Resources when transitioning into Product Management

A reader was curious as to what resources I found most helpful while transitioning into Product Management from a non-technical background [1]. Below is a list of things that I have found both helpful and rewarding, which are mostly about Product Management related topics. Most of the online resources are free. I’ll update this with new resources later on as I learn more.

Note: Product Management is done quite differently in different companies, but the resources below are applicable across a wide range of companies and roles.

General Management

Design

Agile

Technical knowledge

Entrepreneurship & Product Strategy


[1] Post inspired by a question a reader submitted via Medium on https://omareduardo.com/2017/05/21/my-transition-into-product-management-from-a-non-technical-background/

My transition into Product Management from a ‘non-technical’ background 

It will soon be 3 years since I transitioned into Product Management full-time. Prior to that, here is what my résumé included.

  • Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering
  • Healthcare Consulting (3 years)
  • Customer Success Management (1 year)

I then transitioned into Enterprise Software Product Management at BloomReach, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company. It was particularly important to me to do Product Management (PM) at a company in which Software is the core product.

In my specific case, the opportunity to transition was a mix of preparation and luck. In this article, I want to highlight some of the more practical aspects of my transition. I want to offer it as one sample journey that didn’t involve going back to school for either Computer Science training nor an MBA.

Personal awareness and setting a goal.

The first step to transition into PM was being clear in what I wanted to do. Without this clarity of mind, I doubt that the transition would have ever happened. The reason I quit consulting to join a Silicon Valley startup was to learn how to lead in a startup environment. In particular, it was important to me to gain skills that would be relevant when building and growing a new company.

With three years of consulting experience and working in a Customer Success role at a technology startup, I had a great set of skills that helped me engage successfully with enterprise customers. I understood my customers’ businesses and could effectively position our product so that the customer crisply understood our value. I was fluent in business talk — talking to an executive about ROI, year-over-year growth, market trends, opportunity cost, etc. became second nature to me. Given this level of comfort, I decided that it was time for the next phase in my quest to build skills relevant to building and growing a new company.

At the recommendation of a mentor, I wrote down what I wanted to be able to deliver over the next year. My keen interest, I realized, was to gain the necessary skills to understand and influence the core product. As a software company, it is the product that carries the most weight in the success of the company. A PM is best equipped to influence the product and, I realized, the gap between my skillset at the skillset I needed for a PM job was centered around product design and technical understanding. Developing those skills was within my power — there are many great online resources for this. Also, working at a technology startup in Silicon Valley I was surrounded by brilliant minds that could assist me in the process.

Communicating my intent unambiguously.

Having clarity was crucial as a first step. The next step was more important. I communicated clearly and unambiguously my intent. I told my boss that I wasn’t interested in moving up the ladder within my current team, the logical next step in my career. Instead, I wanted to spend any of my discretionary time at work on projects that would allow me to transition into Product Management.

Some people within upper management were surprised by how candid I was on this point — it isn’t every day that an ambitious millennial comes to their manager refusing a potential promotion. I will admit, there was risk taking this step — I could end up not getting promoted within my team nor able to transition into Product Management. I considered this. However, if being clear on this point could aid, even in the slightest, my chances of moving into PM it was worth it.

Preparing for the next step through a project.

At the time, this wasn’t as clear to me as it is now. However, the most important next step was getting involved in the right project. Doing that wouldn’t have been possible, however, if I hadn’t spent my time closing some of my knowledge gaps on product and technology.

I spoke to other Product Managers and read up on the job. I also asked a lot of questions about how our product worked. A nice engineer gave me a quick overview of Hadoop and MapReduce. An Integrations guy taught me how to see in the web-browser when our JavaScript tracking pixel ‘fired’ and see if there was anything wrong with it. A product manager taught me how she worked with the design and engineering teams to define a new feature and sequence its execution. Our data analysts helped me get SQL Workbench setup on my computer and taught me basic SQL scripting to get data off of our analytics databases. Yet some other nice person taught me what an API call was, what it looked like, how it was executed, and how the customer would work with the response. Someone explained to me that the Cloud I spoke of was just a bunch of servers on Amazon Web Services (AWS). In my spare time, I did a few programming exercises in HTML, CSS, JavaScript and jQuery to better understand what the hell was going on when I browsed to a website.

