Managing personal workload during the pandemic.

Normally, I thrive on getting things done. Whether at work on in my personal life, I feel accomplished by meeting my goals. During this COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve struggled with feeling like I’m not making enough progress, I’m not “doing” enough. The pandemic has challenged how I balance time spent “being” vs. time spent “doing” things. It’s worth to take a step back and reflect on this.

Here’s a quick rundown of things that have changed for me in the past month. Things that used to be givens, taken for granted. Things that brought stability to my life and that I built my life around.

  • Routine & structure: 15-minute morning walk to the train – helped me wake up. Getting into a crowded NYC train to the office. Drinking hot tea, greeting colleagues, settling into my desk at work. Work being at a space separate from home. Lunch at the office. Many choices for dinner on the way home.
  • Personal interactions: meeting friends for “coffee chats”, a hug to show love and care, sharing a physical space and communicating without relying on devices.
  • Ability to travel: flying home to see family, vacation travel.
  • Assumptions of what’s safe: grocery shopping without face masks, loads of purell, and a constant fear that I may be bringing home a dangerous virus.
  • Personal finances: fears about how changes in the economy impact my family, my friends, neighbors.

And many others.

Normally, just one of these areas being disrupted would make me pause, think, and adapt. During the pandemic, though, it is all changing at once. My mind has been running in a million different directions. I feel mentally fatigued.

What does this mean for my productivity? My ability to get things done and help myself and others? First of all, I need to give myself credit for things that I have figured out. We have a face mask for when we go to the grocery store. We have a new “process” to stay safe when we get back into the home. We figured out a new daily structure and routine. New ways to stay in touch with friends. Revisited our personal finances to ensure our safety net is there.

All of that requires thinking, analyzing, compromising, and finding a new way forward. It’s real work that I never really thought about or recognize. It’s important to realize that doing these things uses the same energy and mental resources than what I used to consider real work.

Balancing all this new personal work with my job takes a lot of energy. My days have ups and downs. More often than in the past, I have moments where it’s all blurry and I can’t think clearly. I don’t have the motivation or energy to do what I think I should be doing. I’m simultaneously in alert mode, but depleted of energy. I try different tactics: meditation, a quick workout, a nap. Ways to reset and get myself going again. But it doesn’t always work.

I have recognized and accepted this mental fatigue. There is a lot to process at once, a lot of emotions, a lot of changes. I need to be patient. Tomorrow will be another day, and by then I will have processed some more of the current situation. Little by little, I will establish a new life in which I’ll be less worried by the disruptions from this pandemic. Then, I may have the luxury to focus and think clearly again about those things that needed to get done.

More so than ever, a pandemic is the time to rethink personal priorities. Focus on what’s truly important, do that, and defer the rest. Thinking holistically about both work and personal things. I’m fortunate enough to have savings to weather this storm, otherwise I’d focus on that first. Then I’m focusing on my family and friends. Staying in touch with grandma. Learning techniques to stay safe while buying groceries during the pandemic. Finding the right balance between staying informed without getting overwhelmed by news. Taking a second look at my personal finances to ensure we are going to be OK. Replacing the broken tea kettle so I can still have hot tea at home. Meanwhile, I’m tackling the most important project at work, bit by bit, and deprioritizing everything else. Just critical work, nothing else.

One thing at a time, step by step, the foundations will be strong again. Then I will be able to think more clearly about other work. But, it is OK if that’s not today, tomorrow, or next week. It will take as long as it is necessary, no more and no less.

How to write a Product Requirements Document (PRD)

The usefulness of Product Requirements Document (PRD) is often debated. With the rise of Agile development practices, many argued that PRDs were a relic of the past and that people shouldn’t waste their time with it. In practice, however, I’ve seen clear benefits from well-written and maintained PRDs in every team I’ve worked, all of which practice Agile development to different extents.

What’s in a PRD?

