How to Avoid “Whac-a-Mole”-Style Time and Project Management

project management
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Remember going to the carnival when you were younger, and playing the Whac-a-Mole game? There’s the smell of popcorn in the air, the whoosh and noise of the rides, loud music, laughter, and all kinds of other distractions, all while you focused on pounding the heck out of little plastic critters with a big rubber mallet, as they randomly pop up out of a box.

There are some days when our work days can feel much the same: emails, phone calls, Skype, instant messengers, Twitter notifications, Slack notifications, and if you work remotely the dog barking, the kids wanting attention, and on and on it goes. Just whacking one distraction after another, except no one rings a bell to tell you it’s over and you’ve won.

You may also think you have everything under control, but performance declines with each additional task you try to take on.

How can you get a handle on your day?

Minimize Interruptions

Interruptions come in a variety of forms. If you’re in an office, this could be as simple as talking to co-workers. Interruptions are just that, something that catches your attention, and distracts you from your tasks. Studies show it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to your task. Imagine the time lost just focusing back on what you were doing in the first place.

Whether you work in an office, or remotely, you can try these things:

  • Disable pop-ups like instant messengers on your computer, or notifications on your smartphone
  • Silence your ringer, and schedule actual meeting calls instead of just picking up every time
  • Set a scheduled interval to check your messages
  • Limit the time you read the news, or check your social media accounts to specific times per day

Get a Handle on Your Time and Projects

Instead of playing Whac-a-Mole Project Management, and attacking every random request that pops up, get things in order. Full courses are available in project management which can be very beneficial. I have found these tips extremely helpful:


Start by setting your goals and the individual tasks to achieve them. Ask yourself these questions:

  • When do you want to accomplish these by?
  • How many tasks are in the workback to your deadline?
  • Are these valuable activities to spend your time on?
  • How much time will each of these goals take?
  • Are your deadlines reasonable, and attainable?


Assessing goals and aligning stakeholders will make prioritizing your deliverables significantly easier.

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

An old boss of mine once drew this on a whiteboard for me. I was frustrated that things in my “this is urgent” box were not necessarily the same for others on the team. Setting priorities helps make everyone their most productive selves, especially when those priorities are aligned (next section). If an activity isn’t going to get you closer to your goal, get rid of it.

When you have your priorities in order, you can break those down even further:

  • How do you split your time between deliverables?
  • How much time will you need for each deliverable?
  • Do you need additional tools, or assistance, to accomplish your goals?


If it’s just you trying to manage your own time then alignment with others isn’t necessary, but that may be rare. When you’re working on client projects, you will have numerous stakeholders: co-workers, account managers, and clients, sometimes in different departments or different approval hierarchies.

From the outset make sure your deliverables and timelines are clear, which deliverables will set you on the best path to completing those goals. When everyone has the same understanding of what a project looks like you’ll be in the best shape.

Keep everyone aligned with an overall brief. I use these downloadable templates:


You know there will be roadblocks. There may be delays in getting sign-off on artwork, written content, graphics, you name it. With multiple stakeholders comes delay. Have a plan in place on how to deal with that. Regular communication with the team (internal, external, or both) will be key. If something has delayed one component along the way to your goal, will your entire project be affected?

Map Your Workflow

Build a calendar to help visualize your project, and be sure to include open blocks of time to manage those unforeseen items that inevitably pop up. One mole, or even two, becomes manageable.

Be sure to determine which projects will slip if you take on something new. Instead of furiously whacking away, stay on track, and review regularly.


Feature image source: Cranks My Tractor

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