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Dealing with the “Student Syndrome”

February 13th, 2008 · 1,580 Comments

The is something that we all have experienced one way or another. It is evident that most of us tend to do at least to some degree of cramming for exams, completing papers, completing projects, doing problem sets and more. The student syndrome is based on our human tendency. For example, the student syndrome is demonstrated where, if we have 25 days to do an assignment, we put off most of the work until the final days or hours before it is due!

The Student Syndrome in our Projects

Back when I was a student in Business school at Carnegie Mellon University we had what were called mini semesters. These mini semesters were only about 7 and half weeks long. When a semester started we were only two or three weeks away from mid-terms, with constant classes, projects due, papers and more. I soon found out that it was pretty hopeless to think that there was much room to slacking off early in the mini semester, because if you did, you rapidly became hopelessly behind. Virtually every day counted and I found that this changed the experience and my behavior – not that I would have ever admitted to being a slacker!

That simple experience taught me a lesson, and frankly, I had never heard of the “student syndrome” before. What it taught me was that short term deadlines are a great antidote to slacking off, and that short term goals and deliverables demand the most out of individuals on a regular basis. I learned that consistent and focused personal productivity could really be achieved by setting near term goals.

The Student Syndrome and the “Last Minute”

Years after I graduated from Business School, my wife and I joked – usually after we were on the road for a vacation. Our time before vacations frequently involves getting done not only what we must do to prepare for the vacation but, all the things that did not get done since our last vacation. Somehow, vacations have become a bit of a subconscious milestone for us – or should I say for me. What my wife and I have jokingly said is “It would be amazing how much we could get done if every minute was the last minute”. Yes, this is the student syndrome in action in every day life!

Coping with the Student Syndrome on Your Project Team

To fight the ills of the student syndrome on your projects, set short term deadlines. I personally think that is one of the strengths of the agile method where work products are done within fairly short time frames, of say two to six weeks. This bears an uncanny resemblance I think to mini semesters at Carnegie Mellon Business School. So, when you design your work packages from the work break down schedule, keep those packages within a two to four or maybe six week time frame at the most. Make them a whole challenging complete deliverable that those performing a related package can for the most part control. Do not allow external reasons or excuses to creep into the mix; protect the defined boarders of the work package from outside influences as much as possible.

I think the student syndrome can be managed. The key is to acknowledge its existence and to plan your projects accordingly, setting short term goals for deliverables. and truly letting people ‘run with it’, with minimal interference.


John Reiling, PMP

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