See all articles in the series: How to Get Organized at Work →
How to Start a Project and Actually Finish It
Most articles about how to start a project tell you to first build an elaborate plan. You’ve seen them: complicated Gantt charts or burndown charts that make you want to run in the opposite direction.
These charts aren't as effective as people think. They fail to…
- Move projects forward on their own (because even without a chart, you'll be sending out reminders).
- Stay up to date — unless you want to spend hours tweaking a document that no one looks at.
- Actually create behavioral change for you or your team.
That last point is worth a re-read. You don't want to force anyone (including yourself) into hate-finishing a project. You want it to feel easy and fun. That only happens when you have the right behaviors in place.
This article will show you how to start a project, but more importantly, how to finish it. Here's the process:
- Set clear expectations and gather collaborators
- Prioritize tasks and shut down distractions
- Use good habits and tools to get your project to the finish line
You might be thinking, If it’s that easy, what’s my problem?
It’s not you. Humans tend to overestimate how much we can do. Funnily enough, we might get it all done if we could just focus. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, found that we’re truly focused on our work just six hours per week.
But behavioral change is within reach. It’s a system, and these steps will help you get on board and finish the projects you start.
P.S. About that complex project plan…while documenting your project is important, the plan can be as simple as a Google Doc. More important is keeping your project docs and research organized and within reach, since those tabs and docs are where work actually happens. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
1. Start with guardrails — and friends
Running a successful project is great for your career, even if the project itself isn't your favorite. Sometimes this leads to you guarding your project and making sure other people can’t get too close. That’s a mistake.
Start by inviting people in — people who also care about the project’s success. They’ll hold you accountable, call out biases and assumptions, and help you celebrate wins. Usually, these people are your manager, your teammates, or both.
If you don't have this environment at work, consider finding an outside collaborator to share your progress with. Look in Slack communities, subreddits, or your personal network.
The key conversations to have with your team are:
- What do we expect from each other as collaborators? As project leads?
- What does success look like? Is there such a thing as catastrophic success or failure on this project, and how would we deal with it?
- When will we check in with each other? What needs to be delivered on those dates?
Document these answers to keep you honest and give you a handy reference for later.
2. Prioritize your work & limit distractions
After setting expectations with your collaborators, it’s time to make progress toward your deliverables. Feeling excited, you have a good breakfast, sit down with your coffee, and…get distracted on Twitter.
Or your time-wasting site of choice.
If you work in the browser, this is common but not inevitable. Later we’ll show you how to handle distracting tabs, but for now, let’s talk about prioritization. Career coach Lea McLeod calls it the most essential skill that nobody talks about.
Let’s assume you have a plan for the day. If not, it’s as simple as sitting down with a notebook for 5 minutes and writing down the three most important things you want to get done that day. (Source)
Make sure those three tasks will have a direct impact on your project. As Lea points out:
“The Pareto Principle suggests that 20% of your tasks produce 80% of your results — and that means that a small fraction of your daily work deserves the majority of your attention. The point isn’t to get it all done — it’s to get the most important work done.”
That means saying no to time-wasting meetings, tasks that someone else is best suited for, and online articles or discussions that don’t get us closer to completing our project.
Phrases to identify and limit scope creep
Whether other people are trying to tack on extra tasks to your project (also known as scope creep), or asking for unrelated work, saying no is surprisingly easy with the right phrases:
- If working with clients: I can draw up a separate contract for that.
- If responding to a supervisor’s request: I’m working on Project X right now. How would you prioritize this in relation to it?
- If responding to a teammate’s request: Let’s look at the project plan and see if this fits in.
Saying no to your own bad habits can be much harder, especially if you work in the browser. The internet is run on clicks, and marketers have all kinds of tools to grab our attention. You’re doomed to get distracted, right?
Not if you redesign your habits.
3. Organize docs & tame tabs
Projects are driven by habits. Whether you want to eliminate bad habits (like getting distracted by a random article) or create good habits (such as keeping your project work neatly organized), it won’t happen by accident. You need to follow a system.
BJ Fogg has spent his career studying and teaching behavior change — what makes people do the things they do. You can learn more in his book Tiny Habits, or check out the free 5-day program for Tiny Habits. Here’s his evidence-based system for building or breaking habits:
- Pick an anchor event that will remind you to do your tiny habit. Something that you’re already doing every day is perfect.
- Select a tiny habit that ladders up to your larger aspiration. It’s important to keep it tiny, so you stick with it. Don’t worry, your habit will grow as long as you follow the next step.
- Celebrate each time you do your tiny habit. How you celebrate is completely up to you.
Combine Tiny Habits with Workona
Now you have the blueprint for creating better habits — but you still need the right tool.
Workona helps you manage tabs and organize important research and documents for your project. With keyboard shortcuts and an intuitive interface, you can build powerful habits, fast. Just follow the Tiny Habits recipe.
Tiny Habits recipe
After I [your anchor], I will do [tiny habit that ladders up to a new behavior you truly want]
Example recipe in Workona
You can adjust the recipe in Workona. For example:
After I [open a tab related to my projects], I will [save it to the correct workspace using the shortcut Opt + D].
Simple, right? You can build recipes in Workona to keep your project documents organized, get distracting tabs out of your sight, and stay in flow while you work on your projects.
4. The final step: Feeling good
You might be tempted to skip the last step of the Tiny Habits method: celebration. Maybe you feel silly, or you think it’s a waste of time. However, celebration may just be the best-kept secret to building good habits. And it's those habits that will take your project across the finish line.
“What creates habits, what makes them automatic in your life, is the emotion that you feel while you’re doing the behavior or immediately after. It wires it into your brain. It makes you want to do it again in the future. The more skilled you are at celebration, the faster you can create habits.” – BJ Fogg, PhD
So fist pump, smile, or give yourself a high five. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it sparks positive emotion.
Plus, feeling good has the benefit of feeding your creativity.
“Creativity is connected to your passion, that light inside you that drives you. That joy that comes when you do something you love. That small voice that tells you, “I like this. Do this again. You are good at it. Keep going.” That is the juicy stuff that lubricates our lives and helps us feel less alone in the world.” – Amy Poehler, Yes Please
Now that you’re armed with a good team, clear expectations, and the right tools for the job, you know how to start a project successfully. Just don’t forget to have fun, so your brain remembers to do it again!