Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How to Manage Multiple Projects: Two Strategies that Work

Academic writers often have more than one writing project to attend to. If you are writing a book, that book has several chapters, and people rarely write a book from beginning to end without looking back. If you primarily write articles, you are likely to be working on a new submission when an offer to revise and resubmit comes across your desk. If you co-author articles with other academics, then the chances you are working on several pieces increase.

A Gallery at Work

Because juggling multiple projects is so common, I frequently get requests for how to manage multiple projects. Here are two strategies I have used.

Strategy #1: Work on projects in specific blocks of time each day

This strategy involves working on several projects in a day, one at a time. Schedule time slots during the day for each separate project. The advantage to this strategy is that you can prioritize one project while still making progress on others.

Here is an example of how it works. Last June, I had three things on my plate: 1) the page proofs for my book; 2) a new article on Jamaican deportees and 3) data analysis for my interviews. I wanted to move all three of these projects forward. Thus, I decided that each morning, I would spend the first hour of my writing time looking at my page proofs. From about 8am to 9am each morning, I read over the page proofs for my book, usually getting through a chapter during that time. Once I was done with that, I would leave my office and have breakfast. After breakfast, I would spend another 60 to 90 minutes working on my article on Jamaican deportees. Then, I’d take a break to respond to emails and do some chores. Then, I would have lunch. After lunch, I’d take myself to a seaside café and spend another 60 minutes analyzing the data for my interviews. As it was the summertime, after that, I’d take the rest of the day off to relax.

There are three things that make this strategy effective.

  1. You should schedule the time slots according to your energy level. I am most alert and least likely to get bored first thing in the morning, before breakfast. Thus, it made sense to schedule my page proofs first, as those can be a bit tedious. I am least productive after lunch, thus I scheduled my data analysis after lunch, as this requires less focus and attention than the other two tasks.
  2. You should schedule between 60 and 90 minutes for each task. Most people cannot concentrate for much longer than that at one time.
  3. You should schedule breaks between each task. The longer and less like writing the breaks are, the better. Note: Checking email is not a very good break, while a walk around the block and a lunch away from your desk are good kinds of breaks.

Strategy #2: Work on one project at a time for a fixed number of days

Depending on your personality, the sort of projects you have going on, and the amount of time you can allocate to research and writing it might not make much sense for you to focus on several projects in one day. A perfectly good alternate strategy is to work on one project for a fixed number of days and then to change projects. Here is how that works.

Pick your most pressing project to work on and dedicate a fixed number of days to work on it. I often find that two weeks is the maximum amount of time I can concentrate on any particular writing project. Thus, I usually try to schedule no more than two weeks during which I will work on a project before setting it aside.

This summer, for example, I spent the last two weeks of May working on a chapter on racism in the criminal justice system. Then, I spent the first two weeks of June working on a piece on the lack of due process in the immigration court system. Now, I am spending the second two weeks of June working on a revise and resubmit for the journal Global Networks.

When I focus on one project at a time, I try and work on the project in blocks of time as well. For example, most days I write for an hour before breakfast (but after coffee!), and then get in another 60 to 90 minutes after breakfast.

Putting a two-week time limit on a particular project also works well because it allows you to really get into a project, yet also make sure you stop and attend to other projects that require attention.

Of course, nothing in life is really black and white, and I often combine these two methods. Right now, for example, I am taking a bit of afternoon writing time in addition to my morning sessions when I focused on my revise and resubmit to write and post this blog entry.

How do you manage multiple projects? I welcome your comments in the space allocated below.


  1. Great advices! I'm having a hard time organizing myself. I always struggle with several different projets. I'll try out the first strategy, I thinks it suits best for me.

  2. It's way easier with multiple projects if you outline each first in detail - use story structure, as in http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html ; then it's a question of filling in blanks, which taxes the brain less.

  3. I have a lot of trouble working on multiple projects. I tend to focus on one project at the time but this means I end up scrambling trying to get a project done a day or two before it's due because I didn't start the project earlier since I was working on something else.

    How do you stick to your own deadlines? Even if I set deadlines for myself, I end up convincing myself that I deserve a day off and that I can work on the project tomorrow.

    1. Good question. One way I stick to my own deadlines is that I make myself accountable to someone else. There are lots of ways to do this. One is to share your plans with a friend and have weekly accountability meetings.