At its most basic, a PRD summarizes the problem that a feature or product aims to solve, the user that would benefit, a prioritized list of user journeys, and feature descriptions with a focus on how the user would interface or experience the product. Other than that, PRDs often diverge heavily, and that’s OK. What matters is for the PRD to stick to its goal.

Goal of the PRD

A PRD is a tool to help the team achieve clarity. The process of writing, discussing and iterating on the PRD is more important than the actual document produced in the end. As such, I want to focus on what a good process looks like when writing a PRD. This is based on my experience and fine-tuned over time after learning from failed attempts at rushing through the process or not starting early enough.

The process of writing a PRD

Write down the user problem & business prioritization rationale: Open an empty document and write a summary of the problem to be solved. Focus on the user problem and why it’s important to the business to prioritize.

  • Share this with the team that would work on this initiative, if prioritized, and any decision-makers that would influence whether this is a priority. At a minimum, I’d share with an Engineering Tech Lead, a UX designer, my manager or some other business leader, and someone close to the user under consideration (a UX researcher, a customer success manager, support team member, etc.)
  • Ask their feedback and use it to polish your justification for the initiative. This must happen before you start to propose solutions. Don’t waste anyone’s time on problems not worth solving.
  • Your value add as a Product Manager comes from bringing clarity to what is important and why. Get crisp around who the user is and their needs. Write a set of user journeys, listing key things that a user would be able to accomplish once this initiative is complete and how it compares to the existing experience.

Add details about the solution as it is defined. I won’t dive into the design process here, but point out that you must revisit the user problem and goals of the initiative. As you and the rest of the team come up with a proposed solution, include in the PRD key details that helped inform the solution. This may include:

  • Links to user research findings
  • Discussions of various options evaluated, evaluation criteria, and resulting decision.
  • Limitations uncovered during the design process, including technical limitations, UX considerations, resource and budget constrains, timeline requirements, etc.
  • Dependencies on other teams and relevant links to see their progress.

A brand new team member should be able to read through the PRD and understand the options considered, business context, decision-making criteria, constraints, and challenges faced.

Link to UX and engineering design documents. The PRD helps force clarity around what is being built and why. The UX and engineering design documents force the discussion of “how” it will be built. At this stage, I link to those documents from the PRD and work with engineering and design teams to ensure that they have clear documents, thoroughly reviewed, about how a feature will be built. This time is to provide feedback on their options considered, and ensure they are in alignment with the priorities defined in the PRD. You should be a thought partner to them as they finalize the designs.

It is particularly important for the PM to bring clarity to priorities. Feature bloat causes real delays in shipping value to users. By having a clear set of priorities in the PRD, a PM can help evaluate proposed designs and balance complexity with user value.

Update the PRD to call out feature scope decisions. The PRD shouldn’t duplicate details evident in the UX and Engineering design documents. However, call out key decisions and tradeoffs made during the solution design. Technical considerations impacting feature scope, dependencies on other teams, user privacy or legal considerations, etc. Write them down. Also write down if you decided to build a specific version of the feature to enable some key future capabilities.

Share the PRD, and key changes, often with others for input. I like to identify perspectives that I will need, and find a counterpart that can chime in and answer my questions as we make progress. Sometimes that is a customer success manager for a key account that is vocal about the feature (enterprise use case) or a UX researcher that is intimately familiar with this type of user. As we make updates to the feature scope, it helps to be able to easily mention them in a comment and ask for feedback on the tradeoffs made. If you’ve iterated on your document well enough, they can just read that section of the PRD with the decision made and rationale and quickly chime in, often helping you consider things you may otherwise have missed until it’s too late.

Continue to update the PRD during development. During development, you will often need to make tradeoffs between feature scope and timeline. Often, you’ll need to be reducing scope during the development cycle in order to keep making progress and launch to customers the key parts of the feature. Keep updating your PRD and share key updates to timeline and scope with other teams. It’s never pleasant to communicate feature scope reductions or timeline delays, but the quicker you disseminate the knowledge the more proactive teams can be at planning and addressing any downstream impact. It always helps if you include a clear rationale for the impact that anyone can read and understand.

