December 5, 2022
General
14 minutes
Libby Marks

How to Manage Multiple Projects: 10+ Strategies That Work

Learn how to manage multiple projects simultaneously - for less stress, lower risk, and better project outcomes.

As a Project Manager, you’re expected to keep a lot of balls in the air. Managing multiple projects means juggling competing deadlines, deliverables, clients, resources, budgets, stakeholders, schedules, milestones, and more. 

With so many project dependencies, let just one of those balls drop and the rest can come tumbling down. And that means delayed outcomes, unhappy clients, and even missed payments. It’s a lot to keep moving. 🙈

Managing multiple projects is a common challenge for PMs. A 2021 survey of 220 project management professionals found

  • Nearly 60% of PMs run two to five projects
  • 11% run six to ten projects 
  • 15% run more than 10 projects

If you’re struggling to manage multiple projects, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad Project Manager. You probably just haven't been given the right knowledge, techniques, and tools to successfully manage simultaneous projects yet. 

We’re here to fix that. 

From top tips on prioritization and delegation - to advice on centralization and single-tasking - we’ve got 10+ strategies to help you plan, manage and deliver multiple projects like the PM pro you are! 

The challenges of managing multiple projects 

Multitasking 

You might think that people who successfully manage multiple projects are great multitaskers. You might even kick yourself that this isn’t a skill you possess. But studies show that as little as 2.5% of people are so-called ‘super-taskers’ who can multitask effectively. The rest of us… we’re not so good at it. 

In the Multicosts of Multitasking, academics explain we overestimate our ability to multitask - tackle multiple tasks simultaneously. 

‘Multitasking is almost always a misnomer, as the human mind and brain lack the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously. We have a hard time multitasking because of the ways that our building blocks of attention and executive control inherently work. The human brain has evolved to single-task.’

When we do try to multitask, our performance inevitably suffers. Multitasking means context-switching between different tasks. This takes more mental energy than just focusing on one thing at a time. Which isn’t productive.

A study from the University of Cardiff says

‘Engaging in multiple attention-demanding tasks simultaneously may be cognitively and physically taxing. Moreover, performance on individual tasks may suffer such that errors are made and overall productivity is diminished.’

It's comforting to know it’s not you, it’s your neurons, that can’t multitask. But it doesn’t help when you’ve got multiple projects to manage. Later, we’ll outline some alternatives you can implement instead. 

Poor communication 

Teamwork makes the dream work. But what makes the teamwork? Communication. Your team can only be effective and productive if they know what’s expected of them. And you can only support them if you know what they’re working on and whether they’re struggling.

But when you’re managing multiple projects, it’s easy to move that meeting or cancel that catch-up because you’re overwhelmed with other work. However, this is a bad habit that can trap you in a cycle of reactivity. Make time to communicate and get ahead of problems before they snowball. 

Project clashes

Projects typically take the most effort at the start - with heavy client liaison, project planning, and resource scheduling - and at the end - working to deliver by the deadline. In the middle, your project team should be working like a well-oiled machine, with you providing lubrication to the cogs.

One of the biggest challenges is when labor-intensive periods clash, causing an uncomfortable - albeit temporary - peak in a PM’s workload. When these high-pressure periods overlap, it can lead to higher stress and lower mental acuity at exactly the time when you need to be at the top of your game.

If you have any control over the start dates of your project portfolio, try to stagger them so you only have to plan and mobilize one project at a time. And always be aware of any flexibility in deadlines or budgets that would enable you to use resource leveling or smoothing to relieve clashes.

Shared resources

It’s unlikely you’re the only person working on multiple projects at once. The resources in your project teams will - no doubt - also be assigned to simultaneous projects. This is especially true of your most specialist resources who may have highly in-demand skills.

This can be problematic for many reasons.

  • Firstly, securing the resources you need, when you need them
  • Secondly, managing their workload so they can deliver peak performance on your project
  • Thirdly, if they're working under other PMs too, achieving transparency between you all, to prevent overutilization and burnout

The right resource scheduling tool will help you allocate and manage resources across all your projects.

Micromanagement 

Hands up if you struggle to let go 👋 When you’re the PM, it’s easy to feel like every decision rests on your shoulders. But that can cause all kinds of problems. From you becoming a bottleneck to project progress (as colleagues struggle to pin you down for a timely decision) to you burning out from the pressure.

One of the most important skills for Project Managers is learning to delegate effectively and empower their team to make decisions independently. We’ve got tips coming up on this.  

Overscheduling

Ideally, you and your resources should be scheduled to no more than 80% capacity. That leaves 20% of your time for dealing with day-to-day distractions like emails, meetings, and the unexpected.

If you’re scheduled to 100% capacity that’s the fast track to disruption, missed deadlines, and a domino effect of delays across multiple projects.

Although it seems counterintuitive - especially when you already feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day - don’t overschedule. You’ll just burn out and be less productive.

Lack of visibility 

When you’re managing multiple projects, you’ve got lots of different milestones, deadlines, resources, and deliverables to track. And if your resources are also allocated across multiple projects, there will be interdependencies between them. If something in Project A slips, it can impact Projects B and C.

In these circumstances, it's essential you have an integrated plan for all of your projects. This lets you see all of your deadlines, resources, potential clashes, etc in one place. Without this, you’ll be making decisions without seeing the bigger picture of your portfolio. 

Some PMs use spreadsheets or Kanban boards to track multiple projects. But these generally lack the flexibility and useability to make decisions and course correct when things start to go wrong. Dedicated project and resource planning software will make your life easier.

Ad hoc projects and tasks 

With so many plates to keep spinning, the last thing you need is another ad hoc project getting thrown into the mix. And yet they do.

Whether it’s a VIP client that your boss can’t say no to, or a pet project from a senior sponsor, ad hoc projects can disrupt your best-laid plans.  

Two ways to mitigate this risk are project prioritization and change management processes. We’ll cover both later. 

Strategies for managing multiple projects simultaneously

1) Plan, monitor, and manage 

It’s project management 101 but can get overlooked when you’re swamped with several projects. To have any hope of managing multiple projects successfully, you need to plan them out and monitor your progress. 

This could take a variety of forms. Some people like Gantt charts, and other people prefer Kanban boards. Our preference is - obviously - specialist project planning software

Whichever project planning method you choose, you need the ability to

  • Create a realistic project plan - preferably visualized against the weeks and months ahead.
  • Break down your project plan into milestones and tasks - and set delivery dates so you can monitor progress.
  • See and allocate resources - choosing the best fit resources with the appropriate capacity.
  • Monitor progress against project schedule and budget - to take corrective action if needed.

2) Centralize your projects 

When you’re managing multiple projects, it will help to see them all in one place. Being able to see all of your deadlines, milestones, and task due dates in a single overview will help inform your work plan for the day or week. 

Maintaining separate spreadsheets or Kanban boards for each project might work if you just have one or two, but not when you’re juggling multiple projects. You’ll waste time and lose focus flicking between different records. And you’re much more likely to miss something important. 

Find a tool that allows you to track all of your projects in one place - ideally letting you toggle easily between a bird’s eye view of everything on your plate and the granular detail of individual projects. 

Runn helps you manage multiple projects simultaneously, providing a bird's eye view of your projects and people.

This won’t just make it easier to keep on top of multiple projects, it can also help you spot potential problems before they happen - like resource clashes or the risk of missing a milestone - and take action quickly.

3) Improve resource planning

When it comes to managing multiple projects simultaneously, it isn't just your time you need to manage. Your ability to deliver a successful project depends on your team of resources.

Resource planning for multiple projects requires higher visibility, agility, and control than simply managing resources for a single project.

This is because there are

  • More projects demanding resources' time
  • More PMs trying to secure the right resources
  • More project dependencies that can derail resource plans

Creating a centralized resource pool is a good first step. This is when you have one central list of all of your resources, their skills, seniority, and billable cost. This helps you find the right resource for your project. Or if they're not available, a solid second choice.

Runn's People Planner will give you visibility on who's doing what, and on what project.

However, a resource pool alone won't help you deliver multiple projects successfully. You also need a way to make sure those resources are being utilized effectively, and they're not over-capacity or subject to clashes.

Speaking to the Project Management Institute, Caroline Herron gave this evergreen advice.

'If your related projects share resources, align the individual schedules to resource calendars, ensuring that you have minimal resource conflicts. Also, critical path tracking and resource constraint management will help to make sure that you remain on track.'

However, that isn't easy when you're manually managing multiple projects. Using resource planning software can help you

  • See available resources and experiment with different combinations
  • Spot potential clashes and take action to mitigate them (such as resource leveling and smoothing)
  • Quickly and confidently reallocate tasks to other resources should you need to

All of this allows a busy PM to assign resources to different projects, knowing they have the best distribution of talent across their project teams, to deliver great client outcomes.

4) Prioritize projects 

Not every project is created equal. Some projects are worth more to your business than others - whether that’s pure financial value, strategic alignment, or because it keeps a big client happy. So it doesn’t make sense to assign your time equally between your multiple projects. You need to prioritize projects according to the impact they deliver. 

But how do you prioritize multiple projects? We suggest assessing every project against the following criteria.

  • Financial value - the bigger the bottom-line benefit, the higher the priority.
  • Strategic fit - the better a project aligns with your strategic direction of travel, the higher the priority.
  • Risk of non-completion - the higher the risk associated with non-completion (eg disappointing a major client, missing milestone payments), the higher the priority. 

Once you’ve assigned a priority level, consider using a traffic light system in your project management software to record which projects are most important. Or you can simply put a tag on your projects and sort them by priority (like we do in Runn). This can help when it comes to decisions about what activities should take precedence. It also provides a clear framework to accept or reject ad hoc work when it arises. 

According to the project management expert and author Elizabeth Harrin, there are also less formal ways to determine your priorities.

'Asking your sponsor or line manager. Taking direction from the PMO. Or 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.'

5) Prioritize tasks 

Within each project, you’ll also have different tasks to prioritize. Some will obviously be a higher priority such as

  • Points in the critical path - The critical path is a series of tasks that need to be completed in sequence. Critical path tasks are a priority because other activities can’t happen until they’ve been completed. Therefore missing a point on the critical path can delay your whole project.
  • Milestone activities - If you are receiving payment based on the delivery of specific project milestones, you need to prioritize their completion or risk financial penalties. These can have knock-on effects such as reduced cash flow to pay staff or contractors - not good.

Outside of these clear priorities, it can be more challenging to know which of all the tasks to prioritize. In this situation, the Eisenhower matrix can help you work out top priorities.

The Eisenhower matrix helps you prioritize tasks according to their urgency and importance, providing clarity on where to spend your time.

6) Delegate and deputize

You’ve done your Eisenhower matrix and realized you need to delegate. Progress! But this can feel uncomfortable at first because it means relinquishing some control over the project. Plus it can feel like you’re shifting stress downstream. But - done right - delegation can actually empower your team and drive better results. 

When you need to delegate:

  • Identify the best person to delegate to - that may be based on expertise, availability, or another factor. 
  • Be clear about the scope of the delegated task - what’s required and what the expected outcome is.
  • Set a deadline - when your deputy needs to deliver the delegated task by.
  • Move less urgent tasks - offer to reallocate other tasks to make room for what you’ve delegated.
  • Offer resources - tell the deputy what resources they have available to help them achieve the delegated task.
  • Authorize appropriate decision making - make clear what decisions the deputy is authorized to make and which need referring up to you.
  • Keep in touch - regularly communicate with your deputy to check how the delegated task is progressing.

7) Avoid multitasking 

We’re not made for multitasking, so what’s the alternative? Instead of switching unproductively between multiple tasks at a time, try single-tasking. Single-tasking is exactly what it sounds like - focusing on one thing at a time, to give it your full attention. 

To single-task effectively, you need to block out your time and actively eliminate distractions. Work out how much time each project deserves in your working week and allocate blocks of time to dedicate to each. 

Speaking to RGPM on how to manage multiple projects, Dr Christine Unterhitzenberger - Associate Professor of Project Management at the University of Leeds - recommends working in half-day blocks. Then put these time blocks in your calendar so that you - and your team - know what you’re working on. Learn more about time blocking in our recent article here. 

You might also find it useful to have set times for checking your emails and mute notifications on any instant messaging apps during these focus blocks.

When managing your diary, also try to schedule thinking time at the start of the week. This gives you dedicated headspace to plan ahead, see what's on your plate, and set your goals.

