When Projects Attack: Coping With Too Much To Do

Some weeks, it seems as if a great deal of significant work is due all at once, and there are not quite enough hours available to meet expectations. That’s been my story of late, as my desk is positioned at the confluence of several networking projects I am the technical lead for. For people in networking, an abundance of projects competing for a finite amount of time is not a new problem. Because the network is often a prerequisite for larger IT projects to proceed, pressure can be exerted upon the networking team by the business to get the digital roads paved so as not to hold up overall business goals.

I’ve learned to cope with “too much to do, not enough time to do it” in several ways over the years.

  1. Relax. You are one person. If you take your job seriously, you might feel as if the world is resting on your shoulders when you’re leading a major project. But you know what? You can only do so much. If you’re genuinely putting forth your best effort and progress is not moving apace, remain calm. Don’t stress overly much. Talk to the powers that be and explain what’s going on. Managers (your boss, or perhaps a project manager if you have one) need to know the situation so that they can make adjustments as needed; it’s one of the things they’re there for. Winding yourself up isn’t going to help anything, and will also drain you of energy and ability to focus.
  2. Delegate. This is a hard one for me. Even when I’ve been in a formal management role where I could assign tasks to people, delegation was a struggle. Competent technical people are always concerned that whoever they delegate a task to, they won’t do it (a) as well as them, (b) as quickly as them, or (c) at all. For me, I’ve found that, to a point, I just need to let go, trust, and allow other folks to tackle a task that frees me up to work on something else. You might say, “But I have no minions!” Well, then I feel your pain. I am also minion-less at the moment. But if you can delegate, don’t make the mistake of keeping too much project work to yourself. You’ll become a bottleneck.
  3. Focus. When I have a goal I must achieve to reach a project milestone, I live by my whiteboard. I write a list of things I must to do to accomplish the goal, and then work through the list. That helps me to stay focused. Part of the problem with focus is that an IT worker is constantly distracted. In any given hour, I can be distracted by a co-worker needing advice or assistance, an inbound telephone call, an IM, an e-mail, a help desk ticket I must address, a meeting, or Cheetos. Especially Cheetos. I admit to an unhealthy obsession with the crunchy, orange snack, which I’m fairly sure ranks near Twinkies as foodstuffs likely to survive a nuclear holocaust. See? I just distracted myself, in my own blog post. Sad, really. But it speaks to the larger point that focus is required in a project to reach milestones. Therefore, it’s wise to remove distractions from time to time. Set your IM to “invisible” or “do not disturb” (or just log out). Your phone has voicemail; let people learn what it’s like to leave you a message. Your e-mail alerting can be turned off; you don’t really need to see an Outlook envelope in your Windows system tray every time Network Solutions tries to convince you they still matter. (NetSol. Seriously. Stop sending me mail. I’ve unsubscribed and opted out many times now.)
  4. Push. If you’re a hotshot network engineer, there are times when you’ll need to push harder than normal. Network engineering is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s a “however many hours it takes” job on certain days. For example, I reached a project milestone yesterday by working in the office all day, commuting home, taking a break for dinner, then firing the laptop back up to work for several more hours. Why? I needed to get to a specific point with some equipment I was configuring, and I was on a roll. I didn’t want to stop. Now, you might think this flies in the face of my “relax” point, but it doesn’t really. I wasn’t working however many hours that turned out to be because I felt like there was a gun to my head. I wasn’t trying to carry the entire company on my shoulders. I was just pushing to keep the project moving. I wanted to do that, and felt it was an appropriate step to take in my particular circumstances. If you have the “9-to-5″ attitude, you’re probably hurting your career potential in network engineering. You need to put in extra effort at times and not feel put upon because you do.
  5. Cope. Projects, especially large projects with long time horizons, notoriously change in scope and due dates. Fine. Be flexible. Roll with the changes. Reprioritize as needed. Make adjustments. If a change puts some other project you’re also working on in jeopardy, get the right managers involved. Don’t freak out, get short with people, fire off angry e-mails, storm out of the conference room, kick the dog, etc. Expect that changes will come in the project, and be therefore mentally prepared when they arrive.
  6. Balance. There is a point where you can’t handle more project work than you are already handling. Companies will drown those people who have proven their competency and don’t push back. They assume you have superpowers and can accomplish anything and everything they throw at you. Obviously, you can’t do it all, and so you have to be talking with your managers before you start to slip underwater. Find the balance. If the company doesn’t care enough, they’ll just shrug their shoulders and tell you to do your best. And so do that…your best. And then think about leaving that company. You have a life outside of work. That’s why they pay you, remember? So if your company is working you to mental exhaustion even after you’ve raised the issue in a professional manner, it’s perhaps time to move on.

Network engineering is a challenging and sometimes stressful career, but attitude is everything. If you have the right perspective about your job, that can go a long way towards making your workload manageable, tolerable, and even rewarding. Walk the fine line to make the most of it without letting it kill you.


Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, has been managing networks for higher ed, government, financials and high tech since 1995. Ethan co-hosts the Packet Pushers Podcast, which has seen over 2M downloads and reaches over 10K listeners. With whatever time is left, Ethan writes for fun & profit, studies for certifications, and enjoys science fiction. @ecbanks
Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks
  • ktokash

    Well put. I’ve been in plenty of stressful, “unfair” situations and as counter-intuitive as it sounds it helps to remember that if they don’t like your work you can bail and let them find someone better (neener neener neener). This sounds immature, and if you express it to co-workers it is (the wife exception holds true for this one). But I’ve found that this mental observation makes me a better employee.

    What it does is relieve the pressure inside your mind, allowing you to start saying no to new projects and being honest with management about slipping deadlines or unexpected roadblocks, instead of hiding them out of fear or working 70 hour weeks all the time. Those are par for the course now and then, but if you’re working more than 55-60 hours every week on salary it better be a really big salary because you’re going to have medical bills after about a year of the stress.

  • riw777

    And do one thing at a time. I think one of the problems I always get into when trying to cope with a heavy workload is –”do it all in little slots all over the place.” The reality is it just doesn’t work. Do one thing, then the next, then the next, then the next, ad infinitum, ’til you’re either done, or out of time.

    We used to have a saying in TAC: “Processor thrashing on process scheduler.”

  • taranis

    Don’t forget to take breaks as well when you’re under the cosh. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if I’ve been struggling with what seems like an intractable problem for hours, often a 15 minute break to get out the office and get some coffee gives your brain a chance to solve the problem in the background.

    Doesn’t help much at 3am – places for coffee at that time in the morning are limited in Scotland – but the general principle is sound.