How to get shit done

Actionable steps on how to be more productive with your time as a PM, and constantly keep things moving forward towards your goals.

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Being a productive product manager is not just about how many hours you work. Yes, putting in time to what you work on is absolutely necessary to getting stuff done – but it's more importantly about how you work.

How you work are your meta-skills because they are not related to the research, execution and strategic skills you need to have. You can be excellent at all those things, but still not be someone who is able to get shit done. These meta-skills are about the way you work on those things and how you're able to get the most out of your knowledge, skills, time, people, and other resources.

What getting shit done looks like

At a high-level, this is what getting stuff done looks like in a PM:

  • You’re focused on outcomes, not outputs. You want to be relentlessly focused on the results and do whatever you can to get there, and not get bogged down by process and frameworks. 

  • You’re focused on taking actions. You want to be decisive and action-oriented in your approach to work. This involves being confident and taking ownership of the need to keep moving forward. Sometimes you'll have incomplete data or be waiting on someone to get back to you – but a good PM doesn't get caught up in this state of paralysis and knows that perfect is the enemy of the good and keeps the team moving forward at all times.

  • You can manage more scope. You're always going to have work to do, some stuff being more important. Nobody is going to prioritize that for you and you need to be able to make space for yourself so that you have the capacity to get important work done. When you fail to this, it blocks other people, deliverables aren't met and people start to notice things falling behind. 

  • You can be relied on and work autonomously. You want to be known as someone who can be trusted to stay on top of a lot of work and function autonomously. Staying on top of work means you're not getting Slacked reminders from people and being asked for status reports because you've already done them and communicated with the right people. 

Fortunately these work meta-skills can be developed and worked on over-time and just take practice.

The biggest thing to overcome is actually trusting yourself and realizing you're in the position that you are because you're good enough. Doubting yourself is the biggest reason your work will slow down because you're nervous about making the wrong calls, and you'll keep trying to get more complete info, do more, and get more buy-in. 

Have a personal productivity system

To sharped the above meta-skills, there are practices and tools you can use to help you work more productively. 

  • Write it down. Always write down your to-do's, notes, and ideas. Having it documented and offloaded from your mind is the best way to create clarity and stay on top of everything. Your mind should be used for understanding, thinking, and being creative -- not as vault to store everything. There are plenty of free tools like Trello, Notion and Asana for that .

  • Keep track of due dates. If something has to be done by a certain date, make sure you're keeping track of that and using that to help prioritize the task.

  • Time-box it. This is when you say, “I'm going to spend no more than 2 hours doing this”. In other words, you're agreeing to a fixed amount of time for a specific task and after that, moving on. It can be easy to get carried away with less important work, and this technique helps setup guardrails to prevent you from wasting time. You can also use time-boxing when working with engineers, where you discuss with them and agree to only work on a specific task if it's going to take less than a day, for instance. 

  • Keep your daily to-do-list limited. You're always going to have a long backlog of stuff on your to-do-list. A helpful way to break that down and keep focused is to pull in just a few things to-do per day. The average sweet-spot is between 3-5 tasks to focus on per day, but there are definitely times where there's just one top-priority thing to focus on.

  • Have One-Big-Thing a day. Your daily to-do-list should be prioritized, and at the top of that list should be the one-big-thing you're aiming to get done. This should be the most important task, either because it's due, it's blocking people, or is something impactful. 

  • Focus on one task at a time. When you jump around between tasks you're flipping your attention from one thing to another and risk losing focus, making more errors and taking longer to finish things. Instead of trying to do everything at once, move through your prioritized tasks one by one.

  • Step away. Many of the problems you work on are going to be non-trivial, and these more complex tasks are going to require more from you. Part of working through this kind of problem is getting stuck – which is a very frustrating feeling. The best thing to do when this inevitably happens is to step away from working on it. Go for a walk, speak to someone else about it, or work on something else for a bit – whatever you need to do to stop looking at it and return with a fresh perspective.

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High-level time management

As your scope increases and you take on a higher-capacity of work – you're going to have more on your plate that needs to get done. 

Unfortunately, you don't get given more hours to do it in.

When you become more senior, you need to be making more time for the strategic side of product management. Depending on the company you're at, that may well be on-top of the time you're putting into research and execution, and even people-management. 

