Dealing with ambiguity and work-related stress

I recently wrote what would become one of my most read articles to date, it was my answer on Quora to the question How stressful is it to be a product manager at a tech company?

This is not unique to product management. Increasingly, our responsibilities as workers in the information age have become more ambiguous. We self-direct more of our work and priorities. We work through influence more often. In short, we are expected to deliver results with little, or conflicting, guidance.

As I reflect back, most of what has helped me personally has been difficult and trying situations leading me to a realization and shift in perspective. I have come to identify the physical feelings in my body associated with stress and anxiety. When I feel these, I take the time to dig deep to concretely identify the source of anxiety. Once I can clearly identify the source of stress, it feels more tangible and manageable. At that point, I can then take specific steps to question the validity of my emotional response to the situation and manage it.

Side note: The American Psychological Association recognizes 7 common sources of stress at work. Here I focus on (1) excessive workloads, (2) not having enough control over job-related decisions, and (3) conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations.

Here are a few things I have learned to do over time in order to manage stress.

There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.
― Alan Cohen

Optimize for long-term impact, not short-term recognition. This is more of a principle. Non-sustainable Herculean efforts, such as working throughout the night or weekend, are not something to be proud of or brag about. Such efforts inhibit me from contributing at my best. In a job where careful reflection and decision making is paramount, not being at my peak while at work is not only detrimental to my health but also to the success of my team. As such, I take care of my health. Taking the time to get 8 hours of sleep, to exercise, and prioritizing time to learn and unplug from work has been crucial. I do this not instead of, but rather so that I can do my best work.

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.
― Stephen R. Covey

When in doubt, prioritize. The most common sense of stress is a clear lack of priorities. Inability to prioritize, particularly by leaders of an organization, forces resources to be too thinly spread and ends up causing initiatives to fail. This causes undue stress. As such it is important to prioritize appropriately, and it is everyone’s responsibility to do so, regardless of your level.

Be clear on what is most important. Write out a clear list of outcomes you want to accomplish and stack rank them. Go down the list and commit only to those items that are most important and you can concurrently do a kickass job at, drop the rest. When you realize that there’s no clear priority due to conflicts between teams or conflicting communications from leadership, use this as an opportunity to force clarity by bringing together the folks that are misaligned and forcing clarity among them.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

Differentiate between important and urgent. I learned from Stephen Covey to be vigilant and diligently prioritize what’s important. There are a large number of seemingly urgent activities that don’t move forward our cause, don’t help us truly accomplish the goals that are most important to us. Know how to identify such activities, and eliminate or reduce them so that you can focus on what truly matters. Disabling notifications was a scary, yet powerful, step I took to bring more focus to my work and unleash more of my potential.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
― Lao Tzu

Always question your sense of urgency. We may be trying to meet a deadline. Or simply feeling like we’ve dragged on too long on a given project and need to ‘ship it’ or ‘get it done’. Stop and reflect, what is driving this urgency? What would happen if you got sick and were unable to work on this for a while?

Most of the time, we realize that our fear has been blown out of proportion. There are other options beyond “I must finish this right now or a catastrophe will ensue.” By stopping to reflect on the driver behind your urgency you may realize that there is a 3rd option in which you communicate a new timeline to get the work done properly, everyone adjusts, and you march forth more relaxed.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.
― Stephen R. Covey

Communicate diligently. I’m often scared shitless about letting others down. Disappointing others was, to me, such a strong fear that I was often paralyzed when choosing between what was important vs what others needed from me. To avoid this, when I have to (re)prioritize, I quickly let impacted folks know of the change in my priorities. I also share my prioritization rationale and remain open to their feedback in case I missed any important factors.

It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.
― Steve Maraboli

Prioritize specific outcomes, not fuzzy problems. A manager recently asked me to get crisper when talking about what I was working on. I had a list of projects that all felt very important. Instead, per their recommendation, I concretely defined the outcome that I would be able to accomplish for each of the projects. An outcome that was so tangible I could feel what it would be like to achieve it. Once I’ve defined these outcomes, I could much more easily see what would be the most impactful outcomes and what could be reprioritized.

The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.
– Thích Nhất Hạnh

When in doubt, go zen. Meditation has been instrumental for me. It helps me go from “this is stressful and I hate it” to something more akin to “here’s a situation that’s activating my stress response, let me anchor my attention on my breath and work through it.”

