There is something about the project manager role that makes people think: no work-life balance. Just google it and you’ll see numerous articles and threads pointing to the fact that PMs can often get overworked and stressed out.
There is a general consensus that achieving work-life balance can be challenging when you’re in charge of a project team. Some even believe that being a project manager requires prioritising work over personal life. I don’t think the latter is true. And while PMs often struggle with long working hours and an overflowing inbox, there are ways to lessen that burden.
Before we jump into some tips for project managers, let’s try to deal with the very meaning of “work-life balance” first. It has become a catch-all phrase and almost everyone has a different understanding of it.
From “never spending longer than 8 hours at work” to “not having to think about work after hours”, your mileage here may vary. There are also those who say that there’s no such thing as a perfect work-life balance.
Regardless of your viewpoint, there are some common grounds that we can probably agree on. It’s not great when you have to pull a massive amount of overtime to catch up with your work. Or when you’re trying to chat with several people at a time, all of them demanding a swift resolution to their question. Or when your project has grown into a monstrosity that can’t realistically be delivered in time and you get that terrible sense of impending doom. Or when… I’m sure you get the picture.
In this article I will provide a list of work-life balance tips for project managers that want to turn their default status from “busy” to “effective”. As many things in this job, this also starts with proper planning.
Plan for efficiency
Short-term over long-term
While the nature of your project may determine the scale of plans you need to draft, I would argue that short-term plans are what you need to prioritize. In most cases, you can’t realistically plan every detail of a year-long plan. Instead, focus on the next chunk of work: if you’re following scrum framework, this would be your next sprint. Make sure you can truly commit to what’s on your plate for the next release and follow through with the plan. It will give you much more flexibility and peace of mind. Granted, you will probably have to plan some milestones further down the line as well, say a full project roadmap. The difference is, that a roadmap is not set in stone, so you and your team have a much more realistic goal to focus on in the present: your short-term plan.
Automate your work
Doing something more than twice? Automate it! A sizeable chunk of project manager’s workload is about tasks that are somewhat repetitive. This is not to say that they’re are of lesser importance, quite the contrary! Unfortunately, they can also be time-consuming. Analyze your daily, weekly, monthly duties and think of ways they could be automated.
What do I mean by automating things? Creating a template or a checklist-like procedure could be a great start. If you want to create full workflows, you can use Zapier or IFTTT (no programming knowledge required!). Even small time-savers will decrease your busyness (and improve the efficiency). If you’re a Slack user, you should check our article on the best Slack Apps for Project Managers, where you’ll also find some ideas for productivity boosters.
What’s your TQ?
TQ, the Technology Quotient, is your ability to adapt to, manage and integrate technology. PMTQ (Project Management Technology Quotient) has been recognized by Project Management Institute as a new key ingredient to projects’ success:
For anyone charged with making strategy reality in a world constantly being remodeled by tech,
PMTQ will be the must-have, make-or-break skill set.
Think about your relationship with technology. It’s one thing to be able to manage a project that’s inextricably linked with tech, say software development. It’s another thing to be able to use software to your and the project’s advantage. Smart use of online tools will save you a lot of time and improve project transparency.
Protect your time
Determine your availability
Project managers seem to have a tendency to be the first one in the office and the last one to leave. One reason for that is looking for opportunities to get some actual work done (see next section). But the other reason is the need to oversee the team and be able to communicate in real time. Except for emergencies, your constant presence shouldn’t be necessary. I would strongly suggest that you determine your availability and stick to it.
Deep work and office hours
I’ve mentioned that some PMs like to come to the office early/stay late because that’s when they can actually focus on work without interruptions. Granted, being a project manager requires a healthy dose of communication, but there is no need to be the Siri of your team and always be ready to answer “a quick question”. Context switching will break your concentration. When you’re unable to focus for most of the day, you won’t get your tasks done.
Try to timebox your day and set slots during which you can work uninterrupted. You could even set office hours: time during which your team members are encouraged to approach you with questions. In a transparent, well-documented project, this should be a successful strategy.
Of course, apart from impromptu communication there is also room for planned interaction: team meetings. Here, the ball is in your court. It’s you, the project manager, who is in charge of setting the meeting policy (and leading by example). First rule? Only schedule meetings when they are necessary and create a clear objective for them. Secondly, mind the clock and use time to the maximum. You’ve planned this meeting to achieve a goal, try to focus on that objective and spend time effectively. The reason why many employees hate meetings is that it’s a “waste of time”. Make sure that’s not the case with your team and your time.
Work on your mindset
There are certain expectations many project managers are trying to live up to. They want to have everything under control, always “be there for the team” and stay available for the client constantly.
The problem is that these expectations are completely unrealistic. If you want to even start thinking about the work-life balance, you have to forget about everything, always, constantly. That’s not a good work ethic and definitely not a great example for your team.
Finally, you can’t be a yes-person, even if you want to make your client happy. It’s a common dilemma, but scope creep can derail the project and ruin you work-life balance efforts.
Following these tips will not guarantee that you’ll never stay longer at the office but it will give you a solid base to build upon. With time, as you adopt more processes that increase your productivity, you should notice a significant change in your level of busyness.
In essence, these tips for work-life balance are also your steps for better effectiveness at work. Finding the “right” balance is difficult, if not impossible. As long as you feel that the way you work feels more balanced, you’re definitely making progress. Keep it up!