Project Practitioners > Feeling overwhelmed by multiple projects? Take Five.

Feeling overwhelmed by multiple projects? Take Five.

By Sinikka Waugh

Some percentage of project managers have the luxury of focusing all of their time and attention on a single project.  But the reality is that the vast majority of us are juggling multiple efforts simultaneously.  And sometimes, the flurry of activity can cause us to become overwhelmed or lose sight of what we need to focus on. 

In a perfect world, we would collectively do such a nice job planning, anticipating and preparing for risks and issues, and adequately resourcing our initiatives, that everything would run like clockwork.

But ours, my friends, is not a perfect world.  And while we do have to spend a good deal of time and energy planning for success, we also have to stay in control - monitoring, directing, driving, and managing project activities along the's why they call us Project Managers, not project planners.

Sometimes it feels like everything happens at once, and we don't have time to catch our breath or truly focus on what we should be doing.  Perhaps you're in that boat right now?  Several projects or efforts in flight, each of them needing something, and you're not quite sure how to give them your proper focus?

Let me encourage you to try this brief, simple, easy-to-remember exercise.

Take Five...Times Five.

Five steps, five minutes each. 

Who among us can't spare 25 minutes to take a deep breath and get re-focused?

Before you get started, you'll need pen and pen, and a timer of some sort - something that will force you to move on to the next activity after exactly 5 minutes.  Sort of like speed dating, you'll either make it work in the first few minutes, or you won't.

1.  First, take 5 minutes to list out the areas of your projects that you currently feel are out of alignment with where you want them to be. 

Write at least 3 statements that look something like this: "A" is preventing "B". 

It could be that you're waiting on a decision, you haven't found the time to do something, you're waiting on input or action from someone else, or that a project issue that requires immediate attention is preventing you from focusing on things that will be due shortly.  Essentially, it's anything that's currently in your way - between where you are and where you want to be.

  • Lack of decision from steering committee is preventing project X from having clear forward direction.
  • Excessive absenteeism in project Y is preventing the team from collaborating and delivering results.
  • Unpublished meeting minutes from the last meeting are preventing some team members from knowing what they're supposed to be doing.

The idea is, in 5 minutes of silence, to write down the problems and the pain they're causing as efficiently as you can - using the things that are top of mind.  

2.  Second, take 5 minutes to prioritize them in order of importance.

Consider their urgency and magnitude, and also take into account how much they are impacting any of your projects, the priority of the project itself, and how painful they will be to fix.

The idea here is to find your top three barriers - the three things that are most important for you to resolve first. 

If you have too many items of focus, you run the risk of being overwhelmed.  Too few, and you may miss an opportunity to grab low-hanging fruit or deliver value on multiple fronts.  Look for about 3.

3.  Next, take 5 minutes to brainstorm resolutions, action items that could help you move those barriers. 

Don't evaluate.  Just document.  I'm totally serious here.  Don't evaluate the decisions as you right them down. Don't reject ideas as improbable or unrealistic, just allow yourself to freely jot down every possible solution option you can. 

With about 5 minutes and about 3 problems to solve, you can only spend just over a minute on each. Don't waste that valuable time critiquing your thoughts - just let your thoughts flow.

4.  Then, take 5 minutes to evaluate and prioritize your action item list

(See, I gave you five whole minutes to do this - aren't you glad you didn't limit yourself in step 3?) 

Review the action items list you just made, toss out the ones that aren't viable, and then evaluate the rest based on the benefits, effort drawbacks, sequence, etc., to put them in rough order. 

Consider things like

  • Can you do them on your own or do they require help from someone else?
  • Will they take minutes, hours, or days?
  • Do you have the tools, skills, resources (besides time!) at your disposal to get them done?
  • Will they really help you move that barrier?

At this point, if you realize you've got improbable or unrealistic ideas, cross them out or put them at the bottom of the list.

In fairness, there's another philosophy that says don't bother putting something on a list of to-do's if you can get it done faster than you can write it down.  But once you're in the overwhelmed state, you've got to focus on what really needs your attention, and you likely don't have even those precious few minutes to spend doing something that's not your highest priority.

5.  Finally, take 5 minutes to hammer out the biggest obstacles you own to those action items you've prioritized in step 4. 

You know them instinctively, and you can do something about them right now.  

  • If getting started is what's holding you back, then define and take that first step.
  • If time is what's stopping you, then block the time on your calendar - cancel or postpone something less urgent if you have to.
  • If you don't have what you need to get something done, ask for it from someone who can help you get it.
  • If you haven't asked for something from someone else, because you don't want to offend them or come across with a different tone or message than you intended, then draft the bullet points of your message and get immediate help from someone you know who is a better communicator than you are.

You get the idea.  Use these 5 minutes to remove your excuses.  Take action to actually remove the barriers you've created, and then start tackling your action list in priority order.

25 minutes...just you...prioritizing and getting yourself back in control...

Give it a try!  What are you waiting for?  Are you ready?

For more tips on getting unstuck, check out

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