How to spend more time doing work you love
In 2019, I spent a ton of time doing work that I wasn’t passionate about (or great at). It seemed like each project I worked on would be coupled with hours of extra meetings, busywork, and other things that seemed to take time away from working on what drives me: vision and strategy. Here’s a detailed breakdown of a huge change I made to change that.
In my last newsletter, I shared my biggest takeaways from 2020. Despite tons of unknowns (e.g. pandemic, etc), there was one thing that made an enormous positive impact in my work: Setting an intention for the year and communicating it broadly helped me spend more time doing work that I love. I thought it would be helpful to go deeper on this topic and share my process so you can do the same. This process made the biggest difference to my overall happiness and productivity at work this year:
- Assess the past year and identify an intention
- Share it broadly
- Write down the problems
- Optimize the problems
- Check in regularly
Here’s more detail on each of these.
Step One: Assess the year and identify an intention
At the end of every year, I block out about two days to reflect on the past year. I clear my calendar and use this time to think deeply and review what worked and what didn’t. I defend this time because it allows me to think deeply and get past the surface level/obvious challenges (e.g. too many meetings). When I reflected at the end of 2019, I was proud of my accomplishments but felt that I spent alot of time doing work I wasn’t passionate about. Aside from the usual glut of meetings, I had tons of repetitive tasks and manual processes that were taking time away from me doing what I do best (and love): vision and strategy work. I know that there will always be some overhead to any job, but I estimated that I was spending over 50% of my time doing that overhead work.
I came to the conclusion: In 2020 I want to spend more time doing work that I love.
It sounds simple right? Just do more of the things you love and do less of the other stuff. But in practice, it’s quite hard because there are always meetings to attend, processes to follow, and busywork to attend to. I suspect everyone has the same desire, but I chose this as my ‘intention’ for the year. I’ve also heard these called personal goals or new years resolution (but for work!)
Step Two: Share it broadly
Once I decided on my intention, I typically will jump to thinking of ways to make it happen. This year, I took a different approach. I started telling my manager, spouse and co-workers. I expected lots of blank stares and ‘ok that’s great... next topic’ but instead had alot of engaged discussions that started with questions like “Ok but what do you mean by that?” or “What is the work you love doing?” They wanted to learn more and helped me flesh out what I actually meant. I started sharing examples of work that plays to my strengths, work that de-motivates me, and what that change could look like. We fleshed out the problem and solution together.
As I discussed this with more people and started to have a better idea of what I wanted, the conversations shfited. I started getting questions like “So what can I do to help you achieve that goal?” or “Maybe I can take ___ off your plate for you?” People went from part of the brainstorm to wanting to be part of the solution!!!
By sharing my intention with my coworkers, I unknowingly started to make progress against it without even trying!
Step Three: Write down the problems
As I went through this process with my coworkers and other people in my life, clear trends started to emerge:
First, there were alot of meetings, discussions, and processes that took a ton of time and I didn’t add alot of value to. Examples include include meeting to review experiment results or meticulously crafting a deck. I’ll call these ‘time sucks’ because they are worth doing but take up alot of time.
Second, there were alot of repetitive tasks that were important but just required me to do the same thing over and over. Examples include gathering and posting a weekly update or scheduling meetings from chats. I’ll call these ‘repetitive tasks’ because they involve me doing the same thing over and over again.
Third, I looked for overarching themes that were project/theme specific. Examples include projects that shifted from being more strategic to more execution-focused or heavily dependent on XFN coordination across many teams.
Once I had this list, I broke it down into three buckets, stack ranked by time spent, and put together a plan.
Step Four: Optimize the problems
All three sets of problems need to be handled differently. Here’s how I worked through each bucket:
Time Sucks - Optimize them. These tasks have to be done but invariably have inefficiencies. Here’s how I optimized writing strategy decks:
- Problem: Layout/aligning text/choosing colors. Solution: Create a standard theme/master slides and use it every time.
- Problem: Creating new decks for every discussion. Solution: Create a template deck with a specific set of slides in order (e.g. Current Status → Problem → Data to validate problem → Research to validate problem → Strategy → Goal → MVP Solution → Discussion Questions).
- Problem: Hard to collaborate in decks. Solution: Move from Keynote→Google Slides.
- Problem: Still spending too much time translating from doc→deck . _Solution**: Stop making slides, fully switch to documents (I wrote more about this step on my blog (https://bdickason.com/posts/strategy-write-great-prereads/)).
Repeititive Tasks - Automate them. These tasks don’t need to be done by hand. Here’s how I automated writing a weekly summary (we call these HPM’s):
- Problem: I need to gather weekly update from many teammates. Automation: Automate a weekly post (or e-mail) on Wednesday AM that asks a specific group of questions. (My role is now just editing)
- Problem: I need to get feedback from my team before posting. Automation: Automate a weekly post (or e-mail) on Wednesday EOD that takes your edited post and asks a specific group of people for feedback (w/ a deadline).
- Problem: I re-create a new document for the post every time. Automation: Generate a template and automate creating a new document w/ Zapier/IFTTT.
- Problem: I need to post the document. Automation: Automate a weekly post (or e-mail) on Friday AM to take the edited document and posts it to the correct group.
Project/Team issues - Address w/ my manager. These are bigger issues that require a long term solution/change.
- Problem: My manager isn’t aware that this is a problem. Solution: Flag the issue early - If you notice a specific project or team that is making it hard to accomplish your personal goal, identify this immediately and raise the issue to your manager. You may not be able to soluve it in that moment, but being aware of the issue is the first step.
- Problem: There are aspects of this project (e.g. XFN alignment or process) that doesn’t play to my strengths. Solution: Identify a teammate, either on the team or not on the team and tee them up to pick up some of this work. Examples for me include working with a TPM to drive detailed schedule/execution or asking a tech lead to drive weekly bug bashes.
- Problem: The whole project is shifting into a mode that doesn’t play to my strengths. Solution: Work with your manager to transition to another project. This takes time and you can’t always just jump ship but you should have an open conversation about this and decide if this is the right specific project for you to be on. Oftentimes there is someone better positioned to do this work and you won’t know this until you have the conversation.
You can see that each type of problem requires a different type of solution. Once you do this a few times, you’ll get better at spotting these problems. The more of these problems you can knock out, the more time you’ll have for doing the work you love!
Step Five: Check in and make progress
Now that you’ve got a goal, teammates helping you to reach that goal, and a tangible set of next steps, it’s time to schedule a regular check-in. You should block off time at the beginning of every month to assess how you’re doing. A month is long enough to make progress, but soon enough that you won’t forget about it.
This can be a calendar invite for yourself, a check-in with your manager, or a check-in with your entire ‘team’ of people who are trying to help you make this intention a reality. In my case, I book one hour at 9am the first Monday of each month and strongly defend this time slot. I hole up in a conference room (or my ‘office’ during COVID-19) and block off time to assess what’s working, what isn’t working, and any new problems that emerged recently. I end the session with a revised list just like in Step Four and then start taking action.
Consistency is key because it will force you to prioritize these solutions to longstanding (but easy to ignore) problems. By the last check-in, you should have a long list of changes you’ve made and hopefully an idea of how much time you saved :) This framework can be applied any intention, not just spending more time doing the things you love.
Across everything I did during the year, this process made the biggest impact in my quality of life at work. I hope you found this explanation valuable.
Did you set an intention for last year? What was it? What else did you do that helped you spend more time doing work that you love? @bdickason
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Post last updated: Dec 27, 2020
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