The average tech CEO works about 300 days a year, 14 hours a day. That’s 4,200 hours a year. The stats for most other tech leaders and startup employees aren’t too far off. It sounds like a lot of time, but for most, it’s not enough. Nearly 30% of that time gets sunk into email. Another third gets spent in meetings — and studies show that half of those hours are completely wasted.
Looking at the schedule of a typical CEO, a full 70% of that time is sub-optimal, and I’ll back that up with my own experience. Prior to joining First Round as a partner, I served as Co-Founder and CEO for three companies, including LiveOps. Today, I meet with dozens of founders every week, helping them grow their teams and get more productivity out of themselves and the people they work with. They know they should be using every hour to move their companies forward, create great products, close deals and hire the best candidates. Many just can’t find the time. So, how do we get better?
This year, I spent several weeks leading up to our annual CEO Summit catching up with people I know who do a superhuman job at managing their time. My goal was to capture the tools, tips and hacks they use to make every work hour count. Below, I share eight strategies that have worked for them and for me, so we can all stop wasting time and missing out on opportunities.
1. SAY NO.
As your company becomes more prominent, you’re only going to get more of everything. More people reaching out through LinkedIn, email, invitations to connect, to go to coffee, to ask for a favor. It’s death by paper cuts. Inevitably, a childhood acquaintance from 20 years ago who you can barely remember will ask you for introductions to all your influential friends at Facebook. This is when you have to say, “No.”
Saying no is so hard. It’s hard because you want to pay it forward. So many people have helped you. You want to do the same. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and there are ways to make it easier.
Try “No” templates — canned responses for all the common situations where you find yourself saying no. I first heard about the idea from entrepreneur and investor Mark Suster, and it’s saved me immeasurable time and anxiety. Here’s an example:
Great to hear from you. Hope all is well. Fortunately, my company is starting to take off, and I’m under extreme pressure to deliver against some ambitious goals. Unfortunately I won’t be able to connect right now.
This lets you put the time and attention you want into crafting a response. You just don’t have to do it every time. The most important thing is that you close the door to further communication. Do it nicely in a way that truthfully explains the situation, but don’t leave things open-ended.
When you have your batch of templates, you can say no to salespeople. Say no to investor meetings when you’re not raising money. Investors make a lot of introductions. You don’t have to take all of them. Board members make random requests. You don’t have to agree to all of them. Write a template for each of these cases, including messages on LinkedIn. Even that email from your long-lost friend looking for a meeting. Eventually, you’ll need it.
2. BE AN EMAIL NINJA.
For those of you who haven’t seen SaneBox, I’m a huge fan — it’s so simple. It's like Google Priority Mailbox, supercharged and works well with your iPhone. It sets up a bulk folder that takes all bulk email out of your inbox. Anything that you don’t need to read personally, you never see it. It’s accurate and it saves a ton of time.
Another tool that has made an outsized impact lately is Superhuman, which helps me and many people I know get through our inboxes in 50% of the time. The product is very focused on performance and keyboard shortcuts, and the overall speed is faster than Gmail. You can also turn on a setting that lets you archive emails as soon as you hit send, leaving you with a more pristine inbox at the end of the day.
Most of the CEOs I know who are very productive make a priority to get to inbox zero. Just think about postal mail for a second. Do you pick your letters up, look at each one and then put them back down only to pick them up and put them down again and again? This is the definition of insanity. Yet that’s exactly what most of us do with our email. There are three methods that I’ve observed email ninjas use:
All day. Your inbox is always open and you process things as they come in. You’re extremely responsive but it’s hard to focus on projects that require deep thought.
Batch. You look at your email two to four times a day and run through everything then.
Assistance. You retain the help of a full-time or virtual assistant who can help sort through your email to flag what’s actually important, what requires action and what doesn’t. You’ll need to set up a private inbox, of course, but this can turbo-charge your whole life.
If you don’t have an assistant, I recommend the batch route. It lets you focus on email when you need to, and give other tasks the attention they deserve. Constant context-switching makes you mediocre at everything.
