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At its very deepest, the martial art of Iaido emphasizes the connection of the mind, body, and spirit working together to respond quickly and effortlessly to a sudden attack. The term Iaido consists of the Japanese kanji characters 居合 (Iai) and 道 (do). In English, the term is often translated as “the way of mental reaction.” I have practiced Iaido for four years, and managed projects at MTM LinguaSoft for two. What has this ancient Japanese martial art taught me about translation project management? It turns out, more than I expected.

Learning to efficiently multitask

A skilled practitioner of Iaido makes performing multiple physical tasks look simple and effortless—any added flourishes or movements are considered excessive and a waste of energy. If you come to a practice thinking about the hundreds of errands on your to-do list, chances are this stress will negatively impact your practice by causing your mind to wander. The practice of Iaido requires focusing on the task at hand instead of jumping ahead to what comes next.

This ability to prioritize and focus on one or two tasks at a time is a necessary skill for any project manager. My work constantly keeps me on my toes. I need to prioritize and devote a set amount of time to a few key tasks. I have learned firsthand the inefficiency of “multitasking,” or attempting to do multiple things at once. No matter how hard I tried, I found that my productivity level decreased when I attempted to respond to a new project request as soon as I received it. Essentially, I was starting on one task and automatically jumping to another when I had not even completed what I was originally working on. When I tracked my time over the period of a month, I realized that it was actually taking me twice as long to complete tasks.

Like the martial art I practice, project management involves streamlining your process and reducing any extraneous activities that will add more work for you. Tracking time, setting realistic expectations, and creating a daily to-do list prioritizing what you need to get done are all ways to help you stay focused on the task at hand, even when something else pops up. Challenging situations will arise during project management, but learning how to anticipate issues by asking targeted questions and creating reliable processes will help reduce stress and allow you to approach the problem more objectively.

Clear, focused communication

Being a successful project manager requires clear and accurate communication. Learning how my clients prefer to communicate while strengthening my written and oral communication skills can make the difference between a project going smoothly and a project that is marked by significant delays due to misunderstandings. Over the course of a day I hear the same question or requests repeated over and over. However, I can’t assume that I know what the client needs without taking the time to fully listen and understand. It’s a mistake to run on autopilot, make assumptions, and start thinking ahead without taking the time to fully assess the situation.

In a martial art like Iaido, new practitioners may expect instantaneous answers to their questions without realizing that they need to perform the same repetitive task like drawing the sword thousands of times until it is engrained in their muscle memory. Iaido emphasizes the practice of mindfulness or a state of open and active awareness. Instead of letting one’s mind wander, it is actively engaged and every task is performed with deliberate meaning. Mindfulness in martial arts can help a practitioner react quickly and effortlessly to unexpected situations. Over time a practitioner will come to recognize when their body is trying to communicate to them whether something feels right or wrong.

Iaido has taught me to not only listen to what my instincts have to say, but also to take the time to ask my clients questions to understand their unique needs. Being a successful communicator means talking “with” your clients and not “at” them. For example, following up an important phone conversation with an e-mail not only reinforces the key points you discussed with a client, but also makes sure that you are both on the same page. Creating and sending process documents with responses to some of your client’s most important questions can save time and demonstrates that you have actually taken the time to listen and not assume.

Problem-solving and continuous learning

While Iaido emphasizes the skilled drawing and re-sheathing of a sword in a number of stimulated scenarios called kata, it is also a continual learning process. You will never improve in martial arts if you’re unwilling to make mistakes and learn from them. A newcomer to the art may ask why they have to swing a wooden sword hundreds of times when senior students get to work on advanced techniques. I’ve asked this question before and the response has always been that you can’t improve or react to new situations if you don’t have a strong foundation to work from.

Like a martial artist, project managers are always looking for ways to fill in gaps in their knowledge by asking questions, attending seminars, and reading blog posts. Asking clients for feedback and holding project debriefing meetings are both excellent ways to discuss alternative methods that could have been taken or processes that you may have overlooked. Iaido has also taught me to not only anticipate problems that may arise, but that is easier to remain calm and focused when you view a problem as a way to learn. Instead of blocking out unwanted surprises, being open to new information allows one to react without being completely thrown off by it.

As my project management skills mature and evolve, I see more and more parallels between the physical and mental discipline required by Iaido and the demands of my job. Managing multiple projects requires efficiency, clear communication, and openness to continuous learning. I still have a lot to learn as I continue to practice both.