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Summary:

Recently, I was talking with a client about how to manage multiple, large-scale projects simultaneously, and still make progress on each of them. While it’s not an easy task, I’ve stumbled on a compartmentalization strategy strategy that is helping me do just that.

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Recently, I was talking with a client about how to manage multiple, large-scale projects simultaneously, and still make progress on each of them. While it’s not an easy task, I’ve stumbled on a compartmentalization strategy that is helping me do just that.
About a month ago, I realized I needed a better way to organize my time, not only to help me to got more done, but also so that my mind was clearer and more focused. In the time leading up to this change, I felt like me efforts were scattered as I flitted from project to project, and like I wasn’t making real progress on any of them. Yet I was preparing to add two more to my plate. I knew something had to give.

First Step: Set Days for Set Projects

I had several main projects that were most important to me at the time, so I decided to reserve certain days of the week for each of them. Here’s a rough overview of how I set up my week.

  • Mondays: Project A
  • Tuesdays: Projects B and C (since they’re closely related)
  • Wednesdays: Writing and Project D
  • Thursdays: Projects B and C
  • Fridays: Project A

Second Step: One-Stop Organization

It was important that I had one way of tracking what needed to be done, rather than using five different tools to manage bits and pieces of my schedule and to-do list, so I started condensing things down until I was left with just a couple of tools to keep me in line.

I started using Tom’s Planner (which I also use for managing my editorial calendars) for organizing my recurring weekly schedule: those things I have to do every week on a set day (for example, write my WebWorkerDaily article every Wednesday).

At the start of each day, my first stop is Tom’s Planner, which gives me an overview of the “big rocks” that need to be moved that day.

In addition to Tom’s Planner, I use Google Calendar for managing set appointments and events (for example, phone calls and birthdays), and I try to only book phone calls and other set appointments during specific time frames on certain days of the week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 1:30 to 3:30 PM, for example). This makes me far less likely to overlook something or get my days mixed up.

Great News, It’s Working!

Immediately, I can say that my mind is a lot clearer lately, but there are several other advantages I’ve found so far for compartmentalizing my days.

  1. I’m focused and staying true to my priorities. A quick glance lets me know what my top priorities are, as well as the rough percentage of time I’m giving each one. If I want to take on a new project, I quickly think, “What do I have on my plate right now? Well, Mondays I have…, Tuesdays I have…,” which keeps me from over-committing and straying from my top priorities. If I want to take on something new, something else has to go.
  2. I’m not constantly shifting gears. Before I started using this method of organizing my time, I jumped from one project to another and felt like I wasn’t giving enough time to any of them. Now, I don’t worry about not giving enough time to any one project. I know, for example, that I will work on Project A tomorrow, so there’s no rush to take my attention off the project I’m working on today.
  3. I’m getting more done. At first, I was worried that this strategy might leave me working less on my top projects, and while that has proven to be true in terms of the absolute amount of time I spend on them, I’m actually getting more done for each project, since I’m a lot more focused.

I’m also way more particular about the things I do for each one. On a given day, I know I have to pick the top tasks and hustle to get them done, since I’m not going to pick this project up again for a few days. I’m a lot less likely to get distracted by email, lower priority to-dos, or other things vying for my attention.

The proof is in the pudding. In the past three weeks, here’s what I’ve accomplished.

  • Designed a new logo/banner for a new project
  • Created a business plan for the new project
  • Built a website for the new project
  • Wrote and published 13 articles
  • Created and published seven audio pieces
  • Created and published two newsletters

In the three weeks prior to starting this strategy, here’s what I accomplished.

  • Wrote and published 12 articles

Big difference! Plus, I’m spending far fewer actual hours working on any given project, and I feel like I’m working less, even though I’m getting more done.

So, what’s your strategy? Do you have a set way of working to help you move more rocks in less time?

Photo by Flickr user Helico, licensed under CC 2.0

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  1. By breaking my big project into small bits, it’s easier to not get overwhelmed anymore. Instead of a huge daily chunk and losing sleep, I can do some parts of the projects and then have it organized for the next day too. have started something like this when I’ve entered freelancing more seriously and it’s been excellent.

    I also track down what I do all day (if it’s something unplanned) and I can see if I wasted time or actually worked :)

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    1. Good point, Ramona. The tracking is so important. I love that about Tom’s Planner, too, since I can look back and see exactly what did (and didn’t) get done over the past week or month. Plus, like you said, you have to see if something is working, and by compartmentalizing, you know exactly what’s having the most impact and where you need to start tweaking things a bit.

      Thanks for sharing your tips!

