Leadership, Product Management

Self Mastery for Product Managers


Product managers have a lot on their plates. There’s tactical work around backlog management, strategy work around long term roadmap and competitive positioning, and leadership work around consensus building and business planning. Product leaders must exercise self mastery to be truly effective.

And I don’t think we pay enough attention to it.

Many of us spend years refining our tactical skills for building roadmaps, conducting product discovery, sequencing a backlog. map out releases, and the like. More strategically, we focus on building a convincing business plan, properly communicating them with internal teams, and communicating with clients about why the thing they want isn’t prioritized.

But there’s another layer beyond that.

Self Mastery and a Personal Post

This post is a little more personal than many I’ve written in the past.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I find I’ve written more about the techniques of backlog management, roadmap planning and the like, and neglected the softer skills of influence, relationship building and clear thinking.

With the avalanche of content now being written about the profession of product management, many product authors seem to be following a similar path.

We can go round and round on whether the product manager should be the product owner and at what point that answer changes. We can go round and round about whether dates belong on a roadmap or not.

Writers don’t reach for the third layer nearly as often, perhaps because people skills are more difficult to capture in writing. But I think they deserve coverage.

The truth is, it takes empathy, understanding and a great deal more to effectively lead. And the empathy and understanding require self mastery.

David Cancel wrote that he looks for talent from the line of business, not product management experience, when hiring product managers. While there’s a debate about how much that experience matters, at the end of the day, neither experienced nor inexperienced product managers will succeed without self mastery.

Leadership is difficult without self mastery.

Self mastery is one of my personal 2016 roadmap themes.

The Need for Self Mastery

Self-management may be the most important “secret” skill for product managers.

I’ve been stubborn about establishing a healthy morning routine, and getting up early to take care of me.  I’m still not getting up at 5am, but I’ve made progress by finding a routine that works for me. I get up earlier than in the past, and I’ve been more disciplined about following it.

Prioritization and good decisions require composure. Composure and good decisions require self mastery.

Purely as a result of shifting my focus, I find myself breaking through barriers in my career and my personal life. Small ones at first, but bigger ones as time progresses.

There are six primary practices I’ve found to be essential to improving performance, and I will discuss each of them here.



I work out more now than ever, both running and strength training.

Going to the gym is an option; if that doesn’t work for you, a home gym or calisthenics routines can fill in. The 10,000 step daily goal is also always there as a daily reminder to move. Why is exercise important? From Be Brain Fit:

Exercise increases circulation delivering more oxygen, glucose, and nutrients to your brain. Increased circulation also helps remove debris, like toxins and metabolic waste products, that builds up in your brain.

The average human brain has an amazing 400 miles of blood vessels. But this number gradually decreases with age. (7) Exercise can help offset brain aging by building new capillaries.

Quantified Self can make a difference. Being more contributes to better sense of control and confidence.


Once I realized how diet affects the body by cutting carbs and seeing immediate results, I took a strong interest in nutrition.

I’m fascinated by the high level changes in dietary recommendations that have happened over the last 15 years. Cholesterol and fat are no longer the villain–processed foods and carbs are.


Try to consume as many superfoods and healthy sources of nutrition as possible. I eat plenty of eggs, nuts, blueberries, cruciferous vegetables, nut butters, and I snack on vegetables. 90% of the time I drink either hot tea or water. Cutting the cravings and going to the vending machine less often encourages a higher ratio of good food to junk.

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I’ve also been watching with great interest the profound changes in the culinary marketplace happening around healthy eating. That truly is a whole other blog post.

Suffice it to say that it’s worth paying attention to see if you experience lack of sharpness after eating comfort foods, and then making an active decision whether or not to continue eating them. Sluggishness, to me, is not a worthwhile exchange for “comfort.”


I try to get most of my nutrients through eating whole foods, but some people need a little extra.

My mother’s cardiologist recently told her to eat two whole eggs per day, because she was a little nutrient deficient. She’ll get 9x% of what she needs by eating the eggs.

So, clearly, I should eat more eggs!

But in the Valley, that may not be enough. Much like supplements that are used to enhance physical performance, product creators in the Bay Area are currently hot on the trail of supplements that enhance mental performance.

Late last year, Andressen Horowitz (A16z) invested in Nootrobox, a startup offering nootropic supplements on a subscription basis. This suggests a bit more legitimacy to the burgeoning industry.

Bulletproof Coffee is another biohacking trend. I haven’t tried the butter or Dave Asprey’s expensive “upgraded” coffee, but I have tried the coconut oil-derived caprylic acid Asprey markets as Brain Octane.

Dave Asprey, by the way, spent a few years as a Director of Product.

For the most part though, outside of my fish oil, I’ll stick with foods.


Here’s another area where I’m a believer in the Quantified Self.

Many of us are so used to being chronically without enough sleep that we don’t even realize it.

