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Doing Less is Harder than Doing More

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Doing Less is the third post in a five part series called “Enjoying the Ride.” Comparing a start-up to surfing, this is a simple guide to turn your grueling start-up battle into a more soul fulfilling experience by helping you battle the sets and pick the right waves so you can enjoy the ride.

Doing Less. People talk about it, but how do you actually do it? I mean, how are you expected to do less when the workload doesn’t stop and your company is David taking on Goliath?

It’s incredibly hard, especially when speed is considered so important in taking the hill and challenging your competition.

At Contour I sucked at this for a very long time because as the CEO, doing less is largely determined by the CEO, and my natural tendency to outwork everyone meant I valued quantity over quality. My unrelenting drive demonstrated to everyone that I believed time was free and therefore unlimited. Even if people complained they couldn’t get everything done I figured they would do what I did, work more hours.

I fell into this same trap when I started surfing. As soon as I got past the break I was quick to chase the first wave that came, regardless of my probability of catching it. I figured the more waves I went after the better my chances of catching one. Instead of waiting to pick the right wave for me, I went after everything as if I could do it forever. But quickly I realized I spent a bunch of valuable energy paddling only to miss the wave and get pounded by the whitewater of the follow on one. The number of waves I caught decreased and instead of having fun I realized how much work I was doing. Being patient to wait for the right wave became an exhausting lesson to learn on the board.

Over the years at Contour it became more and more evident that in order to do better work, everyone had to do less, myself included. People were tired of producing work they knew could be better, which only amplified with more people, more meetings, and growing to-do lists. Our culture of do first, think second made it hard for everyone to figure out what was and was not important.

It took me a long time to understand this, but doing less doesn’t mean you will be less successful, instead I think you can be more successful because you won’t waste a bunch of money redoing the work, you won’t have frustrated employees, and you won’t create a culture of “it’s good enough.” But in order to actually do less you have to be more patient and much more tenacious about prioritizing your time. Instead of thinking that time is free, treat it as the most valuable and expensive resource you have. The most expensive cost in a business is the people, so don’t waste their time.

The following is a short guide to help you prioritize your time so you can do less, but better work. Doing great work is a big part of enjoying the ride.

Benjamin Franklin's Schedule*Benjamin Franklin’s Schedule*

How Much Time Do You Really Have
If you step back and look at your day, it will shock you how few hours you really have to do quality work. Assuming you want to deliver your best work over multiple years, let’s look at how many hours you really have in a day:

  • You sleep ~ 7 hours
  • Getting ready ~ .5 hours
  • You eat three meals ~ 1.5 hours
  • You commute to and from work ~ 1 hour
  • You exercise on a regular basis ~ 1 hour
  • You have family or personal time ~ 2 hours
  • You answer inbound requests (like email) ~ 3 hours

Throw on top of that a crazy travel schedule, kids, unnecessary meetings, and unplanned opportunities and you really have less than 8 hours of your day to really think. Which to most people would seem like a lot of time, but when you are running a company there is so much demand for your time that you end up dividing your eight hours over a variety of random subjects across multiple people. And when you run out of time you start justifying why cutting down on family time, sleep, working out, personal time, and meals is more important than taking care of yourself.

As a founder you spend your early years running around making everything happen, but as your idea grows into a real company you are supposed to transition from doing less to thinking more. A transition that actually requires more mental capacity than when you ran around making sure remedial tasks got done.

In order to do great work you first need to have energy and enough time to really dive into it.

Group Your Schedule
Everyone organizes their day in different ways, but in order to do better work the first step is better grouping of your schedule. Jumping from subject to subject is hard, especially if you don’t leave yourself enough time to mentally transition.

Personally, I found the thinking in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to be a great way to organize my week. I would sit down every Sunday and think about what I needed to accomplish for the week. Then I would organize my days so I had a few hours before lunch and a few hours after lunch to accomplish these tasks. I would then do my best to keep team meetings and appointments to the beginning or end of the day so I had the rest of the time to myself. If I needed to have back-to-back meetings with different subjects, I found that using a 10-minute break to go outside to get some fresh air helped me clear my mind so I was ready to jump into the next discussion.

In a recent New York Times article, Tony Schwartz talked about energy renewal during the day. The research he cited supports a cycle of 90-minute work sessions, followed by rest cycles during the day. “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy….Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. ”

Even when I successfully blocked out my day, I found the hardest part was turning off email and social feeds, especially when my phone has auto-updates turned on. My most productive days happened when I limited these distractions to three times per day, when I had the proper time to provide thoughtful answers.

Of course, when I got tired I reverted to my old ways of filling my schedule with random meetings and discussions. I had spent so many years covering way too many subjects that deep down I probably missed the breadth, so when I couldn’t add any more value thinking, I resorted to doing. A habit I should have replaced with taking a break, instead I just kept plowing through my day.

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Prioritize Your Workflow
How often have you sat down and started working by opening your email?

Prioritizing your work based on your inbox is a quick way to become overwhelmed and before you know it you have wasted the valuable thinking time you have. I always found email to be a horrible form of communication, especially when people value the quantity of emails they send versus the quality of them. I used to send way too many emails, especially when I was tired and instead of using the limited creative energy I had, I wasted it on half thought-out messages.

If you prioritize your work from the most important to least it will help you and your team realize the unimportant stuff that isn’t getting done. Part of being able to enjoy the work is not feeling overwhelmed by a bunch of small tasks that really don’t matter in the end. So if you never finish your list it’s a great way to go back and tell your team what isn’t getting done and why.

I always found the best people were great at estimating how long the work would take and communicating why something wasn’t getting done.

Kill Random Meetings
Learning to say to no random meetings is something you should start very early in your culture. Once it becomes a habit, the habit only gets worse with more employees and shared calendars. You don’t want to create a culture of arguing about why you personally don’t have to attend the meeting, but early on you want to agree on what types of discussions are worth scheduling people’s time for.

Jason Fried with 37 Signals is a huge fan of this and he does a great job in “Getting Real”, explaining why meetings are toxic and why people need alone time to think. If not, your employees will start working from home so they can get real work done and avoid all the meetings.

I found there were two types of meetings worth having.

The first are update meetings, which are best served by short scrum like meetings that last a few minutes and update everyone on what is going on. This can be much harder when you have people calling in from different time zones, but updates should be short and sweet. A monthly update will probably be a bit longer, but regardless they should be concise and give people the information they need.

The second are group discussions, and they should really be reserved for creative sessions that require multiple types of inputs. These are not update meetings, but instead should be reserved for the few times you need to get a group of people together to discuss how to solve a problem or for creative brainstorming. Otherwise you are wasting a lot of money when you have multiple employees sitting in a room adding little value. And people need to get over feeling hurt if they are left out of a discussion. Creating a short agenda and being selective about who should be in the discussion and why is important.

Make it Clear When You Are Available
Early on I thought part of my role was being available to everyone, all of the time. An open door policy is great for people thinking you are accessible, but terrible for getting real work done and forcing people to think before they bring you questions. Most of the time I would say “Sure, I’m available” and then after the discussion it would take me several minutes to restart from where I left off. Even worse, I was half present, which probably made the discussion a waste of time for both of us.

An important part of your job is letting people know when you are and aren’t available. People will have questions and random requests, but it’s important to let them know when is a good time to bring you these requests and when it isn’t. Signals that help people know this can be headphones, a closed door, changing your Skype status to unavailable, and turning off your phone.

This goes for everyone in the organization, but if you do get interrupted, politely let people know you are busy and when you are free to connect.

Enjoy the Work
Building a company is an incredibly unique opportunity. It is something you will only do a handful of times in your life, so don’t take it for granted.

Discovering a real problem in the world that you happen to be passionate about is rare. Turning that opportunity into a real company is then no small matter, so when you are battling the waves on a daily basis don’t forget to enjoy it. Being able to dive deep into thinking about how to make your company, product, experience, culture, etc. better is a lot of fun.

Because when it’s over you’ll wish you had taken the time to enjoy every moment of it.

Image Credit: SURF&ROCK via Creative Commons

 
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