How I Applied Agile Principles to Improve my Mental Well-Being
I never thought that getting into product management and being part of an agile team would be the best thing for my mental health. And that’s not simply because I enjoy the work so much, it’s because the work has taught me principles that can be applied to well-being.
I lost my dad when I was 14, which drove me to study psychology in college and get a Master’s of Public Health at NYU. I learned from leading scholars about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Clinical Psychology principles, Nutrition, and Epidemiology. I adhered to best practices such as exercising, eating well, and going to therapy. While each was helpful, I still struggled to close the sad chapters of my adolescence and live a happy and healthy life.
It wasn’t until I got into product management that everything clicked. Agile principles offer a number of parallels to psychology, with mental models and processes that are particularly helpful for facilitating my well-being.
I’m excited to share what I’ve learned and hope that others – whether in product management or any other profession – can benefit from these lessons. Thankfully, mental health is no longer a topic that’s being swept under the rug – more and more individuals and employers are stepping up to the plate, having conversations, and breaking the stigma. While starting the conversation is key in addressing this widespread issue,1 in 5 adults experienced mental illness in 2018, according to research from the National Alliance on Mental Health.
Here’s how to apply product management principles to shift your outlook:
- Product managers improve products by talking to customers.
In order to make a product decision, customer research – the art and science of interviewing and investigating customers – is imperative. How will you decide what to build or prioritize if you don’t know your customer’s problems, perceptions, and behaviors?
More often than not, you aren’t the target customer for the product you’re building. Fortunately, when it comes to mental health, you and you alone are. It’s important to do research by reflecting and talking to yourself.
When feelings of anxiety or depression find their way into my head, I let them linger for a moment and then take an internal scan. I do some ethnographic research and ask myself: What's causing these feelings? What was my trigger? Is this a pattern? I observe my surroundings and take note of my environment and emotions.
- Product managers define an aspirational vision and work backward.
In product management, we always work and align toward a ‘north star,’ or an ultimate value proposition for our target market. For my team which works on internal product experiences for our 2.3+ million employees, our aspirational vision is to improve the employee lifecycle from the moment a person applies to the company through retirement. Having an explicit north star keeps everyone on the same page as we iterate towards success.
Similarly, having an aspirational vision in life is critical, otherwise, it’s impossible to appreciate or even notice any progress.
What does happiness mean to you? There’s no universal definition. Perhaps feeling fulfilled is about having a handful of good friends, a strong bond with family, or just being ok saying "no." When defining your life aspirational vision, think of something tangible.
For me, happiness is about helping others live better lives in and outside of the workplace, and about being okay with personally leaving my comfort zone.
Every so often, I take stock of what my goals are and how I’m progressing toward achieving them. I carefully break down my goals into small and manageable steps and iterate day by day.
- Product managers run experiments.
When figuring out what new experience will resonate with customers, product managers formulate and then test their assumptions. I apply the same principles in my daily life.
If one therapist and approach doesn’t work, I try another. If the current path I’m on isn’t bringing me closer to happiness, I experiment with something different.
Anxiety is something I deal with every day and probably will for the rest of my life. I have a constant fear of not getting everything done, having another significant loss, or being at a loss for communicating how I’m feeling. I find myself caught up in what I call my thought carousel – a merry-go-round of swirling thoughts and lists. It’s overwhelming.
To help me get off the ride in my head, I run thoughtful exercises and experiments. I tested breathing techniques, prioritization matrixes, and repeating catch-phrases. Eventually, I learned that I could teach myself to shift my thoughts and emotional response to external triggers.
Instead of feeling panicked because I didn’t immediately answer every email or slack, I learned to pause and take stock of how I could truly best answer people if I slowed down. Before responding I’d wait 10 minutes to collect all my thoughts and suddenly my responses became more thoughtful and helpful to my partners and stakeholders.
Combined with having an amazing therapist to support me, learning how to apply work principles to my life has given me a new outlook when trying to solve problems related to my personal well-being.
Its been 12 years since my dad's passing. While my anxiety and the need to control everything in my life remains a constant struggle, I finally feel as though the burden of loss is slowly being lifted. I miss my dad every day, especially at key milestones, but I'm grateful that I've developed techniques to live a happy and fulfilled life – one I know he would’ve wanted me to have.
A'ohe loa i ka hana a ke aloha – distance is ignored by love.