“Time Management” comes up in lot in conversations that I have with other product managers. The concern is about their ability to be a good product person, managing a product end-to-end while being short on time and fighting lots of different, and often conflicting requests. We’re busy* all the time but are we busy working on the right things? Are we able to focus on the things that really matter? How much control do we have over our own calendars? If not, are there ways to regain some of that control?
* Since moving to the UK over 14 years ago I must have come across at least ten different ways of saying that you’re busy, almost like a badge of honour 🙂 From being chock a block to being slammed to up to your eyeballs, it definitely took me some time getting used to these expressions 🙂
Especially given the fluid nature of the product management role and the associated risk of being pulled in lots of different directions, it’s important to consider how we spend our time and what we should say ‘no’ to. I will share a number of tools and techniques that you might find useful when prioritising and managing your time, based both on my own experience and the great work by Jake Knapp (Make Time) and Greg McKeown (Essentialism):
- We’ve got a choice (1) – Sometimes I can’t help scratching my head when we talk about empowering people. In my mind, people are empowered when they enter the workplace, but collectively we inadvertently end up taking some of that power away, e.g. by entering meetings in people’s diaries, setting recurring tasks, etc. Understandably, we don’t always feel empowered or comfortable saying no to things, instead saying things like “I have to” or “They want me to”. In the great book “Essentialism” Greg McKeown reminds us that we have the power of choice and that we can say “I choose to”.
- We’ve got a choice (2) – The ability to choose can be applied to tough tradeoff decisions on how to best spend your time. Instead of asking the question “How can I do both?” we should wonder “Which problem do I want?” or “What can I go big on?” We thus put ourselves in a position where we decide about the tradeoffs that we’re prepared to make. Ultimately this comes down to establishing what really matters and why.
- Identify what really matters – McKeown suggests that a ‘non-essentialist’ says yes to almost every request or opportunity, based on very broad criteria. In contrast, an ‘essentialist’ will say yes to only the top 10% of opportunities, using explicit criteria to (de) prioritise opportunities. I like how McKeown tries to keep things simple by suggesting that “if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” You can also use Suzy Welch’s 10/10/10 test to decide whether something is worth prioritising or not: How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?
- Saying “no” – Saying “no” is a valid option when presenting with conflicting requests, and there are a number of ways to say no graciously but firmly (see Fig. 1 below).
- Reflect on how you currently spend your time – Particularly if you’re feeling chronically overworked or that you’re not getting anything done, it’s worth keeping track of how you’re spending your time. Over the course, you could track how much time you spend in meetings, checking and responding to email or Slack messages, reading a book, doing exercise, doing admin tasks, etc. This exercise isn’t about accounting for every minute of the day but about building up a more global picture of how you spend your time. For instance, if you find that 80% of your time is spent, it could be worth reflecting on the different meetings you attend. How helpful are they? Why (not)? What are the opportunity cost attached to attending these meetings? Reflecting on such findings will help you in making tweaks to your schedule or ways of working.
- Carve out time (1) – Naturally, it’s hard to cater for unexpected events or things taking longer than planned if your schedule is fully packed with meetings or other activities. Keown recommends building in some buffer time – daily or weekly – to deal with unexpected events or to start preparing early for future priorities or commitments. Generally, blocking out time is extremely important if you want to retain a sense of proactivity and doing those things that really matter to you. For example, no one is going to schedule in regular time slots for you to study competitors or to look at product performance data, and you might well have to block out dedicated time to ensure this happens on a regular basis.
- Carve out time (2) – Similar to how you’d carve out time to do specific things, it can help to block out time to respond to email instead of constantly being distracted by new messages coming in. I find that if you only go through email twice a day, e.g. from 9-10am and 4-5pm – you’ll capture most of the important stuff in your inbox while still being responsive. To make the most of the dedicated that you carve out, I suggest minimising distractions e.g. by temporarily turning off email, Slack or text notifications. I know it involves using technology, but apps like Forest can be a great help if you want to create focus time.
- Pick and plan your highlights (1) – In “Make Time” Jake Knapp distinguishes four steps to making sure we focus on the right things, repeating these steps every day: highlight, laser, reflect and energise (see Fig. 2 below). Knapp stresses the importance of thinking upfront what you’d like to be the highlight of the end of each day, making sure that you spend time on things that matter to you instead of losing the entire day reacting to other people’s priorities.
- Pick and plan your highlights (2) – Knapp suggests three different ways to pick your highlight: urgency, satisfaction and joy (see Fig. 3 below). I have seen other people apply a similar approach, whereby they select a few big ‘rocks’ that they really want or need to do on a given day, complemented by a small number of ‘pebbles’. Similarly, when I plan my day, I typically have a small number of items above the line and a certain number of items below the line, trying to make sure I do the above the line items first.
- Apply made up constraints – Even if a deadline or another type of constraint hasn’t been set, you can apply one to make sure you achieve your goals. For instance, if you’re preparing a work presentation and are worried about spending days on the largest PowerPoint deck the world has ever seen, you can set yourself a maximum number of slides that you can’t go over. Naturally, the trick is to then stick to the deadline or restriction that you’ve made up, but I know from experience that applying these constraints goes a long way in being productive.
Main learning point: I know full well that there are plenty of great books, blog posts, etc. on the topic of time management, and the approach that works for one person might not work for someone else. Writing this post, however, made me reflect on the key thing about managing your time: proactivity. Time management is all about being more on the front foot with respect to adding value to your life, your job, relationships, etc. and therefore a topic worthy revisiting on a regular basis.
Fig. 1 – Ways of saying “no” graciously but firmly – Adapted from: Greg McKeown, Essentialism
- Pause – Pause for a moment when a request comes to you. You can take a moment to count to three when you’re being asked in person or not responding immediately via email. Doing this gives you the time necessary to decide whether you can or want to honour the request.
- The soft “no” (or the “no but” or “not now”) – Instead of a blunt no, you could say something something along the lines of “I can’t do it now, but can I do it by the end of this week instead, as I need to finish a few other things first. Would that work?” or “No, but let me check with my team whether someone else can do it.”
- Let me check my calendar and get back to you – To avoid committing to something and only afterwards realising that there’s a diary or priority conflict, I will often give myself time to check my calendar and priorities before confirming.
- Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritise?” – No one has said that prioritisation is a pure solo effort. By indicating that something will have to give if you say yes, you can have a constructive conversation about your priorities and an opportunity to further explain why you prioritised these things in the first place.
- Say it with humour – Having lots on or saying no doesn’t mean that the world is falling apart 🙂 Sometimes, I will joke about needing to get creative to make things happen or doing some time-travelling to indicate that I can’t satisfy the request (now).
- Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to X” – Not only does the phrase “You are welcome to X. I am willing to do Y” provide clarity about what the other person can expect, you’re also being explicit about what you can’t or aren’t willing to do.
Fig. 2 – Make time consists of four steps – Taken from: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Make Time
- Highlight – Choose a single activity to prioritise and protect in your calendar.
- Laser – Beat distraction to make time for your Highlight.
- Energise – Use the body to recharge the brain.
- Reflect – Take a few notes before you go to bed, adjust and improve your system based on your reflections.
Fig. 3 – Make time consists of four steps – Taken from: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Make Time
- Urgency – What’s the most pressing thing I have to do today?
- Satisfaction – At the end of the day, which Highlight will bring me the most satisfaction?
- Joy – When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?
Related links for further learning: