It can easily happen to a Project Manager. The work builds up. The problems increase. You’re given a second project. Deadlines loom. There’s a crisis! Before you know it, you’re feeling overwhelmed.
There’s just so much you have to do.
You feel breathless, shaky, maybe a little scared.
It can range from a few minutes of hesitation, when you’re not sure what you should do next, to a full scale breakdown. It could easily happen to you, on your project, so it is as well to be prepared. So here is our Project Managers’ guide to what to do when you are feeling overwhelmed.
‘I’m feeling overwhelmed’. It’s something we rarely like to admit to others, but we’ve all had it. So, what does it mean?
The first thing we need to do is distinguish it from a similar state: being overloaded. So how does overload differ from overwhelm?
When you are overloaded, you have too much work to do.
You cannot do everything that you need to do, in the time you have, with the resources that are available.
As a Project Manager, you know that the solution to overload is one of four things:
Overwhelm often has little to do with how much work you actually have. Instead, overwhelm is about the way you feel about that work.
It is quite possible to be heavily overloaded, but to feel fine with that. It’s just a challenge, so you roll up your sleeves, discuss with your team, prioritize your work, and dive in. No dramas.
But sometimes you’re just not at your best. There isn’t an especially challenging workload. But it does seem to have got on top of you. You feel you cannot cope. Inside, you sense a rising panic. You may not be overloaded, but you are certainly feeling overwhelmed.
So, overwhelm is a stress response. And we feel stressed when we do not feel we have sufficient control over events, ourselves, our environment, our time, or our choices.
Sometimes, just one extra task can be enough to tip you over the edge.
And suddenly, you feel lost, uncertain, out of control. You don’t know what to do next or how you will cope.
Overwhelm robs you of your sense of autonomy. It makes you feel impotent in the face of the tasks you can usually eat for breakfast. There just seems too much, and you don’t know how you can handle it.
We can tackle overwhelm in three stages:
When you are mentally, physically, and emotionally at your best, stress is unlikely. So one of the top priorities for any project manager is to take care of yourself. Maintain your personal resilience, so stress doesn’t build.
We have five strategies to help you with this. Consider each one as a long-term side-project. Make sure each has enough priority in your life. That way, they start to become habit, and the daily tribulations of project management are like water off a duck’s back.
We’ll look at:
First and foremost; look after yourself. Your priorities here are a tripos of:
Grabbing junk food on the run is an easy way to re-fuel your body during or after a long working day. It’s also a false economy, in time terms. Because it will store up trouble. An unhealthy diet will harm you in the long term and even over a short period will leave you feeling drained and over-tired. Take time over meals, and choose food and drinks that you know will do you positive good. This isn’t the place to find dietary advice, but chances are you know what you need to know. Spending time and money on good quality nutrition is a great investment for a long, healthy, and successful life.
Another thing that can go by the board when in the midst of a demanding project is exercise. Do you drive to work, or get the the bus or train? For many Project Managers, their only regular exercise is the walk from the car park, the bus stop, or the nearest station.
Exercise is not just important for your physical health; but also, for your mental and emotional wellbeing. Building a small amount of regular exercise into your routine can boost your resilience. It gives you:
If the last one seems surprising, the reason is clear. During exercise, you can either:
The final part of the self-care tripos is rest. Getting home late, crashing down in front of the television, and snatching six hours’ sleep will not give you the best:
Getting adequate sleep is vital. Sleep-deprived people make mistakes comparable to drug or alcohol-impaired people. Proper breaks and good quality sleep are essential if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed when things get tough.
There are friends and people who love you. These can form your support network. Spending time with them will not only build emotional resilience, but strengthen your bonds with them. So, when tough times come to call, you can lean on some of those relationships for emotional support and wise counsel.
As times start to get tough, it can be tempting to take more from those relationships than you give. Which is fine up to a point. After all, our friends and family love you and they want to help.
But if you only take, you can reach the bottom of the pail. Even in tough times, you must find time to invest in those relationships to keep them strong. If you let them become a one-way transaction for too long, they will diminish and wear thin.
This need not be hard. Recreation is a part of rest and relaxation. And who better to do it with than the people you love, and who love you. If you can’t relax with them, when can you relax?
If recreation and recreation with family and friends is important, so too is some time to yourself.
Some of us need more time on our own than others. But Project Management needs to be an intensely social activity. You need to be constantly meeting and speaking with team members, peers, stakeholders, and bosses. For some people, this is hard work.
If you are introverted, then it takes emotional energy to be with other people. So you will need time on your own to recharge. If you don’t get enough of that time, you will start to feel jaded and not in control of your time. That’s a route to stress and feeling overwhelmed.
Another important part of preventing stress is choosing what to focus on… And what to let go of.
It’s too easy to get emotionally drawn into things that you care about, but can’t influence. That’s stressful, because of your inability to control those aspects. Focus on what matters and what you can influence. Let other things go.
As things do start to get stressful, focusing on the good things in your work and your life can help enormously. Again, you can easily get drawn into focusing on what’s going wrong, what your difficulties are, and what you dislike. This can leave you feeling powerless.
