15 Productivity Hacks for Product Managers

Accomplishing more in less time is an especially important skill for product managers. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of 15 productivity hacks.

This list is divided into two parts: hacks to boost your own productivity and suggestions to boost your team’s productivity. While everyone needs to develop their own process and what works well for you won’t necessarily work well for others, we hope that you can find some good productivity inspiration in this article.

Boost Your Own Productivity

boost productivity

1. Treat Your Inbox as a Temporary State

We’re not just talking about your email inbox (although it certainly applies). Great ideas come from everywhere all the time, but too often they pile up and get abandoned.

The takeaways from this morning’s meeting, that piece of customer feedback you received, the new idea you got from reading a blog post — all of these things comprise your “inbox,” and it’s your job to make sure they don’t just sit there and become forgotten.

If not well tended to, inboxes become storage sheds, and that can really put a damper on your productivity. Don’t just take note of new opportunities as they arise — take action. Your inbox should always be in flux — once an idea lands there, make an effort to act on it.

2. Follow the 4 D’s: Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, or Delete it

That leads us to the next of our productivity hacks. For any item that comes across your plate, take one of the following actions: do it, delegate it, defer it, or delete it.

Do it: There are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine if a task deserves your immediate attention.

  • How long will it take you to complete? (If less than 2 minutes, see the Nike rule.)
  • Can someone else do it equally well or better? (If yes, see delegate it.)
  • Is it a priority? (If no, see defer it.) Is it just work for the sake of work? (If yes, see delete it.)

In general, quick tasks and high priority tasks should be taken care of sooner than later, one at a time, in order of importance. By letting them linger, you’re just creating unnecessary stress for yourself.

Delegate it: Delegating is an easy way to get something out of your queue, but it comes with the risk that someone else won’t do the task the same way you would. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing — in fact, new people often add value and bring unique perspectives to the table. You can assign tasks to your peers or those who report to you, you can outsource them, or you can automate them.

  • Delegating tasks internally: As a product manager, you may not have direct authority to delegate tasks across departments. But you can be a master persuader and thought leader within your company. As long as you’ve done a good job communicating the roadmap, your peers in engineering, sales, and marketing should fully understand your priorities and the problems you’re trying to solve. There should be broad consensus on product direction and strategic goals.
  • Outsourcing tasks: Sometimes you just don’t have the resources to take care of a task internally. This can be especially true for smaller companies and startups. Luckily, there are lots of sites out there — like Upwork and Guru — that help you hire freelance designers, developers, writers and consultants. Outsourcing leg-work-heavy projects to specialists can help you free up time to think strategically about your product.
  • Automating tasks: Some of the most tedious and time-consuming tasks can often be automated with software. Recently, there’s been a huge proliferation of purpose-built tools that can help you save time on just about anything. Our own software, ProductPlan, for example, helps product managers build visual roadmaps with an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop UI. Our customers tell us it’s saved them hours of time fussing over spreadsheets and slide decks.

Defer it: Putting things off is generally not a good policy, but there are a few justifiable reasons why you might choose to defer a task. Low priority tasks can of course be deferred in favor of higher priority ones. And we all know that sometimes even high priority items require input from other teams or the green-light from executives to move forward. Deferring tasks that are dependent on other things or other people makes sense, just be sure to keep track of the tasks that you put on hold (see: write down what you need to get done).

Delete it: Some items can simply be deleted. These are usually the things that don’t advance any of your goals and simply suck time. As a product manager, you’ll have to delete big things like feature ideas (see: say no), but also little things like unnecessary meetings. One of the easiest productivity hacks is to simply make sure you’re not wasting your time with tasks that don’t actually move the needle for your product or your company.

3. Use the Nike Rule (Just Do It)

Use Nike Rule

The Nike rule is simple: If a task can be done in under two minutes, just do it. It’s really easy to tell yourself that you’ll “reply later,” “call her back tomorrow,” or “check on that after lunch.” But now you have three items on your to-do list. You could have had zero if just took care of these little things as they came up.

