- Justin Hunter
In a fast-growing startup, product management can often feel like firefighting. Generally, firefighters are reactive workers. They get a call, they go to the fire, they put it out. When your product is used by thousands or millions of people, managing that product can feel like a series of never-ending tasks thrown at you rather than a process of improvement under your control.
Products can only survive and thrive for so long under a constant barrage of reactive work. Somehow, you have to find a way to plan strategically and think long-term. If you don't, the fire will consume your entire organization. Fortunately, solving the reactive work problem is easier than you think.
All you have to do is be proactive.
OK, that's an oversimplification. And as a good rule of thumb, anytime someone says "all you have to do", assume you have to do way more than what follows that phrase. Of course, being proactive will help you solve the reactive work problem. But if you were able to easily be proactive, you wouldn't be in the constant cycle of reactivity.
Yet, the statement is still true. If you can be more proactive, you will see a reduction in reactive work. Let's return to the firefighting example. Firefighters will sometimes conduct controlled burns to reduce the chance of a blaze in the future. This is proactive work in pursuit of reducing reactive work later.
I've worked in small and large organizations, and the amount of reactive work varies by the size of the organization. As you grow, the product is (hopefully) used by more people. When more people use the product, more bugs are found, more feature requests come in, technical support questions rise, and more. There's also the coworker factor. As usage grows, the company tends to grow. The number of employees rises, and this leads to even more reactive work as you have internal requests layered on top of external ones.
Scroll through Twitter or LinkedIn, and you'll see jokes and memes about product managers spending their entire days in meetings. This is reactive work. This happens if you let it. Most people don't think they have control over the meeting overload, but they do. It's called protecting your calendar. Some people might call this timeblocking, but I think of timeblocking as more standardized and specific to certain events. With calendar protection, you may not know exactly what you will get done in the time you're protecting, but you know you'll get something proactive done.
I was not very good at this early in my career. At various jobs, I would let others dictate my calendar freely. It led to frustration and burnout. I would work in the evenings or in the early mornings. I thought productivity meant being on as many calls and meetings as other people needed. Later in my career—especially when I was managing a team of PMs—I learned to block time on my calendar. Again, I didn't block time for any specific purpose other than knowing I would do something proactive in that time.
This can be a difficult ask for people who like to plan in advance. It's hard to justify blocking off time on your calendar when you don't know what you're blocking that time off for. This becomes doubly hard when someone reaches out to you and asks if you can move a particular time block so they can schedule a meeting. What do you say? How do you tell them you a protecting that time on your calendar without knowing what you'll be working on?
Luckily, the answers to these questions are usually easier than you think. Most people are totally fine when you tell them you can't move the time you blocked. A simple "I'm saving that time for some proactive work" will usually suffice. As a knock-on benefit, the constraint of the other person having to find another time for the meeting can sometimes result in the meeting not being necessary after all.
A knee-jerk reaction to a problem for many people is to get on the phone and talk to someone live. This is a relic of in-person work where anyone could walk up to you and ask a question in real-time (also a productivity strain). So, forcing others to work through the constraint of less availability on your calendar can have many more benefits than just freeing you up to be proactive.
Now, what do you do when your protected time arrives? Do you sit there and scroll TikTok? Do you check the backlog and ask for updates on in-progress tasks? Do you read your emails?
No! That's all either time-wasting or reactive. This is your time to do competitive analysis, product research, strategy planning, or any number of other productive and non-reactive things. This is your chance to build up the proactive work that will ultimately reduce the reactive work. Remember the hypothesis at the beginning of this article was that reactive work was the product of growth and lack of proactive work. Growth is a net positive, so the only lever you have to pull to reduce reactive work is proactive work.
You do not have to fall into the trope of product manager succumbing to non-stop meetings. Give yourself time to protect your calendar. Schedule focus or meeting time that's just for you. Don't worry if you don't know exactly what you'll work on when the time comes. Being free from non-stop meetings will open your opportunities for proactive work and ultimately reduce the reactive work you see later.