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Career Genius: Your August Guide to Slaying It at Work
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Career Genius: Your August Guide to Slaying It at Work

Got a long-term project? Here’s how to make sure you finish

Promotions often come — and entire careers are launched — when someone pulls out a huge, long-term project, especially one that others in an organization have tried and failed at, or simply avoided.

But if you’ve ever tried to write a book or lead a multi-year team project, you know how daily emails and urgencies squeeze out long-term goals. At the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences, a collaboration between the National Security Agency and North Carolina State University, researchers have been watching how collaborating academics, intelligence experts and industry employees get things done — and don’t get things done. Lengthy projects, they find, often pay off amply, yet are an uphill battle to complete. The researchers have published a book about how to foster collaboration, which sheds light on how to prioritize long-term projects.

—Connect the project to a paycheck. Funding drives output. It just does. You know this from watching someone with a full-time job try to do a passion project on the side. Projects often end up serving the interests and funding of their masters, and so connecting your project with a paycheck is prudent.

—Pay attention to the turnarounds of coworkers. At the lab, immediate tasks gained influence over critical two- or 10-year projects. If your peers are working on, say, 48-hour time frames, their priorities will win out unless you actively counteract that dynamic.

—Make it tangible. The lab’s workload skewed toward what the researchers called “tangible widgets that can be implemented quickly.” Humans are tactile creatures and naturally support what they can see and touch. Make your work concrete and tactile for others whenever possible, whether that’s printing chapters or building models.

Learn something new every three weeks

Your mind comfortably perceives stretches of time around 21 days — and suffers when work weeks stretch on in an endless loop, says Belgian organizational psychologist Elke Van Hoof. She encourages employees to schedule a novel activity or learn something new every three weeks, such as learning a handicraft, cooking a new dish, trying a high ropes course, hiking a different trail or meeting a new person. The mind thrives on fresh stimulus, so any new activity will work.

That nonprofit school might not be so nonprofit

You’ve probably heard about the many, many excesses at for-profit colleges. While not all of these schools are bad — some, in fields like allied health, are just fine — others are known for leaving students with sky-high student debt, sub-par educations and less-than-useful degrees. A new study by the Government Accountability Office finds that the newest worrisome trend in education is institutions converting from for-profit to nonprofit status. The move can further enrich owners and greatly confuse potential students who’re on notice to avoid for-profit outfits. You can check to see if schools you’re considering have converted recently, using a list from the Department of Education and another from the Century Foundation.

Don’t stop at merely checking out a school’s overall bona fides. See my column on the actual value of individual college degree programs before committing to a field of study or an institution.

Two summer desk must-haves

Did you know that summer is more pleasant with a fan gently blowing directly at your face, even in air conditioning? It is. Our bodies like a good breeze. Try the Vornado Pivot3 Clip, which quietly circulates air around the whole room and clips onto the back edge of your desk.

Aura digital frames ($159-299) provide the best workday shenanigans around: Give one to your coworker, bestie or spouse, and you control what pops up on their frame, from an app on your phone. Yep. Have fun.

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