There’s an idea that PMs need to work 60 hours a week and be the hardest working members of their product team. I’ve read it in Marty Cagan’s book, Inspired, and seen it in multiple other places. I’m a PM in a small to medium sized tech startup, I work hard, but not 60 hours a week. I love my job but also value a good work/life balance.
What has your experience been as a PM? Are you working harder than everyone else? Is it because you’re actually covering multiple roles (scrum master, user researcher etc)?
What I want to hear are stories of PMs who thrive at their job, working hard when they’re working, but who also enjoy a solid work/life balance. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking!
Important note: I love my job, and I’m not saying I don’t want to work hard, I just think I can do both!
Developers on my team definitely work more hours than me. They have a rotating on call schedule, do after-hours releases, and sometimes choose to work late when they’re in the middle of solving a problem.
Meanwhile, I’m worthless after an 8-hour day. I could sit in front of my computer for another few hours, but I’d produce little to no value.
Main reasons I think PMs get overloaded are too much documentation and not protecting their time.
For documentation, think about what’s actually being used by your team and stakeholders versus what feels like an obligation to create but is of little value.
I use Jira for tracking our work, quarterly OKR documents for goals, and product briefs for projects that are big, are cross-team, or are otherwise complex. I also send out a biweekly email talking about the sprint work we are committing to, and a quarterly wrap up. If you’re regularly creating significantly more documentation than that I’d suggest reevaluating the usefulness of it. PMs don’t need to detail exactly how each ticket in their sprint will get solved - that should be up to your team.
As for meetings, I only default to yes for one-off 30-minute meetings unless I’m absolutely the wrong person to be talking to. As soon as someone tries to put a 1-hour meeting or a 30-minute recurring meeting on my calendar, I ask myself and the meeting creator a lot of questions: What’s the agenda? What’s the goal? Why is it recurring? Could this meeting be replaced with an email and asynchronous review of documentation? Does the goal of this meeting align with my team’s long- or short-term goals?
Another good question: Are there so many guests at this meeting that I won’t be contributing much value? Divide the meeting time by the attendees - in a 1-hour meeting with 20 people, is it really worth my time there for the whole hour to give 3 minutes of input?
Obviously, there’s some meetings you can’t say no to; rejecting a meeting from your boss or department head isn’t going to be a good look. But learning to gently push back on requests of my time has resulted in many meetings getting cancelled just because I asked for an agenda or asked how I could best prepare for the meeting.
@RichardsonEva, This. Jumped into a company that was SUPER into meetings for everything. Once I started just sending a weekly update email (KPIs, project updates, next priorities) and put the roadmap in an Asana project that all could see, I went from 25 hrs/wk to 6. That’s 2.5 days more for customer research, responding to devs faster, and doing light analytics and prototyping.
@AmyWalker, What kind of barbarian tries to schedule a meeting they can’t even concoct an agenda for??
Ha, based on my experience that question is “What kind of saint includes an agenda for a meeting they schedule without being asked?”
One of the satisfying moments in my career of saying “no” to meetings was causing a longstanding recurring 1 hour meeting with 34 people to be cancelled just by asking “Could you please add an agenda to this meeting, so I know how to best prepare for it?”
Haha wow, I’m looking for jobs, I think my meeting quota is going to go way up… this is good advice.
Love this approach. And I agree about the uselessness after 8-9 hours. I see my coworkers in product putting in more hours but their productivity is roughly equal to mine.
I’ve made the job sustainable and gotten promoted multiple times in < 3 years. I do think it’s possible with some caveats:
- When you’re at a new company, team, product, the early days are likely going to be more than 40hours/week. New context, new people, desire to prove yourself = more time
- Establish good hygiene re: meetings because they are a huge time suck - this means if a meeting doesn’t substantiate an agenda with collective next steps, it can probably be an email. If you don’t need to be interviewing a specific candidate, push back
- Turn off notifications on your phone so you don’t have to be always on - clear this with your manager / team
- Document everything thoroughly. You can reduce interruptions and meetings by having docs that people can review asynchronously
- Nothing beats getting results. Once you’ve proven you can deliver business value and customer value, you can shape how you work
@RichardsonEva, I have always been in companies with a strict 40h (+breaks) policy. You do an hour more one day you go home earlier another.
