Sleepless and on a Starvation Diet

istock_000001209885xsmall.jpgMaking due with too little food and a few scraps of sleep might be appropriate for an outdoor survival course or a military boot camp, but it’s no way to treat yourself when you’re a project manager. Sure, you’re busy with wall-to-wall meetings, ubiquitous email and a non-stop line of people barking at your office door (if you have one). And, of course, your phone rings so frequently that you’ve gone ahead and had the ear piece surgically implanted to save you time. But eating and sleeping aren’t things you should be giving up in order to get the job done.

When I was working on my first project I recall looking at my watch at well past 9 PM only to realize that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all day long. In some sense this was fortunate, because I also hadn’t had time to go to the bathroom all day either . . . but I digress. Leading a project is brain work. Our brains need food, water and rest to function at full warp speed. Starving them to death only makes the project worse, and guarantees that you’ll need to work even longer hours to make up for all of the “whoops” moments that your nutrient deprived brain caused. Don’t believe me, I’ve been working non-stop for the past 57 hours while jet lagged between San Francisco and Tokyo on my way to Hiroshima, then Frankfurt, back to Tokyo I think, them home . . . heck, I even forgot where I live and why I bother to try to sleep when it’s dark! But there is plenty of research on the hazards of running yourself ragged (the reader is left to pick through the 500 million hits on Google on the subject).

Here are a few things to consider when you are trying to decide whether to have a chocolate bar and a Coke for dinner so you can stay a few more hours to get some insatiable lists of tasks tamed back to a manageable size:

  1. Working more than 2 weeks of overtime (that is 80 hours a week instead of your normal 60) actually decreases your efficiency by about 20%. After that you have to work 10 hours to get 8 hours of work done, so you’re screwed again.
  2. While I once thought of project management as a weight loss technique, I’ve found that going without food won’t necessarily help you lose weight. Our bodies are fantastically talented at figuring out that we are starving them to death, so they stop burning as many calories.
  3. Being hungry all the times makes some people grouchy (OK, it makes ME grouchy, because I resent popping into the cafeteria to ask a co-worker about the status of a critical task only to find them delicately picking at a fresh and wholesome salad, or savoring a bowl of clam chowder).
  4. You could actually die. Yes, it’s true. Project management can be fatal. In Japan there are an increasing number of lawsuits over Karōshi 過労死,, which is translated quite literally as “death from overwork”.

Our brains do have amazing powers to compensate for poor treatment such assleep deprivation and lack of fuel, like speeding up, and calling rarely used parts of the brain into service. But don’t push your luck. You’re going to make more mistakes and get less done if you’re a skeletal, sleep-walking zombie!

You may get a bit of an ego boost by feeling like a martyr, but you won’t do anyone any good if you’re keeled over in your office with your face lying in a puddle of your own drool. Get out of there and eat a decent meal! . . . and get some rest!

– Kimberly Wiefling, Author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch last fall.


1 thought on “Sleepless and on a Starvation Diet”

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    Much like Kimberly, I recall presiding over project team meetings when I wanted to jump over the table to strangle someone who was not “with it” in getting their deliverables done or failing to provide adequate status. I could feel my face getting red and blood pressure rising. These were probably not healthy moments!

    The technique I learned was to ask myself, “In a year from now, will any of us remember or care about this moment?” More often than not, I was obsessing about a project management moment. In reality, what was more important was to keep progress in perspective and to focus on relationships with team members. So what if they didn’t follow the plan exactly? Maybe they didn’t understand how other team members depended on their deliverable. My job was to manage that interface. That was my unique contribution or “moment to shine.”

    Yes, I needed to display passion about lack of progress because that showed I cared. But I have a choice–to get all upset and screw up my health or rise to the occasion and help others see a better way to proceed. The latter approach became far more productive…and helps me live another day.

    Randy Englund, author of Projec Sponsorship: Achieving Management Commitment for Project Success

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