If mindfulness seems complicated or out of reach, consider reading Everyday Zen: Love and Work*. Simple, yet powerful, explanation of zen and meditation.

 

A few concluding notes

  • I realize that the tips above are not for everyone, but I hope that you find them helpful.
  • These tips work best once you’ve built some rapport with your team and established yourself as a strong contributor. If you’re just getting started on a new role, or haven’t been able to perform at the level you’d want, enlist the help of your manager or a mentor.
  • I find it hilarious that until I wrote this blog post I always thought that the phrase “nip in the bud” was actually “nip in the butt”. Lots of butt pinching images have been going through my head in perfectly serious conversations.

I just had to include this final quote somewhere:

“No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”
– Warren Buffett

* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee at no cost to you.

To do your best work, stop fragmenting your attention.

Last year, I was introduced to Slack, the new way to communicate among teams. If you’ve never heard of Slack, in essence, it’s chat rooms that anyone in your company can join. But instead of calling them chat rooms, Slack calls them channels.

I hated it. And not because I disliked the app, it’s actually quite nice. It has a great user interface and makes you want to use it. You can also respond with a like, emoji or GIF when words can’t explain your feelings. Millennials and non-millennials alike seem to be enjoying this quite a bit.

I disliked the introduction of Slack because it represented yet another distraction. Another tool that would give me a slight communication benefit at the expense of focus. I didn’t only dislike Slack. I disliked Slack and every unnecessary meeting, email, instant message or “quick question” interruption at my desk.

To understand why this is such a big problem, at least for me, let’s spend 100 hours in meditation together.

It started with a meditation insight

Lucky for you, I’ve already done this part. So, we can skip the meditating part for this conversation.

Two years into my consulting job, I took 2 weeks off from work to meditate. I joined a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. This is the real deal, 10 days in silent meditation. No reading, writing or talking. No electronic devices permitted. The only exception? An alarm clock, so that I could wake up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for the first meditation session at 4:30 a.m. During this 2-week vacation, I spent 10 hours each day meditating.

If there is one thing that I took from that time, it was that most of the stress in my life comes from a fragmented mind. Fixing this is something that is within my power. I control my mind, I control what goes into it and what I chose to focus it on.

I went back to work the Monday after the meditation retreat ended. Although nothing drastic changed, I started to notice little things. I noticed, for example, how the “new email” notification on my phone and my laptop affected me. That little notification indicated that I had a new email to read. It asked me to decide between checking the new email now or keep working. Without any information about the email, I had no way to know how important it was. This created a source of conflict and anxiety in me.

It took me 10 days of silent meditation to be able to observe how this small situation caused anxiety. It may seem a minor issue, but this would happen dozens of times throughout the day. The cumulative effect is quite damaging.

You may not have spent 10 days as a hermit meditating, but whether you realize it or not, notifications like these are driving you crazy.

Disable your notifications

The tools are not bad in and of themselves. In fact, thank goodness for email. The problem is really about people and expectations. (Slack, it’s not  you, it’s me.)

Let’s go back to my post-meditation retreat realization.

I knew that email notifications were (1) distracting me from the task at hand, and (2) causing me anxiety. I pondered this for a while. As a proud quick-responder, I used to respond to emails within minutes from having received it. I considered it a core part of being a responsive and caring team member. As a consultant, clients were paying hundreds of dollars per hour of my time. Responding immediately to their requests seemed crucial.

After enough deliberation, I concluded that my 5-minute email response expectation wasn’t helping anyone. If it only took me 5 minutes to think up and type an answer, it definitely was not an enlightening thought. I should carve out longer time to answer the difficult questions that really stretched my thinking.

I turned off my email notifications. This dreaded notification popup was no longer there.

outlook-new-email-notification

I wish that I could tell you disabling email notifications fixed my problems right away. It didn’t. In fact, it was worse for a while. I was nervous that a new important email would have come in. But over time, this changed, and I found myself focusing for longer stretches of time.

As a side benefit, I started spending less time in my inbox overall, since I could batch my responses. Another benefit, group email chains would be more complete by the time I got to them. Often questions asked would have been answered by a colleague, no longer requiring my response. Double win.