All in all, this was a time of just learning the basics of many technologies so that I could build a baseline framework in my head of how our cloud product worked. This made me feel more comfortable talking about the product to customers and developers integrating our product.

I also found it helpful to learn about the software development process. Learning about Agile Development, scrums, PRDs and design tools was helpful in this regard.

I will be perfectly candid here, I was searching for a clear list of things to learn. I wanted something titled “The perfect guide to all things technical that you must learn to become a Product Manager.” I never came across such a guide. If you are looking for something similar, I find the following exercise to be more helpful. Just pick any service that seems interesting and learn about the components that were used to build it. For example, a simple search about how was Facebook built yields answers such as this and this. Also, kind folks over at Quora answer just about any question people have.

A project to showcase readiness.

The next step is where readiness and luck both played a role. A few months after I explicitly asked to spend my discretionary time on Product Management activities, an initiative with a top client came up. It was an initiative that required a mix of customer success, integrations, and product management skills. It also happened to be related to our new product, which I had spent my spare time learning about.

An executive within the company endorsed the idea of having me as the ‘glue’ between the customer and engineering for that initiative. The other Product Managers didn’t have the time to do this so I would work directly with the executive in charge of the product to deliver this initiative.

This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been clear with my boss about my intent to focus on Product Management. It also wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done well at my primary function in Customer Success.

Ship and wait for the next opportunity.

Once on this project, it was a matter of dedicating all that I had to ensure that it was successful. I had to work with the customer to understand requirements and clarify prioritization, worked with engineering to design the product functionality, and do a lot of project management to ensure things were done on time. The project was executed smoothly and it showcased well.

Once this had been completed, the timing was on my side. The Product Management team had a few openings and it was only natural for me to transition into a junior role within the team.

A helpful framework

Many things could have been different in my story. I may not have gotten an opportunity within BloomReach to transition into PM, in which case I would have had to look elsewhere. Or maybe it could have taken longer. But, there were a few crucial steps that I strongly believed can help you also maximize your chances of a transition into Product Management.

Be clear on why you want to transition into Product Management and communicate it. Everything else is much easier if you have clarity of purpose on this. Be willing to give up other tempting opportunities to focus on what truly matters to you.

Take the risk and put in the time and effort. When I started learning more about the product, a Product Manager at BloomReach candidly told me that it was possible that an opportunity within BloomReach may never arise for me to transition into Product Management. However, not letting that deter me was key to continue focusing on learning and growing into what would eventually become my opportunity to move into a Product Management role.

Find a logical adjacent move to make. My journey into Product Management is filled with adjacent moves. From a bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering, I went into Technology Consulting. I had strong analytical skills but needed to learn business and project management. From there I moved into Management Consulting. I had good general business skills and financial acumen but could improve in Strategy and Business Transformation processes. This then opened the door to join a Customer Success team in a technology startup where I could contribute broad business skills and learn about technology and Silicon Valley. Finally, with this broad knowledge of business and diving deep into the product, the next adjacent step for me was the PM role.

Learn, learn and learn. All of these adjacent transitions were enabled by doing a ton of learning. I personally read up a ton about our products and the technologies that we used. A popular option in Silicon Valley is to build your own website or app. You can partner with someone who’s more technically or business savvy, depending on your skillset, and build a simple app or web browser plug-in. The process of figuring out what to build, what features to prioritize, how to build it, etc. will start giving you an idea of the product management process. You can also read other books or online sources. Here are a few I used.

Volunteer your time to help on your area of interest. This is how you find sponsors! Every transition I’ve made within a company, whether a company such as Accenture with over 200k employees or BloomReach with less than 150 at the time, came after a more established senior person endorsed my transition. When I moved from System Integrations consulting into Management Consulting at Accenture it was thanks to the endorsement of a Senior Manager I helped on my spare time. Moving into Product Management required the endorsement of my boss, an executive I worked with, and our CTO whom I had a chance to interact with thanks to the project I mentioned above.

