The hardest part of my day is saying no to things I shouldn’t be doing.
I’m in a fortunate position. I have a thriving coaching business. I write a popular product blog. I get invited to speak at conferences. I teach at a university. I participate in an executive community. I design online courses. I organize my local ProductTank meetup. And I have an endless backlog of what I want to do next.
And because of all of that, I am constantly inundated with more incoming requests than I could ever say yes to.
I’m sure you can relate. Most product managers get asked to do more than they could possibly do. Customers are an endless source of feature requests and complaints. Each sales rep has their own idea of what you should build next. Your boss and your boss’s boss have their favorite pet ideas. And we haven’t even gotten to your own list of must-haves that you’d like to accomplish.
So what are we to do? How do we master the art of saying no to the things that we shouldn’t be doing so that we have time to do the things we want to be doing?
How do we master the art of saying no to the things that we shouldn’t be doing so that we have time to do the things we want to be doing? – Tweet This
I’m not sure I have all the answers as this is an area where I am still very much a work in progress. But as we start 2019, I’m going to take my best stab at what I plan to say yes to this year and what I plan to say no to. I’m sharing it here for two reasons.
First, if you ask me for something that I can’t do, I very likely will refer you to this article. If that’s why you are reading this, please trust that I would love to help you. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
Second, I hope this can serve as an example for how to think about what to say yes to and what to turn down.
Let’s dive into how I got here.
Start by Defining What’s Most Important To You
For years, I’ve optimized my professional life to maximize my time reading, writing, teaching, designing curricula, and investing in my community. These are the activities that matter most to me.
I’m a teacher and a curriculum designer at heart. It’s what drives me to get up every day. I love designing how to help a learner get from point A to point B. I love seeing it all come together for someone. I love seeing how learning impacts lives.
I’ve been an avid reader my whole life. Reading is the fuel for all of my other activities. It’s also how I recharge my batteries.
Writing helps me think. It’s how I sort out what I know and what I want to learn next. It forces me to get specific with my thoughts and helps me examine where there are gaps in my logic.
I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of others. I strive every day to keep learning from those around me and I hope to contribute to other people’s learning in any way that I can.
These priorities haven’t changed since I defined them when I started my business seven years ago. I don’t expect they’ll change much over the next decade. They guide and inform every decision I make.
My ideal day is to read, write, teach, design, and engage with my community and I do everything I can to protect as much of my time as possible to do just those things.
My ideal day is to read, write, teach, design, and engage with my community. I do everything I can to protect as much of my time as possible to do just those things. – Tweet This
Be Clear About Why You Are Doing Everything
I opened this blog post with a long list of activities that I’m already committed to. Let’s look at how those activities reinforce my priorities.
Teaching and Curriculum Design
My primary job is to work as a discovery coach. Coaching allows me to teach teams how to make better product decisions. My coaching is based on a curriculum that I designed to help teams deliver on product outcomes. Developing this curriculum and testing it with the teams that I work with feeds my soul. It’s what I want to spend every day of my life working on.
I also design and teach online courses related to product discovery. While I love coaching, I know that not everyone is going to have the luxury of working with a coach. So my courses are another medium for me to teach and test my curriculum while reaching more people in the community.
Additionally, I teach two classes at Northwestern University. I have an amazing co-instructor Jeff Merrell who pushes my thinking and is a fantastic thought partner. Working with Jeff and applying my curriculum to a new context makes me a better teacher, improves my curriculum, and allows me to stay engaged with my graduate community.
Investing in the Community
Writing articles for Product Talk allows me to teach through writing. It’s also a unique way to engage with the community and has opened up many doors for me.
I also speak at industry conferences. You can find some of my recent talks here. Speaking—like writing—is a form of teaching, but in a way that allows me to reach a broader community.
I moderate a council of product executives for Collaborative Gain, an amazing executive community. This is one of the more rewarding and professionally enriching activities that I do. It’s a great way for me to stay connected to product leaders in a way that helps me grow.
I organize my local ProductTank to help stay connected to the product community here in Portland.
Reading and Writing
Most of my activities require reading and writing. I write for Product Talk. I read broadly to have a rich set of sources to pull from for my curriculum. I research and write scripts for my conference talks. Reading and writing are the fundamentals that drive the other activities.
While I do a wide variety of activities (one of the great benefits of not being a full-time employee), they each tie back to my key priorities.
While I do a wide variety of activities, they each tie back to my key priorities. – Tweet This
Set Smart Limits
As you can see, my list of activities is long. So in order to stay sane, I have to set limits on each of them. Here are some of the limits I set on my activities.
Coaching teams: While I love coaching, I have definitely learned that I have a limit. It’s a mentally exhausting activity. So I limit both the number of teams that I work with and the times of year that I coach.
If you want to work with me as a coach, first make sure it’s a good fit by starting here. Then reach out in advance. I almost always have a waiting list and my current clients have first dibs at any new slots that become available.
