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Why I’ve Lost My Way As A Project Manager

Why I've lost my way as a project manager

This blog post was originally a newsletter article. I scheduled it to send out last week (I do automate sending emails, otherwise you’d get 3 at a time at 11pm one day and then nothing for months) and forgot about it.

Then the responses started coming in… and didn’t stop.

In the last week I’ve had over 40 emails in response – many of them as long as this article; each of them sharing their own struggles, perspective and tips for coping with the challenges I talked about.

Ironically it has been a week where I’ve struggled to get more than 3 hours sleep at a time because there are two little people in the house who don’t sleep either. I really needed those emails this week and I stayed up way later than I should have done on Thursday night reading them all.

I’m grateful for all your messages and I know I haven’t had a chance to reply to everyone in person yet. As it seemed to touch a very personal chord with so many people I thought I’d share it here too.

It feels like there’s a difference between emailing “my gang” and putting my thoughts on the internet, so I’ll take a big breath and let’s go:

Since maternity leave I’ve been in a more operational job. For a while I had staff management responsibilities (although I’ve lost those very recently). It’s strategic. It involves offering advice, acting in an internal consultancy role some of the time. It sounds great, doesn’t it?

It has meant juggling lots of different projects, each with different stakeholders. Managing multiple smaller projects is not what I was used to before the boys were born. On top of work I’ve got the stresses and mummy guilt of being a working parent too.

Taking stock of the year it has not been great. Some of my projects are running late. The one that did complete had a messy go live and plenty of bugs. There have been some successes and high points. But not enough.

I’m not really a ‘pure’ PM any longer and I’m not doing PM properly on the things I should be PM’ing. I’ve lost my way a bit.

What I’m Doing About It

A colleague of mine is known for her strong approach to delivery and successful projects.

I called her and we had tea recently. She took me through the things that make her teams successful:

  • Active executive sponsorship and a clear business case
  • A kick off meeting
  • Weekly team meetings and a monthly face-to-face team meeting
  • Agendas and minutes and holding the team accountable for their actions
  • The expectation of success and a mindset where failure is not an option.

I was waiting for something radical: the nugget of gold that I could put into play with my project team. It didn’t come.

As I drained the last of my tea I realised that it wouldn’t come. She’s leading successful projects using project management best practice, not magic. There’s nothing there I couldn’t do, or haven’t done in the past.

All I need to do is buck up my ideas (and get a bit more sleep).

What’s Going To Change

That’s a misleading heading, as I don’t know. I can change my attitude, I hope. But it is hard to ditch the working parent guilt. I won’t get more sleep or more hours in the day. Instead I need to find ways to prioritise to do more of the stuff that works – the stuff from my colleague’s list.

The other thing that helps are the two mantras that got me through the early months of becoming a mother: “This too will pass,” and “Suck it up”.

I know I’m a good project manager (and a good parent). But it doesn’t feel like it much of the time right now. Ironically, I’ve mentored people in a similar situation to this, and it’s a lot easier to give out advice than to take it myself!

I’d be telling myself: The boys are small. Work is getting done. Stakeholders are happy. Be kind to yourself. Head down, crack on.

Project manager work life balance struggles

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


  1. Gail Doss says

    15 September, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Elizabeth, this is a very brave article. I think we all know the feeling but few of us are as honest as you have been. How about a follow-up to let us know how and what you are doing now?

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      17 September, 2016 at 10:29 pm

      Hi Gail, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ve written out to my newsletter subscribers to give them a bit of an update, but the short answer is: I’m fine. I always was really, just overwhelmed and lost, but that’s not the worst thing that could be happening. I’ve been also overwhelmed by the response – so many people have taken time out of their day to email or get in touch and say that it’s the same for them, or that they have different, but equally difficult challenges at work and home. I might write something for the blog about it soon – I could write a lot on this subject!

  2. Dave Gordon says

    7 August, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    You are running into the law of diminishing returns – each additional thing that you do adds less value to your life. So it’s time to prune your schedule tree, based on what adds value to your life.

    Success is about what you do, and survival is often about what you do not do. The ability to say “no” to opportunities is something you develop from getting more opportunities than you can take on. And that comes from success. You have been very successful for a long time, so you get more opportunities than most people. If you feel that your current and future success (as a PM and a Mum) is threatened, consider saying “no” to the next batch of opportunities that pop up – all of them, even the one that could be incredibly exciting. Say “no” to survive, and even thrive.

    Peace be with you.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      9 August, 2016 at 7:07 pm

      Thanks, Dave. I know you’ve been there and done that, so I appreciate your advice. I do need to do a bit less, and I do have difficulty saying no to all the cool stuff.


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