Here’s something we can both agree on:
Management is hard, and project managers are extremely busy people.
Creating and updating schedules, participating in multiple calls, interacting with project team members, talking to vendors, attending endless online and real-life meetings — it’s just the tip of the iceberg we see when speaking about a project manager’s work.
Such busyness goes hand-in-hand with heavy responsibility. Other stakeholders have huge expectations from project managers; their success depends on their organizational skills, team management, and resources; they have to deal with conflicts and constraints.
Long story short, the anxiety of dealing with all the tasks and the pressure to keep up stellar work (no matter what) amps up the stressful project management.
As clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark says, “a curveball like that requires sharpening your coping skills and expanding them so that you can deal with what’s being demanded of you.”
In this article, you’ll learn what stress is, when it can be good for a project manager, and what you can do to reduce its influence on your work performance.
So, first things first:
What is Stress in Project Management?
In plain English, stress is an uncomfortable feeling of threat when a person starts experiencing apprehension, fear, or anxiety. It comes amid physical symptoms like headache, increased blood pressure, bad sleeping, upset stomach, and chest pain.
Excess stress also leads to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, influencing our life expectancy in the longer term.
Speaking of project managers, the reasons for their stress at work include but aren’t limited to the following:
- Unrealistic expectations from customers or higher management.
- The desire to have more control over the project and be an “I’m-all-in-charge” person.
- The need for interaction with other stakeholders who don’t participate in the project but must provide support.
- The attempts to shield their team from the pressure of other stakeholders.
- The workload leading to work-life imbalance, health and family problems, and work efficiency loss.
Not every time should we think of stress as something awful. Its influence on a project manager depends on its level. While prolonged and excess stress causes negative effects on our physical and mental well-being, a moderate dose of stressful situations can boost our productivity.
Here’s how the Yerkes-Dodson law, a relationship between pressure and performance, works:
Source: Harvard Business Review
So, it happens that the key to managing stress and making it work for you is to keep it at a healthy level, reducing it when necessary.
Mentioned below are five steps to control your stress level and keep up productive work as a project manager.
1) Identify and Write Down Your Stressors
As a successful project manager, you need to be aware of your internality and understand how stress affects you. It’s about self-awareness and self-reflection, so critical to master for your well-being. So, make a self-analysis your habit:
Every few months, listen to your gut and try to identify how many signs of excess stress you have.
- Do you have frequent illnesses or low energy?
- Do you notice any changes in appetite, digestive issues, or insomnia?
- What about headaches, sweating, or rapid heart rate?
Once you accept that you’re under stress, it’s time to identify and record your main stressors. It would be wrong to admit you’re stressed and tired because of your busyness at work but take a la “But what can I do?” position.
Instead, keep a journal for a week or two, tracking your stress triggers and your reaction to them. Include everything: people, places, events, and any other factors giving you a negative emotional response. After analyzing the list, you may find out that it’s enough to re-organize a workspace or a daily routine to keep up your productive work.
2) Prioritize and Organize Your Project Work
Project managers are most stressed when urgent situations occur, and they feel a loss of control. Identifying what you can control helps regain some of that stress in order. Try turning off your perfectionism and “Who else if not me?” mode.
The first step would be to identify your “must-dos” and prioritize accordingly.
Take your work scheduling to the next level and go beyond the basics. Aside from making endless to-do lists and filling your calendar with tons of tasks, think of where you can cut back and save time. Ask yourself:
- What can I put off with no consequence?
- What can I delegate to my support staff?
Once you hone time management and organize your project work so that you personally could focus on no more than 2–3 things at a time, you’ll notice that you have more energy to get the essentials done.
3) Slow Down
One of the most crucial things a project manager can do when under stress is slow down. It’s that very moment when going slowly doesn’t prevent arriving. And that’s why:
Extreme stress influences our decision-making, affecting the brain’s prefrontal cortex. (The one regulating our problem-solving ability as well as emotion and impulse control.) Unlike periodic stress (when we feel pressure from time to time), this one doesn’t give us time to recover.
In other words, if you continue working to the full when under stress, the wrong decisions won’t take long in coming.
To keep up stellar project management, let go of your perfectionism and stop bragging that you can still control everything regardless of your condition. It’s time to accept a “good enough” concept:
- Be more intentional about your deeds and decisions.
- Give yourself more time to make decisions and take action on the project.
- Do the minimum acceptable job, delegate, and automate your work whenever possible: use scheduling calendars, email services, project planning software, etc.
