The best tools for product managers

There are certain tools that you keep coming back to over and over again. They make your life easier. You feel more organised, you get tasks done quicker and you are more productive day to day.

I use these tools as a product manager and in my personal life almost daily.
I’ll give a quick overview of each tool and then outline my top use cases for how I like to use them. I hope this will help you imagine how you might use it in your workflow.

1. Notion - For organising information, storing ideas and building insights

Notion landing page

Notion first released in 2018 has taken the internet by storm. It’s one of those programs that you will wonder how you ever managed without once you have started using it.

Notion’s tag line, 'write plan, collaborate and get organised - all in one tool’ has certainly lived up to expectation.  Imagine an internal wiki that you can build up like lego. These lego pieces are minimalist in style but super functional.

You can build your own spaces creating pages, Kanban boards (think Trello), calendar’s, spreadsheets and more. These spaces can all be connected through database links to create a sophisticated internal wiki.

The use cases are diverse as you can customise it for your specific needs. You could use it to track habits, store your notes, track competitors, visualise you monthly goals. You name it, and you can probably do it.  The world is your oyster.  You just need to design it… Well or borrow some templates!

So what do I use it for? Lots, but these are my top three cases.

a) Collecting inputs, synthesising ideas and storing notes

If you think about the amount of content that you consume daily it’s massive.  Visualise every article, tweet, facebook post, youtube video, book, white paper that you saw today.

You probably had a few moments where you came across something, and it caught your eye. You mentally highlight it thinking it was useful, but you didn’t sort it anywhere.

Now here is the problem. Weeks have passed, and that piece of information is now most likely lost. It’s a bit depressing but that small insight that you thought was potential a gamebreaking masterpiece is definitely lost.

Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is a sobering reminder that we loose over half our memory over a matter of days.

In steps notion. Within seconds that vague memory of that great article, video or twitter post will spring to mind, and you can quickly find it. Notion makes this process super easy.  Use the Notion web clipper to save any web page, tweet etc straight into your database, and then you can search later.

You can simply save it as it is or you can enrich it with additional details you might find useful. I add the author, some relevant tags, highlight relevant parts and sometimes a quick note to trigger my memory of why I saved it in the first place. When I come back to search for something I can quickly find what I’m looking for.

If I searched ‘marketplace’, I’d very quickly have a small list of 20 highly relevant resources with some useful notes.

Beats google search.

Notion database storing articles and insights
Credit to Ali Abdaal who introduced the idea of 'Resonance Calendar'

I also use a similar system for capturing insights from other companies at a feature level. If I use a product that I think is particularly useful, I might choose to save it, so if I’m ever building a similar feature or doing a piece of discovery, it’s available at hand for reference.

notion product feature tracker

b) Journaling / Reflecting

One of my favourite features and the reason why I believe Notion is unique is the idea of templates. If you find yourself needing to do the same process (writing a checklist, wiring a daily journal, etc.), then you don’t have to do all of the upfront work over and over again. Create a template, and then you can reuse whatever you created again and again.

Similar to programming where you have the DRY principles (don’t repeat yourself) you try to avoid reusing the same piece of code. You would create a function that you might call instead. In notion this Is the template feature.

I use this template for lots of different for a weekly journal that would otherwise take me a couple of minutes to re-write out every time. It also makes navigating back and forth between weeks super easy if I want to look something up.

notion weekly review

c) Tracking habits

I’m a big fan of James Clear’s work on habits. I’ve tried to track my habits consistently over time, but with a lack of success. I’ve used digital solutions, lots of apps and manual writing it down, but for some reason, it didn’t stick until I started to use Notion.

I like how I can get a bird's eye view of all of my habits, and I can quickly see where I'm going in the month. So far this month has got off to a bit of a shaky start….

notion habit tracker

These are just some use cases for Notion, but you really can customise it for your needs. Notion recently just dropped their pricing so that it's free for a personal plan making it perfect for individual use. You can also use it for team use, but if you go beyond five people, then you will have to pay a monthly fee per user.

2. Things - For storing and managing daily tasks - GTD style

things landing page

Things is like my compass directing me where to spend my time during the day. It's where I begin every day as a product manager.

If you subscribe to the GTD (Get things done) philosophy, then this is for you. I highly recommend reading David Allen's 'Getting things done' if you want to learn more about GTD.

Things minimalist design, smooth interactions and easy to use functionality make it a product managers best friend. With hundreds of requests, notes, insights, emails etc. that need follow up action having a single place where I know its the source of truth keeps me sane.

I like to think of Things like your external RAM.  You can only ever hold so much information in one place.  If you don't offload it somewhere where it can be organised and processed you're going to be running at a slow speed always.

Here is their swanky marketing video that should give you a quick overview.

Things is available on Mac,  iPhone, iWatch and iPad. It is a little bit on the pricey side $49.99 (US) for Mac, $9.99 (US) for iPhone and iwatch and $19.99 (US) for iPad. There is a 15-day free trial that you can use Mac to give it a go before you commit.

a) Capturing tasks and inputs super quickly

Do you hate opening another program and manually inputting a short ‘to do’?

Me too.

So here are two shortcuts that will change your life.

