In the PMHQ Slack community, we regularly get thought-provoking questions that we feel should be explored in-depth and documented for future reference. We’re starting a new set of Q&A posts called Highlights to dive into these kinds of questions, and enable everyone in the community to revisit the answers and contribute further!
“Any tips on how to get started with your day when you have an overwhelming amount of tasks to complete? I practice Inbox Zero and I’m well organized, so that isn’t the issue .“
– Russell Christensen, Senior Business Analyst at Bankers Healthcare Group
Our community of product leaders had lots of great insights to share on managing overwhelming lists of tasks! Below is the summary of their task management best practices.
Jevin Maltais, Principal Engineer at BoomLabs.Ai, maintains a 3-part task management system to ensure he doesn’t get overwhelmed.
First, he uses the Omnifocus app as a centralized place for all of his tasks. Then, he dedicates time on his planner to organize and prioritize. Finally, he scopes down his planner so that he only sees the tasks that he’s going to work on today.
To deal with “analysis paralysis”, Jevin suggests starting by prioritizing all open tasks, then keeping only the top 3 tasks open. He gives himself permission to take the time that’s needed to knock out those three highest-priority tasks first. Jevin uses www.tomato.es (a Pomodoro tracking website) to dig into his work.
Kevin Lee, founder of Product HQ, uses the Things 3 Mac app to track his work. He uses the Getting Things Done (GTD) method to ensure that he has an action step associated against each task.
Additionally, every Sunday evening, Kevin spends a few hours to plan out the week and prioritize.
Jay Melone, partner at New Haircut, suggests using the Full Focus Planner (www.fullfocusplanner.com), which is a physical planner.
He’s tried many digital GTD tools, but they often led him to type long lists (or short lists with long to-do’s), and he would be tempted to jump to other online distractions. He’s found that things with writing and paper have much more impact.
While Jay usually types at 75 words per minute, he feels that it’s slow and painful (literally). That means he’s writing out any goals or to-do’s to ensure they’re much more intentional, impactful, and deliberate.
Vinay Melwani, product manager at HouseCanary, agrees with Jay’s approach above. He feels that there’s something about actually writing a task down on paper that enables the writer to focus on it over other online distractions.
For Vinay, the problem with digital notes is that they compete with many other digital calls to action: browser tabs, emails, chats, etc.
Gavin Potts, digital product manager at MeUndies, also recommends using the Pomodoro technique for task management. With Pomodoro, he focuses on one task for 25 minutes, then takes a 5-minute break. During the 25 minutes, he doesn’t do any other browsing, he turns off notifications, and he doesn’t check email (unless that’s his focus for that 25-minute block.).
You can also check out other product experts’ approaches within the PMHQ community.
Every product manager struggles with an overwhelming of tasks, each with its own importance and urgency. After all, that’s part of the entire definition of the product manager role – to fill in the white space between the customer, the engineers, and the business.
While the pain is universal, every product manager has their own way to manage their unique task load and responsibilities. Still, there are common best practices that form the core of each of these methodologies.
First, all tasks should be centralized in some location, outside of the brain. By keeping all tasks in one place, you greatly reduce cognitive load and enable yourself to have the bandwidth to focus.
Second, all tasks need to be prioritized. You have a couple of frameworks to choose from when prioritizing your tasks. You can use the Eisenhower, which classifies tasks by importance and urgency, then recommends actions based on these classifications.
Alternatively, you can force-rank tasks into strict priority order, so that there’s no confusion on what needs to come next. Note that we strongly recommend force-ranking in many aspects of product management, including sprint management and backlog management.
Third, all tasks need to have dedicated time placed against them. Our product leaders schedule time on their calendars specifically to tackle the tasks that they’ve decided on doing. Time blocking enables them to more accurately consider the tradeoffs they’ll need to make throughout the day and to better assess and forecast their productivity and output.
Fourth, tasks that are not being actively worked on need to be removed from immediate attention. This action further reduces cognitive load and ensures that you can focus on the critical priorities.
Fifth, use sustainable work practices. Don’t try to knock everything out in one massive session. Focus exclusively on your task when you work, but also proactively schedule breaks and take those breaks. By doing so, you increase your productivity and quality of work in the long run.
Finally, our product leaders spend time to reflect on their priorities and to plan the week ahead.
Armed with these core concepts, you’re now empowered to create your own task management system that enables you to manage your tasks in a low-stress and high-output way. Go crush it, superstar!
About Our Contributors
Russell Christensen is a Senior Business Analyst at Bankers Healthcare Group
Jevin Maltais is Principal Engineer at BoomLabs.Ai.
Kevin Lee is Chief of Staff of the Investment Team at Pear Ventures, and is also the founder of Product HQ.
Jay Melone is a partner at New Haircut.
Vinay Melwani is a product manager at HouseCanary.
Gavin Potts is a digital product manager at MeUndies.
Have thoughts that you’d like to contribute around task management best practices? Chat with other product leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!