If I could point to a common trait of Product Manager positions, whether the focus is technical or marketing, it’s that Product Managers spend much of their time in what I call interruption mode. Interruption mode is when it seems like everyone, from the CEO to the UPS delivery man, pops into your office to ask you questions or seek your help on projects as varied as requirements, RFPs, press releases, and collateral.
These kinds of interruptions could easily take up your entire workweek. I’ve had days which were nothing but interruptions, by phone and in person.
But Product Managers also have critical components of their jobs which require extended concentration to produce. Projects such as requirements documents, user stories, articles and presentations all demand blocks of time where you can create and polish them.
The struggle, then, is to figure out how to carry out these two conflicting aspects of your Product Manager job. Read on for tips on how to carve out concentration time for your bigger projects and yet be available as an as-needed resource for teammates who need your help to get their work done.
Managing the Interrupted Life
A book called Time Management from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern (Henry Holt, 2000) offers a different take on time management. For one thing, it’s more holistic, ensuring that you not only succeed at doing more tasks for work but that you attend to family and personal priorities. It also addresses the psychology of the barriers that stand between you and a schedule that better matches your goals.
Some of the tips provided below build on important ideas explained in the book.
Different Styles Suit Different Hats
As a Product Manager, you wear many hats. Not only does each role, or “hat”, involve different activities, but different roles involve different types of activities as well. By this I mean that some roles require extended periods of time alone writing plans and documents, while others involve long meetings, and still others involve many, varied tasks with interruptions.
Different types of activities call for different time management techniques. You’re better off adopting a mix of techniques.
Understand Your Preferences
Become familiar with how your working preferences and energy levels vary according to the time of day or the situation. For example, you may prefer a quiet start to the day, reading email and working on projects. Or you may be raring to get going in the morning, holding meetings, calling and talking with colleagues, etc.
Pay attention to when – or in what situations – your energy flags or your ability to concentrate is lowered. Perhaps meetings that go over an hour leave you tired and grumpy. Maybe afternoons are never productive, but evenings are.
Create Time Zones
Probably one of the best ideas from Time Management from the Inside Out is a concept that is applied from organizing spaces. It’s the tactic of breaking your schedule up into time zones, or distinct blocks of time for different purposes.
Applying this to your Product Management work, you may have three distinct blocks of time, perhaps every day, perhaps on different days of the week. These could be: The Project Zone, the Interruption Zone, and the Meeting Zone.
Use these blocks of time to cycle through the different activities and types of activities you need to do.
Establish your zones at times that suit your preferences and rhythms. For example, your zone for uninterrupted concentration could be from 8:30 AM to 10:30 AM every day, if that’s a time when you concentrate well.
By dedicating zones to the different tasks you must complete, you ensure that you balance out your schedule, giving proportional attention to your roles and responsibilities. And you remove the frustration of feeling like you are neglecting important parts of your job that often get short-changed, like planning, strategy, or product research.
Carve Out a “Project Zone”
For projects such as Requirements or presentations, set up a “Project Zone” where you respond to a minimum of interruptions. Don’t answer the phone, don’t reply to emails (though you may choose to review them every now and again to see if there are any big fires).
Use this time to get things done that require concentration and thinking time, or even just long blocks of time in order to finish the task.
Designate an “Interruption Zone”
Define a time zone for “interruption mode”. To balance the time when you don’t respond to interruptions, have a period of time where you are expecting to respond to calls, answer requests, and drop what you’re working on to help with something.
Because you know you have a Project Zone, you don’t have to worry about doing nothing but responding to interruptions. Because you will spend time responding to interruptions, you know you are readily available to colleagues at times and can therefore absent yourself for some project work.
Put Meetings In the Interruption Zone
Because meetings tend to break your concentration and take you away from whatever you were working on, consider trying to schedule meetings in the interruption zone.
Naturally, you do not control the times for all meetings. But in those instances where you can, suggest meetings during your interruption zone. I always make sure I suggest meetings during the afternoon, which is my interruption zone. People don’t have to know, when you say you’re not available at 10 AM, that it’s because it’s the time you have dedicated to focused project work.
Backfill the Gaps
Once you set aside a specific time just for interruptions, you’d be surprised how often you have down time where you can work on planned projects. Just make sure you allot more time than you normally would to complete a project if you schedule work during the interruption zone, because you’ll be pulled away both in terms of time and concentration.
Some days you may find yourself pleasantly surprised at how much project work you were able to accomplish when you were expecting to be interrupted. Of course, on other days your interruption time will speed by as you respond to a long string of unanticipated requests.
There will always be portions of your schedule that are not under your control. So if a long meeting takes out most of your project time on a given day, take some time out of your next planned interruption or meeting zone and dedicate it to project work, in order to compensate.
The key is to achieve the balance you want over a period of days or weeks. But on any given day you may not be in balance.
Adjust As Needed
Adjust the size and placement of your time zones as you discover how much time is required for each zone. Patterns will change at different parts of the product cycle or in different seasons of the year.
Still, by reserving blocks of time for the various tasks you need to complete, you come away with the feeling that your schedule, while flexible and responsive to others, is under your control.
This combination of concentration and interruption work is usually essential for a Product Manager, and it’s critical that you succeed at both types of work in order to move the product forward.
— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges