6 Ways for Product Managers to Manage their Time Off (and Still Drive their Roadmap Forward)

Kirsten Schierholt

Kirsten Schierholt
Marketing Operations Analyst at ProductPlan

Product managers receive a lot of advice. You should prioritize this feature. Here’s a new market worth investigating. Some of my prospects say they’d buy our product if it did this. But one suggestion we think product managers don’t hear enough is: Take some time off, unplug, and clear your head.

Product managers play a big role in their company’s success or failure. But for the same reason physical health requires both exercise and recovery, a Product Manager should step away from time to time to recharge.

This post will give you a few best practices for making you confident that your company won’t fall into a panic while you’re gone and ultimately, help you feel less stressed during your time off.

First, though, we’re going to make a data-driven case for why product managers must take time off.

Everyone Needs a Vacation (Yep, Even Product Managers)

The benefits of a vacation from work seem almost too good to be true. But each one we’ve summarized below is supported by science. You’ll probably find most of them intuitive, even obvious. But that begs the question: If you’re not taking regular vacations, why aren’t you?

1. Time off can improve your health.

Research cited by the University of California at Berkeley found vacations lead to all sorts of health benefits. They lower stress levels, make us feel more energetic and even boost our body’s immunity and antiviral functions.

It doesn’t matter what type of vacation you choose either; the science shows you will come back recharged, healthier, and feeling more alive. That can translate into benefits for your team, your products, and your company.

2. It can jumpstart your creativity.

In a report covered by Inc. Magazine, researchers examined the midbrain area called the SN/VTA. Neuroscientists call this the brain’s “major novelty center.” They discovered that the more we’re exposed to the familiar, the less active our SN/VTA becomes. When we’re exposed to novel environments, this area of the brain lights up, persuading us to explore.

Tourism offices never advertise it this way, but a vacation can kickstart your SN/VTA. When you leave the familiar surroundings of your office and expose yourself to novel experiences, the creative centers of your brain will be on full alert. This can help you make new connections, find innovative solutions to problems you’ve been thinking about, and see things from a different perspective. Can you think of more valuable use of a product manager’s downtime?

3. It can help your career.

Citing studies on the connection between time off of work and career success, the Harvard Business Review lists some incredible stats. For example, employees who use 11 or more of their vacation days in a given year are 30% more likely to receive a raise than those who use 10 or fewer.

As the HBR authors explain, if you use all of your vacation days (and plan your trips well, which we’ll discuss below), you will increase your happiness and be more successful at work.

How to Take Time Off Like a Boss

We know what you’re thinking. I can’t just walk out on my product team for a week. What if there’s an emergency? What if they need me? What if things fall apart? It’s my product, and I’m responsible for it. These are all reasonable concerns.

In fact, vacationing the wrong way could lead to all sorts of problems—not only for your team but also for yourself. As another Harvard Business Review article points out, time off doesn’t always reduce stress. It’s possible to go on vacation and come back to work feeling even more burned out and frustrated than when you left.

So you need to take some smart steps to make your vacation the health-boosting, creativity-enhancing, career-improving tool it can be. Here are a few suggestions.

1. First things first: plan your vacation well (and well in advance).

As the Harvard Business Review article explains, a vacation from work isn’t something you should try to manage on the fly. When you have to deal at the last minute with travel bookings, planning your itinerary, or buying gear or clothing you didn’t realize you’d need for the trip, a relaxing vacation can turn into a logistical nightmare.

Also, the further in advance, you schedule your trip, the more time you’ll have to prepare your cross-functional team to handle things while you’re gone.

2. Build your vacation into your product planning.

Let’s take our first tip a step further. One best practice for making your time off as smooth and panic-free as possible for your product team is to build your vacation schedule into your product planning.

You can and should do this, not just for yourself, but for anyone on your cross-functional team who might take vacation time during a sprint or a longer development block.

This strategy elevates and positions vacation time into a planned component of the team’s development and release schedules; making it not only easier to prepare for months in advance but also recognizing vacation time as a necessary priority.

3. Review upcoming work with your core team.

As your vacation time draws closer, pull your team together to review what’s on everyone’s agenda while you’re away.

You can even think of this as one of your standard cross-functional-team meetings—but with a focus on how your absence might affect or bottleneck any agenda items. Then help your team plan accordingly and allow them to express any concerns they may have.

For example:

  • Discuss and set priorities for the team during your vacation. Try a review of the sprint backlog, product backlog, and/or product roadmap.
  • Assign items to each team member.
  • Review and address any obstacles preventing anyone from accomplishing their work.

4. Establish a designated decision-maker.

As a product manager, you have to make many strategic decisions in a given week. You can’t leave this aspect of your role unfilled while you’re away.

So another important step you need to take in your vacation preparations is to assign the temporary decision-maker responsibility to someone on your team. This could be your boss, such as the Director of Product Management, or it could be your product owner.

5. Prepare for likely issues to arise while you’re out of office.

You’ll also want to think through the most probable scenarios that could affect your product’s progress during your time away.

Game these scenarios out, and work with your team or your designated decision-maker to build a plan to address them if they happen. It’s better to over-prepare than to let your team get caught off-guard by a surprise setback when you’re not there.

6. When you’re on vacation, unplug. (Really. We mean it.)

Finally, when you’ve handed off decision-making responsibility to your colleague and have walked out of your office door to start your vacation, make a conscious effort to remind yourself of a few things:

  • I’m stepping away from work for [time period], not just physically but mentally as well.
  • I won’t read my work email, monitor our Slack channels, or “check-in” with anyone.
  • My team and I have planned for this, and everything will be okay.
  • If everything isn’t okay, our designated decision-maker will handle things until I get back.

We know it won’t be easy for you. Product managers are among the most dedicated professionals in any organization. You care about your products, your team, and your customers.

Taking a break from an important, high-stakes job can be difficult. Which is why so many professionals can’t do it. Time Magazine cited a study that found more than 60% of people work remotely during their vacation.

But when you consider all of the advantages of truly unplugging from work—improved health, career success, increased creativity—it’s clear that a real break just might be the best thing you can do for your company and for yourself; all in the pursuit of becoming a more well-rounded product manager.