How to Manage Multiple Projects at the Same Time
Picture this situation.
You have a client onboarding meeting tomorrow. Your team is constantly pinging you on Teams. The client from California you started work with last month? They sent you an email earlier asking for updates on their project. Oh, and don’t forget to prepare your slides for this week’s sprint review.
Forget about imagining things. Some of you may even be neck-deep in work already!
You’ll almost always have to be multi-tasking in the corporate world. This is especially true for project managers. The good news is, you can learn to juggle projects and deliver results.
In this guide, we’ll go through:
- The challenges of managing multiple projects.
- 11 ways to help you manage multiple projects effectively.
- Other tips and advice to help you handle your responsibilities better.
How Do Project Managers Work?
Project managers (PM) oversee projects to ensure everything goes smoothly. They take on many important tasks that dictate the success of a project, including:
- Liaising between clients, internal teams, and other stakeholders.
- Project planning and managing from start to finish.
- Balancing expectations and prioritization to keep all parties satisfied.
- Dealing with contracts to close deals and end projects.
- Utilizing their expertise to address issues.
PMs in smaller companies may get involved in other high-level work, such as lead management or even carving out sales opportunities in startups.
A day in the life of a PM revolves around juggling time-consuming tasks for various projects. The average PM leads anywhere between two to five projects at a time.
PMs spend most of their time on meetings, emails, and calls. They need to provide status update to clients on project progress and their team on project schedules while ensuring work is progressing as expected.
PMs must have strong domain knowledge as they are the main point of contact for clients. They need to streamline client requests into requirements or user stories for the team within an agreed upon timeframe.
Should any issues arise during the project, whether it’s from clients or the team, you need to have a project management system in place that can resolve concerns and come to a resolution. This cycle goes on as one project ends, and a new project comes in.
Recommended reading: A Day in the Life of a Project Manager
Challenges With Managing Multiple Projects
The description above should give you an idea of how challenging the project manager role is. They need to manage expectations for two, three, or many more projects while maintaining deliverables. One of those expectations includes dealing with project obstacles. Let’s look at these challenges in detail.
1. Scope Creep
It’s rare for a project to have its requirements done and dusted at the start. Oftentimes, clients request changes or additions that affect the scope of the project.
This leads to scope creep, which hinders not only the project timeline but also team performance. Scope creep is so common that it is a topic in certain project management certifications. Part of the project planning process is accounting for unpredictable delays as resources, costs, and dependencies are altered.
2. Unrealistic Client Expectations
No PM has a 100% successful project rate – not forever. Unfortunately, some of this comes from clients with unrealistic demands. As a PM, you need to manage these lofty expectations to protect your team while keeping clients happy.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to handle demands when you have multiple projects on your hand. Unrealistic expectations, combined with scope creep, will bring a project to its knees if left unmanaged.
3. Poor Communication
Keeping track of multiple project statuses is a challenge without the right communication strategy. Communication becomes even harder in remote projects, especially if your project team is working in different timezones.
Poor resource management, project delays, a failure to delegate work – all these problems stem from weak communication. These issues will disrupt projects if you don’t have a proper project management methodology in place to preempt them.
Project managers have one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Every day, they encounter critical problems that require their full attention. There is also the pressure of delivering results not only for clients but also for the company.
Factor in overtime and you have the recipe for extreme stress.
These challenges will never go away for PMs. Fortunately, you can make them less of a concern with the a stress management initiative.
11 Tips for Managing Multiple Projects
There are many ways to make managing multiple projects easier. We’ve listed 11 proven techniques to help you improve your PM skills below.
1. Start With a Single Project
A common mistake new PMs make is to try to handle multi-project management before they’ve developed their methodologies. They juggle multiple projects only to crumble at the end due to stress and overwork.
Sure, the skills you need to oversee each project are roughly similar. Handling any more than two projects at one time, however? That’s a whole different beast— something that even experienced PMs struggle with from time to time.
There are better ways to impress your superiors than to stretch yourself thin. Take on one project at a time and aim to develop yourself. Focus on delivering results and closing projects successfully.
This way, you learn the core skills of project management (e.g., organization, communication, leadership) progressively. You also gain valuable experiences that help you improve as a PM in the long run.
Manage multiple projects only when you can handle one well.
Don’t force yourself to take on more than you can handle. A valuable PM is not someone who boasts the most projects. It’s the person who consistently delivers results through completing assignments and achieving key objectives.
2. Keep Your Projects in One Place
You need to keep track of many details in a project—documents, contracts, client requests, and more. It’s easy to lose track of this information when you are jumping between projects.
You will also waste a lot of time and effort tracing missing information and making sense of them.
The solution is to store all your project data in one place. Some PMs swear by documents and folders while others work with good old notebooks. Ideally, you’d work with project management tools to consolidate information from each project under your supervision.
Most project management software is cloud-based. You can access any project detail, on any device, making work a whole lot easier when you’re on the move. Whatever you use, make sure to organize information based on each project to ease your workflow.
