And You Run and You Run to Catch Up With the Sun

A sand clock

The basics of time management.

Those who know me can testify that I can get quite obsessed & strict about my time. I am not spending a second in a place where I’m not needed or there is no value for me to be in.

After all – you know the cliché – time is the only resource that even rich people can’t buy more of.

A good approach to time management is crucial for most of the roles, and even highly beneficial for your personal life. However, when it comes to product management – mastering it is critical to your success because there is so much to do all the time…

This is why it saddens me when I see product managers that struggle with their time management. If you struggle too, or think you can do better (which is probably always true) – then I am here to help.

Now, let’s face it – there is a ton of advice out there on the web on how you can master your time more effectively. There are also many methodologies, starting with ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD), which is more than 20 years old (and still highly popular with very successful people I know) to… whatever new methodologies which are out there today. 

I am not going to introduce here any new methodology. The existing methods are good enough.

Instead, as always, I will try to provide a different and fresh angle to the challenges product managers and product leaders face, with a great emphasis on entrepreneurship thinking. And in this context I’m talking about thinking out of the box, being creative rather than reactive, focus and not taking any reality for granted

And as always – I’m gonna provide real-life examples and how to address them.

So let’s start.

 

Do I Have a ‘Time Management’ Problem?

You know what they say – the first step towards the solution is to admit that there is a problem. So how do you know if you have a problem?

Here is a simple checklist for identifying whether you seem to face time management challenges. If you answer one or more questions with ‘yes’ – then… Houston – we have a problem…

  • Do you often have full days with back-2-back meetings?
  • Do you skip lunch often due to lack of time?
  • Have you lost control of your inbox or have more than 200 unread mails?
  • Do people often complain that you are not responsive to email/Slack/whatever?
  • Do you often return home with the feeling ‘OMG… what an intensive day’?

 

If you answered ‘no’ to all of the above then this is great news. It seems that either you already master your time or the issues have yet to escalate to cause one of the symptoms above (btw – it could be that you are suffering from a different symptom – in that case I’d be happy to hear about that).

Anyway, even if none of the above is showing up as a symptom as part of your work routine – you can probably squeeze out some more optimizations from what I’m gonna suggest below.

Guidelines to an Optimized Time Management Routine

I promised I’m not going to introduce any new methodology and I’m gonna stick to this promise. I’m not a big fan of methodologies anyway. I am, however, a big fan of ‘guidelines’. A ‘north star’ of principles that you can follow by applying your common sense and solving tricky situations.

The Guidelines

So here it is – my guidelines & principles for preserving your time:

  1. If don’t have to be in a meeting – don’t be (but do be kind and reject it in advance with a respectful note)
  2. Minimize the length of the recurring meetings to the bare minimum (as much as it depends on you)
  3. Use your commute time to promote synchronization talks
  4. Invest in the training of the people who report to you and grow them to be independent as possible. And then – 
  5. Delegate, delegate, delegate. 
  6. Turn off your inbox notifications on your phone. Don’t read Slack messages unless you are explicitly mentioned (don’t forget to tell everyone that if they want you to read something they need to mention/tag you)
  7. Aim to end meetings before their ‘official’ end time. Everyone will thank you for that.
  8. Make sure all your meetings have a clear agenda and put it as part of the meeting’s description. Educate others to do the same.
  9. Focus on the working items that move the needle. The rest is just useless noise.
  10. Be responsive. When something pops up – either deal with it or kill it. If you decide to kill it – explain why respectfully and forget about it.
  11. Be sensitive to others’ time the same way you want them to be sensitive to yours. Pick the participants of each meeting very selectively, and once someone is no longer needed in the meeting and there are still at least 10 minutes to go – release the person from the meeting. 
  12. If you can’t escape a recurring meeting – do what you can to make sure it’s generating value and managed effectively.

 

Once you start implementing these guidelines and stick to them – there is a good chance something marvelous will happen – your peers and subordinates will understand that you are serious about your time and unless they are jerks – they will start respecting your time as well. Some of them will even adopt some of your guidelines or will turn to you to get your advice as for how to improve their time management.

I also have some ground rules that help me to set up “constraints” for myself to make sure I’m not slowly drifting back to the world of chaos.

My Rules

  1. I must not skip lunch and I should enjoy it while sitting anywhere which is not my working spot
  2. At least two days per week I’m gonna leave early and take care of my kids
  3. I must not work on the weekends, unless there are very unusual circumstances
  4. I must find the time to ‘breath & reflect’ each day

 

These rules also hint toward the bad impact of lacking proper time management skills, but I will touch on this in a second.

A Real Life Use Case

Enough chit-chat. Let’s take a real life example from one of my previous workplaces. In this workplace I was a product leader, who, at some point, was responsible for 4 product managers and one product analyst.

Here is how my calendar looked like after I got into a routine:

 

A busy calendar

A short ‘legend’ as for what you see there:

[Weekly] means that meeting repeats every week

[Bi-weekly] means the meeting repeats every couple of weeks

[Monthly] means the meeting is happening once per month

[Peer X] represents one of my peers who I needed to sync with on an ongoing basis

[Sub X] represents one of the people who reported to me directly

 

As you can see, once I got into a routine, I had 14 (!) weekly meetings consuming 15 working hours. There were about 3-4 random meetings which I must attend and that had to take place on each given week, regardless of anything else.

Learning from my experience in previous workplaces – I already locked up noon each day so I can eat quietly. Not that people always respect it – but you had to stand firm unless there is really no choice.

Last – I booked in advance the two days I was expecting to leave early.

By closely inspecting this calendar you can see not much time is left to focus on what product leaders should actually do – which is work on the product strategy, roadmap and their vision for the product.

