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Mindfulness and Project Management
By Gayathri Sriram

Most project managers’ job requirements start off with “able to handle multiple priorities” or “able to wear different hats” or “able to meet multiple concurrent deadlines independently” – sounds like managing a three-ring circus with a smile on your face delivering quality performance; on time and on budget, of course! It isn’t just project management that requires a bit of juggling, it is everyday life pretty much – all of us seem to do it. And, so did I.

Somewhere along the way, to adapt to a project management role and to handle a working parent’s responsibilities, I started adopting different time or task management tips to derive more efficiency and productivity out of every waking hour. Even though I was more productive, I didn’t have the satisfaction of having done much at all and I wasn’t sure what was missing. Recently, like every professional in his/her 30s, I mentioned ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ to my doctor; I almost wanted to take it back as I imagined I’d be advised to practice meditation or deep breathing. But, this time, I heard ‘mindfulness’ instead. Though I’d heard of it, I hadn’t paid much attention to it, nor had I explored it much. After a brief introduction from my doctor, I read a lot more about it and it seemed simple enough. My main take-away about mindfulness – one thing at a time and that done well; quite like the motto we were taught as kids but something we ditched as it didn’t seem to fit our adult lives anymore.

I started applying it slowly – having my morning coffee by the kitchen window without looking at emails or reading the news. Just drinking coffee. One action. Drink. Surprisingly, it only took me four minutes to finish coffee; usually I’d need about 12 minutes. Perhaps because I’d get involved in working through my emails as I tried to relish tepid coffee. Well, having saved 8 minutes from my busy morning spurred me on to apply this to my PM role – what if I did one to-do at a time, worked through it until I finished it before I tackle my next to-do? Can I handle not checking my email as I am notified of a new message? Can I sit through not checking my texts as I work on a report? What if my daughter needs me and I ignore the phone call? Nerve-racking questions, surely!

One thing at a time? You must be off!

As a geeky project manager, I put together my to-do list on paper in 25-minute chunks for my first trial day! For obvious reasons, I chose Tuesday for a start day; only a brave soul would tinker with a new tool on a Monday! I used 25-minute chunks, based on the Pomodoro technique: just so it was short enough to feel like I can still check email/phone/whatever in 25 minutes and yet it was long enough to handle some of my to-dos. I just set a simple timer on my computer to beep gently at 25 minutes. If I had finished my to-do, I’d tick it off my list (proudly) and move to the next, else, I’d give another 25 minutes to finish it off. At the end of the first day, I felt like I’d been productive in so many years and finished through my list! My job or my responsibilities hadn’t changed but it was just the satisfaction of finishing tasks off instead of having a bunch of “in progress” items that got moved to the following day.

As a safe measure, during the first few days, I did silence my phone and put it face down during those 25-minute sprints. Keeping one browser window (project you are working on) open, closing your email application, and muting Instant Messenger also help with minimizing distractions. To further ease my willpower, I used ‘SelfControl’ app to curb any temptation to wander off. [For the productivity technique, you could use any of the ones you are comfortable with, not just Pomodoro.]

Mindfulness: Give it a shot!

I have probably practiced mindfulness at home/work/life for over 4 weeks now – it does help me cherish interactions and relationships; even chores don’t seem quite so bad! My next step is to enroll in a class/lesson in mindfulness meditation; in the meantime, I will be using these techniques to live one day at a time. Give it a try; you have nothing to lose (except 25 minutes, I suppose!).

Gayathri Sriram, a Bangalorean, moved to Michigan nearly fourteen years ago as an Electronics Engineer. Studying for her Masters in Business Information Systems at Eastern Michigan University and working as a programmer/manager at Institute of Language Information and Technology honed her project management experience. Gayathri’s strong organizational skills and her ability to see the big picture led her to quickly move into project management and director roles. Gayathri is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and has extensive linguistic, international, and IT experience and draws on these in her role as Director of Client Services at Pure Visibility. Gayathri enjoys working with the PV team to ensure that client goals and expectations are met and that all of Pure Visibility’s customers see bottom-line results and a great return on their investment. You can follow Gayathri on Google+.

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