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  2. This is an approach that I often use. It’s much easier to keep your focus if you’re only thinking about one thing, rather than trying to do one thing but worrying about the next couple of taks that are coming up.

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    1. Definitely, Simon. I love that I can just concentrate on what’s right in front of me, and it just took trusting the system for a week to see the results. Multi-tasking is overrated!

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      1. Amber,

        Yes, multi-tasking is overrated!

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  3. Thank you for sharing your tips and solution for what works for you. I definitely need to compartmentalize some more and break larger projects into smaller, more manageable projects. Great article Amber!

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    1. Hope it helps, Adam. If I hadn’t looked at the actual proof to see exactly what I had accomplished compared to my old way of working, I would never have believed it, but seeing what I’ve achieved by working this way, I’ve decided that even if Project A (the new project) doesn’t work out, I’m only working three days a week from now on! ;)

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      1. Yeah, your results are very impressive. Good job on pumping up your efficiency!

        My previous job was heavily focused on multi-tasking with many projects and constantly switching between them due to circumstances out of my control so it was pretty much impossible to compartmentalize into small blocks as the goal lines were always changing.

        Unfortunately my mind is still wired that way. I am trying to retrain myself to single-task and reorganize my scheduling.

        Thanks again and good luck with Project A :)

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    2. It wasn’t an easy adjustment the first few days, Adam. It took a bit of faith, and I think it’s definitely hard-wired into us to work certain ways, say multi-tasking, but I like the change, and it even has me thinking more critically about what projects I have on my plate (and possibly which ones should be removed). Hope it works out for you.

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  4. Interesting. I am tempted to try this approach, I am already using it, but I’d like to try it more formally. At the moment I split my days in 2: morning and afternoon. Each half day I work on a project.

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    1. Cesare,

      Do you think you may try Amber’s suggestion of designating entire days to a single project. I think I might.

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    2. That’s actually how I used to work, too, Cesare – splitting my days into mornings and afternoons. So far, I like this approach even better, since I’m shifting gears much less often. Hope it works out for you, if you decide to try it!

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    3. Thanks for commenting, Josh, and we agree about the multi-tasking! :) I see you’re a VA. I’ll have to check out your site.

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  5. Great Tips – Time management is a constant struggle. I tend to try and group “like” items together… ie. if I have to run down to office depot for something, what other errands do I have to do that week, saves me time and trips to do it all at once.

    I’m working on doing 1 project from start to finish before moving on to the next. It is much easier to keep your focus on one thing, and not “switching gears” all of the time.

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    1. I agree, Heather. Unexpected interruptions kept me from staying focused on today’s projects exclusively, and I’m ending the day feeling much more distracted and frustrated, so I know this new schedule works much better.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  6. Focus is absolutely the #1 to change the results you and your company can achieve. Time and time again scientists have proven that multi-tasking is a myth.

    http://pivotpointsolutions.net/2010/03/23/the-secret-to-accomplishing-more/

    One of the critical roles of a manager is to take things OFF the priority list (as well as ensuring the list is in the correct order).

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    1. I like that, Andrew, “to take things OFF the priority list” – so important. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. Nice article! Question though: Why not use just one calendar—like Google calendar. Doesn’t having a second calendar (Tom’s), make it harder to manage and maintain?

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    1. Thanks, Anna. Actually, the two calendars serve different purposes and organize different types of information. Tom’s is more for my “to do” list, so to speak, as well as my editorial calendar, where Google Calendar is for things with set times. I also don’t that Google Calendar gets too cluttered and is harder to see what’s on deck. Tom’s provides a good organization for certain types of things. At one time, though, I did use only Google Calendar; it just wasn’t a good setup for my preferences and working style. (I’m sure that makes zero sense, but it works, and I like it better, so I’ve stuck with it.) :)

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  8. Staying focused is one of the hardest tasks to accomplish all day, especially in an open creative space. Prioritizing tasks is absolutely key, and I know we are all guilty of cheating one task that is urgent, but not necessarily important. This is definitely the first post on prioritization that I’ve read and left inspired! Thanks also for sharing Tom’s Planner. What a great tool!

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    1. Thanks for the nice compliment, Taylor! I’m glad to hear that the post helped. I totally agree with the focus thing and with cheating on urgent over important. Today I let those things sneak in and disrupt my system, and it was terrible, but I guess it’s like dieting – you have to allow yourself off days, just knowing that you’ll do better tomorrow. Thanks for commenting!

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  9. Also a problem shared is a problem halved

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  10. Good reminder that dedicating time and energy to SPECIFIC things pays off. Thanks! We hold the same mantra for bug fixing. One bug at a time :)

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