Juggling Ideas and Projects While Being Overwhelmed

Juggling Ideas and Projects

My mind is full of projects and ideas. I’ve overloaded my task manager with pipe dreams and awesome (at least to me) projects that I’ll eventually get around to. But my heart sank when I planned to work on a project (or two or three or four) this week and I never got around to it. Life happens. The bills need to get paid, walk-in clients come in with new projects, the grass in the yard keeps growing, and my kid needs a new dress for the prom. I switch between taking care of my family to negotiating with a client and back to the single one-off tasks that piles up on my desk. This puts my projects on the back burner. It’s never easy trying to handle Life’s daily minutiae and still finding time to work on my Big Rock projects. But I soldier and try anyways.

I have a lot of ideas. Not all of them turn into a fully-developed project. Not all of these projects comes to completion. My task manager holds all of my projects but I was determined to do some spring cleaning and re-evaluate how I turned ideas into projects and projects into active work.

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When I first read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I thought I should have a big list of Someday/Maybe projects. This was a list of ideas and projects that I was inspired to work on. My first few mind sweeps created a huge swarm of projects. Some projects were brilliant ideas and others were just plain crazy. I had more projects than I could actually work on. I figured I could work on twenty projects like a bunch of balls being juggled in the air. It turned into a disaster. I got nothing done. I couldn’t remember which projects were actively being worked on, which projects were paused, and which projects were deferred to a future date. I set out to find a way to organize my ideas, on hold projects, and currently active projects.


Organizing my Ideas

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OmniFocus is my task manager of choice but any app is just as suitable. I organized my life into folders which represents the different Areas of Responsibilities. This allows me to organize different projects into different areas.

I have a separate folder called Ideas to R&D.


Ideas to R&D

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The Ideas to R&D folder holds a series of checklists (Single Actions Lists in OmniFocus terms) that acts as an inbox for new ideas I captured. They’re not fully developed projects yet, just ideas.

I dedicate at least one hour every week to start fleshing out these ideas with various target goals, milestones, and next actions. When I develop it as far as I can, I’ll move the idea out of the Ideas folder and into one of my Areas of Responsibility as a project.


Review Monthly To Start A Project

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I soon realized that my task manager can hold all of my projects but they won’t get worked on unless I schedule it on my calendar.

There are four actions i can take with my newly created projects:

  1. Pause the project.

  2. Schedule the project to start on a future date

  3. Start a project when a Waiting For event occurs

  4. Delegate the project to someone else.

Now, hold on a second!

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Many projects don’t need to be started immediately. I can set the project status of an OmniFocus project to On Hold to pause it.

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In other task managers that do not have a project status, I can put it in a On Hold Projects folder or assign a On Hold tag to the project.

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If I am not working on a project, I pause it and will review it later for consideration.

Mark It On The Calendar!

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Some projects can be scheduled to start on a particular day. I can’t start my Wedding Anniversary Dinner Date project until the date gets closer. In OmniFocus, I have the benefit of using the Defer Date to start a project on a future date. For task managers that don’t have a defer date, I’ll create an appointment a week before my anniversary to start the Wedding Anniversary Dinner Date project.

Wait For Me!

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I wait for an event occur before starting a project. For example, I’ll wait for a sale to occur at my local hardware store to buy that awesome barbecue grill I’ve been lusting for. Waiting For is a popular tag that I use quite often. I check my Waiting For checklist once a week to see if an event occurs that can trigger a project. I’ll also wait for someone to return with a report for me to start on a project. This happens mostly when I’m waiting for a client to sign off on a sales contract before I can start.

Hey, Could You Help Me With This?

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Delegating is not always possible but I’m always looking for a helping hand. I might not have the right skills or enough time to devote to a project. I’ll need to delegate a project off to someone else.


Active Projects

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Many of my projects will start automatically because I have it deferred to start on a particular date. Some projects must be started immediately because of client/project requirements. But I also have a group of projects that remains on the back burner. I have control over my personal projects that I want to work. But I try to fit it into my day, week, and month.

In my life, I have Areas of Responsibility (folders) for Home, Work, Personal, and Family. I try to make sure I have anywhere from 0 to 3 active projects in each folder. If I have a lot of active of work projects, I might temporarily pause a family project. During the Christmas shopping season, my workplace is busy with Holiday customers and I put aside my home renovation project until the middle of January. I tell my kids that Daddy doesn’t have any time or energy to take care of the Christmas social functions but I’ve delegated that job to Mommy or Grandma. During Christmas, I might have 4 work projects, 0 personal projects, and 1 family project. After the Holiday Shopping season, I can rebalance my life and start to re-activate projects in different folders. I am learning not to overwhelm myself with too many projects.

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Focus is a powerful tool. Instead of spinning 10 plates, I am only spinning 5 plates. Some projects will start automatically because it is deferred to start on a particular date. Other projects start when a client signs a contract. My back burner projects stays paused until I schedule them into the week. I balance my existing workload and adjust on a weekly basis.

I’m trying to overcome my natural compulsion to have too many active projects at one time. Work on a few projects to completion instead of keeping many projects in various states of incompletion.

