11 Productivity Hacks From Successful Entrepreneurs

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Whether you're a c-level executive or an in-the-garage inventor working on the side, successful entrepreneurs tend to find optimizations, shortcuts, and productivity hacks to enhance their operations.  

Business Insider recently summarized a Quora thread titled "As a startup CEO, what is your favorite productivity hack?"  Here's my take on their top 11 productivity hacks.

1. Have "No Meetings Wednesdays."

I'm a huge fan of "no meetings ever"--unless their needed, but setting a day aside to be meeting free is a great idea. Several years ago, a department I worked in had weekly department meetings... very IT stereotypical--an hour long with 50+ people. When asked how we could reduce costs, I submitted to reduce or remove the meetings.  We already had SharePoint (for "enterprise" stuff) and Campfire (for our development team)--we didn't whole department meetings.

Assume an average IT staffer hourly rate of 30$/hour (~70k/year, not including benefits, taxes, etc.) and multiple that by the attendees (50) and duration (1 hour).  Each weekly meeting was roughly costing 1,500$/week.  Were we getting that value out of them?  Debatable, of course, but the cost made it easier to quantify.

2. Use "mind maps."

I'm a whiteboard junkie and over a decade working in education has burned the use of mind maps into my soul.  I've seen several mindmapping software available and know many who love to use them; however, I personally prefer a more tactile approach--just sketching, drawing, and manipulating things on a whiteboard.  Whether it's a mind map or just a list of "things with arrows"--getting ideas out there and being able to visualize them can make brainstorming a lot easier.

3. Try the Pomodoro Technique.

Pomodoro is Italian for "tomato," and it refers to the tomato-shaped cooking timer Francesco Cirillo used as a college student. His technique, popularized in the late '80s, consists of breaking work down into 25-minute bursts of intense work followed by a five-minute break, in which you can relax by kicking back or giving in to a distraction like Twitter.

I've tried the Pomodoro technique several times after hearing the success teams had with concentration and it never rang with me. A 25 minute window either felt too long or too short. 

4. Arrange your tasks on a Kanban board.

A Kanban board is a simple way to visualize your work progress. It consists of columns that represent the stages a project, with individual tasks listed on a note that is moved from one column to the next. 

I'm a huge fan of Kanban boards and the visualization they provide to teams.  Whether it's post-it notes or complex software, seeing the status of a large project at a glance (and the acceptance that there's rarely a value to middle ground between "not done" and "done") makes it a lot easier to grasp the current state of large projects. 

5. Outsource small, time-consuming projects.

I love this point and wish more startups and SMBs would consider outsourcing--especially local talent--over trying to in-house those little tasks that are not the primary business of the organization.  For example, rather than preparing that deck in PowerPoint and spending hours tweaking fonts, placement, and layout--find a local, amazing publishing house to crank it out in a day so you have time and energy to prepare the pitch.

6. Put the day's three most important tasks on a Post-It note.

Working at Tracky and in the business of task and project management, I almost always have my tasks on my screen.  While it's rarely the top 3, the positive reinforcement (and reminder) for focus is important when there's a dozen things to do.

7. Restrict access to distractions on your phone and computer.

Working for a social media and development shop, it's hard to block "the internet," I do mute my phone, set myself to DND on Skype/Hangouts, and turn off notifications for emails and such when I'm cranking through a difficult challenge or just need some mental clarity to brainstorm, write, and create.  There are so many stimuli in the work environment now days that shutting things out can be crucial to get that little bit of focus needed to nail a tough problem.

In addition, keep distractions from peers to a minimum.  I've seen numerous statistics over the years [herehere, and here are good examples] on the recovery time that a developer faces when interrupted during coding--averaging 10 to 40 minutes to get back in the frame of mind they were in prior to interruption.  Those same times exist, I believe, for any knowledge worker--executives included.  Respect your team's time and they'll respect yours.

8. Use RescueTime to see exactly how you spend your time.

I used RescueTime for a few years to monitor how I spent my days--literally, my entire day.  Oddly, it helped me reel in my work-life balance more than anything else.  Averaging 20 hours per day between Office, Visual Studio, and Skype?  Yeah, maybe it's time to tone that down.  Overall, the product is a great find and really does let you know what you do, where, and for how long. You can even monitor your browser tabs to see how long you spend at what sites.

After a while though, for me, it became too time consuming to manage the reporting.  Every site, from stackoverflow.com and other technical resources to our customer's sites had to be specially reported on or the time spent and "productivity" reports got wonky.  I'm not in a competition with myself, so I'd rather spend that time BEING productive rather than showing HOW I'm productive.  A recommendation may be to RescueTime yourself once a month or once a quarter for a week and compare reports--rather than every day--and focus on board strokes of productivity rather than individual minutes.

9. Show up to the office earlier than anyone else.

Remco Van Mook, cofounder of Virtu, recommends getting to the office an hour and a half before everyone else. "You'll hate it, but you get done more in that hour and a half than the rest of the day — you'll be running from distraction to distraction afterwards," he says.

This is very true. In my past positions, I tended to show up 30 minutes or so early to crank out emails, focus on my immediate deadlines, and prepare for the day.  Now, working in a home office, there's no way to show up earlier... just get up earlier!

10. Use Pocket to set aside interesting things to read and watch later.

I love Pocket and have been using it for several years. It's where I tend to collect articles I want to read later (and blog about, like this), but have to be careful that it doesn't simply become a huge dumping ground for everything and anything.  At one point, I had almost 700 items in Pocket... and no chance I'd ever get to everything.  Be prudent when using storage systems like Pocket and EverNote that you're saving something of value that you will get back to... or else you're just causing yourself clutter.

11. Use the Two-Minute Rule.

In his popular book "Getting Things Done," David Allen outlines this technique, which is simply this: When a task arises that you know you can complete in two minutes or less, do it immediately. "I love it," said Christian Sutardi, cofounder of Lolabox, "because it's not a groundbreaking rule. It's no fancy app or software. It doesn't even require learning or dedication, and you can start doing it today."

I love and live by this anti-procrastination rule up to a point.  Throughout the day, I tend to have three checks:  

  1. if it can be done in two minutes and it's a equal or higher priority to what I'm doing, I do it,
  2. if it can be done in two minutes, but is a lower priority, it's banked on my steno pad that I carry everywhere,
  3. if it cannot be done in two minutes, it's banked in Tracky (ala task software of choice).

Waiting for a conference call to connect?  Knock out a few of those two minute tasks.  

  • productivity
  • hacks
  • pomodoro
  • kanban
  • outsourcing
author photo - David Longnecker by David Longnecker

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