I hope that this helps you in your journey. If it does, I’d love to hear from you!

To do your best work, stop fragmenting your attention.

Last year, I was introduced to Slack, the new way to communicate among teams. If you’ve never heard of Slack, in essence, it’s chat rooms that anyone in your company can join. But instead of calling them chat rooms, Slack calls them channels.

I hated it. And not because I disliked the app, it’s actually quite nice. It has a great user interface and makes you want to use it. You can also respond with a like, emoji or GIF when words can’t explain your feelings. Millennials and non-millennials alike seem to be enjoying this quite a bit.

I disliked the introduction of Slack because it represented yet another distraction. Another tool that would give me a slight communication benefit at the expense of focus. I didn’t only dislike Slack. I disliked Slack and every unnecessary meeting, email, instant message or “quick question” interruption at my desk.

To understand why this is such a big problem, at least for me, let’s spend 100 hours in meditation together.

It started with a meditation insight

Lucky for you, I’ve already done this part. So, we can skip the meditating part for this conversation.

Two years into my consulting job, I took 2 weeks off from work to meditate. I joined a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. This is the real deal, 10 days in silent meditation. No reading, writing or talking. No electronic devices permitted. The only exception? An alarm clock, so that I could wake up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for the first meditation session at 4:30 a.m. During this 2-week vacation, I spent 10 hours each day meditating.

If there is one thing that I took from that time, it was that most of the stress in my life comes from a fragmented mind. Fixing this is something that is within my power. I control my mind, I control what goes into it and what I chose to focus it on.

I went back to work the Monday after the meditation retreat ended. Although nothing drastic changed, I started to notice little things. I noticed, for example, how the “new email” notification on my phone and my laptop affected me. That little notification indicated that I had a new email to read. It asked me to decide between checking the new email now or keep working. Without any information about the email, I had no way to know how important it was. This created a source of conflict and anxiety in me.

It took me 10 days of silent meditation to be able to observe how this small situation caused anxiety. It may seem a minor issue, but this would happen dozens of times throughout the day. The cumulative effect is quite damaging.

You may not have spent 10 days as a hermit meditating, but whether you realize it or not, notifications like these are driving you crazy.

Disable your notifications

The tools are not bad in and of themselves. In fact, thank goodness for email. The problem is really about people and expectations. (Slack, it’s not  you, it’s me.)

Let’s go back to my post-meditation retreat realization.

I knew that email notifications were (1) distracting me from the task at hand, and (2) causing me anxiety. I pondered this for a while. As a proud quick-responder, I used to respond to emails within minutes from having received it. I considered it a core part of being a responsive and caring team member. As a consultant, clients were paying hundreds of dollars per hour of my time. Responding immediately to their requests seemed crucial.

After enough deliberation, I concluded that my 5-minute email response expectation wasn’t helping anyone. If it only took me 5 minutes to think up and type an answer, it definitely was not an enlightening thought. I should carve out longer time to answer the difficult questions that really stretched my thinking.

I turned off my email notifications. This dreaded notification popup was no longer there.

outlook-new-email-notification

I wish that I could tell you disabling email notifications fixed my problems right away. It didn’t. In fact, it was worse for a while. I was nervous that a new important email would have come in. But over time, this changed, and I found myself focusing for longer stretches of time.

As a side benefit, I started spending less time in my inbox overall, since I could batch my responses. Another benefit, group email chains would be more complete by the time I got to them. Often questions asked would have been answered by a colleague, no longer requiring my response. Double win.

I haven’t turned back on email notifications on my work computer nor on my phone ever since. The last 5 years have been much happier thanks to that.

Batch all communications

I’ve continued to use Slack at work. However, similar to email and IM, disabling all notifications is key to allow time for focus. By batching all my Slack reading time into 2-3 reading blocks during the day, along with emails and IMs, the rest of the day can be freed up to think through the more intricate problems.

Handle the urgent and important

What about urgent and important issues, you may wonder? The truly urgent and important items should be a rarity. If many things are urgent, then nothing truly is.

Given that urgent issues are rare, they merit being handled using a different process. Urgent communications should not go to the same Inbox as everything else. For urgent issues, people should have a different mechanism to reach the right person. For time-sensitive, critical customer issues, our customers have a 24/7 support line that will get the right engineer on the issue within minutes. As such, truly urgent issues don’t rely on a single point of failure, me, remaining slave to my phone or computer. It is crucial to find such a reliable mechanism for any important type of urgent issue.

Give your best to each situation 

Reducing notifications and other distractions to a minimum is crucial in order to be present and do good, mentally challenging, work. A fragmented mind will lose to a focused mind in just about everything. If you’re a knowledge worker, your work requires you to be truly present and contribute your best thinking.

Disabling notifications and blocking out discrete, time-bound chunks of time on your calendar for all communications helps you regain your sanity. It allows you to regain long, uninterrupted blocks of time to do deeper thinking and planning. It allows you to bring your better self to all settings. When in a meeting, you don’t need to peek at your Inbox or Slack. You are physically at the meeting because you thought that it was an important meeting to attend, so make sure that your mind is also present. When talking to a colleague, that’s all that you should be doing. When reading and responding to your email or Slack messages, do just that, and give others the very best thinking that your mind can muster in your email responses. No half-assed responses.

Startups won’t build your career on your behalf. You must.

Startups are sexy. Here in Silicon Valley, most people I meet either work for a startup or are thinking about starting one. Working for a startup is an alluring proposition for those seeking a challenge. Startups promise ownership, exciting work, and the opportunity to be part of the next big thing. If you’re considering a switch, I’ve written about the case to quit consulting to join a startup.

The often unspoken assumption is that career growth opportunities in a startup will be abundant. With dreams of revolutionizing an industry, it may seem frivolous to think about career management. Yet, challenges unique to startups complicate career growth. I discuss these below not to dissuade you, but as a starting point towards a solution. In fact, I encourage you to make the transition from a large company if you haven’t already. Be prepared to do the necessary work to succeed.

Career difficulties in a startup.

Startups face many challenges related to its product maturity and funding status. Cash reserves are limited and the prudent thing is to be conservative when hiring. These conditions bring in some of the following challenges to a startup.

Quick changes in initiatives. Efforts that you are working on may get cut. You may not be able to go through the full learning cycle of completing the effort.

Not enough people. There may be more critical items to address than the team can absorb. You may stress over having to deprioritize a critical request.

The pace of change far outpaces communication. Startups must also be quick to incorporate new market knowledge to remain relevant. You often feel that you’re learning about important changes late.

Because of these issues, employees’ career growth can be overlooked. It is often not a top priority for the company to focus on career development plans. The executive team may recognize the importance of it, yet be pulled in other directions. This will bring the following challenges when working on your career development.

Unclear career path. Startups rarely have a career path defined for most employee functions. This gives you flexibility but doesn’t provide you with a growth framework.

Unclear promotion requirements. You may have a general understanding of what it takes to get promoted, but no specifics. You may not understand why someone was or wasn’t promoted. Titles may change in confusing ways. The company structure may change quickly and often.

Promotion timing may be odd. Due to business needs and finance’s forecast uncertainty, startups have to be extra careful about promoting. The business may have growth spurts in which many promotions happen at once. You may be ready for a promotion but have to wait until the business needs your skills at a new level. This may come as part of growth or when a leader in your group resigns, both situations more likely to be unexpected at a startup.

No starting cohort. You will rarely find a group of peers that joins the company at the same time and position as you. This is often a group leveraged in large companies for growth discussions.

Difficult to find mentors. There will be a small percent of experienced mentors and managers in a startup. They will be managing many people and initiatives. This will make it difficult to get their undivided attention on your career growth.

