How to Get Everything Done in a Startup

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“The key is not spending time but investing it.”

– Stephen R. Covey

Mastering your time is a must in order to be a successful entrepreneur. It’s a precious resource, and how and where you allocate it can make or break your company. But it can be tricky to prioritize tasks or decide how much time to spend on each, especially if you’re just starting out.  

Every entrepreneur must learn to balance thinking big with thinking small. Have a big picture roadmap that shows exactly where you want to end up and your macro plans for getting there. Plot your big milestones early on, then break each one down into smaller, incrementally achievable milestones and success metrics to ensure you stay on track. From there, evaluate the most time-efficient ways to reach each goal. Sounds simple enough, but let’s go one step at a time.

First, determine the significant events that will show true business growth. Is it offering your product for pre-orders or releasing the beta version of your app? Is it reaching 1000 customers? Maybe having 100 daily visitors to your website? Or shipping your first products to consumers?

Once you have an idea of what targets you’re aiming for, be realistic about how long they’ll take to reach, but also look for ways to minimize that. What’s the pace at which you need to go in order to reach 1000 customers by your target date? What’s the smartest and most time-efficient way to do that?

Next, step back and do a cost/benefit analysis, where your “cost” is time, instead of money. Ask yourself if the time you’re about to spend on a given task will make a large enough impact to be worth it. Only spend your time on the things that will actually make a real difference.

For example, if you planned to spend a few extra hours refining your market size, but you know that you can only realistically grow it from 3.2 million to 3.318 million users, it wouldn’t be worth those hours. On the other hand, if you could spend 2-3 hours and grow your market size from 3.2 to 4 million, that would be a great use of the same time.

Or let’s say you’re weighing the pros and cons of spending 40 hours (a full work week’s worth of time) sending cold emails to customers. Based on your past email campaigns and industry stats, you know your average cold email open rate is 10%, the click rate is 0.4%, and your purchase/conversion rate is 0.08%. These numbers would add up to less than 1 new customer for 40 hours of work. Put in perspective, it would take you over 4 years of doing nothing but cold emails just to acquire 500 new customers. Not worth it.

Instead, in a scenario where you’re looking to grow your user or consumer numbers, think about ways in which you can spend just a few hours and gain potentially similar results. For instance, could taking 4-5 hours to reach out to friends, former colleagues, and other contacts in order to drum up new customers or perhaps even partnerships be a good strategy? If it’s likely to yield a handful of new customers or partnerships (who can then do some of the work of spreading the word on your behalf) over 1/10 of the time it would’ve taken you to gain just 1 new person, yes.

Similarly, when you are planning mockups, you can choose to spend 10 hours to refine a paper mockup and start getting feedback and learning right away, or you can throw 100 hours into a more refined product. Start simply, so that when it comes time to use those 100 hours they can be spent wisely and you can make choices based on what you learned from your simpler paper mockup. Never throw yourself directly into the deep end and commit a ton of time if you don’t have some foundation or simple version first.

Next, remember the 80/20 rule (or the Pareto Principle): 80% of value will come from 20% of the work or effort you put in. In other words, 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of your customers, 80% of your customers will come from 20% of your marketing efforts, and so on. The trick is to understand which 20% will yield the best results in each scenario, then stop worrying much about the rest.

You may notice, for example, that although you spread social media marketing evenly across Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, almost 80% of your leads come from Facebook (on which you’re only spending 20% of your resources). You can probably ease up on the sites that aren’t yielding any results (or very few) and take more time to up your Facebook game even further.

Using the right tools and frameworks, which I covered in an earlier post, can also help you master your time as an entrepreneur. From managing a variety of projects, to making your marketing as easy and streamlined as possible, to making sure everyone on your team is on the same page so that precious time isn’t wasted on mixed signals and poor communication.

One of the most useful tools I discussed is the Eisenhower Matrix. This helps you prioritize the tasks you need to complete on a daily or weekly basis by categorizing them as either “urgent and important”, “important but not urgent”, “urgent but not important”, or “neither important nor urgent”. You have to take care of important and urgent things right away. You should schedule tasks that are important but not urgent, and do them in the near future. Delegate what’s urgent but not important to someone on your team. And scrap anything that is not urgent or important.

Try to pack as much meaningful work into your time as you can, but beware of shortcuts. Multitasking might seem like an amazing approach to a packed schedule, but it turns out that for most of us it eats more time than it saves. The vast majority of people are terrible multitaskers and trying to divide our attention between two tasks can lead to lowered productivity and quality on both. And, because our brains need time to shift gears and refocus, multitasking could even make certain tasks take longer than they would if we were singularly focused on them.

Unless you are one of the very few who can successfully multitask, you’re best off avoiding this trick. Instead of trying to do multiple things at once, build your schedule to allow you to give your undivided attention to one task at a time. When you take on a project, be fully present and immersed, because giving yourself to what’s in front of you at all times raises the chances you’ll always do your best work. If you have a tendency to become so engrossed that you totally lose track of time, you can use a simple timer to tell you when to move to the next pressing item on your schedule.

Mastering your time is also crucial so that you don’t end up working 70-80 hours a week while neglecting things like sleep and self-care. Research indicates that working over 50 hours per week doesn’t make you any more productive, and can even make you less so. Plus, it opens the door to mistakes born out of exhaustion and raises your risk of burnout.

The simple fact is that humans need time away from work. Striking a good work-life balance is important at any stage of business, but founders often find it hardest to justify in the startup phase. They buy into the notion that to give your all to a business means to literally overwork oneself. They wear long hours like badges of honor, not realizing they are probably doing their business harm, not to mention setting a terrible example and precedent for their staff.

A rested mind is a sharper mind. This goes for maximizing your relaxation time, especially sleep, but also for taking breaks to recharge. Don’t just skip lunch or eat it mindlessly at your desk. Take a quick walk, eat outside, do whatever gives your brain a break and a chance to reset. Getting away, even for just 20-30 minutes, can refresh you and get the ideas flowing for a more productive rest of the day.

Finally, limit the time you spend doing things that are not purposeful and don’t bring anything positive into your life or business. While it’s good to spend some time on social media on a regular basis, making or strengthening connections, interacting with customers, seeing what market trends are, and fine-tuning your audience outreach. But, don’t let yourself fall into the abyss of watching a dozen videos, spending hours aimlessly commenting on posts, or stalking your competitors. Set boundaries by determining how much time you really need to spend on each social site in order to stay in the know and connect with people, and sticking to it. Here, again, you can use a timer to keep yourself honest.

Developing the skills and mindset that to master time early in your entrepreneurial career will serve you well through all your future endeavors.

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