The more I pay attention, the more I notice that I am more hesitant on days without enough sleep than on days with. My thinking is clearer and quicker when I’m fueled up from a good night’s sleep.

Mark Sisson writes:

Sleep is key, essential, absolutely downright necessary for our basic physiological operations – with special support for neurological performance, endocrine balance, immune system functioning, and musculoskeletal growth and repair. For one, you wouldn’t be half the man or woman you are without the physiological feats sleep achieves. I mean that both literally and figuratively, since sleep spurs the release of human growth hormone (HGH), an essential player in cellular regeneration.

I use Sleep Cycle to see how restful I am, and to track sleep time vs. exercise–and I’m more deliberate about comparing my overall performance on a given day to both.

Why didn’t I discover this earlier?



I tried meditation years ago but didn’t stick with it, because I didn’t see much benefit. Most recently, I’ve found it profoundly helpful.

What gives?

Perhaps I didn’t have as much on my mind. Maybe I didn’t have a clear enough vision of how I’d like to feel, to compare with how I actually felt.

This time, within three days of starting a 10 minute meditation upon waking up, I could feel the difference.

Turns out, over time meditation results in more gray matter. Don’t you want more gray matter?

Participating in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. In a study that will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) reported the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.

I’m sure I should have tried this (again) earlier as well.


The brain is better able to cope when tasks are compartmentalized and batched up to be done in bulk.  To do batching well, one has to plant clues for that moment when a task will be returned to. Picking up where one left off demands that the right systems be in place to support that workflow.

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I was reminded of the freedom from email that is available today, when Tim Ferriss posted that he only reads and replies to email twice per day.

Have an email-checking schedule and do not deviate. There is an inevitable task-switching cost otherwise—U.S. office workers spend 28% of their time switching between tasks due to interruption, and 40% of the time, an interrupted task is not resumed within 24 hours. Use template autoresponders to alert people of your email schedule and encourage them to call if something needs faster attention. The “urgent” email-to-call conversion is usually less than 10%.

This gives you breathing room to focus on predefined to-do’s instead of responding to manufactured emergencies and ending the day with nothing to show for it.

I’m a little less visible and intense about it, but I shut off email when I need to concentrate, and I no longer connect my personal mobile device to company email.

It can wait.

Most of my Trello cards contain multiple action items and deliverables; I choose when to open each card and work on it. I ensure items are remembered by the column they’re in, and the presence or absence of a reminder date on the card.  One particularly high-volume card has multiple checklists to expedite state shifts.

This was a lesson in implementing systems to support the way I need to work.

I capture most notes in Evernote, and implemented Michael Hyatt’s “cabinet” approach. For big projects I do find myself linking notes to each other, but for the most part it does save me time.

Don’t just use tools; mold them to support the way you work best.


Ferriss recently wrote about what he calls a “deloading phase,” the time between intense periods of work when he relaxes. That phrase typically comes from bodybuilding, but applies to professional work as well.

I like Ferriss’ music analogy:

I feel that the big ideas come from these periods. It’s the silence between the notes that makes the music.

If you want to create or be anything lateral, bigger, better, or truly different, you need room to ask “what if?” without a conference call in 15 minutes.  The aha moments rarely come from the incremental inbox-clearing mentality of, “Oh, <****>, I forgot to… Please remind me to… Shouldn’t I?…I must remember to…”

That is the land of the lost, and we all become lost.

I find that on weeks where I don’t slow down–including evenings–I’m less creative. It’s only when I take the time to not do that I give my brain space for ideas to flow.

This is the irony of the modern age in knowledge work.

Workers are expected to continue to do more and more with less, yet they are so overloaded that there is no silence between the notes. And they are often not shown how to make it otherwise.

This next quote by Ferriss reminds me of one of the fallacies of the product owner role in Scrum. Scrum ensure a constant din around the product owner role, so much so at times that there is never time to unplug and move the needle:

“Deloading” blocks must be scheduled and defended as strongly as–actually, more strongly than–your business commitments. The former can be a force multiplier for the latter, but not vice-versa.

What next?

Some of the techniques I mentioned earlier–meditation, sleep, exercise–directly contribute to the ability to unplug. Anxiety over everything that remains to be done pushes us to work well beyond the point where we lose effectiveness.

After enough nights of medicore sleep, we don’t notice the decrease in our overall effectiveness.

Taking care of the self, and deloading in particular, provides the space for you to think about upcoming conversations and how to best prepare for them.

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I recommend taking some time for reflection on how many of these basic practices you have implemented, and which ones you can improve upon. None of us are “there” yet.

You can improve your own performance. It’s in your hands.


Image source: Pixabay

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful points! It’s important as Product Managers or any other kind of managers to look up to successful leaders and the healthy habits that they possess. This helps to prepare yourself for handling leadership challenges.

    Rockstar Product Managers

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