Effective Product Manager - Health
Are there things more important than skills? Absolutely
I didn’t feel too well that morning when I woke up. It was the day after my business travel back from New York.
I just spent about a week in New York City, meeting with my “customers" at the time, Yahoo! Editors, when I was a product manager for our media publishing platform. New York City sounded fun, but it was heck of an intense work week. I did not sleep well because I lived in a hotel room where I could hear loud party music from the roof top every single night. I had endless back-to-back meetings with editors who couldn’t even tell the difference between a product manager vs an engineer, to get the most out of my trip, and then used the evening time to organize my notes and plan for the next day. Even on the flight back to San Jose, I was cranking away on my laptop the whole way, trying to write up a trip report to leadership summarizing what I’ve learned.
The intensity did not just last a week long. Prior to that, I’ve worked nights and weekends, across time zones to meet daily with teams in India. For more than a year. I felt exhausted and stressed out.
What made things worse was, I could’t tell at the time. I just thought it was hard core and challenging, and I kept telling myself that it was a part of growth and I just needed to work harder to push through it.
Until that morning. I woke up, I stepped into the bathroom, and I looked into the mirror. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
The left half of my face froze. No kidding. It froze, whatever I did. Like when I smiled, it looked like that villain in the movies evil smiling.
I freaked out. Did I just get a stroke??
Then I did what most of us would do. I googled, and I went to see doctors. As it turns out, it was Bell’s Palsy, due to some viral infection likely due to high stress for prolonged period of time and weakened immune systems.
That was a wake up call. That was when I realized, that you just cannot over prioritize health.
Look, health is everything. You can be the best product manager in the world, making millions a year, whom every hot company fights for, and still be miserable if your health suffers. Plus, I seriously don’t think you can effectively take care of your product and your team, if you don’t take care of your health.
If the core product skills (ones I covered in the previous Effective Product Manager series) are the foundations, health is the very foundation of all foundations.
So in this post, whether you like or anticipate it or not. I am going to talk about health. Because trust me, you need to be healthy to be a great product manager. So let’s discuss in 3 parts:
💪 Physical and Mental Health
🧑⚕️ How Health Helps Product Management
🌱 Habits That Develop Health
💪 Physical and Mental Health
Being healthy means that you’re both physically healthy (i.e. your body) and mentally healthy (i.e. your mind). Obviously, body and mind are somehow interconnected, that’s why taking care of both is the best way to take care of either.
How physical healthy are you?
Do you currently have illness?
How frequently do you get sick?
Do you often feel energetic or lethargic during the day?
Is your life style active or sedentary?
How’s your fitness level (mobility, flexibility, strengths, endurance)?
How mentally healthy are you?
How frequently do you get mad or anxious?
How’s your ability to focus?
Do you feel mostly positive or miserable about yourself?
Do you have healthy relationship with others? (spouse, friends, colleagues, family members)
Do you enjoy life?
Apparently I’m not a doctor and the above is far from a comprehensive assessment. I do see them as obvious questions to answer, and if you have at least one or two negative answers, you should probably pause and carefully assess and think about your health, and maybe how to start improving.
🧑⚕️ How Health Helps Product Management
Alright, alright, I know health is important OK? But other than the obvious, how does it directly contribute to being a better product manager after all?
Simply put: Product management is a highly time, energy, mind, emotion demanding profession. Which means:
You won’t have the required time to spend with people, in meetings, doing writing and thinking, if you get sick a lot
You need to optimize both the level and the longevity of your energy throughout the workday, entire work week, and yes sometimes nights and weekends if it’s what it takes to get through a crunch phase. Only if you’re physically and mentally healthy can you possibly bring and keep up that energy level.
You need your mind to focus and be present in everything you do at any moment to optimize your efficiency and output. You would find yourself distracted all the time if you’re ill, and mentally unhealthy.
You need to have super high emotional intelligence to properly respond to (or NOT respond to) incoming stress, criticisms, lack of validation or immediate gratification from what you do, or sometimes politics to navigate. Your mental health is the very foundation behind the EI.
To add the “evidence” to the theory: The best product managers / leaders I’ve seen are both physically and mentally healthy by common standard.
🌱 Habits That Develop Health
Now that you’re convinced (or stop reading now if you’re not 😊). Lets talk about the habits that help you develop and maintain the desired level of physical and mental health. Lets call them “The 7 habits of highly effective and healthy product managers”! (Yes if you haven’t, you should read 7 habits of highly effective people).
Habit #1: Move Around
Product managers can sit in meetings all day (and sit to write and think even not in meetings). It gets worse when we all work from home. Make it a part of your daily routine to move around more. Much more. Whatever exercise you like, but also consider as simple as just walking. Walking around the neighborhood (if you’re home), on campus (if you’re in the office), go on a trail (on the weekend), or even your treadmill desk if you can afford one.
