Why I quit my PM role and did… stuff that changed my perspective
4 lessons I uncovered from my time away from a full-time job. Plus a fifth perspective change.
I recently quit my full-time product management role (role described here) and went on a career break. Although I wanted to write about my sabbatical experiences regularly from the start, I did not even feel like writing while on the break, till now. Now, 3 months in, I feel a newer and better sense of self and a clearer purpose for my next few weeks to put pen to paper.
Taking a break
This break felt like my first break in 19 years because I had been very “efficient” right since 8th grade, by utilizing my vacations for internships or competitive examinations. Even before I used a smartphone, I enjoyed the feeling of being “always-on” and thrived on optimizing every part of life to consume more news, podcasts, books, and audiobooks, and thoroughly plan each day in my calendar.
It all came to a tipping point as I sat in my home office in Feb 2022. I used to tell myself that the skills I developed on the job would help me succeed as an entrepreneur and I do not have the visa permission to be self-employed. But now, both of these had changed. Staring at my laptop day and night, weekday and weekend, I remembered my goals, but I couldn’t feel any energy. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, running a company that I started or where I am within the first few dozen employees. Despite taking a long vacation from work, I could not feel any energy in working because I was no longer learning entrepreneurial skills on the job.
Considering these two things, I decided to quit my job and take time off.
Illustration designed by stories / Freepik.
You might find an update to this story, one year later here:
During my time off, this is what I uncovered about myself.
1) It was easy for me to misuse the “flow” state.
As described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow and Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, “flow” is the mental state when one is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity one is performing. I missed the happiness that came from being in flow at work. I ended up compensating with video games. “Gamification” is a business term nowadays, but many video games are brilliantly built to provide a steady stream of challenges just above the gamer’s capability, that provides a constant sense of “flow”. I found this “flow” through Age of Empires 3. I had to take a break from my break to disrupt my gaming habit.
2) Consuming content limited my growth.
To be as efficient as I can, I would consume books, audiobooks, movie trailers (because movies take so long), and podcasts along with menial tasks around laundry and food. I wrote about the TTS Arbitrage and other efficiency tips here. The more I read, the more I understood myself and the world around me. However, I also spent less time thinking and less time writing. I took a few days off all sorts of content and found a new appreciation for the silence. That silence helped me think about my interests and future career a lot more than reading all the books on startups, psychology, or business.
Illustration credits to Mobile game vector created by vectorjuice.
Update: I consumed a lot of content this year, despite the sabbatical from content for some time. I wrote more about reading 95 books in a year, here:
3) I obsessed over eliminating “to do” which made me efficient, not effective.
I had a list of items to do that I never could tackle when I was busy working day and night. I thought I’ll tackle them in the first few weeks once I am on my break, but I didn’t. I felt compelled to add every small item to the list and tackle them continuously despite all the well-meaning advice from friends that home-to-dos are never-ending. After experiencing it for myself, I was able to take a breather and go from a list to a calendar view of blocking time for the most important items and ignoring the rest (sort of like tech debt or backlog). I also realized that tackling tasks kept me efficient, firing on all cylinders to complete a lot of things, but not necessarily effective, which I define as doing the most important things quickly.
Update: I wrote more about efficiency and effectiveness in my planning rituals here.
4) Slowing down my day felt wonderful.
I went hiking on my own through mountains, beside cliffs, and by city streets in Dublin. The walks forced me to focus on fewer things - no dings for interrupts, no household chores to complete. The mindfulness felt rejuvenating, although only in small quantities.
Earlier I would commute by car or electric scooter to minimize commute time, but now I started walking to places - this again drew me to comprehend my day at a slower pace while also letting me consume more content that I enjoyed.
Storyworthy by Matthews Dicks recommended making a diary entry of your 5-second moment of the day, which helps one slow down one’s days while also having memories noted for the future. Matthew calls it homework for life. I tried it using a Diary app with a daily reminder and kept five minutes aside each day for it. This felt like another mindfulness approach to making myself more aware of each day instead of letting the days fly by.
Update: I wrote more annual planning and being mindful here:
Last perspective change
A larger perspective change for me was to not work at 200% capacity to end up burnt out. An entrepreneurial mentor of mine in Los Angeles, Paul Morris, used to say “think about how can you achieve X, easily? The word easily will make you think of a less stressful even if a longer path towards the same goal, say $Ms in net worth.”
That’s how I’m trying to look at my days now. Prioritize fewer items to focus on - “effective” - and try to be a satisficer by going for “ease” in all other things in life.