What stops project managers putting on their own oxygen masks first?

What stops project managers putting on their own oxygen masks first?

Learning how to take care of yourself


Taking care of yourself is vital to surviving and for the success of the marathon-styled projects that we typically lead. It’s what allows and enables us to Thrive*. But why is this something that is often more difficult for us to achieve than it should be?  If we were on an aeroplane, we wouldn’t think twice about fixing our own oxygen mask first so that we can then help others.

As project leaders, it is our job to create a safe space so that the members of our project Tribe* can excel.  If we are going to deliver a project against a challenging Target* (and when don’t projects have challenging Targets?) then we need every member of the Tribe to be healthy, happy and firing on all cylinders.

But what about us?  As project people we are constantly juggling lots of balls.  We have to make decisions about which ones we need to focus on and which ones we can let fall until later.

The ball we are in most danger of choosing to drop is ourselves!  We start every project with good intentions – baking exercise into our routine, eating well and not routinely working long hours.  For a while we hold the line, but at some point, we always drop the ball – focus on the deliverables, the issues, and the Tribe, and put ourselves last.

The consequence is that we can end projects exhausted and with a bitter taste in our mouths, because yet again. we’ve put the project’s needs above our own.

On top of this, we can also be susceptible to being ‘Toxic Handlers[1]*’ where we absorb and hold all the negative emotions from the Tribe.  This frees other people to focus on the job in hand, but can be quite emotionally draining for those of us that can’t help but assume this role.


Making time

Over the years, we have learnt that if you can’t go the distance on a project then you are no use to anyone.  You have to put in place firm foundations, boundaries and support mechanisms otherwise you simply will not be able to sustain the safe space you have created for your Tribe.

Taking care of yourself on a project requires an investment of your time and energy and, against a busy to-do list; it may never get to the top.  One way of ensuring that this is not an issue is to create some good daily habits.

As project managers, there is always something or someone who needs our attention.  But if we are in an important meeting, for example a project board, we are able to boundary that time and make sure we are not available to anyone or for anything else, except for emergencies.  So, if we can do that, then it should be possible to block out a little time in our daily diary to take care of ourselves – even if it is just some time to clear e-mails so that our head feels clear, time out for a nice cup of coffee with no disruptions, or leaving on time at least one evening a week.

New habits

Creating a habit makes it much easier to take care of yourself because there is no decision required.  It is also surprising how quickly your Tribe become supportive of your habits if you are clear about them.

For example, Marion makes sure that everyone who works with her knows that she plays in two orchestras and that rehearsals are on Monday and Thursday evenings.  Two things happen as a result of this knowledge about her Thrive habit:

  1. Don’t raise non-urgent issues with her late in the day on either a Monday or a Thursday, nor do we schedule late evening meetings with her on those two days
  2. If she is still in the office at 6.30pm somebody will start chasing her out.


Values and boundary setting

When we teach you how to Thrive and take care of yourself on the ExtraordinaryPM Mastery Programme, we cover a range of things including how to protect yourself by syndicating key decisions, and how to stay mentally healthy by managing your stress levels.  We find that the main thing most likely to cause stress is not the impossible deadlines or difficult stakeholders – these are the bread and butter of a project manager’s work – but having your boundaries crashed or your values trampled on.

We also know that on most projects some of your boundaries WILL undoubtedly get crashed and your values WILL get trampled, but the impact is much smaller if you are aware that this is happening and you are intentional in your response.

Knowing your values (a set of beliefs and principles that define your behaviours and determine your priorities) and being clear about your boundaries (guidelines, rules or limits that you set in terms of the way others behaviours), allows you to recognise that when you are feeling uncomfortable on a project it may well be because a boundary or value is being compromised.  You cannot always avoid the action that offends you, but being aware that this is what is happening, allows you to make a conscious decision about whether to allow it or address it which is much more empowering than simply being frustrated.

For us the visual image of putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before you help others is a powerful metaphor for building a firm foundation to make sure you can go the distance on a project.

Prioritising yourself, being clear about your boundaries and grounded in your values enables you to truly create that safe space where you can lead your Tribe to excel and be Extraordinary.


Don’t just take our word for it ….

“You’ve got to stay strong to be strong in tough times”
Tilman J Fertitta

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet”
Mahatma Ghandi

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious.
You get to choose how you use it.  You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept”
Anna Taylor


*Thrive sits at the core of the ExtraordinaryPM’s 5T’s Framework that is all about taking care of yourself.  Its a phrase often used when considering the work-life balance, but there is so much more to it than this. Being mindful of how to show up as a leader, choosing how you respond to situations, ensuring you have a support network and protecting yourself professionally through ensuring your project has good governance and decision-making processes are just some of the areas we explore on the ExtraordinaryPM Mastery Programme.

*Tribe is another of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework. Your Tribe is much wider than your team. It is those people you need to build connections with around a shared goal, the Target (another of the 5T’s), in order to get the best from the people around you – whether they’re taking action, controlling risks or delivering a physical product.  As part of the ExtraordinaryPM journey, we show you how to lead and influence, inspiring your colleagues, peers and stakeholders to step up and become more effective and engaged. Because building better collaboration is the best way to create real change and measurable impact.

*Target is the first module of the 5T’s Framework that you learn about.  Target focuses on the how, the why and the what of a project and its scope.  On our ExtraordinaryPM Mastery Programme, we explore the mobilising power of the Target (‘Big Why’) for your project. With a clear Target in-sight you can align and lead your Tribe more effectively. Your Target is your ‘North Star’ for decision-making and prioritisation and will guide you across the Terrain of your project.

To start your own journey to extraordinary, please contact info@extraordinarypm.com


[1] The term “Toxic Handler” first came to our attention in a Harvard Business Review article.  There is a great deal of information available on the subject if you just Google Toxic Handler, for example: https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/emotions-in-the-workplace-and-the-important-role-of-toxin-handlers/

<< Back