Very few of us have only one project going at a time. Managing multiple projects coming from our various areas of responsibility and interest is a challenge that requires intention and discipline.
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Some thoughts on managing multiple projects
One of the most common comments that came up in the discussions about the recent Dream to Done mini-series (episodes 125, 126, 127, and 129) is the challenge of managing multiple projects and their associated tasks — what I call “herding the cats.” The many roles we play in life, our various areas of interest and responsibility, all can be sources of projects that compete for our time, energy, and attention. At a minimum, many of us have a work project (or two or more), plus home or personal projects, in progress.
This episode features some of the ideas, tools, and approaches I use to keep track of multiple projects.
The Basic Principles
- Have a system in place for capturing all projects and their associated tasks, ideas, notes, and resources.
- Develop a routine for planning, reviewing, and monitoring your projects.
- Develop a schedule for actually doing the stuff.
- Be consistent about using the system you have set up.
The System — Tools
I’ve talked about task management options in the past, in episode 30 (Task Management Options) and episode 65 (How to Choose a Task Manager), for instance. What we’re talking about here, though, is more than a simple to-do list. As we’ve discussed recently, there is a difference between a project and a task (see episode 130 for more about this). If you’re trying to manage multiple projects with multiple tasks you will need something more intentional and more robust than a to-do list.
Tips for using a paper-based system
If you prefer using a paper-based planner and calendar, you can adapt and enhance that system to help you keep track of all the moving pieces. For instance, you might:
- Use a notebook with a separate section for each project
- Color-code entries or different types of tasks, such as a different color for phone calls, meetings, notes, etc. (Note: This approach could fall apart if you need to add items on the go, and don’t happen to have the right color of pen with you.)
- Use signifiers (as used in Bullet Journaling): symbols designating different types of tasks, notes, and reminders.
The important thing is to be consistent in using whatever method you choose.
As I was preparing for this episode I saw a tweet by former guest Lisa Woodruff about her blog post detailing her approach to organizing a lot of projects and tasks using color-coded Post-It Notes or index cards, and a big bulletin board. You could use a wall or whiteboard to hold them as well. This is a great approach for visual thinkers.
If you’re using paper, you also need a place to capture any papers related to your projects. If your notebook is a planner, you can use pocket dividers in your notebook, or you can use some file folders on your desk for capturing everything that relates to your project.
Tips for using a digital system
If you prefer to use a digital task/project management system, then the theory is the same, but you will go about it differently. Instead of notebook sections, you’ll make use of your digital tools’ features like categories, color-coding, and tags.
Most digital task managers allow you to set up categories. In my OmniFocus setup I have categories for my different areas of responsibility: Home, Work, TPW, Writing, and Personal. Each project I create gets assigned to one of those categories.
Once I’ve created a project, I list underneath it all the tasks required to complete that project.
Your task manager likely will allow you to add notes to various tasks. So, for example, if one of your tasks is to make a particular phone call, you can put the phone number in the notes space, along with any information or ideas you’ll need when you make the call.
Most digital task managers have a tagging feature, which allows you to identify and sort your tasks in a variety of ways, such as:
- The tool you need to use (e.g., phone or computer)
- The location the task must be done (e.g., home, office, errands)
- The energy level required (e.g., low-energy, focus)
- The amount of time the task will take (e.g., 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour or more)
- The person whose input you need for the task (e.g., spouse, boss, a client, your assistant)
Any “context” that’s relevant to particular types of tasks can be turned into a tag, and most task management tools let you assign more than one tag to a task. This allows you to sort and view your tasks in various ways that are useful to you.
Some examples of when tags would be helpful:
- If you’re going to make phone calls: click on the Phone tag to get a list of all the calls you need to make for your various projects, and make them all at once.
- Going to town to run errands: click on the Errands tag to get a list of all errands.
- Meeting with your boss: click on her tag to get all the tasks that require her input.
- Have 15 minutes between meetings? Or a conference call canceled, so you have an unexpected 30 minutes? Click on the corresponding tag to see what tasks you have that could be completed in that time.
- Late afternoon slump, and you are feeling tired & distracted, but you need to make some progress? Click on the “low energy” tag to see what tasks you need to do that can be done when you’re not at your best.
- Have scheduled a two-hour block of time to work on your projects. Instead of frittering it away on whatever random tasks catch your attention, click the “focus” tag to see what are your tasks that require focus, and choose one of those.
The purpose of tags is to allow you to sort your tasks in a way that’s meaningful to you, but you don’t want to get carried away making too many tags.
Whatever system you choose, you want it to be as simple as possible, but as robust or “detailed” as necessary. The idea isn’t to spend a lot of time fiddling with the tools, but to have what you need available when you need it, spend as little time as possible in the system, and most of your time actually doing the work.
The Routine — Planning, Reviewing, Monitoring
When you have multiple projects, or projects with multiple moving parts, it becomes even more important to be intentional about creating and using the system and to be dedicated to regular planning and review times. This is the key.
First you put everything into your system.
Then you need to schedule regular times for reviewing what’s there.
I recommend spending a few minutes in the late afternoon or evening to prepare for the next day: scan the lists, mark off things completed, check for upcoming deadlines, determine what must be done tomorrow, and decide what you will start with first in the morning.
If you’re particularly busy, you might also include a midday pause to assess your progress and recalibrate. Take 5-10 minutes to scan the lists again, mark off completed tasks, check for progress, and confirm you’re focusing on the right things.
A key practice for managing multiple projects is a regular weekly review. This is a deeper look than the quick daily check-ins. Set aside 30-60 minutes to check all projects, mark off completed tasks (celebrate your progress!), re-evaluate what’s left and whether things should be deferred, delegated, or deleted, and add anything new that’s come to mind. This gives you the opportunity to confirm priorities and to check deadlines for the upcoming week. Look at your calendar and make appointments with yourself (and others as necessary) for the deep work and necessary meetings in order to make progress on your projects.
Your weekly review for your work life might happen early afternoon on Friday, leaving time to make necessary plans for the coming week.
Separately from the Friday review at the office, I like to set aside time on Sunday afternoons to do my “whole life” weekly review and prepare for the coming week.
Coordinating with a team
If you work with a team, schedule regular check-ins with a plan and purpose, but keep them as short as possible. (The goal is to get work done, not spend lots of time talking about it.) Consider stand-up meetings or taking a walk while you talk. This keeps things brief. Meetings can be valuable and important, but be prepared to cancel if there is no reason to meet that week.
Consider using shared tools for tracking projects and tasks. If you all work in the same location, you can use a whiteboard, but if you work remotely, consider using Trello or Asana. Whichever option you choose, using a shared tool allows everyone to see who’s responsible for what, how projects are progressing, what’s been completed, and what’s coming next. You can use Slack to communicate within a team in a more efficient (and less disruptive) way than sending emails. Use Google Docs if you need to collaborate with others in drafting. A shared Dropbox folder lets you quickly and easily share files.
Consistency and Discipline are the Keys
The important thing is to be consistent and disciplined. Develop the habit of putting everything into the system you’ve created. If you’re inconsistent, your mind will use precious energy trying to remember those appointments, reminders, notes, and bits of information. That’s energy that can’t be used for creative thinking or problem-solving.
While I was working on the outline for this episode, I got an e-newsletter from psychiatrist, productivity expert, and author Kourosh Dini, M.D., which shared and linked to his blog post and video that describes his process for managing multiple projects in a way that leaves your mind free to create. It’s well worth checking out.
Remember: productivity is not about doing more stuff, it’s about doing the right stuff. Creating a good system to manage projects doesn’t mean you should take on more. You still need to make choices about what you want to take on, based on whatever criteria you find are important to you, such as your values and the kind of life you want to live. If you’re overwhelmed or “too busy,” maybe it’s not because your system can’t handle the number of projects you have. Maybe you’re trying to do too much.
If the objective is to make a life that matters (however you define that), you need to consider the concept we’ve learned from Greg McKeown’s important book, Essentialism: “less but better.” It’s better to give your best time, attention, energy, and efforts to fewer projects than to spread yourself too thinly among many.
The purpose of having a good project management system is not to allow you to take on more and more and more. Make sure you give your very best to the projects you choose, those things that really matter to you, and to allow yourself to be efficient in your work, not spin your wheels and waste time, and thereby create white space in your life. The purpose is NOT to let you cram more activity into your days, but more meaning and joy.
What do you think?
Questions about managing multiple projects? If you’re good at this, please share the tools and systems you use. You can share your comments, questions, and suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me!
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