Background; I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of two startups. The first one (Miss Amara), was a passion project with a simple mission: to make things better and more fun for consumers to style and buy accessories for the home. Two years on, it has changed the way that people are buying rugs online.
The second one, Lucid is a Betterment company with a lofty objective: we exist to inspire everyone to achieve their full potential. I’ve built and sold several successful businesses of which, the latest was a hosting company that had upwards of 35,000 customer websites and over 40 staff. On top of this I place a high value on spending quality time with my friends and family, and I make the things that I love (travel, fitness, and exploring new challenges) a non negotiable, mandatory part of my life.
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This article is a condensed version of the key CEO productivity hacks I’ve learnt, that have allowed me to build and run these companies whilst enjoying the other parts of my life. It has been intentionally been kept short, succinct, and directly to the point to save time and focus on what is going to get you the best outcomes.
Being productive as the CEO has the same principles as being productive in any other role.
However, as CEO of a startup your role usually covers a lot more: building a product, fund raising, finance, leading the business, sales, marketing, customer service, you name it. Being productive isn’t about how much time you spend doing the role, rather it comes down to every small decision you make about how you spend your finite time and the opportunity cost in each of those decisions. Do you go to that speaking engagement, attend a conference, refine your marketing strategy, drum up some sales from existing customers, or complete a monthly finance report?
Make the Right Choices
You can’t manage your time, you can only make decisions on what you focus on during your finite time available.
1. Have a strategic long term plan & vision. This defines where your startup is headed long term, and should be referenced when deciding where to put focus. Startups often pivot, so long term strategies do change more regularly in a startup, but the long term plan should still be there. The vision & strategic plan are also the why behind you and your team come to work every day, and key driver of motivation.
2. Have a short term plan. Planning your week, and day is essential to being productive. Not only does it ensure you are directing your time where it matters most, but it also creates a sense of control which improves productivity, and reduces stress. Create a plan before the start of each week for both your personal life & business, broken down into each particular day. Cross off items as you go, and reflect at the end of each day or week. You can then take this one step further and block out time in your calendar to complete each task. This spreadsheet is still the most effective spreadsheet I have used to plan my week, even after 10 years of using it:
3. Do fewer things, and focus on reaching your long term goals. Replying to over 200 emails in a day may feel like you’re making great progress, but if they aren’t the fastest path to reaching your long term goals then they are probably the wrong focus.
4. Delegate. Delegate as much as you can, especially on non-strategic work – even if you have a task that only takes 5 minutes for you to complete, handing it off will free your headspace which will make a big difference when focusing on more mentally depending strategic tasks.
5. Say no to almost everything, be ruthless. When you’re the CEO there are going to be a lot of interesting opportunities that arise, and as you become more successful the opportunities will get more interesting. Don’t fall into the trap of saying yes to most things, ruthlessly decide everything you say yes to, including meetings at your own company. Good CEO’s will say no to 90% opportunities presented to him/her.
6. Limit unnecessary decisions you have to make every day, and where possible make decisions easy. The more decisions you make in day, the more mentally fatigued you will become. Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt everyday to avoid decision fatigue. Use the limited number of decisions you have in a day to make the decisions that really count. This is another reason to delegate, even on those small tasks.
7. Stop being a perfectionist. This is the case in most startups: don’t let perfectionism hold you back, 80% of the results come 20% of the work. If you get things out faster, you are likely to learn faster. Test your hypothesis rather than trying to perfect an untested hypothesis.
Set Your Focuses
Where you invest your focus is where you’ll get the results.
1. Remove noise & distractions. Noise & distractions are the enemy when you’re trying to focus, the more you remove the less chance you have of being distracted.
- Put your phone in flight mode, and remove it from sight so there is no temptation.
- Disable notifications on your computer, on Mac you can turn on do not disturb.
- Close all chat apps (Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, Slack, etc)
- Logout of your social media account (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc)
- Close all browser tabs except for those you require (I use a completely different browser help with this)
- Remove any chance for interruption by putting headphones on and letting people know you are doing “focused work”.
2. Write everything down that you have to do. This keeps your brain free and you don’t have to worry about forgetting or remembering anything, if you remember something that you need to do just jot it down so you can move on.
3. Be laser focused on one task at a time (no multi-tasking). While it may seem like you’re getting more done by multi-tasking, you’re not. The most efficient way to work is on one task at a time, sequentially, and ensures you do the task well and quickly.
4. Block out time/chunk. Chunk your time into doing similar kind of work, for example chunk email/Slack to specific time blocks and lock the time into your calendar. As CEO you will have to be working on lot’s of different kinds of tasks, and switching between tasks is inefficient. Chucking tasks keeps you focused and not wasting due to switching too often. (the image to the right is an example day for me)
5. Use focus sprints. Pomodoro Technique is time tested method of focus sprint and highly effective at completing work in a given day. Set a timer (I use to e.ggtimer.com) and work for 25 minutes focused on the one task with no distractions, and then take a 5 minute break from working. This is repeated 3-4x for a total time of 1.5-2 hours, and then a longer break (15-30 minutes) is taken.
6. Nail the start of your day. Start the day with your most important task, and get that done first. To figure out which task this is, ask yourself if I only finished one task today which one would make feel the most accomplished if I completed it? Don’t fall into the trap of being sucked into tasks such as replying to emails/social media which might give you a temporary feeling of accomplishment.
Be Healthy & Happy
Your body and mind are not mutually exclusive, a healthy body does indeed result in a healthier, switched on mind.
1. Exercise regularly. Exercise keeps you healthy, gets the blood moving, helps you focus, keeps you motivated, improves your mood, and helps reduce stress. Find what works best for you, find a workout partner, and get a routine going that makes it easy for you to exercise. (My current personal routine is 3-4 sessions of HIIT/F45 per week)
2. Eat healthy. Eating healthy food extends your life, improves your focus, and improves your general feeling of wellbeing. The key is making it easy to eat healthy food, it can easily take 2-3 hours per day to prepare healthy food if you cook at home. Cut this down by simplifying what you eat into simple, healthy, and easily prepared meals such as eggs, avocado, and bread for breakfast – and salads for lunch/dinner. Recently I’ve signed up for a healthy food delivery service in my area, they deliver 3 fresh &healthy meals per day, this has changed my life because it has taken the decision, thought, and time out of eating healthy.
3. Spend time with people that make you happy every day. When you’re happy you are more productive, and generally live a more enjoyable life.
4. Take holidays. While this may sound surprising it’s one of the hacks I still underestimate every time until I’ve taken time off. Taking time off (where you can mostly switch off from work) completely changes your perspective and I come back much more strategic, revived, more focused, and with lot’s of new ideas. Take at least one week off every 3 months or mini-breaks (2-3 days) more frequently.
5. Get enough sleep. Most adults require at least 7 hours per sleep per night, getting the right amount of sleep will help you focus, be more strategic, and think more clearly. A late night here and there, or a few late nights in a row doesn’t tend to hurt. Mental performance drops off a cliff after 2+ days of sleep deprivation, to the point where opportunity costs from the gains are just not there.
6. Have fun, enjoy yourself, and celebrate your wins. Listen to music that motivates you, work with people you like and have the same values as you. Being happy increases motivation and productivity, but more importantly you only live once so really enjoy what you do, do it for a greater purpose, and make time for the other things in life outside your startup.
This may seem like a very mechanical and boring way of working, but the reality is that’s the most efficient way of working.