Mastering productivity is a challenge even for the best of us. After all, there are only so many hours in the day and exercising, responding to emails, getting work done and catching up on sleep don’t seem to fit so nicely within that time frame. Yet, excuses aside, making the most of any given 24 hours is not only doable, but those who manage to do so consistently often become the most successful of the bunch.
Consistent productivity, though, takes drive, grit, determination and a lot of focus. Plus, like any habit, experience is key to perfecting the learned behavior.
These days, when looking for expertise in time management, it is founders and entrepreneurs who are getting a crash course in the skill. These six founders have learned what works, what doesn’t and how to rebound when even the most organized calendar overlaps.
1. Commit to Priorities
Founders face a lot of pull and tug for different ideas, projects and new initiatives, but not everything can be tackled head on, especially in one given day. All the founders agreed that it is important to start each day out by prioritizing tasks you want or need to accomplish and then implementing a “get it done” mentality.
“Try to ‘touch it once,’ said Chase Jarvis, cofounder of creativeLIVE, the world’s largest live video education company. “When you pick up a to-do item, get it handled, sorted or routed the first time you touch it. Avoid ‘touching’ something multiple times.”
Getting all the necessary information in an email or to whomever you are delegating requires your full attention, but you’ll be able to move on from the task and focus elsewhere once you have done so. Shayan Zadeh, cofounder and CEO of Zoosk, an online dating and social networking app, implements this hyper-focusing tactic on not just emails or delegation. Instead, he uses it to zero in on priorities to maintain a high quality work output.
“At the beginning of the day, I select one to two tasks that I want to give my full attention to, rather than trying to complete more activities and doing a mediocre job. Normally on my plate on any given day, I prioritize my task list based on impact and tackle the most pressing and difficult work first.
Setting a goal of ‘inbox zero’ is the wrong goal to set as a CEO, as your output quality will suffer in lieu of quantity. I am constantly reorganizing my priority list in an effort to do the things that will have the biggest impact on the business first, rather than tackling short, easy tasks just to cross off more items.”
2. Work Your Way
Each of us has natural highs and lows of energy that often dictate when we work best. For some, like Jarvis, “mornings are sacred.” For others, working late into the evening is more efficient. Either way, when you have a lot on your plate, figuring out how and when you are most productive is essential to getting the biggest, most difficult tasks accomplished.
“It helps to know the ebb and flow of your daily energy, and to match it as closely as possible to the tasks at hand,” says David Klein, cofounder and CEO of CommonBond, a platform connecting student borrowers and alumni investors to save students money on their loans. “In the morning, for example, I have a lot of energy to ‘do.’ Ideally, I have a few hour block to just crank. In the afternoon, I have a lot of energy around ‘managing’ and a lot of my one-on-one updates are in the afternoon. And on nights and weekends, I have a lot of energy around ‘thinking.’ A lot of strategic discussions happen in this time.”
Be sure, too, to pull from experience when figuring out how to make your schedule work with, rather than against, you and your team. Adam Lewis, founder and CEO of Innovate CV, an industry leading provider of talent acquisition software and services, for instance, realized that team meetings in the afternoons often had to be pushed back, rescheduled or skipped altogether in place for other pressing issues that came up throughout the day. His solution? Having team meetings first thing in the morning to alleviate the risk of them getting pushed out. And making sure to fit in team meetings ranks high on the lists of productivity protocol for these founders.
“I prefer to have my regular meetings in the morning and afternoon, so that I have a block of time free in the middle of every day set aside to manage potential unplanned issues and last-minute urgent meeting requests,” says Zadeh. “I want to make sure I am available to help people make decisions as fast as possible. Preventing an entire team of employees from moving forward with a key project is a costly issue that I’m able to largely prevent by structuring my day this way.”
3. Utilize Technology
Luckily, the road to increasing your productivity isn’t one that you have to travel alone. There are multitudes of apps available to keep you organized across every single digital platform that you use. Among these founders, two stood out: Evernote and Google Apps.
“Google Apps drive my life, both personally and professionally. There are a lot of organizational tools that I have tried, but I’ve found that Google Apps are much more simple and effective for me,” says Zadeh.
And for the Evernote fans, Lewis highlighted the app’s functionality and easy transitioning across multiple devices as the main reason he uses the software over anything else saying, “I love Evernote and have it on my desktop, iPad and phone, so I always can check whether I am on task during the day.”
For Ben Hindman, cofounder and CEO of Splash, an event-planning platform that offers a simple way for users to manage and share events with guests. Keynote is his go-to tech.
“I am a Keynote junkie. It’s my secret weapon. I use it to wire-frame, which allows me to expedite the development process and I use it to project manage my team,” he says. “Every Sunday, I will create an ‘infographic’ for my team of what we need to get done that week, month or quarter. I use pictures and colors and I make it compelling so that they read them or print them out.
We move fastest when we move in the same direction, and the fastest way to get from point A to point B is a straight timeline.”
Of course, relying on apps as a means of productivity can also be a trap. While the apps can be helpful as you focus on priorities and start executing, they can’t do the actual work for you.
“Effectiveness and efficiency has just as much, if not more, to do with with the person using the technology than the technology itself,” says Klein. “You might use a special app to keep your day or tasks straight, but if you don’t have a sense of urgency around your work, or aren’t committed to moving mountains in short periods of time, or don’t have a smart approach to your work or for structuring the problem you’re solving, it’s all pretty pointless.
Technology is amazing in what it allows us to do — the user just has to be approaching technology in a particular way to benefit from its powers.”
Delegation is a big part of successful leadership as well as actual success for a company. One person cannot possibly accomplish absolutely everything. This is just as true in life as it is within a company. Finding what you are good at, optimizing your time doing that and then delegating necessary tasks to other members of your team or areas of your life will increase your productivity.
“If you are finding that you are becoming overloaded with work, make sure you delegate to people who often are better equipped to make decisions in a particular area than you are,” says Zadeh. “Delegation is key to being an effective and efficient leader.”
It turns out that delegation is also key to organization. For Lewis, delegation ensures that no accidentally over-scheduled calendar results in a disappointment.
“Make sure you have people on your team who can represent you at meetings. Be comfortable to delegate. That’s very key.”
5. Be Realistic
For most founders, work is their life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t strive for a balance across all areas including family, health and just plain sanity.
“There is a limit to the amount of time that you can work 100% focused on something or the amount of time you can go without sleeping enough or without taking a break before it starts to take a toll,” says Luis Sanz, founder of Olapic, a visual commerce platform. ”
Make sure that you find your time to rest and disconnect even if it seems that there are a thousand urgent things to do.”
Of course, just like anything in life, developing a habit of productivity takes time and dedication. If you aren’t willing to put in the work, you won’t see any outcome. There are no secrets or shortcuts to consistent productivity other than daily dedication to pursing it.
“The thought ‘just be more disciplined’ is wishful thinking and a shot in the dark, in my humble opinion,” says Jarvis. “Just like diets, any productivity system is only as good as your ability to follow it. Focus on making lifestyle changes that fuel efficiency.”