6 chaos-fighting strategies for leaders pulled in all directions

In knowledge-intensive fields, 95% of teams work on more than one project at the same time, according to a 2015 study from the Center for Creative Leadership.

Many higher education administrators can relate to the feeling of pivoting between projects multiple times per day and facing a seemingly endless to-do list.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, two researchers discuss the challenges of working on multiple large projects simultaneously, based on their observations from 15 years of research. The researchers are Heidi Gardner, a distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School, and Mark Mortensen, an associate professor and chair of the Organizational Behavior Area at INSEAD.

Gardner and Mortensen recommend six steps to regain control over the chaos when you're managing multiple projects.

1: Check your perspective

"Focusing narrowly on a given day's work puts you in a reactive, firefighting mode," Gardner and Mortensen write. Instead, they recommend looking at the big picture of your team's project schedules to identify crunch times, appropriate milestones, and areas where you may need to re-prioritize.

2: Avoid multitasking

You may be working on several projects, but you don't need to work on them at the same time. Multiple studies have found that multitasking raises anxiety and reduces productivity. Instead, Gardner and Mortensen recommend devoting large blocks of time to your toughest project, determining exactly what goals you need to achieve in that time and "ruthlessly stick[ing] to them." If you must multitask (for example, responding to phone calls during certain hours), then choose a task for that time period that requires less concentration.

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3: Set boundaries

Do whatever it takes to create blocks of time when you can work on high-priority projects. For example, you might set an automatic reply letting colleagues know you're not checking your email right now and leaving your mobile phone number in case of emergencies.

4: Don't forget to communicate

Frequent communication builds trust, Gardner and Mortensen write. For example, let your stakeholders know the moment a project starts to veer off schedule. Or reply briefly to their request to acknowledge that you're working on it and will provide an update when you can.

5: Keep growing professionally

When your team is under pressure, it's tempting for everyone to focus on the tasks they're already best at. But even when you're busy, professional growth is important for keeping yourself and your employees engaged. Gardner and Mortensen recommend explicitly identifying your professional development goals and the steps you can take now to get there.

6: Review the results

After a project wraps up, don't forget to schedule time to review the outcomes and lessons learned, Gardner and Mortensen warn. Research shows that reflecting on what you've learned and what you'll do differently next time is a critical step in the learning process, they write (Gardner/Mortensen, Harvard Business Review, 11/7; Gardner/Mortensen, Harvard Business Review, Sep/Oct 2017).

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