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World-Class Juggler

If you're like most IPs, you've got at least three clients, and you're no doubt working on at least three projects at any given time. So what do you do when your gigs start to conflict with one another? You become, ta-da!, a world-class juggler -- so swift and skilled that you could work for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. (Either that, or your clients fire your ass and you become one of those clowns whose "job" is to watch lots of daytime TV.)

Despite my efforts to push the number of different projects I'm working on down into the lower single digits, I always seem to have a scary crowd of projects and clients clamoring for my attention. Just last week, for example, I had 12 different jobs in various states of progress -- a significant number of which just happened to all be due at the end of the week. And, trust me, these were bodacious, heavy-duty, get-ready-to-burn-up-some-serious-midnight-oil projects.

Truly, my cup runneth over.

But that's okay -- I'm not complaining. Really. Peter Economy's Number One IP Rule is that it's always far better to have too much work than not enough. Now I know that many writers preach about the dangers of overextending yourself, of the need to train yourself to say no to clients. Truth is, this is fine and reasonable advice -- but not if you are a happy workaholic (like me) or are in the middle of an insane week. Often some IPs like and/or need to pack on the projects, and sometimes it's too late to turn back.

The main danger in taking on too many different gigs is that eventually, you're bound to drop a ball or two, and when you do, you just might have hell to pay. Not only will you have to give your clients the bad news about missing your promised delivery date, but as each project slips out of your hands, it usually compounds the problem by making other projects slip as well. And as more projects slip off schedule, you're left with one mother of a mess.

This past week was indeed a tough one for me, but it looks like I'm gonna make it. Of course, every new week brings a fresh set of challenges, and many more opportunities to practice my juggling act. The good news is that the more I juggle, the better I get at it -- and you can, too. Here are a few things I've learned over the years that have helped me keep those balls in the air (and helped keep my projects on time, and my clients happy):

1. Watch those scheduling conflicts. When juggling multiple projects, the first thing you've got to do is keep a very close eye on the due dates for your deliverables. (Because most IPs have no pre-fab work structure, it's critical that they -- that you -- make an effort to be as schedule-conscious as possible.) Although I put my schedules on my computer (Microsoft Outlook is my weapon of choice), you might find that one of those big, plastic project calendars nailed to your wall -- the kind you can write on with a marker and erase later -- will do the trick. Whatever you do, be sure to give yourself enough time between jobs -- don't let yourself get stuck committing to the delivery of five major projects at 12 noon on Friday. Spread them out!

2. Keep your priorities straight. Even when everything you're working on is urgent, certain projects are always more urgent than others. How do you decide which come first and which come last? The answer to that question depends on a number of things: which project is going to give you the best cash flow, which client you can least afford to piss off, and which job is going to lead to bigger and better ones. It may be helpful for you to write this information out (either on a big ole whiteboard or in a Microsoft Word table). However you decide to prioritize your work, develop a system for stacking up your jobs, and then stick to it.

3. Remove all your distractions. What did I do when I had 12 different projects vying for my attention with a bunch of them due and payable last Friday? I did what every good IP does -- I sent my wife and kids on a lavish, all-expenses-paid trip to Disneyland for the day. As much as I love my family, and as much as I love working at home, I just can't get as much work done when my two-year-old is trying to play his Thomas the Tank Engine game on my computer, my six-year-old wants me to judge her dance recital, and my nine-year-old is dragging me off to another showdown with Mario and Luigi on his Nintendo 64 (damn -- I lost again!). My free day was heaven, and I accomplished more in 12 hours than I ever have -- at least for as long as I can remember. I finished up four different projects and got them shipped off before the posse found its way home late that night -- mission accomplished!

Of course, not every IP has a family, or enough scratch to send them off to see Mickey and Donald when the time comes for some serious concentration. Heck, some IPs don't even have an office at home. If you're one of these people, you might get a little peace and quiet by (1) unplugging the phone or forwarding your calls to voicemail; (2) heading over to your local library to find yourself a cozy carrel; or (3) paying a visit to the nearest coffee shop.

4. Be fast and flexible. When things get really tight, and you're just about to drop a ball or two, there's nothing better than to have one or more of your clients throw you an opportunity to slip your schedule -- even just a little bit. Last week, for example, one of my clients decided that the project that absolutely had to be done on Friday, could actually wait two weeks. What did I do? Well, I didn't open a bottle of champagne and start dancing a jig. Instead, I threw his project onto the back burner faster than you could say, "This mother is out of here," and turned up the heat on the remaining projects. World-class jugglers are fast and flexible -- ready at any moment to move one project front and center in their planning while another one fades into the background, if only for a day or two.

Juggling projects and clients is an essential survival skill for most IPs, one that we can all stand to improve. Sure, one of these days we're going to hit all the numbers on that big Powerball jackpot, and retire on our own private island in the Caribbean, but until then, we're going to have to work our butts off to keep the money rolling in, and the rent paid. So the next time the circus is in town, watch how the clowns keep all those balls in the air without dropping a single one -- you just might learn a thing or two.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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