How to Stay Focused and Avoid Project Squirrels

Andy Makar | April 3, 2013

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how much time and energy we waste scattering our focus from our important daily tasks. In the movie “Up” there’s a scene when Dug the dog’s full attention is on his owner—until a squirrel appears.


Project team managers are just as easily distracted when the digital equivalents of squirrels dart across desktops, phones and tablets.  Email, IMs, text messages and new project requests are the squirrels that scatter productivity for the day. Here are some focus tips for busy project managers.

First, learn to recognize the common squirrels

The small change request is one common squirrel that often originates in the email inbox. His cousin, the new project request, is another common varietal that can scatter your focus in a number of unworthy directions.

I often see one of these squirrels in the form of an email request to work on projects that range from consulting to project management advice to project management support. New work requests are always exciting to pursue, especially as they signal a growing business. As the requests begin to queue up, it’s tempting to scatter even more energy to try to satisfy all your clients’ demands. The end result is a loss of focus, which achieves only incremental progress of the day’s tasks—with a very good chance that you might not get any one task done very well.

Don’t say Yes so quickly

Rather than saying yes to every new request, wouldn’t it be helpful if you could intelligently and predictably forecast when you or a team member, could realistically work on your client’s next request?

Use a project management tool like LiquidPlanner as your squirrel catcher


LiquidPlanner helps organize the influx of requests, and reliably predicts when the work can be accomplished. This keeps me and my team focused and productive. Instead of foolishly accepting any incoming work and relying on a series of late nights to complete the task,  LP tells me if I can accept more work, say, next week. Instead of over-committing to a client, I can use LP to quickly and easily plan the work. This keeps everyone clear and focused.

I emphasize “quickly and easily” because despite being a project manager, I don’t have a lot of time to spend on the administration of start and finish dates. Intelligent tools like LP provide the support and data to make effective forecasting decisions, rather than losing hours to tweaking every task that occurs in a more traditional, constraint-filled project schedule.

Plan ahead

Here’s how I use LiquidPlanner to stay focused, and plan ahead. In the screen shot below, the Approved Projects package is where I move all new requests. Here, I can see when the team can realistically work on the new request. I use the Pending Projects package to model the effort that’s required to complete the project. Once the project is approved, it gets scheduled into the Approved Projects package.

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A quick glance at the Project view indicates the team is at least a few weeks out before the organization can take on additional work. I can also use LiquidPlanner’s Analytics to identify which team members are available. Depending on the request, I might assign a team member to work on a smaller portion of the project, or handle a one-off change request.

Give everyone a clear view of the plan

If you’ve ever worked in an environment where every project was an exercise in daily firefighting, then you know how shifting priorities and scattered energy can kill a project and hinder team morale. The sales team might try to encourage you to get just this last feature in for a client. And senior management might try the “stretch objective” method of motivation. But when you share your project pipeline’s scheduler view with the sales organization, senior management and any other stakeholders, you give everyone a clear understanding of the critical priorities, start and finish dates, and what’s realistic to accomplish and take on.

Your client will also appreciate knowing they’re a priority, and that their team—your team—isn’t scattering their productivity and energy at the mere mention of the word Squirrel.