One of my greatest challenges as a product manager of a startup has always been making time to do the actual product management work. The day-to-day project management that falls on this role, quick feedback needed on delivered work and the never-ending need to address blockers were always more urgent than the longer term research needed to support new feature exploration, which is the core of the PM role. I believe this devalues product management, both as a concept and as a valued role in an organization.
So, how does a product manager make the time to be a good product manager? The key for me is to block out time to do the product work. Accomplish this by minimizing task switching, heading off interruptions, prioritizing your work and actually blocking off the time.
1. Minimize Task Switching
Minimizing the number of times you switch tasks or topics will save you the minutes it takes for your brain to change gears. This will also save you some mental energy, allowing you to get more done in a day while (hopefully) feeling less exhausted at the end of it. I personally find that I’m most tempted to check Facebook/Twitter/Reddit when I’m in between tasks, so this will minimize those opportunities, too.
I do this by bundling work together, by project, and actually putting it on my calendar. Say you’re managing two projects, all of which will need some notes from QA reviewed, work checked, and some new stories written at some point in the day. Block out some time, say 30 minutes per project, where you’ll be able to hit all three of those tasks for that project at once. You may need to do this twice a day per active project in order to give quick feedback, and that’s okay. Having two dedicated chunks of time for a project is much more efficient and less disruptive than turning your attention every time a new story is delivered or a question comes up — that could be a dozen times in one day.
Tip: If there’s also some product work to be done that’s related to this project, try to schedule that work at the same time, or right after. It will keep your brain in a similar mental space, as it’s not much of a hurdle to start thinking about what should come next while you’re dealing with what’s going on now.
Extra credit: Just completed a big block? Reward yourself with a walk for coffee or lunch, or even a quick breathing exercise. This will refresh your mind for your next task.
2. Anticipate Interactions
You can minimize interruptions by anticipating interactions from your team members. Take ownership of the active items in your purview and be proactive about communication, otherwise, you’ll be interrupted by these folks when they have tasks or feedback for you. This has two major benefits: you get to control when you talk about these things, and you look very much on top of your stuff.
- Regular meetings — Weekly or monthly recurring meetings with stakeholder groups create a dedicated space for product feedback, client and customer learnings and plans for upcoming initiatives and events. Fewer surprise feedback sessions will pop up if colleagues know they have some dedicated time coming up soon.
- New projects — Get a stakeholder exploratory meeting on the calendar as soon as you hear about a new initiative that you’ll be managing. This should keep them from popping by your desk when they feel like talking to you about it.
- One-on-ones — Ask your boss for a weekly one-on-one where they can update you on new work coming up. If this is blocked off at a regular time, you’ll both be able to plan ahead.
Being proactive about these interactions allows you to schedule them for a time that works for you. Knowing that they have regularly scheduled, dedicated time coming up with you will help keep coworkers’ DMs and emails at bay.
Tip: Recurring meetings are a great way to minimize time spent scheduling new meetings when you need to talk, and can always be canceled when you don’t need them.
Extra credit: Try to schedule meetings in succession if you can. This will help maximize the size of the uninterrupted “working time” blocks you’ll have left for product management.
Don’t let Slack and your inbox dictate when you deal with a particular issue. Keep a prioritized to-do list to keep your day focused, and block off time to review your inbox and Slack.
I like to keep a running list of my day’s priorities, organized by both priority and project. During my inbox and Slack reviews, I don’t necessarily deal with new issues as I see them. Any items that will take more than two minutes to address get prioritized on my day’s to-do list along with everything else. (Items that can be done in two minutes are best handled then, since you’re already thinking about them.)
Tip: I love Wunderlist for this. The simple interface makes it easy to add and prioritize your items, and the app makes a wonderful little “ding!” when you tick something off. I like to keep my three “must do” things for the day at the top, with my priorities for the week right below where they’re always visible.
4. Schedule Time with Yourself
Finally, get some blocks of time on your calendar, preferably 30 minutes to an hour at a time, to dig into your product management work. Put on headphones or grab a room to avoid interruptions. You want to be able to read, explore, draw, write and think creatively, and your brain needs uninterrupted chunks of time in order to do that.
And as for what to prioritize once you’re in the product zone, that’s for another post.