If you hang out in the project management world, you’ll know the term “scope creep”. It’s when the original plan has a little thing added on here, a slight expansion of deliverables there, an “oh, didn’t I mention we needed this as well?” out of nowhere. If you’re like me – someone who is drawn like a moth towards the bright shininess of infinite possibilities – you’ve probably caused this as much as suffered from it. “Hey,” you say, “why don’t we…” and the rest of the team heave a deep sigh, and call home to say, “I’ll need to work again this weekend.”
With the barriers between work and life being more porous than ever, this project management concept can apply to everything we do. I’m writing this at the Grand Central Station in New York, and to make the point there’s a series of posters here in the food court saying, “There is no down time and quality time, no work time and play tie … there is only time.”
So life: one big project management exercise. There’s upside to this way of thinking. See your life as a project, even a long-term project (for instance, my marriage) means you can give it structure, focus and ambition. It also means that you can find scope creep everywhere you look. And should you be feeling at all overwhelmed, tired, time-crunched or generally like you’ve got too much on your plate, scope creep might be a useful diagnosis.
I’ve got three places you might look to tighten up the parameters of what you’re doing, and I’m using the Box of Crayons 3P Focus Model – Projects, People, Patterns – to help us go deep and personal.
Project level: How do you manage email?
A friend and I were talking about corporate culture change, and he mentioned an insight that resonated deeply with him: to change a culture, eliminate the thing that’s not working. Email – so crucial, so burdensome – might be that thing for you. Our inbox haunts us, constantly tugging us away from the other stuff – Great Work – that is even more important than, say, answering the mail. So how do you stop your twitchy need to check your email at all hours and all days? Here are three tactics that might just help.
1. Write emails of no more than 5 sentences. So hard to do. (Every writer knows it’s easier to take quantity over quality.) I’ve found that knowing you can reply to people with a question, not necessarily with your best guess at an answer can cut down on long emails immediately.
2. Uproot don’t prune. The instinct is to delete or archive the unwanted emails that come in, be they the team wide memo you’re CC’d in “just in case” or some form of unsolicited hoohah from someone selling you something. Taking an extra 30 seconds to unsubscribe (which can sound like, “please take me off the cc of this email), saves time and focus later on.
3. Know who you won’t answer. All those well-brought-up, polite people, raise your hand. Me too. So you might also feel obliged to reply to every email you get. If you do, see “things you can do #1”. But what if you decided that not every email would get a reply? It’s a trade off between you have the space to focus on your agenda – your Great Work – or giving time to someone else (on your B, C or D list) for their agenda. Are you willing to pay the price of being less nice, if you got more of what matters done?
People level: Who do you serve?
Bob Dylan, in his creaky cranky way, sang “you gotta serve somebody” and the man has a point. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” But somebody doesn’t necessarily mean everybody. And here’s another place where scope creep happens. Because you’re a nice, generous, helpful person, you try and do your best for anyone who asks. But the price you pay for sorting out somebody else’s agenda is sacrificing your own. So how to you manage your people scope creep? Here are two suggestions.
1. Know who’s your A List. My wife is a genius at this. She says, “I’ve got a very small A List. And no B List.” It’s not easy for the rest of us to be quite as … black and white here. One powerful exercise is to figure out who are the critical three people on your A List. How could you double down on the strength, value and fun of those relationships. And then, who are the five people on your B List. Who do you need to engage with on a more regular basis than you are now? And how – and here’s the tricky part for most of us – can you become less engaged with the others? Michael Port’s got his own version, with his List of 20.
2. Learn how to say No … gracefully. You may have read previous pieces where I’ve spoken about how the secret to saying No is to say Yes more slowly. But sometimes the answer just needs to be No. So what stock phrases do you have to politely decline the offer? I like “I have to respectfully decline because of other commitments.”
Patterns level: What makes you happy?
Walking in Times Square, I saw the ad for RuPaul’s new show, Drag Race. The tagline? Real just got Realer. (I love that). Reality TV is just one of the things we have tugging us towards a fantasy life, and now everyone’s keeping up with the Kardashians. And if not that, you might have your own fantasies about what your life might be, projecting instead towards an entrepreneurial empire, or perhaps Zen calm and enlightenment, or maybe a high-powered career. (In my beautiful visualization I also have the time to stay fit and healthy, cook nutritious meals every night, see all my friends regularly, talk to my parents weekly, and mediate daily.)
We keep adding the next thing we need for a perfect life (“What? I have to start eating kale?”) and soon enough we are carrying the weight of our dreams for an impossible life. Here’s a couple of thoughts how to stop the scope creep.
1. Feel the happy feeling. In theory, you know what makes you happy. In practice, it’s often quite different. As an example, I truly thought solo world travel would be something I’d like to do … until I did it. So sitting still, and learning to recognize what really makes you happy. Do you know how you feel when you feel happy? And when you know that, you can start to notice what actually makes you happen now.
2. Commit to the one thing. “If you chase two rabbits,” the proverb goes, “you’ll catch neither.” One of the things that’s become clear from reading the science about building new and better habits is the value of focusing on one at a time. So if you could pick one thing to make wonderful – exercise, your hobby, your relationship with [insert name], your environment – what would it be? The next question to ask is: what would your full commitment to this look like?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and stretched a little thin, it’s time to manage your scope creep. The three areas of focus here are just starting points for you. Find your own areas and see how you can strengthen the boundaries between what you want, and what’s dragging you elsewhere.