project management, or, your hand is not your dayplanner

project management, or, your hand is not your dayplanner

Ah, what to say about project management?  That it is a necessary evil or the world’s most effective procrastination tool?    Last week, the ITP core course discussed the many project management tools and tactics that are being employed by academics for both research and pedagogical purposes.  Sorting through the links and info pages of the week’s reading  had that same queasy, fluorescent light feel of trying to survive eight hours of screen staring during the data entry desk job.  And yet, as it was soon revealed, most of us in the course had been cultivating long inner-dialogues already about ways in which to better organize our efforts.    If only projects unfurled by the magical force of their sheer worth.


The note organizer of 17th-Century Vincent Placcius.

My relationship to project management is one of both immediate distaste and reluctant hope.  People, it seems, forever and ever, have been looking for ways to best organize their time, thoughts, activities, resources, collaborations, etc.  The 18th century Puritanical preacher Jonathan Edwards used to pin his notes to clothes so as to keep his thoughts newar.  Emerson kept an intricate and extensive journal system that allowed him to cross reference one book to another.  The 17th-century scholar Vincent Placcius turned his notebook into a hulking piece of furniture (see below).  And who can forget Memento, whose protagonist inundated himself with tattoos, stickies & Polaroids to combat an amnesia that seemed, metaphorically, to parallel the inevitable forgetfulness of the information-overloaded subject of today’s world.

Sure some of this may sound more like notetaking rather than official project management, but who’s to say where one ends and another begins. Despite my attempts to enforce a logic on my many different types of lists of thinking and doing, my projects/tasks/notes-to-self currently exist in so many different forms that I begin to wonder if I would not do better with none of them at all.  I know I’m not alone.  After the research management workshop last week, students asked whether there might be workshops on just calendars and organization.  I can’t imagine a less sexy topic.  Yet it seems, if we could just sort out these two little things, the world would be ours! And so, I can see why an entire institute (the Project Management Institute!) has arisen over this otherwise banal topic even if I’d almost rather read ten pages of source code than peruse its advice.

There is of course project management of one’s life and all its many cubbies, and group project management. They are not so wildly different. One of the problems is not so much writing tasks down or keeping up with tasks that are laid out before one — the problem is keeping up with all the different places one orchestrates their project management.  Personally, I have a paper day planner, a phone calendar with alerts, a list making app and a note taking app on my phone, multiple groups on the CUNY Academic Commons, stickies on my desktop, Evernote to-do-lists, a membership with the project management tool Asana for Fellowship duties, a membership with the digital tool Trello as of five minutes ago for experimental purposes, and of course, for those few not-to-be-forgottens-!, the back of my hand which currently reads “blog post.” (The latter is reserved for only the most pressing (read late) as it is a practice I detest!) It seems it would take me an entire day just to go through all these different places and so I don’t.   The result is that, at the end of the day, on top of all this technology the main task master is exactly what I’ve been trying to supplement — my memory.    Though the idea of one universal “project manager” is wildly appealing (such as promised by digital project management tools like Asana, BaseCamp, etc), it seems flat out impossible.  My day planner doesn’t come with alerts and can be misplaced, my phone calendar isn’t as accessible and flexible as my day planner, only the online platforms enable discussion functionality with collaborators through email, etc, etc.  Furthermore, I’ve become increasingly wary of trying new tools and systems for there is always the certain risk (or near promise) that despite the time one puts into the new tool, they will only further fracture and confuse one’s already too-complex ecosystem of project management methods.  And when one already has so much to do, who has time to adopt to a new system!

This is not to say that I think improvements are impossible, only that they will take a lot of research, time and experimentation to find out, and that one must make peace with the fact as soon as possible, that a) neither will the tools be the final solution nor b) will there ever be a utopian solution.  While I will grudgingly acknowledge the worth and necessity of project management for getting large, collaborative projects done in an efficient manner, I also wonder what this increasing cultural obsession with project management and its tools reflects.  It parses individual and social activity into something that can always be boiled down into a mission statement, time frame and dollar sign. Great for getting projects done, meeting deadlines, satisfying the bottom line, etc, but not so great, at least personally, for feeling enthused about a project or making sure that that project is meaningful. is such a focus on a project management a sign of something else in decline? Am i just being whiny? If only there were time to interrogate this a little.

(Featured image: fellow Graduate Center ITPer Anderson Evan’s response to reading about project management.  Thanks, Anderson!)

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