Identifying and Dealing with Project Management Burnout

Is your job as a project manager making you feel angry, frustrated or that you just don’t care anymore? If so, you might be experiencing burnout. Some of the signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • inability to concentrate
  • feeling everything is wrong and nothing is working out
  • emotional exhaustion
  • feeling trapped and/or powerless
  • irritability and frustration

It is important to note that burnout is not the same as stress. Stress usually involves “too much”. There are too many pressures or physical and psychological demands. Though burnout can be caused by stress it is about “not enough”. It means feeling empty with no motivation and being beyond the point of caring.

Burnout most often affects the top performers in an organization, such as a project manager. People who strive to be better and achieve success often drive themselves into burnout because they are unable to recognize the signs of stress, adapt their behavior or change their attitudes.

A project manager who is experiencing burnout might shut down or become apathetic. Some might even become self-destructive or strike out at co-workers without thinking. Silly mistakes occur because of the inability to think clearly. Ultimately, the burnout can cause the shirking of responsibility or the tendency to take the path of least resistance.

If you’re a project manager who has noticed burnout symptoms, create a list of of things that are improving and identify areas in need of improvement or attention. Also, identify areas of stagnation because that is most likely the cause of the burnout. Sometimes just identifying the problem can help lead to fixing it.

If you’re still feeling on the verge of burnout you might also try requesting a transfer, asking for new duties or maybe even taking some time off.

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Time Management Tips for Project Managers

Successful project managers avoid wasting valuable time and are more productive. The following time management tips can help lead to such increased productivity.

  • With a comprehensive plan, everyone on the team knows where the focus should be, allowing the project manager to spend less time dealing with issues caused by confusion and more time tracking progress and moving the project forward.
  • Don’t waste time on endless team meetings. Enforce an agenda that keeps meetings short and to the point. Discussions about big issues should only include individuals that are directly involved. It is pointless to have the whole team sit through a discussion when they could be working.
  • Following the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, can also improve productivity. As a project manager it pays to focus on the 20 per cent of activities that are most important since these tasks can yield 80 per cent of the desired results.
  • There is no need to get involved in the technical work. It is the project manager’s job to allow the carefully chosen team to concentrate on their work. Instead, spend time steering the project to success. When the project manager loses sight of the big picture problems are created rather than solved.
  • Making a daily to-do list, and crossing items off the list as they are completed, gives a sense of satisfaction and keeps the project manager focused on the day’s objectives.

By following these time management tips the project is sure to move forward and have a greater potential for success.

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Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Planning

In project management, top-down planning gives senior management control of the decision making process. Top-level managers are often reluctant to accept advice or guidance from lower level employees. Therefore, upper management should be specific with their expectations if they want those who aren’t part of the planning process to follow the plan. Often this type of planning, which can invoke fear or rely on incentives, creates problems with motivation and moral.

Some critics might hold that using top down planning in project management is not taking full advantage of talented employees who could have much to offer the project. On the other hand, top down planning allows for the division of a project into steps which can be studied and tasks properly assigned.

With bottom-up planning, a greater number of employees are involved, each with a specialized area of expertise. Team members work together and and take their plans to the next higher level until reaching the senior management level for approval.

Advantages to bottom-up planning is that lower-level employees take a personal interest in the plan which can improve motivation and moral. Though lower-level team members help to develop and implement the plan, it is primarily the project manager’s responsibility to see that the project is completed within budget and on time.

A blend of the two approaches is probably best in most cases. Needs can be determined at the top with accountability falling at lower levels. By combining the vision of senior management with the skills of lower-level team members efficiency and project success are more likely.

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Taking a Daily Work Break

Workplace interruptions can wreak havoc on project management production. The more people in your organization, the more potential there is for interruptions to occur. We’ve all heard about water cooler conversations where an interesting topic can attract a small crowd and in the meantime not much work is getting accomplished. Also, imagine that anytime a team member has a question they just barge in to their co-worker’s office. Multiple interruptions like this can slow down productivity and potentially cost the project time and money.

The use of email helps with time management, avoiding telephone interruptions or people stopping by unannounced. Communications can be responded to at a worker’s convenience rather than stopping and starting on important tasks.

However, another innovative project management idea might be to implement a “daily work break”. Not the kind where co-workers sit down and chat over a cup of coffee or where one plays Tetris to help clear the mind. Instead, this break is a one to two hour, interruption free, time to focus on work at hand. Possible rules might include:

  • No one enters another person’s work space.
  • No telephone calls between offices.
  • No instant messaging
  • No scheduled meetings.
  • Outside callers will leave a message.

Of course, if there could be exceptions for emergencies.

The optimal time for such a break would probably be mid-morning, giving workers time to settle in before concentrating on work and allowing time to return phone calls before lunch.

Taking a daily work break can be an effective project management tool, but as project manager you must decide whether it is the best idea for your own team.

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Rewards for Meeting Deadlines?

Everyone enjoys getting a gift certificate or a bag filled with vendor items, but is giving rewards to project management team members really a good idea? It can be argued that by tangibly recognizing accomplishments, production and time management will improve. However, before choosing to take up such a practice it might be wise to look at the pros and cons.

One potential problem is that if gifts are given too often it could become expected and lose its motivational value. However, it could be that when team members know they are appreciated they will be more likely to work harder and stay with the company. If your project management team already receives bonuses that are expected and no longer special, it might be feasible to add another incentive.

Tying the reward to a milestone could be advantageous. Perhaps offer something special when a project phase is accomplished early or on time. Or maybe take everyone out to lunch if the team comes in under budget. The reward doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to convey a feeling of appreciation and something that both you and your project management team can enjoy.

The practice of gift giving can be a useful tool, but be sure you are up for the challenge. Be aware of what works with your team (every team is different) and don’t be afraid to try new approaches. Use any downtime you have with care and do whatever you can to keep the project management team motivated.

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