"How the heck am I going to get all this done?" - a question I asked at least once a month for the first few years as a PM.
My only response - panic, long hours in the office, low quality work. Sadly, I did not have any resource or guide to help me manage the situation better.
But, I did have a desire to prove my worth as a PM. I urgently wanted to find a way to get out of the never-ending task-list so that I could focus on the more impactful PM functions like product strategy, roadmap, user research, data analysis, and shipping critical products.
Was I wrong to desire those things so early in my career? No.
Did I get through that phase and make it to the next level? Yes.
Was it a quick and smooth transition? Not it all.
The skill to effectively manage time is essential to be a great PM. Peter F Drucker summarizes it best:
"Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else."
Before we talk about effective time management techniques, I want to share a system I use to measure busy-ness in my work life:
I score my busy-ness on a scale of 10.
- A score of five is ideal, which indicates I have enough assignments to keep me occupied for a typical 9 hour day.
- Anything lower than five indicates I have more time than work. Anything higher than five means I have more work than time.
- The sweet spot for me is between four and seven. I prefer having this variability as it urges me to keep evaluating and prioritizing my tasks regularly.
- If my score is outside of the 4 to 7 range for more than two consecutive weeks, I re-adjust my tasks with my manager's help.
Staying in the "this is good" range takes work. Here is a list of some of the things that help me stay in that range:
Evaluate and manage your days objectively. There are only X hours in a day (X being the average number of hours in your workday). Plan work for 0.7X. The 0.3X buffer will help accommodate unplanned tasks and estimation errors.
Reduce the mental load. Get the tasks out of your mind, and on to a to-do tool, notebook, google doc, or anyplace which works for you. Documenting the tasks saves you the pain of thinking about them, and also gives you the comfort of having them handy, so you don't forget. I use, but not obssess about, to-do lists. (Read below.)
Prioritize your tasks ruthlessly and organize efficiently. If you don't, then your to-do list will be a chaotic mess. I like to have my tasks prioritized across two dimensions - urgency and project criticality. Most urgent items in the critical projects are always on top.
Delegate. PMs do not have the authority to delegate tasks to others. But PMs do have the ability to persuade. Use, but not abuse, that power, when necessary.
Multitasking does NOT work. There is enough research that shows that "Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity." Stick to one task at a time, get quality work done, be a hero.
Say no. It is your responsibility to focus on high-value tasks only, which requires you to discard low-value tasks. I decline meetings that only need email and defer less important documentation unless I have some of the 0.3X buffer left.
The above methods work for me, and might work for you too. But, it is important to note that it took me a long time to get here, and I am not done.
The point is, it takes time to build the perfect system. It does not happen in a day or a week or a month. So, try a new method, internalize it if it works, move on to the next if it doesn't. As Bruce Lee once said -
"If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you'll never get it done."