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Learn Project Management in 4 Simple Steps

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The first rule of business? Get yourself organized. It’s easy to say but tougher to do, so follow these four simple steps to working more efficiently… starting today.

By Liz Pearce (CEO, LiquidPlanner)

If only success in the business world was defined by how innovative and transformative your ideas were. For many entrepreneurs, the idea itself is a driving force. They’re spurred on by the possibility of what the world would be like if the idea came to fruition. Some people call this “vision.” But we know in practice that even the brightest ideas fade if no one puts them into action.

For a startup or small business, going from having the idea to making it a reality requires many things to align: economic conditions, speed of innovation, availability of talent, fundraising climate and more. It’s quite a daunting list considering that none of those factors are really within your control. Luckily, the very thing that will allow you to meet, overcome or circumvent those hurdles is something that IS in your control: excellent project execution.

It doesn’t matter what stage of the game you’re at. The sheer number and variety of issues you think about as a startup founder is astounding. Product design, marketing, customer acquisition, customer support, the team, financing … I could go on. And no area can be ignored for very long. Many teams try to manage their work with a hodge-podge of whiteboards, post-its, spreadsheets and emails, but taking this approach to managing work is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

As we’ve built our software startup over the last six years, we’ve learned that we execute best when we follow a lean project management method: organize, prioritize, single-task, repeat. This is not about working harder, this is about working smarter. Here’s a quick look at how to manage each of the four stages.

1. Organize Your Ideas and Tasks into Categories

Group the work you’ve already got on your to-do list into logical areas. At first it may seem overkill to organize tasks into buckets, but soon enough you’ll reach a point where a flat list doesn’t cut it. Grouping allows you to think holistically about areas of your business, find things, and manage a lot of tasks.

Take a few minutes to sit down with your partner or team to decide which categories make sense to you and start standardizing on a method for organization.

2. Prioritize Your Work

Now that your list is organized, scan your opportunities and commitments to determine what needs to get done first.  Work to find a balance between “urgent” and “important,” with an eye for what will move the needle the most.

Your list will probably be made up of tasks from several different areas – that’s ok!  For entrepreneurs, context switching is an important skill. If you and your team can be clear and transparent about your top three to five priorities, you’ll make better decisions as a group.

3. Find Your Focus

Fragmentation is the enemy of productivity. It’s been proven that you get more done if you limit distractions and stop switching between tasks. That’s why once you’ve made your priority list, it pays to tackle it from top to bottom. Carve out blocks of time without meetings. Close your email, your TweetDeck and Facebook. Silence your phone. Put headphones on and find someplace quiet to work.

Successful entrepreneurs make a habit of building time for focused, “deep” work into their schedules. When it comes to top-notch execution, procrastination is not your friend.

4. Rinse and Repeat

Don’t be fooled into thinking you can make a plan once and be done with it. On the contrary, your plan is like a garden. For it to work, you have to constantly take out the weeds and plant new seeds. That means get rid of obsolete tasks or out-of-date priorities. And each time new ideas and tasks come up, they need to be organized and prioritized. Who knows – maybe today’s idea changes everything! A few minutes of curation a day will ensure that everyone on the team – even if it’s just two of you - has a real-time picture of what’s important.

You may be thinking, “This all sounds easy on paper, but every time we try to get organized and be more productive we fail.” You’re not alone – improving personal and team productivity is practically an industry in and of itself. Heck, our team has been working for six years to help teams solve this very problem, so we feel your pain! At the same time, we’ve have seen countless teams come together with a resolve to level-up their execution and we’ve seen them succeed. Doing so takes hard work, discipline and agility, but the payoff – seeing that vision come to life – makes it well worth all the effort.

Women 2.0 readers: What are your strategies for blitzing that ‘To Do’ list?

About the guest blogger: Liz Pearce is CEO of LiquidPlanner which provides professional online project management software to over 1400 customers in 50 countries worldwide. Before joining LiquidPlanner, Liz ran her own successful marketing consultancy. She has also held product and project management positions at Amazon.com, Google and Sony Computer Entertainment America. Liz holds a B.A. in Political Communications and an M.A. in Telecommunications from the George Washington University. Follow her @lizprc.

Photo credit: Alan Levine via Flickr.