This is a guest blog post written by Adam Lewkovitz that originally appeared at AdamLewkovitz.com. Adam is a Senior Product Manager for Amazon and works on the App Store. This blog post was based on a very popular session Adam ran at ProductCamp Seattle 2012 entitled 'Stop Fighting Fires and #GTD'.
An employee who has a really excellent attitude and gets great work done quickly is the one who’s going to really shine in a company. As a Product Manager you spend a lot of time doing tactical things because you have to do everything that is necessary to get your product to market successfully. But many of those things won’t be visible or meaningful to the rest of the company. What will be visible is major deliverables and product launches. You must became known as a leader and someone who gets things done. When you get to your next review, you want to be able to say to your boss, “Here are the five things I did that had a huge impact on our company.”
With that as a background, here are my top ten techniques to boost productivity. Some of them will seem very trivial but if you add them all up, you’ll find they’ll make a tremendous difference to your efficiency and productivity. These are tried and tested techniques. Take the ones that you want and leave the ones that don’t.
The first productivity-killing topic is email. I get 120–140 emails a day. I handle email with a number of tactics. First, I make an absolute commitment to myself to not continuously process (i.e. read, respond and react) email throughout the day. Notice I said process and not “check.” I process email three times a day. I come in a few minutes early just to do this, uninterrupted, in the morning. Then I process it right after lunch and then again at the end of the day. I use a smartphone with email access to check for urgent messages and changed or cancelled meetings and prune my messages along the way. If there’s something that’s absolutely critical, I’ll address it but I am careful to not fall into the trap of falling into constant email fire drills.
Here’s the way I go about processing my email:
To start, I make a commitment that I’m going to get through it as quickly as I can. Then I start scouring the messages very rapidly, making split second decisions.
“Do it, delegate it or delete it”
• If an email is spam or not even close to being relevant or important instantly I delete it.
• If it’s an email where I can respond quickly I will send a very short response that usually takes less than 5 seconds. My responses tend to be just a few words like “Great we’ll talk about it at the
meeting,” or “Approved.” The idea is to not waste time on these emails.
• If it is an email that is very long that I need to read completely but is not urgent I put it in a folder called “Read Later” (I also have rules set up that automatically put newsletters, industry publications, etc. in this folder). NOTE: For these emails I put in one to two dedicated hours on my calendar once a week for reading.
• If it’s an email that’s going to require a long response and a lot of thinking, I turn it into an Outlook Task so that it shows up on my To-Do list and I can prioritize it with everything else that I need to do.
If you use this method you can get through your incoming email very quickly and get onto creating an actual priority list and working from there (more on prioritizing your To-Do list later).
The second tactic for email is to separate your work and your personal email. Do your personal email on your own time and use a different email address.
A third email tactic is turn off Outlook notifications (those little messages that appear reminding you that you have yet another email that has arrived). The loss of focus from each distraction will kill your productivity.
The fourth email tactic is to master and use keyboard shortcuts. If you learn keyboard shortcuts really well while you’re processing your email, you can fly through it.
The other email tactic that I use is that I try to avoid jumping into long and controversial threads that go on and on for hours or days with lots of opinions. Next time long email threads happens I want you to intentionally not spend your time or energy putting your two cents in. What you will find is that if you let the threads wear themselves out, about 50 percent of them (or more) actually resolve themselves on their own without any need for your involvement. For the other 50 percent it is to your benefit to see what everybody else is going to say first, then you can jump in and provide an intelligent response later. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours this tactic has saved me—try it for yourself.
If you can get good at these tactics and processing your email you can actually leave the office many nights and on Fridays with your inbox completely empty and everything turned into a task or to be read later. There’s something psychological about having a clear inbox. Use these techniques to get there.
The second tip is to master Outlook or whatever email/calendar/contact manager software you choose to use. Outlook has just a boatload of features, is complex and the menu system can be confusing. I had difficulty mastering all of it’s features despite the fact that I consider myself to be very good at learning new software. But at one point I decided that Outlook was the tool I was going to use and I invested in it. I went out and got the Outlook for Dummies book. That was probably the best 4 or 5 hours that I have invested in a long time and it literally pays off for me every single day. I would highly encourage you, no matter what program you use for email and for organizing things, to invest some time in mastering it. Also get plugins to make you more productive. Gwabbit takes the information from emails you receive and lets you enter it into Outlook contacts with one click. Use Xobni to bring social media updates into your inbox.
If you think about it, right now you probably have a few voicemails on your cell phone. You might also have voicemails on your business land line. You’ve got some emails, probably have a To-Do list, and may even have post it notes and notes from a meeting that have action items as well. So with all these competing sources, how are you going to know what’s important and what you should be doing when you have all of these competing priorities scattered randomly across all these places?
