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Avoid Nagging—Make Routine Tasks a Habit
Once again, your project report is due today and you are still waiting on status updates from your team members. As you get ready to write yet another nagging e-mail, you wonder: Why do you have to go through the same cycle time and time again?

Getting your team to do routine administrative tasks is akin to the challenge of having your children pick up after themselves or doing their homework on time. These tasks are typically considered tedious and trivial compared to other more pressing project priorities.

Nagging e-mail reminders do not necessarily help because after a while people get desensitized. Task alerts and project collaboration tools can be helpful, but what do you do if people do not use them?

There are just too many alerts and e-mails that get lost in the shuffle. The offenders think this is the norm and others are doing it too, so it is okay to be tardy.

So how do you get people to do routine tasks without being nagged?

Start by observing the individuals who do turn in their reports on time. For them it is a habit—they have programmed themselves to complete these tasks without much thought. The trick is making routine tasks habitual and easy so they become automatic practices.

Dan and Chip Heath, in their book, Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard (Broadway Books, 2010), explain how habits become behavioral autopilots and offer valuable tips such as tweaking your environment and setting action triggers to build habits.

The following are ideas and strategies to cultivate habits, organized in the mnemonic HABIT:

Habitat – People are comfortable in their current habitat and ways of doing things. To get them to change and to adopt new habits, you have to tweak the environment. Alain Gervais, PMP, a project manager of 20 years from Ottawa, Canada, recently had a breakthrough in getting his team to send him weekly updates. Simplifying and automating the existing reporting mechanism promoted a culture of timeliness.

Act – Often tasks do not get done because people do not have everything they need to act. It may be that the process to complete the task is too complicated or not well understood. Ask your team members: What do they need to act? Do they need training?

Benefit – Why should they make the effort to change? Explain and emphasize the benefit of timeliness to the team or the overall project needs. They need to understand the context and the consequences. For example, if they complete their project updates accurately, they can skip the status meeting.

Incentive – Offer rewards or recognition for timely submittal or completion of administrative tasks. You can introduce an element of fun and excitement around routine tasks by creating competition and contests and celebrating success.

Triggers – Not just automated alerts and pop-up messages, action triggers that are specific and visual work to program yourself or your team members to take action. For example, “Tuesday morning coffee update” can remind you to complete a project report, or an “okay to use electronic devices” announcement on the airplane could be a trigger to work on your expense report after a business trip.

Be clear of the expectations and consequences. People do not do what they are supposed to do because there are no consequences.

Changing habits is not easy. To sustain habits, it is important to track, measure, and report. After all, measurements drive behavior.

As you start to measure, people will make it a habit. Instead of reminder notifications in your outbox, you will see a rise in “Done” and “Task Completed” messages in your inbox. And the best part is you would not be perceived as a nag anymore!

This article was originally published in PMI Community Post on 11 March 2011
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