The Zen PM – The power plan for turning chaos into calm

Business woman sitting in a lotus position

Good project managers secretly thrive off annoyances. That may be a head scratcher, but handle your frustrations a certain way, and they can be turned into victories. In the midst of myriad issues, PMs are required to be diplomatic, patient, and friendly, all while organizing, motivating, scheduling, and communicating with numerous personality types on different projects every day. As good project managers, we do our best to be the point of calm within the chaos. Does that mean I’m never annoyed, frustrated, or downright miserable? Absolutely not!

After all, I am a human being, and finding that zone of zen is never easy in the face of ever-changing projects. PMs are on the front lines, so expecting us to be shiny, happy people every waking minute is unrealistic—especially if you catch us on a day when ALL OF THE THINGS are just piling up. But we can use those annoyances as ways to find our own version of PM zen. Check out these tips for reclaiming your cool.

Start your day right

The way you start your day can truly set the tone for how you handle things.  If you sit down at your desk and think, “Well, this is just awful—I can’t deal with this,” it’s not going to help your outlook. You’re better off accepting the challenges headed your way and dealing with them in a positive light. What do I do? I’ve figured out that recalibrating, revising, and reconnecting are at the core of the PM zen master’s daily routines. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up.

Morning “Me” time

The best way to ensure that you’re getting off on the right foot is to have at least 10-15 minutes of time to yourself. During this time, it’s best NOT to think about work. At all. Maybe it’s your family, your hobby, an upcoming holiday, or even reflecting on the past. Think about the things in your life (outside of work and your professional goals) that make you happy. Whatever it is, it’ll get your mind in a positive thinking space.

Making time for yourself can be difficult, especially if your morning commute is rough or you constantly feel under pressure to be working. It happens, but you can find some time to grab a cup of coffee, have your breakfast, or just relax for a few minutes and think on your own—even if it’s at your desk. It will help to reconnect you to yourself and your strengths, and you’ll be energized to start your work day.

If you’re really serious about this time, you can take it a step further and do a bit of meditation—a step that the Resource Guru yogi would surely approve. Recent studies have shown that 15 minutes of meditation every day can help increase brain matter. So, not only are you centering yourself and getting your day started off right, you’re getting smarter!

Review and revise your “To Do” list

If you’re not keeping a To Do list, you’re missing out on an opportunity  to account for—and celebrate the completion of—large and small tasks. Paul Boag wrote a great post, “Work Smarter: How to reduce your hours and yet get more done.”

As Paul says:

If you don’t want to spend your life fire-fighting, you need a robust task management system.

If you sit down for 10 minutes every morning to review what was done yesterday, what needs to be done today, and what needs to be completed that week, you’ll ensure that nothing is forgotten (because it’s really easy to forget the small things like updating plans or submitting expenses). But if you list all of your tasks, large and small, you’ll ensure that you will handle them. And, when you cross them off your list, you’ll feel so, so good.

Greet your team

No matter where you are—in an office or working remotely with teams online—it’s important to say “Good Morning” to the people you’ll be working with that day. Saying these two simple words not only engages you with your team in a positive way, it opens up the opportunity for them to openly share information with you, and in a friendly way. Opening yourself up to friendly, personal conversation will only help you as a PM, because the better you know your team, and the more they know (and like) you, the easier it is to plan work and communicate details—positive and negative.

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While you’re reconnecting with folks and having those conversations, think about how they’re feeling. Are they particularly happy that morning? Are they upset? Tired? Use this time to get a good read and you should be able to anticipate how your interactions with them might go that day. As a PM, it’s very important to adapt to your team and communicate on a level that will work for them, because it ultimately helps the outcomes you need on the project. The worst thing you can ever do is annoy someone first thing in the morning by approaching them without a greeting, and with negative news. If you get a good read on the tone of the conversation first, you can tailor your message to the situation and avoid pitfalls for you and the other person.

Plan for the unplanned

Creating a good To Do List not only helps you identify and organize tasks, it also helps you to understand your bandwidth. In other words, it’s important to think about the inherent risks that come with those tasks. For instance, if one of your tasks is to deliver a document that requires someone else’s input, you know that the other person’s schedule and availability are a risk you need to account for. If you think this way about all of your tasks, you’ll set yourself up for smoother projects and fewer “annoyances,” because when that risk becomes a reality, you will have already been expecting it on some level. You lessen the impact of an issue by planning for it , so you’re less susceptible to things that can pull you out of your zen zone.

Be honest

No matter what you do as a project manager, you have to be completely honest  about your work. If you’re not honest with yourself and your team, you’ll always find yourself upset. But if you let those around you know the following things, you’ll stay calm:

  • Communicate your expectations of the team and the project. Be sure to keep those expectations in check so everyone is on board with your plans for the day, week, month, etc. It’s up to you to schedule and keep the team and project moving, but if you never communicate those schedules and the details involved, you will be let down when someone on the team drops the ball. It’s your job to keep the lines of communication clear, and in turn, keep everyone happy.
  • Openly address project issues and risks. If you’re a PM, you are a problem solver. An issue comes up and you fix it. But don’t keep it to yourself! Let your team know what’s happening. They can help you or at least support your crusade in resolving the issue at hand. Plus, the more the team knows about your work, they more they will appreciate it.
  • Share positive and negative feedback. If your client, co-worker, boss, or teammate offers feedback about your project or the team’s work, share that info. Positive feedback boosts morale and negative feedback provides an opportunity to talk about how you can be better. No matter what, it’s all good. Holding that feedback in will only make you dwell on the point, clouding your judgment on the person, issue, or deliverable involved, and create headaches for you.
  • Be transparent about your workload. Because a project is in motion, it’s easy for a team to think that their PM isn’t busy. Often, they simply do not realize just how much you’re handling, so don’t be afraid to communicate what you’re doing in a status meeting and refute that perception. When others realize that you’re busy, too, they will show empathy and possibly offer help if/when you need it.

When it comes to being honest, you should always remember that the way you communicate the message is just as important as the message itself . If you’re the Zen PM, you’ll be honest with a soothing edge. The difficult news won’t seem all that bad, and the good news will seem like a gigantic win for the team. If you’re “brutally honest” you’ll just come off as rude and critical, which in turn will lead to resentment and a new set of annoyances.

Achieving PM nirvana

There’s probably nothing in your job description that says you must be zen, but it goes hand-in-hand with project harmony. If you take your work seriously and would like to approach your job in a way that proactively avoids unnecessary stress, there are a lot of factors you can influence. Your approach will never be bulletproof because you can’t control the factors that cause heartburn or a bad day, but just remember: No issue is so large that you can’t deal with it calmly.  That’s the path to achieving PM nirvana.

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