Lightning Talk: Mindfulness To Find Your Dream Job

I did a 5 minute lightning talk at a women in tech conference. Here’s the blog version.

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Measuring Your Heart

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.

Carl Jung

As Carl Jung points out, we can learn a lot about our likes and dislikes by paying attention to the things that irritate us. That is more or less how this works.

3 Simple Steps

Step 1: Collect

Before we can answer any questions about what we like or dislike at work, we need to collect data. According to The Paradox Of Choice, a book that explore our biases when remembering experiences and making choices, we judge whether we like an experience based on our feelings at the end. If you had a mostly bad day at work but the last hour or two were great, you might think you had a great day. For that reason, I recommend using mindfulness to collect data based on small tasks or events in your day rather than trying to decide whether you like your work at the end of the day, week, or month.

How does this work?

Trigger

Building habits is hard. According to The Power of Habit, the best way to build a habit is to associate it with an existing trigger. For example, your trigger might be checking your phone or going to the bathroom. Every time you do this, take a second to use the mindfulness technique to record data about your feelings about your job.

Mindfulness

If you’re not familiar with mindfulness, don’t worry: this is really tiny aspect used as a focus tool. First, you need to remove distractions. I use physical sensation to draw attention to right now. Hold fabric between your fingers and rub them together to really pay attention to the texture of the cloth. You can draw one finger along the inside of another finger to generate a sensation that grabs your attention. Bringing focus to a physical sensation is all you need to temporarily dislodge yourself from the barrage of thoughts about everything else but now.

Once you have your attention, do a “body scan”. This is reading your own body language. Are your shoulders tensed or relaxed? Are you breathing slowly and deeply or quickly and shallow? Are you fidgeting or balling your hands in fists? A lot of these little things are easily noticed if you take a second to pay attention and tell you how you’re feeling.

Record

Each “record” should be a pair: what were you doing and how did you feel after. These can be as detailed or sparse as you want. As you repeat the exercise, you will be able to adjust according to what data is most useful to you.

Examples:

  • One on one with manager: happy, relaxed, confident
  • Meeting with stakeholder: tense, crossed arms, needed to take a walk
  • Publishing code review: godlike
  • Release war room: why do I do this job?

Step 2: Categorize

Next we categorize the data. There can be 2 or more categories and they can be whatever you want. My favorite is “good vs. bad” but other useful ones are “stressful vs. calming”, “energizing vs. draining”, or “empowering vs. demotivating”. Depending on what you want to change or understand, you can adjust your categories. This technique can be used to sort your activities into groups like “helps promotion vs. busy work” or “builds skills vs. menial tasks”. These can be used to stay on track for career goals.

Example:

Good

  • Publishing code review
  • Figuring out root cause of bug
  • Successful release to production
  • One on one with manager

Bad

  • Team retrospective
  • Meetings with stakeholders
  • Writing integration test for legacy features
  • Release war room

Step 3: Interpret

Finally, figuring out your dream. I can’t promise this will get you the best job in your next career change but if you do this regularly, it will make you more aware of what to change now and look for in the future. How does that work?

From the example above I can see a few trends:

  • I tend not to like meetings
  • I have a good relationship with my manager
  • I enjoy releasing code and moving code along in the development process
  • I enjoy solving problems
  • I don’t like being in high stress situations like war rooms or situations that may be otherwise delicate like retrospectives
  • I tend to prefer solo tasks
  • It looks like I prefer smaller meeting sizes
  • I might have a good relationship with my manager but not my team based on the retrospective being in the “bad” column
  • I might not like partner teams if the war room and stakeholder meeting both fell under bad
  • I probably like our development infrastructure since I liked publishing my code review and releasing my code

If you see the complex ones with “might” and “probably”, you might need better data around those events.

