How Successful Product Managers Avoid Burnout
September 1, 2015

How Successful Product Managers Avoid Burnout

by Brian de Haaff

I recently spoke with multiple former PMs who needed to take year-long sabbaticals to get themselves back on track. They were tired. Their anxiety was running high. They could not seem to get any of their goals accomplished. They were in a funk. Sound familiar?

Every product manager goes through this. Some find their way out quickly and others suffer. If you recently went to bed early because you were tired but could not sleep, you know the feeling. To make matters worse, everyone expects you to be at the top of your game — all the time.

You are smiling on the outside but you are feeling a bit down. Welcome to the life of a stressed-out product manager.

You became a PM because you love the challenge of building a great product. This challenge puts you squarely in the center of of the business and its ups and downs. You just keep pushing yourself and the product forward because you do not know what else to do.

But the more you push yourself the worse you feel.

Product managers should be the happiest people on earth — but often are not. Even great product managers sometimes find themselves beaten down and looking for a way back to happiness. They are natural problem-solvers, so they make it work. But this job is definitely not for wimps.

As the CEO and a cofounder of Aha! I know the hectic life of a product manager very well. We serve thousands of them every month with our roadmapping software and I grew up as a product manager myself. I choose to be a product manager because I was drawn to the responsibility and pressure of working cross-functionally and making big decisions.

When stress threatens to overtake your career as a product manager, you must pay attention to the warning signs. You cannot continue on this path. It will only lead to a feeling of complete burnout. Not only is your career at risk, but your health and family life will suffer.

Instead of burning out, you need to take a step back and regroup. With some practical changes, you can steer clear of falling over the “PM edge” and rediscover your lost mojo:

Return to your strategy
Your heightened anxiety and exhaustion may indicate that you have veered off your product strategy. Return to your high-level planning to regain the proper perspective. What are you doing and why are you doing it? Are your goals and initiatives still in alignment with your overall strategy? Are you saying “no” to others when they are dragging you away from what matters? Use your strategy to help identify where you have gotten off track.

Solve one problem
You face a great number of problems in any given day. But keep in mind that not all problems are created equal. Get back to the basics and single out one important problem per day that you must solve. Put your energy toward that instead of the myriad other problems that want your attention.

Set realistic goals
You normally set ambitious goals — that is how you have gotten to where you are in your career. But right now you need a few quick wins that will help restore your confidence. Establish a few small short-term goals that you can knock out right away.

Prioritize requests
You are not a genie, and you cannot grant everyone’s wishes for new features. You must start saying “no” to work and feature requests that do not line up with your strategy, even though you may disappoint someone in the process. Let your strategy guide you in prioritizing the requests that add the most value.

Enlist the help of others
Chances are that your team is well aware that your stress is through the roof, and that stress can be contagious. Are you taking on work that they could be doing instead? Let go of some tasks and entrust them to others on your team. The strongest members of your team will likely welcome the new responsibilities and will be happy to help you stress less.

Take care of your health
Many product managers get so caught up in the always-on nature of the work that they upset their regular sleeping and eating schedules. When you neglect your body, your mind will rebel and you will struggle to be productive. Product managers are not superhuman, so do not neglect your health. If you do, you may not only burn out, you might break down like one product manager I know.

You have a critical role within the company, so it is paramount that you do what it takes to stay on top of your game. There will be ongoing stress in every product management job, and that comes with the big responsibility. They are inseparable.

Great product managers (and builders in general) find ways to contend with the stress and the rough days. I suggest that if you admit to yourself that you feel a bit overwhelmed, identify why, and use some of the techniques above, you will feel better about yourself, your colleagues, and the company.

Product managers should be the happiest people on earth.

How do you cope with the stress of being a product manager?

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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