Workload woes in project management—A story by Elizabeth Harrin

Every project manager has a story about a time things didn’t quite go according to plan, an “aha moment,” or an experience that shaped them professionally. We’ve collected these stories from some of the best PMs around to share their knowledge and lessons learned.

This week, Elizabeth Harrin, award-winning blogger and author of Managing Multiple Projects, shares her story. 

I called my manager late at night after a particularly difficult conversation with a project sponsor. I burst into tears and couldn’t hold my voice steady so I had to call her back.

The problem was this: my sponsor had asked me to do something that was virtually impossible for me to get done and also (in my opinion) not the best use of my time. It was an admin task that anyone could have done, including the support staff: copying handwritten lists of who had attended a training course into another format so they could be kept electronically.

I couldn’t get that done and do everything else, and I was already working until late at night from a hotel. I came up with another plan: if it had to be done, get a temp admin assistant to do it. That came with the overhead of recruiting and hiring someone to sit and transcribe the list. Still, if he felt this work was valuable, then paying for it was going to be OK.

I explained all this to my manager and she said: “He probably doesn’t know what else you are doing, so he thinks it’s OK.”

It was like a lightbulb going off in my head. He literally had no idea of how I was spending my time, and certainly wasn’t aware I’m on the phone crying to my boss at 10 pm at night because of the need to type up lists of names.

I also thought: How can he not know? I speak to him every day.

But the truth is that he probably wasn’t thinking about my workload (or that of anyone else on the team) that much at all.

We were all senior managers. We should have been able to manage our time and escalate, and have adult conversations about workload. Why wasn’t I doing that?

Because I was burning out with trying to please everyone and hold this project together… but that was on me. It was my choice to work that way, although I hadn’t realized it until that moment.

My sponsor was also working long hours in a complex environment, where requirements were changing regularly as new information became available. He had his own challenges working the stakeholders who looked to him for guidance and updates. He was involved, engaged, knowledgeable, and a confident decision-maker: in many respects, the perfect sponsor. He had enough in his brain without wondering whether I had time to type up some lists.

Lesson learned: Visibility is everything

Don’t assume your boss or your project sponsor knows how you are spending your time. Your manager hasn’t got the capacity to track what you are doing day-to-day. They probably only have a very high-level overview of what you are working on. 

You might believe they know what you are doing every day and how much work you have, so your assumption is that they are only giving you what they feel you should be able to do.

In reality, they may be passing you more project work because they don’t have complete visibility of what you are doing.

The only one who knows how long your workload is taking is you.

Does this story resonate with you?

Discover more in our eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager, where PM practitioners, authors, and agency insiders share the stories that defined their careers—and the lessons they learned along the way.

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Meet Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin teaches people how to juggle multiple projects so they can meet stakeholders’ expectations without working extra hours. She’s a project management practitioner, trainer, mentor, and founder of RebelsGuideToPM.com. An author of seven project management books, Elizabeth prides herself on her straight-talking, real-world advice for project managers. She uses her twenty years of experience doing the job to help people deliver better quality results whilst ditching the burnout through her community membership program, ProjectManagement Rebels.

Find her on elizabeth-harrin.com or connect with her on LinkedIn.