The range of tasks in project management is one of its main draws. The unpredictable nature of project management is enticing to many aspiring project managers, as is the fact that every project has its own unique set of difficulties and opportunities.

However, there are instances when there isn’t much to do. Especially as a first-time PM, how do you respond to that?

That segment is usually called “the middle”

It typically occurs midway through ongoing projects. You’ve helped the team through the induction and planning stages, jobs have been delegated, and initial hiccups have been worked out. All hands are on deck now that the plan is in motion.

Then, as the deadline approaches, pressure builds as you try to meet it while also addressing any issues that have arisen and mitigating the effects of the dreaded “triggered risk” that always seems to materialize at the worst possible time.

But at this point in the process, everything seems to be running smoothly. You’re not exactly swamped with work, but there are some inquiries to respond, some dependencies to manage, and the usual demands from stakeholders for updates.

Well, what do you do? What do you do to keep yourself occupied and from feeling like you’re not truly working for your money even though it’s rather simple?

Observations on what is and is not appropriate

The very first step is to accept that this is the way things are meant to be. The preparation process was so thorough because the end goal was for the team to be able to carry out their strategy with minimal difficulty. When progress is being made without interference from problems or threats, it is because the correct strategy has been developed and is being implemented by the team.

Second, it’s important for first-time project managers to see the benefits of their labor: things should be becoming simpler now. It’s not anything you should feel bad about; rather, it’s the recognition you deserve for all your hard work.

While this pleasant period is not expected to endure forever, there are steps you can do today to better position yourself for the future.

Keep a watchful eye out for any potential red flags as you implement the plan. Things are taking longer than expected, dependencies haven’t been properly identified, etc. There are usually warning signs before a deadline is missed.

Be aware of how everyone else on the team is feeling. Are they content and at ease, or are tensions rising?   How focused and involved are people? If you take the time to “listen” to the team, you’ll be able to anticipate potential issues. Take the initiative whenever you can. With no pressing issues to deal with, you are free to plan ahead and eliminate impediments to success.

Some examples include having a conversation in advance with resource owners about how team members will be divided up, verifying the accuracy of assumptions that will have an effect on upcoming work, or making sure all external dependencies are being handled properly.

Not everything there is to do will keep you occupied for 24 hours, but that’s fine. You shouldn’t give in to the temptation of doing something else with your spare time. Do not begin any of the following: hindering productivity by diverting attention. Inquiries regarding progress, proposals for new methods, debates of what might or might not be included in other parts of the project, etc., are of no use. This will only serve to distract workers and cause unnecessary stress.

Initiate offering analysis or details beyond those required. If the extra effort is appreciated, you’ve set yourself up for more work when things pick up again, but if it’s not, you risk damaging your reputation.

Communicate your desire for additional hours. If you value your sanity, don’t do that. The luxury of time off is fleeting, and if you can persuade your manager that you can handle another project, you’ll soon find yourself overwhelmed with work and unable to deliver on either one.

Let’s dive deeper into the third option. I don’t mind if first-time project managers try to maximize their efficiency and effectiveness by being on the lookout for new ways to learn and improve. You can educate yourself about Project Management by reading articles on this site, watching an on-demand webinar, listening to podcasts, completing training modules, etc. Talk to your boss about how to make the most of the situation, but keep in mind that it won’t last forever and that you’ll need to exercise restraint in accepting more tasks.

Finally, the bottom line

Any project manager worth their salt will tell you that there will inevitably be projects that are nothing but a never-ending series of problems, obstacles, and setbacks.

To sum up, don’t waste time on a project that seems to be dragging in the middle but has great potential early on. Invest your time and effort where it will do the most good and get ready for the difficulties that will arise as the finish line approaches.