Like many professions today, engineering can be a stressful profession due to the project deadlines, shrinking budgets, and client demands. In this post I want to provide some principles that Zen monks follow, and how you might apply them in your engineering career, to help you reduce some of the day-to-day stresses, and be more engaged and in the moment (or present).
I have to start this post by saying that it was inspired by a wonderful post that I read entitled 12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk by Leo Babuta. Leo Babauta is a simplicity blogger & author. He created Zen Habits, a Top 25 blog (according to TIME magazine) with 200,000 subscribers, mnmlist.com, and the best-selling books Focus, The Power of Less, and Zen To Done (Amazon affiliate links).
I want to give Leo full credit, as I will be using the 12 rules from his post for the basis of this post, however as you will read below I attempt to take these 12 rules and describe how engineers can use them on a daily basis in their engineering career development:
- Do one thing at a time. Zen monks do only one thing at a time. Leo references a Zen proverb, “When walking walk, when eating eat.” We as engineers’ multi-task for a living! However when we multi-task, there is a high probability that the quality of our work may go down simply because we are not focusing 100% of our attention on it. This doesn’t mean you can’t have multiple active projects, it just means you literally do one thing at a time throughout the course of the day.
- Do it slowly and deliberately. If you are able to give up multi-tasking and focus on one task at a time, yet speed through each task, you will still not be giving it 100% of your attention. Slow down! As Leo says in his post, “Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes practice, but it helps you focus on the task.”
- Do it completely. This may be one of the most critical rules of the 12 for engineers. How many times, have you stopped in the middle of designing a gear or a beam or a stormwater basin to jump on to something else? You then come back to the design task at a later time and take at least an hour just to figure out where you left off. Do your best to finish off tasks completely before moving on to the next one.
- Do less. This is an interesting one. Leo discussed how Zen monks are not lazy, they are actually busy all day, but they only take on a few tasks so they can do them in accordance with the rules 1, 2 & 3 above. I am not sure how well this would go over in the engineering world – doing less? What I can say though, is we can be smarter about planning our day. Create realistic to-do items for the day so you are not trying to rush through a task in 2 hours, just to get to the next one, when in reality to produce a high quality design you need 4 hours.
- Put space between things. Many engineers, in thinking high efficiency, set their day up in a way where they leave no space between tasks; I admit, I do this myself. If I am coaching an engineer at 1 pm and have to schedule another coaching session that day, usually I will shoot for 2 pm to “get all of my meetings done” at one time. However, I often notice that even though I know the 1 pm session won’t go longer than 60 minutes, the 2 pm session is still in the back of my mind during the earlier session. I will be spacing out my sessions going forward which I believe will make me more present with each client.
- Develop rituals. Develop rituals throughout your day. This is different than number 7 below because when you think about ritual, it refers to the way something is done. For example, if you have team meetings each day, develop a ritual or process for that meeting to make it a successful one and then follow that same procedure every meeting. Creating rituals throughout your day gives an item a certain level of importance and forces those involved to focus on following the procedure.
- Designate time for certain things. This one should be easy for engineers as we are creatures of habit. Creating specific times for tasks throughout your day ensures that these tasks get completed on a daily basis. For example, and I know engineers will love this example: do your timesheet at the end of each day! Then when Monday morning comes, you won’t have to spend 2 hours figuring out what you did last week.
- Devote time to sitting. Having time each day dedicated to sitting or meditation is a staple of the Zen philosophy. There aren’t many engineers that I know that meditate, but it is excellent practice for being present in the moment. If you struggle with meditation, do something in its place on a regular basis. For example, in his post Leo states, “I use running as a way to practice being in the moment. You could use any activity in the same way, as long as you do it regularly and practice being present.”
- Smile and serve others. Zen monks spend a part of their day in service to others as many engineers do, whether it’s your clients, local community, or your kids! Serving others helps you to avoid being selfish in your daily actions. Smiling is an easy way to serve others and bring joy to someone else’s day. Leo also cites volunteer work for charity as another way to serve others. Engineers interested in volunteering, I recommend a great organization called Engineers Without Borders.
- Make cleaning and cooking become meditation. If you are a full time engineer you may not get the opportunity to do a lot of cooking or cleaning around the house, however this is a wonderful way to practice being in the moment. You can use your time cooking and cleaning to focus 100% on the tasks at hand and ultimately help you to become more present.
- Think about what is necessary. Zen monks don’t have many things in life that they don’t absolutely need. Now I am not asking you to become a Zen monk, because most likely you are not, but I am challenging you to take a look at everything you own and think about what is really necessary. You might find it liberating to part ways with some of your material objects.
- Live simply. Zen monks live extremely simple and embrace those things that are essential to them. For this point, I want to close with Leo’s closing line because I believe he says it best, “There is no law saying what should be essential for you — but you should consider what is most important to your life, and make room for that by eliminating the other less essential things in your life.”
“If you want a certain thing, you must first be a certain person. Once you are that certain person, obtaining that certain thing will no longer be a concern of yours.” – Zen Proverb
I am on my way to hopefully become more Zen in my ways and if you are interested in doing so yourself, I hope these 12 rules will help you to do so!
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success