Staying sane in product management

Last weekend, I attended Portland ProductCamp and gave a talk called “Staying Sane in Product Management” which I’m summarizing here. It was inspired by my previous post “What product management wants” which I recommend if you haven’t read it.

In short, product management is a stressful job. We rarely think deep about the causes of that stress. It’s not just that other people are assholes or you work too many hours. By identifying the right causes, we can make changes that will help us be better product managers and better people.

We’ve all known someone who struggled with the stress, anxiety, or depression from the daily issues we face in product. Maybe you’ve dealt with those problems yourself. My hope is this helps you pinpoint the issues that cause you stress or anxiety, then you can take concrete steps to improve them.

On a related note, I’m also available to help you with these things. Do you need help making progress your career? Or do you want to give your team a boost of morale and productivity? Talk to me. I can help you with coaching or consulting to make you and your team more resilient to the pressures of product management.

This is yet another really long post, and again I’m not apologizing for it. If you want a shorter version, start at the Truth of product management section below.

For the rest of you, what are the real causes our stress as PMs? It’s a few things.

Other people

It’s both true and naive that other people are the source of most of our mental distress. Some people are hard to work with. But why?

For one thing, we have different goals than they do. In my work, I was often told by a manager or CEO to “go build the product of the future.” However, my other stakeholders wanted me to “go build this feature so we can hit our goals for this quarter.” That puts me under huge stress to deliver everything for everyone. Plus it’s hard to say “no” to incoming requests, especially when I’m the only one who can help.

But it’s more than that. We also have incompatible mental models with our peers. The simplest one is the mental model that others have of software development. “We just need a button here that generates a spreadsheet. That’s easy, right?” Obviously that person’s mental model of software development is wrong.

In a similar way, you also have a different mental model of your users and their problems. For example, you see your users struggling with the overwhelming amount of choices in your e-commerce product. Your sales team thinks you don’t have enough choices because users are asking for options that you don’t have. People build their mental models on their observations of the world, and that can put us in direct conflict with them. Even worse, changing someone’s mental models is really hard — nearly impossible. It’s stressful when we can’t see eye-to-eye with others who have reasonable points of view.

And there’s also the problem of your soft skills. Sometimes the problem is not other people. It’s your communication, negotiation, and leadership skills that are the problem. You pitch your roadmap and get shot down by the sales exec. You think, “that person is an asshole.” But the sales exec thinks, “I have no idea what that PM was talking about.” You suck at communicating, but you place the blame on the other person for not understanding. In other words, the problems that you externalize onto other people are actually your own fault.

Loneliness

Let’s go deeper. Another problem that contribute to our unhappiness in product is loneliness. “Lonely? I work with people all the time.” Exactly. Our job is to be fearless leaders, collaborators, and negotiators. We’re doing our job when we work with others.

However, the people we work with are doing their jobs when they work alone. Your devs code alone. Your designers and sales people might work with users outside your office, but most often they’re working with their computers. And when we ask for their time in meetings or conversations, we’re keeping them from their jobs.

We’re also outnumbered. There are fewer product people than nearly every other role in a company. It can be intimidating just to be a product manager, like being the only product manager in a room full of marketing people who desperately need your help with their new ad campaigns. We’re expected to excel alone. In fact, if your manager has to intervene, it’s a sign that you’re not succeeding in your job.

For people who are expected to be leaders and collaborators, product management is a lonely role. And because of the uniqueness of our jobs, it’s really hard for us to find people who can really relate to your problems. Except for other PMs. Other PMs always understand.

Work/life balance

Product managers work hard. It’s common for us to work over 40 hours a week. We often use “hours worked” as a proxy for company culture and professional happiness. And yeah, it’s true — you’re more stressed and less happy when you work more hours.

But how many times have you left the office and couldn’t stop thinking about the meeting you had earlier today where your new feature designs got rejected by your VP? Or felt anxious about that meeting tomorrow where you have to share the roadmap with the sales team and you know they’ll hate it because it’s missing features they’ve asked for?

The stress of our job carries into our home life even when we’re not working. Instead of thinking of work/life balance in terms of hours worked, why don’t we talk about “hours stressed” instead?

Goals gap

Imagine being an airline pilot. What are your goals? First, it’s passenger safety. Did all the passengers who got on the plane get off the plane? And all in the same health as when they started? Great! You did your job. You could also check your flight time, how close you were on your ETA, or fuel use among other things. And you get that feedback every flight.

What about product? Well, your goals are fixed… for now, but they could always change tomorrow. The feature you launched — you won’t see results for a few weeks. And who knows when that next feature will be done. That gap between “do the work” and “achieve goals” is huge in product. Achieving a goal is great, and it feels great. But product management is full of delayed gratification and shifting objectives which contributes to our stress.

Career gap

How many recruiter emails did you get this week? Each one is a siren calling you to that next job. Maybe that company will have a better culture. Maybe you’ll get to work on a mobile app like you’ve always wanted to. Maybe it’s an opportunity to get that promotion which you never seemed able to achieve in your current job.

But maybe your unhappiness in your current job is simply because of stagnation. You’re not working on new problems, learning new skills, or making progress on your career. You’re bored, and you confuse that with job dissatisfaction or a broken career trajectory.

Similarly, we’re told that we should follow our passion and find jobs that make us happy. “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is garbage. This idealization of careers is detrimental to your happiness. Every product job has bullshit that you don’t want to deal with, so you put every new job opportunity on a pedestal because you imagine it will be better. Most likely, you’ll feel the same but deal with different bullshit.

The grass is always greener on the other side. Simply knowing that you might be happier in another job makes you less happy in your current one.

Skills gap

Go read any job description for product management. It’s gonna mention something about working with developers, experience in specific industries, prioritizing features, or talking with customers. Yeah, those are things product managers do.

But those aren’t the skills you need to succeed. The real job of product, and the parts that fill us with the most anxiety and dread, are communicating, negotiating, and firefighting. We have to deal with failure on a daily basis. We have to tell people uncomfortable truths all the time.

We’re terrible at hiring people who can be successful at product because we ask them about the “job description” skills instead of the “real PM work” skills. Or that person sold themselves as a perfect fit in the interview, but they were the opposite of the type of person who will succeed at your company.

Even worse, we’re terrible at developing those skills in ourselves and other product managers. Soft skills are hard to teach, learn, and master. Weirdly, we expect product managers to have mastered those skills already simply because they’re product managers. And because we can’t identify or develop these skills, product managers are often set up to fail in their jobs.

Confidence gap

Our work is burdened by uncertainty. Which problems should I focus on next? Which features will solve those problems? What if I fail? There’s so many choices, and it can be paralyzing to decide.

And yet we need to be confident so we can convince others that our plan is the right one — even if it’s not one we believe in. It’s not comfortable to lie or mislead our teams, but maybe that’s better than being honest with them? Or if we are honest about our feelings, would that destroy their morale?

Then we’re presented with a new set of problems from another stakeholder. Here’s a new business opportunity that we could attack, but it would mean giving up on our current priorities. How do we know which to choose? And when we choose, what if the other path was the right one?

We’re expected to be these confident, certain leaders who always make the right choice, and yet so often we doubt ourselves. What if we fail? Make the wrong choice? Don’t show confidence? People around us might not follow our lead. Worse, they might turn on us. And then it’s not just our goals at risk — it’s our jobs.

The truth of product management jobs

So let’s add it up. Our feelings of stress, boredom, or worry are the tip of the iceberg. Even though we think other people are the source of our problems, the truth is that we’re responsible for many of the problems, and we project those problems onto other people. If we don’t deal with these problems, our negative feelings can compound into anxiety, burnout, and depression.

I know this because I’ve discussed this with fellow PMs and I’ve dealt with it myself. I burned out on my product career for a while because I didn’t have the knowledge to understand what was happening nor the tools to deal with it.