You don’t want to ask the same questions every time or, worse, mix-up details with the wrong client. It helps to revisit your project repository once in a while to discard old, unnecessary information and keep it up to date.
3. Define Goals and Assign Responsibilities
PMs get so caught up with work that they sometimes forget the project goal itself. It’s surprisingly common for projects to stray away from the initial plan as a result of mismanagement.
The obvious solution is to define project goals before you start. It’s important to have a defined objective for your team to build off. Remind your team (and yourself) of the goals consistently.
For example, take a few minutes at the beginning of every sprint planning session to revisit project goals.
You should also plan tasks based on the project’s needs. A project may have multiple goals, some with higher priority. Create a task list and focus on finishing critical objectives first. If your team has limited capacity, consider dropping lower-priority work to make way for the essentials.
Speaking of, it is your job as a PM to delegate tasks effectively. The best PMs set their teams up for success by leveraging their team’s strengths and making reasonable compromises for weaknesses.
Say your team excels at delivering work quickly. You can promise shorter—but not impossible—deadlines to appease clients. If your client asks for something your team has never done before, negotiate a longer timeline to give your team some much-needed space to work.
This ability can only come from knowing your team members inside out and understanding their capabilities.
Recommended reading: The Ultimate Guide to Project Management
4. Manage Expectations and Communicate Clearly
Clients usually want things done fast and perfect. You’ll quickly learn that this is not sustainable in the long run as you take on multiple projects. As a PM, you need to manage expectations with both clients and your team.
Inexperienced PMs often overpromise and ultimately underdeliver because they strive to keep clients happy. Yes, clients pay the bills. But your team is driving the project to success. You must take care of them too. No one wants to work all day just to meet unrealistic goals.
Therefore, approach client expectations rationally. If they are out of your team’s capabilities, let the client know and suggest a reasonable alternative. The alternative almost always revolves around three suggestions: longer timelines, reduced scopes, or extra budget.
Be clear and honest when negotiating expectations. If the project needs more money, explain why so the client doesn’t feel you’re draining their budget. Honesty is indeed the best policy when you’re negotiating conditions.
Communication plays a key role in efficient project management. Whatever the issue, it can be communicated well or poorly. Learn more about improving communication at work so you master managing everyone’s expectations without setbacks.
5. Decide How to Allocate Resources
Some people think project management is just throwing money and bodies at problems. That’s not the case. Projects have limited resources. You need to allocate resources across multiple projects without compromising results.
The best way to tackle resource limits is to prioritize your projects. Ask yourself these questions:
- Which project is at the top of your company’s agenda?
- Which projects can take the backseat temporarily?
- Which projects can you shift to other teams or PMs (if available)?
Once you’ve sorted your priorities, consider the three main resources you have: time, money, and people. You’ll rarely have all three at the same time. What should you do?
One way is to assign your best performers to high-priority projects. Top employees are likely to deliver quality results on time compared to their peers.
Still, don’t force them to work with ludicrous deadlines or put them on every project. Even the best performers crumble under pressure if they work in unfavorable conditions.
Plan schedules and resource allocations ahead of time. Team members should know what they’re working on and when at least a week ahead. Good planning prevents scheduling problems while giving you (and your team members) peace of mind at work.
Try to allocate team members to only one project at a time. If you have to assign employees on multiple projects, keep it to two projects at most. Employees lose 40% of their productivity when they switch between projects, which hampers results. There’s also the risk of overworking, which hinders performance even more.
Keep these downsides in mind the next time you assign employees on multiple projects.
6. Prioritize Projects With the Most Impact
You may come across moments where every project is urgent. Again, you have limited resources at your disposal so you can’t tag everything as must-dos.
Try looking at projects in terms of impact. Which tasks would deliver the most value to clients and your company?
Imagine you have two projects running. One is a few days away from completion, the other needs a few more weeks to finish. But, you receive an urgent request for the latter. You only have enough resources to work on one project. Which one do you prioritize?
In most cases, you would prioritize projects that are close to completion, for two reasons. One, if your company gets paid when a project ends. Next, because you free up resources to allocate to other projects.
Sometimes, the scenarios are not so straightforward. You might have, for example, several equally urgent tasks. Make an informed decision by thinking about these factors.
What Is the Value of the Task?
Does completing the task generate higher financial returns than other tasks? Does it free up resources for your team to work on higher-value projects?
How Long Will the Task Take?
Can your team complete it in a reasonable amount of time? If a task is important but needs a long time to complete, it may be better to deprioritize it until you have enough resources.
How Many Resources Does the Task Need?
Think about how much time, money, and manpower do you need for the task. Do you need only minimal resources or the majority of the team to work on it? If it’s the latter, will it impact other projects?
7. Delegate (But Don’t Abdicate)
Much of a PM’s work revolves around delegating work. Junior PMs tend to delegate the wrong way. They assign tasks with minimal information and take themselves out of the equation. They come back to disappointing results and wonder what went wrong, and the cycle repeats.
This is a classic case of management by abdication—not what you want as a PM.
Don’t give employees tasks and disappear. You need to keep up with their work and ensure everything is progressing as expected. You will be just as involved as your team members even though you’re not the one doing the work. Make sure you don’t micromanage, however.
Effective delegation starts with the information-sharing stage. Provide vital details and other information that can help your team work better. You know you’ve shared enough information if someone who isn’t an expert knows what to do.
It doesn’t hurt to put in extra effort to explain the details—you will save plenty of time later if you eliminate the need for repetitive questions.
Make yourself available when your team is working. Your team should be able to contact you without waiting for too long. You should also stay updated on your team’s progress by checking in on them constantly. Sprint reviews, standups, and activity logs are some ways to do this without being too intrusive.
8. Teach the Team to Work in Time Blocks
Jumping between projects is bad for focus and productivity. An effective solution to this is to practice time blocking. Time blocking splits a day into ‘blocks’ of tasks.
Time blocking maintains productivity by ensuring team members work systematically and completely on one task before switching to a different type of work.
You can combine time blocking with task batching to further improve productivity. Task batching refers to grouping similar tasks to retain focus. For example, you can move answering emails and calls, to the start of the day. This frees up the rest of the day for other assignments.
You can take time blocking one level further by introducing day theming. Say you are supervising four projects. You can allocate tasks for Project #1 on Monday, Project #2 on Tuesday, and so on. Day theming supercharges time blocking as team members can focus fully on one project for the entire day.
Proof that these techniques work? Jack Dorsey swears by day theming and time blocking to manage his busy schedule.
9. Keep it Agile
You don’t have to manage software development projects to benefit from an agile approach. Even in a non-software context, agile allows companies and teams to achieve results faster, and be more adaptable to change.
There are various gains of a flexible, agile approach to project management. For one, accepting change as a normal part of work, not a disruption, drastically reduces your stress levels, resulting in better decision making. Likewise, your project turnaround times will be shorter, and the team’s morale will be higher.
The whole point of being agile is to accept failure as normal, rinse and repeat, and to be open to continuous improvement. Agile teams also keep their communication channels open and rely on feedback a lot.
10. Stay on Top of Your Schedules
Scheduling is a major challenge in managing multiple projects. Your team has limited capacity, so allocating resources without clashing is difficult. The remedy is to plan your schedules early. Being proactive minimizes the chances of resource overlaps while allowing you to prepare for peak periods.
You can improve your scheduling effectiveness by analyzing—on average—when your projects need the most resources. Usually, teams get busy at the tail end of the projects when deadlines approach.
Once you’ve determined your peak periods, plan your team’s schedule a few weeks ahead, and prioritize project workloads accordingly.
Distributing workloads becomes easier when you optimize your scheduling. Doing so minimizes downtime and curbs the initial productivity loss when transitioning between projects.
Scheduling works only if you have a system in place. Scheduling software like Buddy Punch makes a real difference when managing multiple projects and multiple teams.
It eliminates the need to plan schedules by hand, enabling you to view your team’s workload ahead of time, skipping the dullness of tracking each team member’s schedule manually. Your team members can also access and view their upcoming tasks anywhere, anytime—no more confusion over what they need to do.
Recommended reading: 10 Tips For Creating Employee Schedules Your Team Will Love
11. Review and Balance the Workload
It’s easy to overlook your peers’ productivity levels when you’re busy. Before you know it, your team’s performance plummets and the project goes astray. Now, you have to explain to your client and your boss what went wrong. Doesn’t sound great, does it?
Make it a habit to review your team’s workload regularly. Check-in on their statuses across projects to see if they are progressing as expected. Sit down with them and ask how they feel about their work.
Some insightful questions to ask include:
- Do they feel burned out?
- What is the most difficult part of their day?
- Do they want more challenging tasks to break the monotony at work?
The more you ask, the better you can understand your team’s workload which helps a lot with scheduling.
If you have a time tracking system in place, review work activity reports every week to allocate tasks better.
Say you notice a team member worked overtime the entire week. Give him or her some time off or assign them lighter tasks to recharge. If a colleague has extra capacity, ask if they want to take on more work without being forceful.
This constant balancing of workloads will only benefit your team in the long run, while improving your management skills.
You Can Get Better at Managing Multiple Projects
Managing multiple projects is challenging even for an experienced PM. Make it easier by picking up the tips mentioned above.
In a nutshell:
- Don’t take on multiple projects immediately if you’re a new PM. Start slow and build your way up.
- Organize all your project details in one place.
- Try to set realistic expectations that satisfy your client and your team.
- Prioritize projects so you can allocate resources without having a headache.
- Use time blocking to boost team productivity while working across different projects.
- Use scheduling software to plan and manage your team’s schedule.
- Review your team’s workload regularly to maintain performance and avoid burnout.
Take your time to practice all the advice listed above. Improve one area at a time and you will improve as a PM as long as you put in the work.