During a mentoring session at Product League, I spoke with my mentee about her goals. She said she wants to have a say in where the product should go in terms of product goals, and the strategic steps needed to get there.
I asked what’s been stopping her from getting more involved and she responded that she does not have the time. So we talked about it, about her work settings, the number of teams she manages, the difference between our planned days and the way we really spend our days.
Where does your time go? I asked her.
“Hmmm,” was her reply, “I’m not sure.”
I know that feeling all too well.
Sometimes I find myself starting the day with a clear list of to-dos. I know what I want to get done. And yet, when the day is over, I realize I’ve crossed off almost none of the items on my list. Where did my time go? What did I do instead?
The day-to-day of a PM is full of small, mid-size and large tasks: Checking the inbox, responding to emails. Attending standup. Participating in meetings. Preparing for the meetings. Following up. Gathering new information. Informing others. Answering questions. Providing instructions. Approving plans.
And then there are the distractions. The things that were not planned, that don’t appear on the calendar. A developer that missed the standups wants to know what happened. The designer shares some ideas she’s been playing with. The marketing guy just passed by your cubical and said what he thinks about the last demo. You go to the toilet because, well, you just have to, and on your way, QA wanted to show you a bug he just spotted.
Where does our time go? How do we find the time to deal with the things that are important to us? Are we capable of creating more time?
Mindfulness As a Guard
Suppose, bhikkhu, a king had a frontier city with strong ramparts, walls and arches, and with six gates. The gatekeeper posted there would be wise, experienced, and intelligent; one who keeps out strangers and admits acquaintances (Kiṃsukopama Sutta, Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta)
The Buddhist path presents us with the concept of guarding our mind.
And how do we do that?
We post a guard at the entrance point. The guard is Mindfulness. The guard is displayed at the entrance. He serves a buffer between what goes in and what comes out of our minds. The guard it the 1–2–3–4–5 seconds we allow ourselves to take before uttering a response. It’s that deep breath we deserve to take before getting all tangled up with something or someone.
Being mindful and present to the moment will allow us to react better when something or someone disrupts us. It will support us in recognizing, at the moment, if something is a distraction or not, if we can handle it right now or not. It will allow us to make a choice, instead of responding on autopilot mode.
Relax, Observe, Notice
To solve a problem, we should first understand the problem and the context of the problem: where does our time go? How do we spend our working hours? The mindful way encourages us to pay attention, observe, notice.
Relax: we all feel this way. We are all, at some point, overwhelmed by the amount of work we have. Being all stressed out about it does not help.
Observe: track your behavior. Spend a day or two tracking yourself. Write down everything you do during the day. EVERYTHING. Including answering questions, giving instructions, designing an a/b test while making coffee. Make a note of the time and activity.
Notice: look at the bigger picture. Where do you spend your time? Perhaps organize your notes by groups such as clarifying requirements, planning forward, analyzing what you’ve done, etc. The point is to see the bigger picture, get a better understanding of what’s going on with your time, and then address it.
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” ― Jon Kabat-Zinn
Use the notes you created to conduct a small retrospective for yourself. What do you learn from analyzing the way you spend your time?
understanding where your time goes will set you up to optimize the way you manage your time.
If you find that you are clarifying feature requirements, as an example, then perhaps it’s time to look at the way you document user stories and tasks.
Manage Your Time:
If you find that you are continually socializing with colleagues you might want to consider initiating a “quiet hour” or hours, that is, an agreed dedicated time during the day to work in silence. And silence means no talking.
Manage Your Space:
Schedule “alone time”. Yes, you can do that! Even PMs deserve some alone time.
Practice Wise Response:
Understand your priorities: not all disruptions are equal. Be clear on your priorities (tip: your team and your deliveries are your priorities. Making everybody happy is less of a priority).
Can Mindfulness Create Us More Time?
The simile about the gatekeeper quoted above illustrates the role mindfulness can have in helping us guard our mind (and our time). The Buddha explains that the city is the body, the six gates are the six sense fields (the mind been our sixth sense, according to the Buddhist tradition) and the gatekeeper is mindfulness. This gatekeeper is described as wise, experienced and intelligent. His job is twofold. First, it is to hold back or refuse entrance to strangers. Second, it is to grant access or usher in acquaintances or friends.
The guard does not have to follow people into the city and check their bags. Holding his position and remaining mindful allows him to differentiate between welcome and unwelcome visitors. That’s the potential mindfulness can do for us. Staying with and in the present moment, and not in our heads, helps us differentiate between distractions and relevant information.
Mindfulness is our protector, our guard, standing as a buffer between us and our automatic responses. It creates space for us to react wisely. Keeping in touch with ourselves the mindful way helps us, as the guard does for the city, realize what needs to be dealt with right now and what can wait.
I know this because that’s what has done it for me. Practicing mindfulness taught me to stay with what’s happening instead of running all over the place. To take a breath before I react. To check with my self — my schedule, my agenda, my state of mind — and from that strong spot decide if and how to respond.
In a funny, unexpected way, spending time practicing mindfulness meditation — that is, spending time doing nothing — helped me create more time in my day job.
Give it a try. I encourage you wholeheartedly, even the cynical ones. I was, once, one of you. There are multiple ways to get you started, from mobile apps to youtube channels, teachers and courses and what not. You are also most welcome to contact me.