Managing multiple big projects at once

I’ve got a couple big projects in process right now. I’m working on a guidebook for the Philanthropy Roundtable that looks at issues of teacher and principal quality. How should philanthropists best invest to make a difference in those areas? I’m also writing a feature for City Journal on innovations in school meals programs. Schools are working to meet the new nutrition standards, but there’s always that tension parents experience too — how do you serve healthy meals that kids will actually eat? And, of course, I’m starting work on Mosaic. I’m collecting time logs, and networking my way into more of them (got access to a professional women’s networking group featuring a high number of high-earning moms? I’d like to talk to you about ways we can work together). These projects are in addition to the usual shorter pieces I write for various places.

In some ways the variety is good. One way to keep one’s energy up during the day is to shift gears. If I’ve been writing for a few hours, doing a bit of research on a completely different topic can perk me up. So can having a phone conversation. However, I have to devote enough time to each project to feel like I’m making progress. Progress is motivating. A lack of progress is pretty de-motivating.

So right now, I’m time blocking my days. This morning, I worked on writing the draft of the Philanthropy Roundtable book from 8-10 a.m. Then I worked on finding sources for my school meals piece from 10-noon, sending several emails to people I’d like to interview. Then I had lunch. Then I worked more on the Philanthropy Roundtable book, but I could tell (when I wrote this in mid-afternoon) that my energy was flagging. I kept getting distracted. Part of the problem is that I sometimes hit a mental word count maximum for the day. I put in about 3000 words on the teacher quality book. This blog post ran another 500 or so. The emails add their own writing component, though I tend not to count that. I might be able to crank out another piece tonight based on some interviews I did this afternoon, but we’ll see. 4000 words is pretty close to what I can reasonably do on any given day. So writing drafts of longer pieces is often about how I manage within that limit. If I have 3 projects going, is it better to do some words on each, or more words on one?

In general, I’d say more words on one, and do other components on the others (finding sources, interviews, editing, etc.). But I’m curious how other people manage multiple projects at the same time.

6 thoughts on “Managing multiple big projects at once

  1. “One way to keep one’s energy up during the day is to shift gears.”

    This is why I love the work I do right now. I have multiple projects — some shorter, some longer, some that take 10 minutes at a time throughout the day. Whenever I feel my energy slumping, I think, “Is there another project I could work on right now?” Because if I’m procrastinating or taking too much time on a project, then it’s just a waste, and there’s probably something smaller I could just get DONE really quickly — and then the finished product catapults my energy levels.

    1. @Rachel- getting stuff done really is good for motivation. That’s one reason I love crossing stuff off the list…

  2. My professional life is pretty much a mishmash of completely disparate tasks and several simultaneous projects. Sometimes its great—when I tire of writing I can do phone calls, or lab work… or I can switch between this project and that project…but sometimes I feel like I’m just jumping around, spinning my wheels. I’m really trying to implement some sort of schedule, based on day of week and time of day, for the different tasks, but it seems that “emergencies” (or other people’s sense of urgency) seem to undermine my plans most days.
    I’ve decided to start time-tracking tomorrow and try to 7 days in a row. I’ve tried starting on Sunday or Monday or Friday and I simply kept forgetting. Maybe mid-week will work better!

    1. @Ana – I’ve seen a lot of people start mid week, and yes, I think it sometimes is easier. Monday gets very busy with stuff from over the weekend. Mid-week it calms down, and then you’re in the habit by the time the weekend rolls around (which is devilishly hard to track!)

  3. I can do 3 projects at a time easily (not counting teaching) by working on some of each each day. More than that and I have to get something off my plate because I can’t keep things straight anymore. I’m in the “getting stuff off my plate one at a time” mode right now, which means working on just one thing until it is gone. Then I can go back to threading my remaining projects.

  4. In the past I would have devoted fixed, equal amount of hours to each of the several projects I wanted to make progress with, but now I am buying more and more into the power of focus and the importance of priorities. Your post kind of confirms some of the ideas. I guess at this point in time I’d much rather spend up to 70% of my time and energy on the one main project I am trying to finish, and use the remaining 30% for ‘recreation’, which would mostly mean side projects. Then once the main project is finished, it can be replaced by the next project in line.

    This is not an absolute rule though; sometimes we are faced with equally important things that all have to be handled urgently. It can potentially and understandably get slightly chaotic at times. But luckily, often I find that multiple big projects tend to organize themselves in such a way that only one or two have greater priority than the others on a given day. I often wish I had more time to finish the rest of them though. Usually what ends up suffering are my Coursera courses.

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