It’s a Monday afternoon and you’re nailing it. You’re on top of your current projects, you’ve planned the rest of your week, and you’re meeting management expectations. Things are going swimmingly….
And then your manager drops another project into your lap - a great, heavy weight that throws everything off balance. You panic. How on earth will you manage it?
If this scenario resonates with you, you’ve come to the right place. Today, we want to turn your panicked thoughts into positive action. We’ll help you better prioritize and communicate your workload and understand when to push back.
The following advice comes from our own experience, as well as Elizabeth Harrin’s book, “Managing Multiple Projects: How Project Managers Can Balance Priorities, Manage Expectations and Increase Productivity”.
Manage Your Multiple Projects in 5 Steps
1. Take a Deep Breath - You’ve Got This
Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. In fact, most project managers handle between 2 and 5 projects simultaneously.
Your manager expects you to juggle your workload, especially if you’ve successfully managed multiple projects in the past. If you’re a capable worker, your managers will give you the work. It’s happened to you before, it will happen to you again, and you will get through it.
While this doesn’t detract from the stress of your mounting workload, it will put you in the right mindset for the next 4 steps.
2. Understand Your Portfolio of Work
Before you can tackle your busy workload, you need to understand what it is you need to do and what your managers expect from you.
To accomplish this, practice “portfolio thinking” at an individual level. In plain English, that means thinking about and prioritizing your projects in a joined-up, holistic way.
"Portfolio thinking helps you see the connections between projects and activities that may make more sense if they are managed together.
- Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin breaks portfolio thinking down into 6 principles:
Understanding the big picture (i.e. all the tasks in your portfolio).
Prioritizing the work.
Grouping the work (by project, stakeholder, nature of the work, or similar) to gain a better idea of what it is you need to do and how you’ll do it.
Planning, delivering, and monitoring work across multiple projects, in accordance with their deadlines.
Communicating project status and follow-up actions to your stakeholders in a timely manner, tailored to their preferences.
Looking for opportunities to continuously improve.
3. Create a Personal Portfolio
Once you understand the bigger picture, get granular. Break down each project into detail using a spreadsheet, mind map, or Project Management tool. Elizabeth Harrin suggests fleshing out each project with the following information:
- Project name and status.
- Priority (high, medium or low).
- The project sponsor or customer.
- The objectives and purpose of the project.
- Estimated completion date.
- 2-3 expected deliverables that the project will create.
- Dependencies worth noting, particularly in relation to your other projects.
- The number of hours per week you plan to spend on the project.
The final bullet point is the hardest to gauge. So, if you struggle with this, follow Harrin’s advice:
"Your best guess is fine […] If you really struggle with estimating hours, use T-shirt sizing instead: is it an extra small, small, medium, large, extra large or extra extra large piece of work?
Once you flesh out each project in your spreadsheet (or other template), make a note of any extraneous non-project tasks that will take up your time. Consider all the meetings, trainings, and admin work you’ll need to complete. These tasks will detract from the time you can spend on your main project work, so it’s important you don’t forget about them.
4. Prioritize Your Work
"But everything is a priority, right? While you might hear that from colleagues or managers, it can’t be true – and even if it was, it’s unrealistic to expect project managers to work on everything all at the same time.
- Elizabeth Harrin, Managing Multiple Projects
Prioritization is a hard but necessary task. It’s the only way you can divide up your time and use it wisely.
You can establish priority projects by talking with your manager or project sponsors. However, if they can’t give you a good estimation, you will have to use your best judgment. Refer to your other projects - what dependencies, resources, and upcoming deadlines do you have to balance? Try to figure out where each project sits in relation to one another.
It’s important to note that there’s no limit to the number of priority projects you can take on… However, there is a limit to how much you can manage. If a new “priority” is relatively low-effort and requires little time, you may add it to your list. But if it requires a lot of emotional effort and resources, you may have to rethink its priority status.
5. Group Projects into Buckets
Imagine you’re about to clean your house. Would you tackle each individual task in a random order? Probably not. To aid your flow, it’d make sense to clean room-by-room, or to complete all the hoovering in one go.
Approach your work in a similar way - group your tasks, across projects, into buckets. Do some tasks have the same sponsor? Will they take place in the same country or region? These are two possible categorizations, but there are many others.
You may also choose to segment your projects by stakeholders, subject matter, Project Management methodology, and deadline. There are several possibilities, so choose which makes the most sense to you.
Communicate With Your Manager
At this point, we hope you feel less panicked and more in control of your workload.
If you don’t… all is not lost. There will of course be times when your workload is too much to handle. In these instances, it’s important you don’t resign yourself to working longer hours and burning yourself out.
Instead, speak with your manager. If you cannot dedicate time to an additional project, communicate why. Reference the estimated hours you jotted down in your personal portfolio - if you’re at or over capacity, something’s got to give.
Working alongside your manager, you can then shift priorities, change timescales, or offload work to another team member. No matter how big the problem feels, there will always be a solution.
If you’d like to learn more about managing multiple projects, register for our exclusive webinar with Elizabeth Harrin on the 16th of March.