One of the biggest productivity challenges we face is managing many projects at once.

It’s fairly simple to keep on top of things when there’s not much going on, right? For most of us in academia, the summer is one of those periods. But when the pace picks up (and it always does), delivering the goods gets trickier.

So how can we do our best work when we’re being pulled in dozens of different directions? The ability to comfortably manage multiple projects is a valuable professional skill, and it’s within reach for each of us. “Busy” doesn’t have to mean “stressed out”.

Here are 4 tips for remaining productive on many different fronts.

1. You’ve got a to-do list. Now, let’s make a project list.

There’s no way around it: keeping track of everything in our heads is a recipe for disaster. You’ve surely worked with busy professionals who rely mostly on their memory, and it shows. Because they don’t know their exact responsibilities, they’re never quite sure what they should be working on. Without a plan, they default to working on whatever’s urgent, putting out fires all day long. The important stuff never gets done, and they regularly drop the ball.

If we want to avoid stress, inefficiency, and regular moments of panic, we need some way to track our commitments and responsibilities. I like Getting Things Done (here’s an article I wrote about getting started with GTD), but there are many solid alternatives. If you don’t have a current system, here’s a step you can take in the next 10 minutes to get a handle on your obligations: make a project list (I’m assuming you already work from a to-do list of some kind, at least when you’re busy).

Making a project list

  1. Grab a piece of paper or open a blank Word doc/Google doc/Evernote Note/etc.
  2. Write down every project—which is an outcome requiring more than one action—to which you’re committed. Examples: “submit feasibility study,” “write quarterly report,” “get headshots done,” “paint master bathroom.”
  3. Once a week (I suggest Friday afternoon), review and update this list, making sure you’ve got an item on your to-do list for each project.

Maintaining a project list takes very little time, and it eliminates a whole lot of stress.

2. Give major projects blocks of uninterrupted time

When we’ve got a lot on our plate, it’s hard to set aside time for any one task. We feel like we can’t afford it—look at this insane to-do list!—so we flit nervously from task to task, putting in only a few minutes on each one. By using our time inefficiently, we make the problem worse: now we’ve got even less time to work with.

In productivity, focused work produces results. As uncomfortable as it is, force yourself to commit large blocks of uninterrupted time to major projects. If you have to give a big presentation on Friday and expect it’ll take five hours to get ready, set aside two hours today, two hours Wednesday, and an hour Thursday. Don’t try to chip away at it in 15-minute bursts—it’ll take twice as long. Close your door, put on the white noise, and hunker down with a cup of coffee.

[Tip: an easy way to do this is to plan your day the night before.]

3. Do the most important thing first

Would you take a moment to look over your project list? I’ll do the same.


Okay, let’s say it together: All projects are not created equal.

Like me, you’re surely working on a few mission-critical projects, a smattering of trivial pursuits, and a bunch of stuff that’s not-that-important-but-still-has-to-get-done.

You know this already, so I’ll just remind us both: A major key to productivity is doing the most important thing first. Though I struggle with this, I’m making slow progress and reaping the rewards. Join me!

4. Delegate, delegate, delegate

You’re not always the best person for the job.

I don’t know about you, but I generally prefer to do things myself. I like knowing it’s done right (and by “right,” I mean “the exact way I like to do it”). But deep down, I know that the path to success lies elsewhere. Here, let me demonstrate.

Quick, think of a productive, successful person you deeply admire.

Now, answer me this: Is that person an iron-fisted control freak? Almost certainly not.

Warren Buffett is 86 and still runs Berkshire Hathaway. How much energy does an 86-year-old have? How many good hours do you think he gets each day? My guess is “around 4.”

How does Warren Buffett do it? Well, One of his many tactics is that he delegates freely. Why not copy Warren Buffett, right? There are certainly things on your plate and mine that could be done by someone whose time is less costly.

A question to ask yourself when something comes across your desk: “Am I the best person for this job?” If the answer is “well . . . maybe not,” put your ego aside and delegate.

This stuff is easier said than done, I realize. But if we intentionally grow our skills as we move through our careers, we’ll be rewarded with more responsibility to match—and that means more chances to create positive change.