Good Product Managers are never busy!

Timehacking tips for PMs

Previously, we looked at how Product Managers in large organisations often spend the majority of their time not managing product at all. As Ben Turner observed in response:

“It’s the work that gets in the way of the work that is the real work.”

Great line. And so true. As a Product Manager, it’s common to find oneself spread thinly and overwhelmed by tasks that don’t feel like ‘real’ work.

This is ironic as an ability to prioritise, stack rank and focus intensely on a single goal are critical skills that all Product Managers strive to develop.

Product Management means saying ‘no’ to 1000 things. So how come we are often unable to apply this to our own schedules?

Most corporate cultures are ‘Default Meeting.’ If something needs to be discussed, demonstrated or resolved, the first response is to have a meeting. Meetings appear in a calendar like acne, often with a one word subject line and no further details. Many meetings yield nothing more than an agreement to have another meeting.

I’ve dialled into conference calls with 10+ people joining from several continents only to find that no one knew what the call was about. Even the United Nations would consider this wasteful.

Meetings can also serve as an indicator of status. If no one shows up to your meetings then it’s a good sign your product isn’t in the major league.

The converse is also true. If you’re flavour of the month then try keeping people out. I once organised a meeting to kickoff the integration of Spotify into our products thanks to a licensing deal we had just inked. The invite went to 8 people and 40 showed up on the day. I still regret not selling tickets.

In a large company, it’s not unusual for a Product Manager’s schedule to look like this:

If you’re starting out in your career, a calendar like this can be a rush. It screams: look at all this stuff you’ve been invited to, you must be important. A packed schedule appeals to everyone’s inner FOMO. It produces the same dopamine hit you get when you check your inbox to see a stack of new emails.

Dina Kaplan, founder of The Path, describes this affliction as ‘The Cult of Busy.’ The cult of busy infects organisations at scale. Busy is worn as a badge. How often have you requested time with someone only to be told ‘I’m back to back till Thursday!’

Throughout the day, we are constantly making decisions about how to spend our time, says Kaplan. But we approach these decisions far too passively, as if our hand were being forced, our free will compromised. Like anything that is valuable to us, we should jealously guard our time, instead of meekly accepting every claim made upon it.

Ellen Chisa would break her day as a Product Manager at Kickstarter into 3 working blocks of 2 hours each for ‘real’ knowledge work, 2 blocks of one hour for ‘light work’ and only 1 meeting a day, always at the same time. She kept her routine predictable and consistent and acknowledged the creative thinking required for the role. She rejects the popular dictat that ‘there is no average day’ for a Product Manager.

Product Management, she concludes, is not a role that works well if you’re scattered and simply reacting to what comes up. Without consistency, you will get bogged down in work that feels urgent but neglect what’s actually important.

In other words: if you commit to nothing you’ll be distracted by everything.

Of course, we don’t all have the luxury of being able to structure our days into convenient ‘working blocks’ or limiting ourselves to just one meeting. We are at the mercy of forces bigger than we are. Recipients of dozens of invites and rolling ‘catchups’ that seem to come around too quickly.

No one voluntarily crams their calendar with back to back meetings. It just happens.

So what’s the answer?

The first step is to understand why our calendars end up the way they do. Paul Graham of Y Combinator nailed the bind we are caught in when he identified two types of schedule: the Maker’s Schedule and the Manager’s Schedule.

Makers include engineers and designers — basically your Product Team — who require units of half a day to be productive. Managers are the bosses and anyone from a conventional business background. They are people whose standard unit of time is 30 minutes and whose day is often sliced more than 10 ways. The higher up you go within the organisation, the more things skew towards the Manager’s schedule.

The two schedules are not easily reconciled. This is why engineers get so irritated by frequent requests for mid-morning meetings. As Product Managers, we have a foot in both camps. We have work that requires both Maker and Manager units of time. We are constantly interfacing between people on both types of schedule. Not surprisingly, we feel torn between the two.

Once you recognise the different types of schedule, the next step is to acknowledge the impact of switching between the two and arranging your calendar in a way that minimises its impact.

Much has been written about the science of organising one’s time better, a discipline known as ‘lifehacking’; basically the art of getting (more) stuff done. Lifehacking is exemplified by entrepreneurs like James Clear and Neil Patel. Neil manages to publish 8 blog posts a week whilst running 2 companies. Not someone who wastes time.

In a post that all Product Managers should read, James Clear attacks the myth of multitasking. The idea that we can do things concurrently is not only a modern concept but a flawed one, says Clear; we can’t. The switching cost of checking your email can be as long as 64 seconds, meaning we lose a minute every time we check it. As we check email every 5 minutes, on average, that adds up to a lot of wasted time.

Saying ‘no’ to 1000 things doesn’t just mean features, or shiny new ways to develop your product. It means requests on your time and intrusions into your schedule. Calendars are not barometers of your value, neither are inboxes. But they can be a leading indicator of inefficiency and an inability to focus.

Rather than be Default Meeting, treat meetings as a last resort. Instead of trying to ‘get everyone in a room’ whenever an issue arises, try thinking of 10 ways you can achieve the desired outcome without it.

Good Product Managers understand that ‘busy’ is the enemy. They make busy a confession rather than a boast.

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