Guest Post by: Chris Martens (Mentee, Session 7, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Vikas Batra]
As product managers, we have chosen a career path in which there are ever-changing demands on our attention. Often, we feel that there is not enough time in a day to get everything done or to handle all of the priorities in front of us. Instead, we run from one action item to another, trying not to fall behind. The result is that, over time, we may become stressed and sleep deprived, priorities can slip, and our overall performance may suffer.
The cause of these problems may be that we are time inefficient – we lack the ability to appropriately manage our time in order to complete our priority tasks. Examples include:
- The inability to keep track of action items, both small and large
- Not allocating time to focus on larger priorities
- Allowing yourself to be distracted by non-priority items, such as responding to emails or answering questions from co-workers
- Allowing stress to block your ability to think clearly
- Failing to balance professional and personal priorities
Fortunately, there are a number of solutions available, and, in this article, I will briefly discuss each approach I have personally used during the Product Mentor session. In the end, the goal is to not only gain control of your available time, but to actually “buy back” time in each week to be used how you see fit, allowing you to focus on the most important tasks for your job and your career.
Prioritizing Work Items – List Managers
Most likely, you begin each day with a list of things that you need to do. Unfortunately, that list never remains static, and it is inevitable that new action items will be added to your plate as the day progresses. How you manage these items is incredibly important to your productivity.
The use of a list manager, such as Wunderlist, can make a substantial impact, allowing you to organize, prioritize, and remember both small and large action items. By routinely curating this list throughout each day, you can stay on top of things that are most important, ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks.
Scheduling Time For Yourself
A product manager spends much of their time planning for the future. This can involve a number of different activities, all of which all have one thing in common – they require your absolute focus to ensure you are making the most valuable product decisions. Unfortunately, many of us are balancing a number of priorities, and it’s easy for us to work on the smaller items of today instead of the larger items of tomorrow.
An effective strategy to address this issue is to block off time on your calendar for specific, larger work items. In truth, you are scheduling a meeting with yourself. When doing this, the most important things to remember are:
- When the scheduled time arrives, do not create excuses to skip working on the task.
- Ensure that you adequately prepare before the meeting beforehand. If you don’t know what to focus on, then you’re wasting the time you’ve set aside.
- Make it a habit. Even if you’re not pressed for time, schedule a meeting anyway. In this way, the practice will become second nature when things get really busy.
Dedicating Time to Emails
Emails can provide a significant problem for many people. For some companies, this is the primary means of communication, and you might consistently receive emails all day. As a result, your focus can be easily disrupted when reading new messages and responding to them immediately.
A technique that can help with this issue is to reserve specific times in your day for reading and responding to emails. Blocking off time in your calendar will allow you to focus on them at appointed times. The most important benefit to this approach is that it frees up your mental bandwidth. Your can focus your attention on current tasks without distraction, because you know you’ve set aside time to address all of your emails later in the day
If you’re constantly distracted by co-workers, then this can be a major disruption to your concentration. Often, managers have “open door policies”, but this can be detrimental to your productivity if people are asking you questions all day.
One strategy is to implement “office hours.” Consider setting an established time during each day where anybody can “bother you” and ask you questions. Outside of these office hours, people know either not to interrupt you or to reserve time at another point. In the end, this can be a big boost for addressing co-worker needs while, at the same time, giving you the ability to dedicate time for focusing on important work.
High-attention Tasks vs Low-attention Tasks
Often, our brains have a better ability to focus at certain periods of the day, while we noticeably lack energy at other times. If you can identify this cycle for yourself, you can optimize your time by scheduling certain types of work.
For example, if your brain is freshest in the morning hours, plan to do high-attention tasks such as leading important meetings, taking part in brainstorming sessions, or interviewing users. When your brain is less effective, you should schedule doing low-attention tasks such as inputting data, organizing, or writing non-important emails.
Identifying this pattern can help you strategically plan out your day. Additionally, it can ensure that your output for the most important items is the best it possibly can be.
For product managers, stress is par for the course. While some handle it better than others, it is something we should expect and accept. Unfortunately, if stress is not appropriately managed, your daily performance and overall health can suffer.
One technique to help address this issue is focused breathing. If, at any point in the day, you feel yourself becoming acutely stressed, then consider stepping away from your work for a couple of minutes. Once you find a quiet spot, close your eyes and focus on breathing slowly and deeply. After a few minutes, you should feel your heart rate slow down, and your body should feel calmer.
To take this even further, another great technique is reserve time in your day specifically for meditation. This can be particularly helpful when work and life is stressful over longer periods. Consider scheduling 30 minutes on your daily calendar, such as at lunch time. All you need is a quiet spot, such as in your car or a meeting room. I might suggest starting out with a guided meditation if you’ve never meditated before.
The goal of both of these practices is to refocus your mind away from the work in front of you, removing the “fight or flight” response that blocks your concentration. With a calmer mind and body, you can handle the stress that comes with work and life and better assess how to accomplish the tasks in front of you.
Mind Mapping – Organize Your Life
Life is not just about work; it’s a balance between all the personal and professional priorities that you need to consider every day. In order to manage all of this effectively, I suggest a technique called mind-mapping. The goal of a mind-map is to help you visualize and organize thoughts in a connected and related way. I personally use a service called MindMeister, and below is an example of a real mind map that I built for myself.
As you can see, for those with very busy lives, a mind-mapping tool can provide a daily snapshot of all of life’s priorities. By quickly visualizing and organizing these items, you can better balance what’s most important for you, your family, and for your profession.
Before starting The Product Mentor session, being able to effectively balance my time was a debilitating issue. I had an ever-growing backlog of items, and I spent most of my time trying to catch up with priorities. As a result, I had little free time to learn about my product, think at a high level, or plan for the future. Truly, I didn’t feel like I was growing as a product manager.
Throughout this session, I was able to trial every technique discussed in this article. By choosing the tools that worked best for me, I have now built a time management skillset that I employ daily. As a result, I have gained an extra two hours or more each week to spend how I see fit on items of greatest importance. Additionally, I’ve already caught up in my backlog, allowing me to spend time bettering understand my product, planning for the future, and addressing neglected personal items. The goal now is to make these techniques habitual in all circumstances, allowing me to naturally remain in control, work on my priorities with focus, and deliver reliable results.
To conclude, it is clear that effective time management should be considered an essential part of one’s life – both professionally and personally. It aids us in dedicating enough time to what’s most important and in accomplishing our tasks to the best of our abilities. It is my hope that you can make use of the tools discussed in this article to better manage time in your lives as well. In the end, these time management techniques will allow us as product managers to stay in control when everything else appears uncertain and chaotic.
Chris is a technical product manager at Donuts, Inc in Seattle. With a background in software development, he manages the best-rated Registry platform in the domain industry. He is currently working to deliver internal product solutions that will allow Donuts to grow, scale, and innovate into the future.
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