After a few weeks working like that it became very clear that if I don’t make any fundamental changes to my weekly routine then I won’t be doing what I was hired to do. I will merely be preserving the current reality and turning off fires.

So what can you do?

The trivial approaches, which I see that some others do, are essentially ‘breaking the rules’ I set up above. They skip lunch, they work on the weekends, they give up on their time with their kids and ask their spouse/parents to take care of it or something else in this spirit.

For me this was unacceptable, so I wore back my entrepreneur ‘hat’ and told myself that I need not accept this reality, and I need to think out of the box here.

Now, some of the meetings, especially those arranged by your superiors are rarely under your control. Especially if they host a lot of participants. Hence, I couldn’t touch the ‘group meeting’, the ‘leadership meeting’ or the weekly sync with my boss. However, following guideline #12 – I could and I did suggest to my superiors methods on how these meetings could be managed more effectively (I’m not the only one who did so, by the way). For most of the time – our suggestions were received so at least we could make these meetings beneficial.

As for syncing with my peers – I took several approaches:

  1. Eliminated the meeting altogether for some of my peers when there wasn’t always a full agenda and converted those to ‘ad-hoc’ meetings when enough topics were accumulated.
  2. Switched some to ‘bi-weekly’ meetings
  3. ‘Merged’ some of those. For example – if I had to sync with peer 1 and then with peer 2 AND peer 1 also had to weekly sync with peer 2 – then we made one meeting where we would sync together.
  4. Cut the meeting time by half, and skip the chit-chat. It also means preparing the agenda in advance so it can be highly focused.

 

As for the people who reported to me:

This was a bit harder, because my management philosophy strongly endorses availability & mentoring for my subordinates, aside from just telling them what to work on. Hence, changing some of these meetings to ‘bi-weeklies’ was out of the question. Also ‘merging’ them didn’t make sense at all and certainly not eliminating them. So, I was left with only one option – cut their time by half. And this is what I did, unless the employee was new.

I will note, though, that if you find yourself managing more than 6 people directly – then you probably need to make changes to the hierarchy model and promote some of your subordinates to become mid-level managers. Otherwise, your managerial overhead will simply be too big for you to work on something else. This is a good implementation of the ‘delegation’ guideline.

 

Last – as for the random meetings that pop up each week – simply ask yourself if you are indeed needed for those. If you train well the people who report to you – then from time to time you will be able to delegate to them the attendance of such meetings and they will represent your team. Just make sure to equip them with general guidelines for those meetings.

This is how my calendar look after applying the changes:

Loose calendar

Finally, I could have time to breathe and take my time to look around. I could raise my head above the ground and look at the horizon and by that dedicate more time to strategy and come up with unique initiatives.

 

The Negative Impact of Lacking Time Management Skills

The most obvious impact of not managing your time properly is that you will always be focused on the work items that are in front of you. It means that you are being reactive to reality rather than planning how the reality should look and working to make it happen.

The intensity may give you the illusion that you are doing a lot – but most chances are that you are NOT moving the needle for your company. And this will certainly not get you where you want.

If things are becoming too hectic and you are still not taking the control over your time – you may also start missing on the ongoing tasks. If that is the case… well.. I’m not sure how to say this… but you are probably starting to become a liability to your company rather than an asset.

Other than work

Having a constant hectic reality, where you can’t find the time to breath and/or eat and when each day feels like you’ve been to a war – may eventually impact your physical and mental health.

There is a quote I like a lot and try to live by it. There are several references as for who actually said it, but anyway – here it is:

How strange and foolish is man. He loses his health in gaining wealth. Then, to regain his health he wastes his wealth.

You can read the full quote here (it packs additional wisdom inside).

I really try to avoid being the foolish man mentioned in the quote. This goes, of course, beyond just time management. It circles back to how you envision your ideal life , how do you want to get there and in what state your body will be when you are finally there. But this is a bit philosophical and out of scope.

I will say, though, that poor time management may indeed hold a negative impact on your health and quality of life. And this is probably more important than everything else. So keep that in mind.

 

Do You Really Want More Time?

Last – before we wrap up – be honest with yourself and ask – ‘Am I truly wanting to have more time available for myself?’

For some, this question may seem silly, as you will answer – ‘of course I do’. But for some people, when being truly honest – the answer is no. And this is due to some psychological states which are associated with ‘workaholics’. It could be, for example, that having back-2-back meetings make you feel important or significant. It could be that, for some reason, you prefer staying at your workplace rather than be at home with your family, and there are plenty of other reasons. I am not a psychologist, but I did see this happening with some of the people I’ve worked with. So, worth taking an honest look before answering, and if such an issue is being identified – well – there are plenty of ways to address those and many professional people who will be happy to assist you (but certainly out of scope).

To end with an optimistic note for this context – I can assure you this:

If you are truly honest and serious about improving your time management, not accepting the reality for what it is and willing to think out of the box – you will eventually improve and have more free time. And as a bonus side effect – your quality of life will improve as well.

That sums up our post for today. If you found it beneficial – feel free to ‘like’ it. If you think someone else can benefit from it – feel free to share it.

Thank you and until next time!

Related posts

A man is buttoning his suit

The CEOs You’ll be Working With

The previous posts were somewhat ‘heavy’ so today I’d like to have a shorter and lighter post. Hence, today we’ll be discussing the various types

Two robots sitting back to back

Asta La Vista Baby!

Maybe I’m late to the party, I don’t know, but it took me some time to process it. I gave it a lot of thought

An advanced robot leaning forward

Never Say Always

Ideals, principles and values People just love to hold on to them. I get it.  It gives us a sense of control over the chaotic