Many product managers find themselves with an overly booked calendar, getting pulled in many different directions, and constantly feeling frazzled. This state of mind can hinder your ability to be productive, making you feel like you’re never able to finish anything or accomplish what you set out to do.
To make matters worse, these stressors might not always be obvious. It could be something as simple as one meeting running over, so you’re late to the next thing. And that might cause some minor upheaval in your schedule, making you forget about an important task you needed to complete later that day- and so forth.
Learn how to assess the stressors for an overly booked calendar as a product manager, what to look out for to optimize, and some frameworks to improve your calendar and time.
Probably the best way to sum up a product manager’s overly-packed schedule is a popular meme by Consulting Humor:
The overly busy product manager- how to assess stressors
When your calendar is overflowing with meetings, emails, calls, and deadlines (not to mention a million tasks), it’s hard to know where to start when looking for ways to manage it all. But finding time-wasters can be easy if you look for them.
It takes some self-awareness, though. Ask yourself: Are my stressors due to external factors or internal pressures? What are those challenges that are preventing me from doing my best work?
Am I spending too much time on distractions versus projects that make a difference? If you identify two categories of stressors- external and internal- the chances are good that eliminating what's outside of your control will also alleviate some of what's weighing down your workday.
Examples of external stressors include:
● Lack of resources, tools, or materials.
● Clients who lack clarity in their requests and feedback.
● Independent variables outside your control include a partner or supplier who fails to meet deadlines.
Examples of internal stressors include:
● Too many tasks competing for your attention.
● Not knowing how much time something will take or if you have enough time to complete it at all.
● Poor habits, such as responding quickly instead of taking time to provide thorough responses.
● Unclear team roles or poor communication between departments.
The solution - time management tips
It’s easy to get caught up in new projects, and before you know it, all of your time is booked with meetings. Before you can do anything, it’s crucial to understand where time is being wasted. Try using a time-tracking tool and manually keeping track of everything you do in a day for a week- this will give you some insight into what’s eating up so much of your time.
Some things to watch out for: unproductive meetings and checking email multiple times per hour are ordinary time wasters for product managers. This will help you identify areas that need improvement.
Try these tips to manage an overly busy calendar:
Know what’s most important to you and where you want to invest your time. It can be a challenge, but it’s essential to stick with those priorities so that when new opportunities arise, you have a better idea of how they fit into your schedule and which ones are best for you to accept or reject.
Review all of your calendars- work, social, family- and make sure nothing is going on that you don’t have time for. If there are conflicts, try rescheduling some meetings to days that don’t overlap with others. Remember, at the core, the PM’s goal is about being product and customer-centric. Anything outside of that, is “extra”.
To make room for higher-priority projects, it helps (and is nice) if you can outsource some tasks like scheduling meetings or answering emails. Many productivity tools allow you to delegate these tasks with ease; consider using a virtual assistant for small projects that have low urgency but still need to get done.
You can also work with your Scrum team to identify which meetings the developers could assist with. A great example of this could be an internal demo of your product. This also gives developers more practice and exposure in the organization outside the team.
Learn your time wasters
It might be easy to gloss over long meetings because they feel productive, but they take up a lot of time and aren’t always necessary- if someone sends an email instead of asking you in person, maybe there’s no reason for both of you to meet at all.
If something isn’t going to impact your workday or life positively, it should probably be cut from your schedule. It’s a critical skill for a product manager to learn how to write concise, articulate emails, this will save countless hours in meetings by setting the “stage” first.
Watch out for black holes
If you get sucked into a rabbit hole (who doesn’t), make a habit of logging off after an hour or two so you can focus on more critical projects later on. If necessary, adjust your schedule to leave more time between appointments; that way, if you end up getting stuck in traffic, it’s not a total disaster because other things are waiting for you once you arrive.
Say “no” when appropriate
If you’re in a meeting that isn’t necessary, be honest about it—but don’t just say no for no reason. If you can explain why you have limited time and energy at a given point in time, people will generally understand and appreciate your honesty more than they would if you blew them off without warning.
Another way to ensure you don’t get too many unsolicited meeting requests is to ensure you’re in a cadence with updating various stakeholders. A good example is a product manager may meet with the development team 2-3 times a week, sales and upper management weekly, and other stakeholders bi-weekly or monthly. Being proactive will reduce last minute “Hey do you have 5 mins?” questions.
There are several frameworks for managing your busy calendar as a product manager. Below are two common frameworks that can help you manage your calendar right away
- Now: Pressing and time-sensitive tasks that need to happen right away. Examples: Customer bugs, meeting with the CEO, an external deadline for a proposal.
- Next: Critical items for the core mission of the product. Examples: Daily Scrum or onboarding a new team member.