Being able to create space for yourself where you have the time to step-back and think about the bigger picture is an essential part of leveling-up the PM ladder. 

So, how can you make sure you're managing your time as best as possible?

  • Assess where your time goes now. Take 20 minutes and write down where you think your time is currently going. Think in categories, for example how much time are you spending on research, general admin meetings, working with people, project execution, strategic thinking, etc. This should be a quick exercise and it just needs to be in the right ballpark. 

  • Plan where you want your time to go. Now that you know roughly what you're spending time on, you might find one area is getting a lot of attention over another. Write down what categories you want to spend more time on, and where you want to cut back. 

  • Carve out time on your calendar. If you need to make space for strategic thinking, which should roughly be 10-20% of your time, put recurring time on your own calendar at a frequency that makes sense for you (could be weekly/bi-weekly/monthly) – and use that time for deep work where you focus your attention on the bigger picture.

  • Prioritize and say no (nicely). Things are always going to come up, like being pulled into meetings you don't need to be in or asked to weigh-in on things and get involved in unnecessary details. It's just part of the job and often you do it. However with your time and tasks prioritized, you sometimes have to politely say no.

Use the 4 D's

Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, or Delete it. 

Whenever a task needs to be done and comes onto your plate - these are your options. 

  • Do it. If a task is high-priority or it will take you just a few minutes to get it done – do it yourself. 

  • Delegate it. If someone else can do it better and it's not necessary that you be the one to do it – delegate it. 

  • Defer it. If you have more important stuff to get done, or a task is dependent on other peoples work that hasn't been done yet – defer it. 

  • Delete it. If a task seems like a waste of time, doesn't advance your goals, and doesn't move the needle of the product and company – just say no and delete it. 

And there is another D – Diminish it.  If you have to do it figure out how to cut back the task so you can get it done quicker.

It's important to remember that the point of the 4'Ds isn't to get rid of tasks so you can do less work, rather it's a tool to get the most impact out of the busy hours you're already putting in. 

Make decisions

Making decisions isn't just about getting the right people together in a meeting and deferring the decision to the group. 

You have to have an opinion – and as a PM, your point of view is extremely valuable because you've done the research, you have domain expertise, and you have the necessary analytical skills. You're in a role that's empowered to make decisions and share a perspective that other people don't necessarily have.

Making decisions shows autonomy and keeps things moving. When you are hesitant to make decisions and communicate your opinion, you'll find yourself always escalating stuff to other people and your manager for their input. This slows things down and frustrates people because  they want to trust you to make them. 

Points of diminishing returns 

The above graph shows the economic principle of diminishing returns.  It means that at a certain point, the work you put in no longer moves the needle the same way as it used to. 

Imagine you're running user interviews. The first few sessions are giving you really valuable takeaways, but you then notice you're hearing the same thing and not getting as much out of the interviews anymore.

You've hit the point of diminishing returns, and in short – you want to make sure you're spending your time in the productive phase.

When you get to that point, you should change something up. Either stop, or adjust what you're doing so you get back to getting the most out of your time.

Get past roadblocks

A roadblock is something that comes up that stops progress, and you are going to run into them. 

You always have to keep things going forward towards your goals. The worst thing you can do for you and your team when hitting a roadblock is nothing, and just stop. 

These are a few ways to get around a blocker when it comes up:

  1. Determine exactly what the blocker is. This could be a thing, or a person. You want to get to the root cause of the roadblock. 

  2. See if the cause can be unblocked. If for instance the issue is an engineer saying “no” to something, and that a task can't be done – speak with them to understand why. Sometimes aligning them on priorities can change the “no” to a “yes”. 

  3. See if there's another way to get it done without them. If you can't move forward with the same person, perhaps you can do it yourself or delegate it to another person or team. If you have relationships with certain partners (i.e an engineering manager or designer) or managers on other teams, you could ask them for help.

  4. See if there's another way to achieve the same goal. Sometimes it's not about finding another person to do the task, rather finding an alternative solution to the same problem.

Good meetings (please!)

Most of the time you're going to have meetings on your calendar, from project check-ins, 1:1s, kickoffs, and meetings to make decisions — the list goes on. 

