Plenty of prominent technologists, from the late Steve Jobs to Salesforce.com chief Marc Benioff, have found great benefits in meditation. Whether these creative businesspeople pursue meditation as a spiritual exercise or a secular mental discipline, they praise it for its ability to help them clear their minds, maintain a state of calm, and focus on what is most important.
Having done a fair amount of meditation myself – including in the midst of frenetic technology projects – here are four key lessons I've learned as they apply to project management.
When you’re dealing with the thousand competing details of a project, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you must be “on” at all times. True enough: Successful project managers do learn how to work through a thicket of tasks as they coordinate the work of many individuals. But to be more productive, we also need to learn to calm our minds, let other thoughts slide away, and in general put an end to that feeling of drowning in minutiae. That’s where meditation comes in.
When I was in graduate school, I took an early-morning class in Zen meditation. Before 7 a.m. each weekday, the members of the class would meet in a dim room to sit cross-legged on cushions and practice the Zen version of “sitting.” That’s a deceptively simple name for a complex and challenging task. The challenge arises because, even when you sit still, control your breathing, and eliminate outside distractions, your mind still wants to travel a mile a minute.
Repeated practice teaches you to learn to wait out the fidgeting and frustration. When you have a thought, you don’t resist it; you simply observe it and let it glide on by. You become more of a student of reality and your reactions to it.
Getting quiet and allowing your mind to clear gives you a great perspective on your life and your daily tasks. Your problems are still there, but it’s much easier to see them in a broader context and to avoid taking them so seriously. To put it in terms that most project managers would appreciate: Daily meditation helps get your mind out of the weeds.
The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has written many books that address aspects of meditation. One of the things she emphasizes again and again is the importance of “letting go of our dramas.” You know what she’s talking about: those inner narratives that we cling to as we try to make sense of our lives – and justify our own actions.
We often think about these dramas in the context of private relationships; just imagine an old married couple dredging up events from 30 years ago during an argument. But in fact the concept applies just as much to the dramas we face in our work. Surely you've been involved in a project that took on an emotional trajectory of its own. Team members hate the project – or the vendor, or the CIO, or you – because at some point they've adopted the narrative that this project is a tar pit. They hate it because . . . they just hate it. The drama perpetuates itself.
Meditation helps you step back from that. When you use meditation to clear your mind, you start to see things more clearly. In the case of your own dramas, you start to detect the parts that aren’t really there in reality, but that exist in our reactions to reality. You detach yourself from the prevailing narrative long enough to get the perspective you need.
Again, think about how much of your work as a project manager is about your interpersonal relationships with other people. Given that we’re all real, flawed people – and given the pressures we work under – our human interactions are bound to create little swirls and eddies of drama in our working lives. The man now known as the Buddha observed this fundamental truth about human nature 2,500 years ago. Meditation helps us recognize this reality and deal with it.
Speaking of dealing with it: What do you do when the project really is a tar pit? At the same time that it allows you to see reality for what it is, meditation also prepares you to deal with that reality, whether good or bad. In fact, Buddhist principles of meditation often emphasize that “good” and “bad” are labels that we give to things, not intrinsic qualities of the things themselves. Instead of getting hung up on labels (“tar pit” would be a prime example), we can get down to the actual business at hand.
Shedding illusions is a powerful thing, and it’s one of the key breakthroughs that many people encounter when they exercise the patience to meditate regularly. You may be dealing with a painful project, but with a clearer mind you come to realize . . . it’s okay. There may be parts of the project you enjoy; there may be important lessons to learn even from the parts you don’t enjoy; you might enjoy some of the people you work with; and so on. But you see each of these facets of the situation for what it is, without wasting so much time on what could be or “should” be. You just deal with things as they are.
I’m an optimist by nature. It’s one of my great strengths – and weaknesses – as a project manager that I can usually see the sunny side of things. It’s a strength because it allows me to stay positive, which helps when things aren’t going well. It’s a weakness because sometimes I don’t take action swiftly or boldly enough when things are going poorly because I want to believe that things will work themselves out. Pessimists tend to have the opposite problem: They don’t see the potential upside of a situation, and they overreact to every little setback.
Meditation helps you get to a better state, one that transcends optimism and pessimism to achieve equanimity, which is a key concept linked to several forms of meditation. In a state of equanimity, you respond to things as they arise with a sense of curiosity, and without hostility or ill will. In my experience, equanimity is a state of mind that every project manager needs.
Religious and secular forms of meditation often emphasize compassion. When you gain the perspective that meditation brings, detach yourself from your dramas, and deal with reality, you also begin to see that we all struggle. We’re all in the same boat, and we all deserve some human compassion.
Think again about what a benefit it would be to see through your own dramas. Now imagine: What if you could see through others’ dramas as well? Not so you can lord it over them or act like you have all the answers, but so that you can help yourself and those around you find the way out when you’re lost in the woods. When you cultivate your sense of compassion, you want that to happen not only because it’s good for the project, but because it minimizes the suffering of the people working on the project – including yourself.
When you get better at feeling empathy, you also relate better with the individuals with whom you work. Certain types of meditation – especially “loving-kindness meditation” – even focus specifically on wishing for good things to happen to people you don't like. It’s essentially a deeper form of “killing them with kindness.” Not only does it help you get along better with difficult co-workers, it lowers your own stress level and, again, helps you think more clearly about what’s going on in your own life.
Meditation and mindfulness have taken on big momentum in Silicon Valley. But don’t worry about that hype. Meditation is a deeply personal experience that will probably help you be a more effective project manager from day to day – and that’s likely to help you find a new level of peace and fulfillment in your work.