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3 tips for professional mindfulness

In your career, you're going to find yourself up against challenges that stress you out and make you question your worth:

  • "Am I good enough to be here?"
  • "Why is this so difficult for me?"
  • "What if I'm wrong?"

You are not alone when these feelings of doubt creep in.

We talked at length about this on Zero Content's Ep1: Making room for mental wellbeing.

In fact, I attended Frank Bach's confidence workshop in 2021 and one of the first things I noticed was how many lead designers from prestigious tech companies were in attendance. Every single one of them was dealing with these same insecurities.

Every. Single. One.

You don't have direct control over your company's culture, but there are a few things within your control that you can do to manage self-doubt in your career:

1. Name and leverage your stress level

Credit: Sachin Ramje​

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a simple model of the relationship between performance and stress. It says that stress and performance are positively correlated, but only up to a certain point, after which more stress reduces performance.

What this means is that you should regularly name which level of stress you're feeling:

  1. Low Stress: This is a state of low arousal. It's necessary for recovery but is not great as a fuel-source for peak performance. This state is not ideal for critical work.
  2. Optimal Stress: This is a state of optimal arousal. This is often brought on by the weight of constraints like time and complexity. In this state, you're well-fueled for critical work.
  3. High Stress: This is a state of high arousal. You may experience moments when your fight-or-flight response kicks in. During this state, your productivity and capacity for critical work can shutdown from system overload.

But even optimal levels of stress for prolonged periods of time can wear on your wellbeing. Holding a cup of water for 5 minutes is easy, but holding that cup of water for 5 days becomes challenging.

Which brings us to our next tip:

2. Practice being mindful (and actually do the work)

It's not enough to "know" the many techniques for being mindful.

You must actually do the work.

Fortunately, once you get started, it's not hard to build a habit. Try one of these techniques, and use it anytime you start to feel the effects of being overloaded:

  1. Box breathing. Imagine the 4 sides of a square. Inhale for 4 seconds, drawing a line from one corner to the next. Then, exhale for 4 seconds, drawing the next side. Inhale, then exhale - 4 seconds each side. Repeat this until you find yourself stepping away from an intense emotion.
  2. Observe the emotion. Imagine a running river through a wood. Consider a block of wood floating down that river. On top of that block is the emotion you're feeling. Anger. Sadness. Overwhelming excitement. Observe the emotion drifting down the river, separate from where you're standing. Watch the emotion as it fades from view.
  3. Consider the journey. Redirect overthinking by considering how something trivial came to be in your life. Like your cup of coffee. Consider the packaged grounds. Where did they come from? Who was working in the factory? Who farmed the beans? Who drove the trucks and stocked the shelves? Consider the gratitude you feel for how they came to be.

While there are a number of mindfulness techniques for dealing with overthinking, emotions, and stress, they only become useful tools when you put them into practice.

3. Prepare your way through imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is defined by doubting your skills and feeling like a fraud. We've all felt this and if you're growing in your career, you're probably feeling it right now.

This is good news - it means that you're growing.

And while it can be scary, it can also be managed.

If someone asked you to walk through a maze, would you rather start at the entrance and guess your way through? Or would you want to ask for a map to help you navigate?

Making time for preparation before new challenges is like using a map to navigate a maze.

For example:

  1. Prepare for your feedback sessions. Spend 30 minutes outlining the justifications for your most critical design decisions. Even if you don't need to answer to them now, this 30 minutes will serve you throughout the rest of your career when you need to speak intelligently on those sorts of design decisions in the future.
  2. Read a relevant book when you need it. Perhaps your team needs a strong discovery workshop to identify the path forward. Pick up a book about discovery or research methods, and start applying lessons from each chapter immediately. This approach of "try -> get stuck -> learn -> get unstuck" is not only a great way to grow quickly, but it's also an optimal path for balancing imposter syndrome with real-world application.
  3. Ask a mentor. Sometimes experience and wisdom trumps all else. And when you're in the thick of a specific challenge, you can probably think 2-3 critical questions that, if solved, would help you make a big impact. Identify those 2-3 questions, find 5-10 people on LinkedIn who seem like they might have the answers, and send them a DM. I've had great success with this, and I think you will too.

But most importantly, I want to reiterate: you are not alone.

Whether it's stress at work or stress at home, we are all coping through similar challenges. And the more you work to find your tribe, seek professional therapy, and practice mindfulness at home, the more you'll reap the benefits of an improved mental wellbeing.

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