Time management

Product Owner is a complex role. It includes aspects of other jobs – there is a bit of being a business analyst, a project manager and UI/UX designer. Product Owners are often involved in very technical conversations and very high level business meetings. That makes the job very interesting. On the other hand – Product Owners can struggle with managing their time efficiently, as there are too many resources competing for their attention.

One day I decided to analyse how can I better protect my time.

Start from data

I started from analysing the past 10 weeks of my work. Where did the time go every day? This was a shocking discovery – every week I was spending in average 20 hours in meetings. That’s half of the time at work! This is how my calendar looked like almost every week:

blurred calendar
My calendar (intentionally blurred)

It wasn’t just the number of meetings, it’s their timing that made using the remaining ‘free’ time difficult. Having just half an hour break in between meetings is not enough to get work done – by the time I get ‘into the zone’, I need to go to another meeting.

Meetings should be like salt

Repeating after Jason Fried, the author of the book titled Remote:

“Meetings should be like salt – a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful.”

I absolutely love this quote and think about it every time when there are 10 or more people in a meeting.

Where else was my time going?

Meetings were definitely the biggest factor causing a problem, number of emails came second, followed by something I call ‘other people’s agenda’ and ‘just a quick question’.

There is nothing wrong with all the above (communication is very important after all), but if they happen randomly during the day, they might devastate productivity. And this is what was happening in my case.

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 16.35.35
Excellent illustration from ‘Remote’ by 37signals.

Improvement goals

Before brainstorming ideas for improvement, I set myself a few goals:

  • Reduce time spent in meetings by 25%.
  • Reduce context switching to 4 things a day.
  • Increase focus time to 12 hours a week.

Solutions

I came up with a lot of potential solutions, but introducing all of them at once would be difficult. Instead, I picked a few and decided to trial them for 4 weeks.

Solution #1: Meetings limit

The new rule says: no more than 3 hours a day, alternatively – no more than 15 hours a week spent in meetings. Also, if anyone asks me when I am available to meet – the answer is ‘Next week’. Before, I used to look for the very next available spot in my calendar.

It’s surprising how many problems can solve themselves within 7 days!

Solution #2: New desk setup

Having collocated dev teams, sat just around my desk makes the communication between us super easy. It leads however to a lot of ‘quick questions’ and other interruptions to which I can’t say ‘no’, as by definition, Product Owner should be always available to the team.

So what can I do to get less interruptions? I have found myself a new desk. This is my ‘backup setup’ (a proper one, with secondary monitor etc.). It is in a different building, where I am surrounded by people from a completely different department, so they have nothing to discuss with me. Just to be very clear: I am there to focus, I am wearing big headphones, which minimise the background noise. I’ve also joined Spotify which offers great selection of ‘Focus’ music (‘Productive Morning’ is one of my favourites).

Solution #3: Focus blocks

This requires a little bit of planning in advance. I am scheduling 4 blocks of time, 3 hours each, in my calendar for the following weeks. The calendar shows that time as busy, so it stops (some) people from booking their meeting as soon as they see a free spot in my calendar. I spend this time in my secondary location, trying to dedicate this time to just one subject.

Solution #4: Email batches

Emails are the main reason of context switching, even if they don’t require any reaction. I realised that having Gmail constantly open in one of the Chrome tabs, I kept switching between what I was working on to emails all the time.

Not any more. The Gmail tab is not open at all. Instead, I have Google Mail Checker Chrome extension installed. A new icon, just beside the search bar is informing me about the number of unread emails. I am ignoring it until it shows at least 10 new emails, only then I am allowing myself to open Gmail.

There are a lot of other little things that can help manage a large number of incoming emails. The following list is for Gmail, but other clients might have similar features:

  • Labels – they are visible on the list of emails and flag emails meeting certain criteria, for example emails sent directly to you or to a specific group of people.
  • Filters – useful for unimportant notifications that can go straight to Archives, skipping the Inbox.
  • Archiving emails – Inbox is not a bin, so keep it lean and archive all emails that don’t require attention any more. This way the Inbox becomes a to-do list. On an ideal day this list is cleared to 0 by the end of the day.
  • Muting email threads – if an email conversation does not require you any more – simply mute it. Any more emails in the thread will be archived skipping the Inbox.
  • No invite notification – if you are the one setting up a meeting, you will be getting notifications every time when one of the attendees accepted or declined the meeting. Just turn it off, if someone can’t come to your meeting they will most likely contact you directly.

