I am a freelancer with +15 years of experience in the multimedia design field and sometimes I struggle with the following:

  • I have several projects, and most of the time I can do them in a sort of multi-tasking way (like I do parts of project A, then parts of project B and so on).
  • The problem is really when the priorities change (because of the client asking for something else on a different project that I'm not working at the time) and I have to swap project importance and also
    swap the project I was working on.

    This has probably to do with "real" project management, since I should stick to the "plan" and even with a new request I should tell the client to wait, but unfortunately I can't do that, since my "trademark" is availability and clients love to be "pampered", i.e. I try to please, and if the current project can be put on hold, I will do it, and take the newer request.

  • What I have found out is that if a project is very big, I can't really just work on it until the end, because I have other projects, but sometimes it does feel like concentrating on just one project at a time would be best, because it them would pave the way to the others.
  • The main problem I face with the multi-task way is that sometimes I'm working on project A, but am worried about Project B or C. And sometimes I close the email, phone and any other means of comm. and concentrate on the project I feel that is stuck and was "blocking" the other ones, until I finish it!

Finally the question:

Is it best to concentrate on just one project? (and put every other on hold)

Or is there a better way to solve the priority swapping (and focusing on the project at hand) and achieve a nice multi-tasking pace?

up vote 4 down vote accepted

In spite of all the hype, the research is now showing that multi-tasking doesn't work. If you are working on project A and have a worry or idea for another project make a note of it and get on with project A.

Most projects have times where you end up waiting for someone else. Note where you are and get on with the next project. Or take a break, then review your efforts and, plan your next work. You should find that you get more work done focusing on one project.

If your have multiple projects on the go, you will need to allocate time between the projects. If you tend to get in the flow, you should schedule accordingly. If you have large projects, it is usually best to stick to the one project.

Interruptions will cost you time. There is a good reason that many professionals have fairly large billing unit. Besides the time the interruption takes, it takes a while to get back to what you were doing.

When I work in interrupt driven environments, it usually takes until Wednesday or Thursday to finish Monday's work. Stuff planned for later in the week rarely gets done that week.

  • Could you give some links to the research you mentioned, please? – jackJoe Sep 8 '11 at 19:42
  • 1
    Try a Google searcch for multitasking reasearch. The New Atlanis article give a good overview. However, the APA article Is Multitasking More Efficient? may be more important in this case. – BillThor Sep 18 '11 at 0:19

The ability to multitask is individually specific. Different personality types are better than others; even gender has been shown to matter. My guess is you know exactly how well you tend to multitask and can answer this question, for the most part, yourself.

On the project management side, however, that is a calculated answer. For each individual project, you promised a delivery date that gave you so many days in duration for a planned level of effort, i.e., you told customer A you will deliver the widget in 25 working days because, in your head, you planned about 30% of your time. For each of the projects you have in the air, you made a similar promise. Therefore, so long as your targets were reasonable, e.g., aggressive but not unrealistic, there is no reason why you cannot manage multiple projects at any given time, bouncing from one to another based on your schedule.

Your prioritization will change during the course of the work based on 1) progress you are making, 2) threats and issues that are popping up, and 3) change requests from your customer. But here again it is another calculated answer: how you measure your performance and predict your future performance, the cost and risk you have telling customer B that his widget will be delayed because of something you have to deal with customer A, etc. You calculate your overall benefit of the re-prioritization against your costs and risks.

Your availability trademark is an oxymoron. Making yourself available to one customer means you must make yourself unavailable to another customer in an equal way. There is no way around that. It is a house of cards; the more you try to protect this so called value proposition of yours, the more flimsy it becomes and will crash. You need to know how to say no and set realistic expectations with your customers. They will care less than you think. The hidden message you tell your customer when you drop everything else for them is that you will drop them when another customer comes calling.

Pampering is a project killer. It leads to scope creep, gold plating, over promising and under delivering, and other unsavory things. Customers do not need it, nor do they want it.

  • You made some really nice points there. I loved the way you described both the individuallity of the multitasking process, and my delivery dates, it isn't far from the truth. Also I liked the good remark about the availability oxymoron, although the reality is that I'm available obviously for very small tasks, otherwise I would never finish any project and wouldn't survive in this business as long as I have. This question made me verbalize some methods that I use and never structured in words before, that alone is part of the answer. Let's see if someone else has an additional input. – jackJoe Aug 19 '11 at 18:04

I think it is inevitable that you will have to multi-task to some extent, so the key is finding a model that works for you. Some people can apparently flit effortlessly between a whole bunch of different things, while others seem to take time to get up to speed every time they move from one piece of work to another.

What works for me is to think of each project as a series of tasks (work packets, units, or whatever you want to call them). I try to set these tasks at a size that means I can do three or four in a day with none being more than a half day. Clearly, they don't all need to be the same size: in a given day I may have one at half a day, one at two hours, and two at 15 minutes each. That leaves some time for unscheduled interruptions. I then try to plan my time so that I don't allow myself to be diverted from any one of these: if an interruption come in via email, I ignore it until I have a spare slot, or if the interruption comes from a phone call or someone stopping at my desk, I tell the caller when I will get back to them.

Based on this model, I can estimate when I will work on a project, and therefore I have a reasonable idea of when I can take on new work. I try not to say "no" when asked to do anything, but I have no problem with giving a date that is well into the future, then negotiating if necessary.

The hardest thing is to tell someone that their brand new top priority task is not at the top of your priority list: that's where you may have to be flexible - but so must they! It's easier if the same person is your only client, as they can control the overall priority list, but this doesn't sound practical in your case. If you cannot help the client within their timescale, they may choose to give you the work anyway, accepting that you can't meet their target, or they may choose to take the work elsewhere. Either way, as long as you can maintain a good, positive relationship with the client and don't always have to knock them back, they should come back to you.

  • nice tips here, but after reading that I felt that in my case, I can't do that, because I never have a project where I can allocate x time only and not pass over that time, I almost averytime have unexpected problems that make me use more time than the "perfect" time. – jackJoe Sep 8 '11 at 19:47

You will be far more productive focusing on one project at a time.

Now, whether you have the luxury to do that or not depends on cash flow and how well you can set-up a system to manage all the projects. And, perhaps more importantly, manage client expectations.

  • cool, I feel the same way. But could you give some input on your way to multi-task? – jackJoe Sep 8 '11 at 19:48

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