Focus and flow
Focus is the top input metric for product managers and a key ingredient to a PM Nirvana. Why? Focus leads to faster and better decisions, more clarity, and superior outcomes for you, your product, and the business. More importantly, focus potentially leads to a flow state where we lose track of time. When we are in this state, ideas, solutions, answers just emerge out of nowhere. And we look back and say “that time was well spent”. We all crave this state. Yet, it’s hard to access one, especially on-demand.
Don’t get me wrong - execution is necessary but not sufficient. Our long-term success comes from the deep thinking achieved during a flow state and not from responding to the endless emails, or attending meetings.
There are three steps to accomplishing this flow state:
Schedule focus time
Show up fully at the scheduled time
Attain a flow state
We don’t control the 3rd step but we can influence it through a few proven strategies.
If you are proactive, scheduling focus time is relatively straightforward. Block out chunks of time on your calendar to focus. Outlook can automate this for you. Align these chunks during your peak productivity. For most people, it’s usually during the first half of the day. However, an afternoon time right after a great workout or a nap, is equally effective.
This is only the first step though. Showing up at this scheduled time is where most people struggle, including me. I find myself catching up on prior commitments, or the mind is occupied with an urgent issue, or, there’s a huge leftover from the previous day which takes precedence over this focus time. I need to earn this flow time by improving my productivity and focus throughout the day. That way, I can bring my whole self to this scheduled focus time and optimize my chances to achieve a flow state.
Here are some of the things that have worked for me so far.
Whether it’s starting the day with a 7-minute exercise, pranayama, yoga routine, a short meditation, reading a few pages of a book, or just writing your todos, an intentional morning routine will set you up for success. If nothing else, avoid the three morning-monsters - mail, meetings, and mobile! Reading emails, listening to the news, or engaging in social media can be tempting but are proven detractors to your productivity and can negatively influence your outlook. Make it easy to follow the good habits like keeping a book handy near your kitchen coffee machine. And make it hard to fall to temptations like keeping your phone and computer away from your bedroom.
Todo lists work great when they are scheduled
Schedule your day in increments of 30 minutes (15 minutes, if you are an overachiever). And schedule your P1s during these slots. This works like magic - our brains work best when they know “it’s OK to work on this task now”. Plus, pre-determining what to do early on saves multiple micro-decisions throughout the day.
Experiment with the tool that works best for you. On relatively meeting-free days, I prefer planning my day on a piece of paper. On meeting-heavy days, I plan on Outlook so I can schedule around my existing commitments.
Full screens lead to focus
I read important emails, articles, or videos on full screen and finish whatever I start. This eliminates the attention-bleeding that happens through the visual triggers outside of the focused content.
Similarly, a full-screen during 1:1s and important meetings minimizes the distraction and temptations to check something else during an important conversation. I have realized that gift of my full attention is the least I can give to my co-worker in this perpetually virtual environment.
Notifications are anti-focus
Turn off ALL notifications. Even the taskbar notifications. Put your phone on focus mode - you can keep urgent calls to be notified. A small distraction takes a heavy toll on your productivity. It’s so easy to disable these - why not use them?
Add mid-day energy-boosters
I have found scheduling workouts at noon valuable. This boosts my energy for the rest of the day. Ideally, a fresh-air activity with some sunshine like taking a walk outside or playing with the kids or pets offers the best break from the screentime.
Also, short naps during the late afternoon, between meetings, are awesome to rekindle the mood and rejuvenate the focus.
Leverage smart multi-tasking
Yep, writing an email during a meeting is bad for your brain. But I find it almost impossible to stay focused in meetings that don’t require my full attention. So I end up checking emails or responding to chat, leaving me exhausted and guilty.
But doing an activity like walking or exercise that uses a different part of the brain works perfectly with a passive meeting. I often schedule short workouts when attending a webinar or brown-bag-style meetings where I am not the contributor. This type of multi-tasking seems healthy because I can process the meeting content and also feel productive.
Earn your sleep
We all know, a good night's sleep is a prerequisite to daytime productivity. But a good sleep needs to be earned. Expose yourself to daylight as soon as you wake up to start the circadian rhythm. Morning exercise, limiting caffeine (especially during the latter half of the day) are simple yet effective techniques to deliver a great sleep. Find whatever works for you to feel physically tired at the end of the day to earn your great sleep.
For example, since the pandemic, I built two sleep-conducive habits. First, I read a fiction book before bed. I rarely had trouble falling asleep since I started this habit. Second, I take hot-cold showers. Cold showers have proven to not only boost your immune system but also help you calm down - an essential state for great sleep.
In closing, attaining an on-demand flow state is the nirvana we all seek. While we can’t summon it, we can create the space in our mind and our surroundings so it’s easy to achieve it more often. And the more we can flow, the more we can contribute through our product and drive meaningful outcomes from our PM career.