Productivity and Chaos: How to Hurry Without Rushing (p. 1)

As founders, we often tend to work ridiculous hours in the hopes that more hours = more revenue. This is often not the case.


We cause a lot of motion and the dust is well stirred, but little is actually accomplished. Click To Tweet

I have found that most people get about 4 productive hours out of the day, no matter how many hours they actually put in. Especially since the average “I worked a twenty hour day” usually consists of several meal breaks, watercooler BS, daydreaming, IM, office politics, chain mail, the latest viral video, sexual innuendo, and other nonsense.

I’d rather work productively for 4 hours than unproductively for 20. So I retrained my work habits until I could get a normal days work done in four hours, and then I started increasing my hours from there. Nowadays I can get a genuinely productive 16 hour day if I need to, but generally settle somewhere between 7 and 9 with a healthy amount of time for non-goal oriented learning and creative thinking.

Here’s a list of little tips that have helped me, many of which come from Getting Things Done by David Allen. It’s worth a read if you’re not familiar with it. Sometime it’s a bit tedious and you’ll find that you already know 50-80% of it, but the parts you don’t know are extremely valuable.

Avoid Context Switching

If you think you can multi-task between five IM screens, your email, facebook, and an actually productive task, well that’s great. Stop reading this.

But every time I switch gears from a phone call to an excel sheet to php code I lose about 15 minutes as my brain reorients. This is true of minor interruptions including emails, IM, the phone, etc. and it’s probably true for everyone.

As a founder I have a ton of things going on and it’s hard to shut everything down to focus, but it really helps. If you honestly can’t shut down extra apps, close your door and put up the do not disturb sign, it’s time to get up two hours earlier so you can have an uninterrupted block of time to work.

Two hours is the minimum for me to make progress on a complex task. 30 mins for minor work blocks. I need four hours if I’m going to do any programming or one of my uber complicated spreadsheets. You might want to consider useful apps like Concentrate or Rescue Time which enforce this for you.

Chunk Similar Tasks

Along the same lines, I like to eliminate interruptions by getting a block of similar tasks done at once, like phone calls which are prime procrastination material. (Think: “I’ll just take a quick break and call David Wallace.”). But obviously, you’re setting yourself up for major distractions when you start getting call backs unless you unplug your phone afterwards.

I like to walk to work in the morning which takes about 45 minutes. I make calls on the way, generally get any callbacks I need, I get exercise, and it clears my head.

The (Un)Glory of Caffeine

I don’t find this all that helpful as an all purpose solution, but from time to time is a lifesaver. Your body tends to get used to whatever drugs you put into it, and caffeine is no exception.

If you have a cup of coffee every day, you’re not actually more awake and aware than if you didn’t have any caffeine at all. It’s only when your caffeine intake has an abnormal spike or dip that there’s any real change in your energy level. So if you normally drink a coffee every day and skip it, yes…you’ll feel awful on that day and receive no real benefit when you have your “normal” dose.

I cut out all caffeine (including sugary sodas) and had a miserable couple of weeks, but then my body re-calibrated and now I get a nice boost on the once a week occasion when I need caffeine to pull me through an all-nighter.

In addition if I don’t drink caffeine after 11 or 12 am, I sleep a lot better, which makes me more rested and more productive the next day.


Sleep is critical, but difficult. Click To Tweet

When I have something on my mind, I tend to wake up at 4 am and can’t get back to sleep. If this happens, I’m better off getting out of bed and dealing with it than just laying there stressing out. But then it’s up and at ’em, cook breakfast, take shower, and make a day out of it. Doing something halfway and then trying to get back to sleep never works well and I’ll probably just dream about it anyway, which isn’t very restful when you’ve got excel tables in your head.

Best of all is to not have something on your mind. Click To Tweet

For those that can meditate, that’s great. I’ve never been able to, but I clear my mind anyway by making sure that I have a system in place that logs all my To Dos.

I can have 100 upcoming tasks, but as long as I’m confident that I won’t forget one (because I wrote it down) then I can sleep through the night. For this reason I highly recommend having a system that you trust like Getting Things Done. But it doesn’t really matter what system it is so long as you trust it and it works for you.

A piece of paper will do.

Time Tracking

I love time tracking software, but you don’t need software. Again, a piece of paper will do.

The principle is pretty simple and it is consistent with every productivity guru I’ve ever heard. You can improve what you measure. So measure how much time out of each day is actually productive and you’ll find that you can focus on beating that amount the next day and the next week. Just keep track.

What does ‘actually productive’ mean?

If you spend 8 hours researching, but have not managed to put any of that research into effect, you have accomplished nothing. At the minimum, research needs to result in a useful summary or notes, meetings must result in action items, and coding must result in something that runs (even if poorly).

If you just held a 4 hour meeting to “motivate” employees with your vision, you probably didn’t accomplish anything except maybe made yourself feel important and useful. But hey, maybe you’re Tony Robbins, so go for it. I’d rather motivate my staff by working hard and helping them directly with issues that they’re facing or problems they might solve. If you explain your killer vision to your staff in the context of the work they do, it’ll be that much more meaningful to them.

If you have any useful tips of your own, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to work smarter while remaining relaxed. There are some other topics I’d like to cover, but will continue in later posts:

Discussion (2 comments)

  1. Valyo says:

    Nice post
    I’m also using the Getting Things Done method since a couple of months and I’m working hard on getting my system functioning full speed.
    Good point about productive research – it is common sense, but one has to continuously remind himself of the purpose and the particular issue at hand. The stuff we read is so hyperlinked, that you can easily get completely lost ‘clicking yourself away’ from your original purpose.

    1. Tristan Kromer says:

      Problem I always have is not taking good notes. Then you wind up redoing half the work because you did not adequately reference things. Instead, just a folder full of categorized bookmarks that you have to go through and read again. šŸ™

  2. Pingback: Caffeine Killer (Productive Chaos: How to Hurry Without Rushing p. 2) | startupSQUARE's blog

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