The real secret to early-stage productivity: Be ruthless

As a founder of a startup, your to-do list will get longer every day, despite how hard and long you work. There simply aren’t enough hours in each week to achieve everything that you want to.

So you need to ruthlessly prioritise your to-do list.

The problem is that most people will unconsciously drift towards tasks that they enjoy, or tasks that they’re good at, or tasks that other people say are important, or tasks that pop up in their inbox.

I battle this unconscious drift every day. Here’s what I’ve learnt about ruthless prioritisation.

List everything that you want to do

If you don’t write it down, it’s less likely to get done.

I use Trello to list all my tasks. Trello is a cloud-based board of to-do lists which you can share with colleagues. It has a couple of key advantages.

First, it de-clutters your inbox. If an email chain results in an action, you can note the action in Trello in order of prioritisation, and then archive the email.

Second, it gives you complete ownership of your workflow. Too often I find myself going to my inbox to figure out what I should be doing next. That’s the wrong approach. It allows other people to influence the prioritisation of your work. Moving your tasks to Trello makes this list the independent source of your workflow.

Prioritise the list

The next step is to prioritise that list.

You’ll be pulled in different directions by people and tasks that are all deserving of your time.

But you need to be independent and ruthless about prioritisation.

The best method I’ve found is to select 1 key metric that drives value in your business, and wash all your tasks against that metric.

You’ll probably already be tracking a number of key metrics that drive value in your business. Try and reduce these down to a single metric – that will make it easier and faster to prioritise tasks.

This metric must be one that will naturally make your business successful in the long run if it’s consistently increasing. Monthly active users may be a relevant example for some businesses. This metric should be your North Star when prioritising your work.

Add accountability

You’re more likely to get things done if you’re accountable. That’s why it’s good to tell people that you’re going to run a marathon, or that you’re limiting yourself to 1 coffee a day, or that you’re going to spend the morning writing the new website copy that you’ve been meaning to do for the last week.

Trello is useful for accountability. Our team shares a Trello board. On this board we each have a personal to-do list. The board also has a list called “Rocks for the day” which is a list for the whole team.

Each member of our team nominates the 1 “rock” that they’re going to work on the following day, and adds it to the “Rocks for the day” list. This is the task that each person works on as soon as they arrive the next morning, before getting caught in the whirlwind of emails and phone calls and other “urgent matters” that arise through the course of the day. It’s a great feeling to arrive at work knowing the task that you’re going to knock off before the rest of the world has browsed the junk in their inbox. Make sure you do this first – don’t even open your inbox unless you need it for the task.

We’ve borrowed and remixed a concept from Derek Handley’s book here. Derek talks about setting strategic objectives, then breaking these down into “rocks” and then “pebbles” and so on until they are bite sized actions that will lead to completion of a strategic objective. Our rocks must be related to strategic objectives rather than BAU.

We’re each accountable for delivering our rock that morning. And if someone’s rock doesn’t seem like the highest priority, everyone has a chance to suggest a different task.

Thinking about my teammates’ rocks helps me to plan ahead on collaborative projects. If I’m going to need a few hours of Ben’s input on a piece of work that’s due in 1 week, I’d better make sure he’s got that factored into his workflow. This prompts conversations that prevent things falling through cracks.

Other points to consider

Be conscious of your effectiveness. You may be more effective in the mornings. You may be more effective when you’re in a quiet environment. Your best marketing ideas may flow when you’re taking a shower.

I used to work as a lawyer, and I found it hard to escape the mindset of “productivity = time on the clock”. Measure your effectiveness against that North Star key metric you’ve chosen, rather than time spent at the desk.

Figure out a structure for internal meetings that works for your business. Be conscious of whether internal meetings are valuable enough to justify the time. “If you’re going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour and invite 10 people to attend then it’s a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting. You are trading 10 hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time” – read more in this excellent article from Groove.

Nominate days where you have no external meetings. There can be a large “transactional cost” with external meetings. There’s the travel time. And the time on each side when you’re not settled in to your task. You can’t get properly absorbed in a task if you’ve got one eye on the clock. Face to face time is important because business is about people, but nominate a day or 2 per week where you keep your time totally free to work on the most valuable tasks for your business.

If you’re in a small team, you may have responsibilities across a wide range of functions like product, sales, marketing, finances, customer support, and PR. It’s hard to spend 30 minutes on product and then flip straight into a marketing task. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey combatted this by having a focus for each day of the week. Monday was management. Tuesday was product. Wednesday was marketing and growth. This can bring clear focus to each day.

Summary

  1. List everything that you want to get done.
  2. Prioritise that list against a key metric that drives value in your business.
  3. Communicate with your team about your priorities and be accountable.
  4. Be conscious of your effectiveness, and adjust to suit.

This is a work in progress and I ain’t no prioritisation ninja yet – let me know at josh.daniell@snowballeffect.co.nz if you’ve got some tips that I can add to this article.

Good luck out there!

Josh Daniell is a co-founder at Snowball Effect, New Zealand’s leading marketplace for private equity investment opportunities.