Juggling multiple projects

If you only have one project to focus on at work, this essay is not for you.

This essay is for people who have to balance competing priorities and somehow make progress across all of them, simultaneously. The people who’ve discovered if you do a task well, you get three more.

Almost every job I’ve had has been in this category. And I’ve slowly figured out a way to ensure progress happens across multiple threads, even with urgent stuff arriving at the front door. It’s not rocket science, it’s just a simple system that seems to work.

The trouble with to-do lists

Productivity geeks love to-do lists because they prevent multitasking. You’re not allowed to move to the next task until you’ve completed the current one, which avoids the overheads of frequent task-switching.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to manage multiple projects using a sequential task list. You have to get the size of your tasks right, otherwise you’ll starve some of your projects. For instance, if one task is too ambitious and takes five days to complete, all other projects will stall during that time. This is easily done because it’s hard to judge how long something will take before you start.

To solve this problem, you could skip around your to-do list and work on each project evenly. I’ve tried doing that but found it difficult to manage. Firstly, to-do lists are designed to be linear and it just feels wrong to cherry-pick items lower in the list. Secondly, I struggled to gauge how much time I was spending on each topic when I worked that way. As a result, I wasn’t confident I was allocating my time in accordance with the importance of each project.

Another challenge with to-do lists is deciding how to handle urgent tasks. Do you put them near the top of the list because they need to be finished quickly? I found that strategy problematic because you end up making no progress down your list at all.

It became clear to me that naïve to-do lists can’t cope with multiple competing priorities and the frequent arrival of urgent tasks. Something slightly more complex was needed.

Think about efforts rather than results

The a-ha moment came when I listened to Nir Eyal on the Kevin Rose podcast. He was talking about how people focus too much on outputs when they should be thinking about inputs.

He gave an example of someone struggling with insomnia. If that person focused intently on the desired output – a peaceful night’s sleep – it’s almost certain they won’t succeed. They can’t control the output, no matter how much they want it.

What they can control is the inputs to a good night’s sleep. They can improve their diet, take sufficient exercise and minimise blue light in the evenings. If they focus on those three inputs, the output will take care of itself.

This insight was a useful reframe for thinking about ongoing projects. Rather than focusing on completing tasks (the output), I should focus on spending a balanced amount of time on each project (the inputs). Controlled multitasking should produce the desired output, given enough time.

There’s nothing inherently evil about multitasking, provided the frequency of switching is long enough. If you swap tasks every 10 minutes, you’ll hamper your effectiveness. But if you swap tasks every three hours or every day, that’s fine. Using this approach, I was able to nudge multiple projects forward without impacting efficiency.

I’ve talked about planning your week before, so I won’t go into any more details on calendar tips and tricks. But just ensure you leave a buffer in your calendar for unforeseen urgent work. I recommend putting that slack time at the end of the day, so you start each morning focused on what matters.

Maintain separate to-do lists per work theme

Once your calendar is balanced across multiple projects, the final step is to create individual to-do lists for each topic.

Separate lists allow you to make progress in priority order for each topic you work on while simplifying prioritisation of new work. As you process a batch of email, new tasks can be quickly slotted into their appropriate to-do list. This avoids making prioritisation comparisons across multiple projects, which is quite difficult.

I’ve been following this approach for a few years now and enjoy the simplicity. Each morning, I look at my calendar and see which project I’m working on today. I then open the appropriate to-do list and work through it. There’s no need to fret about other projects because I’ve allocated time for them later in the week. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s very helpful for focus.

When something urgent arises, I use my discretionary time at the end of the day to address it. Or if it’s life-and-death urgent, I reschedule my focus time later in the day and solve the problem right now. But either way, it’s significantly less likely I’ll spend the whole day fighting fires. With a structured calendar and a collection of to-do lists, my work is much better aligned to my priorities.

It’s not rocket science

If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking: “So what? That’s obvious”. And that’s fine if you are. If you already figured out this system or something that works for you, that’s great.

People seem to read productivity advice looking for an unexpected silver bullet. Some neat tactic that completely resolves procrastination and time management, wrapped up in a simple blog post.

The truth about productivity is that effective ideas are simple. It just takes a bit of experimentation to see which systems work well.