And honestly, I can’t do 40h of good work a week. I’ll have 4h focused maybe 2h for tasks without thinking and then I’m burned out for the day getting little done. (Varies by day and task though, sometimes it’s easy to do 10h because it’s a fun task making good progress, but usually it’s a lot of tough thinking and communication.)
@FelipeRibeiro, What city are you in? How do you find companies like this with good work life balance?
Those where big cities in Germany. Company sizes from tiny to huge.
For me it’s always the hardest to find out in the application process. What I look/ask for:
- When do people send mails (22oo on a Saturday? red flag!)
- Do they mention “good work life balance” in the job offer? (Green flag)
- Check comments and ratings on these employee portals (Glassdoor works for tech in Germany). Do they mention high churn, a lot of overtime etc.?
- Ask really late. E.g., when you already have the offer and contract you have an excuse to ask just HR about how frequently the unpaid over-time mentioned in the contract comes in to play or how that is handled in general. You can say you ask because how it’s lived differs wildly between companies.
I currently work at a big, reputed company and what I’ve found is that it is really up to the individual how much they want to push themselves. On my team we have the option to take up as many opportunities as we want. This may not always mean you can launch as many projects because of engineering constraints, but there is no limit to how much strategy, consulting, and growth work you can create for yourself. In fact, PMs will often take on much more if they are pushing for promo whereas others won’t if they feel satisfied with where they are in their career. I definitely think that every individual has a different definition of balance and it is up to them to find the balance that works for them.
I am on the West Coast and work with the East Coast most of the time. That means I may start at 8 am but I don’t have any meetings past 2 pm, which is great to focus on work to be done and avoid too many meetings. By the time I log in in the morning I may have already 3-4 requests / questions but sometimes people figure out the answer on their own since I don’t answer right away. To me, time difference is the thing that makes work/life balance super easy.
I feel like the PM components of my job were the easiest and required the least total work compared to developers when I was working at a small (~50 people) tech company. Yes, I filled multiple roles, like you mentioned, but these roles were mostly complementary.
What would cause me to overwork was when I was frustrated with project progress and would jump in and engineer or perform other functions (like regulatory).
I think that is the difficulty with PM work, is if you are the type of person that tends to take on additional projects/tasks, it is easy to do since you are at the intersection of so many teams.
Personally, I don’t believe in work/life balance. I strive for work/life integration.
And the key, in my opinion, is to integrate your life and work into the same calendar. I use time blocking to make sure I give myself time and space to do the important PM work. If you don’t own your calendar, it will own you.
Getting things done, prioritize your work, optimizing your schedule are certainly skill sets for product managers.
Bottomline: I don’t think you have to sacrifice your work/life to be a good PM. Leverage your resources.
@ShiyaoLiu, Don’t take this the wrong way, but that sounds awful. There are some good tips about blocking calendars and stuff there, but I simply couldn’t live like that.
My phone and slack get turned off after hours, I say no to all meetings outside of core hours, I never do weekend or evening work, and my life outside work hours is my own life - unless there’s a service outage for one of the teams I run, I’m on call / IC, and I get paged.
I’ve got to Director level heavily compartmentalizing my work and personal lives in a big American tech company; at the end of the day, remember, this is still just a job, and we’re all just cogs.
@ShiyaoLiu, That’s an interesting take, but personally I believe the opposite. Work life balance is critical and not only sets your boundaries for yourself and your family, but the boundaries of the profession as a whole. At my work something similar was being evangelized, labeled as “work-life blend”. The analogy I used to push back is that wine and cheese is a good balance, wine blended with cheese is terrible. You need clear separation for a healthy org and many times blended activities are due to a lack of psychological safety.
There’s no one-size fits all. People should choose the method that works best for them. I appreciate the insight. The wine and cheese analogy is fabulous!
Really interesting post. I do a lot of this and think that it fits my lifestyle well. Especially the prioritization of what you will be working on is super important. Only thing I add is any tasks that are unlikely going to get done in the next week that I usually alert the person or group that it will not get done this week. This gives them the chance to tell me if not doing, it will cause an issue. Also, it is amazing for keeping your priorities in check cause, it also tells your boss what you are working on at the same time. Love the idea of 1:1s on Monday, going to have to give that a shot.
Honestly I am a big believer in work life balance; I accomplish what I can in my work day, everyone around me is pleased with the job I do, and then I disconnect. No one is gonna die if I don’t immediately reply to a Slack/email and it keeps me from burning out, so I can continue to deliver during normal hours. I’d never do 60 hours, it’s just not worth it.