Effective Product Manager - Time Management
How to manage the most valuable resource of all
How many of you feel you never have enough time in a day/week to do all you want or need to do?
I’m not surprised if you’re raising your hand. Because we, as people in the modern world, almost all feel the same way. If you’re reading my blog, chances are that you are or aspire to be in one of the busiest job role in human history: a product manager. So yes, I do think time management is one of the biggest challenges facing all product managers, and thus important for us to figure out how to do it effectively.
In this post, I’m going to share my perspectives about time management! In brief 2 parts:
❓Why Time Management is a Challenge for PMs?
🪄 My Time Management Advises
(Feel free to revisit my “Effective Product Manager” series!)
❓Why Time Management is a Challenge for PMs?
Let’s take a step back and ask: “What is the role of a product manager?” Well, a product manager:
Manages all phases of the end to end product life cycle. From problems definition to strategy, to planning, to execution, to launch, to monitor, and repeat. Oh, by the way, chances are that she manages multiple products at the same time, each at different stage?
Works closely and frequently with a wide variety of internal cross functional teams to get things done, all while provides frequent visibility to stakeholders and leaderships. And yes, you do need to go get coffee/beers with them sometimes to build that personal connection
Talks frequently with, of course, the customers and the users! Wait, there are 10 key segments of them I need to talk to because their needs are all different!
When finally not in meeting: writes PRD, press release, presentation deck, status reports, and that lengthy email to convince a dependent team to unblock you. What about time alone to finally “think” deeply about your strategy and your next steps?
And, before I forget: rolls up the sleeves to fill in a gap you see on the team, and put your engineering/design/marketing/sales/analyst hats on, as needed.
I don’t think the above is nearly exhaustive. But now if you disagree a PM has time management challenge, you may stop reading now and just send me an email. I’d love to hear about it!
🪄 My Time Management Advises
OK now with that out of the way: so we PMs are busy. What do we do about it?
Lets just say: NO, I have not figured it all out yet. But I want to share some advises, those I learned over the years as a PM. These are high level principles at best, and they’re probably not the “time management hacks” you find in best selling time management books.
After all, these principles helped me not only survive but also grow (in scope and responsibility, AKA “busier”) as a PM. these principles helped me still reserve time outside of work for my daily healthy activities (meditation, 8+ hours of sleep, workout, reading), time with my family, entertainment (Netflix & chill, plus some daily dose of YouTube TikTok), house chores, oh and write this newsletter.
So for what it’s worth, here they are:
Plan Ahead and Set Goals
Optimize Your Schedule
#1. Plan Ahead and Set Goals
If you decide to just step into a busy day or week and just “play by the ear”, chances are you won’t be as effective as you could’ve. Why? because a lot of your time and energy might end up being spent on figuring out and chasing the next thing that’s happening, getting interrupted, idling, or mindlessly scanning through emails/messages/social media.
So I always like to plan ahead my week and each day of the week, and set clear weekly/daily goals.
At the start of the week, plan for:
What I really want to accomplish in different buckets (e.g. work, family, etc.), balancing ambition vs practicality.
How am I going to use my time (see “Optimize Your Schedule” below)
Personal reminders that will boost your motivations, moods, or productivity). These can be key takeaways you read from a recent book/blogpost or improvement actions from your most recent reflections
At the start of the day (or the night before), plan for:
What I really want to accomplish today (that feeds into your weekly goals, in more granular and specific terms)
How am I going to use my time today (see “Optimize Your Schedule” below)
What are some potential challenges or interrupts that you might anticipate coming your way, and be mentally prepared for it
So you have a good day/week “roadmap” to follow! Of course, things can go astray in unexpected ways, so for the plans/goals to work well, the flexible/adaptable mindset is important as well. (NOT the same as “no plan at all”).
#2. Optimize Your Schedule
Know the best time in a day you’re in the “zone”
Batch similar activities to minimize context switch
Rearrange your meetings to reduce free time fragmentation
Sequence your tasks wisely to increase leverage
The “zone”: Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you find yourself the most productive and sharp in the morning, after lunch, in the evening, or midnight? You want to arrange the most mentally intense activities (such as deep strategic thinking, creative PRD writing etc.) in these time slots, when you’re in the “zone”.
“Batching”: Context switch is costly not only for computers to swap content in and out of the cache, it applies to humans too (as we swap relevant content in and out of our brain cache in order to perform certain tasks well). To minimize it, “batching” related or similar tasks in the same or back to back time slots is a good way. For example, you might not want to check emails every 15 minutes or so. Instead, you can protect some time to batch check emails twice in the morning for instance. Or say if you have 2 meetings talking about the same project, you can try to bring them closer together on your calendar.
“Reduce Fragmentation”: Meeting-free time slots are valuable for PMs. That’s the time you need to do focus work or simply to rest and recharge. Without deliberate arrangement, you might find those free times highly fragmented though: 15 minutes or 30 minutes here and there. Just when you about to warm up your “cache” on a context, you will have to step into the next meeting again. So try your best to move around your meetings to free up longer “free time” for yourself on the calendar. Same amount of meeting and non-meeting time, big difference.
“Sequencing”: Finally, sequence of your activities/tasks matters, especially when some activities are related to each other. For example: you might have a task to write this section on the PRD, and you have this meeting with the team about it. If you know the discussion in the meeting will likely impact how you write the proposal, you might want to sequence your PRD writing task to be after the meeting not before (even if you’re more productive before). As another example, this week you have a task to prepare for the presentation happening at the end of the week. You have plenty of other tasks in your queue for the week as well. You might not want to spend all your time preparing for it too early (say Monday morning), so that you will have to refresh your memory and re-prepare again on Thursday.
#3. Single Tasking
Human’s ability to multi-tasking is a lie. It’s just an illusion created by frequently switching between single tasks. So it’s costly to do. Even though multi-tasking create the false perception that you’re more productive by progressing in more than one task concurrently. But when you carefully assess how productive you actual are by the outcome, or even just how long it takes you in total to fully “complete” these tasks, you would know that multi-tasking does not really help.
So try to focus on one thing at a time. Be fully present in that activity, get it done as efficiently and effectively as you can, and move on to the next.
You might have the same question as I always do: what if I’m in this meeting that only requires my occasional to none participation, so wouldn’t it be a waste of time if you don’t multi-task?
I’m glad you asked!
#4. Say No
Try not to go to these meetings. OK I know it’s easier said than done. it’s not always possible. Sometimes you are required to just “be there”. But I still believe that you can critically prioritize the meetings on your calendars and NOT attend the ones you cannot bring or gain much value. For each meeting, there’s really 3 options:
You attend it with 100% attention.
You attend it with 100% attention only during when you’re required. Leave after that.
You don’t attend it.
Lets use some examples.
First, lets say meeting A is an all hand and you’re a new employee. You know you’ll learn a lot of high level things about the teams and the strategy. It’s best you attend with 100% attention, because you’ll absorb value the most productively, even though it’s easy to distract and multi-task in an all-hand setting when no one notices whether you pay attention.
Then there’s meeting B, where multiple projects’ statuses are being discussed. One of the projects is yours. Others are highly irrelevant to your space. You cannot contribute or learn much from that conversation. It’s probably good if you attend only your part with 100% attention and leave right after.
Now, there’s meeting C, where another team is going to share a new technology. You know you could benefit from learning about it and you’re personally interested. However, you have other higher priority goals to accomplish that particular week. You know you’d be thinking about these other priorities while attending. It’s best you say no and don’t attend it at all, and focus your 100% attention on the higher priority item.
To Wrap Up
If you have not noticed, these 4 principles are all related. You set clear goals to inform how to prioritize your meetings and times. You plan ahead so you can optimize your schedule for maximum output, before the day starts. You say no to lower priority meetings so that you can focus on a single important task at hand.
Have I been perfect in following these principles myself? No! I honestly responded to 3 emails in an all hands I attended last week. 😏
Have these served as good reminders for me to do the best I can in time management? Absolutely!
I believe the value these good habits provide definitely did compound over time as I feel I could now accomplish more than I used to.
Now I’d like to turn the table. What’s your tips on time management? What worked well for you? Share with me and the community!