Product Managers are responsible for the planning and execution of strategic initiatives for their organization. They are often busy bouncing between meetings and putting out fires. In fact, a 2021 survey of over 1000 product managers found that on average, 52% of product managers’ time was spent on unplanned “firefighting” activities. Naturally, many ask the question, how stressful is product management?
Product management can be quite stressful due to the level of autonomy and responsibility given. Learning to balance the expectations of the role with the ambiguity that surrounds it is key to a successful and healthy career as a product manager.
With some sense of self-awareness and a simple framework to declutter and prioritize, product managers can learn to take control of the chaos and find greater fulfillment in their role.
What are the Main Causes of Stress for Product Managers?
Product Managers spend countless hours thinking about every detail of their product and get involved from ideation to execution and support. As experts on their product, they are constantly pulled in all directions with questions, opinions, requests, and changes. Consequently, the challenges that Product Managers deal with are:
- Lack of time and resources.
- Ambiguity of the role and expectation
- Changing/competing priorities
- Involvement in too many things
- Back to back projects with little time for celebration
- No “final” answer, rather available “best solution”
- Poor senior management
- Tough relationship with developers
- Critical decision making with little information
Compounding this problem, Product Managers are often bouncing between meetings (to align on the vision, deep dive into an issue, and run retrospectives on a recent release, etc) and there is hardly any time in between to synthesize, declutter and recalibrate.
This is why having a system to cut through the noise and quickly identify priorities is key to simplifying the mental load and achieving a more fulfilling career as a Product Manager. Our friends at Product Focus have a comprehensive framework for how to mentally organize product management activities into buckets.
When overwhelmed with information, first organize them into buckets (you can use the infographic above as a guide on how to bucket information). Having A framework like this can make it easier to identify themes and prioritize. Additionally, it helps to declutter not only your daily tasks but also your most valuable resource- your mental energy.
Declutter Systematically and Prioritize Ruthlessly.
With all that gets thrown at product managers throughout the day, it is absolutely critical that there is a system to do two key things, declutter and prioritize.
My primary method to declutter and prioritize is simple. When I have the self-awareness to notice myself getting overwhelmed (signals include frustration, procrastination, and feeling “stuck”) I immediately do a brain dump and just write everything down.
With everything written down, it becomes easier to see what is important and what is not. I begin to organize my brain dump “notes” into buckets, with specific action items designed to tackle the fundamental issues.
Once my action items are created, I begin prioritizing them by potential value and effort. It usually involves me identifying the one thing that I must finish, which automatically makes other things a nice to finish item. Once the must-finish item has been identified, it gives me the mental permission to temporarily ignore other tasks.
Through this exercise, I am able to reset my cluttered mind and recalibrate my priorities (and it only took 5 minutes to do!). Every time I do this, I realize that in reality, the tasks are far more manageable than when they were just sitting in my mind, and by putting it on paper, I can take a step back and see the priority with objective eyes. This activity has had the biggest impact on helping me destress. On a hectic week, I find myself doing it on a daily basis, acting as a safeguard against rising stress levels.
Say “No” and Take Control.
A core part of prioritization is learning how to defend it. Due to the ambiguous nature of the job, and with the ground beneath us constantly shifting, we often find ourselves being called to deal with “urgent” matters immediately. However, being in a reaction mode and context switching is a killer to productivity and more often than not, the right answer to an urgent matter is rarely a “yes.”
To be clear, I’m not suggesting a blanket “No” to everything that comes your way. There are certainly times when things should be dealt with immediately. However, it must always be calculated against the tradeoffs. In other words, what priorities must be sacrificed?
When faced with a situation, start by taking a moment to ask the following questions:
1. Is this really an issue?
2. Am I the best person to address it?
3. What are the consequences if it is not dealt with immediately?
4. Is it more important than my other priorities today?
By asking yourself these simple questions, you can confidently say “No” to whatever noise that comes your way and say “Yes” with conviction, to the things that really matter. Understanding the cost of taking on a request will force you to think twice about the downstream impact, saving you from unnecessary pain down the line.
Know Your Team and Delegate
Product management is a team sport, yet I often see PMs who feel responsible for everything related to their product. When they can’t solve everyone’s problems, they feel guilty or even ashamed. This is especially true for superstar PMs who have been able to take everything on themselves. However, as the product grows, so do the challenges. And with a growing team, there is less visibility on who is doing what, and more importantly, who is best suited for a given task.
By being well connected to your team, your role as a product manager can be elevated to help the entire team achieve success. By making sure that the right person is working on the right problem, you elevate the entire team’s effectiveness.
Learning how to bring the highest value to your organization is a super-power in its own rights, and once you start to get the right people aligned for the task, you will also begin to build credibility and influence, making it easier for you to succeed in your role as a product manager.
The Tried and True
When it comes to mental health there are tried-and-true methods that should not be ignored. Regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and finding time to relax and enjoy life are just as important (if not, more) as any tools you might use to manage your stress throughout the day.
Another great method to reduce your anxiety and stress is to find a mentor that can give you a new perspective in your work. Mentors are great for having someone to talk to that can help guide you through a sticky situation. Surprisingly, becoming a mentor is also a great way to gain perspective on your own situation. A great place to start is at ADP List.
Lastly, don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Product management is tough and things will inevitably go wrong. You are bound to make mistakes along the way no matter how well you’ve prepared your execution plan. No matter the scenario, being kind to yourself will go a long way in helping you recover from a stressful situation- after all, even product managers are only human.
Product managers are immersed in a sea of uncertainty and stress. There is an endless supply of urgent matters that need to be dealt with at any given time, and an increasing backlog of tasks to execute. By creating a system to declutter your mind and prioritize your tasks along the way, you will be able to avoid a buildup of stress which eventually can lead to burnout.
Remember to recalibrate priorities often and defend them. Say “No” to noise and focus on what matters.
Lastly, don’t forget to exercise, eat well, find a mentor and be kind to yourself. While these things may seem like an afterthought, they will pay dividends in the long run and will be a key to a fulfilling career in Product Management.