I haven’t turned back on email notifications on my work computer nor on my phone ever since. The last 5 years have been much happier thanks to that.

Batch all communications

I’ve continued to use Slack at work. However, similar to email and IM, disabling all notifications is key to allow time for focus. By batching all my Slack reading time into 2-3 reading blocks during the day, along with emails and IMs, the rest of the day can be freed up to think through the more intricate problems.

Handle the urgent and important

What about urgent and important issues, you may wonder? The truly urgent and important items should be a rarity. If many things are urgent, then nothing truly is.

Given that urgent issues are rare, they merit being handled using a different process. Urgent communications should not go to the same Inbox as everything else. For urgent issues, people should have a different mechanism to reach the right person. For time-sensitive, critical customer issues, our customers have a 24/7 support line that will get the right engineer on the issue within minutes. As such, truly urgent issues don’t rely on a single point of failure, me, remaining slave to my phone or computer. It is crucial to find such a reliable mechanism for any important type of urgent issue.

Give your best to each situation 

Reducing notifications and other distractions to a minimum is crucial in order to be present and do good, mentally challenging, work. A fragmented mind will lose to a focused mind in just about everything. If you’re a knowledge worker, your work requires you to be truly present and contribute your best thinking.

Disabling notifications and blocking out discrete, time-bound chunks of time on your calendar for all communications helps you regain your sanity. It allows you to regain long, uninterrupted blocks of time to do deeper thinking and planning. It allows you to bring your better self to all settings. When in a meeting, you don’t need to peek at your Inbox or Slack. You are physically at the meeting because you thought that it was an important meeting to attend, so make sure that your mind is also present. When talking to a colleague, that’s all that you should be doing. When reading and responding to your email or Slack messages, do just that, and give others the very best thinking that your mind can muster in your email responses. No half-assed responses.

Being ‘too busy’ is not productive. Prioritize and focus on what matters.

Productivity has been a topic of huge interest to me over the past few years. In fact, when having a discussion with a friend, I told her that my goal is to help people be more productive. Not happy, productive. If people are productive, my thinking went, they would be doing the things they love and thus be happy.

I may have gotten my thinking reversed, but one thing is still clear. To be successful at work, and in life, you must spend your time on the right things. You must be confident in how your spend your time to eliminate two common fears. (1) Fear of wasting your time or (2) fear of not having enough time to do things. Managing your time is critical because you can’t get any more of it, you’ll always have 24 hours in a day. Being productive, then, is about focusing that time on the most important things and deprioritizing the rest.

Be clear on what is important to you

First, you must be clear on what matters to you. What is it that will truly bring the change that you need in your life? What are the actions that will help you accomplish those goals? You must clarify what you want to accomplish. Sit down and make a plan. If you have difficulties, find resources to help you. But don’t skip this step.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

– Jim Rohn

The book Designing Your Life has been a great asset for me. It helped me crisply define a work view and a life view. Combined, my work view and my life view help me define a true North which I can follow as I navigate through life. An interesting insight I had was that although my work view and life view are compatible, I have ignored aspects of my life view due to focusing only on my work view. Taking the time to reflect on this helped me identify the right priorities to focus on, both inside and outside of work.

As you grow older and hopefully wiser, you will pursue different passions and your interests may change. Just make sure that you are true to yourself and what really matters to you.

Make time for what matters

You may have already defined what is important to you. It feels like January 1 when you have your list of resolutions that you know, for sure, you’ll stick to this year. Except that February 1 comes around and you don’t even remember what your resolutions were. Life happens. You still only have 24 hours in a day and this just didn’t fit in. It isn’t enough to know what matters to you. You must make time for what matters most to you.

I like the framework of Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand. I first heard about it in this YouTube video. Take the 2 minutes to watch if you haven’t already.

Identify your rocks. Know what you must do to get to where you want to be. Don’t let anything else fill your jar and prevent you from accomplishing your most crucial goals. Block your calendar ahead of time, remove distractions, and allow for ample time to work on your rocks. Once you’ve spent enough time on your rocks, you can take care of the pebbles and sand. But not before.

