Do you know this saying, be careful what you wish for, because you may receive it? Well, I once wanted to manage a way bigger and more complex projects that I used to.
What I got was a monstrosity. Gigantic and poorly defined scope with lots of dependencies on organizations and products beyond my control. Fixed price contract. Little time. Severe shortages of good men. The analysis was half-done at best. Cost baseline was pure fantasy. Some of the original project assumptions were already proven false.
Moreover, this project was on the radar of every senior manager in our company, the CEO included. At that time, it was the biggest project in our geographic region. Everyone wanted to know the status. So suddenly I got exposure to the highest echelons of the company. Oh, I wish I could tell them that this is all under control, and I’ll land this safely. But I couldn’t. I had to tell the ugly truth. I will run a march of death here, I will go over budget and will miss the deadlines. Even worse; until I will get that scope under control, I can’t even honestly estimate the delivery date and its price tag.
Now that’s quite a message to deliver to the company’s elite, most of whom have never even heard about me.
What to do, what to do? My heart is pounding. My career is at risk. I can get labeled as a small-time-only kind of guy or even fired. My team could get disbanded, reassigned at best and let go at worst. Lots of other bad things can happen.
I came up with a plan for rescuing the project, a plan for addressing that elite audience, and a personal plan for surviving this in good mental health. This article is about the last one. So, what did I do to stay focused on the job despite all this pressure?
1. Working out
This is how we’ve been dealing with stress for ages. When attacked by a wild animal, we run for our lives. A lot of good things that happen to our bodies while we exercise. Stress reduction is one of those good things.
Another one is the “runner’s high.” This is where you’re full of endorphins from a moderate discomfort that exercise brings. Endorphins are home-brewed opiates, perfectly natural and legal painkiller, that our body produces on its own. This is so much healthier than, say, binge drinking, eating, or smoking.
2. Breath control techniques
I tested on myself a technique called “box breathing.” This is as simple as it gets. Sit straight or lie down. Visualize a box. Inhale, counting to 4, imagining that you’re following the top of the box with your eyes. Then, hold it, counting to 4, following a left side of the box now. Then, exhale, counting to 4, following a bottom of the box. You guessed it, it’s time for 4 seconds of holding, and the pattern repeats.
In other words, 4 seconds of inhalation, 4 seconds of holding it in, 4 seconds of exhalation, 4 seconds of holding. Repeat until you’re calm as a sleeping baby. I know two variants of that technique. You drop either one, or both holding sessions. It’s always 4 seconds to breath in and 4 seconds to breathe out, though.
This works very well, I found. I read this is widely used by soldiers, emergency responders, doctors, but also by people suffering from panic attacks, PTDS, and anxiety disorder.
When you have to come on stage and deliver a speech, use this to deal with stage fright, and you’ll perform better.
3. Friends and family
One of the toxic reactions to stress is shunning people. Stressed people avoid get-togethers, cut down on quality time with the kids, just to get more time for the job, or worrying about it.
This is precisely the opposite of what is needed.
We are social creatures. We need humans around us. We need deep connections with people who care about us. This is a natural antidepressant. Talking, and empathetic listening can go a long way.
Would you believe it? Running, breathing, and talking. Big Pharma must have been very disappointed with me.
Anyways, I can’t say that this was a walk in the park. Unless we’re talking Adrenaline Theme Park with Roller Coasters from Hell. Without a seatbelt.
This project has been ended successfully, on time and budget, as all projects do. It’s just the question of which version of the budget and timeline we take as a reference.
Most importantly, I have survived it without any emotional scars.