What does a day in the life of a product manager look like?
Ideally, it's fun.
And by fun, I mean exciting.
And by exciting, I mean hectic.
Note: I'm descriptive, not prescriptive here. You do you, but here's what I like to do as a PM:
Morning is focus time, so don't kill it!
As a product manager, I balance between deep work and shallow work.
Hot take. Just like literally anyone else.
Anyway, the importance of deep, focused work is a topic for a separate article. The crucial part is it's easy to kill your focus early in the morning for the rest of the day.
The worst way to start your day? Snooze. The next worst way? Shallow work.
"Ah, I just can't wait to grab that coffee and waste a couple hours replying to meaningless emails," said no one ever.
Stop. Just stop.
And yes, you are allowed to peek into your inbox and Slack in case the apocalypse has popped up overnight. But for the love of productivity leave replying for later.
Morning emails are busyness, not business. It's the epitome of shallow work with little added value, and it WILL kill your focus. It's how you waste a few of your most productive hours and find yourself exhausted with nothing to show for it.
Great job cleaning your inbox Martin, we've decided to offer you a promotion!
The first rule of PM Club: Stay focused.
Think, plan, stay up to date
A better alternative?
Start your day by thinking, reading, and planning.
And I don't mean thinking about lunch and planning where to get it.
- What key results do I want to achieve today? (Not as in OKR, unless you're a big fan.)
- How and when will I work on my P1 tasks? (Considering I'm wanted somewhere 100% of the time.)
- What will I not work on today? (Simple answer: 99% of the things)
These simple questions will help you keep the inevitable chaos under control. At least to some extent. Works great personally and professionally.
Give this a thought the night before and it won't take long in the morning. And you don't have to plan your day down to the last minute. It's fine to be approximate. Being 15 minutes late for a stakeholder meeting is a power move anyway.
Morning is also a great time to check out what's up in the industry. This might be HackerNews or TechCrunch, your competitors' socials, an industry magazine, your favorite influencers on TikTok. Whatever floats your boat, just stay up to date.
These simple activities will start your day on the right foot.
The second rule of PM Club: Take time to think, plan, stay up to date.
Do your dailies and talk to people
What you'll do next is up to you, but I like to continue with my dailies.
And I don't mean the official scrum standups, although it's a possibility. I've yet to work in a company that follows scrum to the T, with SM's and everything.
I mean talking to the people you work with closely who may or may not be part of your team. In my business times, I had dailies with developers and designers. In my last job, I had dailies with developers and the support team. I like dailies.
As long as I can help unblock the team, answer the important questions, or set the direction for the day, I'm happy to spend some time in a morning daily or two.
("Hey, what's up?" counts as a very important daily question.)
And It's not just about productivity and GTD either. I enjoy talking to my people early in the morning. It gives me a boost of energy.
But there's a rule:
Keep it useful, but also light. Talk to people, not your reports. Don't just ask them about blockers and impediments, ask them how they feel. Crack a joke. Have fun.
No one likes formal meetings. If shallow work is the worst way to start your day, a boring meeting is a great way to really kill everyone's mood early on.
I don't schedule my meetings in the morning, and I avoid joining them myself. Skipping a stakeholder meeting because it's too early is a power move.
The third rule of PM Club: Morning dailies are fun, morning meetings are not.
It's deep work time
If all goes well, I have a couple free hours before lunch at this point.
Time to procrastinate!
Nah, it's actually deep work time.
A few examples of PM's deep work:
- Grooming and refining the backlog, writing PRDs, adding details.
- Brainstorming, wireframing, whiteboarding, literally anything in Miro.
- Getting ready to request the 10th iteration of changes from the design team.
- Strategizing, tacticizing, and literally anything else that isn't meetings or email.
Your deep work is whatever you make it. Just keep it deep. No distractions allowed. Ignoring stakeholder DMs because it's deep work time is a power move.
Deep work is elusive given the nature of the modern work environment, but a few hours of uninterrupted PM time during the day is a gamechanger for your product and your company.
It feels great, too. For PMs, deep work is literally better than sex.
And you can quote me on that.
Leave shallow work for later
The afternoon slump is a thing.
Don't you just love being sleepy and sluggish? I do because that's when I'm allowed to do my shallow work. "Sluggish means Shallow" is my motto.
Technically, you can consider shallow work a form of productive procrastination, and just so you know I'm a fan of it. And what's the best time for productive procrastination? It's when you can't focus on more useful things.
A few basic tips for shallow work:
- Near-Zero Inbox and One-Touch Email.
- Email vs Slack for unimportant stuff.
- Banish useless meetings to the moon.
When it comes to email, I love the idea of Near-Zero Inbox. It's the same as Inbox Zero, but without trying to be perfect about it. It's fine to let some emails linger longer. Works great in my personal and professional life.
If you like the concept of GTD, you might do 4D Time Management (Delete, Delegate, Defer, Do), although I try to stick to One-Touch Email without the D's.
One more thing about email. It sucks when you need to get shit done fast, which is why Slack is one of my favorite product management tools. The upshot is, email's great when you need to get shit done slowly!
Because some things are better left forgotten. A Slack DM is a great way to accidentally bring something back to the forefront and waste a lot of time back-and-forthing about what would've been better off buried in email.
Finally, a word on meetings. Not all meetings are useless, but many of them are. "This meeting could've been an email" is a thing. It's worse than typical shallow work because it actively takes away value instead of adding it or doing nothing.
Get rid of as many useless meetings as possible. And if you have to take part in them, make sure everyone in the meeting knows that it could've been an email.
Use your shallow work time to make for a good transition into the rest of your day.
Then, do literally anything
Yep, it's finally time for that stakeholder meeting. Can't ignore it any longer.
As a PM, I try not to overschedule my afternoons because it's when so many things can happen. And having unscheduled time makes me prepared for the unexpected.
In one of my last roles, the afternoon was the most hectic part of the day. Not just because that's when the US woke up (I'm in the EU here), but because people seem to like afternoon meetings.
Still, I try to get a few more hours of deep work done in the afternoon. My tip here: do something different from what you've been doing in the morning. Having different kinds of deep work makes it less mundane. If I'm strategizing alone in the morning, a team brainstorming session in the afternoon is a welcome alternative.
Get some deep work done in the afternoon and sign off for the day feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Review your today, plan your tomorrow
There are two more things I like to do before I end my day as a PM:
- Do my daily retrospective.
- Review my plan for tomorrow.
These things don't take long, but they ensure I'm conscious about my days. It also makes me better prepared for whatever tomorrow morning may bring. I do it personally and professionally, and it's always worked wonders for me.
I usually do all of my reflections the night before, but if you're not a fan of taking your work home, you can do it right before signing off for the day.
And that ends the day in the life of Martin, the product manager.
Let's discuss this tomorrow morning!
P.S. Don't skip stakeholder meetings.