Another way to take your email skills to the next level is to install a suite of plug-ins. Task managers like Asana often have them, allowing you to move emails in and out of your task manager. It’s a quick way to get things out of your inbox but not off your radar.
Rule of thumb: If you can respond to or act on any email in under two minutes, just do it immediately. If it’s going to require more than two minutes, move it into your task manager to process later. When you do this, you have the ability to prioritize tasks and emails in relation to each other, and your inbox no longer owns your time.
Finally, and perhaps the most useful thing you can do is use TextExpander or another shortcut utility. It allows you to type short-hand and have it magically fill out an email with prepared phrases with just a few quick keystrokes.
3. MANAGE YOUR ENERGY.
Not too long ago, the average human used to walk 12 miles a day. Now we sit. We sit a lot. We sit so much. It’s so bad for us that Harvard Business Review has called it the smoking of our generation. If you work in tech, you average 9.3 hours sitting every day. This is more than you sleep. As people, we’re meant to move. It’s vital to our health, but also our ability to be effective. Here are three quick hacks in this department:
The seven-minute workout. It’s scientifically proven. The New York Times has spoken. You do 12 exercises in seven minutes and it works.
Take walking meetings. Almost everyone has one-on-one meetings. Suggest taking a walk instead of sitting in a conference room or a coffee shop.
Ask for a standing desk. Most offices now accommodate these requests. They’ve been proven to reduce risks of heart disease and cancer and boost mood and alertness. And if you’re really committed to daily movement, try a walking desk.
Managing your energy isn’t just about physicality. It’s about understanding your mental rhythms too. We all know about sleep rhythms, the importance of deep sleep and a healthy REM cycle. But we don’t pay attention to how these rhythms continue throughout our day too. To take advantage of upcycles, you need to build your schedule like a sprinter. Block off an hour to two hours when you are at your most alert and use them to work against your three top priorities.
Here’s an example of a CEO’s calendar:
They set up their morning to do the most creative projects. Research shows most people are at their most creative in the morning. Handle email and stand-up meetings after that and then power through emails at the end of the day. Notice how there are breaks between these scheduled blocks to remain optimally focused in between.
When you do take a break, you actually need to take a break. Go for a walk. Listen to soothing music. Do something not work related. Talk to the people in your office and discover things about them that aren’t related to work.
4. BUILD PLAYBOOKS.
For anything you do more than three times, write down your process in detail. Build playbooks that you can hand off to someone else, so they can execute something exactly the way you would. Never get held up by people asking what the next step is or whom they should ask about a process.
This is how Uber in particular scaled so quickly. They’ve grown to over 70 cities and they’ve killed it in all of them. How did they do it? With a playbook. They have a list of the things they do in every single city when they launch, with slight regional adjustments. They have practiced this method and tested it and wrote it all down. So now they just execute, like turning a key.
People who do amazing things write it down. Startups don't do that enough.
The startups that I have seen succeed the most at scaling are the ones who have systematized their common actions and core procedures early, and made a habit of it as they grew.
5. GET GREAT AT EXTERNAL MEETINGS.
How many times do you meet with someone important to your business, but fail to take away knowledge you can use to grow that relationship? This could be anyone from a business development partner to a client. It can be hard to hear, and when you walk out, you lose so much of what they’ve told you. The chances that you’ll improve your performance for them are slim.
To break this mold, you need to understand their professional challenges.
If you don’t, you have to ask them. If you’re in a B2B space, what are your customers’ customers asking for? How can you help them meet these challenges?
How many of us can list off the top three professional challenges our customers face?
To really get the most out of your meetings, you have to bridge personal and professional. It doesn’t have to be deep. It could be as simple as asking them if they are going anywhere on vacation soon. When they respond to questions like this, make note of it. Give yourself the opportunity to reach out again, outside of meetings, with a personal touch to build that connection and deepen it. For example, if a contact likes cycling, send them an awesome bike route you've discovered. It makes a transformative difference.
