Project Management and the Secret of the Harbor Master

You have a busy job with a lot of responsibilities and there are different projects you need to attend to simultaneously; your boss is waiting for your input on a report, your team is developing a new product, and then there is your own project due for completion. You continuously switch between tasks. It’s hard to focus, and you have a scattered brain. All your hard work does not show in the progress of your project. At the end of the day, you feel tired, stressed, and frustrated. Maybe the Secret of the Harbor Master can help?

What is the Secret of the Harbor Master?

Imagine a sunny morning at the harbor. Five ships enter the harbor. These ships must be unloaded, and every captain demands his ship to be the first. Unloading a ship takes five days for one person, or one day for five persons. The harbor master has five dock-hands available. How should he allocate his people?

Before you continue reading, I urge you to stop for a moment to consider your response. The answer might surprise you.


Better performance with equal effort

Faced with this riddle, most people will conclude that it doesn’t matter how the harbor master allocates his people. It will always take five days to unload all ships. This conclusion is correct, of course. And yet, there is time to gain by choosing the right approach.
If the Harbor Master allocates one person to each ship, it will take five days for all ships to unload. However, if he allocates five people to the same ship, that ship will be finished that same day. Now this ship can continue to its next destination. Better performance with the same effort!
Now let’s say each ship represents one task. The harbor is your to-do list. You are the Harbor Master and the dock-hand is symbolic for your capacity. In this scenario it pays off to finish one task before moving on to the next one.

It takes time and energy to divide your attention

Every time you switch from one task to the next your concentration suffers. On average, it will take twenty minutes for your focus to return to its full capacity. You can imagine how much time and energy you’ll waste when during the workday you divide your attention among different projects. Sequential, processing of tasks improves not only your performance and output, but it also helps you enhance your focus and inner peace.

Finishing is key to inner peace

The Secret of the Time Master is to focus on one task at a time, and finish it before starting a new one. ‘Finish’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the task needs to be seen through the end. Especially with bigger projects, where multiple persons are involved, it’s not always possible to complete a task entirely. You can, however, resolve to stop at a logical point. The point on which you have done the important things you needed to do for the project to be moved forward, by yourself, or others. For the activities not yet finished, you have created a plan. Once you have successfully unloaded one ship      (= finished a task), you can move on to the next.

With this strategy, the effectiveness of your team improves while you get to enjoy inner peace and more time for other engagements.

Would you like this and many more super effective Time Management skills, check out our online time management training.