The Pitfalls of Project Squirrel Syndrome (PSS)

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Written By: Jennifer Glatz, P.Eng., PMP

April 14, 2020



The beloved talking dog named Dug in the animated movie “Up” perfectly describes what I call “Project Squirrel Syndrome” or PSS in the world of projects. If you haven’t seen the movie, Dug is in the middle of having a conversation with the old man when suddenly a squirrel distracts him in mid-sentence.

So let me ask you…

How many windows and applications do you have open on your desktop right now?

How many meetings do you have scheduled in your calendar today?

How long is your critical task list for the week?

Chances are that if you’ve answered more than 3 to any of these questions above, you’re probably experiencing Project Squirrel Syndrome (PSS). 

This is the moment when you have so much going on and so many things you’re trying to accomplish all at once that you end up finishing very little. You may be making incremental progress with all of the tasks you have on the go, but it’s important to recognize when you’re not finishing tasks completely and getting them off your list.

Many Project Coordinators often experience this issue but may not be aware that it’s truly hurting their chances of getting a promotion into a PM role. Why? Project Managers are measured on how effectively they deliver projects that produce tangible business results. If you are seen as someone who doesn’t fully complete tasks or doesn’t deliver tangible results in your current role, your employer will likely feel that you are not ready for the next step up.

So what can you do about it? Here are a few causes and remedies.

PSS Cause #1: You’re addicted to saying YES.

Many of us working on projects (me included) get our dose of dopamine when we have many tasks on the go and the project is buzzing along. Some take pride in being able to multitask, some crave the excitement of having a different day every day, and for others it’s taking in the comfort of knowing what’s going on in every corner of the project. But if your daily task list is longer than your arm and you feel most days that you’re busy but not accomplishing much, the issue may be that you’re addicted to saying YES and taking on tasks that you shouldn’t.

PSS Remedy #1: It is good practice to take a few moments at the beginning of each day to lay out your Top 3 priorities that you’re going to focus on and double-check that they are all going to contribute to tangible business results for the project. If needed, schedule dedicated time in your calendar when you’re going to focus on these tasks. If you use this technique, notify your team of your no-fly times so you can concentrate, as well as provide them with times when you are available for questions.

PSS Cause #2: You’re procrastinating to avoid a difficult task or problem.

Especially now that many of us are working from home, have you caught yourself doing that load of laundry or taking the garbage out just to avoid a task you’re not thrilled about? The same thing happens in the office where we keep ourselves busy as an excuse not to tackle a problem head-on. This issue is often exacerbated when the project is in trouble as many of us just want to escape the pain for just one more day by staying busy with something else.

PSS Remedy #2: If you catch yourself procrastinating, explore what task you are being pulled away from. Chances are that thing you don’t want to do is probably the most important thing you should be doing. Once you recognize your behavior, pull yourself back to tackling that difficult task or problem. It probably won’t be as bad as you think!

PSS Cause #3: You’re unclear of the exact status of your project.

It does happen where the system you are using to track your project progress is broken. It could be that the data on cost, schedule, productivity, etc. are telling you one thing, but your project team is telling you another. When this happens, it is likely that you are feeling like you’re being pulled in many directions and that you’re in that constant reactive state.

PSS Remedy #3: If you see these symptoms, hit the PAUSE button on your project to figure out the exact issue. Is there a part of the data that is missing or incorrect? Is the team struggling with a specific issue? Is the method you’re using to collect data on project status still the right fit for the team? Consider these questions and adjust your strategy as needed. If you were using traditional methods to track progress, this might be the right time to switch to more agile methods.

PSS Cause #4: The business drivers and success factors of your project are not well understood.

In PSS Remedy #1 above, I talked about prioritizing your tasks to align with the business results for the project. This becomes really difficult if the business drivers and success factors of the project are not well understood by you and your team to begin with! Did a separate team conduct the sale with the client and then pass the project over to you to execute? Did you inherit a project mid-way through? Did your project go through a significant scope change? 

PSS Remedy #4: Whenever you feel that things are getting a bit fuzzy as to why a certain task is on your plate, make it a habit to go back to the Project Initiation documents including the Charter, the Statement of Work (SOW), and the contract. Regain perspective on why you are doing the project and what the end results are expected to be. This will help you gain clarity on what tasks to prioritize, delegate, or drop altogether.

Overall, if you are experiencing Project Squirrel Syndrome (PSS), don’t worry – you’re not alone! The important thing is to recognize that it’s happening, determine the cause, and pivot back to the business objectives to get yourself back on track.