Who doesn’t struggle to manage their time effectively, at least occasionally? As product managers we have so many priorities that organizing them into a short list can be the hardest challenge each week. I’ve found that taking a deliberate rather than a reactive approach to changing plans can help ease the blow of change and keep your team on track.
Here are four ways that product managers can plant themselves in the world of deliberateness.
1. Prioritize, and try not to get Distracted by Urgent but Less Important Tasks
It’s easier said than done, but if you don’t master prioritization as a skill early on, you can prepare yourself for a stressful, difficult product road ahead.
This great post on ruthless prioritization helps to explain how to prioritize work into two areas:
- Prioritization between projects: Determining what project your team should do next.
- Prioritizing work within a project: How efficiently you can execute a project.
Differentiating between tasks like this can help you make better decisions because you tackle the two sides very differently. Prioritizing between projects looks more like a puzzle and can be approached with a rigorous process, whereas prioritizing work within a project is chaotic and can be approached with a ruthless mindset.
Most importantly, be realistic about goal setting and about how much you can get done in a week. Help yourself to reprioritize by asking tough questions about what’s most important to your personal and team goals. If you aren’t already, it’s time to start using a project management tool to help you to plan each week. Tools like JIRA, Asana, and Trello can help you identify pieces of a project and determine timelines from start to finish, so you can plan more effectively.
2. Work in the way That Makes you Most Productive
In a similar vein, it’s important to understand the ways that make you most productive in order to get through your priorities and task list.
The key to rearranging your day to give yourself more time is to figure out which productivity method works for you personally, and then to stick to it as much as you can. Whether you need to block off chunks of meeting-free time, or you’re better working in sprints, or find that Tuesdays are better spent working offsite, there are plenty of ways to manage your day so you give yourself more time to get things done. This oldie-but-goodie LifeHacker post has endless tips and practices to experiment with. Pick one you think would work for you and give it a shot.
Similarly, feeling overwhelmed with tasks and responsibilities can become paralyzing. If you feel like you have too much to do, it might be time to restructure your to-do lists in order to adjust the priorities of your responsibilities.
Perhaps you rephrase your tasks as questions, or maybe you start following the 1-3-5 to-do list rule, but whatever you decide, be sure to constantly question the priority level of the work you must complete. Be transparent with your manager if you really feel you have too many responsibilities to manage. Speaking up might spur a conversation about how to adjust your role to better fit your needs, or bring in another team member to share your workload.
3. Manage up to get the Support you Need
It’s very common for product managers to have too many projects and not enough resources to complete them all. It’s tough to say no to important tasks, but it becomes easier when you have support. Aligning your manager and executive team members around product goals can help you to prioritize your projects when too many disruptions occur. Of course, getting there can be a challenge – some managers are tougher to communicate with than others.
Everyone responds to communication strategies differently, and although managing up is a lifelong lesson in working collaboratively with a team, there are a few places you can start, regardless of skill level:
- Get stakeholders involved early. There are many product decision-making stages in which to involve your leadership team, but I would recommend giving them as early a heads-up as possible. Include them in your product kickoff discussions (or send them the post-meeting notes for visibility), and loop them in on your weekly progress updates so they don’t have to get up to speed on the entire project at its end – especially since you’re likely to be crunched for time.
- Ask for specific, low-level feedback. Everyone is busy, especially the people in your company’s leadership team. The more prescriptive you can be in what you need from them, the better they’ll understand the request, and the better their feedback will should be. Make sure to ask for their feedback in a timely manner (as soon as you can).
- Learn how to disagree with respect. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to forget when you’re slammed with product updates, cross-team communication, and an inbox filled with new requests. You’re going to disagree with your leadership from time to time, but when you handle the disagreement with respect, the outcome will be better. Operate with the knowledge that most managers purposely hire people they’ll disagree with as it tends to yield better business results through asking questions, poking holes, and showing a different side of an argument – when handled with respect, of course.
- Show your personal and product value. Your direct manager shouldn’t be the only one who sees how valuable you and the products you manage are. Seek out ways to show the rest of your leadership team what your product is doing for the company, why they should get excited about it, and how you’ll continue to drive it. The more you can show your worth, the more time you’ll have, as you’ll receive more buy-in, more support, and more leadership-team interest.
4. Be Flexible
Priorities can change, but this is especially true in product management. Many times, it’s impossible to stick to your weekly plan when urgent requests arise – and as we all know, they arise regularly.
There isn’t much I can say about being flexible hasn’t already been said, but the message is still crucial enough to include: The more flexible you are, the easier your life will be.
Work on being flexible in your day-to-day tasks so you can flex this muscle and think critically when issues arise and hard decisions need to be made. If you have to pivot, pivot flexibly rather than with hostility. It will make your life and your team’s life easier in every way.