Managing My Tide of Projects

Managing My Tide of Projects

I’m starting a lot of projects this week, and my office is short by about 50 square feet of working surface area to manage them all. I’m feeling a little bit panicky.

I find that if I write out what I’m going to do, then the panic goes away. Usually I do this for other people, but today I need to lean on myself to get my head clear. Let’s see what comes out.

The Feeling

There are several projects that I’m kickstarting, two of which have rather deep initialization routines (setting up servers, defining processes etc). Some of them are not yet starting, but require some scoping work on my part. Still others are related to The Printable CEO: the ETT software, the monochrome versions of the PCEO forms, etc. I also have a new form in the conceptual stage for Part VI: a Time Allocation / Cash Flow form that would be useful for maintaining the pipeline of a design agency; I got the idea from Nick Finck, and since he planted it in my head, it’s been percolating slowly. The major impetus to finish this, however, is due to sudden personal need. I find myself suddenly needing some way of managing future work for bookings and so forth. A straightforward approach would be a calendar, a Gantt chart, or some other kind of project management software, but meeting the challenge of managing studio resources requires more than simple integration of these elements. Add to that the need to tie directly into the studio’s financial statements; now there’s an interesting challenge. If all the above isn’t enough, I have several side projects with various people who I’d like to try working with, and without regular attention these relationships will stall.

The Review

Thank goodness that I half-assedly implemented GTD several weeks ago, and have a place to keep everything. I did my weekly review just now, updated the project lists, and I have a sense of what’s on my plate:

  • I have 18 projects, both billable and personal, that I would like to get done this week. It ain’t going to happen, and I accept that. I already feel a little better.
  • In addition to the projects, there’s regular household chores like budgeting, exercise, cleaning, bill paying, laundry. That doesn’t make me feel so good, because these aren’t tasks I particularly look forward to, but at least I know they are relatively easy to do if I just allocate time to them. If I don’t they will catch up and swallow me later.
  • There are social engagements, like the entire Tuesday I am losing to meetings and SIGGRAPH, nor the latter half of Friday as I get ready for a long weekend visit with some friends. Technically they aren’t projects that need to get done, but they’re necessary for longer-term mental health.
  • There’s blogging to be done! That takes several hours per week. I find that it helps keep me mentally focused though, so I’m loathe to cut it out entirely. I also need to account for the various blog-related emailing/commenting and the forum, where a very interesting member-initiated project has started to sprout.

In terms of flexibility, it’s mostly in personal project work and in blogging. So it’s time to do a bit of triage.

Figuring out What’s Important

Looking at my list of tasks, I can see that it breaks down into a few categories:

  • As my friends who’ve been through biz school say: focus on the revenue, because without cash, I starve. So that means getting the billable hours billed, and also focus on new business development. There’s a lot to do, so I could easily just focus on the work and reserve the remaining time for rest (I’ll need it).

  • All personal projects related to the Printable CEO could be backburnered, taking a back seat to revenue, but that would be a penny-wise pound-foolish decision. There is a tendency for small companies to put revenue generation first, to the point that they never actually work on that special project that moves them forward toward higher earning potential. I don’t want to fall in this trap, so I should at least pick one thing to work on. The highest-yield project is probably the software version of the Emergent Task Timer, so I will just table everything else until that is done. Now that I’ve said this out loud, I actually feel much better. By getting this one piece done, I’ll make a huge advancement in getting one of my own projects further along and usable by the world at large.

  • I could conceivably convert some of the personal projects into revenue-generating ones; one of the website optimization projects, for example, would probably yield improved AdSense revenue while getting rid of ads altogether for regular readers. I’ve also thought of experimenting with user-funded development of some of the forms; for example, if enough people want a black-and-white version of the forms, I know that’s a couple hours of work. It wouldn’t take much money at all to meet my standard rate for those couple of hours with a handful of donors. Donors would naturally get listed on some kind of THANK YOU board, with maybe a little link back to their website.

  • Household chores are mostly fixed-time tasks, so I should be able to just pick an hour here and there to get them out of the way.

  • For the side projects that involve other people, I need to at least talk to everyone once this week. I probably can put together a call list and put it up somewhere so when I get a moment, I can just give them a call and maintain continuity on the project. I should be able to allocate at least 15 minutes of work to their projects before calling them too, so that’s something I should really consider.