You're busy, and your team is busy. And one of the most frustrating things in the world for you and anyone else on the team is sitting in a bad meeting.

So what's a bad meeting?

  • There is no purpose - or it's not clear

  • There is no agenda - or it's not clear

  • Unnecessary people are there and their time is being wasted

  • Nothing actionable is coming from it

  • It's not being led and has no structure

Clearly bad meetings are unproductive and waste everyones time – and since meetings are a big part of your job and are expensive, below are some tips for getting the most value out of them.

  • Have a meeting owner. A meeting owner is responsible for keeping things moving and structured – and if you're initiating the meeting it's probably going to be you. Without someone leading it, everyone joins the meeting and nobody knows who's starting or what's going on. It's a complete mess.

  • Have a clear goal. No meeting should ever take place unless there's a purpose with an intended outcome. Make sure to communicate this to everyone who's attending ahead of time so people understand why they're all here. 

  • Have a clear agenda. Your agenda is how you're going to reach your meeting’s goal. Make sure this agenda is crystal clear, and sent to people ahead of time. If someone on your team is going to be expected to present something, make sure that's noted on the agenda so they're prepared. 

    Your agenda and goal should be included in the calendar event description so it's always there for people to refer back to. 

  • Share important stuff early. Whoever is responsible for the meeting should not only share the goal and agenda early, but also any relevant material you want people to read before, like a deck or document. 

  • Keep the group small. Only required people should be invited to a meeting, and everyone who's invited should know why they're there. Smaller meetings are usually more productive because people are more engaged – when you have 15 people on a call it's easier for someone to not participate. 

  • Keep it short. Be thoughtful with how much time you book out for the meeting. It needs to be enough time to cover the agenda and make space for organic conversation, and also where you're not running over and cutting into people's schedules. At the same time, the shorter it is the more focused people are, and the less time you're taking away from their other work.

    Meetings are expensive to the company – they cost the sum of each persons time and their opportunity cost. Be mindful of that when choosing who to bring in and how long the meeting will be.

  • Balance the conversation. Some people have great perspectives and opinions but tend to be quieter and don't share as much unless asked directly. Others like to talk. The meeting owner should balance the discussion and make sure people who are quieter are being asked to weight in and give their thoughts. 

  • Get to key takeaways and action items. The last item on your agenda should always be wrapping up by summarizing the key takeaways and defining next steps. Make sure you talk through the action items and make sure nothing's been missed, and then assign them to people with agreed on deadlines.

What do you if you're in a bad meeting? 

If you're sitting in on a bad meeting that you're not responsible for, you can try to guide the meeting into shape by asking a steering question:

“Let's make sure we're all aligned here, what are we aiming to get out of this meeting, and what is the agenda today?"  

Not everyone is good at running meetings, and that question can help create some structure. 

What do you if you're in a recurring bad meeting? 

If you're an attendee on a recurring meeting that you feel is a bad, the best thing to do is share some constructive feedback privately with the person who owns it. If for instance nothing actionable ever comes from it, you could say something like:

“I feel like this meeting would be more valuable if there were action items for the team. Do you have any ideas?” 

This way you're doing your job and bringing it up, but first letting them come up with ideas before sharing what you think. 

Communicate 

Talking with people and getting feedback is a great way to help yourself not just get more done, but get it done better.

You can do a lot, but you're on a team and other people have expertise, knowledge and perspectives you don't. That's extremely valuable.

  • Ask for help. If you're stuck or looking for advice – ask someone! Everyone on your team is on the same mission and most people love being able to offer help. 

  • Don't silo yourself. This really means make sure you're collaborating. This can be more challenging when you're working remotely, but you don’t want to get so deep into a project or task that you forget what it looks like to someone who hasn't seen it before. Say you're working on a G2M plan – don't try perfect it and then share it, rather discuss with people and ask for their opinions while you're putting it together. 

  • Share your work and get feedback early. The sooner you share work-in-progress, as long as it's in a presentable state, the faster you can get feedback from people. This usually always helps you improve what you're doing, and course-correct if you're on the wrong path.

Have any thoughts, questions or feedback? 👇

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Every week, I write about product, startups, growth, working with people, and anything else that I’ve found helps me have a happier and more meaningful career in product management

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