, and butter, so it’s delicious, although not particularly healthy.

Fat overload #2. I thawed the duck confit, shredded it, and fried it until it was nice and crispy.

Fat overload #3. The brown butter sage sauce. I grow sage in my balcony garden each summer and then freeze the leaves in September. This sauce is also great on salmon. I like to cook the sage leaves until they’re crispy.

I still don’t have a pasta maker or a ravioli tray. But I did have chapati bread in the freezer. So, I lightly toasted some chapati in a frying pan, then added some squash and confit, rolled them up, and dipped them in the sage sauce. Yummmm.

I know. I know. It’s time to cleanse. Keep this recipe on hand for a special occasion.

The Trouble with Assumptions

I was writing about assumptions for a project management training course and struggling to think of a good example. Fast forward to the first day of a vacation when I stressfully experienced a great example of an assumption and the trouble it can cause.

With two flights, an overnight in Toronto, immigration, and customs, I opted for carry-on luggage. No baggage fees and faster — or so I assumed.

luggageAt the entrance to the jetway, the attendant handed me a gate check tag. I attached the tag to my roller bag, placed it on the cart, and got on the plane without another thought. I assumed the bag was traveling a mere 50 feet from the cart to the belly of the plane and then, in Toronto, would travel another 50 feet from the belly of the plane to my waiting hand on a different jetway.

A few hours later, the baggage handler finished tossing gate-checked bags onto the jetway and I stood there with a disappointed look on my face instead of a roller bag handle in my hand.

I headed for the baggage carousel. Maybe the bag got mixed in with the checked bags. Nope. My only consolation was that several other people were missing luggage as well. Visions of X-Files-esque conspiracies arose. Hmmm. Maybe the airline came up with a different solution to the weight restriction problem they had on the flight…Pull a passenger off or temporarily inconvenience a few passengers with delayed luggage?

As I spoke to the airline folks and filled out a form, I kicked myself about my erroneous assumption. Each person I spoke to asked for the gate check stub. When I admitted I didn’t have it, these people shared the same reaction – a slow, sad shake of the head accompanied by a quiet “That’s going to make it tough.” I felt like an idiot. Then, I wondered whether I had an ID tag on the bag.

At the Toronto airport, this disaster cost about an hour and a half. More annoying, I was on a rare vacation, but stuck in project manager mode. What to buy? Should I rent a car so it’s easier to shop? Shopping for clothes will take more time and cost money—and I HATE to shop.

What makes assumptions so dangerous is that they lull us into thinking things are fine when they might not be; or lead us to believe that we should proceed one way when we should go the other. In many cases, the assumptions and subsequent choices pass by in a moment, so we don’t even realize that there is something to consider.

What can we do to identify assumptions and get them out in the open?

  • Pay attention.
  • Ask questions.
  • What’s happening?
  • Are there other ways to look at the situation?
  • How do you see this process working?
  • How about you?
  • And you?
  • Has something changed?
  • Do my plans still make sense?
  • What are the risks?
  • Are there consequences?

Luckily, this story had a happy ending. When I arrived, I was ready with a list and set to buy a bare minimum to see me through the week. But first, I had to file a delayed baggage report. As I walked toward the baggage counter, my eyes caught on before my brain. There, waiting with several other bags, was my wayward roller bag with a RUSH tag attached.

It’s Just a Plan

Plans are nothing; planning is everything. — Dwight D. Eisenhower

Project managers love to plan. Sometimes even the best project managers fall in love with their plans. When they get too committed to those plans, however, they lose the ability to respond nimbly to the curve balls thrown in every project. Nimbleness is one of the key tools in a project manager’s toolkit.

curveballThe ephemeral nature of plans is easy to remember on large projects. But an overzealous adherence to a plan can sneak up at any time. I ended up clinging irrationally to a plan I made for one of my projects, ironically, recording movies for one of my courses, Managing Small Projects.

I had constructed a tight schedule for myself. I was juggling several small projects: finishing work on QuickBooks 2013: The Missing Manual, recording my course, a conference for my fiction writing, and some fun to sharpen the saw. Here’s what it looked like:

Sept 6: Finish author review for QuickBooks 2013: The Missing Manual.

