Projects are stressful environments. Every project is constantly trying to fail, and you are on the front line of preventing it. So, you need to build up your resilience to the stresses and strains. If you don’t, one day the stress will get you… and your project may well fail.
For an entirely predictable set of reasons, I became over-stressed while I was leading a major project for my client. And the result was nearly awful. That it wasn’t is a combination of:
Interestingly, what there wasn’t, was the support I could have used to help deal with the stress better. And that probably was a factor in the problem.
But, the upshot of this was a determination to learn about stress:
This article will address the third of those three points – although it will necessarily touch on the first two. It will cover
Before you read the article, however, you may like to watch this short video, as a taster…
Let’s start with stress.
In physics, stress is an imposed force. It causes deformation, or strain.
So, the use of the term in the context of health and well-being is a metaphor. Stress refers to the external forces in our lives that cause harm to our mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. The sort of signs you can expect to notice are:
Often, people also define stress in terms of the response to stressors. A definition I like is that of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive:
‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’
In this context, resilience is our ability to resist the adverse consequences of stressors: the excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on us.
And, since the reactions we have are mental, emotional, and physical, we need to build resilience in these three domains. So, I will define resilience as
‘our ability to cope mentally, emotionally, and physically with stress.’
However, humans are highly integrated systems. So, it would be wrong to think that there are interventions that build physical resilience, and others that build, say, emotional resilience. Different approaches will certainly have different scales of impact on our mental, emotional, and physical resilience. But they will all have impacts on all three.
In this section we will look at building resilience through good:
There are two main aspects to what I am describing as ‘good rest’. Both are equally important. They are:
Make sure you allow time each day – and more time on a weekly basis – to relax. This is when you can let go of the stressors, and allow your body some recovery time. Stress hormones hang around in our bodies and decline slowly. Without good quality breaks, they build up and suppress important physical responses like:
Relaxation does not necessarily mean rest. It can equally mean any activity that you enjoy or find exciting or calming. The key is that it offers a break from your stressful environment and overtakes all thoughts that contribute to your stress. It can be anything, such as:
Relaxing can be calm or active. But your body and your mind do need some complete downtime. Humans (like many other animals) are designed to have periods on standby, when our bodies carry out repair and maintenance functions. Without sleep, almost everything will go wrong with your mental, emotional, and physical functioning.
So, prioritize sleep. This means making time for a full night’s sleep important enough to you that you will do it at the cost of other activities.
And you must also get into good habits. Ideally, a routine that calmly transitions you from waking activities to sleep readiness. I recommend no stimulants (like caffeine or alcohol) in the run-up – for many people, this means 1-2 hours of no alcohol and 3 to 5 hours of no caffeine. I also suggest that you minimize or, better, stop your use of computers, tablets, or phone screens in the hour before bed.
I am using the term fuel to refer to the stuff we put into our bodies. There are the:
This is not a lecture from your parents or health counselor. I am confident that you know which things fall into each category. I am not here to tell you how to live your life. But, if you want to maximize your resilience to stress, you will focus your intake on:
And you will prioritize eating your meals as often as possible in a mindful way, in a pleasant setting, with people whose company you value.
I’m no nutritionist. But all the evidence I have read suggests that variety is good and processing is bad. Natural products prepared from fresh are great, and a mostly plant-based diet is ideal.
I am a big fan of Michael Pollan, the author of ‘In Defense of Food, who advises his readers to
’Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’
And, if you think the first two words are too obvious, he distinguishes food from ‘edible food-like substances. These are highly processed products. Much modern research shows that food additives that include excess amounts of sugar and salt among the vast number of synthetic chemicals in pre-packed and pre-prepared products are the source of much ill health.
Now you are rested and fueled up, it’s time to build your mind’s and body’s resilience to calls on your energy. This means exercise. The more you can build exercise into your routine, the fitter you will become. And this does not only make you more resilient to long days of physical stress – like being on your feet and running from meeting to meeting. It also strengthens your mental and emotional reserves.
This does not have to be about long bouts in the gym or participating in sports you don’t enjoy. A 30-minute walk each day makes a HUGE difference. And, you can fit this into your everyday life, by building it into your commute to work. And, if you don’t travel to work, take a walk before you start work. Or at lunchtime. Or after work.
There are a vast number of ways you can get regular exercise. Ideas include:
A support network will be vital in helping you respond at times of high stress. So, investing time in your relationships builds your resilience by boosting your ability to cope, by creating a network of people who are willing to step in and help.
But it also provides mental and emotional resilience, by giving you people with whom you can share your anxieties and stress – and just sound off.
We are under constant pressure, as Project Managers. This means time is at a premium. And it can be an easy shortcut to neglect your friends – even your family.
That, however, is a false economy. Every relationship has some elasticity in it. If you stretch their goodwill, they will still help you out when you need it. But, every relationship also has a breaking point. If you overstretch the relationship by neglecting it or taking too many liberties, you may find that, when you need the help… it’s not there.
So, make time to invest in relationships whenever you can. That way, when you really can’t, they will be strong. And that means good people will be there to help you.
An important way to build resilience – which Project Managers are probably good at – is to build good organization into your daily habits. If you have straightforward ways of dealing with day-to-day tasks efficiently, they will serve you well in times of stress. This is true, whether they are:
But, above all other matters of organization, the single most important resilience technique is the ability to prioritize effectively.
And this is not just about project prioritization. When you notice the earliest signs of stress, you need to be able to prioritize your own well-being.
It can be tempting to put your own needs aside and focus on your team, your stakeholders, or your project. That’s a commendable instinct. But it won’t work. There is a reason why air safety messages tell you to put on your Oxygen mask first. You cannot help anyone else if you are not able to breathe.
The first sign of stress getting to you is a feeling of overwhelm. You have too much on and you cannot cope. Fixing this one sense of overwhelm is your first priority in averting a stress-related crisis. We have a full article on this topic, Are You Overwhelmed by Your Project? What to Do. And it is summarized in this video:
Other videos that can help you with handling overwhelm and pressure are:
As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
Do take a look at
And, for the deepest dive into understanding stress management, take a look at my book, How to Manage Stress (the second edition of my best-selling Brilliant Stress Management).
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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