Avoid overly bloated PRDs

A PRD is all about bringing clarity. Clear purpose. Clear value. Clear priorities. Clear scope. Clear decisions. Clear rationale.

To maximize clarity, follow good writing practices. Editing is as important as writing. Be clear, be concise, cut out unnecessary words. Structure the document so that different readers can easily skim it and zero in on what is of interest to them.

All this said, I think PRDs can be extremely valuable tools.

You can do achieve clarity and alignment within a team without a PRD. You can also write a PRD and not help bring any clarity to the team. But a PRD can be an invaluable tool to force a process that helps bring clarity to everyone.

In my experience, every team I’ve worked with has benefitted from having a clear, written description of initiatives in the form of a PRD. This has helped us surface the right questions, force key discussions, bring clarity to those early, and disseminate the knowledge in an effective and efficient manner. It has helped streamline communications across teams, effectively involving and gathering their feedback before it is too late. This has helped build a better produce and avoid many headaches during product launches.

A successful PRD is not one that you finished, no matter how beautifully written. A PRD’s success is measured by the number of decision points it surfaces, the discussions it fosters, and the proactive resolution of problems surfaced earlier, which helps avoid headaches and negative surprises as you build and launch a product.

Developing courage to lead

I recently realized that I have a problem with leadership, and it is an emotional one.

I have spent significant time studying leaders, reading about their lives, trying to understand what makes them leaders. Intellectually, I understood it. But emotionally I realized that I don’t believe in myself as a leader. Just talking about myself as a leader makes my heart race, my palms get a tingling sensation, and get nervous. 

That is what I’ve been working through over the past month. Even though I can recognize leadership in others, I struggle to call myself a leader. This is the case even when in the midst of leading a team. I see myself as someone who can gets things done. I can define a problem, find a path to move forward, and fix it. That’s what I’ve always done and that’s how I am comfortable contributing to teams.

As I look to the future, however, I know that my contribution to teams and society as a whole will be capped if I don’t develop my leadership. So I’ve been wondering, how exactly do I become a leader? Do I wait until my manager tells me that I should lead a team (hint: it turns out, that’s not how leadership works)? 

In essence, in order to lead all I really need is: 

  1. A point of view, or vision, of how something should be
  2. Conviction & commitment to pursue that vision
  3. Courage to share it with others and compel them to follow

The only person preventing me from leading is me. Item number one on the list is not a problem, I have plenty of thoughts of how things should be. I can definitely argue a point. The second item may be an issue at times, there are few things I feel enough conviction about pursuing, so I can easily drop things. However, I don’t think that’s a big problem. The third element, however, is where I struggle the most. I am afraid to let others down, afraid of not looking smart, so I stop myself from trying to compel others to follow. Instead, I wait for others to lead the way. 

Addressing this issue is truly an emotional challenge. The prescription seems to be courage, practice, and resilience. 

I need to build up the courage to define a vision and share it while it is still not a done deal. I have to be willing to hear criticism and use that to grow. I need to distance my sense of personal worth from my work so that when others provide feedback on my work I don’t take it personally.

If I don’t do this, I will chicken out of sharing my thoughts until it is too late. I will continue to spend so much time thinking through the problem that the opportunity to lead will pass me by. I will become another one of those that hears their awesome idea from someone else and say: “Argh, I could have said that! That was my idea!” Too little too late. 

To be sure, most of this I already knew intellectually, even before this past month reflecting on it. So, what truly matters is what’s next. What am I going to do about it? 

  • I will carve out time to write down my vision & point on view on things I believe to be important. 
  • I will share this with others before I feel ready to do so. I will not keep a task to “polish X vision doc and share it once final” for weeks at a time. I will form a point of view and share before I have all the answers. By doing that, I will learn. 
  • I will not shy away when I get negative feedback on what I share. Instead, I will use that to learn, iterate, and keep refining my thinking. I will repeat that cycle as many times as necessary. 

