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Handling Stress as a Product Manager
This week lets shift gear. We'll discuss one of the most common problem product managers (or in fact most of us regardless the professions) face, constantly - stress.
What inspired me to write about it? You guessed it. I'm under quite a lot of stress lately. What I know is I'm not alone, and that over the year I've learnt how to best handle it for myself. (And that learning is definitely ongoing).
Are you currently, or have you been in stress? I'm guessing you're nodding your head. If so please read on. I'm going to cover:
Sources of Stress
How to Handle
Sources of Stress
To generalize, I believe there's most commonly the following:
Busyness driven stress
Expectation driven stress
Problem driven stress.
Busyness Driven Stress
Literally, the stress comes from you being too busy. The seemingly endless tasks and responsibilities just overwhelm you, and you feel like you'll NEVER get a break until you die. These can be from work, from home, from any other obligations you have.
This is certainly common for all PMs, as PM is heck of a busy profession. Majority of our times might be spent in meetings (and often rightfully so), plus all the learnings, documents, strategic thinkings, problem solving you have to do. Oh btw, your bills are overdue, and you haven't even started planning for your kid's birthday party coming around the corner. Let other hobbies you desired to pick up go down the drain, forget about it maybe when you're less busy. Some day.
Expectation Driven Stress
The stress usually originated from some high expectation of yours, including when the reality does not match up to the expectation, or even just the fear of you being let down.
This happens to all of us at times. For aspiring or transitioning PMs, your expectation is high to "must" get through these interviews and land these offers. For in-job PMs you expect to "must" knock this presentation out of the park, get a greatly exceed rating at year end, and snatch that promotion plus that 30% raise. Or even back home, you expect to "just have a quiet evening" without your kid melting down again. So you've wished.
Problem Driven Stress
Your stress comes from this one big problem. Being project problem, people problem, health problem, financial problem, or any other life problem. It's not about the number of tasks at hand, it's not really about where your expectation's at. This ONE problem just haunts you to death.
Not to mention, all of us have problems. All of us definitely experience big problems before, per our own definition of course. And yes it does make us stressful until it goes away.
How to Handle Stress
The strategy and tactics might be a bit different depending on the source. There are common techniques too. Let me share what I believe is useful.
Handling Busyness Driven Stress
"Just get less busy, you dumb!" You might say. And you're totally correct. But how exactly is the key.
I recently heard a meditation teacher said "Busyness is a mind state". But wait what? A mind state? Last I checked, I do have 20 items on my work to-dos and 30 more on my personal to dos. These are not illusions, they're real! I think what he meant is how you look at all these tasks and your strategy to manage.
Are you attempting to tackle 10 tasks at a time? Are all of them equally important and urgent? What "setups" can you do to prevent some of the tasks from even showing up in your queue in the future? Do you add more sense of busyness in your head by adding 10 more worries while you're handling 10 tasks in parallel?
So the key here is,
To Prioritize: how to sequence your attention based on importance and urgency. Enough said.
To Focus: on one thing at a time. Human can multi-task is a myth. We can't, multi-tasking is an illusion. You just end up with constant context switch in your head.
To Let Small Bad Things Happen: If you really only have the capacity for 10 out of 20 tasks this week, after prioritization, you need to let go of what you can't deal with, as long as you're able to get the top 10 done. You're human. You can't make everything perfect, just like you can't make everyone happy.
To Solve Busyness for the Long Term: Can you create a "system" to help you organize or even delegate/automate some of the tasks you have to spend cycles on today?
Handling Expectation Driven Stress
Unrealistic expectations can get you stressful, unnecessarily. You don't have to always aim low to not get let down. But it's good to check in and calibrate your expectation from time to time.
I've spoken to many mentees/clients who were looking to transition into product, and one of the first things I told them is my own transition/interview experiences. I told them how long it actually took me, and how many rejections I've received even after I had good experience on my resume. The purpose was not to tell them how hard it is, or that it necessarily would take them as much time and as many failures. It was to ask them to calibrate their expectations and see there's room to adjust. E.g. if you have 0 product experience in the past and you set a goal to get a FAANG product offer in 2 weeks from the start, I'm guessing you might end up being more stressful than necessary.
To take it to the next level, what about try to go without expectations? I know it's not always possible, and at least you need to have clear goals to go after. But at a micro level, say if you're stepping into an interview, or a high stake meeting. Rather than expect that it should go this or that way and this would be the best outcome, what if you just clean the slate, and step in, be the best of yourself, and respond the best you can?
So two things you can do to help with expectation driven stress:
Check in and calibrate your expectation
Try without expectations!
Handling Problem Driven Stress
To address problem driven stress is to solve the problem that caused it, of course. But often, the problem might appear to be too big, too messy, and unsolvable. And when you think it's unsolvable, it ends up creating more mental stress in you, which hinders you to take meaningful steps toward getting rid of the problems. Downward spiral it goes.
Here's the steps you might want to take:
Identify and define the actual problem that caused your stress: there could be multiple problems happening at the same time, but identify the one that's the most stressful.
Break down exactly how it has impacted you: say if you're suffering from a leadership trust issue, how it impacts you might include 1) you feel lack of appreciation/recognition, 2) it makes it hard to get buy-in, 3) you feel the promotion/growth opportunity will be limited
Think about which has the biggest impact: essentially prioritize what to tackle first, and start from there. Your immediate next actions might end up being very different depending on the priority order.
Think about how you address/respond to each breakdown impacts. Continuing the example, to respond to #1 you might decide to find more self-worth and not relying on other's validation to make yourself happier. For #2, you might start building allies around the lack-of-trust leadership and use them to push across agenda. For #3, you might end up deciding to start your next job search.
Sound familiar? Yes, handling stress can be very similar to tackling product problems. You acknowledge and fully understand the problem, you break it down, and you divide and conquer.
But don't feel as obliged to have to follow a "framework" to handle stress, when stress is stressful enough. It's just helpful to untangle the clusters behind the stress, and respond to smaller broken out problems one at a time.
Also as a part of responding to problems, it's important to clearly differentiate what's in your control (e.g your actions and reactions) vs out of your control (e.g. others opinions and reactions). And then be laser focused on what's within your control. Because worrying about or expecting changes in what you can't control will only set you up for more stress, guaranteed.
Break it down, take the next step and do the right thing in your control. You'll be fine. I'll leave you with a song lyrics from Frozen 2 (it's one of my daughter's favorite movies). Yes songs from the cartoons can teach us a thing or two, take note! :)
How to rise from the floor?
But it's not you I'm rising for
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
I won't look too far ahead
It's too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
The Next Right Thing, Frozen II movie
Lastly, I'll share a few more personal tactics to handle my stress of all types in general:
Appreciate: When in stress, think about the good things that have happened to you today or lately. It helps counter your negative feeling and know it's not all that bad. There might even be more positive things to be happy about then ones to be stressed out, you end up discovering.
Know you're not alone: Everyone experiences stresses, but I know when one's stressful it's easy to think that he's alone or possibly the most unlucky guy in the world. Not you're not. Even the guy who's guilty of causing your stress might be even more stressful than you are at the moment for a different reason. You would feel better when knowing this.
Growth mindset: again highly recommend this book. Convert your perception of the stress into a good lesson, or training, or a good opportunity to grow. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Meditate: pause, take some time to be fully present with the physical feelings and what actually happens, not what you think is happening. Get out of your thoughts but embrace your feeling for a few moment. It will help to pull yourself out of the negative thought downward spiral.
Know the Impermanent nature: everything is the world is constantly changing. So is the stress you feel.
To my friends in product: Let's plow through stress and we'll be fine!
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