How do you maintain your sanity while managing an overwhelming workload with multiple large projects?
August 18, 2007 5:39 PM   Subscribe

Tips on preventing work burnout and handling job stress. How do you handle an overwhelming workload with grace and sanity? How can I quickly become a good project manager? What should I do until I have the project management skills to actually handle the workload I've been assigned? (I'm kind of freaking out here.)

[Sorry in advance for the length, but if it's too much for you, the front page question basically sums it up.]

My job feels really overwhelming. I'm managing three major projects simultaneously, each of which could alone easily fill the timescale we have for doing them. Because I'm managing a team of volunteers to push these projects forward as fast as possible, there are constant interruptions. Other high organizational priorities ("where are we with the budget?") constantly come up and require hours of effort. I feel like I can't get anything done, timelines are slipping, the quality of the work isn't as good as I'd like, and I constantly feel behind.

The small organization I work for is very well-run, and I have an incredible boss. So it really does feel like my fault things aren't going well -- all the work not getting done is that I didn't figure out what I needed fast enough, didn't say "that deadline is unrealistic," didn't realize "if we expand Project #1 that way, Project #2's timeline will slip by months." If I had, people probably would have helped, though they certainly do want all this work to happen. This is the first time I've had project management responsibility on this scale, and I'm trying to quickly acquire those skills, plus basic skills like knowing realistically how long things will take, realizing when I should say "no," figuring out and asking for what I need, and so forth. I'm getting better, but slowly.

I really want to be good at this job, and for those brief stretches when things are under control, it's exciting and fun. And things are under control more often now. So, it's not entirely impossible that I'll end up being able to handle this (though maybe some projects will need to get downscaled).

There are good weeks and bad weeks. For about three weeks in June & July, I was completely burned out -- discouraged, apathetic, hopeless, unhappy. Then I had a burst of can-do energy, got things in order, started working 12 hour days, and for two weeks, things were flowing along smoothly and a lot got done. But at the end of last week, things got derailed. Something unforeseen came up that took days to fix. Then, right when I was returning to the work I'd been planning to accomplish, one of those trump-card organizational questions came up. By Thursday, I'd fallen out of project manager mode into "do whatever pops up in your face" mode, and today, I was in a "why bother trying?" funk and listlessly organized my desk (obviously not a very productive response to overload and frustration).

Now, I'm trying to get back on top of things, but I'm disheartened enough that I can't exactly focus. I feel really behind, so I'm torn between taking the weekend off (and you know, somehow totally repressing how upset I feel at everything being out of control again), or coming in to catch up on what I meant to have been doing today (what would that actually have been, given the bajillion options? am I too burned out that I'd do nothing at all?). By the end of the day, I just wanted to cry on the floor of my office ("I give up, I can't do this"), and yell at all the people who expect me to keep up (it seems like no one realizes just how much work is really involved), and lash out at people making little, reasonable requests ("why don't you do it yourself? what are you even working on?"). I was still able to seem calm, but obviously, I need to quickly figure out how to handle this better.

So, how do I get better, fast? Perhaps more realistically, how do I keep it together while I get better over time? Can you suggest any scaffolding to support me while I build up the project management skills I need? Are there some key pillars I can quickly get in place? How do I eventually make this job take only 8 hours a day (9 even)? tips are welcome. Book recommendations and general advice are both good, about either handling work stress or managing projects. Thanks for any ideas you have.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
A talk given at Google, by Merlin Mann, titled Inbox Zero, lasts one hour and will help.

Then you should read the book Getting Things Done, or at least read its Wikipedia entry.
posted by gmarceau at 6:02 PM on August 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

First of all, stop and take a deep breath. Then another and another. Now. Some key points, you acknowledge that you have a great boss. That is your first ally. But before you walk into his/her office and acknowledge that you have misjudged your time allocations, reassess where you are and what you need to accomplish your tasks. Take a best case scenario and a worst case when developing time lines -- your initial projection should be somewhere in the middle. Experience will teach you which way. Also remain open to readjusting deadlines based on changing situations -- in your case volunteer assistance -- in others, market conditions. Project management software might help you align priorities and deadlines. Something as simple as Basecamp works wonders for all but the largest projects. Experience is one of the very best friends a Project Manager can have -- but in the meantime, realize that in order to perform at your best, you must have appropriate rest -- both physically and mentally. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. I see it as being mature and professsional enough to know what you need. Good luck. It will get better.
posted by peace_love_hope at 6:13 PM on August 18, 2007

If you truly had an incredible boss, s/he would see that you're drowning. It may or may not be your fault, but here's a secret: fault doesn't matter. Getting the work done is what counts, and you need help. Sit down and tell that boss--calmly, professionally-- you aren't coping very well and need to brainstorm some ideas that could help. And then you must implement them, and fast. Burnout too soon becomes a way of life, and finding the balance is crucial to prevent it, especially if (as I suspect) you are early in your career life.
posted by jouster at 6:14 PM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Firstly - projects always have problems - don't beat yourself up about them!

