Hemant Bhanoo: “It’s ironic that we’ve always looked to technology to increase productivity”
In just 10 days before IT Arena 2019 kicks off, we continue the tradition of introducing you to our speakers. This time, we talked to Hemant Bhanoo, VP of Product at Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Hemant gets honest with us about staying productive in the age of tech, gives some tips on mindfulness and speaks on his career journey from a software engineer to a non-profit’s vice president.
You started as an engineer and worked in some of the world’s top companies. What was the trigger for you to transition to a more management position?
I love engineering, and I had never really aspired to be a ‘manager’ when I was working at Amazon or Google – there was always plenty of career growth being an individual contributor. After working on several startups, though, I found that I really enjoyed working across domains. I loved participating in strategy, product design, pricing, etc. while still having a solid foot in engineering – it helped give meaning and agency to the work that I was doing.
Working at SIYLI, I was very inspired by the vision we were trying to create. I saw management not as a career-move, but as something I was willing to do in order to help create a particular vision. I learnt a lot in the process, and I am more willing for it to be part of my role going forward.
What is essentially the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute? How was the initiative created, and most importantly why?
Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, or SIYLI (pronounced ‘silly’!) for short is a non-profit committed to spreading evidence-based mindfulness and compassion practices around the world. It started as a course (Search Inside Yourself) that was taught by an engineer (Chade Meng Tan) at Google. Employees loved the class and he eventually wrote a book. People outside Google wanted a taste of it, and so Google allowed Meng to spin it out as a non-profit. He had an audacious idea – if he could get these practices in the hands of a significant portion of the world population, it could change the course of global politics and create the conditions for global peace, by helping create inner peace.
Have you noticed any differences/patterns in working with tech companies as a part of SIYLI compared to other companies?
Actually, I’ve found that people at organizations all over the world, and in all sectors (whether government or private, technology or other) are facing very similar challenges. There are the day-to-day challenges of a fast-changing environment, demands for quick turnarounds and rapid communication, and increasingly global – often cross-cultural – stakeholders. Then there are the age-old broader questions that we all grapple with as humans – why am I here? What is my purpose? How can I be a better person? With our work taking up a large portion of our lives, those basic human questions are quickly brought into the arena of the workplace.
I do believe that, because of the giant lever that technology is (and can be) in our society, people at tech companies feel the responsibility and repercussions of social issues that are much larger than a person or a company or even an industry.
What in your opinion is the biggest productivity killer in the 21st century?
It’s ironic that we’ve historically always looked to technology to increase productivity. And yet, it’s the very tools that our tech industry has built to hack our attention that make it difficult for us to be productive. Those hacks certainly make the tools ‘productive’ though!
I think if you ask people about their views on consumerism, on the value of attention, the value of creativity, etc. you’ll get a set of answers that are very different than the way we all actually behave. It’s because companies are “hacking into” some very powerful, visceral, triggers that make it hard for us to actually act in the way we know we “should.”
Any tips to stay happier and more productive at work? Favorite books, podcasts, apps, etc.
Ha! The holy grail of questions! But I’ll take a crack at it:
For happiness, I’d say that you’re best starting a conversation asking yourself what’s important to you.
Every job has some tedious work that you have to slog through. But there’s a difference between working hard, and not enjoying what you do. My rule of thumb is that if I have a six month continuous stretch of not enjoying my work, it’s time to figure out a new plan.
Once you are fundamentally aligned with the work you’re doing, productivity comes a little easier. The why can help drive the what and the how. There are often weeks at a stretch when I don’t browse facebook – not because of a “productivity hack”, but because my life is filled with things that bring me joy – interesting work, kids, outdoor activities.
That said, here are some small things that have helped my productivity:
- I’ve been using a tool called “Inbox Pause” which just prevents emails from coming into my inbox for periods of time. That’s probably the biggest help when I’m working on Individual Contributor (IC) tasks
- Boomerang helps me track emails that I don’t want to respond to right away but don’t want to forget about
- I block off big chunks of “make time” and “recharge time” on my calendar months in advance, otherwise, I get stuck shuttling from one meeting to another and never get ‘my real work’ done
- Never schedule recurring meetings without an end-date. Otherwise, you don’t take the time to question whether the meetings are really the best use of everyone’s time.
What would be your advice to a total newbie who wants to start practicing mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about changing your relationship to what’s happening around you. We are usually caught in the struggle to make the world conform to our desires. If you can accept what’s unfolding in front of you in this moment (which doesn’t mean not having aspirations for the future), that can start to change your life. To do that, you first have to get into the habit of being able to notice what’s happening right now, without any filters.
To begin, see if you can do the very ‘boring’ task of just noticing how you breathe. When you are aware that you are having the inevitable thought, notice that too, and then come back to noticing your breathing. Having a thought doesn’t mean that you’re “doing it wrong.” Noticing that your attention is on a thought, and then being able to redirect your attention back to your breath means you’re doing it right.
That first and basic practice is a great place to start. It might not seem like much, but think of it like a dumbbell curl for your attention.
Your bio says that you’re an angel investor. What kind of startups do you invest in? Are there any areas you always want to support? And something you would never consider investing in?
I’d like to say that I only invest in things that I’d like to see manifested in the world that I leave to my children. But in reality I’ve invest in friends and people who inspire me, as a way to vicariously live out my entrepreneurial passions (until I’m ready to start again). It’s nice if those investments do well financially.