Getting many projects done
February 21, 2008 11:21 PM   Subscribe

How do you keep track of multiple projects at the same time, and get good work done on all of them?

I typically have several projects going on at the same time on different unrelated topics. They all require a good amount of time? How best does one manage time so that all projects constantly move forward at a steady pace? How does one make decisions on prioritizing, as well as deal with the interest drop-off that comes when particular projects get stuck in difficulties? It is always tempting to focus on the project that is working best, leaving other stagnant.

What is the best strategy for time management when one has several projects running at the same time?
posted by markovich to Work & Money (10 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on the kind of work.

If the projects are relatively independent, the best thing to do is to not multitask, but do one after the other.

Consider three projects, A, B and C. They each will take 10 days.


If you do them one after the other, A will be complete on day 11, B on day 21 and C on day 31.

Suppose you decide to alternate 5 day blocks.


Now A will be 10 days later, on day 21; B will be 5 days later, on day 26; and C will be no earlier. It gets worse, the smaller the time interval you pick. And then there's the overhead of picking up one thing and putting down another....

So if you possibly can, don't multitask. If necessary, lie to the people who are interested in B and C.

If that idea intrigues you, look into the work of Eliyahu Goldratt on the theory of constraints.

If you have no option about multitasking, whether for political reasons, or because of when other resources come free, schedule your personal work using Dave Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. GTD suggests a workflow for prioritizing tasks and choosing next actions that ensures that you'll always have something making progress. I'm not going to outline it here because the web is filled with GTD stuff, or you can just buy the book.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:42 PM on February 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

Definitely avoid multitasking if possible. Context switches between different jobs, even a 5 minute quickie, cost you a lot more time to get back into the right frame of mind for the original task.

Focusing on one project at a time is therefore the best plan, *if* you're the only one involved. If any project needs input from other people, or you need to hand off work to other people then you need to include that in your priority planning. To avoid getting bogged down, break large projects up into smaller manageable chunks, ideally of a couple hours work at a time max, and treat them as individual jobs. Focus on high-impact easy jobs first, then high-impact hard jobs 2nd, low-impact easy jobs third, and bin low-impact hard jobs if possible.

If you have two or more projects that you estimate of equal priority, and you can't decide which is more important to do first (especially if you have conflicting users/clients screaming for theirs first), involve your boss - they're often useful at knowing the bigger picture, and can sometimes help get rid of projects that shouldn't be on your desk anyway. More bluntly, they help carry the shitcan when people (on job B and C above) complain they weren't done first.

If there's a bit in a project you're really stymied on, stick a job to revisit it with fresh eyes on the next day's joblist, and start on a different job/chunk. If you're stuck because of someone else, schedule a job early in the day, daily, to chase up the person holding you up until you get what you need - this includes suppliers.

Have a regular 10-20 minute bit at the start of the day where you schedule what you want to acomplish for the day with a tasklist, with a bit left over for interuptions, with the jobs prioritised according to user expectations. Mark the small jobs complete as you do them on the tasklis, so you know what's been done and what hasn't. Jobs which don't get done get bumped to the next day. Further off jobs/meetings/events get assigned dates in the calendar so they don't get forgotten. I use a job ticket system (trac) to log all incoming work for myself and my co-workers in the department, and break up big jobs into smaller ones. The jobs for the day get pulled off the ticket system, put into my personal joblist during that first 10 minutes, and assigned time in the calendar. Helps stop me slacking. Periodically, I go through the older jobs and either cancel them (because they've been completed and not recorded, or they are no longer needed) or bump them up in urgency.

Every job that comes in is done immediately (if I'm right there and it'll only take 2 minutes), recorded in my tasklist for that day, or delegated either to myself on a later day via the department ticket system, or more likely farmed out to another IT support guy via a ticket.

This is a quick summary of the methods in "time management for system administrators" by Thomas Limoncelli - I use it personally, it's ideal for people with several larger projects on the go constantly interupted by smaller jobs. It does take a while to get into the routine though.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:28 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

The most competent project manager I ever worked for had a method that was Zen-like in its simplicity. He did nothing at all until somebody yelled at him, and then he did their stuff.

He's a genius, and makes way way more money than I ever have.
posted by flabdablet at 1:02 AM on February 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

Planning, planning, planning. At the end of each day, spend at least 15-30 minutes mapping out the next day. Then, the next day, stick to the plan. At midday, revise and modify. Then stick to the plan again.

Break your different projects into tasks. Then make a plan based on a combined task lists, with four categories:

a) Important, urgent
b) Important, non-urgent
c) Less important, urgent
d) Less important, non-urgent

Always allocate some time to all 4 categories, otherwise stuff in d) will quickly morph into a lot of stuff in a).

The key is to ALWAYS allocate time for planning. Every day.
posted by randomstriker at 2:05 AM on February 22, 2008

Make a backwards plan -- figure out all the steps that need to be done for each project and the order they need to be done in, then work backwards to schedule them. If step 10 needs be done by a certain date, how long will you need to work on it after you complete step 9, etc.

For keeping track of all your individual project tasks I recommend the online task management program Remember the Milk. You can put projects in different lists or tag them or whatever. Works well with GTD.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:12 AM on February 22, 2008

This is the sort of thing that varies a lot from job to job; in how long the projects take to complete, in how hard and fast the deadlines are.

In my job, I guess you could say I have the core projects I'm working on and that have pretty well defined deadlines, then I have the "other stuff" that colleagues have asked me to do or help them out with. As flabdablet suggests, I only do this "other stuff" when people start to get on my case about it. Working in academia, there is an expectation that you will apply your expertise to help other people out and collaborate in areas that aren't your core job, but I guess in other fields, "helping people out" might just be considered a waste of your time.

I try to spend a whole day on one project at a time. Unless I find I'm going nowhere with it, then I'll move onto something else and put it on the back burner. Usually, two or three days later, I'll suddenly figure something out in my head and go back to complete the original task.

Some days I have a whole heap of "little things" to do - in this case, I just make a list. Not some fancy online To Do list, just a scrap of paper so I can have satisfaction crossing things off when they're done.
posted by Jimbob at 4:02 AM on February 22, 2008

You might try GTD. I'm constantly making category-specific lists to organize myself.
posted by LakesideOrion at 5:29 AM on February 22, 2008

I would echo the above advice about trying to avoid the multi-tasking if possible. An analogy: it's similar to the debt-snowball theory, where you may have 6 ongoing debts and you choose to pay down the smallest one first, even if it's at a lower interest rate.

Of course the difference is that you will always have ongoing projects. So what I've found successful is using Basecamp to manage projects.

Basecamp is designed to be project collaboration, and it works great when you can get other people on the project to get on board. But I also use it simply for myself, I like the way it creates Milestones and To-Do lists and triggers emails. It also has a nice "birds-eye" view that shows you all your ongoing projects at once.
posted by jeremias at 6:35 AM on February 22, 2008

Seconding Basecamp, and backwards planning. And blocking out three hours a day of solid work time, during which telephone and email are virtually inaccessible.

Also, learn to make your project projections involving other resources taking their workstyles into account. My database development resources deliver on time from a hospital bed in a snowstorm. Creative will be three days late if I'm lucky, and five-ten if anyone in their immediate family sneezes. Make the overall plan accordingly!
posted by mozhet at 9:58 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

You care to much.

Your projects are not important.

These are not the droids you're looking for.
posted by up!Rock at 12:33 PM on November 25, 2008

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