Project Management Institute

Balancing act



You carefully evaluate and measure out schedule, scope and budget long before project work even begins. But when was the last time you put your work and personal life on a balance scale?

It's becoming increasingly difficult for project professionals to maintain a healthy work/life balance, given an increased focus on lean and just-in-time processes and a growing reliance on virtual workers who are expected to always be on call.

Half of all respondents to a 2011 Deloitte survey of U.S. executives planned to intensify existing productivity improvement programs, including lean operations, to further reduce costs. And three of four respondents to a 2011 poll by talent management firm Right Management already employed virtual workers; of those, nearly half expected the number of virtual workers to increase in 2012.

This round-the-clock work environment can take a toll on project professionals. “Most projects have sharp deadlines, and the pressure on company costs is resulting in more complex environments and job expectations,” says Dirk De Wolf, project management office (PMO) manager at Tech Data, an IT product provider in Brussels, Belgium. “This impacts the business in such a way that sometimes things can only be accomplished by working after hours or on weekends.”

A May study by nonprofit Catalyst reports that 50 percent of Asian workers find it difficult to manage their work and personal life. In India alone, approximately 80 percent of workers receive work-related phone calls or emails after office hours, according to an April study by staffing organization Randstad.

“As immediate responses are required on projects, especially in a remote, mobile work environment, the work/life balance suffers, and it becomes a real challenge for project managers,” says Robert Jacquet, CEO of ITES Management Consultants in Brussels, Belgium.

But there is hope. These five project professionals solved the work/life balance conundrum without sacrificing success in either sphere.


As project managers, we are the linchpins of the whole project. So the problem of work/life balance starts when I try to behave like a hero, trying to do everything myself. I have to remind myself first of my limitations as a human, and second that I have a team to support me.

Personal and work schedules shouldn't compete; they should complement each other. I respect my personal agenda the same way I do my work schedule. If I can't do something important on my personal agenda because of a work task, then I delegate the work to a project team member.

In a network project I was running last year, I found myself working longer hours and spending less time with my girlfriend and my friends, and on personal goals. I spoke with each of the four project coordinators who were reporting to me at the time to see whether they could take on additional workload.

We talked about whether they were willing to stretch their project management expertise by taking on more responsibility without impacting their assignments, identified what was needed to absorb the new task, and finally we defined a timeline where we agreed to transfer tasks in a controlled way.


New technologies, such as smartphones, have certain advantages: You are no longer restricted to the working hours to get things done, for example. You could spend 6:30–8:30 p.m. with the kids and work on a deadline afterward. On the other hand, it becomes normal to answer questions at 11 p.m.

Discipline is key in keeping a good work/life balance. When you want to spend time with your family, put your smartphone on manual synchronization so you don't get an alert when you receive an email. This way, you can control when you see, read and answer incoming emails.

My employer doesn't push us not to take holidays—everyone has the right to take off when he or she wants to. But as a project manager, you can't be a bottleneck or the single point of failure on a project, so planning is crucial. Keep your project team informed, and install a backup plan and escalation path.


How Do You Handle Overload?

We asked members of the LinkedIn PMI Career Central group, “How do you carve out time for yourself in this 24/7 global working world?”

“I've given up on fighting the 24/7 work environment. I just work it into all the other things I need to do throughout the day, but I'm also okay with being on a conference call at 8 p.m. if necessary.”

—Daniel Kim, senior program manager, Cisco Systems, San Francisco, California, USA

“Learn the power of ‘no.’ Everyone has this idea that you must say ‘yes’ to every request on their time. Carve out your own time and guard it: ‘I'm not available then, but we can discuss this XX.’”

—Anthony Fridelle, aviation project manager, Yulista Management Services, Huntsville, Alabama, USA

“Start your day defining what you must get done. Don't fall prey to the daily minutiae, and stay focused on your priorities. Focus on the activities that will give you the biggest benefit for time spent.”

—Lisa Woodruff, PMP, implementation project manager, comScore Incorporated, Seattle, Washington, USA

You must prioritize to ensure what gets done is “mission critical” rather than just a “nice-to-have.” Anything that does not contribute to the goals of the organization should get pushed aside.

Because I like to work, I previously found myself working 80-plus hours a week. But not all of that was productive; it was just taking up space. By taking control of my time, I now work less, get more done and have time to focus on other aspects of my life.

I do this by making project goals and objectives a collaborative effort. We give everyone a stake in the outcome. I provide input on a clear set of goals and objectives for every project. In turn, I translate that to my staff by getting their input on their goals and objectives.

I also carefully schedule, carving out chunks of time to focus on specific things related to a particular project. For example, if I'm working on a risk log or a project plan, my calendar shows me as unavailable. I don't answer my phone or email, except from my boss, during that time. It's not perfect, but it helps me more effectively manage projects.


Project managers—myself included—feel like they need to be plugged into every decision and conversation, which makes it harder to break away from teams, projects and discussions. Before, I constantly tried to be the central hub for the project, facilitating meetings, directing communications and taking notes at meetings. The team got into the habit of relying on me for all these tasks.

Eventually, I built enough trust with my team members that I found it easier to delegate. Make a list of all the weekly tasks you do on projects and pick the ones you really must do yourself. For example, I chose meeting with the sponsor and managing the risk log. Everything else can be delegated.

I have trained my team, sponsors, managers and customers not to expect an instant email reply. If they have something urgent to discuss, they should call my cellphone. I've also cultivated a habit of starting and ending the workday early, which allows me to spend time with my family in the evenings. PM


Join the discussion on the LinkedIn PMI Career Central Group.

How to Say “I'm Unavailable” Without Sounding Like a Slacker

Whether a project manager can maintain a work/ life balance depends on his or her capacity to stay in control. That sometimes means saying, “I'm unavailable.” Doing this without sounding like you're just dodging work requires some finesse, though.

Robert Jacquet, ITES Management Consultants, Brussels, Belgium, offers three steps for saying “no” without sounding like you're unwilling to do your fair share:

  1. Show your interest in the request by providing a quick response.
  2. Ask for more details to help suggest a good member of your team to be in charge of the request.
  3. Ask the person who requested the work to schedule time to discuss further.
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