Atomic Habits for Product Managers
James Clear's Atomic Habits provides a compelling rationale for why frequently practicing small and easy to do atomic habits consistently compounds in benefit to ultimately generate incredible results. It then goes on to provide a comprehensive guide for reliably forming such atomic habits, regardless of the level of self-discipline or willpower you may naturally have. While many of his ideas naturally appeal to those seeking to develop lifestyle habits like exercising, losing weight, or quitting smoking, I found his ideas to be equally relevant for product managers looking to accelerate their career.
There is a whole host of skills that product managers seek to develop that can only truly be built through deliberate practice. This includes everything from honing your analytical rigor, to building your product intuition, to becoming more strategic. You can't just attend a class or read a few blog posts and expect to become great at any of these. At the same time, simply doing your product role the same way you've always been doing it is also unlikely to help you develop the specific skills you're after.
Instead, the formula for mastering these types of skills requires first developing atomic habits to encourage daily or weekly practice and then performing the habit with deliberate practice. For example, building your analytical rigor requires setting aside time every day to critically review dashboards and form hypotheses from the trends that you see, running weekly ad-hoc queries to deep dive into specific user behavior, putting together metrics recaps a week after every feature launch, as well as spending time each month determining how to improve or augment the dashboards you currently have. Yet the daily demands of a product management role are already so taxing that if you aren't already performing these activities, you'll find it difficult to incorporate them into your weekly routine. That's why to successfully build any of these skills you'll need to first develop the right atomic habits to support them. I wanted to share three of my favorite strategies for doing just that from the book.
Start with a habits scorecard
The right way to start any new habit is to first put together a habits scorecard of your existing habits. The idea is to detail every activity you do in a given day and then to score each as positive, neutral, or negative. For product managers, the best way to do this is to spend one week tracking every activity you do on your calendar. This means beyond your existing meetings, add events for every single thing you spend time on: checking email, grabbing coffee, writing specs, updating JIRA tickets, reviewing designs, lunch, etc.
Once you've put this together for an entire week you can score each activity and develop a clear picture of where your time is being spent. This creates the necessary awareness to help you figure out where there may be time you are spending on negative habits that you can re-purpose to the new habits you are seeking to build. Maybe you feel like you are spending too much time in unproductive meetings and you can look at ways to either make them more productive or remove them altogether. Maybe you're spending too much time checking email and you can instead batch it into a few email sessions a day.
Leverage habit stacking to build the practice
Now that you've created some space for your new habits, it's time to figure out how best to incorporate these new activities into your daily routine. One of the best ways to do this is via habit stacking, which is attaching your new habit to an existing habit that you are already doing. By doing so, you can more easily incorporate it into your existing routine. For example, let's say the first thing you do every morning is grab a cup of coffee. Maybe as part of that ritual, that's the time you take to review your daily dashboards. You've now incorporated a favorite activity, grabbing coffee, with a new habit you are trying to build. Or let's say you already have a weekly team meeting to discuss the backlog. Maybe you add a 10 minute agenda item at the beginning to review the past week's metrics. This serves as a forcing function to require you to prepare the metrics analysis and engages the entire team in the metrics each week.
Focus on frequency over duration
With habit building, it turns out the frequency with which you perform the habit is far more important than the duration of performing it. For example, running 75 minutes on Saturday is not nearly as helpful for habit building as running 3 times a week for 25 minutes each. So when you are thinking about initially building a new habit, find a way to do it frequently, ideally even daily. And don't worry so much about the duration. A five minute daily metric review and a 10 minute metrics discussion in an existing weekly meeting are both great examples as well as reviewing metrics a week after every feature launch instead of doing a longer end-of-quarter metrics review of all features together.
I've highlighted just a few of the best practices that James Clear encourages for building atomic habits. I'd encourage you to check out the book yourself to get all his insights on building habits. If you do, I'm sure you'll be on a far stronger path towards developing the product skills that can only be built with frequent deliberate practice.
Want to accelerate your product career?
I've finally distilled my 15+ years of product experience into a new course designed to help PMs master their craft. Join us for the Summer '22 cohort of Mastering Product Management.
Enjoyed this essay?
Get my monthly essays on product management & entrepreneurship delivered to your inbox.
Jan 20, 2020