All this will help you free up some time and energy to recharge and prevent burnout. Remember about your personal time:
- Take breaks between meetings.
- Avoid multitasking.
- Make it a habit to give yourself relaxing pauses during a busy day.
4) Create a Stress-Free Work Environment
It often happens that the reason for a project manager’s stress is their poorly-organized workplace or toxic work environment. Too messy desks, too dark rooms, too loud colleagues — these seemingly unimportant details affect your mood, productivity, and performance too.
Whether you work in the home office because of the pandemic or go to the office, please do your best to organize your work environment to minimize the stress triggers.
First, keep it clean.
Mess equals stress: Wasting time searching for documents or phone numbers, you get frustrated, disoriented, and mentally disordered. Clutter slows down our energy, making it more challenging for us to function.
So, organize your workspace in a way where everything takes its place and where you could reach all the documents and instruments for work.
Second, add some personal touch.
Let’s face it: Most office design looks uninspired. If that’s your case, why not redecorate it a bit with personal items that improve your mood and motivate you to work? Photos, inspiring quotes, books, favorite cups, decorative accessories — everything works here unless it turns your workplace into a mess. (Remember the above point?)
Then, make sure it’s light, with stress-free wall colors, and a comfortable desk and chair. All they influence our productivity and stress level.
For instance, a lamp with a color temperature of around 3,500–4,000K stimulates brains, while warm colors of 2,700–3,000K make us relax, therefore influencing our productivity. The best variant is to work in daylight because it allows us to stay more active and concentrated than artificial lighting.
The color of your workplace walls influences your stress level, too: Avoid gray, white, and beige because they evoke sadness and depression. Blue or green would be a good option: They increase motivation and give a sense of well-being.
Also, add plants to your home or office room. Not only do they clean the air, but they also boost your spirit, therefore reducing stress and influencing productivity.
Finally, learn to handle interruptions and incorporate relaxation into your working day.
Do you sit near a noisy elevator that triggers you? Do your team members or other colleagues constantly stop by you to chat? Or, maybe you have large windows that don’t absorb outer sounds?
If you can’t do anything with that, you need to learn how to ignore these distractions. It will help decrease stress levels by far. Play soft music on the earphones, go for a short walk when feeling tense, take 15 minutes for meditation or deep breathing — all these tricks can help you recharge and go back to project work with renewed vigor.
5) Organize Your Well-Being
Your hard and soft project management skills aren’t enough for stress prevention and control. It’s also significant to practice self-care and make a healthy lifestyle your habit.
Revise your schedule and daily routine outside of work. Are you getting enough sleep? What are your eating habits? And what about physical exercises?
According to numerous studies, regular exercises are natural stress reducers. They can even improve mood for people in depression! If it’s still challenging for you to go to gym, consider the following practices:
- Take walking meetings or install a walking track in your office.
- Encourage your team to participate in a wellness challenge.
- Try working at standing desks. They are better for health, also letting you burn some extra calories.
Eat healthy food rich in complex carbohydrates: vegetables, pasta, whole wheat bread — they fuel the brains, support concentration, and give the power to handle work pressure. But avoid too much coffee, sugar, and alcohol, which is a natural depressant.
And last but not least: sleeping.
While we know that stress causes insomnia, some researchers state that poor sleep can contribute to our stressful condition in return. A lack of sleep doesn’t allow you to cope with work responsibilities, negatively affecting your mood, outlook, and overall health. So:
- Sleep 7–8 hours a night. (Okay, six is a minimum!)
- Please stick to a schedule and fall asleep at the same time every night.
- Make sure you sleep in a completely dark room.
- Turn off all the devices one hour before you go to bed.
- Make it a practice to take a 15–20 minute (but no longer!) break during a day if you feel too stressed or tired.
In a Word
Certainly, a project manager can’t avoid stress at work. Tons of tasks on project planning and organization, the responsibility for a team’s performance and outcome, time pressure, work-life imbalance — it’s just a few causes of stressful project management we face today.
And while we know that some healthy stress at work can be good for productivity and overall performance, excess stress does nothing but harm.
To keep up successful project management when you’re under stress, please do your best to control its level: identify your stressors, organize a stress-free work environment, and prioritize your project work so you could get some extra time to recover.
Lesley Vos is a text author, blogging at Bid 4 Papers and specializing in content creation and self-criticism. In love with words, coffee, and foxes. In the hope of mastering the art of proofreading before she hits “send.”
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