Matthew Ström

Agile & Anxiety

Originally published May 14, 2018

Managing anxiety is a big part of my life.

I have generalized anxiety:1 I constantly feel that something will go wrong at any moment. Often, I can’t even identify what I’m anxious about.

Work is a significant contributor to my anxiety. When I’m at work (and often when I’m not), I enumerate my fears: stakeholder pressure, user feedback, organizational tensions, the list can go on forever.

Lately, I’ve been exploring how designers can work more closely with agile software development teams, and I’ve found something fascinating: agile methodologies mirror strategies for managing anxiety. I’d like to share some of my observations, as well as advice for others who deal with generalized anxiety at work.

Side note: isn’t agile for engineers?

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of agile software development.2 Our engineering teams work in agile ways, and I’ve been impressed by their commitment to constant improvement.

To make our product development process more efficient, I encourage designers to get embedded with engineering teams: attending planning, standup, and retro enables tighter collaboration.

Based on this close embedding, we’ve also started applying agile principles to our day-to-day design process: continuous delivery, self-organization, and reflection, to name a few. I’m really optimistic about what it will do for our impact on product outcomes.

So how have agile principles helped me manage my anxiety?

Agile reduces work in progress

A work-in-progress limit is often used in agile software development.3 By enforcing a ceiling on the responsibilities any member of your team has, you reduce multitasking, and increase productivity.

Limiting multitasking and context-switching has had other benefits, too. The less I am accountable for at any given moment, the easier it is for me to manage my anxiety. I can quickly check in to all of my responsibilities, and remind myself that everything’s ok.

Additionally, WIP limits make it easier to do deep, focused work. This is kind of like the runner’s high of product design — I do my best work when I’m “in the zone.”

Agile values transparency

Although the original Agile Manifesto and supporting principles don’t specifically use the word “transparency,” they get close on this specific note:

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

Standups (daily check-ins between the working team) provide opportunities to share progress and ask for help. Sprint reviews (celebrations of the team’s accomplishments) shine a light on what’s been done. Retrospectives (regular conversations around how to improve working processes) are a safe forum for introspection.

All of these things together comprise a support network for the team: anxiety is much easier to manage when you can ask for help when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Agile focuses on the present

One of the biggest sources of my anxiety is the vast expanse of the future. Given enough time, anything can go wrong. This is one of the places where agile methods excel: they focus work only on the present challenges, and embrace the uncertainty of the future.

Our teams work in two-week sprints. Because we’re only focused on delivering within the next few weeks, long-term projects must be broken down into smaller tasks. The “but what if” is handled in one of the principles of agile:

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.

Accepting & acknowledging uncertainty is a big part of managing anxiety. Having this mentality reflected in the team’s working relationships makes it easier to practice.

Agile for the anxious

Agile software development creates a supportive environment for people with anxiety. How do we take advantage of this?

Go to Standup

In some ways, standup is like micro-group-therapy. If well-facilitated, it’s an opportunity to check in with responsibilities. Good standups enable me to safely raise concerns, and encourage the team to acknowledge and resolve conflicts.

Standup is sort like meditation for your whole team: regular practice provides focus, making the management of uncertainty a group exercise instead of a solo sport.

Turn off notifications

The agile process gives you permission to focus. Regularly scheduled, highly structured touch points (planning, standup, retro) mean that you’ll seldom encounter ad-hoc feedback or requests.

I’ve started keeping my phone on ‘do not disturb’ mode for most of the day, and disabling email notifications on my laptop. Initially, this caused me more anxiety: I worried that I was failing to respond to important communication. Eventually, I found that this wasn’t the case. I still have to process emails and slack messages at some point, but I find that most timely requests get resolved naturally.

Trust your team

Literature about the agile process uses lots of phrases like “distributed authority,” “self-organization,” and “autonomy.” A major part of the framework is spreading out responsibility as much as possible, and making it easy for the team to quickly flex in support of changes.

Agile software development works best when everyone adopts the distributive approach. It’s been difficult for me to delegate and distribute my work, but as I do, I’ve become far less anxious and more effective at managing a design team.

How does your process help with anxiety?

Have you found processes or workflows that help you manage anxiety? Has your team had any discussions about how you work together to handle uncertainty?

You can reach out on twitter, or email me at [email protected]

  1. 18% of Americans have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, so it’s highly likely that some of you can relate. ↩︎

  2. If you haven’t, there’s plenty of great introductions to the framework. ↩︎

  3. NB: Technically, WIP limits come from kanban. Hopefully the agile wonks out there will excuse the equivalence. ↩︎