Finding your Work-Work Balance
One of the biggest challenges in my life is working on several projects simultaneously. I find myself having to constantly resist prioritising the scariest one at the expense of the others. It is very tempting to get into a “stress-based” workflow where you do whatever is going to keep you out of trouble in the nearest future.
You may be familiar with the feeling of constantly having to put out fires and, hopefully, you are aware that this is not a sustainable style of work. We often talk about the need to establish a work-life balance, which is undoubtedly important, but it occurred to me that maybe I’m not the only one who needs help establishing a better work-work balance too. I think this is important because in business it is no excuse to say that you didn’t get around to Project X because you were too busy working on Project Y.
So how do you cope when you have multiple projects on the go? I’ve been asking around a little and I’ve come across some interesting thoughts. There seem to be two key concepts that are important in mastering multi-project productivity: Parts and Planning. My husband and I were talking the other day and he made the comment that the genius of Henry Ford was not that he invented the motor car, but that he invented the production line. That thought came back to me when I was reading a post about productivity that began with the following quote from the man himself “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” (Check out Productive Flourishing.) Mr Ford was right.
The first part of doing a job is figuring out what needs to be done. A word of caution though, don’t divide your project up into too-small tasks because it could lead you to feeling overwhelmed. For example, this big project that I’ve been working on for the past few months started with a Gannt chart that had almost 1700 individual tasks on it. Now that sounds impressive, but it didn’t help my productivity, quite the opposite, infact. Two-thousand tasks may be appropriate if you are planning to build an airport, but it’s entirely overwhelming when you are one person with four months to complete the job.
So I threw that plan away and settled on one that had a manageable amount of tasks and, for my own sanity’s sake, I only write the tasks for the section of the project that I am currently busy with up on my whiteboard. Dividing any project up into a manageable number of parts will help you to get the job done. As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Figure out your “bites”and get munching. Once you have divided your project up into a manageable set of tasks, figure out how they will fit on your timeline. Set yourself milestones so that you can easily monitor your progress. It is important to share these milestones with someone that you are accountable to.
As someone who is self-employed, I have a friend who is also her own boss and every Monday morning we check in with each other to report on our progress of last week and share our plans for the coming week. This week I have some tight deadlines, so I set goals for each day, rather than the week as a whole. If you are a member of a team, you should be meeting regularly with your colleagues to report on your plan and progress. By “regularly”, I mean weekly. You should touch base with your manager daily to let them know how you are progressing. To use another platitude (but it’s a goodie), “Plan the work, and work the plan”. Lastly, write your plans down.
Use whatever medium works for you. I tend to you an Excel spreadsheet for my overall project plan, my whiteboard for the sections that I am currently busy with and a journal for my day-to-day things-to-do lists. You may prefer to keep everything digital and on one device. That’s fine, as long as you have something that you can reference whenever you are feeling bored, overwhelmed or lost. If you’re bored, switch to another task that will help you keep moving towards meeting your next milestone. If you are overwhelmed, re-evaluate your plan or discuss it with your manager, there may be tasks that you have already completed, but haven’t marked off or you may need to refocus your current efforts.
An external perspective can be very helpful here. If you are lost, go back to your plan; figure out where you are and what you need to do to move to the next step. Do that. It is true that you can only do one thing at a time, but this doesn’t mean that you can only work on one project at a time. Divide your projects into chunks and distribute those chunks across your timeline so that you achieve your milestones. If it looks impossible, it might be, discuss the project with your manager or client to determine realistic goals and timelines. This way, you will be able to get multiple projects done simultaneously.