Ask a PM: How to Juggle Everything without Overloading Your Brain

Elizabeth Harrin | August 20, 2019

Project Overload
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Dear Elizabeth: I manage multiple projects, and the team juggles a lot. I’m worried about keeping so many pieces in my mind at once so that nothing slips through. I’ve tried various methods of tracking everything, and while some have worked for a while, most ceased to be effective at some point or became more of a burden. What tips have you got to keep my to-do list in order and my brain out of overload?

These days it’s common to be juggling multiple projects and handling a lot. I think the more traditional view of how we manage projects doesn’t reflect the expectation that we’ve got more than one thing on the go at one time. I hardly ever meet project managers just doing one project. Whether you’re in an Agile or predictive environment, your business most likely expects you to be spinning multiple plates, and your project management theory from training courses is presented as if you have all the time in the world to focus on one thing.

You find yourself in a common predicament and, unfortunately, one that I don’t have a magic wand for. Being able to juggle your workload is mainly down to your personal preferences for managing your time and having a mindset that allows you to focus on what’s important at any moment.

However, I can share are some things with you to try, and the first one is tools.

Choose the Right Tools

You say that you’ve tried various methods of tracking and none have been effective in the long term. There actually aren’t that many methods of tracking work. You can have a to-do list as a written task list. You can have a more visual way of managing your tasks, such as a personal Kanban board. You can keep your list on paper or on an app. That’s about it. Everything else is a variation on those themes.

First, decide if you are a paper or software person. I’m a paper person, but even I have software I use for certain types of tasks (i.e., my project activities) so you can be both. For me, my personal, non-project related tasks go into a single to-do list in a notebook. Everything that is to do with getting my project done goes into my project management software, which lets me track tasks and schedule items. This is important because you don’t want to put small tasks like “Send out the board papers” on the project schedule, or your timeline will soon get very cluttered.

It sounds like you haven’t found a tool that works for you yet. It doesn’t matter whether that’s a beautiful notebook or a smartphone app. Keep looking.

Shift Tools When You Need To

It’s OK to have several different tools over time. As we learn more, develop as project managers, or change habits and behaviors, we might like to use different tools, so it’s not an issue that you have switched up how you manage your many projects. Personal preferences change. Go with it.

Different projects may need different methods of tracking, so what worked for you on last year’s projects might not be suitable this time around. Grow with your tools. Check out the extra functionality in your project management software that you might not yet be using. Often there are additional features we’ve forgotten about or have never used that could be the answer to what you need right now.

Prioritize Your Time

Let’s put tools aside for the moment and think about the other part of the time management equation: your ability to prioritize work.

You’ve got many projects on the go. You’ve got many tasks. They aren’t all the same priority level and they don’t all need to be done right now.

Find an easy way to prioritize what needs to be done so you can apply order to your to-do items. Obviously, you want to focus on the most urgent and important items first, but what parameters do you use to identify those?

You could set personal rules for prioritization like these:

  • Anything from my immediate line manager or project sponsor is done first.
  • Anything on Project X is completed ahead of work on Project Y.
  • Anything required to ensure we hit our next milestone is prioritized above other project work.
  • Anything that takes less than five minutes to complete will be done during the first hour of the day.
  • Any calls from Colleagues A, B, and C will be answered immediately; everyone else can leave a message, and I’ll return calls once a day.

These are generic “rules” that you could apply to any situation, but it’s important your prioritization is done in line with the organization’s priorities. It’s no good, for example, for you to be prioritizing Project X if the business thinks that Project Y is the most strategically important.

Talk to your line manager or PMO to get a feel for what your project-related priorities should be. Clarity about your workload and the order you should approach tasks will help you feel that the overload is under control.

If you have tasks in your project management tool, use that to help you prioritize. Many software tools let you ‘star’ important tasks, change their color, set a deadline date, and so on. Use the features available to you to support your prioritization.

Do the Important Stuff First

This next point is obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning: do the priority work first! When I talk to project managers about time management, I often hear that they are struggling to get everything done, but they procrastinate on the big important jobs in favor of dealing with unimportant incoming emails or smaller tasks.

Yes, it’s a simpler start to the day to do the easier, fast tasks first, but are they really where you should be spending your time? Probably not.

I often start my day with a quick win: doing something fast so I can tick off an item on my list and feel like I’ve got some momentum going. But you can’t spend all day doing that while the priority work builds up.

There is no formula or tool in the world that will stop you working on the wrong things. That’s down to your choices, your willpower, and your ability to stop procrastinating on the hard tasks. That is what sets brilliant project managers apart from good project managers. Which do you want to be?

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management

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