Our 6 Must Reads for Honing Focus and Managing Your Time

Our 6 Must Reads for Honing Focus and Managing Your Time

How do you find focus in a world of competing priorities? Operate with intention. We share the Review's six best strategies for resisting distraction, boosting productivity and making every minute meaningful.

The first few weeks of a new quarter bring a predictable pattern: We look back on past goals and set our sights on fresh, new ambitions. But while plans are projected in months, we know the true progress happens by the week, day and hour — where all the distraction traps are laid and it’s easier to lose your way.

It’s on those time horizons where competing priorities clamor for our limited time, and finding focus becomes all the more vital, despite the stumbling blocks that stand in our way. When we could tackle a myriad of tasks at any given moment, what do we put first? How do we tune out the noise, when most of us carry a small vortex of distraction in our pockets? And it’s not just about what we can accomplish on the job. Distracted, unproductive time also cuts into the valuable space in your calendar that could be reclaimed for making connections that count, nourishing your curiosity or investing in self-care.

Over the years, the Review team has gathered best practices from busy CEOs, executive coaches and seasoned leaders on combating this very issue. As we pored through their advice, a reassuring theme emerged: Less is more. True productivity means scheduling less, saying no more often, and resisting distraction where you can. In other words, the most productive people aren’t the ones who are juggling the most commitments. They’re the ones operating most intentionally.

The six strategies that follow show you how to regain your time and focus, at any scale. We start small, with tips on recognizing distraction triggers and taming your inbox. Then, we share more tools for tackling larger challenges, triaging tasks and resetting motivation.

In the end, time management isn’t just about getting the most minutes out of your day — we hope these tips will help you make every minute meaningful.

1. Fend off distractions by observing triggers and making pacts.

The tendency to get distracted is human nature. And now, thanks to the modern distraction machines that we all keep right at our fingertips, that tendency has been amplified. That’s where founder, investor, behavioral scientist Nir Eyal comes in. As the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Eyal has turned his attention to helping professionals commit to working when they’re working — and unplugging when they’re not.

According to him, one of the best tactics for prioritizing focused work is to pour more energy and attention into mastering the internal triggers that are sapping our concentration. In other words, before you can beat distraction, you need to understand where it’s coming from.

“All human behavior — distraction included — starts from an internal trigger. The body gets us to act by making us feel these uncomfortable sensations that we seek to escape. It’s called homeostasis. If you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you feel warm, you take it off,” says Eyal. And with products we use, it’s no different. You might check the news out of boredom, Facebook out of loneliness, Google out of uncertainty. “These instantaneous responses are what make these products so habit-forming,” he says. “Even after you remove all these distractions, if you don't hone in on internal triggers, you're always going to get diverted by something.”

Here are a few simple ways that Eyal recommends we meet internal triggers head-on in order to get the upper hand on distraction:

  • Note the sensation. Eyal recommends noting when you are distracted, then looking for the emotion that triggered it. “Maybe it’s, ‘Hey, you know what? I was working on this task. I got bored, and I got up from my chair and I went to talk to Steve across the hall,’” says Eyal. “By simply noting the reason, we can start to pinpoint the sensation and unpack the negative feeling.”
  • Crowd out with curiosity. Be inquisitive — versus judgemental — about your internal triggers. “What was the emotion that you were trying to escape? Was it boredom? Was it loneliness? Was it uncertainty? Was it fear that you couldn't do the task? Only when we home in on that underlying emotion can we start finding a different way to deal with that emotion than reflexively trying to escape from it altogether,” says Eyal.

As you pay closer attention to your triggers, be compassionate with yourself. Everyone avoids tasks from time to time. But as you identify patterns — such as tasks that you never want to start — consider whether there’s a larger story there. “You can use all these different tricks for a while, but eventually over time, if you really don't want to do the task, it might be time to look for deeper reasons why this might not be the right task for you,” says Eyal.