Lack of personal time to focus on career reflection. The startup asks so much of your time that you deprioritize career reflection. Reflecting often feels like inaction, which doesn’t bode well with the startup-type.

Limited training options. Your company won’t have a mature HR department with a large training budget. There may be no training specific to your function. You will need to learn on the job. You may be unaware of how your efforts have helped you hone useful skills.

No clear benchmarks on skills or compensation. There are not enough peers for the company to provide guidance on how you compare to your peers. Your compensation includes equity with an unclear long-term value. It will be difficult for you to compare your compensation on a risk-adjusted basis.

Future employers may not understand your title. Recruiters may have a good understanding of the caliber of a Director at Google or Facebook. They won’t know what to expect from a Director at a small company.

Not every challenge above is unique to a startup, but you are more likely to encounter them in one. I put aside companies that simply don’t care or invest in employee growth. Those companies are unlikely to be hiring at the talent level that startups need to succeed in this knowledge economy.

Although you may encounter many challenges in a startup, the good news is that with the right framework these challenges can turn out to be blessings in disguise.

Develop your own growth plan

There is no shortage of career challenges in a startup. On the flip side, startups offer a unique level of freedom and flexibility. If you know where you want to take your career, you are more likely to be able to find opportunities to do so.

Before doing this I encourage you to reflect on what growth means to you. It is important to reframe career growth by factoring in the challenges discussed. This is critical if you’ve enjoyed success in a large, structured work environment so far.

Redefine your view of a role

In a startup, you will find yourself working on tasks that go beyond one function or level. You may be a manager doing analyst work. Or in Customer Success and contributing to product documentation. As a Designer, you may help tweak CSS for an engineer. You may be a product manager stepping in as a technical project manager for a customer project. Or the talented marketer that helps the support team craft better customer responses.

This work may feel counter-productive. You may feel that you are working on tasks that go beyond what you signed up for. But that’s the point. A startup’s blurry role responsibilities let you develop skills outside of your function. Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, thinks of a startup as a test kitchen. There are always many initiatives at work and as you deliver results you’ll own more of those. This will help you grow your skills and career.

The key to making the most of this flexibility, then, is to know where you want to be. That will allow you to volunteer for the initiatives in the test kitchen that will help you get there.

Think beyond your current company.

Unless you’re a founder or in an executive role, your job at a startup is unlikely to be the last stop of your career. You should, instead, think long-term and beyond your current company. Your top goal must still be to make your current company successful. If your startup succeeds, potential employers will associate you with the company’s success.

That said, give less importance to titles and focus on skills. Your primary goal can’t be getting a promotion and a new title. Your goal has to be new skills development. Owning crucial projects and delivery flawlessly must be a priority. This is what you will take with you once you’ve made this company successful. That is what will help you be an executive at your next startup, or make you successful when you build your own startup. Remember, a recruiter won’t understand what a title in your company means. What results, and how you’ve managed and delivered them, is what they can compare with other candidates.

Define the skills you want to develop

Have you made peace with defining your career growth based on skills, and not titles? Great. Now you may find it difficult to define what specific skills you should focus on. Here are a few suggestions I’ve found helpful over the years.

Find a mentor, think beyond your function. I mentioned above that it’s harder to find a mentor in a startup. However, finding a mentor is still one of the most impactful things that you can do. I encourage you to think beyond your specific function and company. The best career advice and insights I’ve received over the past few years have come from people outside of my department or at a different company.

Today vs. t+1 year resume reflection. A great mentor of mine, Christy Augustine, suggested this exercise to me. Write your resume as you want it to read a year from today. What would you have delivered by then? What position could you go after with that resume? Compare that to your current resume. Identify what skills and experiences to focus on from a career perspective. This approach helped me plan my transition to product management in 2014. Although this exercise is focused on work only, your resume, it is important to put this into the perspective of your overall life goals.

How do your current skills compare? Look at what skills companies look for in the roles you want to pursue. How do you rank in each of these? Use a mentor or peer to help you have a frank discussion on this. Consider general skills besides specific skills. It is also helpful to look at lists of skills and understand what they mean. You may have skills that you don’t know are important or what to name.