6.GET GREAT AT INTERNAL MEETINGS.
Startups tend to hold a lot of meetings. Too many. Have less. One of the easiest ones to kill is the status meeting. You don’t need to constantly meet with your team to provide a round robin of updates. Just have them write it down. Put it in a Google Doc and have everyone read it once a week.
Never leave a meeting until you've decided what the outcome is.
When it comes to decision-making meetings, make reversible decisions quickly. Most decisions in startups are reversible and yet we agonize over them for too long. When you come together, get the right data and the right people and drive toward a decision.
Do this for all decision-making meetings, unless it's truly an irreversible decision. Take more time with those, have more conversations, involve your advisors and board. Otherwise decide and execute. Your biggest advantage as a startup is the ability to change quickly later since there are so few moving parts.
7. LEVERAGE ASSISTANTS.
Technology is great at making us more productive, but it has its limits. It’s worth growing a relationship with an assistant, either in-office or remotely to help you.
Virtual assistants and services like TaskRabbit that are more dedicated to specific tasks can be very powerful. However, they can’t take what’s inside your head and make judgments for you.
If it is possible for you, hire a full-time assistant in the same building as you. This can extend your capabilities more than you can imagine. In addition to having enough context to make decisions on your behalf, they can orchestrate these other services to do even more. If having a full-time assistant isn’t possible, try a virtual one. There are many inexpensive services, like Prialto, and they can take a ton of stuff off your plate. They can order and send gifts, take dictation, schedule many meetings at once, etc.
Dictation, especially, should not be underestimated as a great source of productivity. I recommend you install an app called Voxie. You can open it and literally say, “Draft an email to Chris,” and then just speak it out, “Hi Chris, Great to see you this morning. Thanks for catching up.” Your virtual assistant can easily field the recording, and when you get back to your inbox, it’ll already be in your drafts. All you need to do is hit send.
Following up on meetings can be tremendously impactful, but how often do you actually do it?
Now you can draft the follow-up email in seconds right as you’re leaving a meeting.
8. GIVE YOUR TEAM LEVERAGE.
One of the most productive CEOs I recently spoke to is religious about “management by walking around.” This is exactly what it sounds like. He circulates the office, stopping to talk to his team members one-on-one or in small groups throughout the day. He asks them:
What’s holding you back from getting more done?
What are your blockers? Are there any bottlenecks or barriers I can remove for you?
What resources or processes would let you move as fast as you want to?
So I advise you, get the answers to these questions and get it done for your team. If you want them to model speed, you need to model speed yourself. Give them the help they need to do their best work in record time. Responsiveness is key. You can still batch your emails and catch urgent requests with a tool called AwayFind. Whenever someone sends a high priority message, you’ll get an alert without having to leave your inbox open all day.
A lot of the time, you’ll hear that people are simply stuck. They’re nervous about deploying a feature or cold emailing an important contact. They’re toiling away to fix a tiny bug while a larger project grinds to a halt. When something like this is holding them back, the best question you can ask is this: What is the cost of failure? If only two people out of two million will see a new feature that isn’t perfect, you don’t need to be spending so much time on it. De-risk it for them. When you’re a manager, this is often the best use of your time.
Demonstrate the 80/20 rule in everything you do. This means spending 80% of your time on the work that moves the needle, and only 20% on the smaller stuff. Condition your team out of seeking perfection. So many startup employees, especially engineers, want to nail everything perfectly the first time. But that’s not what you want. You want speed.
If you implement these simple hacks, you can get that 70% of time you aren't maximizing back. You can spend less time in meetings and your inbox. Most importantly, you can get back to leading, inspiring, closing deals and changing the world. As a founder, operator, advisor and angel investor, Bill Trenchard has helped dozens of companies launch, manage through hyper growth and win. Before joining First Round, Bill led LiveOps to $100 million in sales and hundreds of employees. He tweets at @btrenchard.