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I've moved from a more technical role to a Product Owner role a while back, and have been picking up additional responsibilities, including being a PO for a second team, as the time went on in the project. This came with an increased load of meetings - to the point where, most days, I spend around half of the 8-hour workday in them.

I understand that this comes with the territory, and the meetings are reasonably useful - my problem is utilising the time outside of those meetings for productive work. A lot of this free time is short, half-hour breaks between one meeting and another, during which I'm also expected to be reasonably responsive towards other team members and the customer.

As such, I tend to avoid picking up large tasks or activities that require significant focus in that time and leave them for when I have a few hours in a row to "get in the zone". But I often find myself running out of short and easy tasks and effectively wasting that time waiting for the next meeting.

So the question is - what are some productive activities in this position that do not require heavy focus and can be dropped and picked up easily, or split up to be short enough to not have to do so? Or are there any ways to manage the constant context switching?

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    Dispose of the previous cup of coffee or tea, pick up another.
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 13 at 3:53
  • Get outside for a walk. This will probably improve your productivity more than anything else you could do for a few minutes. Similarly, I solve a lot of programming problems when I get up from my desk to use the "thinking room" :-) Running away from your problems can help you solve them. Commented Apr 16 at 14:33
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    Not the question you asked, but I would wager you are in too many meetings. If you are spending "around half" of "most days" in meetings, I would suggest you figure out why your people need your constant supervision/input. I'm not trying to single you out, we all do meetings wrong.
    – spuck
    Commented Apr 17 at 22:46
  • If you keep having predictable gaps in between meetings that you cannot seem to fill with productive activities, why are you not scheduling your meetings more tightly together, creating one long gap at the end of the day to get uninterrupted time for being non-meeting-productive? Commented Apr 19 at 12:20

6 Answers 6

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Plan. Manage. Sometimes you only have half an hour but sometimes you have two hours. It would be a waste of that two-hour break to treat it as 4 half-hour breaks.

So for example, in a short break, go through your email, answering on the spot where you can but where something needs some research or writing to be done, schedule a meeting with yourself with a subject like "deal with Smith report" so you can have a chunk of time to work on it.

In the longer gaps, don't be responsive to team members and customers the way you are in short gaps. That guarantees you never get any solid work done. You wouldn't answer queries while you were in a meeting; don't feel you have to answer them while you're heads-down writing something or planning something or figuring something out.

If, while you're doing a longish task, you spot a piece of it that is suitable for doing in small breaks, add it to a list and move on, so you'll have that to do in your next small break. Learn not to feel pressure from something being a on list, but to feel relief that you don't need to worry about it right now. And when a break happens, whether long or short, you'll know where to look for what to do.

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  • A key job of the Product Owner is to be available for any questions from their team. Since they aren't available during meetings, if they aren't available when they don't have a meeting, that might fit a traditional manager, but might severely impact the job a Product Owner should do. Doesn't mean you cannot say "That questions sounds more complex, let me finish this and I'll come back to you later", but not being responsive is... kinda not what a Scrum team is about.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Apr 12 at 8:31
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    I only suggest not being available during any of the long gaps that have been marked for heads down work. Still be available during short ones. If the team has a question while the PO is in a meeting, it has to wait until the meeting ends, and this group has decided that's ok, with the PO in meetings half the time every week. So they must be able to deal with that. Commented Apr 12 at 12:22
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    Yes, half the time... but assuming meetings are half the time, then blocking off the majority of the other half, that is a lot of unavailable time. It's basically saying "just be responsive to your team in the "leftover" time that is not good for anything else. Not a good way to be a Product Owner (not saying anything about traditional managers, it might be the way to get stuff done for them).
    – nvoigt
    Commented Apr 12 at 12:44
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    Also, you can review the longer, more involved tasks to verify that you have the necessary information and resources to proceed. If you do need more info or have questions, you can probably use your short break to email/call the person requesting the additional info.
    – mhwombat
    Commented Apr 15 at 17:44
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When a "Product Owner," the definition of "being productive" has changed significantly. This question suggest that you are still in the mindset of a technical developer.