Engage with your peers. Many of your peers have figured out ways to develop certain skills. Look at their LinkedIn profiles or resumes. What areas are they highly-skilled in that you want to develop? Reach out and ask them how they become well-versed in that area. These can be folks in the same role at a similar company, don’t limit this to your current startup.

Identify resources and feasibility to develop your desired skills. Can you develop these skills at your current company? Can you develop through books, seminars, courses, or volunteer positions?

Talk to your manager about your career plans. Most of your conversations are likely far more tactical, focused on the day to day work, than you may like. That’s why you’ve read this far. Ensure that your manager is clear on what opportunities you seek. Ask her to find you work that develops your preferred skills. Otherwise, be clear about priorities and make time to develop skills outside of work.

Consider creating a side project. This can be within the company or outside. This may also be something fun, helpful if you’re looking for a distraction from your day job. My friend Ailian Gan writes about side projects as a way to create something that you want to see exist. Great ideas and outcomes often come from where you less expect it.

Use industry benchmarks to demand fair treatment

Data and benchmarks are great. I love mining through data. When I worked at Accenture, I was clear on the compensation ranges for various positions. The company provided salary ranges. This was a great benchmark for me, in addition to performance reviews.

At startups, your compensation isn’t as straightforward. You must establish your benchmark using industry data. You should also look at how much your compensation changes over time. A prudent startup is hesitant to overspend on employees. Thus, a good pay raise is usually a strong sign that your contribution.

Make sure to consider equity (stock and options). Get an estimate of what it’s currently worth based on your company’s last round of funding. Your company should be transparent with you about this information. (If that’s not the case, discount it as worthless). Then consider likely exit scenarios for your company to see its potential. Consider both upside and downside. Find a risk-adjusted average.

Compare your compensation to what other companies would pay for you. You can use PayScale or Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth to access plenty of useful industry data. Remember, however, to focus on skills and not on titles. Titles often don’t capture your scope of work or contribution level at a startup. When establishing a benchmark, check out various titles corresponding to your skill level.

Recognize when it’s time to switch companies

I have focused this discussion on skills development as a clear way to grow your career. But the reality is that often your career growth is capped by opportunities to contribute. I have a simple career growth model.

Career growth = (New skills + new experience) * (opportunities to contribute)

Skills growth and learning from experience increase your capacity to contribute to a company. However, you can be the world’s most gifted manager, but if your company doesn’t need another manager, who cares? You must recognize when your skills are undervalued. Look at your total comp as a benchmark. If you find that your startup is undervaluing your skill-set, I encourage you to have a frank discussion with your manager. Give them a chance to rectify the situation. A great manager can surprise you with solutions you couldn’t imagine before. If, however, your manager is unable to find ways to help you grow your career, it may be time to move on.

Closing thoughts

Startups are fun. Making the transition in 2013 from a company with 250,000+ employees (Accenture) to one with 120 employees at the time (BloomReach) has allowed me to grow in unparalleled ways. However, this growth over the past 3 years came with many bumps on the road. I was fortunate to get sound advice at critical times to continue growing and learning. I hope that by sharing these learnings I can help a few folks, and learn from the experiences of many others.

References

(1) Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, wrote for Fast Company about startups.

(2) Avery Augustine gives compares career growth at startups vs large companies.

Thanks to Ailian Gan, Stella Treas, and Christy Augustine for their help and insights. 

Being ‘too busy’ is not productive. Prioritize and focus on what matters.

Productivity has been a topic of huge interest to me over the past few years. In fact, when having a discussion with a friend, I told her that my goal is to help people be more productive. Not happy, productive. If people are productive, my thinking went, they would be doing the things they love and thus be happy.

I may have gotten my thinking reversed, but one thing is still clear. To be successful at work, and in life, you must spend your time on the right things. You must be confident in how your spend your time to eliminate two common fears. (1) Fear of wasting your time or (2) fear of not having enough time to do things. Managing your time is critical because you can’t get any more of it, you’ll always have 24 hours in a day. Being productive, then, is about focusing that time on the most important things and deprioritizing the rest.