Sept 7-9: Attend Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference

Sept 9: Fly to California

Sept 10-12: Record Managing Small Projects course at’s studio in Carpinteria.

Sept 13: Fly home and go to Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers meeting.

Sept 14-16: Drive to Steamboat Springs and carouse with friends.

But things didn’t go as I had envisioned. (A fun example of plans getting derailed is a classic Preston Sturges movie, Unfaithfully Yours.)

Sunday morning, September 9, I was pestered by a slight dry cough. By Monday morning, I was in California and the cough had transformed into a sore throat, hacking cough, and what I think is called post-nasal drip. We spent five grim hours recording atrociously nasal and unenergetic audio voiceovers.

After twelve hours of sleep and a lot of cough and cold medicine, I went in Tuesday morning, and the recordings were even worse. By 10:30 am, my producer got out the hook and yanked me off the microphone. He asked me if I could stay an extra day or two. My initial response was “I can’t! I have all these things I need to do.” After all, I had a plan, a schedule to follow…But I went back to the hotel, rested up, and got another marathon night of sleep.

Wednesday morning, I felt a little better, sounded much better, and my brain was working again. I realized that the Mystery Writers meeting wasn’t a must-do–as much as I wanted to be there. What’s more, with the drubbing the cold was giving me, I wouldn’t be doing much carousing over the weekend either. The project manager in me had re-awoken. I told my producer that I could stay to record the course. (We actually started over from the beginning; and it was so much better the second time around.)

I even came up with a revised plan that accomplished some nice-to-haves I didn’t expect. I suggested that I fly home on Saturday so we didn’t have to guess when we would finish on Friday. Then, I could also visit friends who live in LA. Sure enough, we recorded Wednesday, Thursday, and wrapped up mid-day Friday. I drove to LA, caught up with my friends Friday night, and had a shorter drive to the airport Saturday morning.

In the case of my head cold, Helmuth von Motke the Elder’s planning quote might be the most appropriate: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. While my original plan didn’t survive contact with a cold, the revised plan resulted in much better recordings and a wonderful visit with friends I thought I wouldn’t see.

Even though it’s “just a plan,” a plan is still essential to every project. Plans are meant to change, and part of the challenge (and fun) of a project manager’s job is to think of those curve balls as opportunities to respond well and perhaps even achieve something better.

Productivity Hack #6. All I Have To Do Is…

In project management, a work breakdown structure conveys the work behind project scope; aids estimating, assigning work, and tracking progress; and more. Breaking work down can also act as a hack for getting started (or unstuck) in smaller assignments or personal projects.

bulldozer in landfillSuppose you’re facing a task that seems overwhelming, never-ending, or downright tedious and unappealing. The typical response is to find reasons to procrastinate. Instead, you can apply the “All I Have To Do Is” hack to break down work into pieces that are so small that it’s easy to talk yourself into doing them.

Try it. Say “All I have to do is” and fill in a name for a really small chunk of work. Do that a few times and before you know it, the entire task will be done and you’ll feel great.

Here’s a personal example of this hack in real life:

The task:

Here in Colorado, wildfires have been consuming forests and homes like, well, wildfire. I can’t control whether a fire starts near me, but I can take steps to prepare for disaster. (Risk management in action, but that’s a topic for another post.) So, I decided to prepare a new inventory of my belongings and store irreplaceable items someplace safe. Preparing a household inventory is not something I enjoy.

The procrastination:

First, I did some research on house inventory programs. But someone as nerdy as me doesn’t need inventory software. How else could I procrastinate? Suddenly, my work assignments took on new appeal. This deadline, that deadline. Wait, I’ve got it! How about a new project? Isn’t it time I finally sell the stuff that’s been gathering dust for years?

After years as a professional freelancer, I can recognize the signs of procrastination.

All I Have To Do Is — Step 1:

I identified the first small “All I Have To Do Is” step, which was to take photographs of everything in my front hallway and document them in a spreadsheet. My front hallway has a coat closet, a rug, and a couple of things hanging on the wall. After five minutes, I had seven photos and a spreadsheet with descriptions and the corresponding digital photo filenames.

Gosh, that wasn’t so bad. So, I moved on to the powder room and another hallway. Easy-peasy.

