There’s an art to deciding how many projects to commit to at one time. Clearly, the most common mistake is to take on too much.

Almost every business complains of not having enough resources, but another way of expressing the same thing is “we’ve taken on too much for the resources we’ve got”.

Almost everyone, when you ask them how they are, is “so busy”. But another way of saying that is “I’ve taken on too much for the amount of time I have available”.

Yet the answer isn’t as straightforward as saying “fine, I’ll only take on one thing at a time then”.

For example, say you wanted to write a book and train for a marathon, and outside those goals you had absolutely no other commitments. Choosing to focus purely on one of the two probably wouldn’t be any better than doing both at once: you can’t possibly write for 12 hours per day or train for 12 hours per day, so if you only pursued one you’d be wasting time that could otherwise be used productively.

So what is the answer?

In general, the best balance seems to be to have one main, super-important project with an aggressive deadline – plus other projects that you fit in whenever you get a chance. When the main project is finished, you can promote one of the others to be “main project” and give it an aggressive deadline.

This approach works, because there’s always pressure and the slightest delay will threaten the deadline. If you’re working on three simultaneous projects with far more relaxed deadlines, your attention is divided and the day-to-day urgency isn’t there – so you’re paradoxically more likely to miss loose deadlines than tight ones.

This brings us to a challenge: deciding on the super-important project is harder than any other aspect of getting it done. It involves choosing what’s going to have the most impact, admitting you’re not going to work on other things that could be rewarding, and possibly even saying “no” to people. That’s why most people don’t bother doing it, have too many things on the go, and don’t get any of them finished well.

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