This podcast is part of an article published on The Digital Project Manager.
You can read the article here.
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Ben Aston: Welcome to the DPM podcast, where we go beyond theory to give expert PM advice for leading better digital projects. Thanks for tuning in, I’m Ben Aston, founder of the Digital Project Manager. Now, I think if you ask just about any PM how their work is going, how do you think they’ll respond? And I think probably more often not, they’ll say, “Sorry, I’ve got no time to talk right now. I’m totally slammed, maybe we can touch base next week.”
And my own experience of PMing is that it is a demanding role. We carry this responsibility of delivering a project to the best of our ability and we desperately want our projects to succeed. So we end up running around all day as though our pants are on fire, we’re trying to herd cats, our team, who seemingly don’t want to do what we ask them to do, and we’re trying to do all these things that we think will make our project succeed. But is our busyness really helping to deliver a better project? Is it really helping, is it helping our team and our clients?
Well, maybe it is. But often, our busyness actually isn’t helping. So, what’s the solution? Well, all is going to be revealed in today’s podcast as we talk about ways we can be less busy, but more productive.
And today, I’m talking to Laura Bosco. Laura is a web copywriter and a kind of emerging digital project manager, in that, well, she’s kind of retiring from it. We’ll talk about that in a minute. She’s worked with lots of start-ups, Fortune 500s, non-profits as well. She’s based in Chattanooga, which is one of my favorite words to say. So, hello, Laura.
Laura Bosco: Hi, Ben. Thanks for having me today.
Ben Aston: You’re very, very welcome. So, yeah, I want to start by talking about you, because I want to say Chattanooga again. But I’ve also spent far too … I’ve become a bit of a Laura stalker. I don’t know, I went to LauraBosco.com, which is the place where you go if you want to find out about Laura, and Laura, just tell me a bit about yourself. Because what I gathered from Instagram is that it kind of looks like you live in a treehouse in a forest. Tell us about where you live in Chattanooga.
Laura Bosco: The treehouse idea is not too far off at all. I live on one of two mountains in Chattanooga, and it’s called Signal Mountain. It’s about 20 minutes from downtown and we have a wonderful little house that overlooks a few acres that we don’t own, but we like to convince ourselves we do when we look off our back porch. It’s a second-story porch that looks over some beautiful turning fall leaves right now, so it is a little bit like being in a treehouse.
Ben Aston: It’s pretty cool. And check out Laura’s Instagram for cool pictures of living in Chattanooga. But, tell us a bit about your story in terms of you were a PM, or you are a PM a bit of the time. I know you’re kind of changing roles to become a copywriter, but how did you get into digital project management in the first place? I think it’s always interesting, and I read about on your website how your background or you’ve got some expertise taking apart doorknobs, and you explain how you’re an information nerd and you like finding and resolving problems. So, tell me how that kind of led you to digital project management.
Laura Bosco: Well, I think, like many other digital project managers, it’s not a role that I actually set out to step into. It’s not a role that I studied in college, nor was it on my radar when I would think about what my career would be when I was in high school and college. So I actually ended up doing a lot of different things. I literally annotate my resume for people because it is so confusing to look at. I went from being a restaurant manager to an intern at a branding agency, helping on the client-side of things. And that agency connected me to the agency I’ve been working with as a project manager. So essentially, I had some people come to me and say, “Hey, I know this agency that needs help organizing things. You’re really good at that. Do you want to do it?”
I said, “Well, sure.” So that’s kind of how I stepped in, I learned on the fly.
Ben Aston: Yeah. And tell me about, as a digital PM, what are the kind of projects that you’ve been delivering?
Laura Bosco: Sure, so, with the agency that I’ve been working with, Range, they’re a WordPress design and development agency, we’ve worked with a really wide variety of clients. We’ve done a wide variety of industries, but for the most part, they’re all custom web projects. We start from scratch with the discovery phase, we go into a fully custom design, and then a fully custom development build. Most of the time, that’s in the form of a marketing site, but it could be as robust as a custom log in or portal.
Ben Aston: Cool. And so, you’re working with designers, devs, user experience, QA, that’s all kind of an internal team?
Laura Bosco: Yeah, it’s a small team, so we don’t have all the roles that you just mentioned. We mostly have a creative director and designer. She wears a couple hats as the agency partner. And then we’ve had a couple of different developers that are full stack. So, I’m lucky to be able to work with such a small but robust team. I think it helps break down a couple different silos.
