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How to Manage Two Projects at Once

Struggling to juggle two projects at the same time? Split attention can work ... if you split it far enough. Get-It-Done Guy shows you how.

By
Stever Robbins,
Episode #553
managing multiple projects at the same time

Managing one project can be enough of a challenge, but what do you do when you have to manage two projects at the same time? Listener Don wrote in:

Hi, Stever. I have recently been promoted to team lead at my call center job. They made me the leader of two teams that work on completely different projects. How can I organize my to-do list and time management to make sure both teams get what they need?

Ah, Don. Welcome to the 21st century! Juggling a dozen things at once is just what we do. Unfortunately, our brains weren’t really built for that. So, today, let’s explore how to juggle.

You didn’t say what your call center teams are in charge of. Common sense suggests that one team is doing outbound telemarketing for Grandma Cuddles' Day Care Center, while the other is taking inbound orders for Audrey II plant food. (Most owners just don’t have the stomach to do the dirty work when it comes to satisfying the desires of carnivorous plants.)

The problem is thrashing

Juggling multiple projects is hard because of “thrashing.” You start designing a script extolling the virtues of Grandma Cuddles' Day Care. You’re brainstorming a synonym for “cattle prod,” but you can’t focus. The whole time, your brain is worrying about Audrey II food inventory levels. Then when you concentrate on inventory, your brain worries about Cuddles filling her classes. She gets angry if classes aren’t filled to capacity, and she’s not cuddly when she’s angry.

You can’t bring your full brain power to bear on either team because you’re trying to do both at once.

You can’t bring your full brain power to bear on either team because you’re trying to do both at once. But paradoxically, you can manage both at once by creating a clean separation between the two. 

When you’re focusing on Cuddles, you need to focus just on Cuddles. When you’re focusing on Audrey IIs, you need to focus just on Audrey IIs. You can do this, as long as your brain knows that everything is under control. The only question is: whose control?

Use project time blocks

The answer is your calendar. Block out dedicated time each day for each team. From 8 a.m. to noon, you’ll put your full attention on Grandma’s indoctrination efforts. From noon to 1 p.m., you’ll eat lunch. And from 1 p.m. to 5, you’ll make the world a better place for Audrey IIs (which is what they want, anyway). 

During the Cuddles hours, you’ll be able to focus completely on Cuddles. Your brain will let you, because it knows you already have time blocked out for the Audrey IIs. During the afternoon hours, you can focus on Audrey IIs because your brain knows you’ve already worked on Cuddles and will be doing so again tomorrow.

Your brain will only play along if it knows you’re sincere in keeping your agreement to focus.

You can mix and match the length of the time blocks. You can change when they are every day. The cornerstone of this method, however, is total dedication to the time block you’re in. Your brain will only play along if it knows you’re sincere in keeping your agreement to focus.

Separate your To-Do lists

You also need to separate your to-do lists. If your task list is a gigantic mishmash of Cuddles and Audreys, then just scanning the list will make your brain thrash. You want to scan just the to-dos that relate to the team you’re concentrating on.

You can have entirely separate lists for each project. When you switch to working on a project, just call up that project’s list. Most electronic task managers let you create per-project lists. 

If you prefer paper (as I do), you may simply have one long task list. That’s the method we covered in my post How to Manage Your Task Lists on Paper.

Categorize tasks with color

Make your written task list scannable using colored pens (I use Pilot erasable Frixion pens (.5mm width, 10-color pack). They’ve changed my life so much I’m considering doing an episode just on these pens).

Write all your tasks in black. Next to each task, put a colored dot. You could use steel gray for Grandma Cuddles items, blood red for Audrey II items, and the blue skies of freedom for all other tasks.

With just a little practice, you’ll be able to choose a color and scan your list, seeing only tasks that belong to that team.

Now scan by color, using the evolutionary miracle of your reticular activating system. Choose the list you want to see—red for Audrey II items. Keep that color in mind and scan the list just to pick out all tasks with that color. Your eye will instantly find “Survey Audrey IIs to find their favorite flavor of plant food.” 

With just a little practice, you’ll be able to choose a color and scan your list, seeing only tasks that belong to that team.

Organize your electronic notes

You also have notes—paper notes and electronic notes—for both teams. If you have electronic notes, tag each note with a hashtag and the name of the project, #cuddles or #audrey. When working on the projects, simply filter your notes by that hashtag and you’ll only see what’s relevant. 

Your notes program doesn’t have to support hashtags in particular. A simple text search for “#audrey” gives the same effect. (That’s how hashtags started, in fact—as a simple text convention.)

With hashtags, you can include both hashtags in notes that apply to both teams. So, when your company generously decides to forgo call center raises so the Vice Presidents can get their yearly bonuses for holding down costs (like call center salaries), you can have the honor of notifying both teams.

Organize your paper notes

For paper notes, the easiest way to focus is to use separate notebooks for each team. But since it’s more convenient to use one notebook for everything, you can do that, too. Dedicate each page entirely to one of the teams. Write the team name in the bottom corner in the color you’ve chosen for that team. Now just riffle through the page with your eye on the lower corner. When you see barbed-wire gray, you know it’s a page about the Grandma Cuddles campaign. Crimson red, and it’s Audrey IIs all the way.

Schedule strategy and interruptions

In addition to your dedicated time blocks, schedule time to think strategically. That’s unstructured time where you put down your cell phone and leave your computer. Yes. That’s right. Put down your cell phone. Leave your computer. And go think about what’s happening with both your teams, the company, and where everything is headed. Spend time with the bigger picture. I recommend at least a half hour per day.

In addition to your dedicated time blocks, schedule time to think strategically. That’s unstructured time where you put down your cell phone and leave your computer.

Use interruption time blocks

Also reserve one or two time blocks for scheduled interruptions. If someone interrupts you at any other time, ask them to come back during your interruption time. You can read more about scheduling interruptions in How to Stop Being Interrupted.

Of course, with a call center, some things just can’t wait. It’s the middle of your Audrey II supply chain time. Foreign Royalty calls your Cuddles team demanding their child be moved to the head of the line. You can’t very well put them on hold; they have hacksaws and you don’t. Remember: you supply Audrey II food, you don’t want to be Audrey II food.

So grab your Cuddles notebook and take the call. Jot down all the relevant details in the notebook, then get off the line and get back to serving your vegetable overlords. When you start the next dedicated Cuddles time, review your notebook, add the action items to your Cuddles task list, and get hopping. You have a class to fill, and if you think Foreign Royalty can be scary, you’ve never seen Grandma Cuddles when she’s displeased.

There’s no perfect way to manage two teams at once, but you can keep yourself sane by focusing on one at a time. Help yourself focus by setting aside dedicated time blocks, color-coding your task list items, and hashtagging your notes. Defer interruptions when you can. And when you can’t, keep the diversion as brief as possible.

Don, we have faith in you. And more to the point, the Audrey IIs have faith in you. And Grandma Cuddles has faith in you. She has a defense department order for $16 million worth of high-margin non-vehicular clutch discs, and it’s going to take a lot of kids in metal shop to fill that order.

GET MORE GET-IT-DONE GUY

I’m Stever Robbins. Follow Get-It-Done Guy on Twitter and Facebook. Subscribe to the Get-It-Done Guy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app. If you’re an executive, entrepreneur, or sales professional and you want a partner to help you get even better at what you do, hire me as your coach. Learn more at http://SteverRobbins.com

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