Years ago my mind and my body were full of stress. I was running a large business-critical programme and I was petrified of failing.
I had never run a project with almost 50 people on it before and a project that had so much attention from senior management. Of course, I was also acutely aware that the three project managers that had preceded me had all been fired!
My Body was Infested with Stress
After two years of hard work the programme was delivered successfully and luckily I didn’t get fired! On the contrary! I was proud of our achievements and happy that I’d made some good friends in the process too. But my determination to work hard and to deliver all the benefits to the business had taken its toll. I had difficulties sleeping and my body was infested with stress.
I was devastated and felt debilitated at an age of 35!
It all became very real when I had to use a walking stick to ease the pressure on my left foot. I had put too much pressure on it during my dancing lessons and it was badly inflamed. I was forced to give up dancing and could barely walk.
I was devastated and felt debilitated at an age of 35! I didn’t like it and I didn’t understand why it had happened. After all, I was a good person trying to do good: delivering important projects and having some fun with my dancing.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized what a blessing in disguise this was. My inflamed foot forced me to slow down and make some very important changes to the way I lived my life.
My journey back to full health and vitality didn’t happen overnight as it required more than simply changing a few habits. It was only by changing some of my underlying beliefs that I could make profound and long-lasting changes. A decade later I can honestly say that I lead a much more rewarding and balanced life.
I Started Leaving the Office at 6 pm
One of the beliefs that I had at the time was that in order to be a good project manager I had to work as hard as possible. When I worked late I achieved a lot and it made me feel good that I had given everything I could. But by giving so much of my energy to my project I slowly depleted my batteries.
My new belief was that good project managers work smarter, not harder. They make good use of their team and don’t spend their evenings in the office. It was initially difficult for me to get up and leave at 6 pm, but over time it became easier.
I got Better at Asking for Help
Before my near-burn-out I was proud of doing as much of the work as possible on my own. I felt I ought to. But on a large project, there’s a lot to keep track of and it’s near impossible to do without assistance. I did eventually ask for help – initially reluctantly – and a brilliant project administrator got allocated to my project.
What a difference that made! She helped keep track of the many work-streams and stayed on top of the financials. This freed me up to keep an eye on the bigger picture and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders. It also meant that it got easier to leave at 6 pm.
I Took a Mini Sabbatical
Taking a sabbatical had a transformational effect on me. After the delivery of the business-critical project, I decided to take three months off and travel through India.
As my sabbatical came closer, the financial crisis of 2008 hit and I shortened my break to six weeks. I was afraid that I’d make myself redundant by being out of sight for too long. Luckily six weeks was still long enough that I could take a step back and give my body a chance to recover. I had a lot of fun in India travelling from south to the north in one epic train journey. I also spent time in an ashram where I met people who later became some of my closest friends.
Going to India was something I did for myself – not something I felt I should do or was expected to. It was liberating and I came back feeling rejuvenated and determined to lead my life and my projects in a way that would give me energy rather than drain me.
I Trained as a Coach
Inspired by a personal coaching session that had a profound effect on me I decided to train as a coach myself. I studied whilst working as a project manager and I began to use my newfound skills in my working environment.
At the time I had no ambition to work as a professional coach. I simply felt that coaching was a magical skill that I wanted to master. Through my studies, I learned a lot about human behaviour and the beliefs that control the things we do and say. I also learned to truly listen and to ask questions that help people reframe their problems.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that all project managers should train as coaches. But I would say that understanding human behaviour is essential for anyone who would like to get better at building relationships at work and leading a team.
I Started doing Yoga
Long before I had my first yoga class I intuitively knew that I would enjoy it. But for several years I listened to my friends’ positive experiences without taking any action myself. When I finally attended a class I was hooked and didn’t have to force myself to go.
It’s the perfect antidote to stress
Yoga helped me to be more mindful, to be more present in my body and to breathe properly. It’s the perfect antidote to stress. You simply cannot rush a yoga class.
You have to focus on your breath and the poses. As soon as you think about to-do-lists or work you lose the ability to balance and follow the class.
I Began to do more of What gives me Energy
Around the same time, I came across a little book called Energize! by Jo Salter. One of Jo’s exercises had a particularly big effect on me. I had to list all the activities that I did during a day or a week and indicate whether they gave me energy or drained me of energy.
Through this simple exercise, I learned that my most draining activity was to read through all outstanding emails at the end of my working day. I also became more aware of what I needed to do to reenergize outside of work.
Apart from yoga, I began to nourish my soul, for instance by visiting art galleries, going for walks and visiting places that I found stimulating. All in all, it meant that I would start work on a Monday morning feeling happy and energized.
I began to Pay more Attention to What I Eat
Although I was always mindful of what I ate, I wasn’t as healthy as my body needed me to be. I would eat white bread, poor quality sandwiches, skip meals and have sugary snacks in the afternoon. Not to mention alcohol and the occasional cigarette.
Today I give my body what it needs so that it can better withstand periods of intense activity. I have organic vegetables delivered from a farm, I have a healthy breakfast (oats, fruit and green tea), I no longer smoke or drink and I avoid coffee, sugary foods, and excessive fat.
Of course, there’s no denying a good piece of dark chocolate! Our brain needs the good fats from nuts, seeds, and oily fish, so that’s what I try to give it.
I Learned to Control my Mental State
I also began to focus intently on controlling my thoughts and my mental state. I decided that I would no longer think about work once I left the office.
Boy did I fail! 30 seconds after I left the office I would think about work. I then gently reminded myself that I had decided to leave work behind. 30 seconds later I thought about work again – and so the battle continued! And we battled on for several weeks until my disciplined mind finally won this crucial victory.
I further sharpened my mind by starting my day with a power meditation. During this meditation, I would read out my vision and mission statement and focus on the mental state that I wanted to adopt for the day.
Today, if I have a bad day I acknowledge it and then do my best to put it away. In other words, I choose what I want to focus on.
Pick up on the Signals that your Body gives You
Like other jobs, project management can be a very stressful profession. I have felt it on my own body and I feel it through many of the people who I personally train and coach.
If you’re in a state of stress your body will show you signs of tension that you need to pick up on. If you overlook them and continue to deplete your batteries you could face burnout. That’s a serious condition.
Deep down you know what you need to do. You just need to take it seriously
Fortunately, it didn’t happen to me, but it happened to one of my closest friends. She clearly saw the signs when her own brother went down with stress several years before she did, but she didn’t take her own symptoms seriously. She had a fever for several weeks but told herself that it would probably pass. It didn’t pass and she was signed off work with severe stress for several months. Don’t let that happen to you.
Be honest with yourself! Give your body and soul what it needs in order to be fit and healthy in the long term. Visiting India, getting into coaching, and practicing yoga may not be your path.
What’s important is that you do whatever feels right for you. Deep down you know what you need to do. You just need to take it seriously.
We would like to congratulate Susanne Madsen on co-founding The Project Leadership Institute together with Bart Hoiting and Jivan Schuurmans. We encourage all our readers to have a look at this fantastic new website.