5 Steps to Breathing Again: A Time Management Method for Busy Product Managers

Highlights from my ProductX talk "The 24/7 Product Manager"
Image by annca from Pixabay

Raise your hand if you are not extremely busy.

When you say that to a room of product managers, nothing happens. Nobody raises their hand. This profession is one of the busiest out there. And it seems like we are all struggling to find more time to do more work. It’s endless – there will always be something else that needs to be done.

You can blame the global economy and the need to work with a variety of timezones simultaneously, or the technology which allows us to stay connected 24/7. It could be because the market is always moving faster than we can, and we are constantly chasing it, or because to make an impact we are 100% dependant on other people (as much as I hate to admit it, even an amazing product strategy document won’t make an impact unless people adopt and implement it).

The old saying that the product manager is the CEO of the product seems to be in the heart of heated debate these days. But whether you agree with it or not, one thing is surely true: as a product manager, much like the CEO of a company, everything is your business. No wonder we are all busy.

But even more than that, if we want to be honest with ourselves, we are busy because we can be. Product management is an all-in game. You can’t do it half-heartedly, we all do it because we are passionate about it and extremely love it. And being busy is part of the game.

Still, if you want to be a great product manager, you must master your time to get to the important things, not just the urgent ones. And that’s even before talking about productivity and burnout.

Time management is important for your success. You know it too, or you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Time Requires Management

It might come as a surprise at first because time goes by no matter what you do. But to be truly productive and be able to make the impact you want, you must actively manage and own your time.

“Management is about embracing the fact that you will never get to the bottom of your to-do list”

Marissa Mayer

This is such an important quote because if you acknowledge that you have more to do than can be done, it means you must do something about it. Embracing it means working with it, using this fact to help you instead of fighting it. Unfortunately, most of us do the latter more frequently than the former, and I’m sure you know and feel that it’s not working very well.

There is also a saying that if you do get to the bottom of your to-do list, it means by definition that you have also worked on the less important things (because your to-do list includes less important ones by nature, and new, important ones, keep coming all the time).

So completing your entire to-do list should no longer be your goal. Instead, focus on making the most out of it. And this requires a solid methodology, and also time investment (ironically), and discipline.

Details coming right up.

Manage Your To-Do List Like a Backlog

This is a simple method that I have learned 15 years ago and have been using since. When I use it, it impacts much more than my productivity. I get to sleep better and I am much more relaxed. When I sometimes stop using it (because it requires time and discipline, remember?) my life returns to their usual chaos. And then I force myself to start using it again, and the magic works. Every time.

Step 1: Have a to-do list

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that in order to manage your to-do list you must actually have a to-do list. But many of us don’t have it as a real list at all.

Write down your to-do list. Anything you need to do should be there. The big “2020 roadmap planning” as well as the small “ping the CEO about X”.

I use Trello for my list, but you can pick any other tool (or pen and paper). The reason I like Trello is that it’s available as an app wherever I am, so if something comes up in the middle of a meeting (whether it’s an action item or simply something that I suddenly remembered that has nothing to do with the meeting itself) I can simply add it to the list right away so that I don’t forget. Once I do that, my head is no longer busy with trying to remember to do it, and I can return my focus to what I’m actually doing at that moment.

Step 2: Pick 3 items each week

It means that before the week begins you have to plan it. I give it about 30 minutes, although initially, it would take a bit longer until you are doing it at a regular pace.

I do the planning either on the last hours of the working week or on the last hours of the weekend (Thursday afternoon and Saturday night respectively if you are in Israel, Friday afternoon and Sunday night everywhere else).

If for some reason it didn’t work, I do it first thing in the morning of the new week. Don’t start a new week without it. If you don’t believe me try and see the difference that it makes.

The planning has very clear rules which must be strictly followed. That’s where the magic happens. Don’t cut corners there if you want your life back.

Rule #1: Pick only 3 items

You’ll be tempted to pick more. That’s because your to-do list contains much more than you can actually achieve. But the rule says you get to pick only three.

By the way, one of these items can be “organize my to-do list” or “read my email backlog” or what I call “table cleanup” – a number of small (usually administrative) tasks which I just have to do and get them off my list (and my head). These tasks have to be extremely small and can’t require deep thinking or research. If that’s the case, they deserve an item of its own.

Rule #2: It has to be doable

You can’t pick items that cannot fit into your week. That’s the whole point. You must be super strict here. Look at your schedule. Consider what is happening that week – is there a large company meeting that you need to prepare to or simply attend? a discussion that was set long ago but is likely to give you more work? sprint planning? holiday? Consider all of those when you pick your 3 items and make sure it makes sense to complete them during the week.

If they can’t fit in, either replace them with other tasks or break them into smaller ones. If it sounds familiar, it’s because that what you most likely do with user stories that can’t fit into a sprint.

Continuing with the sprint analogy, in the real world, the R&D manager keeps you honest in terms of capacity. They simply won’t sign off on a sprint that has more to do than can be done.

In managing your to-do list, you are both the product manager and the R&d manager. In this part, you must wear your R&D manager hat and be extremely honest with yourself. Don’t sign off on tasks that can’t be completed by the end of the week.

This is where you have the opportunity to take control of your time. If you give it up by signing off on more than you can actually do, the control will no longer be in your hands. Reality or randomness would decide what gets done, and that’s exactly what we are trying to avoid.

If it helps, think about it as if you are giving a commitment to someone else.

Rule #3: You must feel good with the outcome

Every week, while you are doing the planning and picking your 3 items, ask yourself the following question:

If I would be able to complete these 3 things this week, but only these and nothing else, would I be satisfied?

Don’t leave until you get to a plan where the answer to this question is ‘yes’ (and it also follows the previous rules).

This, again, is not a trivial guideline, but it is critical for the entire method to work. If you feel other things are true must-haves and can’t wait for next week, you need to re-pick your items.

I am sure you know how to do it. How so? because you are doing it in every sprint planning with your development team. You make sure the user stories which are included in the sprint – while also taking velocity into consideration – are the right ones.

Apply the same approach for your own backlog, AKA your to-do list.

Don’t compromise here. Make sure you can be satisfied with the outcome.

One of my tricks for doing it when there seems to be too much to do is to ask what is the minimum that needs to be done on each of the important items and include only the minimum. This often means that I can make an impact on 3 different things, even without completing the full thing.

For example, I can’t complete the roadmap this week, but I can make sure it’s ready for a review session. I can’t finish writing the requirements, but I can resolve one big dilemma there. The complete market research will not be ready, but I can contact that analyst and make sure we have an appointment set for next week.

Step 3: Plan your week

Now that you have your items picked, and you made sure that they are doable to complete within a week, make it real by putting time in your calendar to work on them.

I know your calendar is packed, that’s why I keep 2 recurring 3-hour slots in my calendar called “major tasks of the week”. Most people respect the busy time there, and if needed I am saying I am busy to keep them real and not just a calendar entry.

This means I have the time to do whatever is needed to make progress on the 3 items I have picked. In some cases, it would require me to work on my own and conduct research or write my thoughts. In other cases, it would require a large meeting. While you are planning your week, make sure these are already set up.

Note: some things cannot be done as part of your hectic day-to-day. If needed, work from home for a few hours or a full day. If it’s not a common practice in your company, book in advance a quiet room far away from where you are usually seated (on another floor if possible) or take your laptop to the nearby coffee shop. If you need quiet time to work on your important items, make sure you book it in advance. Don’t count on doing it at night from home after an already long day at work.

Step 4: Set expectations with others on the things you won’t do

Naturally, by picking only 3 items from your list, some things will be left out. The beauty of this method is that you know it in advance and not as a surprise at the end of the week.

You need to own it. If something can’t be done this week, communicate it clearly in advance (ideally with an alternative ETA). It would give the other side the peace of mind knowing that you are on it (even if it’s not complete yet), as well as an opportunity to raise a flag if it simply cannot wait and has higher priority than other items on your list.

But more importantly, it would free you from feeling uneasy about not doing it. You said it clearly and you gave people the opportunity to prepare themselves. From my experience, that’s usually enough and in most cases, you wouldn’t be pushed to change your priorities.

Step 5: Follow the Plan

The whole point in planning is that you follow it. Even and especially when it’s hard. Recruit all your self-discipline, and manage it like a pro. Track your status regularly throughout the week, and adjust as you need in order to meet your weekly goals.

Attempt to meet them even if you don’t have all the time you wanted to invest in it, or it takes longer than you initially expected. It might mean that it won’t be perfect, but Facebook already said that done is better than perfect. You can always improve later, but since you already have a solid base that is done, in many cases you will find out that you don’t have to.

Some things could be worked on till perfection forever – it’s usually the important things like strategy and roadmaps. Just like in agile, sometimes when you will have a working version of it you will realize it’s good enough. So make sure you finish the week at least with a working version of your goal, if not the full one you originally aspired to.

It’s all about priorities

And your priorities show up in what you do, not in what you think or say or plan.

If taming your time is important for you, take the time to practice and master it. As I said above, most of it you already know how to do, you simply need to apply it to yourself and not only to your product backlog and development teams.

Finally, remember that product managers don’t prioritize between the important and unimportant items. That’s the easy part – anyone can do that. As a product manager, you prioritize things that are all very important.

That’s the challenge as well as the beauty of it. If you are a product manager, you must love it. Love your own priorities at least as much.

*** You can find a video recording of the full time-management lecture (in Hebrew) here.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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