Early in my tech career, as a web developer, I was constantly stressed out. Every time somebody needed something from me, I felt I had to drop everything and do it right then. I was overwhelmed by my growing to-do list, and doubly stressed for not doing enough quickly.
All developers face a lot of pressure. When you’re coding or creating something, clients, teammates, and managers want it fast, and they want it perfect. Plus, today’s tech teams are always expected to be on and responsive through email, phone, Slack, and beyond, which digs into time you want to spend on the work itself. These aspects of coding culture can often lead to stress, unhealthy habits, and emotional burnout, which all keep you from reaching your potential on the job. That ultimately leads to more stress, more unhealthy habits…you get the picture.
But, there’s a way to break the cycle and, in fact, prevent it. I’ve found that using mindfulness practices can both ease the pressures of working in the fast-paced tech industry and improve work quality. Perhaps more importantly, these simple strategies can boost your overall quality of life.
There’s a lot of talk these days about “mindfulness,” often in regard to meditation. People often think it means just remembering to take a deep breath — which is part of it. However, what mindfulness really comes down to is a system for being aware of how you think and feel.
When I began incorporating mindfulness strategies into my life, I could better understand myself in different situations, determine what triggers me to feel a certain way, and understand that I have options about how I will react to something and intentionally choose how to react.
After a hard day, I find I’m more patient with people. I rely less on alcohol, comfort food, and other vices to take the edge off. There are definitely days I don’t behave my best or do turn to those vices, but I’m aware I’m doing it…and that’s OK. This isn’t about being perfect — it’s about practicing, and that being enough.
Learning to give off positivity, act from a place of genuine care, and listen to understand (rather than to respond) has shifted my mindset — and I’ve started to see more of that come back my way. It’s empowering!
Now as senior director of product operations at General Assembly, I work across the global product team to set best practices, manage communications, create connectedness, and coach agile product teams to optimize performance. In being a glue that holds people and projects together, I see firsthand how the deep complexity in teams, variety of communication tools, and intensity of needing to constantly deliver and innovate creates mountains of stress.
Don’t succumb to the pressure. Mindfulness and self-care mean something different to each person, but I encourage you to explore some of these strategies and find what works for you.
Check in with yourself.
Being a web developer can be isolating — it’s something I struggled with in that role. If you’re doing great work, you’re likely spending your day with your head down, by yourself, in front of a computer screen. That inherently creates disconnection from other people and yourself, which means it would take intention to check in and ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now? What do I need? Am I in a good head space?”
There’s a distinction between being in your head and solving problems, and being critically aware of what you’re doing. For example, you could know you have to finish a particular piece of work, so you’re hammering through it — but you don’t realize that you’re hungry or have to go to the bathroom.
When I’m in the throes of a project or feeling overwhelmed, I find it really helpful to stop, breathe, and, realize what’s actually going on — then adjust my attitude around it. Take a minute to check in with yourself emotionally and physically and say, “I need something to drink. I’m feeling frustrated because X is happening. That’s OK. I’m going to take 20 minutes and just focus on finishing this task, and deal with that frustration later.”
Sometimes it helps to set a reminder in your phone or calendar — perhaps around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, at a time you tend to go to the dark side, want to eat a bag of chips, or are already thinking about happy hour. Pick a nonintrusive time when you know you’ll see the reminder, and take a few minutes for yourself to think about what’s going on in your head.
The idea of multitasking is such a misconception. Studies show that if you focus on one thing and complete it, it’s significantly faster per task than if you started three things and moved back and forth through each of them. But it’s hard to focus on one task at a time when you’re constantly being pulled into conversations and meetings. It’s also easy to get overwhelmed by looking at everything on your to-do list all at once.
To help focus on one task at a time, understand that you’re doing this one thing right now to help solve a problem. Often, that can calm you down and get you focused.
Another way to combat multitasking is to identify and set aside the time you know you do your best work. If you’re most efficient in the morning, you should never be available for meetings and conversations during that time. Instead, block out your calendar for yourself, and be open with your team about it. Say, “Hey, I’m going to be working from 9 to 1, so feel free to schedule meetings with me from 1 p.m. on.” This may not be attainable every day — everyone has different work schedules, and inflexible meetings could come up — but it’s a starting point.
Be open with your team and create a culture of courageousness.
Developers today are part of cross-functional teams that require intense cohesiveness in order to work together. At General Assembly, our product teams are made up of engineers, quality assurance, user experience designers, and copywriters, who all have different work and communication styles. Many of our developers are also remote, so we rely on technology to keep people connected.
There’s so much value in having open conversations and creating what I call a culture of courageousness. That means it’s OK to talk about things that aren’t working for you. It’s infinitely more productive to create a space for colleagues to say, “I’m feeling really frustrated about the way this is happening within our team. Let’s figure out a way to solve it,” versus ranting to a team member and contributing to a culture of negativity. Having frank conversations about work processes will set everybody — not only developers — up for higher quality work.
Google has a very well-defined workplace mindfulness practice called Search Inside Yourself. They did a study to determine the No. 1 factor that makes teams perform highest, and the surprising answer was what they call “psychological safety.” That means creating a culture and atmosphere where people feel like they can be heard, have social safety, and can openly talk about their feelings. Workers want to feel like they can say, “Oh, I made a mistake!” and they’re not going to be scrutinized or badgered for it. They feel connected to their coworkers in a way that makes them more invested and want to be there.
People don’t leave bad jobs — they leave bad people. There’s so much work to do in organizations to foster that kind of courageous culture because a lot of people think, “It’s business, we shouldn’t be emotional.” But if we’re people, we are emotional — we all crave to be understood and to be heard. When we are, when we’re connected, we’re truly invested in what we’re doing.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes to reassess your stress.
It’s easy to get frustrated at work, whether it’s because a boss is asking you to finish a task in less time than was originally decided on, or a colleague is submitting last-minute changes to a project. These situations may stress you out or simply annoy you — but if you take a closer look at what’s triggering your emotions, you can cut out unnecessary stress.
Instead of immediately getting annoyed, I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. You never know what somebody else is bringing to a conversation until you stop to consider what pressures or pain points may be driving their behavior.
Try to approach conversations with questions to understand what’s really going on before you react based on assumptions. When I ask myself why I am having strong, negative reactions to requests or conversations, often I realize it’s because I feel like I have too much on my plate — it has nothing to do with my collaborators. Being aware of that softens me and helps create empathy. Understanding somebody else’s point of view allows me to be a better colleague and person.
Try guided meditation, on your own or with an app.
About 10 years ago, I was on edge at work and having issues with insomnia. It was overwhelming. I was talking with a therapist at the time, and she suggested guided meditation. Using a recording she made for me, I learned how to turn off my mind, connect with my body and how I was feeling, and determine where that resonated physically. It helped me sleep and calm down. Since then, I’ve pursued various meditation practices, read books, and attended conferences and classes that incorporate it.
There are also some great meditation apps that can get you started in the practice. One I really love is called Stop, Breathe & Think. It has a ton of free guided meditations, three to five minutes long, which is perfect for people who are new to the practice. There are longer programs you can buy, too.
Set an intention for your day.
Start your day thinking about how you’re feeling and what you want to accomplish, based on your challenges. Late last year, I decided that every day before I left the house I would take five minutes to check in with myself and say, “What’s my intention?” I try to think of one word and say, “My focus for today is…” If I’m feeling really on edge, I’ll say “patience.” If I’m feeling overwhelmed, it’s “focus.” Or if I’m feeling really happy, it’s just to find joy in something I’m doing. Going back to that throughout my day is helpful — it keeps me grounded, open, and empathetic.
Be thoughtful in tackling difficult conversations.
Uncomfortable conversations are a necessary part of being a working professional, whether it’s the result of a client who’s not pleased with the project you submitted, a manager complaining that too many bugs came out of your last release — anything that would generate a defensive response. A communication tactic I’ve learned — which I’ll be trying to perfect for the rest of my life because it’s so hard — is how to react in these conversations.
Before you reply to something, stop, take a really deep breath, know how you’re feeling, and then decide how you want to respond, instead of that immediate defensive reaction. It sounds a little weird because it probably takes a few seconds to do all those steps, and if you’re in person or on the phone somebody might be confused by the silence. But I’ve found that when I say something like, “Hey, give me a second. I want to figure out how I want to respond to that,” getting through difficult conversations is so much more productive. Being intentional with your words prevents a combative back and forth, and gives you the chance to respond with a clear head.
Use working from home to your advantage.
A lot of developers work remotely, which you can use to your advantage. Working from home affords you the opportunity to practice mindfulness in ways that others may think are weird in the workplace.
One of the quickest ways to move energy and reconnect with yourself is to simply move. Colleagues may look at you funny if you get up and start doing squats around the office — but at home, it’s easier to take a quick break for squats or push-ups. You could also take a quick meditation break, or enjoy a nourishing snack straight out of your own fridge.
Take time to eat — and enjoy it.
The practice of mindful eating is new to me, and it’s something I’m actually horrible at because I love food. I’m guilty of shoving food in my mouth when I’m answering emails and chat messages, and there are times I’ve eaten a meal and I couldn’t even tell you what it tasted like. On the other hand, some developers do the opposite and forget to eat, leaving them running on fumes and cranky to those around them.
The thinking behind mindful eating is that if you take the time to eat and do nothing else but really taste your food, you’re so much more satisfied. Don’t read an article, watch a video, or try to wrap up an email — just enjoy your meal. Intentionally taste the flavors, notice the colors and smell. It’s about being aware that you’re eating, versus focusing on something else while you shovel it in.
These tips are just a start. Mindfulness looks different to everyone, but if you can find strategies that are effective for you, it can lead to a less stressful, more productive work life.
Got a trick that helps keep you on course? Leave it in the comments below!
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