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8 Productivity Hacks Not Just for Product Managers
There is always more work that can be done than one has the time for—eight practical tricks from the field of product management that can save you multiple hours per month.
Product managers, designers, or just anyone with a hectic work schedule need to prioritize not only their backlog but also how they allocate their time. A lot of our work is communication, so most people are rightfully wondering how we could be more effective, saving a couple of hours in the process.
In this article, I collected 8 small productivity hacks that I learned or developed over the years. These can help automate some aspects of the work — no matter if someone is an individual contributor or a leader. While I first used some of these tricks in product management roles, many other office positions can also get value out of these.
1. Color-code calendar events to indicate meeting types
Marking calendar events with different colors is probably one of the most known productivity hacks from this list. But why does it work?
First, applying specific colors to different event types can help us quickly glance a week and see how much time is occupied with what activities. For example, is it a bunch of 1-on-1s on Tuesday, or a full day of back-to-back project meetings on Wednesday? It'll be easier to tell.
Second, having these colors indicate importance or attendee group size can assist with prioritizing one meeting over another. It's easier to move a two-person discussion than a team sync, or exchange a low-priority project meeting with a high-priority customer call.
Below, I'll give a few event examples for calendar color-coding and a brief explanation of their key attributes.
One-on-ones: Yellow. Some preparation might be needed — like reviewing topics, context, or formulating feedback. Mostly recurring meetings, and one of the easiest to reschedule or skip, especially if there are no relevant topics at a given time.
Project meetings: Light blue. As with one-on-ones, some preparation might be needed, as the end goal is often to make a decision. Usually not recurring nor time-critical, so these can be safely postponed a few days into the future if needed.
Important meetings: Red. There are very important meetings, like organizational changes, key initiatives, strategy discussions, or customer calls. One shouldn't miss these, top priority among all other colors.
Team syncs and sessions: Dark green. Bi-weekly or weekly recurring meetings mostly, the schedule or the structure rarely changes. Preparation needs depend on the exact occasion; some events can even be skipped if it's not too relevant to our position.
Big group or organizational-wide gatherings: Light green. Very few, but almost impossible to reschedule. While company-wide sessions are useful to attend (and a must if you're presenting), usually, there are session notes or recordings available for later viewing.
Focus time: Gray. I often book undedicated focus time slots that become dedicated to specific tasks over time. These one-person sessions can help to avoid meeting congestion.
Off-the-work sessions: Flamingo/Geraldine. Rare and few events which overlap with work time and usually take the overall priority— repair guys, urgent family needs, and unexpected events all go into this category.
Of course, these exact colors are just one example; different color combinations might work better for other people.
When starting the practice of calendar color-coding, there is a small learning curve of remembering what all the colors mean — and it's useful to note down initially what logic we come up with. But after a few weeks, it should be muscle memory.
2. State meeting goal and intended outcome, and also expect others to do that
Being invited to meetings shouldn't be like the surprise of Christmas gifts: seeing the packaging (meeting title) that doesn't tell much and wondering what's inside (actual topics). And whether it's positive or negative.
This might be one of the undervalued tips on this list, but it's an easy one:
When scheduling meetings, organizers should clearly state the goal and the intended outcome of the session, with optional pre-reads or other documents that provide further context.
This helps both parties: organizers to ready the audience and attendees to mentally prepare for the discussion. It's a win-win.
And these principles should also be kept in mind when accepting event invites as an attendee. Suppose it's impossible for anyone to tell the event purpose, their role in the meeting, or what the audience is trying to achieve there. In that case, they should rightfully ask the organizer to clarify — as we all want to avoid meetings that could have been an email.
In addition, it's worth trying out Amazon's approach to meetings, which includes a silent reading exercise at the beginning of the meeting to ensure everyone is up to speed before the discussion part starts.
3. Separate time-sensitive emails from others
A new push notification lights up the phone just to present another automatic email message that no one asked for. Sounds vaguely familiar?
Separating the noise from emails can be a powerful time saver. It's not the amount of time that's worth saving, but rather the occasions one tiny message can cause distraction from some good, focused work.
Before jumping to automate all the emails, consider what emails should be completely eliminated instead. Often, we forget to adjust a few settings in software applications that cause the majority of our spam.
When this is done, think about which emails are important enough to trigger a notification when they arrive. Team emails, alerts, or maybe messages from a specific tool? As most modern email clients offer email rules, we'll be leveraging this capability to filter out everything else that's not on the important list.
The most straightforward rule to configure (and the one to start with):
if the Sender's email address is X,
AND the Subject contains Y,
then Skip Inbox and Apply Label Z (or Move to Folder in Outlook).
While it's possible to tweak the beginning of the rule for more advanced conditions, the message will either get a label (Gmail) or will be moved to a specific folder (Outlook). This rule also has the benefit of not sending a push notification, as all other emails do. Instead, these messages will just sit in the mailbox, waiting for us to go there and see the small +1 indicator.
Based on personal experience, some of the emails worth automating this way are internal newsletters, business application tools (Jira, Confluence, GitHub…), product feedback pings, and event invites/changes. These messages can be all worth reading, but not at the expense of our focus.
4. Organize frequent groups and contacts
As more and more teams are going remote, online communication nuances become increasingly important. One such underappreciated trick is grouping online messaging contacts and channels.
While it might not save hours per day, organizing contacts is worth the exercise if someone frequently interacts with a set of people: colleagues from the same team, specific people from other departments, managers, direct reports, or other key individuals.
