PM with three years experience here, curious about the hacks fellow PMs use to invest their time well.
I’ve seen plenty of PMs whose days are driven by Slack - constantly in respond mode. Always a long list of tasks, processes to follow, delivery calendars and firefighting. I’m talking about weeks when you’ve worked like mad and wondered where it’s all going.
Question: beyond filling out and burning down tasks as they emerge, what’s your approach for aligning your schedule with the goals/habits you want to achieve or maintain over weeks or months?
I worked at a start up so my answer is do it all! Half-ass everything!
Current role is at a big company but a brand new zero to one product.
I have a running list of my to-dos. I have a template for each item that includes: task, dependencies (internal teams, external influences, etc.) my own contribution, time approximation to complete my contribution, urgency versus importance, and management’s idea of its priority. I even lay out each and every internal team and if there are no dependencies on that team, I mark it as N/A, but it makes sure I check that box so I don’t miss anything.
I keep this all on a sheet with tabs for each area I own. I check at the beginning of my day and the end to make sure I can not only update statuses, but if I have some time in my calendar, I can schedule time to knock out a small task.
Been working for me for the last 6 months or so and it allows me to unload some of the thoughts from my busy brain and easily access it if someone asks what’s going on with a certain task.
Regarding Slack and other communications apps, you should understand that you control your inflow of information, not the apps (or other users). If you need to focus, don’t feel guilty about closing down Slack, Gmail, etc. for a period of time.
There are also middle solutions, where you can let VIPs break thru your focus when necessary. For example, I’ve designed my notifications that I receive no badges or banners unless it’s from my boss or dev lead. Other people will be gotten in a batch when I open my apps next.
You might also look into some of Cal Newport’s time-blocking ideas. I’ve personally struggled to implement these, as I’m remote and have less-control of my schedule, but his ideas are sound. TL;DR = completing your duties & responsibilities is more-important than helping others complete theirs (and they should also feel the same about you).
@Marco, Tell me more about your struggles with implementing time blocking. What were the pains?
In my experience, successful time-blocking requires complete control over your schedule. And while I am often aggressive with gate-keeping my calendar (for eg. rejecting meetings without agendas, pushing others to reduce meeting times, etc.), there are ultimately meetings I cannot avoid, and sometimes they come out of the blue.
One example = I like to plan my day the evening before, so I see my schedule and plan activities that have a chance to succeed with the time I have. Then when I roll into work the next day, someone has attempted to fill my calendar & I have to spend time negotiating the request. I want to be flexible enough to support my org’s needs, but I also need time to think deeply. Where I’ve settled = I go ahead and block time, but only one day in advance; so I still have openings on my calendar l, but they’re two days out, which gives me time to plan my own work and my immediate current day doesn’t get sabotaged.
I have a running list of to-dos. I categorize them into:
- Highest (Max 3)
- High (Max 3)
- Medium (Max 3)
As well as when I will do it
- This week
- Next week
- Next 2 weeks
- Next month
- When time is available
- Every week
As a PM, we handle multiple projects as well, it is important to know which are the ones that have top priority and which can be done progressively over time.
Every week I reassess the to-dos and the priority of the projects based on stakeholder feedback. This allows me to align with their expectations.
@MarcoSilva, Interesting. I’m noodling on a potential product idea for a time budgeting/blocking tool. Would you be up for a chat so I could go a bit more in depth?
@KaranTrivedi, If a project changes priority, how does that affect your list of to-dos and the time you invest in them? Is it an effective way to shift things?
@JesusRojas, I try to adopt an OS approach to first determine the nature of the project, this reduces the need for me to shift the priorities mid-week.
- Round robin (stakeholders like seeing progress week by week)
- Priority-based (important to work only when someone is chasing me on it)
- Shortest job first (not important to work on but will work on the low hanging fruits)
- First come first serve (low priority items, will only work on it if other tasks have been completed/progressing well)
@Karan, How does that funnel into knowing exactly what you’ll do next at any given time?
It’s pretty easy: don’t monitor email and Slack religiously.
Email is how other people steal your time, usually for unimportant tasks. Instead of setting a goal to respond to email within 24 hours, shift your mindset to email being a tool for which your response time is no better than 24 hours. Glance over titles a few times a day to pick out what’s actually urgent / important, and ignore the rest. You need to be more responsive on chat, but 30-60 min is more than fine - I tend toward within 24 hours here. Being responsive to email trains people to send you email, and most emails are poorly written with no clear request. Don’t encourage this behavior.
