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Are you a stressed project manager? Not surprisingly, project management can be incredibly stressful. We’re responsible for delivery on time, on budget and scope but often have to deal with limited or poorly equipped resources, unrealistic client expectations and a to-do list that could easily reach the moon and back. So what can we do about it? Do we have to grin and bear life as a stressed project manager, or is there a way to get our PM mojo back?

In this blog, I outline my top tips for a stressed project manager based on my own experiences of managing a number of challenging projects which left me feeling at the point of breakdown.

It was a classic situation of an under-resourced tech team and not enough project managers to cover the work. Which, as a conscientious project manager, led to six months of sleepless nights. Being sleep-deprived, combined with the associated work stress, left me exhausted and bursting into tears – I had become a shadow of the capable project manager I knew I was.

Average UK adults now spend one day a week online. Working in the tech industry, it can feel that all we’re permanently connected to our digital screens. As a result, in 2016 one in three adult internet users (34%) – the equivalent of 15 million people in the UK – has sought a period of time offline (Ofcom 2016).

The digital industry is seeing increased reports of overworked and high-pressure environments driving up stress and anxiety levels. To add to this, staff are routinely provided with a mobile, which results in far too many of us woefully trying to multitask in meetings and constantly feeling the need to check in. So how can we achieve that all-important digital work life balance – and how can we help our teams achieve it too?

Tips for a stressed project manager

1) Don’t over plan your day

If you’re a stressed project manager, reassess the top three non-negotiable tasks you have to do each day and make sure you block out time for them. This goes back to the simple nugget of wisdom that the very act of committing an item to your diary means you are more likely to follow through with it.

Another simple learning tool is to always leave time available for the unplanned tasks that can sideline your day. We’ve all been there where we had too many back-to-back meetings booked in, and then when something goes wrong the whole day goes to pot!

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2) Prioritisation matrix mapping

The renowned Eisenhower matrix, often referred to as the urgent-important matrix is a very helpful resource to help focus on what you should be doing. Especially when it comes to the fourth quadrant of “don’t do’s”. What are your time-wasting habits? Searching for funny GIFs? Staring into your inbox, filing, archiving old emails? Next time you’re feeling stressed, use this to help work out a way to prioritise your workload.

3) Understand requirements

And by requirements, I don’t mean just the functional scope of a project or user stories. Take the time at the start of a project to set ground rules and clarify what the team and client expect from you. For example, if you agree that a weekly Friday status report is needed, ensure you schedule time in your diary every Thursday. This means you’re one step ahead and frees up time on the day to allow for other tasks that could require your input.

4) Schedule time for researching/exploring

We have all heard about the fabled 20% of time that Google employees can use for their own side projects – though there is something to be said about scheduling time to investigate new ideas and approaches to project management. Getting new ideas on how to deal with clients, colleagues and also ourselves can be invaluable in developing a toolkit to help us be more resilient. As project managers we can feel the pressure to hold the team/project together, so taking the time to develop essential life skills such as prioritisation and mindfulness and can also make you feel better prepared to deal with stressful situations.

5) Stand up

For me, this is a really important point around stress management and one which I think is too often overlooked: have the courage to stand up and say no sometimes. Project managers can often be people pleasers and this can get us into a world of trouble if we say yes to everything because we don’t want to let people down. Learning to say no and push back, in the right way, at the right time is a really important skill. Knowing what you can manage to deliver in the course of a day or week is crucial to you feeling a sense of pride and fulfilment in your work. For example, an easy way to try this is asking: what is the purpose of this meeting invite? Do I need to be in it? We all know how time-draining pointless meetings can be so where possible, only commit to the things that add value to your projects and help to get things done.

Knowing what you can manage to deliver in the course of a day or week is crucial to you feeling a sense of pride and fulfilment in your work. For example, an easy way to try this is asking: what is the purpose of this meeting invite? Do I need to be in it? We all know how time-draining pointless meetings can be so where possible, only commit to the things that add value to your projects and help to get things done.

6) Break it down

We all know the merits of user stories and breaking a task down into the smaller component parts – ultimately, this gives us a better understanding of the time required. As project managers we can often be focussed on the bigger picture, so take the time to think about your own work and set manageable tasks that you can realistically achieve in your designated time slots.

If you’re a stressed project manager and feeling overwhelmed with work, this tip can be especially helpful – as rather than trying to take on the whole thing in one go, having a list of smaller tasks can feel more manageable.

7) Take lunch away from your desk

When you have a lot of work on, it can feel like you’re drowning – leaving you thinking “I can’t afford to take a break!”. This a false economy, and from experience the longer you sit stressed at your desk the worse you can feel. Taking 10-15 minutes away from your desk to take a breath of fresh air and reflect on what’s important can make all the difference.

I have found in agencies that you’ll see the developers and designers taking their full lunch breaks and the project managers sitting stressed at their desks. Often it’s the project managers or resource managers that aren’t giving themselves the time they need – so as project managers, we should set the same expectations for ourselves.

Related Read: Resource Loading In Project Management: A Helpful How-To

8) Share the load

Review what work you are owning that can be delegated to other team members. I have learned that it’s easy to take on the team admin tasks, such as rewriting feedback so its client-friendly and even copywriting. Empowering the team to help pick up some of the tasks you don’t have the time for helps to ensure your managers are aware what skills you are having to double up on.

9) Talk to your boss and team

There’s no shame in raising your concerns and, if anything, from experience, project managers are the characters that just get stuck in and don’t want to be seen to struggle. In this case, if you’re a stressed project manager, it’s even more important to talk to your manager, as they might not even be aware that you are having a tough time.

In essence, by having an open discussion it’s the old adage of, “help them to help you”. Collaborate, delegate and share the load with your other project manager colleagues. The open and frank conversations can also unearth issues that colleagues aren’t aware of, enabling yourself and others to see how things could be better managed.

10) Take a moment to reflect

If after reading these points you’ve tried to apply them but still feel stressed, then take the time to reflect and decide if the job is right for you.

As I outlined at the start of this piece, I found myself in a stressful work environment – and after speaking with senior management, I found that the company culture and attitudes to getting work done really didn’t fit with my ethos. So in the end, I knew it wasn’t the right place for me. No number of productivity hacks and stress management tips can solve the problem, if in fact the issue is with the place of work. Since changing jobs this year, I am no longer a super stressed project manager, but when workloads naturally get a bit full on I often implement the tips above to help keep an even keel and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

What do you think?

Are you a stressed project manager? What do you think we’re missing? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any thoughts on stress management, especially if you’ve got any project management related stress management tips. Why not join the conversation below?

By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 20 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony. Ben's a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and productivity nut.

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