How To Manage Multiple Projects At The Same Time
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A reader got in touch to ask me how I manage my personal project To Do list. “I assume you have multiple projects running at the same time,” she said. “I struggle with how to manage my project-related tasks, beyond dealing with the crisis of the day.”
The question of how to manage multiple projects at the same time comes up a lot. Today, it’s a core project management technique that you’ll need to know if you want to succeed in your job.
In this article we’ll look at strategies for managing several different projects that are running in parallel.
I know I am not the only one who struggles with managing multiple projects.
In fact, I don’t know any project manager who is 100% dedicated to one project, even people like me who only work part-time.
Even when that has been me in the past, I’ve been managing big projects with multiple strands of work underneath that were as diverse as if they had been different projects.
It’s hard. And you need different skills for managing multiple projects to those you use for simply leading one.
How many projects are project managers leading?
My 2020 Project Management Survey of 228 people shows that the majority of project managers are leading 2-5 projects at any one time.
- 15% of project managers lead 1 project at a time.
- 15% of project managers lead 10+ projects at any one time.
- 11% lead 6-10 projects.
- And the rest, 59%, lead 2-5 projects.
What does that look like in practice?
Let’s say that you have three projects on the go that have the overall aim of streamlining processes and getting rid of paper. You could formally be managing these as a program, or they could be standalone pieces of work.
While they all might look broadly similar in objective, those projects might involve working with different software products (so different vendors), different technical teams, different business teams, different timelines and different locations.
You’d want to manage them as separate projects, but how do you keep all the tasks organized?
I don’t profess to have this down to a fine art (you can read my experience of how I learned to juggle several projects), but here are some tips that I use for managing your tasks, resources and time across several projects at once.
Managing Tasks Across Multiple Projects
I use my weekly reports as a reminder for what tasks are coming up. The weekly report covers what work was done this week and what work is due for completion the following week.
I open up the weekly report for last week and it tells me exactly what I should be working on this week.
Admittedly, sometimes I do that on a Thursday and then have to scramble around to get the tasks done. And it’s not long-range task management; it only helps you keep on top of the week-by-week priorities so you need something else for the bigger picture too.
To do that, you need to know what all your tasks are. I keep a separate action log for each project. The action log is my go-to place for everything that I need to do, or that I need other people to do. I will even review my bullet journal for other various notes I may have made over the past week.
Yes, I have a project schedule too, but I don’t put every small item on there.
Pick whatever task list tool works for you or grab my action log for free.
Each week I put aside time to go through my task lists and remind myself of what is on there. It doesn’t take long to scan the list or filter it on your name to see what your personal obligations are.
I don’t have a ‘must do by’ date on my action log but if it helps you to structure your time by seeing the deadlines then by all means add one.
I also have a notebook which has a list at the back for non-project work such as updating my objectives, tasks related to me helping on other projects, department budget work, and so on.
Managing Resources Across Multiple Projects
For all I love spreadsheets and notebooks, they really don’t cut it when it comes to managing resources. Diaries change too often, project schedules move around. It’s a full-time job keeping a resource spreadsheet up-to-date.
Modern scheduling apps like Resource Guru make it easier. You’ve got one pool of resources and you can drag-and-drop bookings to move them or assign them to someone else. Powerful filters allow you to focus on specific resources (by skill, location, department, and so on) and mean you don’t have to do so much scrolling.
Read how real project managers juggle multiple projects.
When you’ve got the same group of people working on different projects it helps them (and you) to have transparency about what tasks are coming up and when people have time off.
It also helps you schedule people effectively. The greater visibility you have over how people are allocated, the easier it is to fill up their slack time and avoid the use of contract resources. You can also more easily see resource clashes.
Resources aren’t just people. Resource management tools let you schedule the availability of meeting rooms and other resources.
This was really important to me when we had a lot of training going on for one project: we needed to schedule the single projector that was available (including driving it around to different locations). I wish I had had a tool like Resource Guru to make that easier!
Managing Your Time Across Multiple Projects
I have a team conference call with each project team once a week (*cough* most of the time). It’s just a check-in, between 30 minutes and an hour. The main benefits for me are:
- I get to find out what everyone has done all week
- We share what’s creating sticky points and work together to unstick them
- It reminds me that I have to report to everyone on what I’ve been working on and to actually do some work on that project prior to the call so I don’t look like the only one who has done nothing.
- I pick their brains about what to put in my weekly report.
Having a spot in the week where my team holds me accountable for moving the project forward is hugely motivating.
How to work our what’s a priority
The most important thing to be able to manage your time effectively is to know what is a priority. Some weeks, one project just isn’t a priority and the weekly report will reflect that. You find out what is a priority by:
- Asking your sponsor or line manager
- Taking direction from the PMO
- Using your professional judgment. Don’t underestimate your own ability to know what’s a priority. You should have an idea about how your project helps the company move forward. You should be able to work out which of your projects are important and what can wait.
- Being good at scheduling. All projects, however important, have slower periods for you as the project manager. Projects are normally busy at the start and towards the end of phases, but while the team is working well, your involvement for monitoring and controlling should be manageable. When your projects have slower periods, pick up priority work on your other projects or just get ahead for the next busy time.
- Working for who shouts the loudest that week – a terrible strategy but in the absence of any other direction it has been known for me to try to make unhappy stakeholders happier by doing that.
I also use my calendar to book ‘meetings’ with myself to get work done – very important for getting the more administrative side of project management done such as those weekly and monthly reports and reviewing resource calendars to deal with over and under allocations regularly.
You might be telling yourself that none of this matters, and you might believe some of the myths that block your promotion when it comes to having multiple projects on the go. But I think more and more managers expect you to be able to do this stuff.