By making time to actively recall what you can be grateful for, you will start to reset your perceptions. Better still, get into the habit of spending a short time each day reviewing something you feel grateful for. This will calibrate your focus onto the positive and help you feel optimistic about the future, even under pressure.
Everyone doing an important job needs a deputy. This is someone who can stand in for you when you need them to. This can be:
If you don’t formally have a Deputy or Assistant Project Manager, put aside an hour to think through the strengths and styles of your team members. Ask yourself who you’d be happy to hand over some of your responsibilities to today? And who you could support in preparing to stand in for you when you are next away from the project.
Not only is this a valuable stress reduction approach, it is also a:
Before we dive into a proactive approach to heading off overwhelm before it takes you over, we need to do one thing…
We need to understand what can cause a sense of overwhelm – particularly in the Project Management context. And there are two common examples, I would like to focus on. We have a video for each, so if either of these are problems for you, pause and watch the short video below.
I hope you’ll see the sense in taking a proactive approach to staving off the stresses that can lead you to feel overwhelmed.
But what if you don’t succeed?
At the earliest signs of overwhelm, what steps can you take for fend it off? Here are five steps:
First and foremost, do not succumb to the temptation to rush.
‘More haste less speed’
…they say. When you dive into something and you are unprepared, you aren’t in control. You merely create the illusion that you are.
Pausing and taking your time will give you perspective. You can make deliberate choices, and stay in control.
Slow down to speed up, and read the map before starting the journey.
Reflection and review are a deliberate process that will slow you down, and help you get everything you need to attend to into perspective.
What do I mean by the phrase ‘getting things in perspective’?
I mean seeing what’s closest more clearly, and letting less important things start to diminish into the distance. The problem with feeling overwhelmed is that everything looks like it is right on top of you. Nothing seems any further away, so you find it hard to choose what to do first.
Our ‘Overwhelm Routine’ in the last section of this article works because it automates the process of getting perspective. But consider it a last resort. Try to prioritize for yourself.
To avoid overwhelm, it is worth making compromises. and this means active choices to put some work first and therefore place other work second, or third…
You must also be prepared to abandon some of the things that are contributing to your feeling of overwhelm. Because some of them just aren’t that important. Not doing them won’t make nearly as much difference as not being able to function fully due to stress. Doing them will have so little effect anyway, that they just aren’t worth the stress.
Your secret weapon is your ability to say ‘no’ to the right things, for the right reasons.
I hope you’ll have chosen a deputy. And I also hope you will know your team well enough to know:
As overwhelm closes in on you, it’s time to allocate more of the load to your deputy and to delegate more work to team members. This is not about shedding work you don’t want to do. Instead, it’s about creating the time and space to stay clear-headed and retain your focus on what matters most in your project.
As stress starts to bite, it’s time to re-assert your commitment to your self-care, and to go to your support network for help. That’s what friends are for. They and your family will be there for you, to listen to your frustrations, and share your disappointments. They can offer sympathy, support, and wise words.
So, that’s it. Brain Freeze. You’re feeling overwhelmed.
You need a simple process to follow unquestioningly.
And, by ‘work’, I mean ‘get you out of your feeling of overwhelm, and back into a positive, resourceful state’.
If you are more a ‘watching’ person than a ‘reading’ person, here’s a video version. Below it is a text version and a simple graphic.
This should be every big or little thing that is contributing to your sense of overwhelm.
Put it in a single list on a clean sheet (or pad) of paper.
This is your ‘overwhelm list’.
These are the things that don’t matter enough. Not doing them won’t matter, or the consequences are pretty minor.
It’s more important to get out of the overwhelm that to do these things.
Go through your list again, looking for anything that can wait 24 hours or more.
Find things that won’t cause problems if you delay them by a day, and write them onto your new sheet of paper.
This is tomorrow’s list. Today, you can cross them off your overwhelm list.
On the third time through your list, look for any task that you could do, to a ‘good enough’ standard, in under 5 minutes.
These are ‘tiddlers‘ – little tasks. And often there are loads of them. Clearing them will allow you to cross a load of lines off your overwhelm list.
Set an timer on your computer or phone for 20 minutes.
In that time, clear as many of your littlest tasks as you can. Work quickly and do the jobs only to the minimum acceptable standard, before moving to the next one.
Cross off everything you have done, and then survey what’s left of your list that is not a tiddler.
Choose one thing you most want to work on.
Because you are stressed and overwhelmed, don’t worry about priority here, focus on progress. Pick the task that you’re least resistant to tackling.
Work on your chosen task for around 40-50 minutes.
In this time you can make real progress on a substantial piece of work – maybe even finish it.
Then, take a proper break, for 10-15 minutes. Mental fatigue is your enemy when you’re stressed.
You can do two, three, or maybe even four of these cycles in a morning or afternoon. In that time, you will probably be able to:
 In the UK, a tiddler is a tiny fish (often a hatchling) found in streams and ponds, which small children (also sometimes called tiddlers) like to catch with a net and put in a small glass jar. I hope they put them back safely.
Do you have your own tips for how you handle feelings of overwhelm or stress?
Please do share them in the comments below – we love to read your ideas and will respond to every comment.
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Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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