5 Tips to bring Mindfulness to Project Management

Mindfulness is a practice that helps us find our center. What can it teach us about being a better project manager?
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Ever since its inception in the 1990s, positive psychology has had a strong influence on management. The mental health and wellbeing of your team as well as your own play a fundamental role in your motivation and productivity.

The link between mental health and productivity has been scientifically proven time and again. It stands to reason that management theories and paradigms have shifted towards a more psychologically conscious approach.

Mindfulness has been a key area of positive psychology and human wellbeing in general. To define it in simple terms, it’s the human ability to be fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing, being conscious of your emotions, and being able to assess and control your behaviors.

Understanding Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is innate to the human condition. We are all capable of being in the here and the now from the moment we are born. Having said that, mindfulness can also be cultivated. Like a skill, the more we experience it the easier it becomes to get in a mindful state.

Practicing mindfulness has been correlated with lower levels of stress, enhanced performance, higher levels of creativity, and better intrapersonal and interpersonal awareness. This isn’t a new-age trend or a random brain hack—it’s a widely studied phenomenon in psychology. 

If you look for guides on how to cultivate mindfulness, you’ll notice that many of the exercises are in fact breathing techniques and different forms of meditation. That’s to be expected since the basic principles of mindfulness are inspired by oriental traditions such as the practice of Buddhism.

The good news is that you don’t have to become Sannyasin to apply the principles of mindfulness to your daily lives. You only need to take some of the best lessons it has to teach you and apply them to project management.

Foster a positive work environment

To keep matters simple, let’s define a positive work environment as “a place that promotes growth, productivity, and wellbeing.”

There isn’t a recipe for a positive work environment. Different projects and group dynamics have different needs. Your first job as a project manager is understanding the social dynamics of your team and creating the best environment for them. For that you need empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share other people’s emotional states. It’s one of the key areas of emotional intelligence, and it plays an important role in assertive communication. Mindfulness helps you to recognize emotional states in yourself and in others, facilitating your understanding of human emotions.

For example, we all know just how tense a team can get when you are racing to meet a deadline. Your developers and engineers might feel stressed and that can get to them. It’s like a ticking bomb waiting to explode.

If you can read the room before that happens you can disassemble the situation altogether or at least prevent it from scaling. If you feel like someone is emotionally taxed, speak with them, help them get through the worst. Create a place where people aren’t afraid to express their emotions.

Let your team find their rhythm

Society teaches us patterns and rules that may or may not go in line with who we are. These are commonly known as introjects. One of our biggest challenges is to learn to accept that not every introject fits our mold.

That’s true for each and every one of us. We are all unique, and we all have things that just come naturally. For example, some people like to work while listening to music, others prefer to chat with someone, and others prefer absolute silence. We are all different.

If you can create an environment where developers get to nurture their own style, you’ll find that your team will be happier and more productive in the long run. 

The post-pandemic world is a perfect example. Some people prefer to work remotely, while others can’t wait to return to the office. Your task then is to find a balance between everyone’s rhythm, like a maestro leading an orchestra.

Be flexible and understanding

Honestly, all the tips on this list could be summarized under this header. When you practice mindfulness you learn to accept things as they come. You can’t control the world, but you can decide how you react to it.

Flexibility is adaptability, every project manager who’s been in charge of a team knows that things will never go as planned, even if they are using a rigid methodology like waterfall. So, you have to be ready to adapt to whatever life throws at you. 

Another aspect of flexibility goes hand in hand with empathy. As the old saying goes, try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you judge them.

We all make mistakes or make decisions that we later regret. Create a safe environment where your team can own up to their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. No one wants to fail, and when they do, they tend to be at their most vulnerable, even if some people hide it.

Turn every mistake into a learning opportunity, give feedback that will help others grow and become better developers in the long run.

Focus and teach others to be focused 

Try some mindfulness exercises and you’ll quickly realize that the first obstacle is your mind. We don’t like silence, and our modern society makes sure that we are always distracted by something. 

The more you practice mindfulness, the better you become at focusing. Pay close attention to your surroundings, to what others are telling you, resist the urge to check your emails while you are having your meeting over Zoom.

Pay attention and act with compassion towards others. Invite your team to put down their phones and to share a moment of relaxation.

Likewise, use software to help you keep project-focused. Don’t try to do everything at once, though. It’s better to do one thing at a time and to dedicate your full focus to get it right. Act as if what’s in front of you is the only thing in the world.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should forget about the bird-eye view of a project manager. It means that you have to learn when to shift your attention.

Strike the balance between frustration and decompression  

Last, but not least, mindfulness is a great practice, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We seek mindfulness because the world is full of stress and challenges. Frustration is as much a part of our personal growth as is satisfaction. 

When a deadline is on the horizon, everyone might be tempted to keep on working till they see it through. Sometimes your team might even choose to keep on pushing, but you should know better. 

Without decompression, that energy will eventually turn sour and become burnout, but without just enough frustration, people grow bored with tedium. Find a middle ground and check with your team how they are feeling. 

In the end, mindfulness might be a personal practice, but what you learn can easily be extrapolated to all areas of our life.

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