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Does having fewer projects make us more productive?

I was reading the classic article "Beware the Busy Manager" by Bruch and Ghoshal (Harvard Business Review, Feb 1, 2002 [1]), which shares some surprising results from research into what makes effective managers. I strongly recommend reading the entire article, but for this post I'll focus on an interesting tidbit I found about the number of projects successful managers had. In talking about the two key dimensions (focus and energy - there's a nice summary here) they found that:
Because they have a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish, they carefully weigh their options before selecting a course of action. Moreover, because they commit to only one or two key projects, they can devote their full attention to the projects they believe in.
It was this last point that surprised me. In the modern personal productivity work I teach, a project can run the gamut from a small two-step one ("install office shelving") to very large ones ("apply for the NSF grant"), with most clients having between 20 and 100 of them. Clearly not all of them are "key." But what's the "right" number to manage?

Here's another bit of information: In the article Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don't Read This in Traffic, a recent study found that:
For the [executives studied], the optimum workload was four to six projects, taking two to five months each.
The point being that a relatively small number of key projects - with less multitasking [2] - was better.

Finally, in the Time/Design training I took (see Some thoughts from attending Time/Design's trainer certification), the focus for action is at a maximum of 60 days out, a horizon that seems natural to me. The thinking is that anything farther than that should go on your Someday/Maybe list.

Here's how I put it on a recent forum:
I'm coming to believe that having too many projects is itself overwhelming. [...] Implications for GTD? Well, first we have many more projects, due to the fine-granularity definition of "project." Also, we track all projects from work and life. Combined with the 60 day idea, this leads me to wonder if it would be reasonable to "cap" the list around 20 or 30? Just playing here!
Of course the number varies, depending on the person. For example, I tend to be on the lower end, as otherwise I become overwhelmed, but I know others whose tolerances for more activity are much higher. However, I suspect we might be more productive having fewer projects, with only a few key ("big") ones.

How about you? How many projects are you comfortable with, and how many are "key" ones? Do you adjust according to your energy or mood? How?


Reader Comments (14)

From a GTD perspective I think that it's a waste of attention to put projects like "apply for NSF grant" on the same list as your "put up shelving" projects.

The former will have multiple interdependencies which count as their own project. And some of those projects will require multi-step actions to complete...

I have three design project at the moment - each is a new range of castors. It would be a mistake for me just to write Project #1, Project #2 and Project #3 on my projects list, then try to track it from there. That's what I used to do and it was a mistake.

I need to be tracking Component#1, Component#2, Component#3 etc for each Project.

I think that one of the potential pitfalls for first-time GTDers is the tendency to try to cover all bases with their time-management system, not just the bases which NEED to be covered.

I personally have between 5 and 25 projects (Multi-step actions) on the boil at any one time. I think that 3 high-level Projects (ie, things that my boss's boss cares about) is the maximum. If you have more than 3 #1 priorities then you'll NEVER get around to #4.

July 2, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbrent

Matt - Excellent post, and I think you are absolutely right. I find that I'm more productive when I have fewer active projects.

One of the most often overlooked elements of GTD is that as we see everything we have to do, it ought to be easier for us to say, "No."

Unfortunately, most of us just add on more and more, until we are either nearly back at the same overwhelmed state we were at before we started GTD, or we are spending so much time working our system, that we are no longer getting things done.

I think we would all do well to say, "No" more often and focus on just a few projects at a time, and let the Someday/Maybe list handle the bulk of them so that we can focus on those things that are truley important.

July 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Brent: Thanks for your comment. Quite right: There are times when a single project is more of a "master" one, which will have sub-projects that are more active. I still think it's valuable to have the master captured somewhere (Allen talks about "areas of responsibility," but I don't use that part of his work. This master would be reviewed with other projects, to ensure it's moving ahead. The actions for the master would be implemented by the sub-projects...

If you have more than 3 #1 priorities then you'll NEVER get around to #4. Nice point - thank you.

July 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Ricky: Thanks for the comment, and for the importance of saying no. I agree that the Someday/Maybe can be more actively used by many of us.

July 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

(Here's a comment a reader had trouble entering directly. Thanks, John!)

I'm finding that taking a "less is more" approach to all of life--work, family, hobbies, passions, friendships, etc.--in recent months is building confidence and effectiveness in general. Great post! - John

John Michael De Marco, M.Div.

July 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I have a ton of projects on my plate ranging from those actively seeking my attention to those that might never find their harnessed potential. The difference is learning to use Someday/Maybe effectively. If it's not this week, or perhaps next, it shouldn't be on your plate. All that is going to do is show you what you can't possibly have enough time or energy to get to.

Learn to scope, actively rescope, actively be real with requirements and outcomes and you can balance a real multitude of projects from small to large.

I'm a digital multitasker. I can attack so many different directions at once but only if I have my ducks in a row.


July 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndy C

Wow! That is really good food for thought. Great post, Matt.

July 2, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdon

Andy C: Thanks for the sage advice. Very well put. I might steal your language for my next workshop!

Don: Much appreciated :-)

July 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

One thing that may be needed to sort out questions of this sort is an established vocabulary for intentions at higher levels than GTD "projects", i.e. at David Allen's 20,000 foot and up levels. The system I personally use is probably a little too elaborate to be effective for most people, but I review my lifetime "mission" every four years (on February 29), my 4-year "vision" once a year, my annual "goals" every quarter, and quarterly "objectives" once a month. "Projects", as per GTD, are what I review during the Weekly Review, and I've recently begun doing a daily review of "tasks" and incorporating a daily Mark Forster Do It Tomorrow "will do" list into my workflow. I'm planning a series on some of these elements on my own long-neglected blog.

July 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMiGrant

Hi MiGrant: Wow! What a complete set of reviews - very impressive. I have not been able to consistently get above projects, but for me that's OK. The higher levels (whether GTD-style, Covey, etc.) will come :-)

I'm planning a series on some of these elements on my own long-neglected blog. I'm looking forward to it.

Thanks very much for the comment.

July 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

In terms of clarifying and strategically implementing my own "life mission," Bob Buford's book Half-Time has been an invaluable resource. - John

Thanks for the pointer, John. (Here's the link: [ Halftime: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0310215323?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0310215323 ].)

July 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

If only I wasn't a student and could control the amount of projects and work. Think how lucky you are.

December 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJesse

Hey, Jesse - I understand. School is a mixed bag. On the one hand, your life is outside your control, which sounds frustrating. OTOH, a highly-structured environment is freeing in some ways - you don't have to think as much about your time. (But the schoolwork, ahhh...)

Thanks for your comment.

December 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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