In today’s work-from-home world, many entrepreneurs are finding it difficult to stay focused and get things done. Is it the environment, or are we simply not managing our time properly?
Time management can be a serious challenge for any busy founder, especially when the lines are more frequently blurred (or vanished) between work hours and home life.
However, with the proper tools and tactics, you can overcome that challenge and be more productive than ever — even during some of the most chaotic times in modern history.
Here are 20 time management tactics to help you win back your day.
1. Don’t Multitask (It’s Impossible)
Do you ever feel physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the workday, but didn’t actually get any of your work done? If you’ve ever found yourself complaining that you don’t have enough time in the day, it’s likely you’ve been trying to multitask.
When you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually just cutting into the focus pie of each task, and stealing hours from yourself. You only have a certain finite amount of energy in a given day, and if you are one of those entrepreneurs who wants to give 100% to everything that you do, the math just doesn’t add up. In reality you end up giving 10% here, 20% there, 5% on a dozen other tasks, and then another 10% of your focus going toward the endless barrage of notifications and social media posts.
This creates a whole lot of switching costs, which eat up more time than you’d think.
Harvard Business Review reports that “after a notification has forced us to switch between tasks, it can take us about 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand, according to a study from University of California, Irvine.”
Let’s say you checked your Facebook notifications four times. That’s up to an entire hour lost.
Do you check your email inbox or Slack every time a little red circle pops up? You’re losing more time than you’re actually working.
What’s more, the quality of work diminishes, while the timeline drags out. It will feel like things are taking you longer and longer to complete — because they are. And since you’ve already spent a full day’s energy switching between tasks, your tank is empty by late afternoon.
2. Single-Task Instead
When was the last time you focused on only ONE thing for 30 minutes? Or even 10 minutes? Without looking at notifications or emails?
Whatever you’re working on, shut off all distractions and focus on only that one thing for a specific chunk of time. Set a timer if you have to. Block off your calendar as “DND” (Do Not Disturb). Adjust your Slack settings to “Pause notifications.” Close all 27 browser tabs that you have open, or simply click “New Window”. Put on your favorite lyric-less chill music to get you into the zone. And just… start doing the thing.
New York Times bestselling author Daniel José Older recommends the timer method in his Skillshare class when it comes to overcoming writer’s block. “Set your timer for 5 minutes, maybe 10 minutes, and commit to writing words on the page for those 5 or 10 minutes nonstop, without thinking about it, and without trying to do it ‘right.’”
3. Set Artificial Limits for Yourself
One of the most powerful ways to increase your productivity and improve time management is to set artificial limits. What does this mean? Fake deadlines.
Setting artificial limits keeps you from falling into the trap of Parkinson’s law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” You’ve likely seen it before. Someone in your team has three tasks and an eight-hour workday in which to complete them, and they manage to stretch out those tasks from 9am to 5pm. When you know first-hand that those three tasks should’ve only taken 90 minutes max.
What if they only had a 90-minute workday in which to do it? I’d bet a Tesla Cybertruck that the work would’ve still gotten done.
Ari Meisel, serial entrepreneur and author of Less Doing, More Living and The Replaceable Founder, experienced this powerful productivity strategy first-hand when his Crohn’s disease became really debilitating. Ari’s condition was so painful that he could only muster up the energy to work for about one hour each day. How do you run a business in only one hour a day? Well, Ari figured out how to do so, because he had to.
The work-from-home environment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even easier to fall into the trap of Parkinson’s law. With no commute time, and no bookends to the workday to get you to mentally clock out and head home, you can really drag things out.
The best way to beat Parkinson’s law, and stay productive today, is to set artificial deadlines. Fabricate a time limit in which to complete a given task — even set a timer for yourself.
One of Foundr’s team members has been known to follow this technique as well using his surroundings as built-in time limits. When he’s traveling for a shoot (back when people could do that sort of thing), he only ever purchased the 30-minute or 60-minute WiFi on the plane. Then, he challenged himself to complete as much work as humanly possible during that 30- or 60-minute timeframe, and he would not upgrade the internet after the timer was up.
Anything that happens after the WiFi cuts off, has to happen offline on desktop. This keeps you focused on the task at hand, and keeps you from distracting yourself with various tabs, notifications and emails.
You’d be amazed at how much you can get done when you set fake limits and create a mini-sprint.
4. Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a specific time management method from the late 1980s which uses a timer to break down work into small, hyper-productive mini “sprints.” These are typically 25 minute intervals separated by short breaks.
