The healthy project management diet

Remember back in the day when personal computers were just starting to roll into the workplace? If you were born after 1975, this is probably not something you had to live through, so let me paint you a picture:

In the early 1990s, almost every office was adopting the use of personal computers. We were told the new technology would revolutionize the way we worked! We talked about it like it was the newest diet trend: we'll be more productive and more efficient because menial and tedious tasks will be done automatically! With this new technology, we were to become a Society of Leisure, spending one-third of our time working, and the other third enjoying life in all its glory!

Let's get back to reality for a minute here. Since the eighties, we haven't decreased our working hours. Statistics show that they've actually stayed pretty constant throughout the last three decades. In fact, calculating how much time we spend working has become a very difficult task, because most office workers are now equipped with a smartphone and a laptop. We no longer abide by the 40-hour work-week because although we may spend 40 hours per week in an office, we're available to work outside that office as well. Not to mention that more women have entered the full-time working realm since the eighties, too. In reality, we probably spend more time working than we did before we had computers.

This revolutionary diet didn't live up to its promise, like so many others. In fact, we're now facing greater levels of stress than generations before us, in some cases almost twice as much! The main sources of this new stress are work-related and caused by the following four key areas:

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As project managers, we're in a particularly difficult position: we have a lot of responsibilities across many different areas of a business. We manage a team, a project, and budgets. For some of us, balancing all three of these areas of responsibility means being on call 24/7.

If you're feeling the weight of these stressors, it's time to change your diet - your project management diet, that is! Forget about the fads. In your recipe for success, you need to make swaps for healthy ingredients that will create a sustainable new way of working. By creating this balanced diet, you'll be able to keep your levels of stress in check and keep at it on the long term to prevent it from wreaking havoc on your health.

How stress affects your health

Our bodies react to stress by releasing a hormone called Cortisol. Back in our caveman days, this hormone helped trigger our fight-or-flight response by raising our heartbeat and blood pressure. However, once Cortisol is released there needs to be a physical release. When we encounter stress in the workplace where there's no opportunity for such a release, it builds up into the body. It's this build up that causes problems. The side effects are physical (high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack, weight problems), but also mental. According to the American Psychological Association, not only does stress cause mental exhaustion, depression, and burnout, these symptoms also increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

How can we break this cycle?

Lowering your workplace stressors

You can learn to control how much stress you encounter when you're at work pretty easily, depending on the cause. Based on the most common workplace stressors, we listed a few "ingredients' for you to adjust your recipe and become healthier:

Reduce or balance your workload

  • Engage and empower your team: Build a culture where your team feels encouraged to ask for help before all hell breaks loose. Engage your smarties to offer help to others. As your team interacts with each other, it alleviates the pressure you feel to constantly check on issues as the team will work out the smaller stuff. This will shift your problem-solving time to the more critical issues that require leadership decisions.
  • Share accountability: Make the team accountable to track and report on their own progress. Encourage them to build good habits of staying on top of their work schedule and reporting progress on a daily or weekly basis before you come around asking for status. This will take a lot of the chasing down status load off your shoulders as it spreads accountability evenly to the rest of the team.
  • Leverage visual project management software: Project managers are known to spend a lot of time inputting and editing data in Excel and PowerPoint from scratch for reporting. This requires a lot of manual status gathering. Those who do use project management software find they still run around getting status data because the team deems the tools too cumbersome to use. One key reason is that humans do better with visual representations rather than lists or spreadsheet-like pages cluttered with superfluous information. Seek out visual project management software like Pie from PieMatrix and other tools that are human friendly for the rest of us who have non-accounting minds.

Eliminate personal conflicts

  • Approach conflicts calmly: One first step is to approach a conflict situation as a learning opportunity. This may reduce the stress of pure negativity. The other suggestion is to avoid negative words and don't fret about "winning vs losing" as these things only feed the stress monster even more.
  • Take a break: Allowing yourself to take a short 10-minute break to chat with a colleague not only strengthens your bonds with that person, it also allows you to breathe and refresh your brain. Just make sure you talk about positive things!
  • Have a laugh: Laughter (and even fake laughter) has positive effects on the levels of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine encourages us to see a reward and guide us towards it, rather than focus on negatives. Find ways to laugh and joke with your coworkers. Here are 10 of the corniest food jokes on the planet to get you started.

Manage work-life balance effectively

  • Set limits and follow them: Let coworkers know you don't answer emails or calls past a certain point in the evening. You could even set up an automatic reply to your email. This will allow you to set expectations and alleviate guilt you'd normally feel when ignoring requests at 10 PM. In any case, it's been shown that we are considerably less productive after the 40th hour of our work week -  so rather than extending it, you're better off making the most of it.
  • Track your time: You'd be surprised how much time you can waste by being inefficient or focusing on unimportant details. Use a time tracking app like to identify activities where you could optimize your time.

A healthy lifestyle is a recipe in itself: it consists of different ingredients of various amounts and best practices to achieve the desired result. If you don't want to fall victim to the negative effects of a stressful work environment, you need to change that recipe!

What kind of healthier "ingredients" did you swap out to reduce stress?


Written by Isabelle Blondin

Photo by Monika Grabowska

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