The Working With... Podcast | Episode 09 | Managing Multiple Work And Personal Projects


In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about managing multiple projects as well as multiple personal projects.

Hello and welcome to episode 9 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show. 

In this week’s show, I answer a question many people have about managing multiple personal and work-related projects. With so many people today having side-projects in their lives, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost. So, without any further ado, let me hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from Neil. Thank you, Neil for your question. 

In the past, I know you've said to limit the number of active projects one has to avoid overload and overwhelm. However, due to the nature of my day job, I have about 5 concurrent work projects plus a couple personal projects. I am hitting a bit of a wall with being able to make steady progress because of being pulled in the different directions of so many simultaneous projects needing attention.

Any ideas on how to proceed/prioritise them to make it more manageable?

There are a couple of things you can do. The first is a pure Getting Things Done solution. Based on the book by David Allen. 

All work can be categorised into contexts. What this means that any given task, to be completed, needs at least one of three things. A tool, a place or a person. In Getting Things Done speak this is called “a context” So, for example, if you needed to create a presentation, then you would need a computer to do the work. So, “@computer” would be the context. If you needed to talk with your spouse about your son’s next cricket match, then the context would be your spouse. By following what I call a pure GTD approach, you would work from your content lists. So, if you are in front of your computer, the only list you can work from is your @computer list. If you are at the supermarket, the only list you can work from is your @supermarket list etc. 

 If you work from your contexts, ie. Only work on the tasks that you either have the right tools for, are in the right place or are with the right person you will be able to get on with the tasks that you can only work on at that particular moment. All the other tasks, tasks you either do not have the right tools for or are in the right place or with the right person can be forgotten about for now. You cannot do anything about them. 

 This is the logical way to manage this kind of situation, and when you trust it, it does work. If you are using a to-do list manager such as Todoist, then it is easy to open it up with the right label or filter (depending on how you want to work it) Sooner or later you will find your projects are completing. Remember, you can only work on one thing at a time, and by organising your work by context, you are not wasting time trying to figure out what to do next, because your situation will determine that for you. 

In the past, whenever I have ever felt overwhelmed by the amount of work I have on, it has always been because I have been trying to work on projects and not contexts. Once I have readjusted things and focused on contexts, I very quickly find I am no longer overwhelmed. 

Just as an aside, I should point out to anyone new to using contexts don’t go looking for other people’s contexts. They won’t work. I’ve done that in the past and I soon realised everyone is unique and have different tools, places and people they need to talk to. For someone based in an office, having a context of “office” makes sense. For someone like me who does not work out of an office and does a lot of writing work in coffee shops, a label @Coffee shop makes more sense. You need to figure out your own contexts. The Getting Things Done basic contexts are a good place to start, but you should modify them to fit better with your own personal circumstances. 

The second way would be to theme your days. You could say Monday is for project 1, Tuesday is for project 2, Wednesday for project 3 etc. This means that each project gets an equal amount of attention each week. Of course, this depends on the time sensitivity of each project. You may find you have a deadline for one project on Friday next week, and a second one three weeks later. In that situation, you may want to spend more time each week on the more time-sensitive project. 

One thing I find very helpful is to allow about an hour or two a day to do the random stuff that gets thrown at me. Preparing for this podcast takes me around two hours and I schedule two hours to do it on my calendar. At the same time, I have videos to prepare, classes to teach and student questions to answer. However, I make sure there is at least one hour a day free to deal with the random stuff that gets thrown up. Students trying to reschedule classes, issues related to my websites or online courses etc. That way I manage to keep everything in order and my responses to clients and students done in a timely manner.

There are other things you can do such as identifying which tasks would have the biggest impact on each project’s completion. Doing this as part of your weekly review means you can find time on your calendar to schedule a time to block off to really focus on those tasks. This is akin to Cal Newport’s Deep Work system. You do need to be in control of your work time to be able to do this, but I have found most bosses and clients are sympathetic when you ask to be left alone for a few hours in a quiet place to get on with some deep work. The problem, of course, is most people are too afraid to ask or assume they won’t be allowed and again, don’t ask and so never get left alone to do some deep work.  However, doing things this way you know on a weekly basis that the big tasks are getting done. If you have five projects, then finding one task from each project and making sure you get those tasks done by the end of the day on Wednesday means that Thursday and Friday can be focused on tiding the little tasks up. 

Another thing you could do is spend ten to fifteen minutes at the end of the day to identify which tasks you must complete the next day and make sure these are done before lunch-time the next day. Make sure you don’t have more than three tasks to do. By the way, this gamification of your most important tasks can add a little fun and a challenge to your workday. This then frees up the afternoons to catch up with all the other things pulling at you. The great thing about doing things this way is you have a wonderful feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day because you managed to get your MITs done before lunch. 

Again, I should emphasise that you can only do one thing at a time. No matter how many tasks, projects and things to do you have, you can only do one at a time. In my experience, a lot of time is wasted figuring out what to do next because the next action has not been properly identified. Being very clear about what the next action is will help you a lot. (I find most people are not) It also means you are spending less time on figuring out what you need to do next and more time on actually doing the necessary steps to take the projects to completion. 

I understand having a huge workload is difficult. But as I say, you can only work on one thing at a time and setting up your system so that you are able to get straight to work on the important things when you sit down to do you work is one step you can take to help you be more efficient and effective with the work you are doing. This way, David Allen and the whole GTD community stress the importance of the Weekly Review. I would go one step further and suggest the daily mini-review is just as important today because since the first edition of GDT was published in 2001, our work has grown exponentially with more distractions and inputs. It now more important than ever to be fully aware of what the next action is on any given project so you can get straight on to it when you start your work. 

To sum up then. If you find yourself overwhelmed with the amount of work you have to do, try focusing more on your contexts, rather than your projects. Make sure you are doing at least a weekly review so you are fully aware of the status of each project and build in a daily mini-review to identify what the next actions are on each project you are working on. This won’t reduce the work of course, but it will give you peace of mind knowing you are working on the important things and that each project you are working on is getting done. 

I hope you found this episode useful. Don’t forget it you have any questions about productivity, self-development or goal planning then email me, DM me on Facebook or Twitter or ask your question in the comments field on this podcast and I will be very happy to add your question to the list. 

Thank you very much for listening and it just remains for me to wish you all a very very productive week.