All I Have To Do Is — Step 2:

Knowing when to take a break is key to this hack. It’s important to stop before the overwhelming feeling returns. The next space in my house’s floor plan is the kitchen and pantry. I’m a foodie. I have lots of gadgets, spices, cookbooks, and other cooking stuff. I took one look and could feel my motivation draining. I stopped.

All I Have To Do Is — Step 3:

After some time passes — a few hours or a few days, at the most — it’s time to say with renewed vigor “All I have to do is…” I finished the pantry and my cookbook shelves. I still felt inspired, so I got through about half of the kitchen cabinets. Mind you, I did not add individual entries for every kitchen gadget I own.

The results:

After three days of this hack, the contents of my house and garage were recorded in photographs and a spreadsheet (which, by the way, are stored on the cloud and on an external drive in my safe deposit box.) I packed up the irreplaceable items as I encountered them and took them to a friend’s house for safekeeping. I also had photos of items I wanted to sell, posted them on craigslist and eBay, and discovered to my delight that people really did want to buy the crap, er, fine wares that I didn’t want any more. The icing on the cake was when my homeowner’s insurance agent told me that I inspired her to do her own inventory.

I feel great and motivated to get more off my to-do list.

A Cautionary Tale: When Good Communication Goes Off Track

Good communication is important on the smallest of projects. My co-author Jim Ewing and I were in the middle of a very small project: designing the cover of the comedic thriller we wrote. Things were chugging along when suddenly design elements were in a big messy pile like the catch of the day. As our protagonist, Juice Verrone, would say: “Is this some kind of a joke?” Sadly, no. Our project was derailed (temporarily) by poor communication.

Here’s how it all started. Jim and I decided to use a design competition web site, The project started down a familiar path. When Jim created the competition, he posted information that sounds a lot like a project summary: a book cover design that would work in color and grayscale for both print and eBook (the goal and scope rolled into one), the price level (the budget,) a description of the novel’s plot, ideas we had, a sketch I had drawn (requirements of sorts).

The design competition has a process, which we followed. During the first round, people submitted designs. Jim and I discussed the entries, provided feedback, and received revised designs. We rinsed and repeated over the several days of round one. It was all very agile. Round two was similar, although our feedback became more specific and detailed.

Several of the designers were from other countries. This international competition was a crash course in communication issues due to cultural, geographical, publishing, and other differences. Who knew book spines run in different directions in different countries? It was also interesting to see how our novel got renamed by non-native American English speakers. The book title, “Fresh Squeezed,” morphed into  the grammatically correct Freshly Squeezed on a few entries.

We picked a winner and explained that the real work was now beginning. We were going to work with the winner’s basic design and iterate to the final cover. This is when things got shaky. We made specific requests but the results that came back seemed to be further off-track. Colors that had been correct in previous iterations were suddenly wildly off base.

Jim was the point person so he tried reducing the number of changes in each iteration. He asked the designer to go back to an earlier revision that had the colors we wanted. But the results were still off.

Jim and I were confused and frustrated. Then I thought of a technique that Stephen Covey recommends. Instead of descending deeper into micro-management, I suggested he say “Help me to understand why we are having problems with the colors.” Turns out that the three-dimensional fish on the cover was created in one program. Then the colors and other effects were added in a second program followed by some clean-up steps. And finally that polished image goes into the book cover file. Every time we asked for a change to the fish, she had to jump through all those hoops (with the potential for glitches.) No surprise, those steps took her quite a bit of time–for every individual request we made.

Fresh Squeezed cook coverUnderstanding her process clarified the situation and led the way to a more effective change management approach. We worked on the fish without color effects to get its shape and facial expression right. Then, moved on to applying the color — once. With the fish complete, we could move on to the other elements of the cover. Finally, when all the elements were finalized, she laid them out on the book cover.

All along, we felt like we were communicating. But messages weren’t getting across. When we went from brainstorming into “production,” we were really moving from an early project phase (completed prototype or proof of concept) into project execution. We should have taken some time to plan how we were going to work, ask the designer questions about her process and how we could work with her most effectively.

The moral of this story: communication is crucial and requires careful planning, followed by care and feeding–even in small projects like our book cover. Remote or multicultural (or multi-anything) teams complicate the process. Finally, we can learn a lot about managing big projects from small projects we perform every day, which brings us back around to the importance of lessons learned!