Are PMs Stress Addicts?

Product managers thrive on stress. 
I used to thrive on stress, or at least I thought I thrived on stress. My mother used to tell me so. She said: “you are at your best when you are stressed.”

And for many years I thought of it as a compliment. I was proud of it. I praised myself for picking a job that suits me so well. I’m the product manager. I have overall responsibilities for the product. And I can handle it: I thrive on stress.

Product management is a very stressful job. I’m not sure there is a way around it. As a PM I was sometimes called the “product CEO.” But I was not the CEO. PMs don’t have the authority of a CEO, and yet we are accountable for all things product-related and to the massive stress comes with it.

“Accountability without Authority” it’s called, as if giving it a name makes it simpler.

Product managers function in an environment full of uncertainties, one that is constantly changing, flavored with conflicting goals, plans, and human egos. And in this mess of different voices we are supposed to push forward, clear the way, deliver a product and none the less keep everyone happy during and after the process.

To make this even more challenging, as a PM I often feel like I need to know everything. That knowing everything going on and getting involved with it is what makes me a better PM.

“You don’t have to get involved with everything going around in the company, you don’t have to know everything.”

One of my previous bosses and a personal mentor said the above. What wise and compassionate advice! So logical and yet so hard to put into practice. It’s time to take off one degree of stress: fellow PMs — we do not have to know it all. And guess what, nobody does.

But if this is the case, can it be that we, ourselves choose to be stressed out?

There is something seductive about feeling stressed. It inflates a sense of self-importance. It fuels the body with energy and the mind with thoughts and ideas and to-do lists. It might feel like being alive. Like, really, alive.

For me, being stressed out felt exactly like that. It felt right. It was a familiar feeling, like being at home. And I was sure this is the way I should feel, working as a PM for an ambitious startup.

The world around me — colleagues, managers, friends, society at large — told me in a million little-and-not-so-subtle ways that stressing out about work, always thinking about work, is not just what is expected from me but it’s also a good thing. It means I care. They told me that’s what makes me such a great PM.

It took me years to realize that waking up in the middle of the night with thoughts and visuals of a mobile application navigation bar floating through my mind — is not a good thing.

That is, it’s not a good thing for me.

Stressing out does not make us better PMs. Caring about our work does not mean we have to stress about it. Stress pumps up our adrenalin, but it does not make us faster or wiser. It does not support us in making the right decision.

On the contrary.

Stress clouds our judgment. It makes us react instead of respond. It makes us chase our tails in an endless cycle instead of steading ourselves, analyzing the situation and responding properly.

Somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that I have to do something about my stress level. That it’s up to me to make myself feel better, not the world around me, not the situation, just me. So I started meditating.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. (Viktor E. Frankl)

In his book, “Full Catastrophe Living” Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the “MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” course explains the difference between a stress reaction and a stress response.

A stress reaction is when we react habitually and automatically to a situation. We aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing. We just react.

A stress response means that we give ourselves a few seconds to stop, become conscious of the situation, and then choose how we want to respond.

Reacting = stressed and not thinking.

Responding = mindful and thinking.

In the following series of posts, I will explore the different ways in which mindfulness themes and practices are relevant to the PMs life, how they can support us and nurture us while facing the “full catastrophe of a PMs life.”

Each post will shed light on a different topic and include a few simple exercises one (that’s you!) can try at home to gain direct experience of what being mindful is all about:

  • Thinking outside the box. Seeing the big picture (with some practical exercises to help us recognize the box)
  • Developing empathy with different users. The ability to switch between different perspectives and POVs.
  • How to start as a PM. How to start as a mindfulness teacher.
  • Product vs. process. Trust the process.
  • Burnout. Stress and the millions of ways it manifests.
  • Mindful meetings. Can we make meetings more tolerable?
  • Practice. Time to translate the will into a do.

About me:

Liraz Axelrad, Product Manager, Writer, Baker, Meditation practitioner, MBSR — Mindfulness based stress reduction teacher (in training).