By doing this, I hope to build up my courage. I know it will suck at first. As I write this, I feel a tingling sensation in my palms signaling nervousness. I really am afraid to let others down, and I will need to have the courage to risk letting others down in the short term for the long-term rewards of becoming the leader I know I can be. 

A note on self-awareness and the enneagram test

If you’ve heard of the enneagram test, I’m described eerily well as a self-preservation type three. Emotionally, if I’m not continuously achieving or succeeding, I feel like everything will come down crumbling around me. Continuous achievement is to the self-preservation three a requirement to prove that they deserve what they have. Any sort of failure, such as disappointing others, is felt very deeply as a threat to everything accomplished so far. 

I mention this because learning about my enneagram type was an unexpectedly emotional journey. More than once, I teared up as I read the hard truth about the fears that drive me. With that awareness, I can see how the fear of letting others down has been sabotaging my own learning and development as it relates to leadership. If you’re too afraid to look stupid, leading will become far more challenging. 

Dealing with ambiguity and work-related stress

I recently wrote what would become one of my most read articles to date, it was my answer on Quora to the question How stressful is it to be a product manager at a tech company?

This is not unique to product management. Increasingly, our responsibilities as workers in the information age have become more ambiguous. We self-direct more of our work and priorities. We work through influence more often. In short, we are expected to deliver results with little, or conflicting, guidance.

As I reflect back, most of what has helped me personally has been difficult and trying situations leading me to a realization and shift in perspective. I have come to identify the physical feelings in my body associated with stress and anxiety. When I feel these, I take the time to dig deep to concretely identify the source of anxiety. Once I can clearly identify the source of stress, it feels more tangible and manageable. At that point, I can then take specific steps to question the validity of my emotional response to the situation and manage it.

Side note: The American Psychological Association recognizes 7 common sources of stress at work. Here I focus on (1) excessive workloads, (2) not having enough control over job-related decisions, and (3) conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations.

Here are a few things I have learned to do over time in order to manage stress.

There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.
― Alan Cohen

Optimize for long-term impact, not short-term recognition. This is more of a principle. Non-sustainable Herculean efforts, such as working throughout the night or weekend, are not something to be proud of or brag about. Such efforts inhibit me from contributing at my best. In a job where careful reflection and decision making is paramount, not being at my peak while at work is not only detrimental to my health but also to the success of my team. As such, I take care of my health. Taking the time to get 8 hours of sleep, to exercise, and prioritizing time to learn and unplug from work has been crucial. I do this not instead of, but rather so that I can do my best work.

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.
― Stephen R. Covey

When in doubt, prioritize. The most common sense of stress is a clear lack of priorities. Inability to prioritize, particularly by leaders of an organization, forces resources to be too thinly spread and ends up causing initiatives to fail. This causes undue stress. As such it is important to prioritize appropriately, and it is everyone’s responsibility to do so, regardless of your level.

Be clear on what is most important. Write out a clear list of outcomes you want to accomplish and stack rank them. Go down the list and commit only to those items that are most important and you can concurrently do a kickass job at, drop the rest. When you realize that there’s no clear priority due to conflicts between teams or conflicting communications from leadership, use this as an opportunity to force clarity by bringing together the folks that are misaligned and forcing clarity among them.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

Differentiate between important and urgent. I learned from Stephen Covey to be vigilant and diligently prioritize what’s important. There are a large number of seemingly urgent activities that don’t move forward our cause, don’t help us truly accomplish the goals that are most important to us. Know how to identify such activities, and eliminate or reduce them so that you can focus on what truly matters. Disabling notifications was a scary, yet powerful, step I took to bring more focus to my work and unleash more of my potential.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
― Lao Tzu

Always question your sense of urgency. We may be trying to meet a deadline. Or simply feeling like we’ve dragged on too long on a given project and need to ‘ship it’ or ‘get it done’. Stop and reflect, what is driving this urgency? What would happen if you got sick and were unable to work on this for a while?

