How GTD Areas of Focus relate to Product Management

One of my favorite GTD concepts is Areas of Focus. Using Areas of Focus in your personal productivity system helps group work into context. No need to look at todos like “Get House Painted” when you’re at work. It’s better to look at only work related stuff that you want to be focused on.

For the longest time I’ve had Areas of Focus like House, Family, Marriage, Gear and Travel. I had one Area of Focus for work called PivotDesk. Inspired by a recent webinar on GTD Connect given by David Allen, I decided to refine my work-related Areas of Focus.

Old: PivotDesk

New: Product Management, Feature Development, Product Performance, Product Marketing

As I went through this exercise, I had a chance to think through the different types of work a Product Manager interacts with to get the job done.

Product Management
Idea management, sprint planning, processes, team, budgets, timelines, product roadmaps, internal communication and demos.

Feature Development
Scoping, customer interviews, idea validation, wireframes, designs, details and QA.

Product Performance
Instrumentation, A/B testing, analytics and KPIs.

Product Marketing
Product tour, blog posts, inbound channels, segmenting visitors and drip email campaigns.

I’ve found each of these areas requires a different headspace, pace and communication style. When focused on Product Management, my head is very much in business and planning mode. I’m emaliing, looking at the calendar and updating people. When focused on Feature Development, I am putting myself in our customer’s shoes, feeling empathic and brainstorming ideas. I’m staring at personas and drawings taped to the wall and getting whiteboard marker stains all of my arms and clothes. I’m far, far away from my email and calendar.

What do your Areas of Focus look like?

The Energy of an Office

Spending the summer of 2012 surrounded by 11 other amazing companies in Techstars Boulder meant constantly bouncing software development ideas of one another, talking markets and strategy and bonding over financing discussions, mentor meetings and late night weekly Techstars meetings. All of these interactions and activities can be summarized as the Energy of an Office.

After Techstars Boulder Summer 2012 ended, several teams stayed in the office to continue growing their businesses, PivotDesk is one of them. I am never the first one to the office, the lights are always on, there’s always buzz, phone calls, meetings and random important people that I don’t know walking around. I have thrived off this energy in just the few short weeks since Demo Day. Being around other smart people, saying hello around the water cooler, random chit chat about cycling, skiing and software….these things are important. The Energy of an Office, much like the ambiance of a restaurant, cannot be quantified but should always be appreciated.

Find a great home for your business, for now. Visit PivotDesk to find Office Space for Startups with great energy.

Calendar Retrospective

You feel busy, wish you had more time and work really hard but feel like you are still behind.  Sound familiar?  It’s time to do a retrospective on your calendar.

I use a program called RescueTime to analyze my productivity in conjunction with BusyCal.  I have tuned the software to run from 9a-5p only Mon-Thu.  I don’t like to analyze my Morning Think or nightly reading routines and work at home on Friday usually declining meetings.  A few weeks ago RescueTime told me that I was averaging 6hrs per day talking, on skype or in meetings.  No wonder I was struggling to keep up with my workload.

I decided to try an experiment to see if I could reduce the 15 or so meetings I had on my calendar for the upcoming week.  I reached out to Project Managers explaining what I was doing and asking to be removed from the meeting request for a few weeks.  I promised to rejoin if my name kept coming up in the meeting.  This worked and I have reduced some of my standing meetings freeing up some quality time to be productive.

Our our software development team we are using agile and have a scheduled retrospective at the end of each release (quarter).  It is important to physically block time for the team to analyze how they work together, pros and cons and ideas to improve efficiency.  I am finding this same concept is important to the quality of your personal productivity.  Do yourself a favor and conduct a calendar retrospective.

Review of Do More Faster by David Cohen and Brad Feld

Looking at my book shelf organized with business books, seeing my iPad filled with iBook samples and seeing the New York Times Sunday edition laying around would make you think I’m a big reader.  In fact, I’m a fraud.  I’m the person that likes to start lots of books, read for a few minutes at a time and hardly ever finishes a book.  I pre-ordered Do More Faster by David Cohen and Brad Feld and read it from start to finish the day it arrived.

Do More Faster is divided into 7 Themes: Idea and Vision, People, Execution, Product, Fundraising, Legal and Structure and Work-Life Balance.  Within each Theme are several 1-3 page stories written by Entrepreneurs, VCs and other interesting people in the software, internet, product development, startup realm.  It’s a great format for the hyper caffeinated, ADHD, check twitter while your reading type of personality.

This book was fun for me to read because many contributors are familiar faces I either work with in some capacity or have seen around the flourishing Boulder/Denver tech community.

Chapters that blew me away and taught me something brand new:

  • To 83(b) or not to 83(b), There is No Question – Matt Galligan
  • Usage is like Oxygen for Ideas – Matt Mullenweg
  • Karma Matters – Warren Katz
  • Don’t Plan, Prototype – Greg Reinacker

Chapters that reinforced some of my favorite work related topics:

  • Don’t Suck at E-mail – David Cohen
  • Get Out from behind Your Computer – Seth Levine
  • Be Specific – Brad Feld
  • Get Feedback Early – Nate Abbott and Natty Zola

If you want motivation for anything you are doing I highly recommend Do More Faster.

Creating Project Rhythm by following TechStars and Y Combinator’s lead

I admire TechStars (wearing my TechStars t-shirt proudly) and have been a reader of Paul Graham’s blog for years.  Both programs have created a vibe and atmosphere that churn out great work and provide endless motivation and contributions to their surrounding tech communities.