I take absolutely everything and turn it into a task. If a client calls me and says they need something done I immediately capture it via my phone or Outlook (which synchronize wirelessly). When I get an email that is important and will take a fair amount of time I turn it into a task. And when voicemails come in instead of letting them pile up and have 5, 7 or 9 to listen to I write them down immediately, turn them into tasks and delete them from voicemail. When you use this technique you will now have one master list of everything you need to pay attention to. You can then use this as the context to prioritize everything that’s on the list against each other. This is a tremendous benefit because it relieves the stress of worrying about all of the multiple lists and lets you focus your energy and decide what is truly important. My favorite task management mobile app is any.do
The other benefit of doing this is as you go along your day is that when you have ideas for new projects or new tasks or creative ideas, you can instantly capture them. So you never have to worry about whether you forget about that good idea or whether you are missing something. You instantly capture everything and you have one master list that you can always work from.
Once you’ve got the list, what you want to do is use a proven system that works for getting it under control. The technique that I use comes from a book named Total Workday Control using Microsoft Outlook. I highly recommend that you get a copy. I don’t use everything he recommends in the book because it’s a little over the top but I use a combination of that and some other things I’ve learned.
Another excellent system is the ABC method. You really only want five to ten A tasks and five to ten B tasks. After you have assigned all A and B tasks give each one a number from 1 to n in terms of importance and what needs to get done. This is sometimes difficult but it forces you to make a decision about what’s important. Another really important thing about this is try not to go back an hour later and start re-visiting or re-prioritizing. Put a stake in the ground at the beginning of the day. The one caveat is that if there are critical fire drills or other really important things that show up, you may want to adjust your A items. For example, if your boss comes in and says drop everything, you may want to put that particular request on the A list.
What you’ll end up with, based on this technique, is a prioritized list where you can always know what the most important things are that you must get done today and what order you should work on them. At any point in time I can pull it up and with a good sense of certainty, know exactly what I should be focusing on. To get the work actually completed I use David Allen’s GTD method and Pomodoro techniques.
I am sure most of you spend a lot of wasted time in meetings every week. I never really realized how much time is wasted in corporate meetings until l became an independent consultant. You’d be amazed once you’re not sitting in meetings wasting time how much work you can get done.
The first tactic I have for meetings is that whenever you can possibly do it, opt out of the meeting. If it’s not absolutely critical, don’t go. Don’t sign up for it. Or if it’s somewhat critical, go every other week. If you take a meeting that’s a weekly meeting and you decide to go every other week, you’ve just freed up 26 hours for the next year.
If you can’t opt out, a really good technique is to ask the team and the attendees if you can cover your portion first. Ask them if you can go over your issues in the first 10 minutes. Instead of sitting there for an hour listening to things that probably aren’t relevant, if you can go first or last (and show up late) you can free up 30–45 minutes, etc. Alternatively, send a delegate on your behalf.
The second technique if possible is to use a 30-minute meeting instead of an hour-long meeting. Somehow miraculously you’re able to cover all the same material in 30 minutes that would have taken 60 minutes because the perception is just different. At meetings I take notes directly into Microsoft OneNote on my laptop. That way I have an electronic searchable record of everything that was said and agreed upon and all decisions. I can also copy the action items and critical items immediately and email them to all attendees before I have even left the meeting rather than having to go back and look at my written notes and spend another 15–20 minutes trying to figure things out. Even better, I can use tags for different action items or things to remember which can be sorted by context. This allows me to specialize for tasks e.g. make all my phone calls at once or schedule meetings with one click.
The third technique is to be adamant about taking off-topic discussions off line. Nothing will waste your time more than having people talk about something at a meeting that is only relevant to just those two people. When people are off topic immediately call them on it and tell them to talk about it after the meeting.
The fourth technique is to make and enforce meeting rules. For example, tell everyone there’s a 5-minute grace period for being late and that the meeting is starting and decisions are being made whether or not they are there. To enforce timeliness I like to use some fun public humiliation tactics in order to get people on board. One example was a team meeting where we had a late jar where you had to put a dollar in if you were more than 5 minutes late. Another tactic is to use a white board and call it the ”Late Attendees’ Wall of Shame” and make a point of putting the person’s name on it when they arrive. If you make it fun and create just a little bit of incentive you’ll get people there on time more often.
The last technique is for your team – bring good food. If you want to motivate your engineers to attend meetings, make sure you motivate them with something they are really excited about. Bringing donuts to a morning meeting will get people there on time like you wouldn’t believe. I was running a team and the engineers were typical non-morning people but I was on a tight schedule. To solve this I brought in the absolute best donuts I could find but just enough so that the engineers caught on that they had to be there on time or the donuts would run out. It worked like a charm—a Product Manager should never discount the value of sugar (or caffeine) to engineers.
