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Product Manager Burnout

Coping with Product Manager Burnout

Vision Built on Uncertainty

When I started my career as a young programmer I was tasked with bug fixing as a way to learn the code base….I hated it.

It wasn’t challenging enough for me. Now, several decades later as a Product Manager there are times I miss those days. Not for the nostalgia, but for the certainty.

Certainty of the problem, certainty of the priority, and certainty of the resolution. I could actually run tests to see immediately if I was successful and I could go home at night feeling certain in what I accomplished.

Product Management is about dealing with uncertainty all day, every day.

Uncertainty about markets and customers (“If you wait until you know for sure you’ve missed your window of opportunity!”), uncertainty about priorities (“what is the exact ROI of this feature?”), uncertainty about strategy (“don’t you already know what your competitor is going to do?”), uncertainty about process (“we’re no longer scrum, we’re lean”), uncertainty about trends (“you’ve got to consider the digital mesh!”) and on and on. The only thing this is certain is that there is a lot of uncertainty.

As a Product Manager I am all about commitment to vision and optimism to get there.

I will stand toe-to-toe and convince you with my data, my passion, my insight. And perhaps this is the heart of why Product Managers are a rare breed that love an impossible job, because we are eager to face the uncertainty and to move through it to gain insights.

And yet all the uncertainty, and the stress and conflicting opinions that go with it, can lead to burnout: a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

We all live with some degree of stress and some people can effectively use stress to motivate themselves into better performance or better situations. They see stress as a challenge to be overcome.

Burnout is when you run out of internal resources and the ability to deal with stress effectively, and you start to slide down the slippery slope of reactivity and exhaustion that leads to being ineffective.

Preventing Product Management Burnout

The best tool for dealing with burnout is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here are a few tools to help:

  1. Get to know your stress triggers and own them. In the 280 Group blog post “Elevate Your Product Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence” I spoke of the need of self-awareness (what triggers your stress) and self-regulation (how do you handle it). What causes you stress, and how you respond to stress, can be different than someone else. Get to know your own triggers and then learn how to cope with them.
  2. Reframe your work to focus on what you love about it. We’re all passionate about something, and there is a reason you’re doing (or attempting to do) this challenging role. Figure out what your passion is and make sure you frame your work around it.
  3. Know your priorities and boundaries. One of the toughest things about this job is the wide variety of options and opinions that arise naturally from uncertainty. Know yourself, your boundaries, and your priorities and let them be a guide through the many conflicting opinions. Learn to say “no” to some things as a way to say “yes” to the real priorities. This also applies to knowing when to work and when to rest.
  4. Get a process for your work and use it! When I started out no one could really explain to me what a Product Manager was supposed to do. But there is a product process, one that can help you get out of chaos. The 280 Group has a great process, one that I believe in so much that I now teach it. Find one that works for you and lean into it.
  5. Supportive social contact is a natural cure for stress. Have a list of people you can contact when you need to. Just a phone call to the right person at the right time can go a long way. Also consider helping others—this simple act can immediately reduce stress as well as broaden your social contacts. This can be as small as letting someone in front of you in a line or as big as joining a club or volunteering.
  6. Find a good coach or mentor to guide you and help you see yourself and your behaviors, both the good ones and the ones that can lead you into trouble, more clearly.
  7. Follow a good diet and get exercise: Your body needs good fuel and exercise to stay ahead of the stress curve. Seriously, we all know this one by now so why don’t we do it?

Coping with Product Management Burnout

So what happens when you reach burnout and you need to recharge? Here are few tips:

  • Take a break! Put the oxygen mask on yourself first or else you will be of no use to anyone else. Take the break you need, whether that is an afternoon or a few weeks or a complete departure from an unhealthy environment. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing hoping for a different result, don’t be that insane person.
  • Get outside: Take a break from technology; nature is a powerful antidote to stress.
  • Incorporate daily relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, walking or dancing to activate your body’s natural relaxation responses. (Yes, dancing! A mammal’s natural response to stress is to shake and shift their weight between left and right feet. Dancing is a great form of doing that and expanding your social network at the same time! I like Irish Set Dancing, your mileage may vary).
  • Nourish your body with lots of sleep, healthy food, and sunlight.
  • Nourish your creativity and sense of play to trigger positive release of happy brain chemicals.

If these techniques are not enough to re-center you, please seek help from a qualified medical professional. We all love this job (most of the time), but don’t let it consume you.

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Meet the Author

Colleen O’Rourke is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at The 280 Group. She is passionate about developing Product Managers as leaders within their organizations, unleashing their exponential impact into the mix of products, people, and processes that are needed for success.

Colleen Product Leadership

Colleen O’Rourke
Senior Principal Consultant and Trainer

3 Responses to Coping with Product Manager Burnout

  1. Moazzam Ahmed Aug 19, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Excellent and useful article Colleen, thanks so much.

    I like that you mentioned know your stress factors. For me, the uncertainty is quite the opposite: I thrive in it! It adds to my energy. I used to be a developer and being handed down everything already marinated and for me to just put in the oven was my burn out. My burn out as a PM is having too many great ideas in my head and wanting to do them ALL at once. 🙂 I can prioritize (you should see the task prioritization system I’ve created) but my mind and body craves for these ideas to come to fruit now. Obviously there’s only one of me, so my ideas sit in my head and priority system for a while, which in turn burns me out. Any advice on that? Do others have this challenge?

    • Colleen O'Rourke Aug 19, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

      Hi Moazzam, what a great take on the stress factor, as the unknown can be a place of great creativity! For some people, the task of going from creativity into reality can be a stressor and for a variety of reasons. For one thing, in creativity there is limited failure, but making the tough calls that it takes to give birth to products is rife with potential failure. Also, communicating the vision to get everyone onboard can be stressful to some people who aren’t as good at inspiring others and motivating them to stay focused all the way to the end. As you pointed out, just knowing what is causing the stress is your first step. Our next webinar (Emotional Intelligence for PMs) on Friday, Aug 26 will deal with 5 different aspects of EI, and perhaps that will hold an answer as to which one is the source of your particular stress point. I hope you can join us!


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