6 Vital Tools to Help You Sustain High Energy Levels Amid Project Life

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Project life can be stressful. I know — I work as an Organisational Change Manager on projects. I’ve been working on projects for over fifteen years and have experienced highs and lows. How do I manage my energy and productivity in high-stress project environments?

“Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.”

― Jim Loehr, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal

I find task switching draining. Today’s project leaders and team members have to juggle many tasks often. On most projects, I have to switch from one task to another at a moment’s notice. I’m not alone in feeling this way — studies show how intense task switching impacts energy and focus.

It seems as if there are deadlines to meet and fires to extinguish. Most of us try to avoid getting sucked into the swirl. But what if you could create a way of living that is truly productive?

I’m happy to share my proactive actions to keep a mental equilibrium where I am productive and energetic. I need to strike the right balance of detachment versus compassion and engagement on my projects. How do you build your skills in managing stress to maintain composure, stay focused, and deliver results?

One thing.

Multitasking is a killer. The natural human instinct to respond to whatever’s grabbing our attention will derail any attempt to focus on a task. But what we can do is develop a single-mindedness about the job that helps us cut out the noise. What does this mean for your project? It helps craft a clear vision for yourself and your team.

“The more exacting the challenge, the more rigorous our rituals need to be.”

― Jim Loehr, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal

Manage your energy

It can be hard to control your schedule and proactively work on your project. But what works for me? Small habits, like the ones below:

  • Calm down: Centre yourself at least three times per day. I use a technique called box breathing to do so.
  • Perform a quick mental audit: In the last 24 hours, where have most of my work-related thoughts been about? On things within my control… or factors outside of it?
  • Start the night before: Use the time when you have no distractions — either early morning or the night before. You will start on the right foot in the morning if you have a plan for your day. So when something else comes up like an urgent meeting or phone call surfaces? I know my “big rocks” ie. important tasks already. Usually anything new is a “pebble” ie. less important task. This image of rocks vs. pebbles puts this disruption into perspective. I know where this pebble might fit into my schedule, so there is minimal disruption to your other tasks.
  • Write down the swirling stuff in your head: This isn’t only a to-do list and vague ideas and other loose ends. I take advantage of something called the Zeigarnik effect. This is where you write your loose ideas on paper. This simple action frees up mental space.
  • 90/5 it. Make sure at work that you take a break every 90 minutes or so. Leave whatever problem is causing stress behind for 5 minutes or so. Small habits like this make a difference.

Pomodoro it.

What are the most annoying tasks on your plate right now? In 20 minutes, what can you do about them? I need to eat my vegetables before I get dessert. Getting the tough stuff out of the way means I can get back to tasks I enjoy more. So I ‘Pomodoro’ it.

Pomodoro sessions can be as short as 15 minutes if you want them to be. A timer on your mobile phone or computer can help you.

You can spend 15–25 minutes completing the task, delegating it or planning.

Ask for what you need.

If you are in a high-stress environment, be proactive and get the information you need to do your job. You can learn about asking for help in many different ways. I have learned over time to know who I can rely on in my project team to get things done. I help them as much as they help me. Over time, we build trust and respect. My “dream team” forms on each project, and this is one of the best things about project life. Their support can be in the form of getting tasks done, listening to a concern or bouncing ideas. Their responses give me energy. When they are having a bad day, I’m there for them as much as they have been for me.

Working in short bursts and planning time for recovery.

Managing your energy is critical to managing your work and performance. A high-stress project environment requires a high level of energy and proactivity. High energy levels are also needed for effective reactivity. Your need for reactivity can vary amongst projects. Project leaders, current crises and team dynamics influence reactivity frequency and intensity. Too much reacting to crises? I’ve been there — you end up burned out if you’re not careful.

In these situations, it’s essential to work in short bursts. It’s also critical to plan time for recovery between the sprints. The recovery time allows you to refocus and renew your energy to deliver again at a high level in the next sprint.

Any activity that brings you joy is valuable. So do the things that spark joy…or recovery. Light exercise like a walk in fresh air, ocean swimming, heading out to nature, quality time with family. What activities bring you into the present moment or incite a sense of flow? What do you enjoy doing as part of your active recovery between sprints of activity on projects?

Your recovery activities are unique to you. They might include exercise, meditation or other focus practices like reading or engaging with a hobby outside of your line of work. Latch onto these activities if they give you joy and allows you to rest your mind. Your project problems can wait for now.

“No” is a complete sentence.

Learning how to say no, which also encompasses a lot of related topics like saying yes, is one of the best skills you can have in any job. It’s not easy, especially in high-stress project environments. Stress itself isn’t a bad thing. Yet competing priorities, deadlines (unrealistic or not) introduce strain. Strain eats at our resilience and precipitates lower engagement at work.

The point is that saying no is crucial to moving your career forward. And when it comes to learning how to say no, there are two key things you need to know: 1) why it’s essential; 2) how to do it effectively.

Saying yes may feel good on the surface when your boss or client seems upset because they want something done yesterday. But sooner or later, they’ll be mad at you for declining their request without the reassurance that you can get it done down the line.

Say no, but state why — this task isn’t part of the critical path. You can point out what is essential and what isn’t.

By managing your energy effectively, you can avoid burnout and produce better results.

Focusing on your energy allows you to take control of your productivity and avoid burnout, a major cause of lost productivity. By intelligently managing your energy, you can significantly impact the team’s performance.

All in all, there’s no secret sauce to this. As with most high-performing, high-stress environments, the folks who rise to the top have a few factors in common. They are well organized. Most of them love what they do. I know I do. They also have a good set of strategies for self-management and energy conservation.

Our book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out our online course on Change Management.

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Organisational change, behavioural design and coaching psychology insights — practical and research informed. Clever ways to put a dent in the world.

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Allan Owens

Allan Owens

Australian Change Lead: 8 years experience. Author of The Change Manager’s Companion. https://www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au/the-change-managers-companion

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