But that burnout led me to realize some truths about product:

  • We undervalue the true skills of product like soft skills or like managing failure. Those skills are really hard to teach or learn, but they’re essential to our success.
  • We assess problems incorrectly — “externalizing” (blaming others) when we should “internalize” (look inside) to find the true source.
  • We’re envy of our ideal selves. We think we should be “happy” but we miss opportunities to be “happier” if we’d settle for less.
  • We confuse solutions (like finding a new job) with problems (like boredom in our current one), and that keeps us from finding the real problems to solve.

Knowing this, I started to approach my work in a new way.

Being better

So what should we do? We should find ways to make our jobs better. Not great. Not happy. Better. Happier. And that means taking small steps that move us in the right direction.

Here’s some of the tools I use that make me a bit happier. They can work for you too.

Talk to someone. Psychiatrist? Sure, they can help with the most acute issues. But talk to anyone who will listen. Ideally, talk to someone who can relate to your issues and give you concrete advice that will help you grow. Grab another product manager and take them out for coffee or beer.

Externalize your decision making. It can be really stressful to deal with a new feature request or other conflicting priorities. Instead, come up with criteria that you can use to make a decision without injecting personal preferences or politics. For example, if your company uses OKRs, you can use those as a shield against requests that don’t align with them. Or default to “no” on any new requests unless it will generate more than $100,000 in new revenue or will close a key account.

Build a community of support. We know that people who practice religion* are happier because they’re surrounded by a group of people who support them. So join a product meetup in your area, or strengthen ties of friendship with your coworkers. Also, find a mentor — someone in your field outside your company who can give you advice and support when you hit that wall.

Work towards a goal. Another reason practicing religious people are happier is because they’re trying to achieve something bigger than themselves. You can do the same in your life. Develop new skills to accelerate your career like learning SQL or some programming. Find goals outside work like excelling at a hobby. Learn a musical instrument. Try dancing. Plan a big vacation and then go on it!

Create healthy rituals. Meditation, exercise, religion, sleep — yeah, all those are fine habits to build up. Also think about healthy work rituals. Block off 4 hours a week for deep work. Turn off those notifications for a while. And plan your tomorrow — at the end of a day, write down all your todos for tomorrow. Block off time on your calendar so you can complete them. Most important — get them out of your mind so you don’t ruminate on them for the rest of the night.

Try something scary and new. Build confidence and resilience to help you deal with the stressors at work. Afraid of joining your local gym? Just fucking do it. Ask a friend to go with you for support. Try an improv class. It will be really scary and stressful but also safe and exhilarating. Plus your improv skills will carry over to your work.**

Lower your expectations. You’ll probably be happier with less than your ideal outcome. Maybe you have a career goal of being a CPO or just want a promotion. Don’t focus on the goal. Just focus on the next step. What’s one skill you need to improve to get that promotion? Or if you’re selling your roadmap, pick one thing that you really want, then trade the rest of your roadmap for that one thing you want. Find the first step to build momentum, and don’t let the rest weigh you down.

In sum

Product management is hard. Really hard. And it can affect our mental health, especially if we’re unaware of the real problems that impact us.

If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or similar issues, please seek help. These are serious issues that can affect your entire life, not just your work. If you’re not sure where to start, contact me. I’m happy to point you in the right direction.

We can do better for ourselves and each other. Watch out for the factors that contribute to your distress. Put new practices in place to help you deal with those pressures.

And watch out for other product managers who need help. Like I said, it can be really lonely as a product manager, especially dealing with a sensitive issue like mental health.

If you’re looking for help one-on-one or for your group, contact me. I offer coaching or consulting to help you and your team improve at these skills.

We can succeed together, if we try.

* I say “practice religion” intentionally. Simply believing in your religion and attending Christmas services won’t make you happier than non-religious people. Instead, find a community and regularly attend religious events to be happier person.

** In my presentation, I suggested “be really honest” as a solution here. A member of my audience said that it backfired on her when she tried it. I noted that women are treated differently than men in the workplace, and her story was a great example of it. Past that, I’m completely unqualified to discuss gender issues in product other than noting they’re real and that I’m hopeful they’ll get better as product management and software development become less male.

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