When I clean out my email every few months to go through all the emails I ignored, I invariably find nothing of value to me. For every 100 ignored emails, there might be one I missed where the sender would have appreciated a response - but if they needed one, well, that’s what Slack is for. Every email cleanup just reaffirms how useless most emails are.
If people are so dependent on you that waiting a day for your response routinely blocks them, you are messing up important parts of your job, which is another issue entirely!
My advice is make it easy and accept who you are.
Accept you will forget where you saved a file, limit excess touch points to get to your files. Accept you will get distracted by slack, create PM free chat rooms where the goal is co working between them. Anything they need from you need an email or DM.
As far as goals. I celebrate other success. I find a reason to buy the team donuts, coffee, drinks, or lunch every few weeks and thank others. For me I’m never going to submit deliverables on time, so I always feel like a failure. But celebrating my engineers and designers deliverables helps ground me.
What worked for me was the use of Eisenhower matrix-esque Trello board which is customized to my personal needs to prioritize my to-do list. Sometimes, I also set timers to task because my sense of time is very skewed.
And when I have to get off slack, I inform others that I’m not to be disturbed, unless the issue is critical. If it’s critical just come and disturb me at my desk or send me a text msg or call me if I’m WFH. It works pretty well for me.
It’s important for me to draw boundaries with all the slack notification, otherwise I see myself going mad and not getting important things done.
Product work is so cross-functional that any artifact you produce needs buy-in from other folks. So I schedule meetings ahead of time with the right level of stakeholders before the work is started.
It allows me to work on the next most important thing and the work will be done by the time I hop on that call. YMMV
I aggressively block out time and aggressively keep my Slack notifications off during block out times.
Many times, if people are pinging me and I’m a bottleneck for them, it’s a manufactured issue. They often can figure it out, and by not expecting me to answer them immediately for any ask, they tend to become more self-sufficient.
I’ve been transparent about this policy so it doesn’t come off as negligent and I’ve been met with understanding and support. Everyone wants to be able to focus, after all.
The results also speak for themselves as I can prioritize by impact and deliver results more consistently.
@Natasha, How do you decide what to spend your time on within those time blocks? How big of a struggle is that prioritizing?
I pick the work that will have the greatest impact on my product’s outcomes.
At any given time, I can jot down the top 3-5 things I can do. I do keep some running to do lists, but most of the time the top things are very clear based on factors such as my company goals, product KPIs, where I am in the milestone schedule/process, etc.
@Natasha, How many KPIs are you usually shooting for at any given time?
How do you decide how much time to spend on fundamental work like relationship building, discovery, etc.?
Context: My role is “middle management level” on a large video game. My team owns a game pillar. I don’t own the whole game.
KPIs are game-wide, but the pillar of the game I am responsible for can impact several KPIs. When I get new data about how a feature or initiative has performed, it influences our decisions on how to further improve the feature. For example, if we think a game feature was going to influence D0 retention by +10% and after release it’s only up by +3%, we may decide to further improve a weak area of the feature or we may try a totally different feature.
In summary, I focus on impacting the KPIs that need the most love, or that leadership above me has determined need the most love. The key detail is how I can impact that. As an example, if I have a binary choice: an afternoon full of meetings where I am just listening in and barely contributing, versus an afternoon where I cancel non-critical meetings and write or review Specs that will impact KPIs, which should I choose? In this example it’s almost certainly option 2.
Relationship building and discovery may be the highest impact. Maybe there’s a new leader I need to get to know; working well with them will make my product area successful, so I prioritize it. Or maybe it’s a new engineer on the team; giving them extra attention will make them feel welcome and then they’re more likely to love the job, grow, and stay, so I prioritize it. Product discovery is important to do regularly; playing competitive games, for example. When I realize it’s the most important thing to do, I prioritize it.
Some of the prioritization decisions are based on experience or judgment, but often times there’s data or an external factor that informs the right thing to do.
This is a long reply! Does this answer your question?
Very insightful - and interesting work too! It sounds like you have a few priorities on the go at any given time, but try to identify “the most important” thing at any given time - do you then allot your time fully to that thing until it’s done? If not, how are you balancing splitting time between differing priorities you need to push simultaneously?