There is no simple answer to staying on top of managerial tasks but organization is a must.

Five Tips for Handling Multiple Projects at Once

Aug 18, 2021

by Jean Thilmany

Engineering managers usually don’t have the luxury of overseeing one project at a time. But so much of the advice out there speaks to project management as a single act, as though a manager oversees one endeavor and, when that project is fully complete, moves on to the next.
 
Real life isn’t that simple. Managers routinely are charged with multiple projects that may or may not relate to one another. Tracking deadlines, getting feedback, keeping everyone on task: It’s easy to become overwhelmed.

“There is no simple answer,” said Mike Clayton. “The answer is to apply project management methods in parallel across a number of projects at one time.”

Clayton was a consulting senior manager at the London Deloitte office and speaks frequently about project management. He founded OnlinePMCourses.com.

There are certain tools managers can use to keep multiple projects smoothly humming along, Clayton said. Here are five strategies that will help managers see multiple projects to completion.
 

Set Deadlines


Break each project down into smaller parts and assign a deadline to each part. These deadlines serve as milestones to keep everyone on track. It also helps you make a project plan, a roadmap for how and when each part of the project will be completed.

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Then make your own roadmap, an overview of all projects and their deadlines. Don’t forget to set deadlines for your own actions. The project plan will be in one easy place you can see all the tasks and check on where they are in the project cycle.
 
Another tip from Sandy Maynard, who coaches people with Attention Deficit Disorder: When asking questions of someone on your team, give them a deadline for getting back to you. Say something like, ‘Please let me know by Friday at the latest.’

Plan Each Project, then Combine Them

 
This is a more detailed plan than the roadmap talked about above. Make a plan that sets reasonable expectations for yourself and the teams you manage.
 
Make one chart that represents each project, with major activities and milestones as bars on the chart. The charts will help you see how projects interact, so you can shift the timing of deliverables so they aren’t crowded together, Clayton said.

"You get reasonable spacing between major milestones,” he said. “If you find two milestones will happen at the same time, you can shift them so you can give each project your full attention. You can’t have two projects at critical points at the same time.”
 

One Thing at a Time


“Humans are 'rubbish' at multitasking,” Clayton said. They can combine simple tasks that don’t require a high “cognitive load,” for example, driving while speaking to a passenger and, at the same, time surfacing through radio channels.
 
Project management requires a high cognitive load. Think of a new driver. For them, the road needs their full attention.

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 Clayton’s answer is what he calls serial multitasking: Doing one job at a time, completing it, and moving to another job.
 
“For each project you have to wear a different hat. And you can only wear one hat at a time,” he said. “When you finish a task for one project, take that hat off, pick up the hat for another project and do your job for that one.”

Track Your Time

 
Not a popular activity, but the rewards of time tracking are enormous, said Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass. If you’re not sure where the time goes, he said, create a chart and record everything you do.
 
The chart may indicate you’re spending too much time on one project and not giving enough attention to another. It may point out a particular team’s weakness in reporting their progress. Or, you may notice team members for one project are behind or ahead of schedule.
 

Attend to Different Projects Differently

 
This is related to time tracking. That process will have helped you understand the time cycle of each project you manage, Clayton said.

You’ll discover not all projects are equal. So consecutively checking in on one project, then the next, then the third is not the right use of your time.

“For some projects things hardly change from one week to next, and for others, things seem to happen every day. And sometimes, if you turn your back, everything’s changed,” Clayton said.

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For the slower project, you can check in once or twice a week; the faster one might need your attention every day, and the ever-changing project will need you to be constantly alert. That project, by default, is the one you need to give the most attention, Clayton said.
 
And one bonus tip: “You must be organized,” Clayton said. But you knew that already. These tips will help you keep on top of multiple projects with relative ease; and, most importantly, without becoming overwhelmed.
 
Jean Thilmany is an engineering writer based in Saint Paul, Minn.

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