Of all the productivity hacks for product managers, this one is the simplest. One two minute task doesn’t seem like a big deal, but lots of neglected two minute tasks start to add up. It’s like how leaving one dish in the sink is probably fine, but if you keep doing it, you have a sink full of dishes to wash. No one likes a sink full of dishes to wash. Do yourself a favor and prevent the pile-up in the first place.

4. Write Down What You Need to Get Done

As David Allen, author of the Getting Things Done (and general fan of productivity hacks), says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

Offload your to-do list. Don’t waste brain power thinking about all the “in-progress” or “planned” initiatives. Write them on a whiteboard, track them with Trello, store them on your iPhone — just don’t let them occupy valuable real estate in your brain.

You need your brainpower to solve problems, to listen wholeheartedly to customers and stakeholders, and to empathize with their pain points. Don’t consume half your energy trying to keep track of all the other things going on (see: focus on one thing at a time). Not to mention, if your to-do list is purely mental, you’re much more likely to forget about things and drop the ball.

5. Focus on One Thing at a Time

As a product manager, you probably have a million things on your radar. It can be tempting to dive into everything at once. After all, if you devote 100 percent of your energy to one task, you may start to feel like you’re neglecting everything else, right?

Wrong. “Multitasking” is a myth. Research from the American Psychological Association shows that humans can’t actually focus on multiple things in parallel, and what we tend to think of as “multitasking” is actually more like “task switching.”

When we constantly flip our attention from one thing to another, we make more errors and take longer to finish tasks. Instead of trying to attack everything at once, identify what needs to be done, prioritize your tasks, and then go through them one at a time. Devote your total attention to each item on your to-do list.

It sounds so obvious, and it is as far as productivity hacks go, but working through tasks sequentially will make you more productive. Not only will you work faster and make fewer errors — at the end of the day, you’ll have a longer list of accomplishments to show for yourself.

6. Make a 3 Item To-Do List

A simple way to make a long to-do list more manageable is to break it down day by day. When you get to the office, scrape the top three most important items off your list and write them on a post-it note. Make sure you can cross all three off by the time you leave that day. Then rinse and repeat.

Focus on just three main priorities per day. Hopefully you’re picking up on a theme here: Big, overwhelming to-do lists are doomed to fail. By narrowing your focus and creating small, achievable goals, you can set yourself up for success. (Just like losing 50 pounds sounds impossible, but 5 pounds a month for 10 months seems much easier.) Plus, it feels really good to check items off your list at the end of each day — your hard work and accomplishments will seem more tangible.

7. Step Away

Getting stuck is an inevitable part of solving complex problems. But getting stuck can be frustrating, and sitting there being frustrated is not productive. When you get stuck, make a point to step away.

Productivity hacks: Close what you’re working on and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. Or even better, come back to it after you’ve talked through the problem with someone else and received a second opinion (see: don’t silo yourself).

8. Don’t Silo Yourself

Talk to your co-workers. We tend to mistake quiet, heads-down work environments for productive ones, but chatter sometimes can be a good thing. Some of today’s most innovative workplaces encourage people to talk regularly — not just in formal meetings, but over ping-pong and foosball.

One of the easiest product hacks is just chatting with another person. There’s something immensely powerful about talking to other people about projects they’re not directly involved in. (It also explains the rise of startup incubators and co-working spaces.) Ideas get exchanged and cross-pollinated, mistakes are avoided, and knowledge accumulates faster.

Siloing yourself is the most surefire way to waste time building a product that no one wants or understands. So seek fresh perspectives, iterate in response to feedback, and for goodness sake, share your high-level roadmap widely. Don’t get so deep into a project that you forget what it looks like to someone who has never seen it before.

9. Say No

One of the best things you can do for yourself and your product is to say no. Interesting product suggestions will come in all the time, both internally from stakeholders and externally from customers. You certainly cannot pursue all of them, not just for lack of time and resources, but because building every feature under the sun is not synonymous with building a great product.

It’s more than okay to say no to new feature requests — in fact, it’s your job. You’ll need to constantly sort through, aggregate, and distill incoming ideas to get to the heart of your customer’s problem — and then you’ll need keep everyone focused on solving it. As a product manager, you have to be a ruthless prioritizer, both of the product roadmap and of your own time.