Solution #5: Calendar setup

I want my weekly calendar to be so obvious, that a 1 second glance at it could tell me my schedule, without a need to drill down into meeting details. There are a few little things that can make a big difference:

  • Colour coding – every main stream of work (i.e. every team I work with) has a fixed colour, so meetings dedicated to each of them are coloured ‘their’ way. This helps me to instantly know where my focus is going to be and I can spot difficult days, when my attention will be spread across many different subjects.
  • Hide declined meetings – if I already decided not to go to a meeting and therefore declined the invitation – it should not make an extra noise in my calendar.
  • Fix working hours – you can set your working hours, so anyone who tries to invite you to a meeting outside this time will get a warning. I’ve set mine to core hours only (10am-4pm), even though I work more than that.
  • Hide weekends, morning and evenings – why waste space on your screen for times which will never show anything?
  • Merge meetings – when viewing other people’s calendars, same meeting is shown multiple times. This plugin merges them into one, which improves visibility.

Solution #6: Trello board

Among of other good tools, I am using Trello. It’s great for managing to-do lists in a simple, yet powerful way. The improvements of my default Trello setup I made:

  • Categories of work – my ‘to-do’ list is now represented by multiple lists – one per main stream of work (so 5 lists including ‘Other’). Every card is colour coded (using Trello labels) according to the stream colour (following my calendar and emails). There is also one ‘In progress’ and one ‘Done’ list.
  • List limits – keep the lists short, like you would on the kanban board. There is a good Trello plugin that will help by colouring the list in bright red if you are over the limit and in orange if you just reached the limit.
  • Count cards on the list – this Trello plugin will count cards on the list, so you know how long the list currently is. Helpful for longer lists.
  • Lists layout – keeping lists short results with a lot of unused space on the screen, as Trello lists are only displayed in columns – one list per column. This Trello plugin helps fitting more lists in the same space.
  • Ageing cards – it’s a Trello setting. If a card was not updated for a while it will fade, a little bit more every day. That is a good indicator of tasks that might not be that important, like it seemed originally.
  • Stickers – little images that you can stick to a cards. Useful to flag issues.
  • Grooming session – like any other backlog, Trello boards need regular grooming. However daunting it sounds, it’s worth doing.

 Solution #7: Lab day

This might sound counterintuitive, because I am trying to free up some time, but it’s my favourite. It was inspired by my teams, who spend a day and half every 2 weeks on ‘lab days’. It’s a time when they can work on anything they want in order to improve craftsmanship. They research, try out new technologies and play with the code, which is not related to their daily work. It proved very successful so far – on many occasions people used the new skills to improve existing projects. Why there is no such thing for Product Owners?

I’ve decided to try it too. Once every two weeks (on Fridays), I turn out-of-office assistant on and work from home. I research, write articles, look for conferences or trainings and play with ideas. I’ve only done a handful so far, but it proves very successful already.

How do I know it really works?

It definitely feels better having these solutions in place, but how do I know I am successful?

I’ve set up a short survey for myself, which I am filling out every day before leaving the office. Initially I was only going to do it for 4 weeks, as a trial for the solutions described above. I found it so useful however, that I continue filling out the (modified) form.

Some of the questions on the form:

  • Time spent in meetings?
  • Number of focus blocks completed?
  • Number of [stream name] tasks completed?
  • Is overtime needed tonight?
  • Any challenges?
  • Rate productivity (1-5)
  • Rate happiness (1-5)

I am analysing the data every 2 weeks and decide if any further actions need to be taken.

Key benefits

  • Reducing context switching increases productivity and decreases frustration.
  • Small improvements all together might make a big difference in overall efficiency.
  • Regular retrospectives on daily work lead to continuous improvement.
  • Improving craftsmanship ensures best quality of the job.

Warning note

It requires quite a lot of self discipline to stick to all the rules described above.

So, where is your time going into every day?

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