What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, to what is actually happening. It helps us become more aware of what we think and feel, and how we are—content, tense, relaxed, stressed, happy, angry, indifferent, restless, worried, or calm.
But what’s the big deal? Surely all of us know how we are. But do we really? I find I can be so busy and caught up in activities, thoughts, and emotions that I am not (fully) aware of how I am and what’s going on in my mind and around me. Here is a simple test: Close your eyes and gently observe your breath. Chances are that your concentration is quickly interrupted by a thought or feeling, such as, “I must not forget to look at the latest analytics data,” or “I wish the sales guys were less pushy”.
I find that if I am preoccupied with thoughts and ideas, likes and dislikes, then this colours my perception of reality. When I am happy and content, everything seems OK—even an nagging problem with my website isn’t that bad and can wait. But when I am discontent, tense, or tired, small things can seem big and bad. The website issue is now a major disaster that must be resolved immediately.
Mindfulness helps me respond in an appropriate, skilful way. It reduces the risk that I misjudge things and take the wrong actions. Practising mindfulness has been very beneficial for me personally and for my work.
Why is Mindfulness Beneficial for Product People?
Mindfulness provides a number of well-known benefits, such as, improved creativity, productivity, and wellbeing, and it has become popular at companies like Apple, Google, and Nike. I find that mindfulness is particularly helpful for product managers and product owners. There are two main reasons for this:
First, we have a demanding, multi-faceted job that requires us to carry out diverse tasks—from shaping the product strategy, providing input to the marketing collateral, analysing user data, to crafting user stories together with the development team. This broad range of duties combined with little or no power to tell others what to do, makes our work interesting and demanding. But it carries the risk of becoming restless and stressed, and in the worst case, fall ill or change jobs. Mindfulness helps us become aware of how we really are, so we can early adapt what we do and how we do it.
Secondly, a major success factor for every product person is to develop empathy for the users and customers. If we do not care about the people who should benefit from the product, if we are not genuinely interested in solving one of their problems or providing a real benefit to them, we will struggle to offer a product that does a great job and becomes successful. Luckily, mindfulness practice strengthens our capacity to empathise with others—and ourselves. It teaches us to be calm, open and non-judgemental, qualities that I have found extremely useful when interacting with users and customers as well as internal stakeholders, such as, senior managers and sales reps.
Tip #1: Don’t Rush
As product managers and owners, we are prone to overcommitting and taking on too much work. With so many responsibilities, it seems logical to work as hard and fast as possible. But rushing from one task to the next and from one meeting to another is likely to reduce your productivity. As the old saying goes: Haste makes waste. If I rush things, then I am likely to make mistakes. What’s more, I get tense, restless, and stressed. This reduces my attention span and it negatively impacts my sleep. In the worst case, I am trapped in a downward spiral, getting more and more irritable and finding it increasingly hard to keep up with the demands at work.
Do whatever you do purposefully and at a sustainable, healthy pace. Don’t cram too much into your day. If you feel that there is too much work, then prioritise ruthlessly and learn to say no. Focus on the most important tasks; delegate or postpone. The development team may be able to refine some of the user stories without you, for example. The sales team may not require a separate update on the new release, if you encourage them to attend the next sprint review meeting.
A simple trick that helps me stop rushing is to walk mindfully, as you would when you go for a nice walk. Here is one example of how this has helped me: For a long time, I used to walk as quickly as possible from the airplane to passport control at Heathrow airport on the way back home from work trips. I was surprised when I finally realised that this saved me a couple of minutes but left me feeling exhausted and stressed. I consequently started to pay attention to my walking and slow down my pace even if others walk past me. I now feel more content and relaxed when I leave the airport and when I arrive at home.
Tip #2: Do One Thing at a Time
It can be tempting to task switch as a product manager or owner—to jump from one task to the next. This creates the illusion of getting more work done. But in reality, it reduces our productivity. Every time we start a new task, be it answering an email, talking to a colleague, looking at new analytics data, we need time to remind ourselves what has to be done and how to do it. This quickly adds up, particularly when we task-switch frequently. What’s more, I find working on several things tiring. If I do it a lot throughout the day, I get restlessness and find it hard to relax after work.
Therefore, do one thing at a time, and don’t multi-task. Be present and fully engage in what you do—or don’t do it. A thing worth doing is worth doing well, as the old saying goes, even if it’s difficult and challenging.
To become better at fully engaging in what you do, try the following: Next time you have something to eat, just eat. Don’t distract yourself. Don’t look at the phone, computer, or television, but focus on eating. Eat slowly and mindfully. Notice what and how you eat, what the food tastes like, and how it satisfies your hunger. I find that it can be hard to withstand the temptation of looking at the news, Facebook, or Twitter while eating. But resisting this craving for stimulation and entertainment allows me to enjoy my food: it’s amazing how tasty a simple sandwich is when we eat mindfully.
Tip #3: Take Proper Breaks
It can be tempting to keep busy: There is usually plenty of work to do for us product people; being busy can make us feel useful and wanted; and getting things done can be exciting and rewarding. But if we are always “on”, if we work through our lunchtime and check work emails before we go to bed, for instance, then we won’t recover. We are stuck in a work bubble and in danger of running out of energy and creativity. I find it impossible to come up with new ideas and be creative when my head is full of all the other tasks I still need to do. Creativity needs space.
