Ruthlessly Manage Your Time or Fail

Every successful product manager will have unreasonable demands on their time. To be an effective PM, you must learn to manage your time ruthlessly.

I regularly ask students in my live training what they consider their most important competency as product managers. In my book, there's no question as to the right answer: time management. We hear a lot in the literature about saying "no" to stakeholders regarding scope, but if you can't say "no" to demands on your time, you will inevitably find yourself the victim of a coordinated (but inadvertent) distributed denial of service attack. Here are 5 tips to help you become the master of your most important resource: your time:

Define Success

As a PM, you have to be laser-focused on the activities that will make you successful. That requires defining success via a set of clear objectives and constantly managing to them. Objectives are more specific than goals, being time-bound and measurable. If you don't know what activities will take you closer to your definition of success and which don't, you have no basis to prioritize your time — that means other people are managing your time.

Prioritize Your Stakeholders

In the final analysis, you can only be as successful as a PM to the extent that you can effectively manage your stakeholders. Here's the problem: the relative importance or priority of your stakeholders is constantly evolving. Close to launch? You better make sure marketing is happy. Sales flagging? You better find an advocate in the sales organization. Knowing who your most important stakeholders at a given time can make prioritizing your time faster and easier.

Dominate Your Calendar

While a calendar is important for most information workers, it is a critical tool for product managers. It's not enough to manage your calendar, you have to dominate it. Here are a few practices you should develop as reflexes:

  • First thing Monday morning, look at your calendar and highlight critical meetings, especially those requiring preparation.
  • At the end of the day, look at your appointments for the next day. Make sure they're still relevant, that a quorum of participants have accepted and that the appoints include a valid location information (including conferencing link).
  • First thing in the morning look at your appointments and memorize when and where the most important ones are. This will help you adjust your schedule quickly, even at times when it's inconvenient to pull out your phone or laptop.

Read "Getting Things Done"

"Getting Things Done" is more than a book: it's a system. Its fundamental philosophy is that you can't separate your private and work lives from a planning perspective and that you need to get "stuff" out of your head and into a trusted system so your mind has energy to be creative. Buying and reading this book is a no-brainer. Just do it!

Learn to Say "No" with Empathy

As a PM, many stakeholders are convinced they need your time. To be successful, you will often have to tell many of them "no". Try to understand stakeholders' needs (have empathy for them) and suggest alternatives when possible (perhaps a more junior PM or someone from engineering can fill in). You can ruthlessly protect your calendar and still be kind to others.

Recap

To be a successful product manager, you must first learn to manage your time (ruthlessly). It took many of us a double-digit number of years to figure this out! As Warren Buffet famously said, 'The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.' Go out and be a really successful product manager.