By organizing contacts, we save the time of searching for the name. Also, it's easier to just click on a contact profile picture and start drafting our thoughts, no matter the messaging platform.
5. Schedule sessions with externals without back-and-forth email discussions
Anyone who works with people from very different time zones or with many external stakeholders knows that scheduling meetings are not always the easiest. Especially if we're not able to see others' availability.
For similar needs, there are several meeting scheduling tools now available on the market, such as Calendly, Chili Piper, or Appointly — just to name a few. While the purpose of these tools may vary (some suited for simple tasks, others offer various integrations with business tools), the core concept is simple. Instead of emailing back and forth about available time slots, these apps connect to our calendar and expose the free slots in a given time range.
Most products also offer some level of configuration, such as:
Defining weekly availability, meeting length, and buffer time
Booking page customization, multiple types of bookable time slots
Automatic confirmation and follow-up emails
Video conferencing options
And while there are usually free tiers available from most providers, companies prefer business subscriptions — and that's not a surprise, considering that we're connecting our work calendar with potentially sensitive information inside.
These meeting scheduling apps can not be just useful for product people but also for roles that often communicate with external stakeholders: sales, recruiter, or partnership teams.
6. Keep a to-do list that is easily accessible from anywhere
Some articles argue that to-do lists don't work, as they just make us overwhelmed and frustrated. I tend to think that we're not always using to-do lists correctly, and that's part of the reason why we're not satisfied with them.
There are a few attributes of good to-do lists, and if we're paying enough attention, they can be handy helpers for our everyday work.
They're practical: First, let's set the expectations correctly; to-do lists are not here to make us happy. They're practical tools to structure our tasks and remind us to take care of something important.
They're always accessible: Good lists are always accessible. No matter if we're in the middle of a meeting, in a deep focus session, or on the way to somewhere.
They're prioritized: When looking at the first few items on the list, they should be the most important ones. Great to-do lists are always prioritized, and in the case of a digital solution, items can be easily rearranged. In a few cases, optional information like deadlines can also be helpful.
They're not always lists: Some commitments might require significant time investments, and those are not something that can be easily crossed off from a list. If that's the case, turn to-do list items into focus work sessions by reserving time in the calendar.
They're groomed: To-do lists shouldn't be overly long. If the search functionality is needed, you're not grooming the to-do list enough. Be mindful about the size of items and whether unnecessary meetings throughout the day are eliminated — so you have time to complete what really counts.
They're simple: Last but not least, to-do lists shouldn't be over-engineered. Add only key details about upcoming tasks. Don't use the list as a notepad, and avoid using status fields. There are better tools available for project tracking, especially if multiple people are involved.
To-do lists can take any shape or form; the most important thing is that they should fit well into our overall workflow. While some people prefer digital lists (Google Task, Microsoft To Do…), others like the classic combination of paper and pen.
7. Collect information in one place
Many hours in a workweek are spent communicating, and relaying information from one person to another. Although this is part of most jobs, it can also get very repetitive, especially if the same message needs to be conveyed again and again.
One habit I picked up over the years is to create internal knowledge share pages: a place where all necessary information is collected about a topic.
I prefer this format for product pages, where I can share details about "in development" items with other colleagues. Here, I usually share the customer problem the team is trying to address, the selected solution idea, details about how we ended up with certain decisions, and a more comprehensive description if the functionality is complex. While it doesn't eliminate all of the questions in a topic, it helps to create clarity. In addition, I'm able to reference the page if a question comes up that's already been answered.
There might be many other use cases for knowledge share pages, the internal product page was just one example. To make similar efforts effective, it's important to consider a few things:
Discoverability: The information needs to be easily reachable and searchable. If it's hidden as the 11th paragraph of a document that is not linked anywhere, it simply won't work. Make it discoverable and put it in a place where others are looking for similar information.
Collaboration: Enable editing and/or commenting for others. Sometimes we need a one-way communication tool to inform others; other times, we expect collaboration. It's a bonus if colleagues can also get notified when the document is updated.
Tooling: Use the tools that most of the organization is using for storing information. For example, if Google Docs, Confluence, and Notion are all available, choose the one which ensures discoverability and is used widely by various departments.
Also, it's important to note that not everything needs to have a dedicated knowledge share page. Think about how often different topics come up, and only make the time investment into an internal page if it's worth it.
8. Avoid back-to-back meetings
One meeting prolongs while another one is starting — and apologizing for being late is already a habitual thing we say at the beginning. Sounds familiar?
Research suggests that we're more stressed if we cannot mentally relax in between two meetings, and the stress builds up even more in the case of multiple back-to-back sessions.
While the straightforward solution would be just to have fewer meetings, it's not always possible. Luckily, most calendar applications offer a handy way to make meetings shorter; this is just not widely known.
Both Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook offer a way to schedule shorter meetings, and I believe other calendar apps offer similar capabilities too. These functionalities usually shave off 5–10 minutes from the end of meetings, depending on the duration. These few minutes can help us relax, grab some water, or stretch in between two discussions. We just need to remember to actually end the meeting earlier.
Needless to say, be mindful of whether a meeting is needed to discuss something. In many cases, a nicely put question with additional context is more than sufficient.
Most productivity hacks or similar shortcuts are born out of recurring behaviors. Someone realizes that they’re doing something too often, and they try to find ways to simplify it.
While I hope that some of these tips will be useful, I’d like to encourage the reader to develop their own hacks. Observe recurring tasks at work or in private life, and think about the means to automate those!
And remember: productivity hacks are there to save time. The ones that are not reaching this simple goal should be abandoned.