Now, I have this blurb to put on my LinkedIn profile:

I am looking for a position that values independent workers who work closely with their core teams. I enjoy working for managers who empower their engineers to stay focused on their project work. I prefer written communication to meetings and I’m strongly in favor of remote work. I am passionate about devops and development process excellence. I gain great satisfaction from a job were I can problem solve when digging into the root cause of issues.

It sounds like my likes and dislikes at work make me a perfect devops, quality, or infrastructure engineer on a remote team that values independent workers. When I first did this exercise and saw this data, I was on a team that prioritized frequent collaboration across multiple teams and mandated feature development over process or product improvement. This might explain why I wasn’t so happy there.

This also leads to key terms for a job search:

Independent, single manager or fewer managers, written communication, devops, operational excellence, remote, debugging, quality

Here’s an random job for a Remote Security Engineer at Elasticsearch. Let’s see how many of those traits I can find (I’ve bolded the relevant parts):

Engineering Philosophy

Engineering a distributed system that is easy to operate via elegantly designed APIs is a challenge. It requires software development skills and the ability to think like a user. We care deeply about giving you ownership of what you’re working on [Independence]. Our company believes we achieve greatness when they are set free and are surrounded and challenged by their peers. At Elastic, we effectively don’t have a hierarchy to speak of [Less multi-manager meetings]; we feel that you should be empowered to comment on anything, regardless of your role within the company.

What You Will Be Doing:

  • Evolving the security features of Elasticsearch.
  • Implement authentication, authorization, and other security protocols within Elasticsearch.
  • Build the foundation of security for the Elastic Stack using knowledge of cryptographic primitives and security trade-offs.
  • Prototype new ideas and experiment openly.
  • Collaborating in the open with the Elasticsearch team, Elastic Stack users, and others supporting open source projects.
  • Working with the community on bugs and performance issues and assisting out support engineers with tougher customer issues. [Debugging]

Tally this up: remote, independent, few multi-manager meetings, quality (comes with security), and debugging with customers. This basically meets everything but the devops requirement. Before I did this exercise, I wouldn’t have looked for or considered this job. It looks like a much better fit for my likes and dislikes than my job at the time was.

Finally, you don’t actually need to leave your current job to “find” your dream job. If you bring this data to your manager, you can have a conversation to improve your current day to day work.

Examples:

  • Hi Manager, I really enjoying improving and augmenting our development infrastructure. Is there any bandwidth for me to spend more time on tasks like this?
  • Dear Manager, I find the stakeholder and war room meetings with Team X are very chaotic and distracting. Do you think you could help me push for a conference call so I don’t need to be in the room and be less distracted?
  • To the Manager whom it may concern, I understand that you’ve been placing me in leadership positions for several new products. While I think this is a great compliment for the trust you have in me, I want to work with you to make time for doing what I love at this job: crushing bugs and solving problems.
  • Meetings suck. Please make them stop.

How you phrase these has more to do with Crucial Conversations than anything else. At the very least, you communicate what you want more of or less of.

Brush Twice, Floss Once

How often should you do this? I recommend 5 to 10 consecutive business days with a handful of measurements per day to get a good sense of your average work day. Be careful of the time frame you choose. If another significant life event is going on or something else is changing, you may be measuring your reaction to that other thing instead of your reaction to your job.

Tools

Tools for setting triggers:

  • Phone alarms
  • Calendar reminders
  • Apps like Dailio

Tools for measuring:

  • Coloring or tagging your calendar meetings with categories describing your reactions to them
  • Apps like Dailio
  • Pen and Paper

Tools for interpreting:

  • Pen and paper
  • Apps, once again, like Dailio

Happy Self Quantifying.

An Independent Venture: Change Comes From Within

When I found that my work life was a huge drain on my energy level, that I had an increasingly negative attitude, and that I wasn’t happy about my career progression, I decided that I would try to change myself to make things better.

Why change yourself when something else is the problem?

The least costly thing to change is your attitude. I’m not talking about power poses or positive reinforcement self-talk in the mirror. This requires self-awareness, introspection, and the help of friends and peers.

Mindfulness

This is a bit of a buzzword these days so I will forgive you for rolling your eyes. This is important because of the way it draws frequent attention to your physical and emotional state. You will not be able to control your reactions or to calm yourself if you are not aware of your emotions.

How it works

  • Whenever you can remember or set a reminder on your phone, take a few seconds to examine yourself: how are you feeling physically? Try to relax all your muscles – did anything feel particularly tense? Where are your thoughts drifting to? Can you tell what your dominant emotion is?
  • Once you get into this habit intentionally, you’ll start doing this unintentionally.
  • Use the knowledge of how you are feeling to start working backwards and figure out how you got there. Was it a frustrating meeting? A particular coworker?
  • Finally, you have an idea of what triggers stressful or negative feelings in you at work. Now we’ve got something to improve!

What to do with it

Now that you know what is making you feel negatively, you can use the tried and true options to handle this problem:

  • Accept: just deal with it
  • Mitigate: if you know certain meetings make you stressed out, ask your team to share the work. Find a peer to help you out in the meeting. Mentally prepare yourself. Bring a physical object to the meeting to focus on so you can remind yourself to relax.
  • Eliminate: If it’s a meeting or a particular task that’s causing you stress or negativity, get rid of it. Ask your manager to put you on another project. Ask a coworker to take over your meeting.

Peers and Mentors

One of the basic human needs is belonging. We want to know that we belong and are part of something bigger. Knowing that a problem is not just your problem but everyone’s problem can help a lot in coping with difficulties. Again, as with the mindfulness, this doesn’t need to be gooey hand-holding. This can be directed and scientific.

How does it work

  • Identify 2 or 3 people you’d be comfortable asking questions about your work and workplace to. These would be generic questions like “how do you think this code review went?” and “what did you think of the team meeting yesterday?”
  • Come up with a list of questions that are specific and neutral that relate to the challenges you face at work. Examples:
    • [Problem: meetings are stressful] I like to spend more time coding and I’ve noticed we spend a lot of times in meetings lately. Do you have any thoughts on how we can shorten meetings or have fewer? I think we should use chat more instead. What do you think?
    • [Problem: a particularly challenging task] I’m working on this task and it’s got a lot of moving parts. Have you worked in this area before? Do you know anyone that has?
  • Collect whatever impressions you can from these conversations and, if you feel it’s appropriate, be a little more open about your difficulties.

What do you do with it

If you’re in a workplace with non-sociopaths, you should have some supportive data that you’re not the only one with the problems. Maybe you even have someone you can ask for advice or trade some of the more challenging tasks with. Building a community over shared problems will create a more friendly and supportive environment that will reduce stress and negativity. Oops, that got a little gooey.

Professional Help

Professional help comes in many different forms from mild to extreme. Here are some examples with brief descriptions that you can consider:

  • Midday massages: treating yourself and relaxing even with a hand or head massage can make you more positive and able to tolerate stress throughout the day.
  • Routine massage, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, etc.: regular practices that focus on guided relaxation and reduction of stress can work to build up your ability to tolerate stress.
  • Psychotherapy: Having a professional help you understand your blind spots or if there are larger problems can be invaluable when trying to adjust your view on life. Further, this person can often recommend books, activities, or other practices like those I suggested above that are more catered to you.
  • Medical professional: For those who’ve tried all the meditation, exercise, aromatherapy, psychotherapy, afternoon massages, and minor diet changes, unfortunately we have to go to the doctor. You may have depression, anxiety, or a stress disorder. Your doctor will be able to assess and recommend practices such as psychotherapy, medications, or practices as above.

How did this work out for me?

I tried everything listed above and continue to use some of these practices today. They have greatly improved my quality of life and how I respond to challenges I encounter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make me like my job.

Next: An Independent Venture: Flexible Work Arrangements – Working from Home