How to manage many things at once without stress

Being in a management position will always require a person to handle multiple things at once. Usually this is a source of stress. Of course there might be some difficulties with focus keeping and persistence, but after eliminating those as possible causes, there will still remain multiple issues that need to be managed. In my early years of being a manager, I compensated that with huge commitment, overtime and constantly being alert. There is an easier way though that I would like to share. Here are 12 techniques to manage multiple things at once without stress:

1. Schedule any work you have to do in your calendar

If I don’t block off time for doing certain work, the time will definitely become filled up with meeting requests. And even if I decline every one of them, it still needs time to manage the requests. So blocking time in advance is very important. And what I’ve learned just recently is that it is highly effective not only to block off larger chunks of work. Even answering a specific longer or complex e-mail or scheduling a certain appointment with a customer takes some time. So I schedule even very little management-clutter-like tasks in my calendar like “tell A todo X”. At least there should be some blocker for “doing due management stuff”.

2. Use meeting-chaining

If I’m managing an issue that is being worked on over a longer period of time, I often plan from meeting to meeting. At the end of each meeting I immediately schedule the next meeting. Each meeting contains a goal and a todo-list with action items that have to be resolved by the time of the meeting. For each action item there is a responsible person. I write goal and todo-list directly into the meeting invitation so that I don’t have to search for the protocol when the meeting takes place.

3. Leave every meeting without TODOs

When I hold a meeting I always try to leave it without TODOs. Usually for most action items there is somebody else that can do it. If only I can do it, I try to adjust the action item or break it down into smaller pieces so that it can be delegated more easily. If after that there is still some high-level work that only I can do (like making a decision or approving a work item), I try to define this work so narrow that I can perform it as an agenda point of the next meeting.

4. Delegate everything that somebody else can do

Earlier in my career I always felt the urge to do things by myself. And there are still things that I really need to do by myself either because they are my core responsibility or I really don’t have anybody available who can do it. However, I’ve found out that the number of things I really have to do by myself is in fact very small. It all comes down to good delegation skills. The next sections give a hint of what I mean.

5. Delegate with clear goals and algorithms

When I delegate a task, I always have to consider the level of skill and creativity of the person I’m giving the task to. The lower the skill level and creativity, the more time I take for specifying the concrete step by step procedure the person should perform. If the step by step procedure is so complex that the whole delegation procedure cannot be done within 20 minutes, then I break the task down into smaller pieces. Then I only delegate the first piece and use meeting-chaining to delegate the other pieces in subsequent meetings.

In any delegation I give a clear SMART goal what should be achieved, when it should be achieved and what the constraints (e.g. budget) are. Then I let the person repeat everything verbally to make sure (s)he has understood everything. This is an important part, because more often than not, there was a misunderstanding.

6. Anticipate multiple iterations when delegating

I have observed many managers becoming angry or impatient when their delegation does not work out. To avoid that, I anticipate failure of the delegation mentally and prepare for it. So depending on the skill and experience level of the person I’m delegating to, I include several iterations in my expectations.

7. Schedule the check in advance in your calendar

After I’ve made the delegation, I schedule to check the completion of the delegated task in my calendar. I either do the check by myself or I plan a meeting with the person I’ve delegated the task to. In recent times I even let the other person schedule the meeting, but of course I then have to schedule a check in my calendar to see if I have received the meeting invitation.

8. Allow a certain range of failure

Leaving the topic of delegation now, I would like to write about ongoing work that is being performed by employees. What I have learned is that a certain range of failure is inevitable and it is not helpful to try to avoid it.  Instead I let employees work on tasks a certain amount of time with the risk of failure. But I limit the amount of possible failure by the following mechanisms.

9. Use pre-scheduled periodic controlling-meetings for ongoing processes

With larger projects it makes sense to plan periodic controlling-meetings in advance. Each controlling meeting has a clear goal and results that have to be achieved by the time of the meeting. Typically the result check includes schedule, scope, quality, budget and risks.

This is very important so I repeat it and try to clarify it:

  • All controlling-meetings are planned at the beginning of the project.
  • The results that have to be achieved by the time of every controlling meeting are also defined at the beginning of the project.

I can’t stand pointless “jour-fixes” where the team just “talks about the project”.

10. Use audits instead of constant checking

For repeating activities that are standardized in form of a process, I do not check every process activity. Instead I let employees do the work and check regularly if all process steps have been performed using audits. Those audits should be in short cycles though to limit the amount of failure. Maybe I audit weekly or monthly, depending on the frequency of the process activities. Those audits should be scheduled in advance. Such an audit doesn’t have to be a big deal. It might be just a 10-minute glance at the issues in the issue-tracking-system.

11. Define small monitoring roles

To perform audits or controlling-meetings I have found it helpful to define very small roles. The responsibility of the roles is scheduling and moderating the controlling-meetings or performing the audits. I can then assign the roles to people with high conscientiousness and reliability and let them report to me their results on a regular basis. This way I do not have to perform the audit by myself. The people that the roles are assigned to are usually no managers but regular employees that just happen to be very reliable.

12. Intentionally forget everything

All the above techniques only help, because I do the following: Between the scheduled appointments in my calendar I intentionally forget everything about an issue. If somebody asks me something about the issue I literally say: “I can’t remember in detail, please bring it up in the controlling meeting. We will deal with your question then.”

This of course requires some mental practice, but I’ve learned that it is really effective.

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