Even after you’ve noted internal triggers, you still may need support to stay on track. Eyal explains how you can establish pacts to hold yourself accountable to focus:

  • Create a Ulysses pact. In a Ulysses pact, you make a deal of sorts with future you, locking yourself into a given task for a given amount of time. Just as Ulysses set up a series of constraints so he could hear the sirens’ song but still make it out alive, you can plan around your own weakness in the face of distraction. “While technology may have created a lot more distractions, the good news is that it’s also yielded some interesting tools to help achieve a kind of forced focus,” says Eyal. “For example, when I need to have focused writing time, I use an app called Forest, which blocks off my phone for a specific period of time.”
  • Find a focus partner. One of the challenges of the modern workplace is too much flexibility, and too little accountability for what you’re doing all day long. “Part of the problem that we have today with people working remotely or working in offices where you don't really know what everybody's up to is that goofing off looks the same as working hard,” say Eyal. So find a colleague and create that accountability. Sit down together, in person or virtually, and tell each other what you are going to get done for the next hour. Then, keep each other accountable to do that task.
  • Reimagine the task. You can also make your task itself more appealing, more engaging, by looking at it in a different light. “My friend Ian Bogost is a professor at Georgia Tech, and he studies play. It's fascinating. He wrote a book called Play Anything. What he said is that you can make any task into play and to make it fun by looking for the variability inside the task. Even if a task at first seems boring, look for the variabilities. Look for the uncertainty,” says Eyal. “Look for what might be different. You might time yourself. You might see if you can do it a little differently. You might see if you can do it a little bit better.”

Read more about Eyal’s four-step model for beating distraction and creating space for focused, creative work here.

2. Compromise on “sand,” not on “rocks” — and embrace your inner laziness when it comes to email.

While time management is often framed in terms of fine-tuning focus and making sure every task gets checked off, it’s also about preventing the negative side effects that tend to show up when you neglect it. And when Roli Saxena joined Clever to lead customer success at the growing startup, she experienced this firsthand as her role continued to expand. With too much on her plate, she searched for strategies to keep burnout at bay, eventually developing a few key frameworks to help her prioritize, focus and survive during one of the toughest moments of her career.

“Burnout is unavoidable no matter how good or experienced you are. All you can do is try to prevent it, and build an environment that catches it more of the time,” she says. Here’s one small strategy she uses to keep her head in chaotic surroundings: Triage your tasks into “rocks” and “sand.”

If all of the big impactful things you need to do are rocks, then all the constant granular stuff is the sand, from email and less important meetings to one-off questions and messages on Slack. Next, imagine your day is a jar, says Saxena. If you pour sand into it continuously by responding to inbound inquiries all day, it’s going to get filled up fast and there won’t be any room for the rocks. You won’t feel fulfilled, because your impact is limited.

But let’s say you commit to focusing on one or two rocks, and block out the time to do it. If you put a rock in a bucket, you can still pour sand in and it’ll flow around it. Emails behave the same way. The most important messages will get responded to and you’ll get more important work done.

“You’ll be more rigorous about prioritizing emails and quicker at responding to them, you won’t let them bog you down,” she says. “You can compromise on sand. You must not compromise on rocks.” (This video goes into even more detail on this thinking.)

As for one of the best strategies for managing the sand, Saxena recommends embracing your inner laziness when it comes to email.

“I scan through, see what’s most important, and make sure to take care of those,” she says. “The others maybe don’t get done, but that’s okay. I don’t always have to have an empty inbox. The expectation to always be responding immediately 100% of the time is unrealistic. And honestly, it’s probably not the other person’s expectations either — it’s your own expectations tying you to this.”

Email management comes back to giving yourself permission. You have to make it okay for yourself to close your inbox leaving threads hanging — maybe even for a few days.

To make sure she’s not missing anything, Saxena schedules two hours toward the end of the day on Fridays to scoop up and respond any remaining, non-urgent emails so she can start the next week fresh.

“Bill Gates once said he liked hiring smart, lazy people because they know how to solve a problem the fastest way,” she says. “You can apply that thinking to yourself. If you let yourself be ‘lazy’ enough to only focus on what’s critical during the week, you’ll process what’s left over much more efficiently when it’s time.”

Read more of Saxena’s key strategies and frameworks for keeping burnout at bay.

3. Engineer your schedule according to your energy.

Katia Verresen’s clients often come to her the same, fanciful (yet familiar) plea: to help them find more hours in their packed calendars. To steer her clients toward a habit of productivity, the sought-after career coach encourages people to start with internal reflection, then work their way to external changes. Successful execution, she says, often begins with maximizing physical, emotional, and mental energy.

Most people know the core components of physical energy: enough sleeping, eating right, exercise. But the dropoff between the people who know these rules and those who follow them is massive. Preserving physical energy in high-stress environments is especially paramount, since stressors can threaten to burn your energy without you knowing it.

