Finding Your Focus In The Chaos of Juggling Multiple Projects

It is normal for most of us to find ourselves juggling the demands of many teams at once in today’s workplace because theoretically, this system of “multiteaming” offers a number of upsides: You can deploy your expertise exactly where and when it’s most needed, share your knowledge across groups, and switch projects during lull times, avoiding costly downtime.

However in a  research conducted over the last 15 years by Heidi K. Gardner and Mark Mortensen, they found that for most of us, getting pulled across several different projects is stressful and less productive than theory would suggest.

Switching attention between tasks takes time and it saps our focus and energy.

When moving between teams, you will need to adjust to different roles — you might be the boss on one but a junior member of another, for example — which changes not only your level of accountability but also your ability to juggle resources when a crunch time hits.

On top of that, you may also need to nagivate between different teams with their own unique cultures, including relationships, routines, symbols, jokes, expectations, and tolerance for ambiguity which would required energy to manage.

How can you manage your time and stress-levels if you’re on multiple teams? And how can you stay focused on what’s most important?

In their article, Gardner and Mortensen suggests to start with some up-front planning and to follow a few simple rules:

Prioritizing and Sequencing Your Work

Get the big picture. Schedule a regular status check on all your projects to note milestones. By proactively identifying crunch times when multiple projects have high demands, you can better manage your time and set expectations.

The speed and demands of your projects determine the ideal frequency of check-ins, and the management style and seniority of your stakeholders sets the tone for establishing priorities when push comes to shove.

Sequence strategically. Pick one task and focus on it intensely, rather than juggling. Start with the task that requires the greatest concentration and give it your undivided attention.

Decide on a distinct set of must-achieve outcomes, define which actions are necessary to achieve only those results, and ruthlessly stick to them.

Research shows that attention residue — thoughts held over from a project you’re transitioning from — takes up valuable mental space, so the fewer switches you can make in a given day, the better.

If you must multitask, then coordinate and group any compatible duties. For example, if you know you are going to need to answer phone calls at random intervals, work on another task that can be interrupted at any time.

Setting and Communicating Expectations

Protect yourself. When you’re focused on a high-priority task, buy yourself a mental escape from unnecessary intrusions. For example, when I’m writing — my highest-concentration task — I put an automatic reply on my email telling people I’m not checking messages till a certain time of day, and offering my mobile number in case of an emergency.

By telling people not to expect an instant reply, you buy yourself some time to focus, while reassuring them that you will pay attention — later. Including your phone number signals your willingness to respond but also makes people think twice about whether their request truly needs immediate attention.

Document and communicate progress. Seeing momentum helps your team leaders feel empowered and in control. Be up front when problems arise. The earlier you say, “I’ve got a conflict and might have trouble delivering 100%,” the more leaders will trust you.

One seasoned team member in the authors’ research shared that many of his responses to team requests are simply two words: “On it.” Even this super-brief response tells colleagues that he received their request, so they know he’ll follow up when he can provide more details.

The significant financial benefits of multiteaming mean it has become a way of life for many of us however following this simple guideline may just help us manage the stress and focus when faced with multiple projects all at once.

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