Work-Life Balance as a Product Manager
Article originally published at Product Manager HQ on January 1, 2018.
The role of a product manager is to fill in the white space between departments, to ensure that the customer receives a product that produces value, and that the company has a product that generates value.
Of course, there’s one big problem with the role: there’s infinite white space, and therefore infinite tasks that a product manager could do!
To be an effective product manager, you need to create clearly defined boundaries so that you can perform the most valuable work that you can. After all, each additional hour of work has diminishing marginal returns. At some point, you may even wind up with negative returns for each additional hour.
Below are a few tips on how to ensure you maintain work-life balance as a product manager.
Tip #1: Daily Goal-Setting
As a product manager, you set goals and priorities across multiple stakeholders. Therefore, your goals for yourself are critical, because they drive goals across the organization.
Too often, we dive straight into the work without thinking through what our goals should be. Maybe we’re distracted with emails, or with incoming tickets that we didn’t expect. The problem with diving right in is that you become reactive instead of proactive.
Reactivity makes your product weak. Instead of focusing on the highest value activities, you and your team wind up trying to catch up against the competition, and that’s a dangerous place to be.
To ensure that you set goals for yourself in a proactive manner, try the following exercise.
Allocate 15 minutes at the end of each day to set 2–4 goals for yourself for the next day. Do not set more than that.
If you find out that you’re setting 5–10 goals for yourself each day, carefully rethink how you’re prioritizing your work. More goals are not better, because each additional goal dilutes the impact and focus for all of the other goals.
When setting your personal goals each day, ensure that they line up with your KPIs and your professional growth plan. If you wind up setting goals that don’t align with either, consider why your situation has forced you to stop focusing on what matters, and how you can alter that situation.
During this daily 15 minute block, also review whether you met the goals that you had set for yourself today. Reflect on why you met them or why you did not, and note your findings down. By doing so, you’ll be able to review trends over time.
Just as critically, when reviewing your output, check to see if you are overachieving. Overachieving on daily goals is a red flag. It means one of two things. Either you’re not setting your goals in a sufficiently ambitious manner, or you’re burning yourself in trying to pull work forward. Remember that you’re here to deliver value in the long term!
Tip #2: Time Forecasting, Blocking, and Tracking
Product managers are multipliers for their organization. Their time is best spent in ensuring that others are using their time in the more effective way possible.
Therefore, it’s absolutely critical that as a product manager, you manage your own time effectively as well. If you’re mismanaging your own time, you’re mismanaging other people’s time too.
To start, estimate how many weekly hours of work you can sustainably do. Leave your ego at the door. Remember that quality is inversely proportional to quantity, so be careful when setting how many weekly hours you’re targeting. Generally speaking, I’ve noticed that most product managers aim for about 50 hours per week.
Now that you’ve estimated your weekly bandwidth, block out your time over the next week with “free” calendar events. For each block of time, determine what objectives you will achieve in that period of time. Be sure to also block out breaks and free time, because those are crucial ingredients to your long-term success!
By conducting this exercise, you start looking into the future and shift from thinking reactively into thinking proactively.
Of course, these time blocks are meant as guidelines. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit every single time block perfectly. As a product manager, you’re guaranteed to run into ad-hoc discussions and emergencies. Still, by performing this work, you’ll have a better understanding of where your time is going each week, and how to manage and predict how your time will be spent.
Create a separate spreadsheet to track your actual time usage in 15 minute intervals, with a quick comment of what you were doing at each point in time. You’ll notice particular patterns of how you allocate your time, and these insights will enable you to further optimize your effectiveness.
I’ve personally experimented with tracking 1 hour blocks, 30 minute blocks, 5 minute blocks, and 10 minute blocks. Anything over 15 minutes is not granular enough to drive insight, and anything under 15 minutes costs too much overhead time. By tracking at the 15 minute level, I can clearly see how often I’m context switching, and whether I’m bundling my time effectively.
Tip #3: Walk at Work
Take a 15 minute walk each day. Try to time your walk when your mental energy is low in the day. Personally, I prefer walking during the early afternoon.
Remember that product managers don’t just execute. We also need to strategize, and creativity comes only when you zoom out of the details of the problem. By taking time to review the big picture, you may uncover new ways to tackle a particular thorny problem.
And of course, physical exercise is helpful! Since many product managers spend most of their day either in meetings or in front of the computer, daily exercise ensures that we stay mindful of our health.
Tip #4: Block Out Time Before Bed
I’ve heard from quite a few colleagues that they feel they’re not sleeping well, because their brain is still churning away at a challenge they faced at work.
Being physically and mentally well-rested is critical to effectiveness. Therefore, not sleeping well means hurting your health and your outcomes.
I’ve personally found that by blocking out 30 minutes for personal leisure before going to sleep, I prevent myself from focusing on work problems while sleeping. Ideally, try not to use a computer or a phone, since these screens are high in blue light, which are proven to make us more awake. Still, if TV or video games is how you relax, go for it — it’s better than tossing and turning as you try to think about work!
Studies have shown that the brain reviews your day backwards while you’re sleeping. That is, the most recent experience is processed first, then your brain continues to run backwards to consolidate memory. If you don’t make a clear break between work and rest, your brain will keep thinking about a problem and make it difficult for you to sleep.
The entire theme of this article is to stop being reactive and start being proactive. Work-life balance enables you to enjoy your work while increasing your effectiveness.
While work-life balance is tough to achieve as a product manager, it’s crucial that you continue to invest in your long-term success. Stay healthy!
Have thoughts that you’d like to contribute around work-life balance as a product manager? Chat with other product leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!