Ben Aston: Yeah, definitely. Tell me about, I mean, there’s different people listening … in different size teams, but I think there’s lots of small studios, small agencies where a lot, got people wearing different hats. I’m interested in kind of, as you, coming on as the digital PM, how do you wrangle your team? And how do you manage the team in terms of the tools that you’re using to do that? Because with a smaller team, maybe you don’t need as many tools. Maybe, you know, if you all sat around together, it’s naturally more collaborative.
I’m interested in, how do you do that?
Laura Bosco: Yeah, it’s a good question, we are fully distributed, so we’re everywhere from California to the Netherlands. So even though we are …
Ben Aston: Small but dispersed.
Laura Bosco: Small but very dispersed. I have, we call it time zoning. I’ve gotten much better at time zoning over the past couple of years. But Slack is our main-
Ben Aston: What is time zoning?
Laura Bosco: Time zoning is looking at a calendar and figuring out when four different people in four to five different time zones can get on one call together.
Ben Aston: I think it’s a horrible task, isn’t it?
Laura Bosco: It’s a horribly challenging task.
Ben Aston: Yeah. So, I’m currently working at an agency that’s pretty much … I mean, there are a couple of offices, but nearly everyone is remote. And yet, trying to find a time that works, yeah, so similarly, I’m dealing with similar time zones in that I’ve got a client in France, and then people working across North America and in other countries as well. But, yeah, trying to … So that means you end up having to, let’s say, “Okay, fine, I’ll have a call at 7:00 am in the morning.”
Laura Bosco: It happens.
Ben Aston: It’s just like, it’s the only option. You’re like, “Oh, I really don’t want to do this.” It’s tricky.
Laura Bosco: It is, it is. And I use everytimezone.com, it has a really simple slider that I can drag back and forth to see what time is it in France, if I’m … Because I travel a good bit too, especially on the east coast. And the funny thing is, in Chattanooga, we’re only about 30 minutes away from Central time zone. So I find myself in Central time zone quite a bit, and then it really throws my head off if I have to schedule.
Laura Bosco: We used a combination, Asana, and Teamwork, for the most part.
Ben Aston: Okay.
Laura Bosco: Teamwork was where … We moved from Basecamp to Teamwork for a couple different reasons, mostly it ended up fitting our budget and what we needed to accomplish. So that’s kind of my philosophy with tools, is how we start with the problems we’re trying to solve, the parameters we have to solve it in. And then, usually narrows down your tool field quite a bit. And Teamwork was what ended up working. We used Asana, myself, and one of the other developers, to track more granular tasks. That’s something Teamwork does, but we found Asana did it a little bit better.
Ben Aston: Cool. And is there anything else that you’ve found recently that you’re like, “Everyone needs to know about this website or this tool or this app. It’s making my life awesome.”?
Laura Bosco: Oh, man. No, I mean …
Ben Aston: There doesn’t have to be.
Laura Bosco: Yeah. One of my favorites that I found a couple months ago is called Blinker. It reminds you, it sounds so silly, it reminds you to blink when you’ve been staring at your screen.
Ben Aston: Is that an app for your phone?
Laura Bosco: No, I think it’s a Chrome extension. And so, we stare at our computers for hours on end, and it kind of reminds you to look away from your screen every couple of minutes. It’s more of a personal health thing than I guess it is a productivity thing, but I think it’s a cool tool.
Ben Aston: >That’s cool. So, you’re now kind of leaving the world of digital project management to focus more on copywriting, right?
Laura Bosco: Yes.
Ben Aston: So, yeah, I think it’s always interesting, kind of talking through PMs and the journey that they’re taking, firstly to get into project management, and then through project management out to something else. For some people, that’ll be going into management or leading teams. But I don’t know that I’ve ever spoken to any PMs before that have decided, “Hey, I want to be a copywriter.”
Now, this is something that you’ve always kind of done, but tell me how you made that … Why are you leaving the world of DPM?
Laura Bosco: Well, about a year ago, I started doing some writing on the side. I found that while I really enjoy a lot of different things about project management, it wasn’t hitting this creativity bone that I have, and I was getting really restless with that. So I started doing some writing on the side with a couple of clients, and those clients asked me to do more work, and they referred me to other clients. I kind of reached this breaking point, I guess about three or so months ago, where I realized I either needed to go part-time with both of these career options or I needed to go all in, two feet with one.
Because of my life circumstances right now, I don’t have a dog, my husband and I don’t have kids, we’re pretty low-key. So we figure there will never be a better time for me to take a leap and give this a shot for a year. So that’s what we’re doing.
Ben Aston: Okay. This is the beginning of the experiment.