The biggest tip I can give you for managing multiple projects at the same time is to keep communication channels open. Keep talking to the team leaders, the project sponsors, the managers. Stay close to what they are expecting from you. Then deliver it.
If you can’t deliver it, you should be honest and upfront about why. Tell your line manager or project sponsor why that is the case, and what you are doing about it. They may be able to help you manage your workload or priorities.
How many projects can I manage at the same time?
Most project managers lead between 2 and 5 projects at a time. However, you can manage as many as you can realistically take on. Over 5 at a time starts to get overwhelming for many people.
- Stay on top of your task lists per project. You need to keep each project organized and clear.
- Book time in your diary each week to review your progress and outstanding work on each project.
- Use resource management tools if you have access to them.
- Make time to speak to each project team every week
- Know what is a priority and work to that
- Manage expectations.
This article was sponsored by Resource Guru.
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Thank you for sharing your PM knowledge. It has been helping me in my position. I was wondering if you could help me, provide some steps on how to… Well, I was given a project to re-modify/re-design our internal team intranet site. It has been outdated for the last 4 years. I have taken so many PM classes, but I still seem to be stuck at the beginning/starting a project. I am not sure if I need to create a Project Charter for the site re-modification and get sign-offs from my manager and other leaders that utilizes the site. Then, I am not sure if I have to or how to go about identifying the additional resources or they would be given to me. If the resources are given to me, I would likely set up a meeting to get to know one another, not sure if I should assign the work or allow for them to choose what they want to work on. For this type of project, if I have to set up a MS Project Plan to keep track of project/monitor and provide status reports to leadership. Ugh!!! This is all in my mind, but putting into practice, I am so unsure. Elizabeth, would you please tell me the steps I should take? What would you do if you were me? This is stressing me out!!!
Thank you in advance for your feedback!
Tiffany, I have emailed you.
Can you please email me guide for same as you have emailed to Tiffany.
Thanks for your favor
Very well written article. If we talk about Project Management, then I am using ProofHub since 3 yrs. It comes with so many amazing features. Must Try Tool!!
Nice Read but I have broad queries ..
What I uderstand from the article is that by ensuring you have a better plan you are avoiding or getting rid of uncertain items thus avoid adhoc project switching ..
Ideally it is too difficult to avoid interruptions, noises etc that lead to project switching by project managers
Could you throw some light or maybe connect with me for a one to one chat please ?
Sorry, I’m not taking on any more mentoring work at the moment for a individual chat. I would suggest you look at why it is too difficult to avoid interruptions. What’s the culture of your team like that makes it too hard to be pulled around from project to project? And what can you do to change that for the benefit of everyone?
Thank you so very much for sharing this information. I truly needed this.
I have a couple of questions I was wondering if you could help me with? I recently started a position as a project administrator. I am a little perplexed on my tasks and how to approach this position. I am responsible for updating metrics, ensuring change requests are loaded to system and submitting problem reports into a tool. I consistently met with my manager to see if I am missing some thing because once I’ve updated the metrics, my workload is really slow. I don’t want to just sit at my computer to look like I”m not doing any work. I am just at a lost at other things that I think that I should be working on. I asked one of the project engineers how could I help or support them. I was given some data-entry type like task. I am not even able to break the task down to make it look like a project. Well thats for all of my tasks listed. So I was wondering if you could offer some tips and suggestions for approaching this position?
Thank you in advance.
Tiffany, I have emailed you.
I found an intresting software “eResource Sheduler”, it is very efficient and easy to use.
Elizabeth, thanks for the great article!
I advise RMP to use an advanced multi-project resource scheduling tool.
We are working on Epicflow, a web-based tool that solves resource allocation conflicts while managing a multi-project environment. This online software will help you create a workflow that allocates your resources exactly where they need to be, making you more productive and efficient.
This web-based software integrates with Jira MS Project. Epicflow is designed and priced for small and mid-sized businesses.
It’s totally for you if you have a team of 10+ resources and have the feeling that you can improve output. Sign up now and become an early starter.
Thanks for the great post! I see a common thread now – schedule meetings with yourself. Most of the other ideas I already use to some extent, but scheduled meetings sounds like a good one to add.
Glad there was something in there that you could take away!
Thank you so much for this article. I was completely stressed trying to manage all of my projects.
I’m not managing any projects as of right now, but this could be very useful in the future. Thanks!
My current client has me managing two projects and providing management support on an “emergency” third project. I use OneNote and Outlook to manage my action items. Emails get flagged for follow-up, and I regularly update my Inbox rules to separate the administrivia from the arterial bleeders. I capture meeting minutes in OneNote – items get flagged for To Do, Important, and so on. Each project gets its own section or notebook, as appropriate and I keep a page near the bottom called Document Links so I don’t have to search. I schedule 30 minutes blocks in my calendar (diary) several times a week to work my tasks, sacrificing them if I need an immediate ad hoc meeting. I use Skype for both IM and calls, including screen sharing in weekly 1:1 meetings. I set up Outlook distribution lists for recurring meetings and any group I’ll need to communicate with more than twice. I use My Contacts to capture notes on roles and responsibilities in addition to contact information for vendors and other “occasional” folks. I typically have 3 to 6 Excel spreadsheets open, so I need two laptops and three large external monitors just to have enough pixels. Someday I’ll get it down to one laptop and two Costco-sized 4K monitors, but not so far.
The tools don’t matter as much as the rigor in using them. It’s good to experiment, but once the experiment is over, you need to apply whatever you learned.
Hi Dave. Thanks for sharing how you do it. The ‘document links’ section is genius – very handy, and I’m sure I’ll be copying that! I have Outlook distribution lists too, and they save a lot of time. I think your point about sticking to a process and going with it, otherwise you find yourself testing, testing, testing and never benefiting from any of the productivity improvements that the testing was supposed to uncover.
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