Are you finding your projects list overwhelming? Then this week’s podcast is just for you.
Hello and welcome to episode 96 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.
This week’s question is all about managing an overwhelming projects list. A projects list that keeps moving, changing and growing. The problem here is not actually with your projects list but rather the way you are thinking about your whole system.
But before we get to this week’s question, I’d just like to remind you about my current coaching offer’s imminent end. It’s true, my coaching programme’s summer offer will be ending this week. Right now you can sign up for the programme for just $99 and if you wish to continue you can save yourself up to $300 on any of my longer programmes.
I know from my own personal experience how a coach can change your outcomes. As a teenager, I was a pretty useful middle-distance runner. But before I discovered that, a teacher at my school saw me running in a cross country race and recommended I get a coach. He saw something in me I did not see, I guess, but I decided to do just that. I got a coach.
Very quickly my running got better, my speed endurance improved and my race tactics became sharper and more focused. That was because there was now someone guiding me, encouraging me and making small incremental changes to the way I trained and the way I ran races.
I learned that if you want to perform at your best, you cannot do it alone. To get the best out of yourself you need a coach. Someone on the outside who can help you improve your technique. To hold you accountable when you try to take shortcuts and to keep you focused on the goal.
So as we head towards the end of this decade and the start of a new decade, now would be the right time to get yourself a coach. Someone to look at your current system and give you guidance, strategies and methods to improve your overall set up so you can start the new decade Sharpe, focused and motivated to make it the best decade of your life.
All the details of what you get in the programme are in the show notes.
Okay, it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.
This week’s question comes from Dinh Hai. Dinh Hai asks: Hi Carl. I have lots of projects running at the same time. I am having trouble keeping track of all of them. I use Todoist and Evernote quite regularly. Do you have any ideas on managing multiple projects at the same time?
Thank you, Dinh Hai, for the question.
Okay, I think we need to go back to basics here. Whether you are using a pure GTD set up that is operating through contexts (people, place or tool) or you have your own setup, a project folder is just a list of tasks related to a single outcome. Unless you decided to work on a single project all day to the exclusion of everything else, then you are never likely to be working from your project folders. So the number of projects you have going on at any one time is not relevant.
Ultimately, what you do each day is controlled not by the number of projects you have but by the time you have available to do the tasks associated with those projects. You only have 24 hours—the same as everyone else.
We normally work from a daily list of tasks we have decided we want to do today or we are working from a list of tasks that we can only do given where we are, who we are with or what tools we have available.
If we did not have these project placeholders, our inboxes would become a very long list of unrelated tasks and ultimately become overwhelming. That’s why we need a way to categorise and organise our tasks. Whether you do that by project or context doesn't really matter.
So, the only decision you have to make is what will you do today? That is really the only thing you can decide.
Let’s say you have eight hours to do your work today. So the time available is already decided. The decision you need to make is what will you do during those eight hours? If you receive an email that you know will require two or three hours of work, you need to decide whether you will use two to three of your eight hours today to do that task or spend one hour today and one hour tomorrow. That’s the only decision you can make on that work. Of course, you may have the option to delegate or even not do it at all, but it really does not matter where you put that task. What matters is when will you do it?
I think sometimes we overthink our productivity systems and make them far more complicated than they need to be. What it comes down to is how much time do you have to complete your tasks and what tasks will you do in that time?
Now, of course, those decisions will likely be based on time sensitivity—when something is due—and perhaps who gave you the work to do. But those are entirely different decisions to make. The daily decisions you are making are based on what work you will do today given the amount of time you have available.
This is why your calendar should be a big part of your overall productivity system. Your calendar is going to tell you where you are meant to be, what meetings and appointments you have and how much available time you have to do your tasks.
Let me give you an example.
Wednesdays are currently busy teaching days for me. I have five hours of teaching from 8 AM to 6:30 PM. If my working day is between 8 AM and 7 PM that gives me eleven hours of work time. In that time, I will need to find the five hours for teaching—which is fixed, time to eat lunch, exercise, respond to emails and messages and get my daily admin done. I will also need to be aware of the travel time to get to the classes I will teach, which will involve another two to three hours. This means every Tuesday evening when I do my daily planning, I can see there is going to be little or to time for specific project work.
What I will do is see that I have two to three hours of travel time. That essentially is dead time. I travel by public transport to these classes so the question is what work can I do on my phone while I am travelling? For me, that means responding to emails and messages and writing. That’s it. I cannot design a presentation, record a video or podcast. All I can do is do work related to communication and writing.
So, as I am planning my day, I can go into my “writing” and “communication” labels in Todoist and look for work that can be done while I am travelling, assign tomorrow’s date to the task and I am good to go.
This means when I begin my day, the only tasks on my task list for the day are tasks I can do based on where I will be and the available time I have.
This is why spending ten to fifteen minutes at the end of the day looking at your calendar and to-do list planning what you will work on tomorrow is important if you truly want to become more productive. The weekly review is where you make decisions on what you want to accomplish next week and gives you an opportunity to get your projects and other lists cleaned up and current, but it is the daily planning and review where you plan out what you will do the next day.
Now, I know a lot of people feel everything is important, everything needs to be done right now and they are so much busier than anyone else. The reality though is quite different. Everyone has the same amount of time each day and unless you are working on an assembly line cranking out identical widgets all day, you have some degree of flexibility to decide what you will work on next.
It does not matter how many projects you have or how many tasks are in those projects, you are constrained by the amount of time available and what type of work you can do based on where you are, what you have with you and who you are with. I would add another factor too—how much energy you have. If you are sick, suffering from a lack of sleep or just exhausted, your effectiveness at doing your work is not going to be great.
Now you cannot change the laws of physics or the laws of time. You are never going to be able to turn 24 hours into 30 hours. So stop trying to do that. That is just a waste of energy. Instead, work on the things you can affect. That means looking at your calendar, seeing where the gaps are between meetings, training courses, appointments, eating and sleeping and deciding what you will work on from your projects list in that available time.
Get better at prioritising and planning. Learn to say “no” to new commitments that do not excite you and get enough rest. And remember, none of these tips will be of use to you if you are exhausted and have no energy to do the work you want to do.
As I keep saying, becoming better organised and more productive is simple. Doing it is a lot harder, but it’s not impossible. The choice you have to make is between trying to do everything at once and accomplishing very little, or being more strategic and planning out the day ahead with a clear mind and intention in a well-rested state. With those, you can accomplish a lot more in a lot less time.
Well, I hope that has helped you Dinh Hai, I know it is hard to prioritise and get everything you have to do in perspective, but remember we cannot change the laws of time and we can only do what we can do in the time we have available each day.
Thank you for your question and thank you to all of you for listening. I am so grateful to all of you because we have, or will have, reached 100,000 downloads of this podcast. I am humbled to be able to help so many people to become better organised and more productive. Thank you all so so much. I want you to know I do this for you and I have no plans to stop doing what I do.
It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.