The PM's Guide To Getting Stuff Done: Tackle Your To-Do List in 3 Easy Steps
Is your to-do list looking more daunting than doable lately? It happens to the best of us sometimes. Fortunately, there’s several easy ways you can tame your to-do list and improve your productivity--and in turn, your product.
Here’s 3 steps you can take to start tackling your to-do list:
Step 1: Get Organized With the Right Tool(s)
Everyone has their own organization style, and that’s okay. You may even feel like your style is working fine, but you feel overloaded anyway - if so, skip to the next section. But if you're looking to mix up your day-to-day task tools, here are some suggestions. In the end, what really matters is that whatever tool you use (even if you stick with pen and paper) is one you like using enough that you’ll be willing to maintain it.
Task Management Tools for Product Managers
What it is: Trello is a project management tool that’s intended to keep groups organized, but it also works well for personal to-do list tasks. If you're a fan of the kanban system, this will become your go-to method of organization.
How to use it: You can create Trello boards for each major project you’re working on, create “cards” representing to-do list items for each project, and track progress by moving the cards between “lists” such as “ideas” “To-Do” “In Progress” and “Done.”
What it does well: As mentioned above, Trello is great if you’re collaborating with multiple people so if you’re looking for a way to communicate with other departments and see their progress it may be a good bet for you. Plus, now that it's part of the Atlassian family, it's even easier to integrate with Trello tasks with JIRA or HipChat.
What it is: Asana is a versatile task management solution that allows you to manage both personal and team projects.
How to Use it: You can create projects and tasks within the projects, assign tasks to teammates and track progress. From your dashboard, you’ll be able to see your own tasks and organize them however you’d prefer.
What it does well: With a slogan like “Teamwork without email,” Asana is just that, a good collaboration tool for your team that is intended to reduce the number of back and forth emails about what needs to be done and when. Aericon has a post on its blog about how they use Asana for product management - we here at UserVoice are also a fan of keeping tabs on marketing projects via Asana.
Good Ole’ Google Docs
What it is: Google Docs is the leanest solution here: if you want to ditch your paper to-do list for something that is a little easier to share with your team, but you're not in the market for a full-on task manager, here's your best bet.
How to use it: There’s a ton of ways to use Google Docs to organize your projects and tasks, but one option is to use Google Sheets to make a list of each project and task you’re working on and its status and use colored headings to separate tasks by project. There’s also lots of project management templates out there for Google Docs that you could experiment with.
What it does well: It’s an extremely basic, simple solution. It’s easy to share Google Docs with your team if you want to collaborate, but if active task assignment and/or progress marking is important to you, Asana or Trello are probably a better bet.
Step 2: Prioritize & Delegate Tasks
Remember the first rule of getting stuff done: you can’t do it all. Trying to do everything is a great way to burn out, and as a Product Manager you must learn to prioritize “ruthlessly”...or else. As Kenton Kivestu wrote in a post about skillsets for PM success,
“Just like a product that tries to do everything, a PM that tries to do everything will fail.”
Kivestu isn’t the first to urge Product Managers to get their priorities straight; back in 2005 the Silicon Valley Product Group warned PMs about poor time management in "Behind Every Great Product":
“It is absolutely essential to get very skilled at distinguishing that which is important from that which is urgent, and to learn to prioritize and plan your time. If you can’t manage to get the time to focus on those tasks which are truly important to your product, your product will fail.”
How Should a Product Manager Prioritize Work?
There’s a few different ways you can go about prioritizing projects and tasks, and since every organization and Product Manager is different, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. There are, however, a few things you can take into consideration:
Urgent, Important, and Both Urgent AND Important
Which tasks are important, which are urgent, and which tasks are both important and urgent? If a task is both important and urgent, perhaps you’ll want to tackle it first. This type of prioritization was first suggested by Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and a post on Pragmatic Marketing’s blog outlined how product managers could apply it.
Costs Vs Benefits
Another way to prioritize tasks is to look at their costs and benefits to see what kind of potential they hold relative to what they will cost to complete. Relatively inexpensive projects and initiatives that have high potential value may be first on your to-do list. Alternatively, Victor Lombardi wrote about his own twist on the cost vs benefits approach to prioritization, the value-complexity analysis, where the most complex projects with the highest estimated value are put above others.
Don't Sweat the 'How'
Remember the first rule? You can’t do it all. So even after your to-do list is organized nicely and you’ve prioritized tasks, you’ll still want to consider delegating some of your projects--for both your sanity, and your product’s sake. Ben Horowitz touched passively on “micro-managing” in Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, reminding us that Product Managers should be more vision-focused than execution-focused:
“Good product managers crisply define the target, the "what" (as opposed to the how) and manage the delivery of the "what." Bad product managers feel best about themselves when they figure out "how."”
Horowitz makes a great point- product managers are in a strategic role. PMs should be focusing on the big picture tasks such as roadmapping, conducting market research, and managing customer feedback, not trying to write out every step the development team will have to take to launch a new feature, or lurking over sales and marketing to see how they deliver on your product's potential. Trust in the abilities of your fellow product team members - look at what’s on your plate and delegate tasks accordingly.If it’s still unclear to you whether you should or should not delegate tasks, Jeff Lash at Good Product Manager suggests asking yourself a series of questions:
- Is this helping to advance the product strategy?
- Does this support one of the high-level goals for my product?
- Is there anyone else within the company besides me who can accomplish this task (e.g. answer this question, investigate this problem)?
- Is this something that has come up before or is likely to come up again?
- Is this a valuable use of my time?
The final question in Lash’s series is possibly the most important--are you using your time wisely?
Step 3: Clean Up Your Calendar and Set Aside Some Thinking Time
Chances are, delegating some tasks to others and giving your once daunting to-do list a makeover and some structure has cleared up your calendar at least to a small extent, but if your calendar is still feeling cluttered you’ll want to assess whether all those meetings you have scheduled are truly worth your time. Revisiting Ben Horowitz’s sentiment that PMs shouldn’t sweat about the “how,” maybe you don’t need to attend the daily meeting the design team holds or sit in on the engineering team’s code review sessions; instead, attend just the important meetings, and set aside more time to focus on big picture items.
Another bit of wisdom from the Silicon Valley Product Group’s “Behind Every Great Product” suggests PMs spend a fairly decent chunk of time each day disconnected from email, social media, meetings and phone calls:
“We believe that every product manager needs to allocate at least 2-3 hours per day of true thinking time – time to reflect on the product and the strategy; to step back from the fires of the moment and look at how the product is doing holistically. This is also a good time to look at competitive products or investigate emerging technologies."
Of course, every PM’s situation is different: not everyone will need this much “true thinking time,” and not everyone will be able to make sufficient progress in just 3 hours. The important part is making a conscious decision to allocate time each day to keeping your product on track, and keeping yourself organized so you can continue to do so.Editor's Note: This post was originally published in February 2015 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness