2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Association for Project Management. This is an amazing milestone in the world of project management, and definitely an occasion for various celebrations. It got me thinking about milestones within projects and how recognising and celebrating time-bound achievements can boost positivity and productivity.
Within the fields of neuroscience and psychology, the 50th anniversary of APM would be considered a type of temporal landmark. Temporal landmarks are distinct moments or events that stand out from the regular and routine activities of everyday life. These could include anniversaries, birthdays or the start of a new job for example. These symbolic landmarks help our brain add structure to our memories and experiences. As a result, we naturally organise events and achievements around these landmarks and separate them out into distinct time periods. Understanding the psychology behind temporal landmarks and their effect on people’s motivation to achieve goals is a central component of human motivation.
Temporal landmarks can be positive or negative. Acknowledging and progressing through positive landmarks make us feel good and encourages us to stay focused and productive. Celebrating success also releases dopamine. Studies have shown that we’re less likely to procrastinate on achieving our goals when it comes to a new temporal timeframe - this could be a new year, month, season or phase of a project. This is known as the ‘fresh start effect’, for example, research into this effect found that the term ‘diet’ is searched for more at the beginning of a week, month or year. As a result of passing a temporal landmark, people are keen to start the new time period with achievements and success, and so are more likely to invest time and effort. Psychologically, the impact of a fresh start is a feeling of optimism, hope and renewal. This induces a sense of motivation and encourages us to fill the new time period with positive progress and achievement.
How to use temporal landmarks in your project
Projects are full of opportunities to celebrate temporal landmarks - the approval of business cases, completion of project phases, delivery of outputs or the realisation of benefits. When it comes to maximising the effect of temporal landmarks within projects, there are a few things we can do:
1. Focus on proximity
We have a natural tendency to perceive events that are closer to us in time, as more significant than those that are further away. Within the field of psychology this is known as temporal discounting. When it comes to planning the duration of project phases, keep them short. By breaking projects into manageable chunks that are close in time, we generate more frequent temporal landmarks which are viewed as more significant.
2. Generate strategic landmarks
If we’ve had a challenging or particularly unsuccessful period during a project, recognising a temporal landmark is an effective way of separating out those negative experiences. This creates a psychological fresh start and relegates the challenges of the past into a different psychological time period, allowing us to move on with a renewed sense of vigour and optimism. Create a ‘fresh start’ by defining and announcing a new phase of the project or recognising a new month, quarter, or year to reinvigorate people’s motivation.
3. Look to the future
In addition to recognising and celebrating temporal landmarks that have passed, it’s important to look to the future and more specifically, to the next temporal landmark. Scheduling, communicating and promoting upcoming milestones acts as a key motivator, encouraging people to invest time and effort in something which feels achievable and within reach. Organising a kick-off or close-out event for key project phases is an effective technique for drawing attention to future landmarks.
Do you know when your next temporal landmark is for the project that you work on?
Rodzon, K., Berry, M. and Odum, Amy. 2010. Within-Subject Comparison of Degree of Delay Discounting Using Titrating and Fixed Sequence Procedures. Behavioural processes. 86, pp.164-7.
Scarlett, H. 2016. Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-based Practical Guide to Managing Change. London: Kogan Page.
Dai, H., Milkman, K.L. and Riis, J. 2014. The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), pp. 2563–2582.