Industry conferences: I only speak at two conferences a year. I get invited to dozens of conferences around the world. But speaking is not my priority. It’s one way for me to teach and engage with the community, but it’s not the primary way. So I limit myself to two per year.
If you’d like me to speak at your conference, ask early. For example, I’ve already identified two conferences for 2019 and will be saying no to the rest.
Podcasts / Panels / Blog interviews / Webinars: I often get invited to do podcast interviews, give webinars, or participate in virtual panels. These activities often allow me to teach and engage with the community, but not always on my terms. They supplement my writing on Product Talk and help me test content for my courses and my coaching curriculum. But they only indirectly support my priorities, so I limit them.
If you are interested in having me participate on your podcast, panel, blog, or webinar, ask early and expect a long wait. I love doing these, but I have to limit how much of my schedule I devote to them to allow me the time I need to teach and build my curriculum.
“Create” days: I have two days a week where I don’t schedule any meetings. These are the days that I work on my curriculum, read, and write. These days feed my soul and help me get better at what I do week over week. They are non-negotiable.
Limit non-client meetings: I get dozens of requests a week via email, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter for my time. Product folks in Portland want to grab coffee or lunch. People not in Portland want to hop on the phone or a video call. They want to pick my brain, see how they can help me, get advice on their product, their job search, their role, and so on. Others are looking for a consultant and not a coach—more on that in the next section. I can’t say yes to the vast majority of these requests.
If you reach out asking for my time and I respond with this article, please don’t be offended. My calendar is very full with client work and I’m protecting my time to invest in my teaching and my curriculum. I will always do my best to refer you to someone who can help.
Define What You Won’t Do
It’s easy to define what you want to do more of. A wise person once said, strategy isn’t defining what you’ll say yes to, but instead defining what you’ll say no to.
The only way I can do as much as I do is by being very disciplined about what I don’t do. – Tweet This
The only way I can do as much as I do is by being very disciplined about what I don’t do. Here’s a list of things I don’t do, even though I get asked to do them all the time:
I don’t consult. I won’t help you with your product strategy, be an interim product leader, or otherwise help with your business challenges, other than developing your product teams. I can’t give you feedback on your product idea or help you redesign your product organization. I can’t help you sell discovery to your leadership team or help you align around one brand of product management.
I don’t teach corporate workshops. I don’t coach on-site. My schedule doesn’t allow for much travel and I reserve the little travel that I do for conferences, Northwestern, and Collaborative Gain.
I don’t help companies hire, evaluate, retain, or fire their product managers, designers, or anyone for that matter.
I don’t work with companies on their delivery problems. This is not my area of expertise.
I don’t help people find their next product job (although I have written a lot on that topic). There are lots of people who do this and I try to focus on the areas I am best at.
I do coach, but I only coach cross-functional product teams. I don’t coach product leaders. I don’t coach individuals.
I only work with companies who are already committed to adopting continuous discovery practices. They have already moved to dedicated product teams, they manage by outcomes not outputs, and they want help getting better at discovering the best path to those outcomes. That’s where I can be of the most help, and it’s what I spend 100% of my client time on.
I rarely work with startups anymore. (This is more a rule of thumb than a hard and fast rule.) Too often they are more committed to their founder’s vision than to their customer’s needs.
I don’t want a job. Anywhere. For any amount of money.
I don’t accept guest posts on Product Talk. I rarely if ever write guest posts for other blogs. It’s not because I don’t think your writing is great or that I don’t want to help your blog succeed. It’s because there are only so many hours in the day and I can’t commit any of them to this.
I have deliberately and carefully built industry relationships with consultants that I respect. I often refer work out that isn’t a good fit for me, and they often refer work to me. However, none of these relationships started by someone I didn’t know emailing me asking for my time. They all happened organically at conferences, meetups, or via social media. If you are looking for this type of relationship, add value over time before asking for something.
If you’d like to build an industry relationship, be sure to add value over time before asking for something. – Tweet This
I realize that this list might make me sound like an entitled brat, but I’m going to let you in on a secret that I’ve learned over the past seven years. The more I limit what I do, the better I get at it, and the more clients I get. I can add more value by doing less. That’s the power of saying no.
What will you say no to this year?
Great post to start the new year. It is not only relevant to personal and career decisions, but also product choices, especially in describing what you’re not going to do. Too often products become Frankenstein monsters, a creation of collective ask because the product manager and team are not clear on the NOs.
Excellent post, Teresa.
Thank you so much, this really got me thinking.
Brett Steingo says
This is useful thank you Teresa.
I have been working on a plan to launch something in South Africa and was very interested in finding out if you might be interested in being involved. I now have a very good idea around what you might and might not want to get involved in and can tailor my proposal around your preferences.
Might be a few months away… but will keep in touch.
All the best for 2019.
Pete Anderson says
Beautiful post. Thank you for the inspiration!
Rashmi Fernandes says
You are so amazing Teresa. This is a must read for everyone. Thanks for sharing your learning.