Productivity lessons from Design Sprints

In this post I'll be sharing my favourite productivity strategies and how they have been applied to the popular five day process

Since the creation around 10 years ago, Design Sprints have become incredibly popular amongst product teams for rapidly prototyping and validating product ideas. I have been part of many sprints over the past few years and as a self proclaimed productivity nerd, I always loved the focus and efficiency of this process.

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However if you have gone through the process before, you also know how exhausted everyone is at the end of the five day sprint. It’s like when you finally finish writing that big report or putting together the slides for a presentation and your brain is so fried you can barely write a cohesive email anymore.

So while focus time is what we all strive for, we can’t spend every week in this deep thinking and highly creative state like in a Design Sprint, which brings me to my first lesson.

1. 100% Focus time is not the goal

Our work as Product Managers requires us to find a balance between tactical day to day execution and strategic forward planning. If skewed towards one or the other, we might be missing out on the important feedback loop from the daily learnings, or never make progress towards our most important long term goals.

So while the most common complaint I hear from Product Managers is the lack of time to work on more strategic topics, it is important to understand that the goal should not be an empty calendar. In fact..

2. Time constraints are a good thing

One of the best things Design Sprints taught me was that setting artificial deadlines for certain tasks can massively boost productivity. I wrote about the principle of time blocking earlier this year and have been applying it religiously to any major task or deliverable I’m working on. The idea is that you ask yourself how long you’re willing to spend time on a certain task, which prevents falling into the perfectionism trap.

3. Task batching helps reduce context switching

If you look at the agenda of a design sprint, every day has a certain focus. On the first day, the team makes a lot of decisions and sets the foundations for what they want to achieve. The second day is much more focused on ideation and sketching out various ideas, another day is more focused on talking to end customers.

You can see they all require different brain modes (I’m pretty sure that’s the scientific term for this). What we often end up doing is switching between attending meetings, thinking time, creative work or mundane tasks many times a day. We don’t only switch context, but also the type of work and thinking every time we start a new task.

While it’s not necessarily practical to spend whole days in one mode, the method is still extremely powerful when applied throughout the day. For example I tend to group all my meetings to one half of the day, my focus time is one big designated slot in the mornings, and I try my best to batch reply to my email and Slack messages a few times a day rather than disrupting my flow every time I get a notification.

4. Some things can wait

Lastly I noticed that when trying to schedule Design Sprints, most people claim they will never be able to free up five uninterrupted days in their schedule. Although we can’t do this every week of course, it does make us evaluate which tasks or meetings are actually mission critical. And usually, we find that a lot of things were in fact not that urgent after all.

So next time you find yourself feeling guilty about scheduling a few hours focus time, away from Slack and other distractions, remember that time you joined a Design Sprint for a whole week and the rest of your team somehow still survived. It’s important to identify when you need to be with the team, but also when to take the time for yourself to work on your deliverables that require your deep thinking state.

I strongly believe time management is a critical skill for us Product Managers as it allows us to take a step back from the tactical day to day work, look at the bigger picture and work on more strategic tasks. Share this post with your fellow PMs who might benefit from some productivity boosts 💚

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