Identify the key next step and just get started

Once you know what’s important and have blocked time for it, do the work. If you feel stuck on an important task, clarify what the next action needs to be. David Allen’s Getting Things Done defines a project as anything that takes more than one action to accomplish. This is important, you can’t do a project. You can only take an action. If you feel stuck, break down your project into discrete actions that you can take. Then bring out your favorite tomato-shaped timer and get that next action done.

Beware of the ‘urgent’ trap

We often confuse urgency and importance. Habit 3 of The 7 Habits book focuses exclusively on this point. Let’s define these two things.

Important things help you move closer towards accomplishing a goal.
Urgent things are time-sensitive, if not done quickly you may never reap benefits from it.

A common pitfall is spending time on urgent things that are easy to do but don’t significantly help you to accomplish a goal. Just because something is urgent, time-sensitive, doesn’t mean that you must do it. That is the equivalent of filling up your jar with Pebbles and Sand before trying to put in the Rocks.

A common example is allowing email and text notifications interrupt your focus. Presumably, before getting the latest email or text, you were working on something important. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been working on it. Yet, you allow your brain to shift its focus momentarily to check the email’s subject line or text. Your brain switches its focus to the notification, scans it, and decides that it is not important. You then switch your focus back to the task at hand. This constant distraction interrupts your thought process and makes you much less effective. Even worse, it makes you much less creative and engaged during meetings. The same happens when your colleague stops by your desk with a quick question. You can take this as an urgent request and let is stop you from completing other important work. Or, kindly ask them to send you an email (sand) which you can respond to in a bit after completing your current task (pebble or rock).

As you go through your day, don’t confuse urgent with important. Be proactive and work on the truly important today so that it doesn’t get crushed among many urgent things tomorrow.

If all else fails, talk to a friend

If you’ve done all of the above and still feel tired and disoriented, get help. Go see a friend, a family member, a coach, a therapist, a priest, anyone. Don’t try to get answers from them, but rather go to them to gain a new perspective. We all go through moments of confusion and stress, times in which we struggle with clarifying what we should be doing. Use other people’s experiences to form a perspective that works for you. You may need to do this again many times over the next decade as you keep learning, growing, and gaining more insight and responsibility. Accept it as a part of life and enjoy the journey.

Don’t run away from discomfort at work. Clarify, remove obstacles and find purpose.

There will be times in your career in which your work won’t push you into that magical state of flow. The work that you are doing will not hit that balance of challenging without stressing you. You may be working on a project that doesn’t challenge you enough. You may be comfortably project managing a simple initiative. You may be executing on a plan instead of brainstorming a grand idea. Alternatively, you may be stressed because your company asks you to do work that’s not exactly fitting to your strengths. Your contribution feels forced, uncomfortable, and stifling. Your instincts will want you to run away from such a situation. To switch roles, change companies, or ask for more work. Anything to get back to that feeling of productivity and contribution that you may have felt before. Yet, first take the time to step back and reflect on what is happening.

Do you need to do this work? If the work that you’re doing doesn’t necessarily fit your skills or experience level, it may be wise to postpone or delegate the effort. Don’t assume that because you were asked to do this you must do it now. Clarify the relative priority of the project or task. Explore options to defer or delegate the work and do other work instead.

Is this work necessary for your growth? Maybe you are new to the company. Or maybe you are moving to a more senior level of contribution. These two situations can feel similar. You may feel that you are not contributing as much as you are expected to. However, you first need to learn the ropes before you can contribute at a higher level. After that initial ramp up period your contribution will be drastically improved. Discuss the situation with your manager to ensure that her perspective is the same as yours. Also, be patient.

Is this a temporary situation? Consider whether this is a temporary situation due to an uncommon business situation or transition period. There may have been a slow growth quarter in the company or a change in priorities causing you to be ‘stuck’ with this work. While you wait for work that’s a better fit for your skills, consider working on an ‘extracurricular’. You can volunteer your underutilized skills to help on other projects. Often having another project that plays to your strengths can give you the boost that will get you through not-so-good phases in other projects.

The bottom line is to not confuse a temporary situation that doesn’t allow you to be at your peak with a situation that you must escape. You may be able to defer or delegate the work, push through the situation to develop new skills, or find temporary relief in other work that plays to your strengths.

It’s your turn to be that "someone" who makes a difference

Longing for something causes no harm, but the inability to turn that desire into action harms many.  When you come up with something you most definitely want to pursue, you may be at a loss at first, it may seem impossible.  However, seek to understand what you need to achieve this goal.  Do you need a mentor?  Do you need to gain a new set of skills?  Do you need to first learn about a new industry? If you think “someone else would have done it” or could do it better, you need to stop and realize that “someone else” is too busy minding their own business, and it is your turn to be that person that makes a difference in some area.  So find that drive and get moving.

Problems are only daunting when you don’t know what’s the next actionable item that will get you closer to your goal.  As such, always think, what is the very next step I need to take to get one step closer to my goal?  Once you have that figured out, just go ahead and take that one step.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
– Lao Tzu

Once the journey is over, you’ll look back and be glad you took that first single step, then the second, and the third.  But if you never take the first step, you’ll always wonder “what could have been if?”

Be Busy, But Only With Purpose

There is a lot going on in our days, and we tend to put so much pressure in being better, doing things better, making a big difference, and more. This is something I often do, and then when all is said and done and I go to bed at night, oftentimes there is uneasiness. And then I go back to the fundamentals… I ask myself a few questions, which sometimes are harder to answer than others:

  1. Is what I’m doing something that makes me happy?
  2. Do the things that keep me “busy” matter to me?
  3. Am I making progress in the areas I care for?
  4. Will I be able to make better contributions to society through what I am doing or the skills I’m learning?

Sometimes the answer for some of these questions is… “uhmmm… maybe?” and that can be acceptable, but at least asking myself these questions helps me evaluate the true meaning of what is keeping me busy. Sometimes I am busy and flustered by things, and at the end of the day I realize… none of the things that kept me so busy truly mattered or made a different in my life, my happiness level.

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing”
Lao Tzu

Most important steps to "Getting Things Done"

I read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, and I’m glad I did.  There are many, many useful tips and a fantastic system to be learned out of that book.  Here I want to share with you the most important things I learned to boost productivity and make time for the things you want to do!

Define the Next Step

Don’t say “I need to workout more” and just let that sit in the back of your head.  This is a very abstract goal and will lead to inaction.  Instead, say what is the next step you need to take in order to get this ‘goal’ DONE.  For example, “Set Schedule for going to the Gym” would be a bit more concrete and would lead to “Go to the gym at X hour of the day for 45 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

The reason it is so important to DEFINE the next action to be taken is that it really makes the next step simpler.  You don’t have to stop and think, “what should I do to workout more?” next time you think about working out, you already defined your next step, GET TO THE GYM.  Maybe before you get there you have to define many smaller steps and get them done, such as “find a good workout plan for me to follow”, “buy a water bottle and gym clothes”, etc.  The point is that you have a clear plan with only actionable items, not ideas, to be DONE, and it’s very clear what you should do next.

Don’t keep things in your head

Most people, myself included, tend to keep a list of things they have to do, but in their heads.  The reason, they haven’t found a better system.  The problem with this is that we tend to forget things we are not focusing our attention in, which makes us less efficient.  You should know what I mean if you have ever gone to the Post Office and on the way back home you realize that you should have bought THE light bulb. The light bulb you need for the bathroom that you could have gotten at the store next door  from the post office.  If you had a good system in place with lists you could check such as “errands” you would have seen the item saying “BUY LIGHTBULB” and would have made better use of your time during the trip to the Post Office.

Another important reason to keep things in a system outside of our heads, a reliable system, is that when we are working on something we don’t get distracted by thoughts such as “am I forgetting something?” or “damn, I need to call X or Y person to figure out Z thing.”  If you have a good system in place that can capture everything that you currently keep in your head, and this system reminds you of the things you need to know, when you need to know them, you will be able to FOCUS on the task at hand. This will definitely allow you to be more efficient!  A person that is distracted takes twice as long to get the same task done, with twice as many mistakes, that someone who focuses.  So, work your system well organized and start working more efficiently!

There are lots of things to be learned from the book, Getting Things Done, and if anything I wrote here intrigues you and you would like to learn more about how to further implement it in your life, I refer you to the book.  It’s one of the best investments I’ve done.

Questions, Suggestions, and Comments are welcome!  Comment in this post and I will definitely read them all and answer when appropriate. 🙂

To a Happy and Productive Year, Decade, and Lifetime!