As a Product Manager there are tremendous resources available to you. If you’re creating things from scratch, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, get yourself a good set of templates. Make them or work with others to create an internal set of templates for your company. Any time someone sends you a document put it in an archive folder and build up your resources. I did this for years and saved whatever I could get my hands on from the corporate intranet and file share. After you’ve done this for a while whenever you need to create a document such as a Market Requirements Document (MRD), Profit and Loss statement (P&L) or Competitive Comparison you can immediately save hours of time by leveraging previous work and templates. You don’t have to re-do the formatting and you don’t have to figure out what should and shouldn’t be included.
Similarly, take advantage of the Product Management training that’s out there. There are all kinds of great training companies. There are also excellent books, such as Software Product Management Essentials by Alyssa Dver and the Product Managers Handbook by Steven Haines. There are many other resources that you can leverage as well. You’ll find all kinds of free resources at http://www.280group.com including Product Management Associations, mailing lists, white papers, free templates and more. There are also great management blogs, newsletters and conferences. The more you leverage the knowledge and work that is out there, the more your boss is going to view you as highly productive.
This technique is one of those things where the little details add up. Don’t wait for your computer. Tell your boss you want a fast computer and two big screens so you can crank out more work. I never sit around waiting for my computer—I don’t have time to do so.
Also get a good Smartphone. You’ll be able to check email during the day very quickly to see if there’s something absolutely critical to respond and you can carry your prioritized To-Do list with you. There are also several software products that boost productivity. SnagIt is something I think every Product Manager should own. It is a great little piece of software that lets you take screen shots and add captions and do things very quickly.
Correspondingly, get a good desktop search program. What you don’t want to do is waste 10 or 15 minutes a day navigating around the folders on your hard drive trying to find what you need. You want everything indexed, and you want to be able to search very quickly. Use Chrome or Firefox for syncing browsing sessions across multiple platforms. Sync everything to the cloud. I also love reading lifehacker.
Take a day to thoroughly learn every program that you use and all of the tips and tricks of your system. I’m betting that spending one day will result in weeks of gained productivity over the coming years.
My strategy here depends on the person but I often respond to people very briefly and tactfully, and then move on. When a sales person calls me, I immediately tell them, “No thanks, I am not interested,” and I hang up. I don’t even give them a chance to pull me into a conversation. Correspondingly when a headhunter calls me about a job opening, I’m very straightforward as well. You can waste hours and hours talking to them (and even interviewing). But before you waste your time make a decision. Are you committed to your job or not?
If not, start a job search immediately. If so, politely tell them to send the job description so that you can forward it to anybody you know and make money on referrals.
With a little practice it becomes fairly easy to turn what used to be 5–10 minute conversations into a firm but friendly 1-minute conversation so you can get on with the important things.
Routines help us to stay disciplined and focused on what is most important. If you do the morning planning and the email processing routines they will save you a lot of wasted time later in the day. Additionally, one of the biggest time wasters is jumping onto the web and looking at story after story multiple times during the day. Use Pocket or Instapaper. Spend your transit time to catch up on your reading. I love Audible for audio books. I’ve listened to more books this year than I have read in the last 5.
In terms of planning, I do 10 minutes of planning every morning and then I do a weekly check-in to do a bigger picture check on whether am I really focusing on what’s important. I also block off thinking time, learning time and reading time on my calendar and I keep the appointments. I find that if I don’t put a dedicated hour or two on my calendar every week to think about strategic issues it won’t happen.
You may want to tell your boss what you are doing and ask if you can take one morning a week or one day a week to work at a local coffee shop or at home to think through strategies and big projects. Getting away from the office and noise and interruptions can help you rise above the noise of daily Product Management.
If you’re overwhelmed and have far too much work assigned to you, find someone to help you out. You might consider using a contractor or consultant.In addition to contractors there are many other places to get help. You might get an admin to do some of the lower level tactical work or convince your boss to bring a junior Product Manager into the group to handle the tactical tasks across multiple Product Managers.
Another excellent strategy is find someone to mentor who will help you with the work in their spare time. If you have something that you can teach and share with someone many times they will be more than willing to go above and beyond to return the favor in order to help you out.
Leverage your peers and leverage the Product Management associations as well. Don’t try to be a lone cowboy who’s trying to come up with a unique solution to something that’s already been solved thousands of times.
This last technique is by far the most important. It is to set strict deadlines for yourself and commit them. Once you set a deadline you will be amazed at how things magically fall into place to allow you to get the work done. Once you write the deadline down, you have a 99 percent probability of hitting the deadline. Without deadlines, priorities shift and things fall through the cracks. So set deadlines and make these relevant to the big, high visibility things you are doing for your company. That way you’ll shine and be viewed as a great employee.
You’ve just read some of my favorite time saving tips. I’d be grateful if you could add your own in the comments so everyone can benefit.