Look at your project plans. Instead of assuming that things will be done on time, and done correctly, build time into your plan on the assumption that everything needs to be reviewed and will need to be amended as a result. Your boss will be happier about a realistic delivery date that you meet, even if it's later than he/she wanted, rather than an earlier date that you can't met.

To assist with this process, create a "Risk Log" for all your projects. Think about what could go wrong - for each issue, think about the likelihood of it happening, what the impact would be if it did go wrong, and put a plan in place to prevent / reduce / deal with the risk. To get this information, talk to everyone involved in your project - they may be able to identify risks that you may not be aware of. Share this with your boss.

And be realistic about what time you have available for your work. Build in the interruptions, build in the "troubleshooting" time - it's all part of the job. If this takes up 50% of your time, then you only have 50% of your time available for the work that you think should be taking up 100% of your time. That's okay - that's what project management is about.

Sounds like you're learning project management the hard way - also sounds like you have a supportive boss - don't be afraid to ask for help - that's a sign of strength, not weakness. Good luck!
posted by finding.perdita at 6:41 PM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've always found that the best project managers weren't the ones who would take on all that was given them and hit all deadlines, but rather those who focused on the end result and reworked priorities so as much of the end result that was wanted was achieved. It basically means being the advocate for the project end point and pushing back on all the desires and constraints that the business would want (if it could have everything).

Your boss should respect you coming to them and having a realistic discussion about how you are going to best achieve a certain outcome. Don't focus too much on the process of getting to an outcome, but the outcome itself. I've seen too many great ideas flounder because the organisation got too caught up on "how to get it done" rather than what to get done. You can get pretty creative about process when you focus on what the final outcome is. Otherwise you can get to caught up in dealing with minutiae of the day-to-day stuff and quickly get overwhelmed.

So, the advice: Take a step back. Look at your priorities. Anything that is not realistic in getting to the goal should be shelved for now. Have your experts in each area re-look at how you are going to achieve your goal and think creatively about better ways it could happen (really open up the potential for new strategies). Focus on getting to the goal and not on getting each milestone done. Every day presents new problems and if your solution requires focusing on the process, the goal is going to shoot out.

Remember, 100 years from now no one will remember any of this. I say that, because it is easy to get too caught up in the "thing" and not be capable of seeing what can happen well and what can't. Remember, be the advocate for the project - not the "make it happen" person.
posted by qwip at 7:00 PM on August 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Have you considered using a project management software, like basecamp for example? Since I started using it, I have been able to manage things better by delegating stuff to my team and making (most) deadlines. I break tasks under each project doable chunks (and it's a great feeling when I check off boxes as completed) and into categories (needs a lot of concentration, do when brain dead etc.) so I can push through as much as I can. Before I wind down from work to play, I do one quick review and reassign tasks that I can't do. I also go over everything in the AM so I can see what I am upagainst.
posted by special-k at 7:53 PM on August 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

a. breathe.
b. breathe.
c. ask for help when you need it.
d. seek out a mentor.
e. identify the kind of information you need to make decisions and see if you can coordinate its delivery (a 5 minute catch-up every day at 10, or a cc'd email on certain things).
f. this may not be standard procedure, but don't be afraid to explain to your underlings if your hands are tied about something. most people will feel less disgruntled if they have a reason for a delay than if it comes to them out of the ether with no explanation.
g. breathe.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:11 PM on August 18, 2007

special-k has some great suggestions. Delegating work is key to getting more done, and breaking it into chunks is key to delegating it to your (presumably inexperienced) volunteers. Have them check and critique each other's work too, it's great experience for them and eases the burden even more for you. Don't forget that the work you delegate can include some supervisory work too, as long as you can let go a bit and allow others to make a few mistakes along the way. As a bonus, you'll learn higher level management skills which will serve you well in the future. Good luck!
posted by cali at 8:54 PM on August 18, 2007

When it come to software for managing projects, Basecamp is better than nothing, I guess. But it lacks features, like critical path diagrams and scheduling, that would make your job much easier, assuming you could afford the time to garner the expertise to use such tools.