8) Expect the unexpected

Whilst you can try to minimize distractions, they’re inevitable. So plan for them. Allow time in your schedule for the unexpected. Make sure you don’t schedule yourself to more than 80% capacity - to leave 20% contingency time for dealing with unplanned tasks. 

Consider keeping a flexible slot in your diary for critical issues - a time each day when your team knows you’re diary is open to help them troubleshoot important issues.

Help them understand what needs your urgent attention and what can wait - as well as the best methods to communicate with you.

9) Automate manual tasks 

Manual tasks used to be boring-but-necessary parts of a PM's day. But in the age of automation, now they're just boring.

There's no need to tie up hours performing manual admin - like time tracking, spreadsheet wrangling, and reporting. You can easily automate repetitive project tasks with the right software.

Many clients come to us after growing frustrated by manually manipulating Excel to work out capacity, availability, resource allocation, project spend, etc.

With an appropriate project resource management tool like Runn

  • Capacity and resource availability are all discoverable at a glance
  • Resource allocation is a simple drag-and-drop activity
  • Progress against project schedule is visible from your dashboard
  • Time tracking can be automated
  • Reporting is done for you, and
  • Scenario planning takes minutes, not hours

This isn't just easier for you. It's more operationally efficient, saving your hours each week, so you can spend them on activities that really need your attention.

10) Don't reinvent the wheel

Standardized operating procedures - or SOPS - provide an agreed framework for project planning, mobilization, delivery, monitoring, and more.

Whilst flexibility is always needed in project management, these documents save time by providing PMs with a formula for getting projects off the ground fast.

There's no reinventing the wheel or learning curve - PMs can get straight to work, applying known methodology and best practices. If you're from a PMO, check this guide:

PMO Best Practices: What Sets the Best PMOs From the Rest?

11) Champion a change approval process 

Your best-laid plans can easily get derailed in project management. But there are ways to minimize this risk. An organization-wide change approval process provides a structure for approving, deferring, or rejecting new work. This can stop unscheduled, ad hoc work from making it onto your plate.

It also provides the opportunity for you to push back against such requests, and a legitimate basis to ask that other lower-priority work is reallocated.

12) Use hybrid working to your advantage 

Hybrid working means that many people combine working from home with working from the office. Use these distinctions to your advantage so you can make the best of your time.

Many people find that working from home gives them the time and space to concentrate on intellectually demanding activities. So try to schedule your project planning for WFH days. Whilst being at the office is the perfect time to work closely with your team on setting priorities and solving problems together.

It isn't just your location that can improve your performance either. Think about your natural rhythm during the day. If you're full of energy first thing but flag a little after lunch - or vice versa - schedule your day accordingly.

13) Communicate regularly

When you have your head down managing multiple projects, it's easy to neglect communication with your team. But it's absolutely essential. Consider having a daily huddle where you catch up with what everyone is working on, how they're progressing towards deadlines, and what help they might need.

If you can't make time for an actual huddle - or if your team works asynchronously around the world - you can use other methods to keep in touch. For example, a team to-do list where people can share progress and tick off tasks.

14) Do to yourself as you'd do to others

Ok. We know that quote's the wrong way around but we're trying to make a point here!

Good Project Managers do everything they can to make work manageable for their team. So our last tip is to treat yourself with that same respect.

When you manage multiple projects simultaneously and the pressure becomes too much, talk to your line manager and ask for help.

  • What would they like you to prioritize?
  • What extra resources/tools are available?
  • Is there flex in any schedules?

As the project manager, your role is to guide the project to completion but not at any cost. Especially if that cost is to your health and professional happiness.

Final thoughts

Managing multiple projects can quickly descend into chaos - especially if you don't have the appropriate tools, techniques, and controls in place. We hope the tips above will help you start managing multiple projects with confidence and clarity.

Thousands of project managers like you already use Runn to master multi-project management. It provides a single place to plan, schedule, manage, and monitor all of your projects.

And - with powerful tools for project planning, resource management, scenario planning, reporting, time tracking, budget management, and more - makes it easy to deliver multiple projects on time, on schedule, and on budget.

Start your free trial today. No credit card, no commitment, no reason not to!

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