When we launch startups, we wear every imaginable hat possible. Good leaders ask, "How can I do more?", but great leaders ask, "How can I do less?" As startup leaders we do a lot manually (if we're smart) before we invest the time to automate things that are unproven. But as we grow we need to multiply ourselves because we're just not scalable. "If only I could duplicate myself," we think.
So how do we increase productivity without increasing costs? The answer is paradoxical: we have to stop doing things to get more done.
The problem is, we're so scrappy at the beginning, it's hard to get away from that mindset and focus on increasing productivity. We have to leave our old habits behind and acquire new ones.
Here's the best framework I've found on this subject, and it comes from a book called "Procrastinate on Purpose" by Rory Vaden. (Rex Galbraith, my VP of Sales, who devours business books like a lion devours prancing ponies on the African savanna, told me this book was the best book he's read on productivity, hands down. So there you go, two votes from us!)
Vaden (I keep wanting to call him Vader, who, incidentally, was probably pretty good at this framework; I mean, how in the world could you ever get the Death Star built without top notch productivity?), suggests we ask ourselves these questions in this order:
- What can I eliminate?
- What can I automate?
- What can I delegate?
- What can I procrastinate?
He calls this the Focus Funnel (see my other article on the principle of Primary Focus):
Vaden argues that we do a lot of things we don't have to. Brian Tracy, in "Eat That Frog" (another great book on productivity) says, "One of the very worst uses of your time is to do something very well that need not be done at all."
I'm amazed at what I can eliminate if I just ask the following questions:
- "Is this necessary?
- "Is this the most important thing I can do right now?"
- "How does this help me accomplish my main objectives and will it really help move the needle or is it just marginally useful or interesting?"
- "What will happen if I just don't do this?"
- And, my favorite, "If I don't do this, what else could I use my time for?"
I have begun looking at my day every day, and my week every week, and asking myself, "What can I eliminate?" Do you really have to reply to every email? Do you really have to be in that meeting?
If you're not the boss, ask your boss if you really need to be in "that meeting". I guarantee that if you approach your boss with this approach you're going to be able to get out of the meeting a high percentage of the time: "Hey [bossperson you], I'm trying to make real progress on [the most important project here] and in this upcoming meeting I'm only a minor participant. Would you mind terribly if I skipped this meeting so that I can stay focused and move the needle toward [hitting the goal] on time?"
Sometimes, you don't even need permission. Just do it, then let the consequence follow. If you're hitting your own metrics out of the park, is anyone really going to fault you when you say, "Sorry, couldn't make that meeting. I was out crushing my numbers"?
(And, if you are the boss, try to be understanding when someone tries to eliminate a meeting from their schedule for the purpose of increasing productivity.)
Tim Ferriss calls this "the art of letting small bad things happen." I think that's an incredibly insightful (though awkward sounding) concept. Let's just shorten it to "the art of letting bad things happen". That just doesn't sound right at the outset. But, if we eliminate some things, which in turn, might cause a few "bad things" (hopefully small) to happen, it gives us time to actually work on the things that matter most.
Again, you have to stop doing things. The question is, what are you going to stop doing so that you do other things? And what are those other things?
Steve Jobs famously (or infamously if you were one of his project managers) eliminated all but a very small number of projects when he took the helm again at Apple in 1997. Check out his article on "getting rid of the crappy stuff".
So learn to become an Eliminator and a Chief Bad Thing Allower (there's a C-level title for you that might not show too well on a resume).
If you can't eliminate it, the next best thing is to automate it. Just like elimination, automation, once it is set up, requires little to no time from you or your staff to complete and will multiply your time in the future.
This is harder because you usually have to spend time automating and building the system. So there's an investment in time here.
Automation is something we're super passionate about at Consensus. In fact our whole company is built on this belief that by automating what you can, you are able to spend more of your time doing things you can't automate. In our case, our software automates varying levels of product video demos for marketing, presales, and sales so that when a sales rep has that face to face conversation with the prospect, the prospects are already educated, have brought the stakeholders in the buying group to the table, and are ready to talk specifics.
What can you automate? You'd be surprised. I would imagine before reading this, you didn't think you could automate product demos. But companies large and small, like Oracle, IBM, HPE, and many others are saving thousands of hours of time across their workforces doing exactly that.
Can you automate things like email? Sort of. I'm a big fan of using text expanders. I use one for the Mac called aText (only $5), but used to use one for Windows called Phrase Express. They're both fantastic and help you automate by putting a burst of dynamically populated text into your email replies based on a short code you enter. This is especially helpful for responding to similar inquiries, such as potential investors reaching out.
Every week I work on an automation project. And just because you can't automate something fully, or perhaps it's too time consuming to do so, don't skip it; semi-automating can save you loads of time too.
So stop doing things, become an Automator, and see your time multiply.
This one is the hardest for me, as I think it is for most startup leaders. Vaden's advice is that if someone can do the task at least 80% as well as you, then you should delegate it. I find this advice extremely helpful because in the past, I think I put the threshold at a much higher level.
To be a good delegator, we also need to embrace the spirit of letting small bad things happen (thank you Mr. Tim). If they only do it 80% as well as you, then that means 20% of the job will be less than stellar. But that's okay, because you're multiplying yourself and that time spent elsewhere will more than make up for the difference.
The other challenge with delegating is finding the time to train the person to do the task. Think of it as an investment though, and carve out the time and you'll be forever thanking yourself. You'll get that time back in spades.
For example, if you spend 2 hours a week doing a task that would take 10 hours to train someone on, within a year, you would get back 94 hours (2 hours x 52 = 104 hours minus the 10 hours it takes to train someone)! That's a huge time savings. You could take 2 weeks off work with that much time. But I get it. It's hard to set aside 10 hours. But if we never do, we won't get that times savings back.
Become a Delegator and you not only will multiply your time, but your staff will appreciate the opportunities to grow. And besides, they might actually be able to do it better than you can, even if you won't admit it in public (though you should :).
If you can't eliminate it, automate it, or delegate it, then you either need to concentrate NOW and get it done, OR, you need to put it off to later. I have a "Maybe Later" folder in my task app that has dozens of things that I've put in there that I used to think were so important, but that I intentionally procrastinated in favor of something more important at the time. Every now and then I look at that list and realize, "Ah, that's something that never needed doing." I could have eliminated it, but didn't know it at the time, and it took procrastinating it to recognize it.
Plus, doesn't it just sound great to hear procrastination as a positive thing? I'm suddenly validated!
So become a Procrastinator (on purpose only, not accidentally) and hold your head up high knowing that you've just put something off in favor of something better.
The Big Pay Out
Doing this over and over through several weeks, months, and years, you'll eventually have more and more time accruing back to you. It's like depositing savings into an investment account. It's not easy, but you're glad you did when you look back on it long after the pain of making the sacrifice passed.
In the end, what do you want more time for? Well, whatever you want it for. Some people will reinvest their time back into their business. Others will just spend more time on hobbies or with family and friends. Whatever makes your life meaningful--that's what.