Productive work for a Product Owner is being in meetings - communicating the viewpoint of what that product needs, handling questions from the technical team - again communicating what the product needs, and getting the resources needed by the product.

Time spent clarifying in your own head what the product needs and how to communicate that is extremely valuable productive time. However, there is often no physical result from those two hours.

In other words, you spending those 30 minute blocks or several hours in patient thought clearing your mind from the last meeting and preparing for the next meeting is you doing productive work. You spending time to think about what the next six months of development should result in is productive work. You reacting to a major competitor announcing a new feature that your product does not have and figuring out what changes need to be made to respond is productive work.

Blocking off hours for such productive work would be expected, needed, and should be encouraged.

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Documentation! I bet there are tasks or project-related items you work on that would be helpful to document in either a wiki (if your company has one), or at least in an electronic document that can be shared (eg: Word document on SharePoint). Doing this is way better than handing a colleague a bunch of chicken-scratched notes on a piece of paper. You never know when you might "get hit by a bus", and your colleagues have to resume your work.

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The most productive thing to do in a short break between meetings is to have a break, relax, put your feet on the table, have a cup of coffee or tea or a cup of hot chocolate, and go to the second meeting fully recovered and at your best.

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    One - Two 15 minutes break a day? sure... But multiple 30 minute breaks a day? Following this advice is a good way to start job searching.
    – Questor
    Commented Apr 11 at 23:19
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    I would add "prepare for the next meeting by reading the agenda while you have a coffee break", but yeah, spending the time to be more effective in the next meeting is definetely worth it.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Apr 12 at 8:33
  • Be careful about being visible when putting your feet up and relaxing. Some places treat that as "being unproductive."
    – David R
    Commented Apr 12 at 14:47
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    @Questor, it depends on how heavy the meetings are. If he's fielding questions and enquiries during each 30 minute block of non-meeting time, then I would say that is a reasonable use of time.
    – Steve
    Commented Apr 15 at 13:34
  • @Steve fielding questions/enquires is not "putting your feet up on the table and taking a break".. it is "fielding enquires/questions"...
    – Questor
    Commented Apr 16 at 14:53
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Book time with yourself. If you see a two hour gap between meetings, fill most of it with a meeting (where you are the only attendee) - leave 15-20 minutes free. Unwind a little, write your notes up from the previous meeting, and prepare for the next meeting. Schedule some longer concentration time also.

If you have power over scheduling of any of these meetings, try to keep one day a week completely clear of meetings (we keep Fridays clear) - then you can do some harder thinking on that day.

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So the question is - what are some productive activities in this position that do not require heavy focus and can be dropped and picked up easily, or split up to be short enough to not have to do so? Or are there any ways to manage the constant context switching?

I don't think anyone can reasonably tell you your own job. Presumably you know what tasks your job involves and which tasks might be available to progress during the day, and what level of time and concentration they each require.

I don't think 30 minutes between meetings is necessarily significant and needs to be explicitly filled.

You've already said that you answer enquiries during this time.

It's often quite reasonable to have a certain amount of unplanned slack in your schedule so that you can react to events, are available for ad-hoc consultation by others, and can deal with lighter kinds of written correspondence.

Colleagues who are always too busy or too breathless can be a source of inefficiency for the organisation as a whole.

The difficulty of the meetings themselves is also an important variable.

Heavy meetings might require a degree of preparation beforehand and digestion afterwards, and rest between leaving one context and entering another. Whereas with light meetings, you might be able to do 30 minutes of heavy work in the time between the meetings, and then use the meetings themselves to recover.

Overall you want to be engaged with your own job and doing the things which are most effective there, not filling time for the sake of it.

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    Use meetings to recover from work, lol! Commented Apr 16 at 17:21

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