So that narrows things down considerably. Now all I need to do is schedule it.

The Challenge of Scheduling

The standard approach I take to organizing a project goes something like this:
  1. Itemize All Tasks that Need To Be Done
  2. Estimate the Time and Resources needed to Complete a Task
  3. See how much time and resources you REALLY have
  4. Resolve dependencies and sequencing of resource availability
  5. Assign Tasks and Resources to People
  6. Define Milestones, Deliverables and Dates
  7. Monitor until Delivery Occurs.
I’ve done this for enough time now that it’s second nature, and it’s not even that hard. However, the experience of managing this process is not unlike building a sandcastle close to the edge of the water: predictably unpredictable, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes exhiliarating when the castle withstands a surprise wave due to a particularly solid piece of wall engineering you’ve done. Nevertheless, having your project planning washed away every day through erosion is very annoying in the long run. It’s not bad if it’s 100% your job to do it, but if you’re also doing production work, it’s a huge mental thorn. Plus, I’m doing this for several simultaneous projects, so the mental burden is correspondingly greater. Doing both the production work and project management is pretty draining. It occurs to me that maybe I’m making it too hard. I just want something simpler, based on the following elements:
  • concrete deliverable definitions
  • hard deadlines
  • available time
  • estimated work time
  • realistic pacing
Then I need:
  • a mechanism for ensuring that I’m servicing all projects such that they all get done.
  • an algorithm that allocates task assignments based on natural work units and working patterns.
  • an algorithm for flexibly managing changes in schedule, and identifies how that affects the production task list.
  • a mechanism for periodic review of concrete deliverables
  • a mechanism for tracking hours spent per project.
  • a process that ensures I am in a creatively-active state, like diet, exercise, regular scheduling, and being unafraid to “chickenscratch” for ideas.
I’ve got some of these systems in place, but not all.

Getting On With It

This post has helped clarify what I need to do so I can go to the next step: creating a menu of the week to focus the tasks, but based on available time. Then I need to make daily lists, with realistic pacing and variety, such that the work gets done without me getting too tired. I also need to do this as simply as possible with as little overhead as possible, because I don’t really want to have to think too much while I’m doing the work. We’ll see what happens. Here’s the process I think I’ll follow for organizing the projects:
  • Print out some of the Compact Calendars for each of the projects, and use those as the continuity for each one. There are some updates that a couple of readers have submitted to improve them also that I’ve been sitting on, so I’ll probably update at the same time (that’s an extra project, but at least I can hide it in my organization workflow :-)

  • Print out some Task Project Tracking forms for each project. Some readers in the past have mentioned that they staple them to the front of each project folder, which is is a great idea.

I will end up with a bunch of project folders (already numbered and filed in my General Reference) with the two additional sheets attached to them. For higher-level overview, maybe something like the following:

  • Print out a Concrete Goals Tracker form for the week to give me a sense of accomplishment every day. I haven’t been using them lately in favor of the Emergent Task Timer, but I think I need the extra boost of “yeah, you ARE moving forward” this week. Plus it’s good to revisit tools in different contexts…bonus!

  • Create a very simple “Daily List”, a kind of calendar of lists of things that are due, or good to do on those days. The level of detail will be very general (project name + type of task) and tied only to MORNING-AFTERNOON-EVENING level of timing. If I miss them, then I let them drop and suffer the consequences instead of cramming them in and staying up all night. I’m not sure what will happen from this, but my gut tells me that I’ll learn something.

To maintain pacing:

  • Maintain a regular sleeping schedule. Ideally, it will be COMPUTERS OFF at 9PM, and in bed by 11PM. Up at 6AM or 7AM, exercise, eat, and start the day.

  • Maybe use the Emergent Task Timer in conjunction with the CGT to provide an overview. I want to avoid double-data entry (a time waster), so I may just the ETT just for personal projects I end up doing, collapsing all the “project work” to a single line; actual project data will be tracked in the individual project TPT sheets. That could work out well, and actually suggests an improvement to the ETT task management system…AWESOME.

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p>So that’s the game plan… let’s see how this goes!