I’m never out of ideas but I can exceed my personal bandwidth. Taking on too much workload leads to stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. I had a crazy year in 2019 with one emergency after another. I realized I had promised too much to too many people while trying to handle what I already have on my plate. These series of events caused me to think about my own workload and look for a solution to make time for my personal projects while dealing with Life’s daily challenges.


I Can’t Do Everything But I Can Schedule Something

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My back burner projects will never get done unless I schedule them. I have an Ideas folder containing a list of all the possible project ideas I can think of. I develop them into projects that goes into different folders representing an Area of Responsibility. I put every new project on hold while I work on my existing projects. I review every week to pause existing projects and/or start a back burner project. Don’t overload myself with too many projects. Limit myself to a handful of projects. Focus is important in getting projects done. If I try to do everything, I get nothing done.

How do you juggle your projects? Have you ever had a sense of overwhelm? Do you review your current projects when you get overwhelmed? Share with us some of your ideas or questions about project overwhelm!

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It’s always a pleasure to read your post, Wilsonng. Thanks for sharing and being so specific.

A task manager ensures I don’t miss anything, plus it gives me great peace of mind when I add things to my inbox… but later on I feel overwhelmed once I process all this input.

I still prefer the task manager. At least I know what I miss. ¿right?

Now on the overload:

A simple truth: No matter how I classify and handle my tasks (GTD or else): If I have more incoming items than the ones I am capable to finish in a certain time period, my task backlog will grow and grow.

Good process can increase my productivity up to a point (say, 15%?), but no more than that.

So, in addition to having good routines and a robust system, I have to find a balance between my capacity / productivity and the incoming tasks I set for myself. Let’s call it capacity planning.

And if any day I have a list of ‘must do’ tasks which surpass my capacity, I need to ask for help or change my ‘must do’ definition. If I can do that at the beginning of the day, and end up with no pending items, I will be satisfied.

Easier said than done. We are no robots, our work capacity varies significantly from one day to the next, plus the variety of income tasks makes very difficult to assign a reliable processing time to each one. I personally have little idea how much time a simple task like writing this reply will take me. Actually, maybe double than what I did estimate before doing it. So I poke big holes in my agenda, or plainly sleep less or skip tasks I wish I didn’t

So, how can I find out how many things I can really do in a day?

That is where I would appreciate some more functionality in Omnifocus or the like: To be able to produce reports on the past to make it ieasy to calculate how many tasks and which we finished last year, and the year before, regardless of our plans, and set something similar for the future, review and adjust. I have some perspectives, but do not know how to export them to an xcel with etc. Neither how to do it from the archive.

¿Have you folks any hint how to do that in Omifocus?

I am far too optimistic when I have the ideas and then too slow when I have to actually bring them to completion. In my case, I’d rather trust a history calculation based in my past performance to reduce the gap between my planning and my execution ‘selves’.

Too many words for too little content… sorry for this, but it took me 45 min to write this and I am already late for the next task : Grocery store

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This article reminds me a lot of my Project Incubation list which I cooked up in Notion. I’ll do a video or post on that one soon! It’s really helped me segment ideas out into a separate space where it’s not taking up my attentional capacity in OmniFocus.

I don’t think OmniFocus will really tell you this because OmniFocus, let alone ourselves, can really tell us the effort and time a task is going to take up front. That only comes in retrospective.

A few thoughts here:

  • Time tracking could be a good way to tell how much you can do. If you track different types of work you do in a given day and do that consistently each day, you’ll have a concrete report you can look at after a week, a month, or even a year. This would give you a framework to say things like “I regularly only get 40hrs of development work done in a month”. Then you can plan for it.
  • Regular, intentional reflection on this subject (say, daily or weekly) can give you a good sense of how much you can do in a given day.

There’s really no magic answer here, and no specific tool will give you what you’re seeking, but I do think time and reflection may give you the insights you’re looking for eventually!

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Exporting the tasks from OmniFocus to a CSV file will get your perspective items into Excel.

I think counting the number of tasks is a misleading indicator. I could do 10 inconsequential tasks and it wouldn’t be the equal of doing 1 task that will have more impact. The value or score of each task will be dependent on our own personal stake or involvement in the project. I may score a task as highly important but my wife might score a task as low.

The weekly review or monthly review might gain some perspective about the value of our work/tasks. I struggle with dealing with the daily surge of customer requests, family/social requests. I’m resolved to protect my time blocks. I aim to keep a 90 minute time block every day towards one of my elective projects that doesn’t deal with customers or family. Most of my elective projects are self-improvement. Something like gym workouts has become important to me. I have a few other self improvement projects that won’t make money now but are designed to improve a workflow or situation that will make my work easier. If I don’t schedule these types of projects into the week, I’ll never get around to it and it will sit in incubation or in the Someday/Maybe category for a long time. That was where my problem for this post originated from.

Yes, I get that same feeling! @Kourosh has a wonderful post about the task manager’s place in our lives.

A task manager is not meant to make our decisions for us. It gives us a menu of what we can work on. In my case, I choose my weekly tasks that mixes in administrative work/projects with elective projects. Then I use a weekly calendar page spread in my BuJo to schedule this week’s work. My decisions are already made for the week.

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I like to think of it as making a bunch of small decisions up front so that making decisions on what to do is easier later. That mindset has really helped me out.