You're caught in a classic chicken-or-egg conundrum. In the future, you'll be a much better project manager, if you survive your current issues, remember their causes, learn new skills, adopt better tools, and become professional in their use. But right now, all of that is time and energy you barely have, if you have any of it, at all.

Step #1 in surviving the present is to go to your supervisor Monday morning, and say, simply "I'm overwhelmed by my workload, and I don't have the skills/abilities to do what is being asked of me well. This is causing me undue stress, and I feell that that stress is causing me to be even less effective. I think I could learn real project management skills, if required, but not in time to materially improve the outcomes of our current projects, and I'm very concerned that my own shortcomings in the current situation will waste the resources and volunteer time that could be better utilized by more skilled project managers."

With that out of the way, you can address the current situation, and the future, thusly:

"The present states of Project #1, #2 and #3 are X, Y, and Z, so far as I'm aware. On Project #1, I'm behind with application of volunteer hours to goals, so it may be farther along than I think. The timesheets for volunteers in Project #1 are here. On Project #2, it looks like we're going to be 3 weeks late, because Resource A is not available from August 15 to August 31, due to vacation. I could be wrong about that, however; I've lost the email with their vacation dates, but that's what I remember. I can't get an answer on their main line this morning, so I assume they are already on vacation. On Project #3, I have no idea of whether Resource B will need 3 hours or 30 hours to finish Task 2. What should I be planning for that?" Etc. until you've covered the current state of Projects #1, #2, & #3, as you know them.

Then discuss the relative importance of Overriding Organizational Imperative #1, #2 and, if there is one, #3 in terms of their priority with regards to Projects #1, #2, and#3. If OOI #1 and #2 are always above Projects #1, #2, and #3, act accordingly, without apology. If, however OOI #1 and #2 are bullshit, smile when presented with requests regarding them, and continue working Projects #1, #2 and #3, with a throw to your boss for requests for action on OOI #1 or #2.

And in the meantime, get some decent nights of sleep, and show up on work mornings rested and ready to cage tigers, regardless of their owners, size, or position in the institutional pecking order. Because, in the end, only you make the crazy.
posted by paulsc at 12:23 AM on August 19, 2007

Anonymous, are you overworked or underworked? Please make up your mind.

Also, there is a difference between being able to manage work load and to engage in project management. Managing work load usually is just a matter of listing out everything that needs to be done, prioritizing, and follow through. On the other hand, a big part of project management is figuring what needs to be done first, as well as factoring in more nebulous things like risk and changes in the scope of the project.

The small organization I work for is very well-run Um, not entirely, not if you're being forced to manage projects and respond to incidentals like budgets and whatnot.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:16 AM on August 19, 2007

The thing to keep in mind with these "other high organizational priorities" that keep coming up--you need to realize that it's not your boss or coworkers' job to keep track of how busy you are, or what you have time for.

Repeat that to yourself: it is your job, and your job alone, to let people making requests of you know whether you have time to do it, or whether something else will have to be shifted out of the way in order to accomplish it.

I had a really hard time with this when I graduated college and went to work for the first time. After all, being a top performer in college (or any academic setting) really comes down to trusting that a professor will never give you more than you can actually do, and just gutting it out and getting it done (working late nights and weekends as necessary). But this approach will only lead to madness in an actual job, because your boss will NOT only give you the amount of work that you can actually do. He or she will just give you work, and keep giving you work, until you say you can't do any more.

So, to the matter of the other high organizational priorities--when these come up, you need to take a moment and think about what trade offs are implicit in taking this on. (There are always trade offs. You cannot get it all done.) Then you need to communicate this to your boss: "I can get those budget specs to you this week, but if I do, I won't be able to implement the new volunteer schedules and we'll need to push the timeline for Project B back by a week." Ask your boss to do the prioritizing for you--after all, that's why they make the big bucks.

The key to avoiding burnout is not to say yes to everything, and not to say no to everything, but to always throw it back to the requester and let them decide whether this new request is more important than making your other timelines, or less important. Then you can just do what you need to do without collapsing.

Good luck.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:50 AM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

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