The Working With... Podcast | Episode 10 | Getting A Huge List Of Active Projects Under Control


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In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about coping with a huge list of active projects.

Hello and welcome to episode 10 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. 

I hope you are all having a great start to the new year. My year hasn’t started too well. The first week I had a stomach bug, and the second week I came down with a cold. So, I decided the third week of this month was the start of the new year and so far, touch wood, my year is now going fantastically!

Anyway, on to this week’s show. This week’s question throws up a very common difficulty for many people in personal productivity and in particular when using GTD. (that’s Getting Things Done by David Allen) This is the one where you end up with a huge list of active projects which in turn leaves you with an overwhelming list of projects that just depresses you every time you open your to-do list manager. In this week’s episode, I want to offer you some guidance on how to avoid this happening to you. 

Okay, it’s now time for me to hand you over the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from Ben. Thank you, Ben.

Ben asks: You park your projects in someday maybe folder. I’ve got over 60 running parallel projects in my work folder. I am running a tombstone business. How can i handle this for a better overview, thank you. Ben

Another fantastic question. Thank you, Ben

To really answer this question we need to step back a little and look at the big picture and what we are capable of actually doing each day. 

We humans only get 24 hours each day. In that time we need to sleep, eat, shower and communicate with our friends and families. So, while in theory, we have 24 hours, we really only have a fraction of that time to do work. Even the most workaholic types among us, are not capable of doing work consistently over a period of 24 hours. If we tried, we’d be burnt out within a few days. So, let’s get realistic about what we can achieve on a daily basis. Sixty parallel running projects is not going to happen. Either you are going to miss deadlines, or the quality expected for each project is not going to be what is expected. 

From my own experience, I know that to create an online course takes around 10 to 15 hours of planning and 15 to 20 hours to record and edit. There are another 5 to 10 hours required after that for study sheet writing and uploading the videos. So in total to create an online course requires 30 to 40 hours. In theory, that means an online course could be created in one week, given the average working time is between 35 and 40 hour per week. But, what that does not take into consideration is all the additional admin, communications and meetings that are also part of an average week. Even trying to allow two weeks to do this project would be unrealistic, as I always have other projects on at any one time. So, I have learnt that to create an online course (a project) actually takes 1 month to do. 

By allowing 1 month to complete an online course project, I also allow myself time to work on other projects. But, that still means I need 10 hours a week to work on the project. If I multiply those ten hours to say fifty hours for the week, that means theoretically, I can only work on 5 projects at any one time. But, again, that does not take into consideration additional admin, communications and meetings, so realistically, you are only going to be able to work on 3 to 4 projects at any one time. 

Of course, if you own your own business, you can hire people to work on some of your projects and multiply the number of active projects accordingly, but you will always find you are limited by the one resource you cannot change, time. 

This is where the Someday | Maybe folder comes in to play. At any one time, there will be projects that are time sensitive. Projects that have a deadline sometime in the next 3 to 6 months. These projects should be your active projects. These are the ones that have deadlines coming up in the near future and so these should be in your active projects folders whether they are work or personal. All other projects, where the deadlines are over 6 months away can be placed in your someday | maybe folder and for now, left idle. I usually have a reminder task inside these projects to remind me to have a quick look at the project in case there is something I need to do, but for the most part these projects are idle until one of my other, active projects has been completed, Then the next time sensitive project gets moved up into the active project folder. 

However, another area I find people struggle with when they have all their projects lined up in their active projects folders is they date everything. So, each day they end up with over 50 tasks to do and not-surprisingly end up not completing their daily tasks. This then often leads to people quitting using a to-do list manager, complaining that it takes too much time to manage, or to-do lists don’t work for them. The truth is, they are not working their to-do list managers properly, and yes, of course, they become endless lists of work that never gets done. 

I go back to my point at the beginning of this podcast. You have to be realistic about what you can achieve in a day, a week and a month. Biting off more than you can chew is never going to be a good strategy for anyone. 

So if you are suffering from an overwhelming active projects list, then here’s what you can do:

Often one of the first things I notice when I am mentoring people through my mentoring programme (details in the description if anyone is interested… Oops I’m plugging there) is that some people are confusing their day to day activities or areas of focus with projects. For example, marketing activities. Unless the you are creating a new marketing campaign, then any marketing activity will be part of your day to day job. This is an area of focus, not a project. For my productivity business, I promote many of my products on Twitter. These need scheduling every day. This is not a project. This is an area of focus that just needs doing every day. However, creating a launch campaign for my latest book, that’s a project. It is a one off event that lasts around two months. Once the launch window is over, any further marketing activities will become part of my everyday marketing area of focus. 

Likewise, creating my YouTube videos, could in theory be considered a project, but in reality, I do these every week and the only thing that changes is the topic. The number of videos I create each week remain pretty consistent. That makes these videos an area of focus, not a project. I have scheduled time to do the recording and editing each week. 

So, how do you define a project and an area of focus. Well, this is really up to you and your preferred way of working, for me an area of focus is anything that has to be done, but has no end date. It’s just part of my work, but does take my life further forward. A routine is different in that a routine is anything I have to do that does not take my life further forward. For example, taking the garbage out or updating my admin sheets each day. How you define taking your life further forward is another one of those things that only you can decide.

The thing is when you are clear about what your real projects are, and what your areas of focus are, you can make sure your areas of focus become just part of your daily work and you can then focus on allocating sufficient time to your real projects. Things that have a deadline. 

For those of you working with clients, I would create each job I do for a client as a project. In my mentoring programme, each mentee, I think that what you call them, have their own project. Each programme has a set curriculum if you like and I can make sure that each part of the programme is completed when it needs to be completed. I keep the number of active mentees limited to ten at any one time so that I am not overwhelmed. (Incidentally, I do have a couple of places available at the moment... oops another plug...sorry)

So there you have it. If you do find you have a large, overwhelming list of active projects, first go through them to see if any of them require nothing for six months. If so, move them to your someday | maybe folder with a task set to remind you to look at it at some point in the near future. Once you have done that, go through your active projects and see if any of those projects are really areas of focus (don’t have an end date) and move them to your Areas Of Focus folder.

I know these tips will not actually reduce the work. The work still needs to be done anyway, but these tactics will help you to reduce a long list of projects that have become overwhelming and that is really the goal. 

Good luck and it just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.