Entrepreneurs are meant to be super conservative about spending two things – money and time. Since entrepreneurs have to wear multiple hats, context switching and distractions associated with holding multiple startup roles pose a big time management challenge.
For an entrepreneur, a typical day could be filled with a few meetings, hundreds of emails, and tackling an ever-growing to-do list. Days like these disappear in a flash, but progress can be hard to track and even harder to standardize. There are tons of productivity management software like Trello and Asana out there. Despite a long list of tools, time management seems no easier for entrepreneurs. Do we really have to be so busy?
In life, we are taught to ask the question, “did I get my money’s worth?” Do we ever ask the question, “have I got my time’s worth?” An entrepreneurs goal is is to maximize the impact of every activity they do. To succeed, we must be picking the right things to do and doing them in the most effective manner to have the best impact on our businesses. That means aggressively prioritizing, measuring, and optimizing. If you've never measured ROI of time spent on activities, below are eights of the best productivity hacks to get you doing more faster and maximize personal impact.
1. Create a plan
Starting off every week and every day with five minutes of planning time goes a long way in staying organized and accomplishing a lot. All entrepreneurs have a lot they could be doing, and just thinking about all the things to be done could be overwhelming. Listing the things to be done in the short term is the first major step in winning the battle of time management. The list suddenly gives a semblance of clarity even if it remains long and overwhelming.
At the beginning of every week, create a simple weekly plan with a focus on listing the key objectives to be accomplished in the week – which could be publishing a blog article, delivering a product module, or defining a launch plan. This weekly plan acts as a guideline for your daily plan. During the day, break down a week's mission into daily goals.
Every day morning, as soon as you get into the office, spend the first 3 to 5 minutes listing down your day’s activities and check how those activities tie back to accomplishing the objectives listed for the week. Any activity that is not directly related to accomplishing any of the week’s objectives has to be scrutinized and removed. You might think that such activities are part of a long term goal. If so, such an activity should have been part of your weekly list. If the activity did not make it to your weekly list, it does not carry enough priority or it is being inserted into your list by someone else in which case, you need to redo your list for the week. If something seems important but isn't urgent, add it to your weekly list for the following week.
2. Cool Your Aggression
As entrepreneurs, we like to move fast and accomplish a lot in a short timeframe. Getting more done with less is seen as one of the greatest qualities of a true entrepreneur. However, there is a very thin line between being aggressive and being unrealistic. If you are the kind of person who creates plans and has almost never met your plan, you are probably setting unrealistic timelines for yourself. A few factors contributing to unrealistic timelines are:
1. Not factoring in minor details (like travel time between meetings)
2. Not accounting for external dependencies
3. Not reviewing uncertainties (or unknowns) in a task
Being aggressive with timelines is a great quality as long as it is done right. However, pushing the boundaries and constantly missing out on timelines could have negative motivational effects in the long term. As you draw out plans for the day and the week, stop being over aggressive and start being realistic.
3. Prioritize Ruthlessly with the Power of “No”
Our to-do list grows rapidly because the toughest thing for most us to do is say “No”. Why?
1. We are scared of offending someone or missing out on an opportunity to gain brownie points with someone.
2. We are afraid of missing out on an opportunity to try something new (for example, missing out on trying a new method of growth hacking to get more signups).
Both reasons could translate into a lack of focus on tasks at hand. This is not to say that we should never do favors for others or try out new things along the way. A “no” does not have to be a “no” forever. You can always respond that you are extremely busy this week and will be happy to help out the person in a couple of weeks.
As for missing out on the opportunity to try new things, evaluate if it is truly an opportunity or just a distraction in disguise. What is applicable for a product, team or market segment may not be applicable to your product, team or market segment. A little bit of planning would tell you whether something is worth trying at all. Focus is key to accomplishing objectives and the ability to say no is the first step towards staying focused.
4. Follow the Totem Pole
Next, Phone/Web Call
Last, In-Person Meeting
We get a lot of meeting requests. However, is it realistic to be in meetings all the time? Make no mistake that meetings are the biggest time killers, especially factoring the travel time for external meetings. You attend four such meetings in a day and suddenly your day disappears into thin air. The better question is do you really need all the meetings? Following the communication totem pole will help reduce meetings and save a lot of time. Start at the top of the totem pole and move to the bottom when you schedule meetings. In other words, if you cannot address a request through emails, schedule a phone call or web meeting using Skype or your favorite calling method. If you cannot address a request through phone call or web meeting, then - and only then - should you schedule an in-person meeting. Do not accept an in-person meeting if you can address a request using a phone call or an email. Just got a new meeting or call request? Ask your partner to list out their questions before scheduling a time: you'll see you'll be able to address most concerns by email, and if you do attend the meeting, you'll have a clear agenda for the call.
In-person meetings are typically good for negotiations or relationship building with customers, investors, advisors, and prospective employees. As you examine your list of meetings, you will be able to convert at least a few in-person meetings to web meetings or even email exchanges. Just this one little change could save significant time and help you get more done in a day.
5. Define the Purpose for each Activity
One of the best ways to prioritize tasks is to first define a clear purpose for each task. When you schedule a meeting or project, ask yourself “why do I need to be doing this?” or “what do I intend to accomplish in this task/meeting?” These questions also help you ask an even better question “Am I required for this task/meeting?” Before you start each activity, try to fill out the sentence –
“I am doing this activity because I intend to accomplish [my goal] and I am the right person to do it because [of a necessitating factor].”
The first part of the sentence helps define a clear purpose (for example, raise funds for my startup or successfully onboard a new employee) and the second part of the sentence help you figure out if you can delegate it. The second part of the sentence particularly helps avoid the habit of wanting to do everything yourself and start delegating more.
6. Get the Timing Right
As you define the purpose of the task, you also need to define the timing of a task. Scheduling meetings or tasks that could help your company six to eight months later is not wise when the viability of your company at the end of three months is unclear. As you define tasks, ask yourself “is this task required now?” or “does this task help in accomplishing any of our objectives in the next three months?” If the answer is no, it is a clear signal to eliminate such tasks or meetings.
7. Stop Compromising
When we work in teams, especially among co-founding team members, we occasionally compromise to keep things going smoothly. We accept tasks without analyzing the “why” and the “when”? Accepting a task or scheduling meetings just because a co-founding team member said so results in wasted time and effort. Even if a suggestion is given by a co-founder, it never hurts to have a discussion on the purpose or the timing of the task in a respectful way. Such discussions set a nice rhythm with your co-founding team in prioritizing things in the future.
8. Evaluate, Improve, Repeat
As you adopt this system, evaluate it and make appropriate modifications as you go along. A couple of guidelines for evaluation and change:
1. If you are often missing out on your plan, something is very wrong. Review #2 through #7 and see if you need to make serious changes to your working style.
2. Your ability to plan and execute largely depends on your ability to set a working rhythm with your team members. Be respectful in saying “no”. Set clear expectations on your working style with your team members.
These productivity hacks have made me a more effective professional. As a fellow entrepreneur, I would like to learn from you on the time management challenges you have faced and the approaches that have worked well for you. What’s your best time-saving tip when working on your business?