Women in Agile: Finding Sustainable Pace

Once again, the Women in Agile session packed the house, this time at the Keep Austin Agile conference in Austin, Texas. Around 120 women and men gathered around for the purpose of building a network where love and connectivity flourish, and the community collectively supports and inspires other women working in the Agile field.

The movement is beginning to gain momentum: After sessions at Agile 2017 and SAFe Summit 2017, more Women in Agile chapters are beginning to crop up around the country. New York City, Atlanta and the Bay Area have already established chapters, and more are on the horizon. According Deema Dajani, one of the organizers of the Austin event, Women in Agile is in the process of becoming a non-profit organization with more resources in the future to support this growing network of agilists.

Finding Personal Sustainable Pace

The topic at hand was timely and resonated with the audience after a long week of work, family obligations (and lack of family time), volunteering, travel and in many cases more than one conference. Tamara Nation led the crowd through a session on finding personal sustainable pace and discovering where to fit in the world physically, mentally and spiritually.

Nation opened up about her own personal struggle with compromising her health over work. She drew an analogy to work as a relationship, in which work was a horrible, unforgiving partner. About eight years ago, she began feeling abused and woke up to the realization that work was taking a toll on her health, leaving her forty pounds overweight and miserable.

She reminded us that work should be a good thing. Besides allowing for money and resources we need, it gives us a sense of identity and personal achievement. It offers social contacts and support and provides structure for our lives, as well as mental and physical stimulation. However, Nation pointed out that while most of us offer kindness, generosity and care to others, we often forget to offer it to ourselves. And that is when not only our wellbeing suffers, but so does the quality of our work output.

Impact of Burnout

There is a wealth of scientific evidence supporting the fact that stress and burnout have a tremendous impact on both our body and mind. In an article for the Association for Psychological Science, Alexandra Michel writes:
“Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with the hallmarks of depression, including extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity. At its core, burnout emerges when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress. Ultimately, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.”

The article goes on to describe how prolonged stress literally changes the structure of our brain, as well as affects cognitive functioning “disrupting creativity, problem solving, and working memory.” As if that weren’t enough, chronic stress leads to higher cortisol levels, which in turn cause coronary heart disease leading to 370,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone.

Additionally, as Nation experienced, chronic stress can also lead to the dreaded “muffin top” or a “beer belly”. According to an article from the National Institutes of Health, studies have shown an association between uncontrollable stress and abdominal fat distribution.

Nation asked us to take out our phones and select a photo that represented something about us, and to share the meaning behind it with the rest of the table. Without fail, every picture and story that was shared told a story about time for ourselves, or time with our families and friends.

One woman shared that she wakes up at 4am every morning and quilts for an hour to spend quality time by herself. Another shared a picture of her at the playground in work clothes, while her children and husband were dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Yet, she found the time to be with her family. I showed a picture of me on a mountain top in Boulder, Colorado where I had just visited two days prior after couple of hectic 12-hour work days at Mile High Agile, and still managed to find the opportunity to connect with nature and my coworkers. And my favorite of all of them was a young mom of three boys who shared a picture of her with her baby strapped on her back, while carrying another child walking into the woods.

“An unexamined life is not worth living.”

– Socrates

Personal Meter Reading

Nation invited us to do a “personal meter reading” to figure out why we were feeling the way we were. And the only way to do that, she said, is to pause and reflect. She then guided the room through a meditation, which is one way to figure out what is really happening within ourselves. When she asked us to share what shape we were in, the answers weren’t that varied: tired, frazzled, anxious…

Somehow we have forgotten that we bring our whole selves into the workplace, and don’t often stop to consider the sacrifices we’re making for the sake of efficiency. “It’s about balance and boundaries” said Nation, offering techniques that have worked for her:
• Be outside every day.
• Don’t look at your phone first thing in the morning.
• Don’t work and eat at the same time.
• Take breaks during the workday.
• Spend time with friends.
• Do a daily prayer practice.
• Avoid activities that deplete you more (booze, TV, chocolate).
• Take a true day of rest, not just time off work to run errands.
• Use all your vacation time.

To close, Nation invited us to take an active role in defining our own relationship with work and in finding our own personal sustainable pace. Finally, she encouraged us to make a connection with other Women in Agile in your local area, whether that is a meetup, group or an event. To find more information and support, visit http://womeninagile.com/.

Listen to the Agile Amped podcast episode with Nation recorded at Keep Austin Agile 2018: