Distractions can destroy our productivity. But leading a startup means there’s a constant barrage of things that need to be handled. There are a lot of distractions: a call with a lawyer, a potential investor returning our call, responding to the latest Twitter post about our product, coding expenses so our team gets paid in a timely fashion, merging that last commit from the new developer we just hired who refuses to comment anything, figuring out how to run a refund in Stripe, and the list goes on and on.
When are we supposed to be productive when we’re in that place that we’re too small to hire people to deal with each of those but too big for them to go unattended? When we are under constant assault by all of these things?
Here’s the thing about answering those questions: it’s not going to get better. When we get bigger the problems that require our constant attention just shift elsewhere and they amplify. So rather than try to eliminate them, we need to learn to schedule time for what’s important and cope with the distractions.
This is no different than turning off notifications for certain friends on Facebook or deleting a game from our phone that constantly pops up an alert. Productivity killers come in a lot of forms.
So what are some good ways we can shift into a more proactive strategy for dealing with distractions now that we’ve accepted it’s part of the startup life? Let’s look at just a few of the ones we have found success with at Bootstrappers.
Set boundaries with coworkers
We are allowed to tell people how we need to work and to update them when our styles evolve over time. And we have to if we’re ever going to accomplish anything. We don’t need to have unscheduled meetings and we don’t need to have extended impromptu pair programming sessions. But those will happen and when we see patterns begin to emerge we should move from random events at the whim of others into deliberate events on a schedule. That way we can be honest with ourselves about where our time is being spent - and accountable.
Use the calendar
Those scheduled events belong in a calendar. Every person on the team needs to know they can access us using that calendar. And it’s always a good idea to ask people to put an agenda in the event, to make sure we get everything covered and keep the meeting on track. The calendar can also be used for us to just block off some time to do routine tasks that otherwise might fall by the wayside. Things like writing blog posts, fundraising, or coding our expenses.
Have shorter meetings
Once upon a time we just booked an hour for meetings. Then half an hour. Now it can be as low as 15 minutes, just to touch base on something. But there’s no reason to only have shorter meetings. Sometimes it’s good to have plenty of time to unpack more complicated topics. And sometimes keeping an hour on the books is a good idea as if the meeting wraps in 15 minutes, we get 45 minutes of time to focus if possible.
Batch process as many tasks as we can
For example, rather than logging in to pay expense reports as they come up, do it on Fridays at 11. Just block off half an hour on the calendar and turn off notifications or alerts for that app or web app. This allows us to look out for repetitive tasks and put them in a block on the schedule. It also let’s us more easily move that task to someone else. And if we finish early, maybe we can go get ice cream!
Change the notifications on the devices
This will allow us to concentrate better in general. A good way to think about this is to try and go a week looking at the notification settings for every single app we get a notification for. This forces a deliberate acceptance of those notifications rather than just continuing to roll with whatever the default settings were. And if we need to truly concentrate, we should give ourselves permission to just turn notifications off for a bit.
Retreat from the open floor plan
The open floor plan is great. It gives us a feeling of being together and makes for a more intimate work environment. We can reserve a office conference room for a few hours or head home to work from there when we need to get more into a flow state that can’t be achieved by the constant distractions. This gives us time free from distractions, when we can really focus on getting the work that needs to be done completed in a timely fashion.
Rethink every app on our phone
Do the social media apps make us happy or just cause stress? The games? We should be able to have fun and stay in touch with friends. There are distractions we create for ourselves that create joy in our lives and we need to embrace those. But look out for when they step over that line and become stressful. And consider removing various apps from different devices, starting with the phone.
We just can’t be productive if we surround ourselves with distractions. These are a start but it’s really about discipline. How well can we resist the temptation to jump in and save the day, to get embroiled in yet another political discussion on Facebook, to wage war about some esoteric technical minutiae on Twitter, to install the latest game all our friends are talking about, or to get validation by constantly solving every issue
The earlier in the life of an organization that we can cut down on distractions the easier it will be to do so. This means finding the balance between our own willpower and the needs of the organization. Moving distractions to proactive blocks of time allows us to actually enjoy to process of doing and maybe even think of a better mousetrap for each. This has actually been the inspiration for many a second company!