To get a sense of your physical reserves, Verresen recommends asking several basic questions: How alert do you feel generally? What are you sleeping patterns like? Do you find time to exercise? Do you often take breaks between meetings or do they stack them back-to-back? What is your level of engagement in meetings?

Then go granular, using a spreadsheet to plot how alert you feel versus how tired you feel on an hourly basis. Verresen recommends doing this for a stretch of three days to a week — enough time to see a pattern emerge. “When you track things this closely, it becomes a movie you can replay. And when we look at the movie together, we can identify blocks of time where they are clearly more alert on a regular basis, and times when they are not,” she says.

This exercise extends beyond figuring out if you’re “a morning person,” Verresen says. It’s knowing what hours of the day you are capable of higher-level thought. When can you tackle the gnarliest problems? When are you able to invest energy in tasks that aren’t easy or don’t have known solutions?

Once armed with a better understanding of the peaks and valleys of your daily energy, make adjustments to how you spend your time with calendar blocking. Identify the chunks of time on your calendar when you have the most physical energy for work, and plug in easy or lower-intensity tasks for the hours where you have less energy.

Engineering your calendar to follow your personal energy pattern gives your productivity a huge boost.

Don’t forget to take a step back to see if you’re taking on the right kinds of tasks in your calendar. “A lot of leaders feel like they are doing a good job as long as they're responsive or helping a bunch of other people with their needs,” Verresen says. “If they spend most of their time doing this, it usually means they're ignoring bigger, more important priorities.”

To reserve time and space for those priorities, Verresen also recommends blocking off two slots ranging between 90 minutes to 2 hours every week as mental white space. “Literally put it on your calendar and make sure your aren’t interrupted or disturbed during this time — ideally you shouldn’t have meetings right afterwards either,” she says.

“This time needs to be untouchable and scheduled during a period when you’re at your most alert,” she says. “The goal is to zoom out and to think through what’s going on at the present moment, and what you’d like to do in the future. This is where creative solutions and good ideas come from.”

When people have space, they are amplified. When they feel cramped, their abilities contract.

If possible, Verresen also recommends structuring times when people definitely can interrupt and interact with you. Scheduled one-on-ones are an obvious need, but office hours have also proven to be effective at limiting interruption and distraction across the board. Especially when a company enters the growth phase and new people join, this can become a lifesaver. It maintains the image of having an open-door policy without the time suck.

Read more of Verresen’s tips for evaluating and maximizing your physical, emotional and mental energy here.

4. Audit your calendar with discipline and diligence.

Mathilde Collin is known for her quiet focus and obsession with efficiency, the propellor beneath the surface helping to power Front’s impressive trajectory. From the way she organized her lightning-fast fundraise process to her incredibly precise communication updates, discipline is the theme that shines through in all that she does as Front’s co-founder and CEO. And in her experience, time management is one of the most important — and overlooked — elements of discipline.

“At a high-level, discipline is focusing on just a handful of things, which is incredibly challenging because you’ve got so much to do and you’re pulled in so many directions — everything seems important. But discipline comes down to focusing on the right thing,” says Collin. “That’s why I’m hypervigilant about making sure that I spend time on what matters most.”

Front CEO and co-founder Mathilde Collin

To get started on the heavy lifting of making sure your time is spent on the right things, Collin recommends taking a step back to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your calendar actually reflect the priorities you’re orienting your team around every single week?
  • Is there an activity you aren’t spending enough time on?
  • Do you have the discipline and the built-in time to disconnect and step away?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” take that as a sign you need to fine-tune how you focus your time — and leverage her four tips below for bringing discipline to a crowded calendar:

Block and tackle: create a window for email and opt out of notifications.

“I have two 30-minute dedicated slots in my calendar every day to go through my inbox and I try my hardest to not look at it outside of those times,” says Collin. To help stay on track, she’s quit notifications altogether, save for her calendar reminders.

“I’ve disabled them for email, chat and other tools on both my phone and my desktop. My calendar’s on so I don’t miss events, but opting out of everything else has magnified my efficiency and significantly reduced stress,” she says. “I found it so helpful that I challenged the entire Front team to quit their notifications for a week as well. And now during the weekends, I even log out of all of my apps so that temptation isn’t there.”

Add time to step back and clear your head.