Be clear on what is important to you

First, you must be clear on what matters to you. What is it that will truly bring the change that you need in your life? What are the actions that will help you accomplish those goals? You must clarify what you want to accomplish. Sit down and make a plan. If you have difficulties, find resources to help you. But don’t skip this step.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

– Jim Rohn

The book Designing Your Life has been a great asset for me. It helped me crisply define a work view and a life view. Combined, my work view and my life view help me define a true North which I can follow as I navigate through life. An interesting insight I had was that although my work view and life view are compatible, I have ignored aspects of my life view due to focusing only on my work view. Taking the time to reflect on this helped me identify the right priorities to focus on, both inside and outside of work.

As you grow older and hopefully wiser, you will pursue different passions and your interests may change. Just make sure that you are true to yourself and what really matters to you.

Make time for what matters

You may have already defined what is important to you. It feels like January 1 when you have your list of resolutions that you know, for sure, you’ll stick to this year. Except that February 1 comes around and you don’t even remember what your resolutions were. Life happens. You still only have 24 hours in a day and this just didn’t fit in. It isn’t enough to know what matters to you. You must make time for what matters most to you.

I like the framework of Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand. I first heard about it in this YouTube video. Take the 2 minutes to watch if you haven’t already.

Identify your rocks. Know what you must do to get to where you want to be. Don’t let anything else fill your jar and prevent you from accomplishing your most crucial goals. Block your calendar ahead of time, remove distractions, and allow for ample time to work on your rocks. Once you’ve spent enough time on your rocks, you can take care of the pebbles and sand. But not before.

Identify the key next step and just get started

Once you know what’s important and have blocked time for it, do the work. If you feel stuck on an important task, clarify what the next action needs to be. David Allen’s Getting Things Done defines a project as anything that takes more than one action to accomplish. This is important, you can’t do a project. You can only take an action. If you feel stuck, break down your project into discrete actions that you can take. Then bring out your favorite tomato-shaped timer and get that next action done.

Beware of the ‘urgent’ trap

We often confuse urgency and importance. Habit 3 of The 7 Habits book focuses exclusively on this point. Let’s define these two things.

Important things help you move closer towards accomplishing a goal.
Urgent things are time-sensitive, if not done quickly you may never reap benefits from it.

A common pitfall is spending time on urgent things that are easy to do but don’t significantly help you to accomplish a goal. Just because something is urgent, time-sensitive, doesn’t mean that you must do it. That is the equivalent of filling up your jar with Pebbles and Sand before trying to put in the Rocks.

A common example is allowing email and text notifications interrupt your focus. Presumably, before getting the latest email or text, you were working on something important. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been working on it. Yet, you allow your brain to shift its focus momentarily to check the email’s subject line or text. Your brain switches its focus to the notification, scans it, and decides that it is not important. You then switch your focus back to the task at hand. This constant distraction interrupts your thought process and makes you much less effective. Even worse, it makes you much less creative and engaged during meetings. The same happens when your colleague stops by your desk with a quick question. You can take this as an urgent request and let is stop you from completing other important work. Or, kindly ask them to send you an email (sand) which you can respond to in a bit after completing your current task (pebble or rock).

As you go through your day, don’t confuse urgent with important. Be proactive and work on the truly important today so that it doesn’t get crushed among many urgent things tomorrow.

If all else fails, talk to a friend

If you’ve done all of the above and still feel tired and disoriented, get help. Go see a friend, a family member, a coach, a therapist, a priest, anyone. Don’t try to get answers from them, but rather go to them to gain a new perspective. We all go through moments of confusion and stress, times in which we struggle with clarifying what we should be doing. Use other people’s experiences to form a perspective that works for you. You may need to do this again many times over the next decade as you keep learning, growing, and gaining more insight and responsibility. Accept it as a part of life and enjoy the journey.