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I once asked Mitch Kapor how he stayed productive. The tech veteran smiled and showed me an elaborate Microsoft Word document he used to keep track of all the people, places and projects in his life with keyboard shortcuts to move information around, so he’d know what to do when. Seeing him in action with it was a marvel, because for him, that document was clearly the best tool for the job.
Productivity has become something of an obsession for me over the last 20 years, first as an investment category at Menlo Ventures but increasingly as a personal need for myself, juggling professional goals with aspirations to be the best husband, father and friend I can be. I’ve drawn from experts and executives I’ve worked with over the years to crystallize my own approach into five essential principles.
1. Start with a prioritized plan.
If you start your day reacting to inbound requests, you’ll seldom go home with a real sense of accomplishment. Taking just a few minutes each morning to identify your day’s top goals and holding yourself accountable for completing them can dramatically impact the effectiveness of your day.
This isn’t to say priorities should be unbendable. My mentor and hero Steve Blank says it best adapting a famous military adage: “No plan survives first contact with customers.” An iterative, feedback-rich refinement process leads to optimal product, and your day should be no different. Optimize it by shifting priorities as needed and pushing some things off until later to maintain focus on what’s most important.
Prioritization scales across teams with profound results. Uber, the best executing company I’ve ever worked with, went from operating in one city to over 300 within five years. That would have been impossible without a meticulously sequenced playbook, and thoughtful leaders like Travis and Austin Geidt ensuring the most effective practices are learned, codified and replicated into a prioritized plan for each role.
2. Work off a to-do list, not out of an inbox.
Psychologist George Miller observed that most people can only remember about seven chunks of unrelated information. If you have more than seven to-dos in life, you come to rely on external systems for memory assistance. Too often, our e-mail or Slack inbox become our default systems, but since they are mostly populated by others’ requests, our personal agendas get starved out.
A to-do system should meet three criteria: 1. Your attention must return to it consistently, 2. It shouldn’t interrupt your important work and 3. It should be low friction to maintain. Cooley attorney Mark Tanoury keeps his to-do list in an email draft. Fellow Menlo partner John Jarve uses a legal pad with a system of stars. They’re two of the most effective people I know. The system matters less than your consistency in using it.
3. Avoid multitasking.
“To do two things at once is to do neither.” — Publilius Syrus
For years, I labored under the illusion that multi-tasking helped me get things get done faster. But research shows we actually lose time and cognitive energy switching contexts. University of California Irvine professor Gloria Mark estimates an average of 23 minutes elapses before getting back on task.
Good To Great author Jim Collins is famous for going into “Monk Mode,” tuning out the world for several months while digesting and synthesizing information into a profound set of insights. While most executives can’t take months-long sabbaticals, they can still follow the Pomodoro method of focusing in 25 minute segments, or schedule inbox triage into three separate chunks.
4. Touch things once — and practice saying, “No thanks.”
When you pick up a piece of paper, act on it immediately or throw it away: This idea was first popularized decades ago, but the underlying principle is still applicable in the digital era. For messages or requests requiring your action which you can’t deal with immediately, turn them into to-dos, schedule time to work on them or delegate them to someone who can. Otherwise, reading and re-reading messages will cost you hours per week.
Related advice comes from Steve Jobs: “Focus is saying no to 1,000 good ideas.” Steve recognized the extremely limited bandwidth we each have in life, mandating thoughtful focus on few projects to make a real difference.
I realized this in a very personal way after founding Handle while still serving as a partner at Menlo Ventures. As much as I love the Menlo team and investing at the frontiers of technology, dividing focus between Menlo, running a company and spending time with my family was not giving anyone my best — leaving me an empty vessel, sometimes in tears as I commuted. As difficult a decision as it was, I took leave from Menlo to throw my professional weight behind my own startup.
5. Maintain your productivity habit every day — because today is all you have.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” — Aristotle
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg observes how quickly we deplete our finite daily supply of willpower in trying to stay productive in the face of incoming distractions. Habits, once in place, are transformative. Brushing teeth, exercising and tackling hard tasks first all may be hard habits to start, but once they are formed, they get hard-wired into our brain.
For many of us, our default habit is showing up at work and allocating time based on the top messages in our inbox. Our good intentions and aspirations only manifest when we move towards them with our own thoughtful actions.
Even after devoting years of my work life to solving the productivity problem, I still live up to this standard far less often than I wish I did. But I’ll never give up. Because in the end, productivity isn’t just about being better at work. It’s about finding the time and being emotionally present for our favorite people and passions.
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” — Mother Teresa