Guest Post by: Anthony Nguyen (Mentee, Session 3, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Paul Hurwitz]
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had as a new product manager is around having to juggle multiple areas of product ownership, each associated with multiple cross-functional team members and stakeholders. It can be a lot to manage—I often lose momentum in the day by frequently switching gears and by focusing on fighting small fires instead of making headway on product work. My day feels like it’s being spent being pulled in a dozen different directions, always on the verge of letting something important slip by.
So it comes as no surprise that one of my goals coming into The Product Mentor program was to develop better personal time management. With the help of my mentor, Paul Hurwitz, here are a two time management tactics I’ve started to incorporate into my practice as a product manager. Hopefully you’ll find them as useful in your practice as I have in mine.
Personal Task Management as Project Management
While I had been using a traditional to-do platform for my personal task/time management (Wunderlist) to some success, it felt lacking in both flexibility and power.
As product managers, we’re often used to managing our projects through the various development stages of our ticket tracking software… why not put those same principles to work for ourselves? Paul had recommended I give his own personal approach a try: using Trello and treating personal task management as a Kanban board project.
I’m still in the process of refining how I use Trello in this way, but there were some immediate benefits to this approach over using traditional to-do software: First, the ability to see several lists (and all of their tasks) all together helps to easily provide a “big picture” understanding of one’s priorities, versus looking at any single to-do list at a time. One can scan multiple boards and reorganize quickly and flexibly thanks to Trello and the groundwork laid by project management needs. I’ve found that as a product manager, needs and priorities are constantly shifting, so it’s important to be able to globally understand all the different needs and priorities one is juggling.
Furthermore, organizing one’s day or week as a Kanban board helps to track progress and easily provide updates to stakeholders—unsurprisingly, just like in software development! And the process of moving tasks along helps one feel like they are making measurable progress—a nice morale win when you’ve ended some days exhausted but feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything.
- If you want to migrate your to-dos from one task management platform (e.g., Wunderlist, Toodledo, etc.) into Trello (or vice-versa), have a look at Todoport: https://todoport.com/index.html
- Lots of folks experimented with using Trello for their personal task management, so check out their approaches and variations:
Bringing Order to Your Day: Recruiting the Calendar
Though one’s calendar and to-do list often live in two different places, people have long recognized that they are two sides of the same coin. You can’t actually *do* any of the things you need to do if you’re not committing the necessary time for them.
The answer? Time Blocking.
It’s easy to have your day pulled into different directions between HipChat (or Slack) messages, emails, and meetings. The concept of distinguishing between “urgency” and “importance” is one that’s existed for some time now, though it remains as true as ever—particularly so for a discipline that lives and dies by prioritization.
The basics of the technique is fairly simple: reserve (“block off”) time on your calendar for a particular task. You commit yourself to spending a set amount of time towards advancing your work, and it’s protected from interference by spontaneous meetings and other interruptions.Plenty of great writing has been devoted on how to best get the most from this approach—I’ll leave that to the reader.
One personal example of how I’ve started to employ time blocking is to reserve a half hour every morning after standup to go through my tickets to check for comments, questions, status, or to close out finished tickets. Sometimes a half hour isn’t necessary or sometimes it’s not enough, but having the routine in place was a great starting point to making sure I was regularly on top of my tickets.
I’ll also note that one of my biggest anxieties of time blocking prior to adopting it into my schedule was a kind of FOMO: I thought that as a new product manager, I was best serving my most important stakeholders by being as available as possible (given their typically busy and packed schedules). One insight that Paul offered was that time blocking also has the additional benefit of self-prioritizing others’ requests of your time. In other words, when folks in your organization are looking for a meeting slot and see that your time is occupied, they will self-evaluate (based upon their relative seniority and the importance/need of the meeting) to decide whether to look for another time slot or reach out and ask if you are flexible on that conflict. As I’ve started to employ more time blocking, I’ve noticed this happening exactly as predicted.
- Ellen Chisa has a great essay on time organization, where she observes: When I started interviewing for PM roles in college, the most common response was “well, there is no average day for a PM.” If someone tells you that, I’m tempted to say that they aren’t a very good PM (that isn’t necessarily the case: it could also be a problem with the organization they’re in). It’s not a role that works well if you’re scattered and just react to what comes up. If you don’t have some consistency, it’s easy to get bogged down in “urgent” work, but neglect what’s actually important.
Read more about how Ellen typically organizes her day: http://blog.ellenchisa.com/2014/02/07/so-what-do-you-actually-do-as-a-product-manager/
- For a more “product management” specific discussion on importance versus urgency: http://pragmaticmarketing.com/resources/time-management-for-product-managers
About Anthony Nguyen
As an attorney turned product manager, Anthony Nguyen jettisoned his suit and followed his love of gadgets to become a product manager at Vitals, a healthcare transparency company. He currently works on VitalsChoice, a white-label SAAS platform for health insurance plans that allow members to search for doctors, preview procedure costs, assess quality, and basically make more informed healthcare decisions. Anthony works in New York City and is always up for chatting over coffee about healthcare policy, career transitions, running long distances slowly, or the new smartphone he just bought.
More About The Product Mentor
The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…
Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.
Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…
- Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
- Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
- Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
- Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community
Check out the Mentors & Enjoy!
The Product Guy