How to Escape the Product Manager Hustle Culture

Kirsten Schierholt

Kirsten Schierholt
Marketing Operations Analyst at ProductPlan

Crazy-busy. Hustle culture. These loaded terms have risen to become a badge of workplace honor. They describe a state of professional fervor that’s not for the faint of heart.

The crazy-busy product manager (PM) runs from meeting to meeting without breaking a sweat. Returns emails on a laptop with one hand while tapping out messages on the phone with the other. They’re cruising through lunch on nothing more than fumes from a mid-morning double espresso. They might as well don a cape.

How to Escape the Misguided Glory of the Product Manager Hustle Culture

While people around them might see this as a sign of elevated productivity, the crazy-busy PM isn’t fooling anyone. At the end of the day, what do they have to show for it?

Because busy doesn’t necessarily mean productive.

A PM’s time is as limited as it is valuable, and there is a dizzying amount of tasks to attend to on any given workday—some of which are planned and some completely unpredictable. But an overstuffed, overbooked calendar doesn’t equal quality output. While being crazy busy can appear to be productive from the outside, it can be counterproductive—even dangerous. It harms your ability to make authentic connections with others—people on your team, your organization, and even your customers. It robs you of the time you need to think creatively and paves the way for rushed decisions that beget mistakes, some of them costly. Being crazy busy might feel thrilling initially, but it’s a terrible strategy for the long game.

Psychology Today has another name for “crazy-busy”:

“The toil glamour of the hustle culture extols overworking and burnout and signals you’re a hard, dedicated employee, and 45% of the workforce brag about being modern-day members.”

Download From Product Manager to Product Leader ➜

In some parts of the world, the glorification of a crazy-busy work-life takes an ominous twist. Workers who fall asleep at their desks or who work from sunup to sundown at the expense of self-care or family life are idealized. In Japan, there’s even a term for working oneself to death: Karoshi.

The hard truth is this: Crazy busy is an unfortunate detour to real productivity and effectiveness. Knowing where to put your efforts for maximum impact is one part artform and one part strategy. Let’s look at how PMs can tame their crazy-busy work lives for greater satisfaction and productivity.

Why Product Managers Fall Prey to “Crazy-Busy”

Some might argue that crazy busy is a product manager’s natural state. Every time you complete a task, two new ones take its place. There’s always something to tackle—from interview requests and documentation to the endless backlog. PMs juggle many cross-functional responsibilities and tend to many areas of product development. They also have many eyes scrutinizing their activities, which can lead to feeling like an imposter. And then there’s the whole “fate-of-the-company-riding-on-their-shoulders” bit. That kind of pressure would motivate anyone to keep moving at a fast clip.

While it’s true that PMs are particularly vulnerable to getting caught up in a never-ending cycle of crazy busy, they don’t have to resign themselves to that frenzied fate.

“PMs tend to be overachievers, so it can be hard to step back and say ‘I can’t—I need help!’” says Annie Dunham, director of product management at ProductPlan. “Because there are so many areas that you could spend your time on, it’s important to check in and see what’s most important to accomplish.”

Annie offers more advice in the Spotlights series, below.

Diagnosing “Crazy-Busy”

There will be periods when work gets a little more intense than usual for any PM—like right before a product launch. But running on this level of intensity all the time is simply not sustainable. If you find that running out of bandwidth is your new norm, you are likely teetering on the crazy busy edge.

Similarly, if you’ve lost sight of the “why” in what you do, it’s time to take a big step back and reevaluate what’s going on in your approach to your work. Remember that it’s the “why” that brought you to your PM role, and it’s the “why” that gets you out of bed every morning and motivates you to do your best work.

A Remedy for “Crazy-Busy”

Navigating product development without a useful roadmap will drive any PM right into crazy-busy town, so make sure you’ve got a reliable roadmapping tool that will keep you and your team on the same page. Here are some insights for evaluating top roadmapping solutions and selecting the right one for your team.

Keep in mind that “crazy-busy” might be signaling a need to expand the product team. Not having enough product managers can cause problems in several ways. First, if you don’t have enough people looking at how and where business goals, market conditions, and product functionality intersect, you might end up building the entirely wrong product. For any PMThereSecond, if you don’t have enough product management resources, you can also be creating a huge bottleneck. This often causes your developers to stand idle or “wing it” based on an incomplete understanding of project goals.

Read more about how to figure out the ideal size of a product team.

Here’s how Dunham recognized it was finally time to open up another PM position on her team at ProductPlan:

“The wheels were moving, and we were delivering a good product, but I wasn’t able to give engineering the level of customer detail I wanted or to talk to enough customers. Those pre-work factors matter, and not having enough time to dedicate to them made the delivery process gradually risky. It was time to support our product organization better—and it couldn’t be done with one product manager.”

Dunham explains that having a hiring game plan is crucial. “You’re not doing anyone any favors by not planning for hiring and not buffering it with future initiatives on your roadmap,” she says. “Expect a three-month hiring window and a three-month onboarding period.”

When you’re ready to hire a new PM, here are eight places to share your listing.

6 Tips for Keeping “Crazy-Busy” at Bay

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you intentionally work to avoid becoming crazy-busy and stay balanced throughout your fast-paced day:

1. Set Boundaries

As tricky as this can be for some folks, you need to learn to say “no” or “later” more often. Sure, that’s not what people want to hear. Everyone wants their requests and ideas to be immediately acted upon. Yet that’s simply not realistic. Saying “no” is hard, but it does get more comfortable with practice.

2. Delegate

Not everything can be passed to someone else, of course, but many things can be. Quickly scan your to-do list and reroute the tasks you can train or mentor others to take on. Dunham suggests that you start each day with the top three things you need to get done. If you find yourself routinely unable to accomplish those things, then you need to figure out why and delegate as needed.

3. Keep Learning

A curious brain wants to explore and grow. Instead of being in output mode all the time, allow yourself to be a receptacle for new information. You may even discover a better way to accomplish what you’re doing but in a shorter time.

4. Reassess Regularly

PMs should have a sense of best practices within their product processes. Dunham advises that you take a step back regularly (e.g., every quarter) to assess your current environment. Ask yourself, “How do we align with that?” Use any gaps to help identify whether the resources you need are within the organization. “Distill it down and take a fresh look at the ideal product balance—that’s where you identify the needs,” says Dunham.

5. Automate

Redundant tasks and activities eat away at your time and can create feelings of ineffectiveness. Dunham recommends automating when you can: “If you do something once, like answering a question, it’s fine. But twice—you need to automate it.”

6. Stay Grounded

Don’t downplay the importance of your health and well-being. Prioritize healthy connections with friends and family. Here’s how GitLab does it: “At GitLab, we are family and friends first, work second. Because we want to ensure that people are making their well-being a top priority and living out our values, we will occasionally call a ‘Family and Friends Day.’ We will close the doors to the GitLab virtual office, reschedule all meetings, and have a publicly visible shutdown.”

Remember: “Always being busy doesn’t advance anything. Figure out the right processes, ownership, and workflow to free up your time to step back and observe where the gaps are. When you identify where those points are, streamline from the beginning. Determine what truly needs your time,” advises Dunham. “Just because someone needs to own it, doesn’t mean you need to own it.”

Learn how to master a day in a PM’s life in our book.