Reading the latest post from Paul Graham titled “What happens at Y Combinator” highlighted the relationship between schedule and rhythm and the role this plays in projects.  Both the Y Combinator and TechStars programs are roughly 3 months long, similar to the quarterly Agile Release schedule that we use.  The rigid schedule both programs use inspires and creates massive pressure for teams to work hard and deliver.

Because teams in TechStars and Y Combinator live and breathe their projects they are able to devote almost all of their time to it.  The rhythm these programs develop include dinners, hackathons, presenting at local tech meetups and renting out conference spaces to host big demos.  While a typical team can’t take things to that level, there are lessons to be learned.

Here’s the schedule I am using for our new project:

Product Summit – beginning of Quarter
A 2-3 day onsite working session full of multiple topics (business and technical) with a tight agenda and after work dinners.  The goal of this effort is to have a general gameplan for the upcoming quarter for the whole project, not just development.  In a distributed team like ours, it’s a rare chance for the entire team to spend time together.

9 Weeks

9a – Project Management conference call – a weekly update of anything to do with the project including budgets, contracts, etc
9:30a – Daily Standup

9:30a – Daily Standup
10a – Weekly dev team meeting – a weekly meeting to discuss technical details of upcoming work, review Kanban Board and Release Burndown

9:30a – Daily Standup

9:30a – Daily Standup
Noon – Weekly demo to Stakeholders
1p – Weekly call with a Customer

Release retrospective – end of Quarter
A 2 hour retrospective answering questions like “What did we accomplish?”, “What was our Velocity” and “What can we change in the next Release?”

The rhythm I am trying to build for this project begins with a big kick off because lots of things need to be figured out up front and agreed on, then a strict weekly schedule to pull everyone along when things start to fall off the rails, then a decompression and review to let the dust settle. The schedule I have designed is nowhere near as cool as TechStars or Y Combinator but it’s a step in the right direction (I hope).

Related Articles:

The Rhythms of Life on

Being more Productive on


Smart processing of the Inbox is great, but what about responsible email sending?

I love the topic of email and read articles with titles like “staying on top of your inbox”.

Most articles about email focus on processing your inbox and prioritizing which emails to read in what order.  Just yesterday Google announced Google Priority Inbox as a way to solve this problem.

Smarter processing of email is not the entire answer to our email woes.  We all need to be more responsible with sending email. Please do your part and start today!

Here are some examples of irresponsible email sending behavior:

1. “Thanks”
Most people feel the need to reply with “Thanks”, not as a sincere Thank You for something that was done but as a way to acknowledge that they have received your email.

Solution: don’t reply with “Thanks” ever, especially to email threads with multiple recipients.  Try this for a week and it will help, trust me.

2. “Thoughts?”
So often I receive an email saying “Take a look at this company, thoughts?”  Even though this is one of my favorite things to do, I dread these emails and they typically end up at the bottom of my inbox.  Using “thoughts?” implies some eventual response is needed but has no clear definition around what is needed.

Solution: ask specific questions about the company such as “Could ACME’s product be used to solve XYZ problem we are having?” or use your Project Management systems to have this conversation.

3. Attachments without context
I receive many emails with MS Word or Excel files attached that contain content that should not be locked up in attachments.  Examples are meeting notes, agendas and simple spreadsheets.  These emails often do not contain any context around the content in the attachments which is annoying in general but also makes finding these emails using search very difficult.

Solution: even if you used MS Word to take notes, spend a few minutes to craft a responsible email that is easy to read or use software like Evernote that lets you take notes and email them as text.

Here are some tips I have gathered that will help you be a responsible email sender:

  • Use “FYI” in the subject line – this implies you don’t need a response from the recipients, not even a quick “Thanks for sending this”.
  • Use “cc” the way it was intended – if you put a recipient as a “cc” you should not expect a response from that person, you are simply copying them so they can optionally follow the conversation.  If you want a response from them or require they follow the conversation then include them in “to”.
  • Use your Wiki, Intranet or whatever your company uses to discuss company wide ideas – when a discussion deserves thought and will last over several weeks.  This will help preserve the shelf life of the discussion and the contents won’t get buried in your email trash.
  • Use your project management systems for all project data – everything related to a project or client should be in a system like Basecamp or Rally.  Granted, these systems communicate using email, however by posting data to those systems you ensure it is in the appropriate place and recipients of emails from those systems can use filters within their email client to sort and organize their email more efficiently.
  • Use IM and the Watercooler to get quick questions answered – if someone is on IM or is getting a cup of coffee they are saying “it’s OK to interrupt me”. Use that as an opportunity to ask a quick question instead of sending an email that may not get answered until the next day.

Like many tools in the business world, email can be used for both good and evil.  Don’t be that guy that sends “Thanks for sending this” to 10 people on an email thread, be the responsible guy that lives in a world of Inbox Zero and helps others get there as well instead of adding to their never ending pile of email.

Related Articles:

How does Fred Wilson, VC Blogger, deal with email?

Empty your Inbox everyday, use Keyboard Shortcuts and other great tips from Michael Hyatt

Email Sucks. 5 Time Saving Tips (Kevin Rose)

Extreme Makeover: The Email Inbox Edition (Gina Trapani)

Why Email May Be Draining Your Company’s Productivity by Mark Suster

Related Posts from ktinboulder’s blog:

Being More Productive