Out of all of Collin’s calendar optimization experiments, “stepping back time” has been the most valuable addition. “It’s half a day each week where I allow myself only a notebook — no computer — to really concentrate on a key issue,” she says. “I tinkered with this quite a bit, splitting it up into an hour a few times a week for example, but I found that made it harder to focus.”

Set a date with yourself on Friday to organize the next week.

“I have a 15-minute ‘Review My Calendar’ slot every Friday afternoon. I revisit our quarterly goals and a few top-of-mind topics. I then look at my calendar for the upcoming week to make sure it matches up,” Collin says. “For example, hiring is a huge push for me right now so I need to spend about a third of my time interviewing executives. When I look at my calendar and it’s packed with product meetings or I only have one interview scheduled, then I know that I’m not doing enough to make progress, so I’ll add a sourcing session in.”

Collin finds this exercise serves as another fail-safe to make sure she’s allocating enough time to the right things. “If I tell my direct reports that my goal for the week is to decide what the new sales organization will look like, then I better have a few personal working sessions and key meetings dedicated to that,” she says.

Analyze your time to match intention with reality.

Among her Twitter followers, Collin is known for occasionally sharing a graph of how she spends her time. Below is an example of the exact analysis she pores over every week:

“At the end of every single week I have my EA send me an analysis of my calendar,” says Collin. “It’s split by the type of activity, such as interviewing, selling, managing and so on. This is how I flagged that I need to step up my hiring efforts. I also look at it on a team level to see if I’m spending too much time with any one group and neglecting another.”

Find more of Mathilde Collin’s strategies for managing your time and using discipline to power your startup’s success here.

5. Generate momentum by prioritizing in two-week sprints and six-month goals.

When we talk about time management, we often talk about it in the context of the daily grind. But the larger project of “productivity” involves prioritizing toward long-term goals, making sure we’re making steady progress toward those deadlines (which are, more often than not, closer than they appear).

That’s what Stacy La discovered when she joined as Clover Health’s first designer. As an early startup employee, she had to ruthlessly prioritize in order to keep up with the demands of a fast-scaling company. Not only did she have to be mindful of her individual projects and her growing team, but she needed to keep sight of her goals — even as they fluctuated, often at the drop of a dime. “Suddenly, spinning up felt more dizzying than galvanizing,” she says.

To help prioritize as she struggled to find her footing in this fast-paced environment, La fine-tuned her time management. But she quickly realized that it wasn’t about tips so much as timelines. It’s critical to find the right increment of time when planning out tasks to cover the field but not spread yourself too thin, both when you’re starting out in a new role and as you get more settled (and take on more ambitious projects).

To hit a balance of breadth and depth efficiently, La suggests keeping two-week and six-month timelines to help you gut-check your progress, and pivot when needed:

First 6 months: Map two-week themes.

As you ramp up into a new role and start putting on the many hats that every early-stage startup employee wears, avoiding context-switching and staying versatile yet focused is key. La managed this by mapping out two-week sprints centered around a theme to achieve maximum flexibility and focus.

“I found that two weeks was the best unit of time to both efficiently execute and accrue a sufficient level of expertise on any key task,” says La. “For example, when vetting design agencies, I limited my planning, research, meetings, evaluation and decisions to a two-week span. Prioritizing biweekly themes creates enough momentum to create real value in a particular area of the business, but not so much as to cause a terrible setback if the intended results aren’t achieved.

La then stacked priorities based on the constraints facing the business at the outset. “When you’re at an early-stage startup, your priorities are very clear. The most pressing constraints must be addressed first, because otherwise you’ll be out of business,” says La.

“For example, at Clover we were driven by CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] deadlines. We had to be ready for open enrollment, which is October through December, and we had to have a brand and website. That needed to be in place before we could even think about hiring user researchers or developing a design system. Two-week themes are flexible enough that I could swap them modularly as business needs changed, if needed — and compact enough that I was too busy to waste time thinking of opportunity cost once I decided to embark on one.

Early employees: when it comes to time management, stack your priorities in two-week themes. That way you can balance actionability and flexibility.

Month 6 and beyond: Standardize how you triage your time.

After more than six months in a role, you’ve likely built expertise and are looking to carve out time for more strategic work. For La, that’s the time to standardize how you triage your time. To get through her to-dos and delegate, she used the “eyes on, hands on, horizon” framework that she picked up from her First Round mentor, Airbnb’s Head of Design Alex Schleifer.

