Student Syndrome and Management

As I write this it is early June. The time of the year when academic exams are in full swing and many (probably the majority) college students are studying for long hours to pass their exams, having left it to the last minute.

I remember from my time at university, that I followed exactly the same pattern, waiting until the last possible moment before starting my revision. My revision experience usually began a couple of months before I started studying, when I would start to have recurring thoughts about my impending exams. Mostly these thoughts were that I should change my usual behaviour and actually do some studying in advance this time. This didn’t prompt any change in behaviour however. These thoughts would become more frequent and induce ever larger doses of panic, until finally revision could be put off no longer and I would have to start studying. Sound familiar?

It should sound familiar to all of us, but you might not realize it goes by the name of Student Syndrome.

I would imagine that we all suffer from this to some degree, especially when it comes to things that we know we must do but don’t want to. This is probably because as human animals we have historically evolved to be concerned with surviving today and not what might happen in the distant future, for example, next year after we’ve failed our exams. This phenomenon is called hyperbolic discounting, where we discount the future along a hyperbolic curve.

It’s obvious to me that I still suffer to some extent from student syndrome, although you’d never get me (or anyone that knows me for that matter) to say I’m lazy. The last time I moved house I left all the packaging of my possessions to the last minute, with the consequence that on the day of the move I was on my feet for 18 hours straight. Recently I put off a presentation to the last minute, and ended up working until midnight getting it to look just right.

I definitely suffer from student syndrome both in the office and in my everyday life, and believe all but the most extraordinary or unique of people also suffer from it. If this is the case then as project or program managers we must do what we can to limit the impact of student syndrome, so that our projects run more smoothly and predictably.

When I got my first project management job, I was managing a small development team of approximately 10 people. I remember my boss telling me not to schedule any tasks the team estimated to take longer than 2 days. If they did I was to break them down into sub tasks so that they were 2 days or less. The reason for this was twofold. Firstly, to ensure the team was consistently working hard, and secondly, to ensure we could understand and track progress at all times.

Despite the fact I now manage large programs I think the same principle applies, and I like to set lots of mini milestones and deadlines on the project teams for the same reasons outlined above. These mini milestones, or frequent deadlines ensure we (me and the team members) only suffer mini student syndromes.

Finally, the hours I spent creating and perfecting my presentation recently were a period of very intense work and productivity. This got me thinking how much I could achieve if only all my working hours were as productive as that?