How to Make Time for Individual Work as a Product Manager

Finding the balance between being there for your teams, and being able to work as an individual contributor, is a dance that product managers know all too well. When you’ve got a 9 hour working day, 7 hours worth of meetings, and at least 5 hours worth of individual work to do…the math just doesn’t add up!

Product managers have to beg, borrow, and steal time to get tasks done. And that sometimes involves saying ‘no’ to the people who need them.

It takes years of experience to find this balance, and at the start of your career you might find yourself struggling to know where to start.

So instead of working through the weekend to catch up, learn these tricks for clearing some space in your schedule.

Why Do Product Managers Have So Many Meetings?

Meetings are in the fabric of a product manager’s function within the team. When you work cross-functionally with so many different people, it’s only natural that you need to actually speak with all of them from time to time. A half an hour meeting with every person you’re leading, plus company all-hands meetings, project-specific meetings, emergency meetings, brainstorming meetings, onboarding meetings…it’s enough to make your head spin!

A huge part of a product manager’s job is to influence without authority, and while that’s not impossible to do over email, it’s definitely better to do so face to face. You need to build relationships with people, and that happens much more organically when you meet with them.

It also helps with creative thinking, which is vital for good product development. In person meetings create a space for free thinking and collaboration. It’s also much easier to get your ideas across and get the right answers to your questions in an actual conversation.

But more simply than that, the product manager is the person with the answers to the questions that development teams ask. When you sit at the intersection between design, business, and tech, you’re the diplomat and the translator for these disciplines.

You’ll never clear your schedule of meetings! But you can find ways to carve out more time for your independent work.

five person by table watching turned on white iMac

5 Ways to Make Time for Individual Work:

1. Run efficient meetings

If you’re the one running most of your meetings, you have more control over them. Time to abuse that power and make sure your meetings are as efficient as possible! That doesn’t mean cutting them unnecessarily short because ‘you’ve got better things to do.’ But if there’s ways to trim the fat, don’t be afraid to do it!

One way to do that is to always set an agenda ahead of time. Even if the meeting is going to be an open-ended brainstorming session, try to set some themes or some main talking points to help drive the conversation in the right direction.

Don’t be afraid to stick to the time. Saying “Ok, we’re down to the last minute, so let’s put a pin in this and revisit tomorrow.” isn’t a crime when you’ve got other tasks lined up.

Check out: How to Run One-to-Ones With Your Product Team

2. Block off time in your calendar

If your calendar feels like a free-for-all, and meetings pop up in your calendar seemingly of their own accord, block off time when you know, and your teams know, that you’re unavailable for meetings. If you like blasting through emails for the first hour of the day, have this hour blocked off in your calendar.

Of course, there are times when you’ll need to be flexible, and make space for emergency/time sensitive meetings. But having this space regularly reserved is invaluable for helping you to mentally organize your workload. It helps to have a reliable chunk of time reserved just for you and your own individual work.

When you work in a global distributed team, it’s advisable to have this time before your team wakes up/after they’ve logged off.

3. Ask people to do their homework

Sometimes, people want meetings for every good idea or every little problem they have. For people who don’t have calendars stacked with meetings, it can be their go-to solution. Set a precedent of asking people to do their homework before requesting a meeting.

If you ask people to put their idea down in writing, you can assess whether it’s worth taking further without having to schedule something in the diary. Similarly, asking people to do their research and put the problem they have into writing may lead them to an easy solution.

If, after they’ve done their homework, the meeting seems necessary, then you’ll be walking into a well-prepared meeting, which will save you time in the long run.

You might also be interested in: Product Templates: Product Requirements Document (PRD)

4. Prioritize your meetings

Make it clear to the teams that you can only take meetings that are aligned with the company’s current OKRs, as it’s your main priority to drive these OKRs. Let your teams know that you don’t have time to spend on things that aren’t aligned with your company’s goals.

Check out: 3 Prioritization Techniques All Product Managers Should Know

5. Learn to delegate

You might find yourself swallowed up by meetings because you haven’t learned how to trust your team and delegate. Take a look at what’s in your calendar and see if there’s really anything that you don’t need to be in, or could be left in the hands of someone else. For example, if you’re not a technical product manager, how much do you really have to contribute to your more technical meetings with engineers?

How to Say No to Meetings Without Making Enemies

Finding the right words can be hard, so here’s some inspiration for how to delicately and politely decline new meeting invitations, without ruining your professional relationships.

📅 Cancelling/reducing a regular meeting…

Do you ever finish one of your most regular meetings and think “well that was pointless”? It doesn’t have to be this way! 

On reflection, I think our [weekly product marketing update] meeting is not the best use of our time.

I propose cancelling this meeting, as we already have everything covered in our [weekly all hands] meeting. / I propose reducing this meeting to X times per week, as this will free us up for more productive work.

We can see how it goes for the next month, and if things are falling through the cracks, we can go back to our regular meeting schedule.

🙅🏼 For an unnecessary meeting…

Sometimes you get invited to a meeting and you think “…but why?” Perhaps you just need to ask for a little clarification (see point 3 above).

I’m not entirely clear on the purpose of this meeting. Could you please fill out a project brief / elaborate on talking points / send me some more information? Happy to revisit this when we’re both on the same page.

☠️ For an extremely unnecessary meeting…

Sometimes you get invited to a meeting and rather than thinking “…but why?” you think, “…oh heck no.”

Some things are just completely not worth your time, and they never will be. It’s hard to know how to express this without being rude. You have two options. You can redirect to someone who would be better suited to take it on. Or you can shut it down completely, and propose alternatives.

  1. I’m afraid this isn’t something I’m available for, I have other priorities that I need to be focused on right now. [Jane Doe] might be a better person to help you with this.
  1. This isn’t necessarily something that would require a meeting, since we’re trying to keep people’s calendars as clear as possible. Feel free to pop this in X channel on Slack / in an email, and we’ll take it from there.

🏡 For something that’s encroaching on your personal life…

Yes, product managers are also allowed to have private lives! Work-life balance is absolutely essential for being a healthy and happy human being. Everyone makes sacrifices to their personal life to get the job done, but some things remain precious to us. Maybe you’ve booked an evening yoga class to help you cope with a particularly stressful week, or you need to walk your dog in the morning. Maybe your parents are in town and you’ve promised to meet them for lunch.

I’m afraid I have a personal appointment at that time, but I’d love to meet with you on this. Here are the times I’m available next week, let me know if there’s a time that works for you and we’ll put it in the calendar.

Valuing Your Individual Contributions

Sure, you’re a team leader, a translator, a diplomat, and the main point of contact for a lot of different things. So it’s natural to feel a responsibility to be available for your teammates 24/7. But that’s just not reasonable to expect.

And besides, there are some types of work that only the product manager can do. Having confidence in the value of your independent contributions will empower you to make the space for them.

We talk about all this and more in our online community of product professionals. Join us over in Product School Pro to get great advice just like this from PMs who have been there, done that!

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