  • Eyes on: “This is work that I don’t need to do, but need to be informed about, such as designers’ progress on projects or design requests from the org,” says La.
  • Hands on: “These are actions that I need to work on independently. That could be meeting with candidates or developing the design team’s OKRs, for example,” says La.
  • Horizon: “This is a category of themes and developments that are a month to six months out. It’s about to get on our team’s radar, but not yet on mine, such asa design system, for example.”

“At Clover I ran through this framework on my own at the beginning of every week but at Airbnb Design’s scale, Alex does this exercise daily with a member of his staff,” says La.He emphasized to me that constant prioritization — the act of choosing to work on the right thing at the right time, over and over again — is the thing that will make or break a business. I’m now a lot more diligent about what I spend my time on, and the cost and ROI of those choices.”

La shares more time management and troubleshooting tips from the high-growth, high-stakes world of early startups here.

6. Reset your odometer to zero, every single day.

It’s great to establish a toolkit of time management strategies, from individual practices to team goals. But if you’re still feeling swamped with menacing to-do lists at the end of the day, it can be hard to feel like you’re making progress at all.

To keep a healthy grasp on focus, productivity and progress, Edith Harbaugh, CEO of LaunchDarkly, came up with a useful framework for taking stock of forward movement. And she learned it from a surprising place: the seat of her Celeste Bianchi road bike, during a solo cross-country journey that spanned the Pacific Northwest and hugged the Canadian border, before ending at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Harbaugh knows best that a journey of 3,360 miles starts with a single push of the pedal. It reflects how she thinks about progress, not only as a cyclist, but as a CEO and seasoned product owner. That’s why she encourages founders to remember that every ride starts with zero. Every day of her cross-country trip, Harbaugh would reset the odometer on her bike to zero, a practice that has served well even off the bike. It helped her:

  • Focus. “I rode cross-country before smart phones. What was then state-of-the-art — my Blackberry Pearl — is now primitive. I needed to know, with dead reckoning, exactly where I was to ensure I was on track with my paper maps,” says Harbaugh. “Tools come and tools go. We’re all in shock by the tools and processes we once used to ship. At times, the simplest tactics — like starting from zero — can keep you on track.”
  • Garner a sense of accomplishment. “I found that if I didn’t reset my odometer, each day seemed so insignificant. Today, I went from mile 560 to 610. That doesn’t motivate me,” says Harbaugh. “I’d rather focus on the difference — 50 miles — than 610 miles, which reminds me I’ve got more than 80% of the larger journey left to go. For both cycling and software development, measurement is vital, but too little is paid attention to which metrics motivate. If I hit 30 miles by lunch, I’d think, ‘Nice! By dinner, can I go another 40?’”
  • Avoid complacency. “Resetting the odometer kept me from resting on my laurels. Quite simply, if I didn’t get on my bike and put in some miles, there’d be no miles on the bike. The odometer would read zero for the day,” says Harbaugh. “So you finished the month hitting your revenue goal? Great, that’s today’s win. Tomorrow, we start from zero. This mindset celebrates wins and notes shortfalls — it just doesn’t extend them.”
With cycling — as with product development — you win when you operate with focus, but you want to win when you sense progress.

At the beginning of LaunchDarkly, Harbaugh championed weekly sprints with daily stand-ups that include not just engineering, but other functions like marketing and sales. “Each day, we talk about what we did yesterday. Then, we discuss what we're going to do today,” she says. She recommends staying flexible with sprints. “If you haven’t found your cadence for sprints at a startup, don’t fix the sprint durations in stone off the bat. I spoke with Kevin Henrikson, an engineering leader who established two-week sprints, but soon changed them to be one week long. He noticed that all the work got done in the last 3 or 4 days of the two-week sprints.”

Regardless of your time frame, Harbaugh emphasizes hitting the “reset” button every day: “‘Resetting’ every day keeps a one- or two-year project from feeling daunting. I also find that it creates a great deal of pride and accountability."

This is far from the end of the Review's wisdom on achieving focus and productivity. Check out the full articles referenced above as well as others focused on the brain hacks top founders use to get things done, how to harness the power of prioritized focus, and the 15-minute exercise that can help you reset and revitalize your work.

Image by voloshin311/ Getty Images. Photography by Brandon Smith and Bonnie Rae Mills.