Here’s a common pain point that I see in my project management coaching practice: project managers with an overwhelming workload who are unsure how to turn the situation around. The overload generally stems from running too many projects at once, or not having enough support when managing that big project. Plus, as project leads they don’t want to appear “weak” by saying no to more work, so they try to run faster in order to get everything done in order to both satisfy and impress stakeholders.
As a result, tasks and emails pile up, and they have insufficient time to engage the stakeholders and properly plan the project. Then, they inadvertently end up firefighting their way through the execution phase, which adds to the overwhelm (and poor results).
If you recognize yourself here, I have tips for how you can turn the situation around and gain control of your workload. But making this change requires effort. To reap the benefits you must first and foremost be prepared to review your working patterns and even some of your deeply rooted beliefs.
Here are five tips for managing a demanding workload:
Ask for help
One of the beliefs that may be contributing to your over-demanding workload, is believing that asking for help is a weakness. (Or shows you as incompetent.) You might even feel that it reflects badly on you if push back or say no to additional work. But by taking on more than you can cope with, you’re not only letting yourself down but also your clients; overloading yourself means you can’t give your existing projects your best effort.
The best project managers get results by giving each project the focus it needs. So instead of seeing it as a weakness, asking for help is really a strength because you are standing up for yourself and your project. “Help” can come in many forms—from consulting with your manager or a co-worker for ideas, to seeing who’s available to pitch in. And if you just don’t know how to move forward, remember: that’s what bosses and managers are for—to guide you and provide support. So let them do their job!
Prioritize important over urgent
To break the vicious circle of relentless firefighting, you have to prioritize the important over the urgent. The key is to begin every single day with the big important tasks to make sure those get done. Brian Tracy, organizational development and productivity expert calls these tasks frogs and advises that we eat the ugliest ones first thing in the morning. It’s the ugly frogs that get you your results—the ones that make a real difference to the success of your project.
The best way to eat frogs is to set aside 90 minutes each morning of uninterrupted time to get some solid work done. Don’t use this time to answer emails and close smaller work items; instead, used it on proactive, strategic work (the “important” items) such as writing the business case, planning for the future, reviewing risks, taking a step back and observing the project from afar, or having that difficult conversation you’ve been procrastinating on. Imagine how quickly your productivity and results could increase by spending the first 90 minutes of your day completing your most important activities while your mind is fresh and alert.
Another great way to turn the tide and ease your workload is to either get a project administrator on board or delegate to existing team members. This will almost immediately free you up to focus on the most important aspects of your project. The only way to expand and grow is to delegate, and the beauty is that if done correctly, it will develop your team members in the process. A project administrator could help with low-level tasks such as time sheet approval, financial tracking, weekly reporting, and even manage a work stream. This is essential work, but it isn’t essential that you do it. If you need to justify the extra person, explain to your managers that it will allow you to add greater value and ensure that your big project is delivered successfully. (If you have a project management tool that provides this resource and time-tracking data, use it to build your case.)
As you begin to delegate, use the 80/20 rule to become aware of what your highest value tasks are; i.e. what are the 20 percent of your activities that add to 80 percent of your project’s results. These high-value activities are where your focus should be. You can consider how to delegate the remaining 80 percent.
Many project managers don’t delegate either because they feel they have no one to delegate to, or because deep down they believe that they have to know and do it all by themselves. For instance, some of you might have been taught that it’s the project manager’s responsibility to plan and track the project. But collaborative planning is a great way to engage the team and promote a shared sense of responsibility.
Doing it all on your own is exhausting and inefficient and it disengages the team. So consider how you make use of others and whether your project management tools are flexible enough to allow the team to plan the work collaboratively and take joint responsibility for the execution of it.
Use the right tool
Is your team using project management software that helps you realistically schedule out and manage your workload? The right tool can help you create a plan from the beginning, one that provides end dates based on all the tasks and available resources you’ve provided. It can also show incoming risk well before the fires start. With the right platform, you can access all the empirical evidence you need, showing how much work you’re able to take on—or not. You can nip an over-demanding workload in the bud before it even begins.
Share your concerns
Lastly I would advise that you to find someone with whom you can talk your situation through. This way, your demanding workload doesn’t end in burn out or project failure. If you aren’t comfortable approaching your manager, speak to a trusted colleague or mentor first. Or, if you would like to work it through in more depth, find a professional coach who can support you. No matter what you do, don’t ignore the situation. It’s always possible to regain the upper hand on your projects!
If you’d like more information about keeping your project workload more realistic, learning how to make accurate project estimates could be a great skill for you. To learn more, download our eBook, “6 Best Practices for Accurate Project Estimates.”