Where Does a Tech Product Leader Spend Their Time?

What I learned from a Calendar Audit and why you should do one too

2,000 meetings attended.  4,000 instant message chats.  7,000 emails sent.   That’s an average year for me as a product leader in tech.  Like many of us, I live a high-calorie information diet.

Organizing my life and being a conduit for information has always been something I have gravitated towards intuitively.   I’m not sure it’s helped at cocktail parties, but it did earn me the award of “Most likely to name his clipboard” in high school.  And in college my nickname was “FYI” because I was always sharing what was going on around campus.  It’s not lost on me that that wasn’t entirely a term of endearment. =)

Post academia, 15 years of working in enterprise software has steeped me in the concepts of productivity and information flow.   The amount of information in the world is doubling every two years.  It’s become a feedback loop: Technology enables more information creation, which puts demands on technology to keep up.   This progress makes a real difference in this world.  We are rapidly creating vaccines and scaling teleconference services in ways that would have been impossible to coordinate just a few years ago.   It has been an honor of a lifetime to be part of the niche of humanity breaking barriers on this.

So improving information digestion has been a reoccurring theme in my life and while I geek out on the impact to hundreds of millions of people through technology, I equally try to think about my own productivity too.

Late last year, I was asked to present within my company on best practices to manage time & process information.  This post is the first in a series of posts where I’ll expand on that talk.  

Part I today is going to discuss the most powerful tool I’ve used to manage my time: The Calendar Audit.   We’ll take a look at how I spend my own time and how I think it should change depending on your career stage.

What is a Calendar Audit?

Once every couple of years I track where I spend my time for about 2-3 weeks.  I use an Excel spreadsheet where I log in 15 minutes increments at the end of the day what I did.   It’s not too granular: I create about 12 different activity types which roll up into 4 time categories. 

The Calendar Audit tracks both what is tracked on my Outlook calendar as well as what I do during my focus time.

What is the benefit of a Calendar Audit?

Career progress is accelerated by the ability to focus on the important and not just the urgent.   The calendar audit forces self-reflection around the following:

  • The act of tracking encourages me to be more self-conscious about being efficient and planful

  • The act of defining the categories of my time is a great way to organize my work life.  The same categories I use in my calendar audit also drive my own written performance review.

  • It allows goal setting, especially around areas of growth and learning (e.g. spending more time hearing from customers) or emerging trends of where your profession is going (e.g. spending more time on data analysis). 

  • I often get asked about where I'm spending time, especially by those interested in growing into a product leader role.  An audit allows a deeper conversation with mentees.  In fact, you can track maturity in your career by how your time categories evolve.

So Where Does A Product Leader Spend Their Time?

Let’s dig into my own calendar audit.   For years, I’ve organized my work life around four categories: Strategy, Product, Customers, and Team.   This is how I think about the meetings I take, the stretch projects I sign up for, and how I segment my own performance self-reviews.   In my most recent audit, here is how it broke down:

Strategy (43%): This is time spent ensuring we are heading in the right direction and ensuring we are doing so in concert with other teams at the company.  It is also where I think about inorganic growth and force multipliers to our success. Finally, the area tracks product storytelling, either with marketing for customer facing content or internal content meant to persuade key stakeholders.

Team (22%): This is time spent coaching and giving career advice in 1:1’s and roundtables.  It tracks the calories spent on team processes and setting team culture growth areas.   I am an ally to the diversity and inclusion movement and this bucket includes time spent helping grow that culture, including self-reflection on how to be the best ally I can be.  Bootstrapping teams in remote geographies is encapsulated here. The data shows I split my time 75% on overall team and 25% on individual day-to-day coaching of people who report directly to me. (I have a team of 30+ people and 5 who report directly to me).

Product (21%): This is time spent in design reviews, rollout mechanic discussions, and making detailed product decisions. My philosophy here as a broad director of product is that I want enough product work to stay grounded, but I want my team to carry most of the day-to-day product discovery work. 

Customers (14%): This is time spent looking at telemetry and usage data, talking directly with customers at executive briefings and other forums, interacting with our tech community via events, and using the product myself.   The data shows I split my time 50/50 between quantitative usage data & qualitative customer conversations and product usage.

Is this where I want it to be?

I think my ideal breakdown would be:

This pushes me to delegate a bit more of the day-to-day product work and double the amount of time I spend with customers.  This is an actionable heuristic to have for when I’m deciding what meetings to accept or my week’s focus areas.

What does this say about other product roles?

Analyzing my time today triggers me to compare how I spent my time at different previous career stages.   Try modelling out the ideal split of time across the career maturity for your profession.  For instance:

Decoding my company’s levels: PM/PMII: 1-4 years in career.   Senior PM: 5-10 years in career.   Principal IC: 10+ years and an individual contributor.   M2: Manager of managers.

Example takeaways:

  • Up to Principal (i.e. 10 years into career on product), I hope folks spend 50% of their time or more on product.  Product is FUN and my job is to create an environment where people can focus on their best product work.  No one should be in a hurry to be a portfolio and strategy owner.

  • Early in career, I hope people spend an outsized time with customers (including learning data analysis skills). It’s one of the best investments you can make to develop product instinct.

Try It Yourself

Give the Calendar Audit a try.  You can see how it forces good conversations about where you want to spend your time and how you are progressing in your career.   It enables a richer conversation with employees about focus.

One of the best parts of the Calendar Audit is that the takeaways are generally simple and easy to remember – spend more time with customers, delegate these tasks more, create space for learning.

Some people use Calendar Audits if they are feeling out of control or if they are spending too much time on low-value tasks.  I had an employee recently publish their own Calendar Audit as they were feeling worn out by the pandemic and spending time on things that drained them of energy.  It was inspiring and helped give voice to something a lot of us are feeling but couldn’t articulate.

Subscribe for Part II

Future posts on Mind The Beet will dig into how I manage my email, make time for epic work, and protect what’s important on my calendar. I’d appreciate a share and a subscribe. Helen and I promise useful and thought provoking Sunday morning posts on career, parenting, and life.

A Coda on Privilege

We end every post on Mind The Beet with a reflection on our privilege and how we give back.   For our first post on time management, I want to talk about a cause that is important to our family: immunotherapy cancer research.   Our oldest daughter’s best friend is a child cancer survivor and the treatments she went through were successful but will have a lasting impact on her life.  Immunotherapy promises a cancer treatment free of chemotherapy and its devastating long term effects.   The work our friend’s family does to ensure a future where no kid’s time is cut short is inspiring and a constant reminder to make the best use of the days we are given.  Learn more at https:///www.immunomomentum.com