From habits towards metahabits

Metahabits are important for project manager competency development. This article explains what it means to take agency over your habit-building, and provides insights for moving from mere habit-building to building metahabits. It further describes how the Project Management Concepts course is designed not only to provide scaffolds for habit-building, but also to remove those scaffolds, allowing you to ‘fail’ in a way that helps you learn and succeed in the end.

Unintended habits

A habit can form unintentionally. (Most people who start smoking do not set out with the intention to become habitual smokers.)

Intended habits

Habits can also be established intentionally. The Project Management Concepts course is specifically designed to help you establish study habits that can work for you in other Project Management courses.

Habits for specific jobs

Some jobs and roles require specific habits. You can’t be a successful professional ballet dancer if you’re not fit, so regular practice is a required habit if you want to be a ballet dancer. However, your dancing career won’t take a nose-dive if you haven’t managed to establish the habit of tidying your bedroom.

At times, we can get away with not having the habits that are normally needed for a specific job or task. For example, becoming a bestselling author typically requires that you should write regularly, using a style of writing that your readers can understand. However, if you’re a rich and famous person who lacks this skill and discipline, you can pay a ghostwriter to habitually come to your house to interview you, transforming your fuzzy ideas into a bestselling book.

Habits for project managers

To be good at managing projects also requires certain specific habits.

During the Project Management Concepts course, we plant the seeds for some of these habits, such as the habit of critical thinking. Some participants already have this habit when they start the course, and the course helps them strengthen the habit. The PMCD Framework describes other important habits required of project managers.

Project managers can also sometimes get away with not having all the habits that they ideally should have. A project manager who lacks the habit of maintaining good document control can get away with this for a while in certain circumstances while there’s a responsible administrator to maintain some kind of order, and while there’s enough tolerance in the project for risk and inefficiency.

In our training, though, we assume that you won’t always have such supports. We also assume that you want to reduce risk and inefficiency. Your studies will therefore have to be geared towards the mastery of new habits, rather than just the “minimum mark needed to pass”.

Metahabits

Metahabits are habits which enhance your ability to adopt further habits.

Metahabits are important for mastery as a project manager, more so than in many other disciplines. Project managers need to be good habit-builders. This is because the competencies required of a project manager are so varied, and because project managers are required to deal with new challenges in every project.

The habit of metacognition (thinking about thinking) can be helpful for developing metahabits. The more you consciously work on establishing new habits, the better you get at habit-building.

Taking agency

In his video Let’s teach for mastery—not test scores, Salman Khan says that you have to take agency over your own learning. This is another way of saying that you have to take responsibility for yourself. Being a project manager comes with a lot of responsibility, and the course is designed to challenge you to take agency in key areas.

Building blocks, scaffolds and supports

Establishing the habit of regular study can be hard, so in the course, we provide some supports. For example, we structure some parts of the course in a way that supports the building of your study habit. We send you instructions and passwords for activities at regular intervals, rather than giving you the course material all at once. Also, we don’t give you access to the next activity until you’ve passed some kind of test. By making you stop your concentrated studying, we give you time for diffuse thinking, to help you get into the habit of critical thinking.

Habits can be fostered by providing rewards. The expectation of a reward motivates us. Traditionally, we think of rewards as external. For example, every test in the Test Series has a big green checkmark at the end. Seeing that big green checkmark and reading the words that go with it (e.g. “Cool!” or “You’ve made it!”), makes us feel good. We get into the habit of working for that reward. Many of us get a good feeling by being able to tick off things on our to-do list, or telling someone what we’ve achieved.

The D-I-Y of habit-building

Taking agency over your own learning and self-development requires that you create your own building blocks and supports. You have to develop your own schedule and rewards.

As you improve your ability to build habits, you may find that external rewards no longer matter quite so much along the way. You become motivated by the picture you see in your mind, the picture of your ultimate goal, rather than that big green checkmark or even the prospect of passing the course. The mere knowledge that you are building something in yourself that matters, becomes a motivator in itself.

Taking agency in the Project Management Concepts course

The Project Management Concepts course has some practical requirements for habit-building beyond the supported habit-building activities provided in the Test Series. Here, we remove the scaffolds, allowing you to take agency for your own habit-building.

For example, if you fall behind in the Study Group Forum, we allow you to continue with the the next Test Series (up to a point). However, we do constantly remind you of the risk of leaving these activities too long: if you do not participate regularly in the Study Group Forum, you will not experience the benefits of the deepened learning that comes with critical writing and diffuse thinking over a period of several weeks. The medium-term effect is that you may fail the Exam. The longer-term effect is that your foundation for further study may not be great if you attempt to rush through the questions in the end just to be able to get access to the Exam Preparation.

The areas where it’s up to you to take agency for developing your own habits include:

Note the use of the word regularly. From early on in the course, you already know that you will need to complete these activities before you get to the Exam. The challenge is to do them regularly.

Change the way you think about finishing

What happens if you get near the end of the Test Series and you have to face the fact that you haven’t established the habits of regular participation?

The temptation is to resort to the practice that schools and universities have trained us to use under these circumstances for many generations: cram. In Project Management, this is called crashing a project. You throw additional resources at the job, but you keep the same deadline: “I wanted to finish off the course by the end of next week, and I am jolly well going to do it! I’ll work through the night on my List of Terms, I’ll devote the whole of Saturday morning to the Study Group questions, I’ll do what it takes!”

Now some projects, this makes absolute sense: You can’t have the end-of-year party after the end of the year, and you can’t still be doing the shopfitting after the grand opening which you advertised on billboards everywhere. You may have to work through the night if you’re running late.

But let’s take a look at what the Project Management Concepts course is supposed to achieve: it’s supposed to help you build habits, and to entrench your critical Project Management thinking. Stephen Covey calls this the Law of the Farm. Seeds are planted and watered over time, and they grow gradually. Similarly, you can’t rush the growing of habits. So in this case, crashing the project makes no sense.

What should you do then, instead of crashing your study project?

Stop wherever you are in the Test Series, and catch up with your other activities by keeping the same rhythm of 20-minute study sessions. Shift your deadline for completing the course. Schedule one or two additional sessions in a day, but don’t do ten. Validate yourself by setting your mind on the vision, remembering why you’re doing this. Become the leader of the habit-builders.

Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at ProjectManagement.co.za and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.

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