1) Control, Space - Pressed down together- Will trigger a pop up ‘Open Quick Entry’ which allows you to write down a task with an optional quick note and send it directly to your things inbox.

things quick entry
Things quick entry

Once a task is the in the inbox, you can revisit it at a later time and move it the relevant project, a custom goal, e.g. product launch or a area of responsibility e.g. work.

What about the second? This shortcut is particularly useful for managing emails.

2) Option, Control, Space - Pressed down together will also be super useful if you want to ‘autofill’ the context of what you are looking with a direct link to the email and capturing the subject name and relevant details.

things autofill quick entry
Things autofill for emails

I’ll be honest I’m not the best at emails. I’ve found that the effort it took me to get to inbox zero was not worth the input. (One day I’ll crack this!)  

Instead, I've decided to simply extract the actionable emails that I know I won't be able to reply to instantly. When I come back to my emails, and inevitably there is a bunch more that have been added I don't have to worry about tireless finding the right one and following it up.

b) Focussing on my top three today tasks

At the beginning of the day, I will spend time looking through the inbox, editing tasks that I might have written in a rush and categorising them to relevant places. The most important will go to the today category.

I try and only move three critical tasks that I want to get done for that day to avoid information overload. I find staring at a massive list of endless to do's off-putting, and it helps me prioritise effectively.

I ask the question if I could only achieve three things in the day and it would result in a' successful day' what would it be? I'll either leave them in the today column if I didn't complete it (hopefully not) or move it back to the relevant area to reevaluate and prioritise against new inputs that might have come in.

3. Airtable - For organising roadmaps and tracking stories

airtable landing page

Imagine google sheets but on steroids.

You now understand Airtable.

Their tag line 'Part spreadsheet, part database, and entirely flexible, teams use Airtable to organise their work, their way' is on point.

For me, it takes away a lot of the pain points I have in google sheets. Things you just want to do but its annoyingly tricky. E.g. adding an image, adding a related file, sorting, filtering, having multiple views and creating relationships between different spreadsheets.

It's less wiki-style than Notion and more spreadsheet-based, but you can also change views to show Kanban, gallery, calendar views, gallery views to suit your needs.

Similar to Notion, you can build it up from scratch to suit your exact need or if you're looking for inspiration or to kick start your project, you can use one of their templates. Have an explore of the Airtable universe, and you can copy a 'base' which is the same as a template in Airtable language.

a) Managing roadmaps and tracking user stories

I think all product managers have their own way of managing roadmaps. There isn’t one way to do it. It’s personal.

You probably use software like JIRA to write stories, bugs and SPIKE's. This process works well for the in the weeds details, but it doesn't connect the big picture to the small details.

Maybe you want to understand the context of that story in relation to your overall themes? Add additional notes to your stories that might not be relevant to your development team? Track reasons why stories were blocked? Add research to a specific hypothesis?  Quickly find stories without having to spend time searching using JIRA's JQL language. The list goes on….

That's where Airtable comes in. You can do all of what you would expect with an enhanced google spreadsheet and more. Useful features include the ability to group and filter with layered conditions to get the exact display you want. However, the most powerful feature is the ability to create relational databases between sheets.

Airtable product roadmap example
Example of a Airtable sheet with themes and blocks

One sheet might contain your overall product themes for the quarter, and then another might contain the specific feature, stories or hypothesis. You can create a link or relation between the two sheets. Allowing you to see a high-level bird eye view of your themes but also with the granularity of your stories. You can make this as simple or complex as you like.

airtable relational database
Airtable's example of a relational database

Airtable is also excellent for simple but effective data visualisation through their block features that can quickly enhance your static information to something tangible. I don't go to this level of detail, but you can easily add gant charts, maps, track points, create pivot tables, work with other third-party apps like Miro and much more.

airtable blocks

One particularly useful block that Airtable recently released is integration with JIRA's API, allowing you to skip the heavy lifting of having to input every development ticket and keep it up to date manually. However, this will only work if you are using Jira Cloud (not Jira Server) at the moment, and you need to have a premium plan to utilise the functionality of the blocks. 

If you are using JIRA server or another tool then sadly this isn't an option for you. I, therefore, would recommend only using it for the big stories or features that you want to track. It's not worth following every single small ticket. You will spend your life doing admin.

4. Bear - For writing notes

bear landing page

I'm picky about text editors.  It has to be minimal but also functional. Allowing you to focus on your writing but also having the ability to customise it for your needs.

Bear fits these criteria.

I'm writing on it now. Bear doesn't require much analysis because it's pretty simple, and that's the point. Anyone can quickly pick it up and use it. However, it packs in some great features that make it a delight to use.  My top three are tags, themes and full writing mode.

a) Tags

Similar to slack, you can use tags, e.g. #blog that will categorise your articles or notes, making them super easy to find and organise without overthinking it.

b) Full-screen writing mode

It's a simple feature, but it makes the writing experience for me. You can get rid of all distractions and just view your words on the screen and nothing else. That's the way it should be.

c) Themes

Like writing in dark mode or want a high contrast background? You can easily change the feel and display to suit your needs. Just pick a design you like.

bear themes