10. Take Breaks

Maintaining focus for long periods of time is difficult for everyone, and the temptation to wander to unproductive corners of the internet is omnipresent (we’re looking at you, Facebook). Instead of constantly fighting to stay on task, build breaks into your schedule to begin with.

If you have a challenging task that requires sustained focus, try working on it in chunks. Some people may even find it helpful to set themselves timers. For example, you could work for 30 minutes straight, then relax and stretch for 5, and then set another 30 minute timer.

Timer or no timer, allow your mind some time to wander — it might just result in a creative new idea. If you attempt to do hours of difficult work in one go, the odds are pretty high you’ll lose focus and abandon ship.

11. Use a Standing Desk

We all know sitting at a desk for hours on end is bad for your health, and chances are it’s also bad for your productivity. An easy way to boost your energy level is to simply stand up. Standing increases your heart rate and gets your blood flowing — it can help you fight that sleepy, after-lunch feeling.

You may want to invest in an adjustable desk that gives you the flexibility to switch between sitting and standing. There are several other great products available that make your workspace more fun and dynamic. For example, the level by Fluidstance is a balance board that you can use in conjunction with your standing desk to stay in motion while working.

Apply Productivity Hacks to Your Team

Photo Credit: wocintechchat.com
Photo Credit: wocintechchat.com

12. Make Your Team a Safe Space

For the past 5 years, researchers at Google have quietly been on a mission to identify what makes some teams more productive than others. They found no smoking gun — the IQs or experience levels of team members didn’t really matter, nor did there seem to be a magic combination of personalities or backgrounds.

What did make a difference, though, was the culture that various teams created. Successful, productive teams made their members feel comfortable expressing new ideas and taking risks — they fostered “psychologically safe” environments. Poorly performing teams, on the other hand, tended to be hierarchical and lacked “conversational turn-taking.” In fact, Google found that when a minority of team members did the majority of the talking, a group’s collective intelligence declined.

If you want to make your team more productive, one of the best things you can do is create a friendly and encouraging environment — and do your best to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak.

13. Follow the MAT (Milestones, Assumptions, Tasks) Framework

Big, lofty goals can be hard to work with. Where do you even start?

The MAT framework helps you break your goal down by milestones, assumptions, and tasks. If you want to reach your first 10,000 users, for example, you’ll first need to cross the 1k, 5k, and so on milestones. Experts recommend breaking big projects down to anywhere between two and 10 important milestones.

Next, make some assumptions about how fast you’ll need to grow, how many people you’ll need to hire, and how much money you’ll need to raise, etc. in order to reach your milestones on time. Finally, identify and delegate the individual tasks you need to do in order to make good on your assumptions.

This framework can help your team conquer big projects and understand how smaller tasks contribute to the bigger picture. A good way to communicate how milestones, assumptions and tasks are connected is through a high-level, visual roadmap.

14. Timebox Tasks

Timeboxing is the idea of devoting a fixed amount of time to working on a task, and at the end of that time limit, simply moving on to something else. Timeboxing lets your team focus in on one thing at a time while managing the risk that you’ll get carried away and waste all week on something of minor importance.

Timeboxing is a great tool for product managers that manage developers or quality assurance teams. Maybe you found a bug that you’d like to fix, but it’s not worth days three of work. You can tell your developers to spend a couple hours on it, and if nothing comes of those hours, it’s not worth spending any more time on that task.

15. Standardize Your Process

Oftentimes, different people will have their own methods of creating, storing, and sharing important documents. While it’s great to find a process that works well for you, when processes become too disjointed it can cause big problems for your company.

Instead of having everyone keep their own spreadsheets on their own computers, create shared wikis or Google Drive folders. There are also plenty of great software solutions — like UserVoice for collecting customer feedback — that help you standardize the way you track and interpret information. And of course, ProductPlan can help you streamline your process of prioritizing and communicating your product roadmap.

Do you have additional productivity hacks? Share them with us by leaving a comment below.