By Andrew Conrad
The best project managers have multiple tools at their disposal—Gantt charts, Kanban boards, project management software—and they know how to use all of them.
But, at the risk of sounding trite, the most important tool for any project manager is the one that they always carry with them atop their shoulders.
If your mind is fried from stress, you can’t manage your way through a grocery list let alone a million dollar project.
The American Psychological Association reports that stress can negatively affect your physical health, cause depression, and lead to mental burnout. For a project manager, that could lead to things like missed deadlines and budgets, unintentional scope creep, and poor communication, not to mention the detriments to your personal well-being.
Decompressing after a long (and hopefully successful) project is just as important to your career vitality as your education and certifications.
With that in mind, here are some of the most effective techniques that the best project managers use to reduce stress.
Are you stressed out?
You may be thinking, “I deal with stress, but I’m not stressed out.” But many high achievers are trained to ignore warning signs—such as poor sleep, depression, or chest pain—for fear of seeming “weak” or incapable of the workload.
One of the first things you learn as a lifeguard in training is that you can’t save anyone else from drowning if you drown yourself. If you are so overwhelmed by stress that you can’t make decisions with a clear head, you can’t successfully manage a project.
Take this Stress Screener, provided by Mental Health America, to get an unbiased idea of where your stress level is.
De-stressing techniques used by the best project managers
If you need some help reducing stress, read on. And even if you are a Zen master, I bet you’ll enjoy reading through these tips anyway, because treating yourself good always feels good.
1. Take a walk
Sitting at your desk for ten straight hours is never a good look or feeling. Even if you feel like you can’t pull yourself away from the constant onslaught of emails and messages, taking a 15-minute break to walk outside will help you be more focused and efficient when you get back. A University of Michigan study found that going outside and walking through green spaces can improve memory and attention by 20%.
How to do this:
- Start a daily lunchtime walking club at your office. On rainy days you could even walk up and down the stairs.
- Designate 30 minutes everyday as your walking time, that way coworkers won’t be wondering where you are when you’re away from your desk.
- Instead of driving for short errands, like filling prescriptions or picking up dry cleaning, walk there.
We all have that friend who carries their yoga mat everywhere and can touch their toes with their nose while balancing on their thumbs. And we all wonder why that friend seems more relaxed, and flexible, since taking up yoga. It turns out that there’s a good reason: the Mayo Clinic reports that yoga—especially Hatha Yoga—is an effective practice for managing stress and anxiety.
How to do this:
- Email your coworkers and ask if anyone wants to join a weekly yoga club. You could have an instructor come into the office, but you might even find that one of your colleagues is capable of leading the group.
- Join a yoga gym after work. Imagine coming home already refreshed and relaxed. Your company might even cover the cost as part of a wellness program.
- Try out these poses that you can do while sitting or standing right at your desk.
3. Take a nap
Going to sleep at work may seem counter-intuitive, or even grounds for disciplinary action, but if you’re so tired that you’re struggling to keep your eyes open, you’re probably not contributing much anyway. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that billions of dollars per year are lost due to worker fatigue. A quick, 20-minute power nap can do wonders for attention, concentration, and performance, a Psychology Today study found. Some forward-thinking companies have been opening up to the idea of naps at work, even going so far as to designate on-campus facilities for snoozing.
How to do this:
- Talk to your manager about designating a sanctioned nap area with recliners at your office. Feel free to use the points above in your pitch.
- If you commute via automobile, go out to your car and recline the driver’s seat.
- If it’s a nice day and you work near a park, have your lunch on a picnic blanket followed by a siesta under the shade of a tree, like a real cowboy.
Once considered a new age quirk, meditation has gone mainstream. If your work doesn’t allow napping, meditation could be the next best thing.
In his book, “The End of Stress: Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain” target=”_blank”>The End of Stress,” Don Joseph Goewey wrote that “When people in various high-pressure organizations try (meditation), more than 90% experienced a change in their stress levels; more than 75% experienced improvement in creative problem solving, well being, and work and family relationships.”
If you’re trying meditation for the first time, here are eight mini meditations for different stressful situations.
How to do this:
Download a meditation app like Headspace, Aura, or Omvana to give yourself a personal meditation coach wherever you go.
Every morning, consider your time in the shower meditation time. This approach is great even for people on a tight schedule, because it’s not like you can get work done in the shower, and even a few minutes is enough time.
Team up with your significant other or a close friend to meditate together after work everyday. By joining forces, you can hold each other accountable so that you don’t just blow it off.
5. Take a vacation
This recommendation one may seem obvious, but more than half of the American workforce doesn’t use all of their paid vacation.
The reasons mostly amount to stress: stress of falling further behind, of being judged for abandoning their post by coworkers, and of being disconnected from their work. It’s a vicious cycle, because vacation time is built in for a reason, and when workers aren’t using it they’re compounding their own stress and reducing their own effectiveness.
If your company doesn’t have a system built in place to cover for you while you’re away, there are bigger problems at work and it could be time to look for a new job.
How to do this:
Use your project management skills to set aside the time and money for a vacation at the beginning of the year.
If you don’t have the time or money to travel, force yourself to use your hard-earned vacation time anyway by staying home and exploring your local region. You might be surprised at all the cool things in your backyard that you’ve missed because you’ve been working so hard.
If a paralyzing fear that your company will crash and burn while you are away is keeping you from using your vacation time, bring your work phone so that you can check emails if you absolutely must. Just make sure that you leave the work laptop at home.
6. Get a pet
You may have sensed a theme in the animated gifs accompanying these techniques. But humor aside, interacting with a pet is one of the most effective stress-reducing techniques on the planet. Even if you have dander allergies, just coming home to a fish tank can help with decompression at the end of a long day. Dogs and cats are the most popular pets in America, and dog owners gain the added benefit of frequent walks.
How to do this:
This should go without saying, but check your local shelter for cats or dogs before going to a breeder or puppy store. There are millions of lovable furballs out there just waiting for a home.
If you don’t have the time to care for your own dog, consider offering to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog for them after work. You win, your neighbor wins, and the dog certainly wins.
Just because you work long hours or travel often doesn’t mean you have to give up your dreams of pet ownership. Cats make great companions and can be OK by themselves—with brief check-ins from a friend or neighbor, of course—for up to several days once properly acclimated to your home.
Your stress relief techniques?
What are your favorite methods for reducing stress after a big project? Let us know in the comments below, because you may be helping a fellow project manager who is looking to unwind. And please share this article with anyone who you think it might help!