Most of the time, we realize that our fear has been blown out of proportion. There are other options beyond “I must finish this right now or a catastrophe will ensue.” By stopping to reflect on the driver behind your urgency you may realize that there is a 3rd option in which you communicate a new timeline to get the work done properly, everyone adjusts, and you march forth more relaxed.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.
― Stephen R. Covey

Communicate diligently. I’m often scared shitless about letting others down. Disappointing others was, to me, such a strong fear that I was often paralyzed when choosing between what was important vs what others needed from me. To avoid this, when I have to (re)prioritize, I quickly let impacted folks know of the change in my priorities. I also share my prioritization rationale and remain open to their feedback in case I missed any important factors.

It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.
― Steve Maraboli

Prioritize specific outcomes, not fuzzy problems. A manager recently asked me to get crisper when talking about what I was working on. I had a list of projects that all felt very important. Instead, per their recommendation, I concretely defined the outcome that I would be able to accomplish for each of the projects. An outcome that was so tangible I could feel what it would be like to achieve it. Once I’ve defined these outcomes, I could much more easily see what would be the most impactful outcomes and what could be reprioritized.

The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.
– Thích Nhất Hạnh

When in doubt, go zen. Meditation has been instrumental for me. It helps me go from “this is stressful and I hate it” to something more akin to “here’s a situation that’s activating my stress response, let me anchor my attention on my breath and work through it.”

If mindfulness seems complicated or out of reach, consider reading Everyday Zen: Love and Work*. Simple, yet powerful, explanation of zen and meditation.


A few concluding notes

  • I realize that the tips above are not for everyone, but I hope that you find them helpful.
  • These tips work best once you’ve built some rapport with your team and established yourself as a strong contributor. If you’re just getting started on a new role, or haven’t been able to perform at the level you’d want, enlist the help of your manager or a mentor.
  • I find it hilarious that until I wrote this blog post I always thought that the phrase “nip in the bud” was actually “nip in the butt”. Lots of butt pinching images have been going through my head in perfectly serious conversations.

I just had to include this final quote somewhere:

“No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”
– Warren Buffett

* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee at no cost to you.

Business metrics vs. user value (why I quit Facebook)

I love data. A great dashboard with useful KPIs is beautiful and useful. If you haven’t yet, take the time to define and track success metrics for your product. It forces clarity and reflection of your goals.

Use data to prove or disprove your hypotheses. Use data to calibrate your efforts and see whether you’re on the right path. Use data to define bold goals for your product. But first, have a clear vision of what matters. Don’t lose sight of that vision.

A big pitfall is when we use easily measurable things, such as time on site or content engagement, to determine product success. It is tempting to do that since (1) it correlates with business value and (2) you can argue that it correlates with user satisfaction and value. While this can sometimes be true and work well, it can backfire as your product evolves.

I will use my experience with Facebook as a way to dive deeper into this.

Quitting Facebook while at a high

I quit Facebook right after my engagement with the platform was at a peak. I quit it because my engagement with it was at its peak.

I quit Facebook a bit over a year ago. I also quit Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. Why? They were optimizing their system to bring me back to their app and use it for longer periods of time and much more often.

I joined those social networks to connect with people. To play a role in my friend’s lives. I had invested 10+ years on Facebook, connecting with friends and sharing photos. But, I found myself spending more time browsing. Scrolling through the news feed. Clicking on articles. Watching videos that would autoplay on my news feed.

I would then see a friend’s update about a life milestone that I wasn’t present for.

I wondered, had I spent less time on Facebook and more time on the phone with that friend, would I have been present for that life milestone? Or maybe, just maybe, I meant to become friends with that person but they are really an acquaintance.

Why was I distracted by their lives?

I would come out of the app and wonder, is this helping me connect with friends or family? Am I happier?

The answer, 9 out of 10 times, was no. That’s a dismal rate of success.

