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A Productivity Hack For The Busy Product Manager

I like getting things done. Who doesn’t? And as Product Managers, we’re wired to get things done.

But it’s hard isn’t it? Meetings. Requests from team members, other departments, my boss, and higher ups. “Voluntold” responsibilities. Emergencies. Fires. Administrative distractions. All conspire to keep us from doing the things we really wanted to get done.

And don’t even get me started on email. Or IM.

I found that I was often racing from meeting to meeting, request to request, or crisis to crisis, and spending too little time on doing activities that supported my higher goals. Too many of my days would end in frustration. I’d look back, and though I had done a lot of things, I didn’t feel I really accomplish anything. This frustration was worst Friday evenings as I’d reflect on my week and realize that I had accomplished little to few of the things I had originally wanted to at the start of the week.

So several months ago, I discovered a productivity hack that’s been working well for me. So I thought I’d share it here. Maybe it could help you.

At the start of every week, I write down What are the 5 things I want to accomplish this week? I usually do this Sunday evening as it enables me to begin the transition from weekend mode to work mode come Monday morning. You can just as easily do this Friday evening or even Monday morning if that works better for you.

At the start of every day, I write down What are the 3 things I want to accomplish today? I’ll typically do this first up in the morning, though sometimes I’ll do it the evening before.

I call these my priority lists. I then have a third list I simply title “To Do’s”. This is my generic, catch-all to do list. Any new item gets added here first. Generally, I try to keep this prioritized, but I don’t sweat it too much. These items have the opportunity to get to my priority lists during my daily and weekly reviews.

I place all three lists in a place that I frequently access and is highly visible, which is a note in Evernote. All three lists are in the same Evernote note, and I always update that same note, never create new ones. I first list my 5 goals for the week, then my 3 goals for the day, and then the generic to-do list. Every item is listed with a checkbox (a very cool feature in Evernote). This gives me the immense gratification of checking off completed tasks.

I’ve titled the note “TO DO LIST”, in all caps, yes, and have added the tags “FAVORITE” and “IMPORTANT”. Because it’s the note I most frequently access, Evernote automatically keeps it at the top of my notes. These little things together enable my to-do’s to always be front and center for me.

You could just as easily use Google Docs, Word, a to do list mobile or web app, a project management system, or even a plain old notepad. I use Evernote, because it’s something I use every day, and my notes are accessible to me on every one of my devices.

Finally, I stick to one rule: only truly urgent things supersede any item already on the priority lists.

What I like about this system is its simplicity and ease. The act of listing to-do’s in the first two lists means I’ve prioritized them. So as I get them done, I enjoy the affirmation that I’m doing things I’ve deemed most important. Also, if I see any item sitting in the general to-do list for some length of time, it starts to bug me. That forces me to either prioritize it for a particular day, call an audible and get it done immediately (subject to the one rule), or take it off the list permanently. If it’s been there that long, it probably wasn’t terribly important to begin with, so off it goes!

How successful has this been for me? Overall, it’s worked quite well. It did take a while in the beginning. I went through several weeks where I didn’t get any of the items on my primary lists completed. But I kept at it. (Repetition is a powerful thing.) There are still days or weeks when I don’t get done all the items on my primary lists. But over time I’ve found my productivity level improve. It’s also enabled me to plan my calendar better. Most importantly, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and purpose.

Try it for yourself. And share in the comments below what hacks and tricks you’ve used that have worked for you.