I’m wired wrong. I’ll be the first to admit it. To be in the Getting Things Done crowd, I’m supposed to blissfully work along on a project until I’ve completed all the next actions, pausing one might assume, for lunch and bathroom breaks. Not me. I can’t do it. I need chunking.

Computer processors can work on lots of things at a time by taking chunks of resources and throwing them at various requirements a little bit at a time, right? When you eat dinner, most of you eat a little of everything on the plate, not one category of food at a time. Why not approach your projects that way? There are some pitfalls to consider, and some adjustments that must be made. Here’s a method to consider.

• List the Projects Out Clearly– I’m into 3×5 cards right now. I take a Sharpie and write out the titles of the projects I’m working on, and then I line them up on my cork board in a nice row. Up there right now are: record ___ podcast, finish audio edit of interview, do Jean’s picture, edit Father’s Day movie, and a few more (14, sadly). Each one has a card. Each one has room to add another card for the next step.
• List the next actions for all these projects– Be realistic. List a few hours’ worth on a separate card for each project. So, if you’ve got 14 cards with project names, take 14 more 3×5 cards and put on each one individually everything you COULD work on with regards to that project for the next two hours.
• Get a timer– You can use a manual digital timer (\$5 at most big box stores), or an online-style timer. Set it for 20 minutes.
• Map your time– If you have two hours to get things done, map the following: 20 minutes for work, 5 minutes to switch. Get as many iterations of that into two hours. If I did my math right, that’s five iterations of 20 minutes, and four iterations of 5 minutes. Our minds take five minutes to switch and re-engage between tasks of any decent level of complexity. By building this into your plan, you properly account for it. Now, take another 10 minutes out for fidgeting, getting up to use the bathroom, etc. Make it four iterations of 20 minutes, and six iterations of 5. Now you’re good.
• Plot the map– Write down what you’re doing in the 20 minute spots.

20- record podcast
20- edit Jean’s photo
20- finish audio
20- fix old podcast

• Do your work– Now, just execute against those two hours that you’ve set aside to do work, realizing that you’ve got four projects you can tackle bits of in those 20 minutes, and start picking off those next actions.

The purpose of this exercise is to say that you don’t have to work on projects in the start-to-finish approach mindset. You can, instead, chunk things up in a way that matches the way your brain works. The optimum amount of time someone focuses on anything is between 25-30 minutes (I read that once with regards to giving presentations and training classes). To that end, give yourself breaks.

Yes, it looks a little less productive on paper when I tell you that every 2 hours really only yields 80 minutes of work. But really, if you examine your own situation, isn’t that true of what you’re doing now? Even if you work on one project linearly, aren’t you giving it 20 minute or so bursts, and then getting up for a stretch and a cup of coffee? So, in either case, you now can better allot your time.

Appropriately estimating time is a Top 3 complaint with regards to project management “lessons learned” reviews. Get ahead in this game whether you’re a project manager or an individual contributor by realizing how people work optimally. If you’re the individual contributor, and if the projects aren’t even your day job, feel free to play around with the idea of slicing your attention between projects.

The results might be surprising.

–Chris Brogan slices time all day long. Last night, he sliced up a new podcast entitled “Sounds of BarCamp Boston,” and you can listen to it at Grasshopper Factory. There are some new tips posted on minimizing web surfing over at [chrisbrogan.com]. Stop by.

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