The metrics trap

While Facebook had a mission to connect people, over time they started to optimize for behaviors that were driving their business success.

Well-intentioned Product Managers probably liked my engagement metrics. More time on the app, more engagement with news feed items, etc. These metrics would say that I must be happy with the product. However, while making me spend more time on site would always be better for their advertising revenue, after a certain threshold it is clear that spending more time on the site would be neutral to negative for my well-being. Also, the ‘what’ I did on the product matters.

I was spending more time on the site with an implicit goal of creating deeper connection with friends, family, neighbors, people I cared about. Instead, I was wasting the 30 minutes I could have spent on the phone or on video chat with one of those friends scrolling through a news feed increasingly cluttered with articles and videos.

I justified this as a way to understand other people better based on what they were sharing (articles, videos, etc.) I thought that those social networks would help me better understand the world around me. I had over 1800 connections on Facebook. I thought this would help me hear the diverse set of thoughts, feelings and opinions they had.

But, this was not true. I was hearing from the subset of friends whose opinions I was more likely to like. I was hearing less from those that I would more likely disagree with.

Those that would challenge my thinking were invisible to me. I was being shown perspectives that reassured me that I lived in a world that didn’t exist.

When that realization daunted on me with the 2016 election cycle, it was clear that my time on those platforms was being wasted. Success, as measured by feeling connected with others, was further away. Instead, the platform offered distraction. A fake sense of connection to a reality that didn’t exist.

Where did things go wrong?

Success as measured by metrics such as time on site and interaction events on the site, distracted the product from its mission. Those things that drive the businesses’ success through more advertising revenue were making it harder for me as a user to actually fulfill my desire to connect. Yet, I’m certain that many designers, engineers and product managers were running tests on the platform to increase those business metrics without questioning the long-term impact it would have on my satisfaction with the product.

Another way to view it, they didn’t question whether more and more engagement and time on site could be turning into too much of a good thing

In fact, I remember a video Facebook created recapping my past 1 year. It said that I had liked thousands of things over the past year. I did the math, I had liked on Facebook, on average, a few dozen things per day. That’s an outstanding number. Yet I felt emptier the more time I wasted on the platform.

Was I wrong to quit Facebook?

I requested my Facebook account to be deleted on April 8, 2017. I first did a ‘trial’ by deactivating the account. At first, I found myself mindlessly opening the Facebook app or navigating to on my computer. It was ingrained in my brain. After a few days that habit started to die down and my mind started to open up.

When I felt the need to connect, I would now send a friend a text and an invite to coffee or dinner. I called people a few times. Calling, on the phone, can still be a thing. It is amazing how much you can connect with someone by hearing their voice.

My friends didn’t forget about me. My social life didn’t get boring. In fact, now catching up with a friend is more special. We take the time to talk to each other about our lives without assuming the other person saw updates we generically posted for hundreds of people to see.

I hear less from many people. I probably haven’t heard from over 95% of my 1,800 Facebook friends. But, I’m happy to report that neither my life nor theirs is any worse off. I reclaimed the energy I spent “liking” those people’s posts or wondering when I would next catch up with them. I use that reclaimed energy to further my true connecting with people.

User vs. Business Goals

Whatever you do, remain focused on the user. Question your metrics and reassess what and how you measure them.

I may have emphasized in this post one product, but there are many other products guilty of this issue. Of optimizing for things that don’t add value to the user’s life or connect to the mission. Of forgetting to question whether the metric is still sufficient to determine whether users are happy. Watch users and see if behavior has changed to the point in which you need new measurements.

When thinking about your product, always remember to evaluate how it is that you’re adding value to your users. Be extremely careful when adding a new feature that will help you drive business objectives, but dilutes the value users get from their time spent on your product. Find ways to measure and focus on your users’ well-being.

Whatever you do, question your metrics and measurements. Don’t let them distract you from the reality of your user’s experience and the impact the product is having on them.

Be informed by data. Not driven by it.