Part 1: Creating conditions for flow
This is part 1 of my five-part series on scaling your product management craft (Creating Conditions, Leading with Intent, Building Foundations, Recruiting World Class PMs, Preparing for Scale).
Water is not a natural medium for us land dwellers. But for those of us who are swimmers, who put the time in to learn this sport, we synchronise breathing, stroke, power, movement; to find flow — moments where we are propelled forward with our subconscious. Our minds wander to cognitive tasks. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines this experience as “finding flow”.
As a young boy in an island nation, you learn to swim at a very early age. With a little bit of training, my body found a “natural” way to swim. In other words, the easiest way to get from one end of the pool to the other without drowning and expending minimal energy. Then my parents decided I would be a competitive swimmer. 6 am drills, and lazy waddling doesn’t coexist.
Training is high-intensity rapid experimentation. Every 25 meters, you work on a particular thing. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate. After 1000 meters you’ve shaved off microseconds and feel more in control of your body. Days, months, years, you start shaving seconds. This concept applies to practically any sport and unquestionably applicable to the way you work.
We don’t need flow in our lives. To make up for the lack of focus time, we can work nights and weekends. But for those of you who agree with my post about finding sustainability as a product manager, then I hope you will find these actionable tips about finding the right conditions, useful.
There are many ways you can go about creating the right environment. For me, I have my earbuds on listening to one (maybe two) songs on repeat. Sometimes I listen to the same track for about 3 hours. Often I have slack closed/muted and Gmail out of view, phone on silent flipped over. Discover how you work best with experimentation. Make minor changes to see what sticks.
2. Ruthless prioritisation
There’s always more work to be done than hours in the day. You have to learn how to say no. Does this tie back to the roadmap? Does it align with your company and your career goals? My partner Alla Anashenkova talks a lot about the theory of constraints — identify the bottlenecks and respect them. And then draft a plan of attack to neutralise that bottleneck.
At the beginning of the week, I treat my calendar as a task list. Starting with the roadmap and near term priorities, I pick the most critical tasks. Mostly they’re crucial meetings. On other occasions, they are blocks of time to make progress on concrete outcomes such as drafting requirements, completing some reading, researching, or completing a workflow. My colleague starts each day with a list of items on a legal pad that sits on his desk. He crosses things out as the day progresses, providing a sense of accomplishment. Another uses Evernote voraciously. Find what works for you.
Clockwise is a great product that can supercharge your focus time. Matt Martin and the team have done incredible work creating a tool that intelligently reschedules your meetings and opens up focus time. It has helped me spread out my flow over pockets of the week vs a single day.
Separate yourself from the product and live by the outcome. Sometimes you come to and accept the conclusion that you might not have the skills for the task. Maybe you have the budget and support to hire to fill your gaps. Maybe not. Be willing to roll up your sleeves and learn. There is much great content on Udemy. Try not to over-rotate and feel the urge to reinvent the wheel. Use as much derivative work as possible. Ask for help as you will be surprised by the number of people who are willing to provide it pro-bono.
The best-laid plans of mice and men go awry. Transform adversity into the opportunity to learn something new. You lose 100% of the shots you don’t take. Get out of your comfort zone and be patient.