Product Managers: this is your mental health check

How you FEEL during your days is how you feel about your life.

Construction paper cutout of a side profile of a face against a blue background, with a heart and plant growing inside.
Photo Credit: Siriwannapatphotos

It’s harder than ever to keep your mental health in check as a product manager.

We face countless meetings, unpredictable schedules, and many individuals and teams depending on us, all in the midst of incredibly unstable job and general life conditions.

My take on this has been highly influenced by my own mental health struggles over the years, deep dives into understanding them, and continuous work to make small changes every day once I am aware of how I’m feeling and, more importantly, why.

I’m not a psychologist. I’ve been through both a lot of therapy and a lot of extreme working environments that have pushed me past my limits.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned through my experiences, and that I hope will help you to navigate your own challenges, or at least provide you with a perspective outside of yourself to approach some of the things you’re currently going through.

The books Lost Connections, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Designing Your Life, and Designing Your Work Life have worked in tandem to drastically shift the way I think about what we do with our lives.

We are taught to follow systems — go to school, get a high-paying job for stability, work 9–5, organize our lives around that, etc. But the truth is, those systems often don’t fit our basic human needs. And, most of the systems that were in place to help society function more effectively are now horribly broken.

When was the last time you really checked in with yourself and asked, “What do I really need in my life? In my day? Right now?”

If you could design your life from a blank slate, remove all the noise and programmatic ways of thinking we have been conditioned to enact, what would it look like? Why would it look like this? What’s important to you? Who is it important for you to be?

While we may not be able to design our lives exactly how we want them, and there are regulations and other constraints that are out of our control and that we need to live within, if we don’t create a tangible idea of what this actually would look like for us, there’s a very high chance that we won’t even come close to designing our lives to look even remotely close to this.

Figure out what your boxes are. Then you can work towards making specific decisions in your life and career to tick them.

Not sure how to do this? I created a free template you can download here that can help!

What are your warning signs that will tip you off to let you know something’s out of balance before you’ve completely hit the wall and burned out, gotten sick, or realized you’re in a giant pit that feels impossible to climb out of?

Some of mine:

  • Sleep (has my sleep been impacted consistently by things going on at work?)
  • Relationships (have I had energy to build relationships outside of work?)
  • Food (have I been able to stay on top of eating healthy food most of the time?)
  • Body (am I feeling sick? Have I had a lot of injuries simultaneously?)
  • Fun (have I done things for fun outside of work just for me?)
  • Present-ness (am I able to stay in the moment or am I constantly ruminating about work? This one is huge and really hard for me)

Once you’ve got a general idea of what you need in your life and day, and a clear idea of your guardrails so you know when you need to adjust course, create a system to work for you vs. against you to actually listen to these needs and meet them.

I’m a huge fan of time-blocking. Time is finite. Look at it in blocks.

Jump into your calendar. Which blocks do you want to use for different focus areas in your life? Put those in.

Feel better when you exercise and meditate in the morning? Schedule this in. Need a break at lunch to go for a walk with your significant other? Schedule this in. Heads down focused work to start your day? Schedule this in? Staying connected with friends outside of work is important to you? Schedule this in. Need time to get up and walk around between meetings? Schedule 25 vs. 30 minute meetings with your teams.

Lil Nas X just did something that I really respect — he left the stage in the middle of a concert to take care of his needs (in this case — it was using the bathroom for a #2).

It is not normal for us as a society and in tech culture to ignore so many of our needs. While you can’t change this overnight yourself, you can take small steps every day to take care of more of your needs in your current life and career context.

It’s incredibly difficult to say no. If we reduce the friction of this in small ways like coming up with potential responses that we can have at the ready, it can become a lot easier.

Pre-emptively keep NO templates at the ready. Automate saying no so that when things crop up and interfere with your priorities, you don’t even have to think and you’ve got a way to stick to your scope.

Here are some “Saying no” examples to help you from Starterstory and from The Muse.

Subconsciously thinking about what everyone else is thinking about you for every action you DO or DON’T take at work? Tackle this proactively by having conversations with the people you work with.

Check in with your direct manager and team members proactively. Tell them you care deeply about the work you’re doing as a team and your individual performance that feeds into that and ask them to let you know if you’re ever not meeting expectations or fulfilling your responsibilities.

That way you can offload the subconscious rumination and use that energy for your actual kick ass work.

Anything in life is harder when we feel alone.

Try to find work opportunities that help you feel like you can be psychologically safe to be your authentic self.

Create a personal network of VIPs that you know you can speak with openly in an unfiltered way.

Work with a therapist in person or virtually (i.e through BetterHelp)

Join communities of people who care about the same things and may be experiencing similar challenges — i.e. Product Mind.

Find a coach or a mentor who understands you, can validate your emotions, and help you see things from alternate perspectives.

It’s tough to be a product manager under any circumstances.

The global circumstances we are currently living through make it even tougher.

If you stop and check in with yourself honestly right now — how are you really doing?

What have you done to help improve your mental health as a PM? Let us know in the comments!


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