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Productivity Pitfalls of Prolific Project Placements

If you work on projects, whether they’re client-facing or internal, chances are you’ve been allocated across multiple projects at once. This often leaves you feeling like you’re struggling to meet expectations on any of them. The impact on productivity is more significant than many of us expect. Let me explain why.

Common wisdom suggests that if someone is working on two projects 50% each, they’d simply split their productivity in half for each. But reality tells a different story: spreading oneself across multiple projects is rarely, if ever, a good idea.

Why Does Multi-Project Work Fail?

Typically multiple project assignment is based on one of two assumptions.  First is the idea that the amount of work for your role, on each project, only requires a portion of the productivity output that you would deliver if you were assigned to the project full time.  Second is the idea that it’s okay if your output takes longer than if you were assigned full time.  

This sounds perfectly reasonable, right? So where does it all go wrong?

The culprit is something I am calling ‘Project Overhead Activities’.

What’s Project Overhead Activities?

Most projects include essential but time-consuming tasks like meetings, Agile ceremonies, and other forms of communication (think Slack, Teams, emails). There are also administrative duties like filling out timesheets and managing tasks.

The kicker? The time these tasks take doesn’t decrease linearly just because you’re spending less time on the project. Often, they don’t decrease at all.

A Practical Example

Let’s simplify things with a 40-hour work week where all time is billable.

Consider Amy Adams (no, not THAT Amy Adams), an eCommerce Architect, who is fully assigned to the Atlas client project. Her key responsibilities include creating architecture documentation, designing diagrams, building proofs of concept, and solving complex problems.

It would take her four weeks to wrap up these tasks.

Now, let’s split Amy’s week between two projects: Atlas and Bastion, each taking up 50% of her time.

Intuitively, you might think this means it’ll take eight weeks for Amy to finish her tasks on both projects. This approach might happily allow both projects to advance without hiring another architect.

But here’s the real deal:

On the Atlas project, Amy’s fixed overhead (meetings and such) consumes about 3 hours daily. When she’s fully dedicated to Atlas, she has five hours a day left for her core tasks.

Based on it taking her four weeks to complete her work, when fully dedicated to the Atlas project, at five hours per day, that is 100 hours of productive work needed to completer her deliverables.

However, with Amy assigned to Atlas at only 50%, she can dedicate just four hours daily. But those project overhead activities still eat up 3 hours each day, leaving her only one hour per day for her main tasks. Now, it will take her 100 days to complete what used to take 20, stretching out to 20 weeks!

Dropping from full to half time on Atlas means her work timeline doesn’t double—it quintuples. And while you (and your PM and other folks in your company) might expect tasks to take twice as long, they will actually take five times longer.

Moreover, every minute over those fixed hours disproportionately affects her productivity. An extra daily 30-minute meeting could extend her delivery time from 20 weeks to 40!

It’s Actually Worse Than That….

And let’s not forget the impact of switching contexts between projects, which is a significant yet often underestimated drain on productivity. Every time you move from one project to another, there’s a mental “reset” that needs to happen. This isn’t just a five-minute pause; it involves a complex cognitive process where your brain has to clear out the details of the previous task, set up the framework for the next, and then shift into the right gear to start anew. This mental shifting can lead to a reduction in sharpness and focus. The inefficiency compounds when these switches happen frequently.

When your schedule is chopped up into smaller blocks to accommodate multiple projects, it becomes nearly impossible to engage in deep, focused work. Deep work requires long, uninterrupted periods where thoughts can marinate and ideas can fully form. But if your free time is partitioned into 15 or 30 minute slots between various meetings, finding enough continuous time to dive deep is like trying to read a novel in three-minute intervals throughout the day — disjointed and unsatisfying. The result? Projects take longer to complete, creative solutions are harder to come by, and overall satisfaction with your work can plummet. In environments where innovation and quality are critical, this can be a serious handicap.

The Takeaway

For roles focused on deliverables rather than just attending meetings, being assigned to multiple projects typically leads to a severe drop in productivity. Whenever possible, it’s a setup that should be avoided to maintain efficiency and job satisfaction.






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