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Four Strategies for Project Management without Stress

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The Project Management Institute (PMI) has recognized the effect of stress on the success of a project by referring to the Yerkes-Dodson curve (below), which shows that moderate stress increases performance but high levels of stress cause it to drastically decline. 

At any level, stress produces changes that, if prolonged, have the potential to damage you physically, psychologically, and socially. During a project, “socially” embraces your relationship with the customer, internal and external teams, and other stakeholders.

In his book, Stress and the Manager, Dr. Karl Albrecht identifies four types of managerial stress: time, anticipatory, situational, and encounter. Based on information gathered by the PMI and other researchers, the following SMaRT strategies will help you manage your next project with less stress.

How to Deal with Time Stress (Create Time)

When tasks are small enough to be manageable, priorities are established, and responsibilities are clearly marked out, your team operates at maximum efficiency, and you feel better about delegating—creating more time and accomplishing project management with less stress. You also have a secure basis on which to make course corrections when needed. 

With your scheduling skills, you build in time and manpower for contingencies; locate areas where you can save time and money; and most importantly, set aside time for yourself. Scheduling enables you to: 

  • Make sure you haven’t over-planned your day; just as your project schedule needs to account for contingencies, so does your personal schedule.
  • Monitor and gather your personal resources, calm your anxiety and stress, and take care of your health and well-being. 
  • Note what is happening with your team so that you can offer them support and also find opportunities to mentor and delegate.
  • Check the ground rules you have set up and the assumptions you have made to make sure that they are still applicable.
  • Research the latest strategies, tools, and ideas in project management. 

TIP: You make poorer decisions when you are highly emotional. By stepping back, you ensure that you do not over or under-react.

How to Deal with Anticipatory Stress (Stay in the Present)

So many things can go wrong in so many ways on a project that if you spend your time worrying about “what if,” you will work yourself into stress and anxiety without any basis in present fact. Mindfulness keeps you in the present. You handle project management with less stress when you deal with what is happening here and now rather than worrying over problems that may never happen.

Is the here and now overwhelming? You may not be able to solve every problem immediately, but consider if there is some small step available to you. 

Catastrophizing is a common occurrence in projects. In the midst of chaos, you yourself may decide that everything accomplished so far is wrong; the entire project is misguided, you are an incompetent leader, your team or the customer or the stakeholders are deliberately undermining you, and so on and on. If you find yourself sinking into catastrophic thinking, try visualization. 

Depending on the situation, you may use visualization in two ways: 

  • Visualize the worst that might happen, then try to visualize your way out of the situation. 
  • Visualize the best that can happen, restore your own equilibrium, and work to bring that best-case scenario into reality. 

An irate stakeholder stride into the project manager’s (PM’s) office, protesting that the final report “made us look like incompetent idiots; you’ll have to rewrite the entire thing.” The PM’s stress levels soared. Then she closed her eyes for a moment to move her attention from the failure of the entire project to the present anger of the person in her office. She used her SMaRT conflict resolution and communication skills to hear out the stakeholder’s objections—and quickly realized that changing two sentences out of 20 pages would correct the problem. 

How to Deal with Situational Stress (Understand the Situation)

The first and foremost obstacle to the success of any project is a failure to read the instructions.

Do you think this applies only to putting together bicycles and bookcases? Then you aren’t familiar with this venerable engineering cartoon:

As the project manager, your job is to make sure that “what the customer really wanted” is delivered at the end—even for customers who don’t thoroughly understand what they want or need. Then you have to make sure that the customer’s request makes it safely through every team that lays hands on it, whether internal or external, including financial, service, design, development, vendor, supply chain, delivery, and installation. At the same time, you must pay attention to budgetary and other constraints that may conflict with what the project requires.

The result is that you are plunged over and over again into situations where someone is unhappy, you are confused and upset, and the way out is unclear. You must understand the situation before you can deal with it, step by step:

  1. Go back to the beginning—reread the instructions, re-examine the schedule and budget, and make sure that responsibilities and tasks are clear.
  2. Rehearse the worst case—here, visualization helps because it inoculates you for the worst case scenario: what will you do if the customer changes their mind or a vendor backs out of an agreement?
  3. Call in help—is there a solution you haven’t thought of?

The PM’s bosses told him to turn down an improvement that the customer requested; it would take too long and involve too many people. Wanting to deepen and preserve the customer relationship, the PM consulted with a team member, who had prior experience in the area. That team member thought the improvement could be accomplished in a couple of days or less. The PM made this proposal to his bosses: if the effort succeeded, the customer would be happy and the company would have another benefit to offer future customers; but if the effort failed, the company lost a short amount of time for only one person. The PM received the go-ahead and the improvement was made and delivered.

TIP: Send decisions through your lens of core values. They will help you to prioritize your battles and keep you and your team on track despite heightened emotions.

How to Deal with Encounter Stress (Control the Input)

Everyone involved in a project brings their own perspective to each problem and solution. This clash of expertise, priorities, and personalities means that you and your project may easily become mired in endless meetings and debates. SMaRT decision making strategies enable you to lead group decisions with less stress and to call a halt when the debate stops being productive.

Part of the problem with modern decision making is that the data keeps coming. Your job is to manage risk; no one can eliminate it entirely. Recognize when more data, like more debate, begins to strangle and overwhelm you. Pre-mortems, changes in perspective, and similar problem-solving strategies enable you to set appropriate limits both to risks and objections. 

One of the best ways to keep your sanity intact is to practice saying “no but….” For example, “no, we can’t add that feature for free but we would be happy to contract with you for the modification” or “no, you can’t have three days off in the middle of the project but we can work something out as soon as your tasks are complete.”

TIP: The word “no” (with or without the “but”) is one of the most important you can master to reduce your stress as a project manager.

Key Takeaways

Every project manager is prone to time, anticipatory, situational, and encounter stress—it’s the nature of project management where schedules, budgets, customers, stakeholders, and teams all come into conflict. SMaRT strategies in time management, visualization, conflict resolution, and communication all help you to achieve project management with less stress.

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