Time Management: Tips for Product Managers

Time management can make or break your career as a product manager. You are never “done”. There’s always more to do than you can possibly fit into a 60hr week. And the cult of the rockstar PM only exacerbates the situation. Organizations are hesitant to split the role for fear of incurring coordination costs or losing that single “wringable neck”. It’s a recipe for burnout, and a big reason why people do their time in the PM ranks and then leave for greener pastures.

https://theconsultantlounge.com/2015/09/avoid-burnout-in-consulting/

Say No (Nicely)

It is very easy to get drawn into every single discussion, every single decision, and every single detail. PMs exist smack dab in the cracks of the organization. You become the information conduit, which is a blessing for your short term career, but a curse in disguise. No mortal can tie up all the loose ends, and you eventually end up pissing people off. So you’ll have to learn how to say No to meetings, calls, and continuous shoulder taps without being a jerk. Part of this is a mindset shift. Less savvy product managers tend to relish playing the information filter. But that simply doesn’t scale.

Shorter Recurring Meetings

Most meetings run too long. Ad hoc meetings lack focus, and rarely need to happen right away (and if they do, it’s usually a sign your organization lacks the ability to prioritize.).

Your best bet is to timebox a handful of recurring meetings (weekly, bi-weekly, perhaps) to deal with more “transactional” communication. A well run 20 minute meeting can trump a poorly run 2hr meeting. Use constraints to force focus. Instead of answering every single request from Sales adhoc, just schedule a 30m optional weekly touch base and Q&A. They’ll thank you eventually. This will leave more time for the open-ended / divergent brainstorming meetings that yield great breakthroughs and a happier team.

Organize Information (Quickly)

PMs spent an inordinate amount of time organizing and disseminating information. Most associate product managers get squashed under the load. Customer calls go undocumented, requests get lost, and meeting notes disappear into the ether — which in turn leaves people wondering what you do all day. If you fail in the central task of providing context to teams, you are essentially useless.

The trick here is to leverage all available tools. Find a good transcription service (I use rev.com). Record meetings. Use a tool like Evernote which features OCR, full-text search, tagging, integrations, and a solid API (see this great video by Aaron Walter on “Connected UX”). Put together an information radiator on a whiteboard. Most importantly, be disciplined and constantly iterate on how you provide context to your team. If no one is paying attention, find a better way.

Work Less and Time-Block

Product managers frequently operate under continuous stress, continuous sleep deprivation, and continuous work fatigue. This makes it difficult to be at the top of your game. Somehow you always seem to let tasks fill the available hours in the day. To combat this I suggest time-blocking (see the Pomodoro Technique) and calling a “hard stop” at a reasonable time each day. Look back on the last month of your work. Was all of that work really necessary? What work benefited the team?

High Leverage

What are your highest leverage activities as a product manager? Some examples:

  • Passing new data and context to your team is high leverage
  • Figuring out how to be optional and dispensable — not being the blocker
  • Being available to your team when they have questions
  • Sensing patterns, drawing together disparate sources of information
  • Untangling what stakeholders (including customers) say they want vs.what they really need

These are the things you should focus on. Going to a meeting where nothing gets done every week is not high leverage. High leverage work doesn’t necessarily need to be glamorous. A quick set of meeting notes summarizing a brainstorming session can move mountains. So be honest with yourself about what work actually moves the needle.

One of the highest leverage things you can do as a product manager is to figure out a way to build less, but still drive value for your customers. That takes time and it takes testing. It also takes a fair amount of relaxation and creativity on your part (see above). But the rewards are great. You can save the team weeks and weeks of work. And any time you can get some piece of software out there into the hands of customers earlier rather later is a huge deal. The highest leverage work gets straight to the crux of the problem … making valuable software.

Eat Lunch…

  • Eat lunch!
  • Use lunches for creative brainstorming with coworkers. Get outside. A change of scenery can often spark great ideas
  • Take breaks and exercise. You’ll be more effective when you are “on”
  • Know when you are at your best. Use that time for your highest leverage work.

Check out this classic HBR article: Manage Your Energy Not Your Time

In Closing

None of this is rocket-science. But as PMs we frequently get caught up in the day-to-day. Our work starts to feel 100% reactive. We lose, of course, but so does our team. Worst of all, it begins to promulgate the PM stereotype: overworked, narcissistic, controlling, untrusting, and fickle.

The goal isn’t to work 80hrs, but to discover those things that make everyone — and especially your team — more effective. Then, everyone wins — you, your team, your customer, and your business..