The Blank Piece of Paper; Effectively Managing Your Time

We’ve probably all felt it. There's that moment when you think about what you’re working on and realize that it’s not what you’d consider to be within the scope of the Product Manager Role at all. It seems like thousands of little things that are small, but urgent to everyone else, are filling up your day. The days go by and at the end of each one, you realize that some key things that you had planned to do this week or this month that you’d promised yourself, or your boss or your peers are not getting done. To others, our title gives the impression that we can take care of anything at all related to the product we own. This means that a multitude of time-consuming tasks can be constantly landing on our lap. Whilst everything that reaches your inbox every day can certainly be seen as urgent, sometimes it’s worth reflecting on who it is urgent to.

No matter what your title in the company, two things matter more than anything else. The first is whether you’re doing what your boss cares about for the products you work on. This matters whether your boss is a line manager, a Director, a VP or the CEO. And the second is whether you’re being an effective member of the team you’re on with your immediate peers. If you’re spending your time going through all the tasks that come from others in the company and doing a great job at those, then you’re pleasing people, but you may not be pleasing the people that ultimately grade you, promote you and are asked for feedback on your performance.

When we get into a mode of knocking out all the little things day to day, the bigger picture can start to get lost. Your boss doesn't see all those little things and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to explain how brilliant you’ve been in getting them all done to the detriment of what your boss is asking for. Ultimately, it’s important that you make progress on things that are visible and important to your boss, and to your immediate peers.

Recognizing that even after all my years of experience as a Product Manager, I have once again got myself somewhat into this situation, let me share some of those tasks that are taking up my time, and those that should be taking my time. These are just a few examples. Perhaps your list might have some similarities.

What I want to be working on What I have been working on
Updating my roadmap slides for various audiences. Taking build images from our build system and uploading them for customer access.
Ensuring JIRA issues are written up with the right detail. Trying to reproduce product bugs or features reported that are written up very vaguely.
Spend more time talking to customers about upcoming features I’m defining. Spending too much time in meetings where the time is not used efficiently.
Researching trends for like products to find feature gaps and innovative ideas. Formatting and fixing spelling mistakes in customer facing documents handed off to me to deliver to the customer.
Contributing to our various online partner and customer communities. Handling customs and shipping issues regarding getting hardware inventory.

There’s a lot more that I’d like to be working on too that I don’t manage to find the time for. Everything I have been working on is important, but I am not measured on delivering any of those things. Whilst each of them is important and I am happy to do them, they are things that are not visible. Explaining to my boss why I didn’t work on his projects because of them would not be an easy task. Something has to change!
Here are a few things we can do about this that I’m going to be doing myself over the next couple of weeks:

Go back to a simple blank piece of paper
No matter how many online task management tools I’ve tried over the years, there is one trusted method that I go back to when things start to get overwhelming. That is the blank piece of paper. This was a method recommended to me by a colleague who had been a Product Manager for much longer than I had when I first started the job. I thought it old fashioned at the time, but the blank piece of paper can be a real piece of paper, a sticky note on your desktop, a fresh day in your task management tool or anything that is blank. Every morning, I take a blank piece of paper and write down first the things that I need to make sure I spend some dedicated time on. Then I add the little things that need ticking off. This basic organization each morning, highlights directly to you in the evening how much, or little, progress you’ve made on the important things.

Delegate where possible
Your ability to delegate will depend on your role within the company. If you are a Product Manager in a large company, you probably won’t find yourself doing some of the things in the right-hand column due to having well defined roles. However, you can make sure that vague product issues are immediately sent back for more detail from the person sending them to you. You can think about the things you’re doing and send them over to others in those well-defined roles such as Product Marketing. For documents that are badly written that come to you, instead of just silently spending a couple of hours fixing poor customer facing information, that can be sent back asking for more help.

Block off your calendar with timeslots for items for your ‘real work’
The day goes by fast when you’re spending most of your time on the little things in the right-hand column (above). Whilst you likely have people pinging you to finish up those issues on the right, you need to do your own job as well as enabling others to do their job. Dedicate 1 hour each for at least a couple of the items on the left. To others, your time will be blocked off. Mute your Instant Messaging notifications for those dedicated time slots and make sure that no matter what, you make some progress on them.

Craft your Friday Status Message Early
If you’re not wrapping up your week by providing an achievement or ‘what’s going on’ list to your manager (no matter what your position in the company is, from individual contributor to manager) think about doing this. Then, at the end of every given day, look to see if you’ve done something to add to that list. What would your manager think about today's activities? Keep it short of course. Your manager does not want to read through an essay or even know all the details. They just want to know what you’re working on and what you achieved. Adding to this each day in preparation for sending it on Friday will help you realize what you achieved each day, and will also make it a lot easier and quicker to craft your achievements at the end of the week.

Review your Meetings
One of the hardest things about the Product Management role is that we’re involved in a lot of things regarding our products that cover many cross functional activities. We have meetings with engineering that are fundamental to our role. We have meetings about deployment ramp up. We present webinars. We talk to customers. We meet with the marketing team. We meet with the support team. We meet with the sales team. We also meet with each of our individual reports weekly or at least bi-weekly.
If the calendar is more than 50% full of meetings and items in the left-hand column (above) are not getting done, then something has to give. A few tips on handling your meetings
  • Schedule only the time needed; not every meeting needs to be an hour. If you’re the host of a meeting, consider if it really needs a 1-hour slot or if 30 minutes, or 45 minutes is enough. Schedule it for 30 minutes if that’s all that’s needed.
  • Ensure there is an agenda for every meeting; once people get together, it’s easy for topics to get off track as someone thinks ‘whilst I have the team here’. At the start of the meeting, if you state the agenda and define what you’re trying to achieve in the meeting, this will help keep people focused.
  • Signal that the end of the meeting is coming; if you’re hosting the meeting, be confident in pulling the meeting to order if it goes off track. Towards the end of the meeting, use phrases like ‘In our last 10 minutes’ to further keep the meeting focused.
  • Make the end, the end; if meetings consistently go over the allocated time, this will become easily accepted and normal. Set a precedence that your meetings end at the end of the allocated time period and wrap them up.
  • Put meetings together in one chunk of the day; consider scheduling meetings back to back so that they take up one chunk of the day. The more times you get interrupted when working on an activity, the longer you will spend ramping back up to where you were in that activity. If you start working on something and start making good progress, but have to stop for a meeting, momentum is lost … it takes time to get back into the zone again later.
  • Schedule one on ones with direct reports back to back; If you’re a manager, no doubt some of your one on one calls go over the allocated time period. If you have another meeting right after each 1:1, you won’t be able to go over time, and expectations can be set with your report on how much of your time they have.
  • Keep meeting free afternoons, mornings or days; to effectively work important things, you need uninterrupted time to focus. Spending 10 minutes several times a day over a week building a roadmap plan is not going to be as effective as spending a focused few hours working on it. Keeping some focus time in two hour chunks on your calendar will help you achieve more in one slot than you could in a multitude of smaller slots.

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