Walking has numerous proven health benefit - both physically and mentally. It gets you fit (the lower end heart rate uses fat as the primary fuel source), it helps with your mood, and guess what, you can do other things at the same time (listen to music, podcast, audio book, or think about your product).
But again, do whatever you like, move around more, highly recommend use a physical activity tracker or smart watch to measure your activity level so you keep yourself honest and motivated.
Habit #2: Eat Well
Junk foods might give you pleasure for the moment. It’ll make you feel sluggish afterward for longer period. You don’t want to be sluggish when you present to the leadership, or debate with the smartest engineer on the team when you need to bring your A game, do you? Eat healthy by primarily having nutrition dense foods and balanced across carbohydrate, protein, and healthy fat. Of course, with treats and indulgence once a while doesn’t hurt and will help you maintain healthy eating habits for the long run (not just to strive for a short term weight loss).
The 80/20 rule could be a good rule of thumb (80% healthy foods, 20% whatever delights you). There are plenty of great books/online resources talking about it. I’ll stop pretending a nutritionist for now.
Habit #3: Sleep Well
We work hard and put in hours to accomplish what we want to accomplish. And again, it’s normal for a product manager. Which means if we’re not deliberate, we would find ourselves stay up late, wake up early anyway to take that early call, and ultimately sacrifice our sleep.
Unfortunately this is counterproductive. It is recommended that we all get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, for a reason. Because we’re designed to need that amount of time to recover physically and mentally, before going full steam ahead again the next day. Sleep also directly connects to everything else you care about in health. Lack of sleep results in lower immunity so you get sick more easily, it brings up your stress level, it triggers your appetite to eat more unhealthy foods, it affects your fitness as well because sleep is the best time for muscle repair.
Here’s a good book: Why We Sleep if you want to read more.
Habit #4: Meditate
Meditation is probably the “workout for the mind” equivalent to the workout for your body. It helps building up your ability to focus, stay calm, think positive. Wait, aren’t these all what you’d always want to be best at as a product manager?
But just like physical fitness, you don’t see immediate gratification. You might not tell a difference before and after your meditation sessions. It just doesn’t work that way. Just like physical fitness, or many other things like finance, it’s about consistency over a long period of time that makes a difference (or compounding effect if you will).
Again, I’m not a meditation teacher, and there are TONS of great resources out there. If you’re a beginner or a skeptics, I recommend checking out Ten Percent Happier. It’s a fun book to read as a meditation book.
Habit #5: Reflect
Having a daily reflection, at the end of the day. I cannot stress enough how important and helpful this is in the product journey and in our life. Briefly think about: what have I done well, what I could’ve done better, and some specific improvement actions (1 or 2 at most).
Reflection is the source of self awareness and continuous improvements. Self awareness and continuous improvements are keys to accomplishing what you want in product management, be it to break into product, to land that dream role, to success in your current role, or to get promoted. It’s how you get on and stay on the success journey.
I’ve also spoken about reflection a lot when I talked about interviews. It’s totally ok to fail an interview, as long as you learn and improve from it. It also has been what helped me get from where I was (every door shut in my face) to where I am.
Habit #6: Appreciate
The “product journey” can be stressful at time. You could easily be stuck thinking: why there are so many challenges going against me, why couldn’t it have been different, why am I still not getting what I want after putting in so much effort, on and on. The negative thinking is well understood, but is not helpful. And note, this is different from a constructive reflection above. Reflection focuses on improvements. This is plain complaint.
But hey, if you take a step back and look carefully. There are a lot that you can be thankful for. Yes you might still not get the offer, but you’ve succeeded in more interviews than before which is amazing progress. Yes the stakeholder is being difficult again, but hey this time you did not back off completely and you approached it calmly. Yes your colleague got the promotion you always wanted. But hey you get an amazing raise when so many people out there just lost their jobs!
Appreciation grounds you to focus on what you have vs what you don’t have; to care more about progress than specific destination.
So my suggestion? Write down 3 things you’re grateful for at the end of the day. That helps you sleep better too!
Habit #7: Read
Reading obviously helps you gain knowledge and skills. It does also help with your mental health in many ways:
Well, you can read about the health topics above, like the books I recommended!
It helps you focus on your reading at hand, and be away from other distractions or negative thoughts
It’s a good way to wrap your day and carry helpful and productive thoughts into bed (compare to news, social media, games).
You feel great and accomplished when you finish a book or learn something new / helpful / positive.
You have more conversation topics to share with your family, friends and colleague which improves relationships, and in turn help with your happiness!
I’m glad that you’re reading my newsletter which is definitely a part of it. And keep reading more!
Prioritize health, full stop.
For your product career, for your loved ones, for your own life.