- Later: These could be items that are either administrative, non-time-sensitive, or don’t have a significant impact on the product or customers.
Time blocking, or calendar blocking, involves defining specific time blocks for the tasks, events, and activities in your life, and then scheduling them against your calendar. You can schedule and follow time blocks for both business and
Use technology to your advantage
Technology can help you manage and organize your calendar and tasks. Create a task management system that works for you, whether it’s something as simple and basic as a checklist on Google Keep or something more complex like Asana or Trello.
Whatever it is, find out what works best for you and create a schedule that will work with- not against- your calendar. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to managing technology in product management; personalize your tools based on how you interact with them.
Project management tools give you an overview of exactly how much work needs to get done; they also help keep everyone in your team on task by assigning individual responsibilities and sending out reminder alerts when something is due. You can also use these tools to store important files that colleagues need access to when working on a particular project. Some great tools to work with as a PM include Monday.com, BaseCamp, and Notion, among others.
For example, you’ve likely heard of Google Calendar, but many people don’t realize how powerful it is. You can view appointments in Google Calendar. That’s especially helpful for a global team of consultants, freelancers, or external advisors. In addition, it allows you to share your calendar with other members of your team quickly.
Have clear objectives
Many managers don’t have clear objectives for their team, but without them, how do you know if your people are working effectively? Set clear objectives that align with company goals and help you prioritize tasks.
Once you understand what needs to be done, make sure everyone knows how they fit into the bigger picture. Meet one-on-one regularly to ensure developers and reports understand where they stand in relation to larger objectives- and discuss any blockers or issues along the way.
If work stalls because nobody has responsibility for it, consider creating an internal strike force group that can jump in quickly when something needs finishing off. These groups can come together on an ad hoc basis, with specific members named each time, ensuring continuity when key players are unavailable.
Schedule time for strategic planning
Ideally, you’ll have a monthly calendar dedicated to discussing and brainstorming significant picture issues affecting your product: How can we develop our brand? What features should we include in future releases?
Where is our company headed in one year? One month? Even five years from now? Planning ahead will help you make smart choices for scheduling meetings and development deadlines.
Create more white space on your calendar
Our calendars tend to fill up so quickly that there’s no room left for spontaneous conversations or brainstorms with colleagues. But if you don’t allow enough white space on your calendar, nothing new will ever come in.
Put yourself first! The occasional unscheduled day or half-day can be a great way to clear your head and start brainstorming creatively again.
Designate time slots during your week off
Working nonstop from Monday through Friday isn’t healthy – nor is it productive, necessarily. To help find a better balance between work and home life, commit yourself to keeping some time free each weekend.
To make sure you take these weekends, block out 1-2 hour increments of time on your calendar; not only will you be more likely to use that time for a leisure activity, but other colleagues will start treating those times as sacred too.
Have an away mode on your phone
No matter how hard you try, it can be challenging to unplug completely from work emails and responsibilities while at home. However, if you want some time away, put yourself on away or do not disturb mode when you leave work and re-engage only when you get back into work mode in the morning.
The fewer notifications that pop up on your phone when you’re trying to relax, of course, the better! Once again, project management software can help – just set yourself away or do not disturb whenever you need a break.
Schedule social time during business hours
It may seem counterproductive (and somewhat impossible), but scheduling fun activities during daylight hours can promote more efficient work habits later. Who knew, right?
If you regularly schedule 30 minutes to 1 hour of social time during your lunch hour in your calendar each day, that means you won’t be tempted to waste those afternoons reading blogs or chatting with others; if you do have some unexpected free time, it’s easy enough to take a walk outside instead of checking more emails.
Use buffer time
Schedule in “buffer” time, instead of scheduling that 30 min, 45 min, or 60 min meeting try scheduling a 25 / 40 / 50 minute meeting in its place.
This will allow you to have time to decompress, absorb what was talked about, run to the restroom, or even just stretch out and give your eyes time to rest (See 10 Tips for Computer Eye Strain). It’s important to keep your health in check so you don’t burn out with a calendar full of back-to-back meetings.
It can be easy to get bogged down with meetings and emails and lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.
Taking a few minutes each day or week (or just once a month) to reflect on whether you’re meeting specific goals can help keep you motivated and on track toward accomplishing those objectives.
These goals may include growing revenue, improving team productivity, or increasing customer retention.
The bottom line
As a product manager, you are the fulcrum that keeps your organization moving forward. If you have too many ideas and not enough time to execute them, you’ll find yourself working every hour of the day without achieving much.
Similarly, if you don’t know what to work on first and aren’t prioritizing your to-do list effectively, you’ll get even less done in the same amount of time. But with this guide on how to manage your chaotic calendar as a product manager to simplify your schedule, you’ll improve your focus, reduce stress levels, and get more done each day.