Laura Bosco: It is. It started in September, so we’re, I guess, almost two full months in.
Ben Aston: And how’s it going so far?
Laura Bosco: It’s going incredibly well. Yeah, finding clients hasn’t been an issue so far. I mean, it’s kind of like any transition in the sense that the first week you sit there and you go, “Oh my gosh, what did I do? And why did I do it?” And you know, you have all of those imposter syndrome questions where “Can I even do that?” I remember thinking that when I became a project manager. Can I even call myself a project manager, if I haven’t figured how to do it yet?
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Laura Bosco: So, there’s a lot of that. But I would say that’s normal for any job change that you make.
Ben Aston: Yeah, crisis of confidence, for sure. Cool. So, let’s talk about your post, and I think this, whether or not you’re a project manager or, I think this kind of applies to most people. But I think most of us as project managers struggle with being productive, or at least feeling like we’re being productive. And I think, in part, I think that comes with the territory, particularly as PMs. Because most of the time, we’re not actually producing anything ourselves. Sometimes, yeah, we’re producing estimates or timelines or documentation. But no one really, our client particularly doesn’t care about the kind of things that we produce.
And I think it’s interesting, there are never any PM awards for best estimate or statement of work of the year. There’s not many awards for that. No one really cares or gets excited about the things that we produce. But what we are interested in is making sure everyone else is knowing what they should be producing, and then we’re playing this role of kind of air traffic controller, trying to make sure everything that needs to be produced is being produced, with spinning plates. And if we’ve not got 30 tabs open in Chrome, then sometimes we can just feel like we’re not trying hard enough. But I think Laura has written an awesome post on being more productive that you should read. And in it, she outlines 13 ways that you can be more productive as a PM, or as anyone, really.
But let’s talk first about productivity. You know, why does it matter? Because I think this is, let’s kind of start with the question of why we should actually care about this at all.
Laura Bosco: I love that question because I think so many people start with, “How can I be more productive?” Instead of, “Why should I be more productive?” And I think that why is the crucial question. There’s a lot of really, really good answers out there. But my personal answer is that it helps teams be more efficient and it helps them enjoy their work more.
And I’ve found that people who enjoy their work do better work. So as a project manager, that was always one of my goals is, how can I help us be productive so that overall we can work less and work efficiently, and you keep enjoying your job and keep doing great work. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons for me.
Ben Aston: Yeah, and so much of the time, I think we can, as PMs particularly, we’re so desperate for our teams to be being productive, we’re so desperate that the project moves forward, though I think sometimes we get ourselves wrapped up in stuff that we think, “Hey, this is going to help,” and these are some of the things that you talk about. We’re constantly checking our e-mail, pressing refresh, making sure that we’re kind of on top of the situation. We’re constantly on Slack, and we’re just waiting for the next alert to pop up. But I like how you kind of started your post, and you talk about not doing some things. So, not checking your e-mail first thing, not being available on Slack all the time, not keeping your e-mail open.
Now, obviously, as a project manager, it’s our role to … Often, we’re passing the baton along, and how do you do those things without becoming a bottleneck to the process? Because I think we kind of get this anxiety as PMs, “Hey, if I don’t do this, if I don’t respond to this just right now, if I’m not being really responsive, then everything’s going to fall apart.”
So talk us through how you kind of manage that.
Laura Bosco: I think a lot of it really starts with expectations. If you’re trying to do this, have Slack closed, have e-mail closed a lot of the day, and your team and clients aren’t on board with that, it’s honestly going to go horrifically for you. So, it really needs to start with making sure that your team knows that is what you’re doing. Maybe you do that in one of your weekly team meetings. Maybe if you have a small team like me, you just drop it in Slack. You say, “Hey, this is something I want us to all give a shot, and here’s what it’s going to look like.”
And make sure everyone is on the same foot with that. And then with clients, something that I’ve found to be really effective is from the very beginning, from the first day you start working with them, explain to them how communication goes. I always give some form of communication brief when I kick of a project with a client that says, “Here’s how you can reach me. Here are the times I’m most available. And here are the channels that it’s going to be best to reach me.” I think that communication brief is a great period of time for you to also insert, “We want to do our best work for you, and in order to do that, we need to have our heads down during certain periods of the day. So we won’t have our e-mail open all the time, but we will check it multiple times, and we will keep it open on really crucial days, like launch day, for example.” You don’t want to have your e-mail closed on launch day. That’s probably not your best option.
Ben Aston: I like that advice. Building out a communication plan, managing their expectations. “Hey, this is when you can contact me.” And I think one other thing that I found really helpful is if you’re about to dive into some work, and you’ve kind of got it planned out, so be proactive. If you know, “Hey, in the next few hours, this person’s probably going to or might kind of reach out to me,” to proactively engage in that conversation and have it early rather than wait for the client to get in touch with you.
So we can sometimes push out conversations by just checking in with the client at the beginning of the day and saying, “Hey, I’m just about to disappear for a few hours. Don’t expect to hear from me, I’m not going to respond.” Just that, and it comes back to that managing expectation that I think is so important.
Laura Bosco: Right, and something else that I’ve really found through experience is if you can, from the first couple of e-mails the client sends you, if in those first three e-mails you respond in the first 30 seconds, you set a precedence that you will always respond in the first 30 seconds. But, if they expect you to respond within an hour, two hours, they’re not going to be frustrated when you continue that pattern.
Ben Aston: Yeah, and one thing on that that I’ve found really helpful … I don’t know if, do you use Gmail?
Laura Bosco: Yes, and you can schedule e-mails to send later with Gmail too, which is a wonderful thing.
Ben Aston: Yeah. And right now I’m just, it used to just be on the mobile app, but now, I just love in Gmail, the three-word responses, I like the predictive e-mail. It’s kind of scary, but if you just start typing something and they’re like, you’re like, “Oh yeah, just press tab, that’ll do.” And in a way, I’m on it. And the client feels heard.
Laura Bosco: I actually turned those off because they annoyed me.
Ben Aston: Oh, you did?
Laura Bosco: Yes.
Ben Aston: I’ve embraced them. I’m like, “Well, I wasn’t going to say that, but sure, let’s go with that. Is it good enough? Yes. Okay, go.”
You’ve got to embrace it, it’s the future, Laura.
Laura Bosco: I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll get used to artificial intelligence writing my e-mail, but I don’t think I’m there yet.
Ben Aston: For everyone who receives my e-mails, please know that it’s artificial intelligence, but sent with love. So yeah. Cool, so one of the other things that you talk about, and I think this is particularly challenging for PMs, is multi-tasking. And we tend to multi-task because we’re managing different projects that are at different stages, different clients, different teams, talking to us, needing information. We’re trying to pass on details, we’re the hub of communication for projects. So yeah, how, any kind of thoughts on … We don’t want to multi-task so much, because we know that context switching is inefficient. But how do you do that?
Laura Bosco: I mean, the answer that you and listeners may not like too much is that I try not to do it as much as humanly possible because I found I make more mistakes when I multi-task. Whenever I can … So, if I do have something, a bunch of different things come in at one time, so if I have a design review that just got posted that I need to click through and vision and see what that looks like, and then I just got a client e-mail, and then we’re gearing up for a launch the next day. If I knew all of those things need to happen roughly simultaneously that day, I’ll still prioritize them with the framework that I mention, I think it’s the Eisenhower matrix, is one of my favorites, and systematically work through those.
So even though they all need to happen relatively in tandem, I still try and tackle them one at a time. And sometimes that means I tackle a piece of them at a time, because it’s not always feasible to work through an entire thing in one sitting. But even just going one piece at a time instead of trying to hold five pieces in my hands simultaneously, I find that I’m better for my team if I do things that way.
Ben Aston: Yeah. And I like that you mentioned the Eisenhower prioritization matrix. We’ve got a graphic for that in the post that you’ve written. I think it’s, so often, we kind of get caught up with these urgent things. Someone pings us on Slack, and we’re like, “Okay, I better respond to that, because they just messaged me,” but it might be urgent, but it’s not important. And that can wait. It doesn’t really make any difference if that waits four hours. They might just think, “Oh, that’s weird, Laura didn’t respond.” But hey, it’s not going to have an impact on the overall success of the project. I think so often we fail to take that step back and kind of assess, at the beginning of the day or the week, or how often it is, “Okay, what are the really important things that need to happen in order for this project to take the course that it needs to be a success?”
And we kind of get caught up in these answering stuff and responding to stuff that doesn’t really make a material difference to the success of the project overall.
Laura Bosco: Yeah. And something, to touch briefly on what you just said about getting a ping that feels urgent, I think if project managers are in a setting where they can influence operations, or even define operations, I know many smaller teams, the project manager can do that. Then, if it’s in the employee handbook, if it’s in a team meeting, I think it can be so beneficial to a team’s productivity overall if, like with your clients, you give a communication standard for your team. So you say, “If it’s urgent, you ping me. If it’s not, you just mention my name in that channel.” You know, something along those lines so that people know when you contact them how urgent the message is, based on how you contact them.
Ben Aston: Right. Yeah, that’s sound advice. And it comes back around again to this expectation management, right?
Laura Bosco: Yeah.
Ben Aston: As long as people know what to expect from us and what we can expect from them, once we’ve kind of level set on that and kind of got that fluency of communication, it makes all these things a lot more possible.
Laura Bosco: Yeah, communication’s obviously a big platform for me. I feel really strongly about it.
Ben Aston: Yeah. So, I mean, as well as telling us lots of things not to do in this post, what I like is that you’ve also given some positive things as well. And one of them I really love is setting arbitrary stupid goals. This sounds like, on the face of it, it sounds like something that won’t help you be productive. But for those who haven’t read the post yet, tell us about arbitrary stupid goals and how they help.
Laura Bosco: So, arbitrary stupid goals is based on this idea called temptation bundling. That’s where you bundle a temptation into something you have to do. So, say you’ve got a timeline that you really don’t want to create, because it’s going to be annoying, it’s going to take some time. You’re going to have to pull up 18 documents you already had closed, and you already have 40 tabs open.
Whenever I would find myself in that situation, I would essentially bribe myself with a stupid arbitrary goal. Maybe it was I get a bar of chocolate if I complete that timeline. Or maybe it’s I get to go run an errand to one of my favorite stores once I post the timeline in … . You know, I mean, it’s something little, it’s something small. The goal is really arbitrary. The point is that it just helps you do something you really don’t want to do.
Ben Aston: Yeah. One of the things I found with this is the task can’t be too big. Like, you need to make it so that you are actually going to achieve your goals, because sometimes, I know that I’ve made the mistake of thinking, “Okay, once I finish this statement of work, I’ll go, I earn a treat.” And then it comes to the end of the day, and it’s 7:00 pm, then 8:00 pm, and you’re thinking, “I’m never going to get this finished,” and you lose all hope. So they’ve got to be achievable goals for that to work.
Laura Bosco: That’s a great productivity tip in general. Just make sure you can actually cross off something on your to-do list. Because if it’s super big, advance my career, you’re never going to cross that off. Don’t put that down.
Ben Aston: Yeah, definitely. So, I think these tips, and there’s a great selection of things, so make sure you read the post. But, for someone who’s thinking, “Hey, I’m just hopelessly unproductive and I know it,” what’s the single most thing that you talk about in the post that you found most effective for yourself? Particularly as you’ve maybe started out on your own. What’s the thing that you found that makes the most difference? What has the most impact?
Laura Bosco: Oh, man. Now, I would say, I don’t think I knew this when I started. And I honestly, this is probably embarrassing. I don’t think I figured this out until very recently. I would say, don’t assume that you have eight hours of work in your day. And it sounds so obvious, and I know project managers know this when they’re budgeting timelines and when they’re looking at their resources. I know most of them don’t assume that each person can work eight productive hours in a day. Because there’s coffee breaks, there’s phone calls, there’s impromptu meetings.
But I’ve found that with myself, I still assumed that I had eight hours a day, that I was somehow exempt from that rule. And once I started tracking my time, I figured, shockingly, I’m not exempt from that rule. I don’t have eight productive hours in a day. So, I think if you start with that assumption, then you will always feel like you’re drowning because you’re never going to hit that goal. But if you start with the assumption that you have four to six, which is really more normal, then I think you set yourself up for success, and then you have a better framework to work within to decide how you want to be productive.
Ben Aston: Yeah. I think that’s really sound advice. And one thing kind of that relates to that that I found really helpful recently is, in Google Calendar, there’s a setting where you can set meetings for 25 minutes rather than 30 minutes, and just buying yourself, giving yourself a five-minute buffer between things, just to grab a snack or go to the toilet, or whatever it might be, but creating buffer in your schedule, I think can be really useful.
Laura Bosco: Oh, absolutely. Because things, I mean, it’s one of those principles of project management, right? Things will always take longer than you expect them to.
Ben Aston: Yep. Well, Laura, thanks so much for joining us. There’s so much more we could talk about this, but we’re going to end it here. It’s been great having you with us.
Laura Bosco: Thank you for having me, I’ve loved chatting today.
Ben Aston: If you’d like to contribute to this whole conversation about productivity, how we become better PMs, and the things that we can do to be more productive, comment on the post that Laura’s written, and also you can head to the resources section of TheDigitalProjectManager.com to join our Slack team, where you’ll find all kinds of interesting conversations going on.
But until next time, thanks for listening.