Resilience is an important subject for me because I suffered through a couple burnouts in my early 20s. I adapted and chose to build systems that would avoid constant anxiety, which is incredibly common in a role with so much uncertainty and people to manage on a daily basis.
Resilience is not letting clients or events dictate our emotions and out time, it's the ability to accept change gracefully rather than struggle against it. It's partially about perspective and detachment, but there are tools and systems that can help us achieve a degree of resilience regardless of our attitude.
I've focused on the two stressors that affect us the most:
- Mental strain from multitasking, context switching and notification overload
- Emotional strain as a consequence to difficult clients
1. Time Management
Project contracting, client meetings, scheduling and staffing issues, team standups, technical challenges, design conflicts, ticketing boards, overflowing inboxes, constant Slack messages and most importantly - unsolved problems. The average producer day can be a bit of a riot.
Multitasking and context switching are a terrible strain that inevitably produce mediocre decisions and results, mediocre work days. After being subjected to a couple weeks of chaos we enter survival mode and limit our expectations to “getting through the day".
The producer being a central pillar for the team, the project and the client his or her emotional instability affects everyone. A stressed and overwhelmed producer cannot make the best decisions and will not be in a position to foster positive energy in the team - pretty soon any sense of control starts to shatter.
I don't have a perfect handbook as every producer, project and team is different. But I do have a few tips for systems that have proven effective for me, which we’ll look at in the chapter on Time Management.
Start with Difficult Tasks
Start your day with the most difficult tasks, blocking out time in your calendar for undistracted focus hours. In the morning your energy and focus levels are at their highest. If you can knock out one or two big tasks, it creates momentum that carries you through the day, ensuring those tasks get done well. People will try to book calls with you during focus time; it's just a matter of prioritization.
Plan Less Demanding Tasks Later
Plan less demanding tasks and calls for later in the morning or after lunch. We're no longer as productive and focused then anyway: calls are reactive, might as well schedule them when our bodies are in a reactive state.
Plan Your Week in Advance
Plan your week before it starts. On Monday morning take a few minutes set the priority tasks for each morning while leaving some buffer hours for unexpected crises. Once those tasks have been appointed a time, they stop being a constant source of pressure in an endless backlog - one thing less to worry about. This invaluably gives us a sense of control over our day and in my experience significantly reduces anxiety.
Control Digital Distractions
Don't let Slack and email dictate your day. Set hours during the day where communication is the priority instead of defaulting to having them open all the time - the constant distraction is nauseating. I also recommend using email clients that amplify productivity and get you to inbox zero, I personally use Superhuman.
The Downside of Meetings
A one-hour meeting with five people is a five-hour meeting. Meetings only benefit those that are present. They occupy our thoughts before and after, causing significant disruption. Real-time communication can force us into a reactive state where we voice thoughts prematurely. Meetings require schedule synchronization, often dictating our day's structure. As project managers, we have a responsibility to schedule meetings wisely.
Rethinking the Purpose of Meetings
The recent 'Zoom fatigue' phenomenon has led to a negative perception of meetings. It's worth noting, though, that the primary purpose of a meeting is to meet, not necessarily to get things done. In creative production, communication between people is what propels the project forward. The process is communication. When we obsess over meeting outcomes, we lose sight of the intrinsic value of meetings: communication. By placing more value on the quality of the conversation and assembling the right mix of skills, experience, and knowledge, the outcomes will naturally follow.
In the hustle and bustle of digital production, there's always something that needs to be done. There's always a client to talk to, a problem to solve, or a detail to refine. It can feel overwhelming, and it can be tempting to try to tackle everything all at once. But here's a reality we need to embrace: There will always be work, and most of the time, it can wait until tomorrow.
Recognizing the Continuous Flow
The work in our field is never-ending. Once one project is completed, another takes its place. Once one task is done, several more appear. Recognizing that work is a continuous flow rather than a finite to-do list helps to create a sustainable work rhythm.
Not everything is urgent. Not everything must be completed right now. By understanding what truly needs our attention and what can wait, we allow ourselves to focus on what's most important without being consumed by everything that's urgent.
Creating Work-Life Balance
Embracing that work can wait until tomorrow means giving ourselves permission to step away, to rest, and to recharge. It's not only about making our work more sustainable but also about making our lives more enjoyable and fulfilling.
Adopting a Mindset of Tomorrow
The belief that everything must be done now can lead to burnout and diminish the quality of our work. Adopting a mindset that acknowledges that work can wait until tomorrow cultivates patience, strategic thinking, and an appreciation for the long game rather than just the immediate moment.
The point here is to regain control of our attention to focus on one thing at a time, as much as possible. These systems will probably delay some calls, colleagues and clients may need to wait longer to get an answer from you, but that's a tradeoff I'm willing to make to avoid crappy work and poorly considered decisions.
Another less noticeable consequence is the feeling of pride. Pride in the quality of the work that we're producing and in the solutions we're proposing. Escaping anxiety gives us the time and mental space to be strategic, to be proactive and to be excellent. Rekindling a sense of fulfilment with our work.
Overcoming Anxiety from Difficult Clients
Dealing with difficult clients for months on end can be emotionally draining. Today I’m fortunate enough to choose my own clients but that isn't the case for everyone, so there are three things I'd recommend doing.
Be careful how closely your identity and confidence is tied to your performance at work, it's a fickle source of self-worth and we become too attached to how our clients or colleagues see us. It's crucial to maintain distance and perspective and not let performance or client satisfaction dictate our sense of self. Particularly in a role with few constants, where projects and clients can shift very suddenly.
Keeping that in mind, the question I would ask myself was “Why do I allow other people to dictate my emotions, particularly when it is a client that I don't particularly respect? Why give them that control over me?”
You can't control how others behave, but you can control how you react. This shift from "how can I stop" to "why do I let this affect me" places the responsibility back onto us, which is something we can control. By doing so, you're not just overcoming anxiety—you're also building emotional resilience. It becomes a habit.
The second tip is to confront the client and have an open conversation about the situation. Walk in boldly with the objective of finding a fair compromise. Once frustrations have been aired out and mutual ground has been found I've found it can at the very least make a situation manageable, more often than not it can even salvage the relationship. The passive or overtly aggressive email back and forth is draining for both parties, you can quickly respond by saying something along the lines of “I'm sensing some frustration, happy hear your perspective and explain our rationale."
The third tip is to avoid letting clients dictate feedback in whichever manner they choose, leverage the process and contractual agreement as a mechanism to shift dynamics in your favour, ask them to consolidate feedback. As soon communication gets chaotic, it builds immense anxiety and tells the client that you aren't in control of the project - which reinforces their fears or frustrations. Establishing firm methods is also beneficial to the client, who can trust and understand a process. It also gives you more control over your time and your response to difficult clients. We’ll talk more about this later in the course.
There are a lot of great books about emotional resilience which I’ll add in the notes. I hope you find these tips helpful, feel free to contact me about this if you're having difficulties.
It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work
It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work [Fried, Jason, Hansson, David Heinemeier] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work
Take a few hours to consider your mental fortitude and devise a personal productivity plan if necessary. Considering the techniques listed above, how could you apply them to manage your time effectively in a project scenario? How closely is your identity tied to work? Which clients are you giving too much power over your emotional wellbeing?