At Work

Six Habits to Cultivate on Your First Professional Project

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I suspect that the typical readers of IFWE’s blog don’t need to be reminded of the hurdles they encountered on their initial projects as young professionals. Reality has a tendency towards consistency, which makes the scenarios and experiences of one individual relevant to another.

Whether it’s strategy and operations, technology, human capital, or another project type, the first days on a new professional project are often exciting and nerve-racking. While the context and parameters of each project vary, there are several habits that you can develop to help you manage expectations of the client/employer and navigate a project successfully and thus glorify God in doing so (1 Peter 2:13-19). 

Douglas Adams, the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, finally cleared the air by indicating that there was, in fact, no rationale behind his selection of the number 42 as the answer to the meaning of the universe. Any numbers nerd will appreciate that while 73 would have likely been a more intriguing and meaningful answer (a palindrome in binary), neither number can shed light into the psychological and social complexities you encounter navigating your first business project.

There are client perceptions, interpersonal team conflict, collapsing timelines, project optics, budgetary constraints, technical hurdles, and challenging conversations—and that’s just the beginning. But while there’s no single number to unify the meaning of one’s project universe, these six habits will help you overcome those complexities.

Compartmentalize.

Humans do not excel at multi-threading. The Harvard Business Review and other studies have shown that the focused, diligent individual accomplishes significantly more than the distracted one bouncing between tasks. Practice time-boxing by setting a timer, turning off all distractions (cell phones, emails, messengers), and performing deep work for 30 minutes at a time. Where possible, plan large swaths of the workday in this manner.

Ask every question you have.

In his book Napoleon: A Life, Andrew Robert notes that Napoleon routinely had established leaders scoff at him for his willingness to ask seemingly obvious, trivial questions. But Napoleon wasn’t deterred by the politically motivated criticism. His willingness to prioritize accurate understanding over public opinion assisted him in taking strategic, decisive action.

Know the details.

Claiming to be a “big picture person” is no excuse for skipping this habit. A successful visionary is aware of the details affected by his or her vision (Luke 14:28). Team members build trust and rapport by speaking openly and honestly. The more precisely one knows a topic, the easier it is to confidently and truthfully speak about it. Mark Twain put it well: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Be biased toward action.

Clients and business leaders ultimately desire to see tasks completed and progress made more than they care about the rhetoric or discussion of a promised outcome. The individual with a proven track record of completing tasks will one day be the person to lead others as agents of change.

Teach others what you have learned.

If an accomplishment can’t be articulated in a manner that others can understand, then a) your teammates and supervisors can’t celebrate the magnitude of your contribution, and b) you probably need to more fully understand the solution or other value you’ve added to the project. Whatever pedagogy used, the very act of teaching develops your communication skills and multiplies your impact beyond the individual performance of a given task.

Understand your context and contributions objectively.

You are not alonemost of us, at some point in our careers, felt the same insecurities and doubts. One version of this is called impostor syndrome,  a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”

This syndrome is common. Finite human beings who are attempting to make sense of rapidly evolving industries—while also being distracted by digital everything and psychologically burdened by innate (or self-imposed) pressure—will guilt themselves into a sense of not belonging on the team. Miscue follows mistake and only lends credence to the already internalized doubt. 

Your desire for excellence, though not innately ungodly (2 Cor 8:7), is not simply an individual endeavor in its own vacuum. Odds are, the completion of a task, the development of a skill, the attainment of a given accolade, has already been attempted. There is nothing new under the sun, so as you work through your maiden project, humbly and patiently learn from the successes and mistakes of others. Teach others what you have learned, and pull them up the learning curve with you.

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