Make sure that you step back from work from time to time and take proper breaks. Use your lunchtime to get away from work and your desk. Go for a walk, do some exercise, chat with colleagues (but try not to talk about work). Don’t check your phone late at night unless there is an emergency. Take a proper holiday and don’t read work emails, don’t take work-related calls, and don’t read work books. Let go, unwind, recharge, and get a fresh perspective on things. Work may be important, but don’t allow it to take over our life and define who you are.
Here is a simple practice you can try: When I was working for Intel in the late 1990s, I noticed that some teams started work early but had a coffee break together mid-morning. This inspired me to do the same. I still have a proper coffee break half-way through my morning when I work from the office. I brew my own coffee and try not to think about work.
Tip #4: Keep an Open Mind
As knowledge workers, knowledge is a great asset for us and key to doing a good job. If we don’t have the right knowledge, we will struggle to be an effective product manager or product owner. But the more we know, the harder it is to keep an open, curious mind. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know best, particularly if we are experts in what we do. Having a closed mind and holding on to fixed views is a serious issue for us product people: it hampers our creativity and ability to innovate, and it prevents effective collaboration. We are in danger of ignoring valuable feedback and data if they don’t match our ideas. And we will struggle to run effective experiments and test new ideas, as we will be tempted to either reject any data that doesn’t support our view, or interpret the test results so that they confirm our opinion.
Here is a practice that I find helpful to cultivate an open mind: When talking to users or customers, make an effort not to judge anything you hear. Listen patiently and calmly. Take in whatever is said—no matter if you agree, disagree, or are indifferent. While this sounds easy, I find that listening with an open mind can be challenging: I sometimes catch myself evaluating and judging what has been said, or getting bored and impatient. I then have to remind myself to relax, suspend judgement, and pay attention to the conversation. As an added benefit, this practice helps to neatly separate gathering data from analysing it, which is desirable to maximise learning.
Tip #5: Be Positive
We’ve probably all been there: The sales guys are pushy, the customers are demanding, the development team doesn’t deliver, the boss is not supportive, and the latest release was a flop. Work seems to suck. As difficult as it may be at times, experiencing challenging situations and dealing with difficult people is part of our job: As product people we interact with people from different business units who can have divergent ideas and interests.
While it’s OK to feel a bit down at times and moan about work, dwelling on the negatives or holding grudges against individuals—the mean boss, the selfish sales rep, the horrible programmer—is neither healthy nor helpful. I am not suggesting that you should ignore the difficulties that present themselves. But I recommend that no matter how challenging things are, you should look for the positives, the healthy traits in people (without ignoring unhealthy habits and wrong behaviour). Developing a positive attitude will increase your wellbeing and make you an even more likeable person.
A great way to foster a positive attitude is to cultivate gratefulness. Be grateful even for the little things, a colleague wishing you a good morning, a smile from a co-worker, the help you get from a dev team member to refine some user stories, the smell of a nice cup of tea, the sunshine on your face. There is so much goodness in this world. We just have to tap into it.
Tip #6: Meditate
Before I came in touch with Buddhism over 10 years ago and started to mediate, I thought meditation meant spacing out, not thinking of anything, and feeling nice, comfortable, and relaxed. While meditation can be pleasant and enjoyable, it’s certainly not about escaping from reality. The opposite is true: Meditation is a vehicle to experience things for what they are, to become more aware of our thoughts, emotions, and mental states. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice meditation: Today, many people use meditation outside of its traditional religious setting, and some companies have started to offer meditation rooms like Salesfore, for example. The company recently created meditation spaces in their new San Francisco office, according to Business Insider.
Meditation nicely supports mindfulness practice. A common meditation technique is to patiently and gently observe the breath. This increases awareness, teaches patience, and highlights thoughts and feelings that come up and take us away from the breath. I certainly find meditation very helpful, and recommend that you try it, or if you are a practitioner, keep it up.
Don’t strive for a pleasant meditation experience. Accept whatever you experience, even if it’s unpleasant mental states like restlessness, tension, or aversion. Only if we aware of what’s happening, what we think and feel, can we do something about it. What’s more, I find that my mind tends to settle and become calmer and more peaceful after a few minutes; negative thoughts and emotions tend to weaken and often disappear when I acknowledge but don’t engage in them.
Make sure that you sit comfortably but upright when meditating. Sitting on the ground on a cushion works best for me. While it may be tempting to lie down, avoid this position: it is all too easy to fall asleep once you’ve started to relax, particularly when you meditate in the evening like I usually do.
To maximise its benefits, meditation should be done regularly. Like any exercise, regular short meditation sessions tend to be better than an occasional, long one. To sustain your meditation practice, make it part of your daily routine. Meditate in the morning, lunchtime and/or evening, depending on what is best for you. Start with 10 minutes and see how that works for you.
You can learn more about mindfulness and how it helps you become a more effective and happier product manager or product owner by attending my Product Leadership Skills workshop.
Thanks to Kathy G. Berkidge for inspiring me to write this post. Thank you to all my teachers for showing the way.