The purpose of this note is to share what I’ve learned in my journey for work-life balance in my career.
You’re looking at your team’s satisfaction survey results and see that work-life balance is low…again. Break out the brainstorms, create team-wide no-meeting times, etc. It helps…for about a month. Then the next fire pops up and it’s back to crazy hours, back-to-back meetings, and endless chat threads. You wonder, is work-life-balance attainable, or is it just some impossible Eden that no one ever achieves? I have found that work-life balance is in fact attainable, but is not easily found or easily held onto.
This post doesn’t have a silver bullet, but it does have a collection of tips and tricks that I’ve learned in my own journey to find work-life balance as a product manager working in tech. As someone who has a tendency to burn out and who consistently ranks work-life balance as their top motivator, I wanted to share what’s worked for me so far in a way that you can apply it to your work/life.
The constraint on work-life balance is time and there are tactics that you can implement now and other things that you can develop over time either by shaping the culture of our team/org or by changing roles (though the grass isn’t always greener and you should take control over what you can first).
This post will cover the short-term tactics you can put in place, and I’ll tackle the longer-term issues in a follow-up post. The short-term fixes are about getting more time in 3 ways:
- Setting clear priorities for what you want to accomplish in a given week.
- Attending fewer meetings (and moving more work to async channels)
- Getting stronger signal (/less noise) from your communication channels and alerts
Improving work-life balance by Getting More Time
Earlier in my career, I was often (always?) booked in back-to-back meetings all day, leaving my nights and weekends as the only time to do deep-thinking, write strategy docs, and follow up on all of the things that happened in my meetings for the day. As you can guess, this was not a recipe for success and led me to burnout quickly. I learned over time that I could get rid of many of these meetings and then set intention for what I really needed to accomplish in a week and organize my schedule around that.
I’ll dive deeper in the next note, but the main thing keeping me (and many people I’ve spoken to about work-life balance) from implementing these was fear of failure. Saying no to a meeting means saying no to career advancement, right? Not responding to an email immediately shows that I’m not invested and worthy of more responsibility, right? In my experience, I found that I was more effective and seen as contributing more to the team once I implemented these because the quality of my work was higher and I intentionally worked on what was more important for the team, org, and company.
1. First, set intention for the week
If you want more time, you need to know what is important to accomplish and what isn’t. As Parkinson’s Law states: “work complicates to fill the available time;” in other words work is like a gas that will fill up however much space you give it.
Before the week starts (I like to use Friday afternoon or Monday morning for this), think about what 3 things you want to/have to accomplish next week. Any more than 3 and you’re probably kidding yourself, any fewer and you’re probably not being specific enough. An example of a good list would be:
- submit first draft of strategy review to manager by Thursday,
- synthesize experiments from last week and get team to shared understanding on validated/invalidated hypotheses, and
- interview 5 candidates for open role.
Now you have 3 specific areas where you want to make progress. Now, check your task list and calendar to make sure that they ladder up to your 3 goals. If they don’t, you need to move tasks/meetings around or change your priorities for the week. Some urgent items will come up that you have to do (so try to budget for 80% of your time to leave slack capacity), but everything else can go into your “not right now bucket”. Now, you’ve mentally built a world where when you say “no” to a meeting (see tips in next section) because you’re really prioritizing and saying “yes” to one of your top 3 items for the week.
2. Next, get fewer meetings
I thought I was already being really efficient with my meeting schedule…and then COVID hit. Two kids under 4 years old, no childcare, and me and my wife with our full-time jobs. I immediately took a scalpel battle axe to my calendar to cut 50% of my meetings and, while many of the cuts were painful and could only be temporary, many others were permanent by either eliminating completely, decreasing the cadence, or moving to async catch ups with shared notes.
For a general sweep, the theme is “what can I move to async or a less-regular cadence?” First, get rid of any meeting without a clear agenda. If there is no agenda for a meeting, how can you know if it’s going to be valuable. Next, ask yourself what can be moved to email or another async work channel? A meeting implies that everyone invited needs to be present for 30–60 minutes. If just 3 of the people are needed to weigh in on 3 separate topics, move it to email or a Google Doc (or Quip, if that’s your jam).
Next, consider these buckets of meetings to see what you can cut:
- 1:1s — Who are the 3–5 people you need to be in touch with every week? Your manager, your direct team counterparts. Outside of that, take a hard look at all of your 1:1s: How many could be a weekly note or add to a section of a doc sent over with some “top of mind thoughts”? How many could be fortnightly or monthly? How many could you just entirely eliminate?
- 1:1s, continued — Set aside an hour a week for one-off, 15 minute 1:1s. At the beginning of the week see who you need to spend some extra time with and slot them in. You can move the slots around, the point of the 1 hour block is to help you remember to do this and to keep your calendar from too many recurring 1:1s.
- XFN and team syncs — These start off well-intentioned: some people or multiple teams are kicking off a project together and need a regular get-together to sync up, ensure people are moving in the right direction, and unblock issues. Then, 2 months later, they are still there and an hour before someone will ping “who has an agenda?” When you set these meetings up, set them to expire after 4–6 weeks. If the friction to recreate the meeting isn’t worth it, then you’ve just got some time back :)
3. Lastly, manage your communication channels and alerts
Email, chat, and other alerts can be a really powerful driver/reminder…or they can be a total timesuck to being productive and doing your job well if you don’t manage them correctly.
First, think through whether you’re using the right channel for conversation that you need to have. As I previously mentioned, meetings are expensive (from a time perspective), so should be reserved for things that are complex (and, if you’re prioritizing around your priorities, they are urgent and important as well). I created a framework to help me select which channel to have a given conversation (see image below).
If it’s complex but not urgent, a Google Doc/Quip is a great place to start as you can easily aggregate and thread feedback. If it’s not urgent or complex, email and workplace posts work really well. Chats are great to solve things quickly but effectiveness decreases as complexity increases.
Next, think through which alerts are serving a purpose for you. Do you need a push notification every time a new email or internal company post goes up? Do you even need a badge for those? Personally, I have badges off for everything on my computer and mobile except chat on mobile. (Granted, I’m an inbox zero person and seeing a red number next to any productivity app gives me an anxiety jolt).
For Product Managers in particular, you have an opportunity (though by no means exclusive as other people can role model as well) to be the example (and enforcer) of what communication norms are for your team. You can schedule emails to send during work hours, refrain from pinging people after hours, and/or set clear expectations with your team in the communication about the urgency (or, more often, the lack thereof) of response timeline.
Achieving better work-life balance is like getting in better shape or losing weight: you can pick up tips and tricks along the way to make it better and achieve some initial success, but unless you commit to the practice, new things will pop up and you’ll find out you’re back where you started. Work-life balance is a practice you commit to; it’s not some magical state of being that you reach where you never have to think about it anymore and you’re never stressed. And even when you have all the right strategies, work-life balance can fall apart, which leads to some longer-term strategies to change your mental-state and/or change your team’s culture.