It seems to be an axiom of modern projects that for every project team member, every minute of every day should be filled with assigned tasks. I know project managers who boast of loading themselves and their subordinates with way more than 100% of available time. It is not uncommon for people to be juggling 10 or 20 tasks concurrently. Phillip G. Armour, A Little Queue Theory When More Work Means Less Done. Communications of the ACM, January 2015.
I recall one project where every hour of my day I had at least two and often three meetings I needed to run or attend. For those meetings I “needed to attend” I tried to rotate which ones I skipped each day. If I attended the meeting today, then tomorrow I would skip it and attend the conflicting meeting I skipped previously. It was pretty insane.
I always took great pride in juggling a couple of dozen tasks at a time. The trick was to stay on top of all of them sufficiently that they kept moving forward and when someone asked me how a task is doing, I had up to date information on where they stand right now. I found that in the literally five minutes before a meeting I could quickly get up to speed on everything I needed for that meeting, by checking e-mail, making a few quick calls or messaging. It was quite heady stuff in the midst of a big complex project.
One major project we had something we called the “Canary flu.” Canary was the code name of the project and just about everyone came down with some kind of respiratory issue sometime during the project. I recall trying to give a status report with a voice that continuously cracked or gave out. We had to keep going, even when our bodies had given out.
I wish I could say I have a solution for this, but I don’t. I do know that when I fully understood a project, usually by having studied our past projects, that the stress of staying on top of every issue was much reduced. When I knew what was “normal” and didn’t treat everything like a crisis, the project was a lot less stressful and we were still successful.
I still kept busy and tried to keep everyone else busy so as not to lose our momentum when the current crisis was resolved. However, I found in many occasions that being away from the project didn’t result in catastrophe nor did it result in me becoming irrelevant to the project. I just had to take a chance and step away and allow others to step away. It was scary, but the world did not end.
How do you stay on top of your project without burning out yourself or your team?