How to prevent overwhelm with the five projects rules

  • Post by Maxime Cote
  • Apr 30, 2020

Your future is the average of the five projects you’re working on

Did you ever start to feel overwhelmed for what seems like no reason? You have your todo list, only 10-12 tasks per day for the next week. You look at your projects in the todo list, and nothing jumps at you. You have six various work projects, production migration, hiring, a new program, etc. There’s this one migration that’s been lagging for a while, but it happens. Then you look over your list, only five projects there. Nothing special either, learning a new language for your next vacation, planning this year vacation, buying a new bike, etc. Are you feeling overwhelmed too yet? Because I am just listing those here, but that was how it would typically go for me also. How, then, would you react? Get a new application? Get better project management? What would really help here is the five rules project and some scoping and chunking. I first learn about those from reading the excellent book “Start Finishing” by Charlie Gilkey. And those rules and ideas are some of the foundations of how not to feel overwhelmed and finish things. So what are those rules?

The rules

The rules for this way of management are:

  • You cannot (shouldn’t) have more than five projects per time perspective
  • You should focus at most on 3 “work” project and 2 “life” projects
  • If five is too much, lower the number until you reach a good commit to completion ratio

Many of those will require a bit more of a deeper dive to see why/how they work. The first one is the most important, so let’s focus there. No more than five projects per time perspective, but what is a time perspective? It’s merely a scope of time you plan for, week, month, quarter, year. Above a year, it changes a bit and gets more tricky to prepare, so you probably should cap on yearly.

So if you follow the rule exactly, you will not have more than five weeks size projects, five months size projects, five quarter size projects, and five year size projects. That doesn’t mean you will only do five projects per week and five projects per month (though you probably should) but at a given time. When you free a slot by finishing one project early, then you can fill it with another. Now, how many projects do you have on your project list? Could you take it down to 5 only? It is challenging to do so, especially at first. But the constraint it creates also makes the most critical project rise to the top. This limit also forces you to scope the project more effectively, are your week project really week size?


Correctly scoping the projects can be pretty hard to do, especially at first. It is, however, worth time as the alternative is never-ending “zombie” projects. Those zombies can be pretty dangerous, just like their counterparts in movies. They also both share their apparent slowness and sluggishness but also how they might creep up on you and overthrow you with their masses. The comparison stops there, though, thankfully projects won’t try to eat you. But if you have too many of them, you will feel overwhelmed and stress. There’s a lot of reasons why but the main one is stagnation of the list. Never-ending projects will make your project list static for an extended period, which is discouraging. With a static list, you will get tired or bored with the project or even worst both. You will also start to feel bad about it since they never seem to progress, no matter what you do.

One of the primary ways to address this is simple, scope the project better. Doing so will also force you to split it into better chunks. A project that lasts more than a day should be a weekly project. If it continues for more than a week, it should be monthly, etc. But then once a weekly plan becomes a monthly one, you have to chunk it down to multiple weeks. The “project” moving apartment that you’ve been dragging along for weeks is suddenly three weeks long projects. The great thing too is that you might realize you already have done 2 of those 3, you get instant progress! Correctly scoping projects makes it a lot more motivating to work on big projects.

The surprise projects

Now that you’ve been scoping and all your week-long projects are approximately week-long, things are all good, right? Sadly life often has other ideas in store for you, and its idea of fun is very different from us. There are things in life that might suddenly turn into a project, both in fun and less fun way. Something like a natural disaster, a pandemic, an accident, or a new child, a new hobby, a new job position in themselves are projects. It takes a lot of time to handle them, and they bring todo and actions and planning with them. The five project rules also apply here, not just fun or work projects. Those “life” projects will pile on the rest and will get you overwhelmed, just like the more “normal” one. They also need to be taken into account when planning for the five in the time perspective. If you know you have to deal with a forest fire in your areas and need to prepare for those, that’s one slot gone.

Those projects are often just “drudge” thru or not taken into account and are often when leads to overwhelm and stress. If I have to deal with both five full projects AND a pandemic, that’s a lot of stress I put myself through. Most of the time, it’s also not realistic; the five project rules are about being realistic with your output. If you have to deal with a surprise “life” project, you know some other things will be put in the backburner anyway, so why not do it upfront (if you can). Some things you cannot predict, but you can always account for it and adjust accordingly afterward. Having only to juggle five projects makes it far easier to track and move them back or forward as needed.