LifeHacker outlines the play-by-play steps on how to use the Pomodoro Technique effectively:
- Choose a task to be accomplished
- Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
- Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
- Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
- Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break
Try it out and let us know in the comments how it worked for you!
5. Try the Zeigarnik Effect
There’s a psychological theory that an activity that has been interrupted may be easier to recall and go back to. This is called the Zeigarnik Effect. The thinking is that you have a higher chance of remembering an unfinished task, than a completed task.
Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered this effect while observing the behavior of waiters in a cafe. According to the study, waiters seemed to have a higher chance of remembering details of the tabs that were open, more so than the customers who were already paid up.
How can the Zeigarnik Effect be used to boost an entrepreneur’s productivity? Well, if you’re struggling to power through a given task, or finding yourself procrastinating to solve a particular problem, take a break. Walk away from it for five minutes. Then come back to it.
You may just find yourself refreshed and able to work through it more effectively, now that you’ve left the ticket open and had a chance to think on it subconsciously and without pressure.
6. Find Your “Six-Pack”
No, we’re not talking about a kicking back with a cold one to decompress. The “Six-Pack” is an aviation term which refers to the main flight instruments dashboard in the cockpit of an airplane. Even though there are a million things to juggle simultaneously while you’re in flight, there are typically six instruments that provide the most critical data (airspeed, altimeter, etc.). A pilot can focus on these six gauges to keep things going smoothly.
Ari Meisel is also a trained pilot. He advises to think of your business like an aircraft when it comes to maintaining focus.
“As a founder, what you need to do is try to find your version of the Six-Pack. That thing that, no matter what else happens, you will be focusing on driving your business forward, even by one percent.”
What’s your Six-Pack in your business? That is what you should spend your energy on. For anything else that doesn’t contribute to that goal or KPI, simply eliminate the distraction.
7. Put Your Phone in the Other Room
You may convince yourself that you are not addicted to your smartphone, but let’s be honest – every entrepreneur is. This little tool is potentially one of the most powerful for running an online business that ever existed. Keyword: potentially.
In reality, smartphone addiction is a nuisance and a detriment to productivity.
Even just checking your phone for two seconds and processing a new notification requires up to 23 minutes to get your focus back.
A surefire way to eliminate this constant distraction is to leave your smartphone in the other room.
Try it for a few hours when you start work tomorrow. By lunchtime, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how focused and accomplished you feel.
8. Master Asynchronous Communication
Asynchronous communication (or “Async,” for short) is a highly underrated productivity behavior that can fundamentally change the way you run your business. It means communicating with your team NOT in real-time, but by “passing the ball back and forth.”
The Doist blog sums it up best: “Simply put, asynchronous communication is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response.”
- Async Example 1: You send an email to someone. They respond back the next day when they can best deal with that task.
Async Example 2: You send a Loom video briefing a team member in a different timezone, during their sleep hours. When they wake up and start working, they watch the Loom and start working on the project – commenting with any questions. Then you can proceed to answer their questions asynchronously at your earliest convenience.
Of course, there are some communications that still need to be synchronous (aka “Sync”) – when the person you’re speaking with responds immediately in real-time.
Many people still believe that creative collaboration and problem solving is still best done “in the same room.” However, now that in many places around the world we quite literally can’t be in the same room due to quarantines and social distancing, many entrepreneurs are having to rethink their communication strategies.
- Sync Example 1: A live meeting in the same room (or video conferencing tool).
- Sync Example 2: A real-time back-and-forth conversation in Slack chat.
It’s important to think about which comms in your workday could potentially become asynchronous, and cancel those meetings from your calendar. And only schedule synchronous communication when absolutely necessary.
Every time a Google Calendar meeting gets canceled and replaced with an asynch message or 5-minute Loom video, an angel gets its wings.
9. Avoid Decision Fatigue
In fact, avoiding decisions in general will grant you back a ton of brainpower.
Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square, has a notable aversion to making decisions and often empowers his team to make key decisions without him. “A former Square employee said Dorsey ‘thought the perfect meeting was one in which he doesn’t have to say a thing.’”
As an entrepreneur, you probably find yourself making decisions all day long. And by the time you’re faced with a truly important challenge, you’ve already spent all your decision-making energy on small tasks and menial decisions.
Decision fatigue is real. It may feel like there’s no more fuel in your mental tank by the end of the day, and your brain is strained by even the notion of yet another thing that you’re in charge of.
Try making fewer decisions, and putting the onus on your team (especially those being groomed for leadership roles) to own more of those decisions.
You may be asking: “But how do I trust people to make the right decisions without me?”
Here’s a guiding principle you can use, to prioritize the decisions that you can let go of, vs. the (smaller number of) decisions that you can maintain ownership of.
10. Categorize Decisions as Reversible or Irreversible
If you absolutely must make a decision yourself, take a moment to think about how important this decision is to spend mental energy on. It’s highly possible that the majority of decisions in a given day could be made quickly in a few seconds without any risk. In other words, you probably spent too much time worrying about it.
Farnam Street unpacks this principle of Reversible and Irreversible Decisions, illustrating a grid of how you should think about each decision.
If a decision is reversible — for example, a social media post that you can quickly and easily delete, or a blog article draft that you can always edit — then you should spend minimal time mulling it over. Just “move fast and break things,” and you will have saved yourself the mental strain of worrying about something that can easily be undone.
If a decision is irreversible — for example, sending an email to 2 million subscribers — you may want to spend some of your energy on making sure it’s right. What’s more, if a decision is irreversible AND consequential — such as signing a major contract or a five-year office lease — you definitely want to spend some time on it.
Jeff Bezos digs into this decision-making approach in one of his shareholder letters:
“Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors.”
According to Bezos, this second type of decision “can and should be made quickly.”
Try thinking about your decisions this way, and see how fast you can make the reversible ones.
11. Own Your Calendar
Chris Dixon, partner and investor at a16z, once said: “Your email inbox is a to-do list created by other people.” Too many people treat their G-Suite account in a reactive way, not proactively.
It’s time to take control. Say “No” to that next calendar invite. Defer unimportant emails until a later date you can best action them. Use “The 3 D’s” to get to inbox zero, and keep your Google Calendar clear of unnecessary meetings that you don’t need to be involved in.
This tip is very simple but nonetheless important. Own your calendar and own your time. It belongs to you, and nobody else.
12. Don’t Eat the Frog
Some productivity advice says you should tackle the most difficult, daunting task first thing in the morning so that everything else is easier from there – an expression known as “eating the frog.” This is actually not recommended for optimum productivity.
Eating the frog has a high chance of draining your energy early in the day, which will set you up for failure in the afternoon.
Instead of doing the most challenging task first, you should do the thing that you are holding up the most. Is there a task that you are procrastinating on, and slowing your team down? Do that thing first, and get it out of your head.
After that task is done, you can take back control of your own priorities and time.
13. Forget Complex Morning Routines and Big Healthy Breakfasts
You don’t have to eat a big breakfast or make a complicated smoothie you saw on Instagram every morning.
Another misconception about productivity is that you need to get up early and have a solid morning routine in order to motivate yourself. While morning routines do help you set up your day for success, because you’ve already ticked a few boxes on your to-do list (e.g. making your bed, showering, brewing coffee, getting some fresh air or exercise), it’s not essential to have one.
If having a consistent morning routine unlocks productivity for you, by all means, continue to do it. But some founders find that a nighttime routine can be just as effective instead.
14. Try a Nighttime Routine Instead
A nighttime routine involves getting yourself set up for the next business day so that you can jump right into an efficient workflow in the morning. This could entail cleaning out your inbox and Slack, setting your top three priorities for tomorrow, meditating for 30 minutes, and even setting a bedtime reminder in your calendar for when to turn off your devices and decompress.
Rather than logging on in the AM and spending the first hour of the day wrapping your head around what your priorities are, you’ll already have them mapped out, and you can spend that hour actually getting things done.
What’s more, having a consistent bedtime improves sleep quality so you can wake up feeling more refreshed and ready to tackle the day.
15. Find Your Peak Time
Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you ever feel guilty about not being “on” during the typical 9-to-5 business hours? You’re not alone.
Everyone has a different “peak time” or “flow time”, which is the 60-90 minute period during the day when you’re at your absolute best. Your brain is firing on all cylinders, you’re laser-focused without effort, and you simply can’t be messed with.
For some, peak time may happen early in the morning. For others, maybe it’s mid-afternoon. Others may find themselves at their best at 11pm until just after midnight, getting more done in that hour-long period than they did the entire day prior.
You can find out what your peak time is by doing the CNS Tap Test (Central Nervous System). To learn more about how to do this, check out Foundr’s course Productivity Machine.
