Calvin's Guide to Personal Productivity

I am productivity obsessive, and I don’t believe in work-life balance. Instead, I strive for work-life integration. For example, I regularly check/reply to work emails on Sunday so that I am more efficient during the week, but then leave work early to pick up my daughter from school.

People have asked me, How do you find time for work, family, advising companies, and mentoring individuals? I mingle and integrate the things I have committed to, prioritize them, and schedule them in advance. The truth is, they are not equal, sometimes one is more important than others at a given time. Here are some techniques I have been using to integrate my work and personal life together throughout the week and be productive. They fall under three main categories: scheduling, communication, and planning.


Scheduling

Managing your calendar is by far the most important thing. If you don’t own your calendar, it will own you. As a product manager, you are constantly in different meetings with your stakeholders, partners, customers, and scrum teams, so it’s important to manage your time appropriately to get things done.


Time Blocking

In my opinion, time blocking is the most vital thing I do to achieve work-life integration. I try very hard to not work on the weekend, but every Sunday, I will spend 30 to 45 minutes on my work calendar and block out empty slots and rearrange some of my meetings. The goal is to give me at least one or two hours of time slots to tackle the most important tasks of the day. I also block out time for personal activities such as a 30-minute lunch and pick-up and drop-off from school (before COVID-19) in my work calendar. I have seen too many people either skip or have late lunch, and join a meeting while picking up their kids from school. These types of situations can’t be avoided sometimes, but consistently doing this is unhealthy. Here is my rule: If I am joining a meeting, I am going to give my 100% attention.


1:1 Monday

I place all my 1:1 meetings on Monday. I find that Monday is the best time to have 1:1 so that I can align my top priorities with my direct reports and stakeholders across the company. And if there is any adjustment I need to be made, I can do it early in the week.


No Meeting Friday

Friday is the day I catch up on work I need to do, news I need to follow, and anything else that doesn’t fall under product management work such as company compliance training. This technique is inspired by Google. Google was known to allow their employees to spend one day a week to work on their passion project and learn new skills. Friday afternoon is also the time I schedule my mentorship meetings. It’s a great way to wind down my week and prepare for the weekend.

Communication

Email

I check my email inbox only twice a day, 30-45 minutes each session. Once in the early morning, then once in the late afternoon. I also disable email notifications on my phone and my laptop. If I don’t enforce this rule on myself, I can get glued to my inbox for a couple of hours just  answering emails instead of doing the important tasks. As I am going through my emails, I will reply immediately. But for any long response, I will flag the email, acknowledge the sender I have received it, then block out time on my calendar to respond.

You may ask, How do you check emails only twice a day? What if there’s an urgent email? 

For urgent requests, I always tell people to reach me via Slack. After all, this is what instant communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Team are for. My personal mobile number is also in my email signature, in my Slack profile, and company directory so people can call me for any urgent matters that need my immediate attention. Truth is, most emails don’t require your immediate attention, so avoid that rabbit hole.


Weekly Status Note

Given I sit in on many different meetings and initiatives each week, I write a short summary (bullet points) on meetings I attended and the next actions I captured on Friday, and share it with my manager and stakeholders. This summary serves two purposes: 1) It’s a great way to refresh your memory and document the next steps, and 2) It provides a quick snippet to your manager and stakeholders on progress and blockers they should be aware of.

Planning

As a product manager, our job is to prioritize the backlog ruthlessly. Similarly, we need to prioritize our daily tasks so our energy is focused on the most important task at all times. I have gone through several iterations of my planning process in the past and ultimately, landed on this weekly and daily planning approach:


Weekly Planning

My weekly planning happens every Sunday morning. I first review the weekly status note, consolidate the next actions with my existing to-do list, prioritize them, and start time-blocking to allocate time to do the work.


Daily Planning

I do my daily planning before bed. I write down 3-5 important tasks I want to achieve for the next day, make sure I allocate enough time to do them, then do everything I can to stick to it. 

Conclusion

You can pick and choose which of these tips would work best in your life, but if there is one thing from this list you should absolutely do, it’s to get comfortable with time-blocking. If you give people a choice, they will always schedule meetings at their earliest convenience. This is why it is imperative that you allocate time for yourself to focus on your core product management work - prioritize the backlog, write excellent user stories, talk to actual customers, create wireframes, etc. Also, remember that time-blocking not only applies to your work activities but also personal activities or obligations. This is how you can achieve work-life integration to be productive at all times. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!