In the meantime, do a bit of reflection on what times of day you typically find yourself “in the zone,” and try not to schedule any menial tasks or meetings during those times.
16. Don’t Dress for Success
The old adage says “dress for success.” Nowadays in the post-COVID world of remote work, it’s more important to dress for comfort instead.
This is becoming an even more integral part of work-life especially now the majority of people are working from their homes. Pajamas, hoodies, shorts, flip-flops — whatever enables you to get in the zone to achieve your best work. (Of course, if you have an important video call with a potential client or partner, you may want to wear something presentable from the shoulders up).
Keeping your wardrobe simple also helps avoid decision fatigue, a concept mentioned earlier.
For example, Former US President Barack Obama admittedly only wears two types of suits: gray or blue. He goes on to explain: “The simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions… You need to focus your decision-making energy.”
In addition to freeing up energy, you’ll also free up time. Every minute less that you spend worrying about what you’re going to wear, is an extra minute you could be getting something important done.
This concept works in so many ways beyond just clothing, in order to maintain focus and win you back your brainpower. Minimize the amount of decisions you have to make in a given day, and you’ll be much more effective.
17. Separate Your Workspace from Home Life
Sometimes it’s not enough to use digital tools to compartmentalize your time and focus. Especially when working from home, you may need to physically separate yourself from stressful distractions.
You see the dishes piling up in the sink. The dirty laundry stares you down from the corner of the room. The daily news cycle blares “in the background” on TV. These distractions chip away at your attention span, to the point where you’ve now effectively added a bunch of Sunday household chores to your workday to-do list.
In these instances, it’s best to physically change rooms, and create a separate workspace that’s distinct from the rest of your home life.
There are a lot of tips for creating the perfect at-home workspace for freelancers and entrepreneurs. All you need right now is to make a decision to actually do it — create a unique workspace that puts a wall between you and the dirty dishes, or at least points you away from the kitchen.
18. Get Three Things Done Before Lunch
This productivity tip comes from Michael Karnjanaprakorn, co-founder of the online learning platform Skillshare and more recently the founder of Otis, a blockchain-based investment tool for alternative assets. At Skillshare, one of the daily mantras under Karnjanaprakorn’s leadership was to “get three things done before lunch.” They didn’t have to be big things – just something that was on your to-do list to move the needle forward.
It’s easy to find yourself reading articles or getting lost in your inbox for the first half of the day, and then by lunchtime, you may feel unaccomplished. After that, the pressure is on, and you feel behind through the afternoon. The “three things before lunch” method eliminates those feelings, because you’ve already checked off some of your tasks, and then rewarded yourself with a meal and a break.
19. When In Doubt, Just Get Something Done
Still not convinced that these productivity techniques are right for you? Do you continue to feel unproductive? When in doubt, just get something done. Action is better than perfection.
Studies have shown that the brain gets a dopamine hit from checking off a task. All the more reason to break down the work into smaller chunks using a kanban system, so that you can get little bumps of achievement each time you move a Trello card forward or mark an Asana task as “complete.”
One hour of doing something is more valuable than 10 hours of thinking about it.
20. Optimize, Automate, Outsource
Some founders would argue that a collection of tips and tactics isn’t the answer to productivity – and that you actually need a whole step-by-step system to win your time and focus back. Ari Meisel is one of those entrepreneurs, and his O.A.O. method (Optimize, Automate, Outsource) has proven to change lives.
The O.A.O. Framework in a nutshell:
- Optimize – Audit all your systems and processes and optimize them to the point where anyone on your team can do them so that you don’t have to anymore.
- Automate – Then, automate everything that you possibly can, now that the systems and processes are all mapped out. There are countless no-code tools available to do this, like Zapier.
- Outsource – Lastly, after you’ve optimized and automated, now you can outsource anything that’s left. This involves hiring a virtual assistant or delegating to a team member, and Ari’s system unpacks exactly how to do this effectively.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Optimize, Automate, Outsource system you can enroll in Foundr’s course, Productivity Machine taught by Ari Meisel, which dives into detail on each of these three steps, with 20+ video lessons and an accompanying workbook to boost your productivity and win back your time.
You can also learn more productivity tips from Ari Meisel by subscribing to Foundr’s YouTube channel.
These tips and techniques are designed to help you work smarter, not harder, so you can reduce stress while working from home, and get more of the right things done. Cheers to a productive week ahead!