As a founder of a bootstrap company, I'm passionate about finding ways to improve productivity. The following excerpts are from a longer essay about lessons I've learned over the years. They all focus on improving efficiency, reducing distraction, and getting more out of life.
Distractions: The Internet is the new TV
Years ago I decided to stop watching TV. It was an addiction that offered little reward other than a temporary reprieve from reality. Since the average American spends over 4 hours in front of the tube daily (about 25% of the time you're not sleeping), I'm now free to work more, learn more, and live more. What I didn't realize until recently is that the Internet is the new TV and it's more accessible than TV ever was. It was never acceptable to watch TV at work, but now we have entertainment built into every desk and every mobile device.
Tools like RescueTime can help you quantify how much time you spend working, how you spend your time working, and how much of your day is spent browsing distractions. Understanding how you're distracted and the magnitude of the distraction is half the battle.
While browsing the Web for entertainment is distracting, I believe interruptive technologies like email, chat, and Twitter are the real enemy. Real work is done when people sit, focus, and get into a zone of productivity. Getting "in the zone" is difficult and can take anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes. Getting pulled out of the zone, however, is far easier. A phone call, email, text message, coffee break, or tap on the shoulder from a colleague will immediately pull people out of this zone of productivity. While seemingly harmless, distractions are so commonplace that people rarely get into the zone in the first place. It's very tempting to ask your colleague a question that might take you five minutes to look up when it will only take him 15 seconds to answer, but what most people don't consider is how long it will take that colleague to get back to what they are doing.
A rule of thumb we try to live by at Adlucent is that you should spend at least 20 minutes trying to figure something out yourself before interrupting someone else. You learn more by doing rather than asking and you respect the productivity of your peers.
I'm a Maven and as a maven my major shortcoming is that I'm easily distracted by new, shiny challenges. My propensity to experiment and tinker is precisely what helped me stumble upon my idea for Adlucent, but it's also what almost brought the company down. While running Adlucent in the early days, I was also getting my PhD in chemistry and launching another company called PriceFight. I was so hungry for the next best thing that I ignored the greater challenge of growing one of my ventures to maturity. Fortunately, several mentors pointed out that a common shortcoming of mavens is that we often lack focus and focus is absolutely critical to success.
I have dozens of business ideas that I want to pursue, many of which I think are bigger than Adlucent, but I've also stepped back and realized that Adlucent is onto something big and we are creating true value that should be nurtured to maturity. To help me manage distractions, I fully detail my ideas in books and then store them safely away on a shelf. In the same way that writing your thoughts/worries down at night helps you rest easily, writing these ideas down and storing them away helps me keep a sharp focus.
A question that comes up is how do you know when to stop experimenting and start focusing? I think the notion of failing and failing quickly is important here. Once you think you have hit on an idea and kicked it around a bit, pursue it with strong focus. Then, be honest with yourself about whether it's ever truly going to take off. In the same way that venture capitalists hedge their risks by investing in multiple startups hoping that one skyrockets, you also have the ability to invest your time and energy into multiple startups to hedge your risk as long as you fail and fail quickly.
The biggest enemy to failing quickly is having some success. It is much more difficult to pull the plug on a venture when there is a modicum of hope than it is to move past a true failure. One cure is to define a bold goal before you start and keep trying until you hit it. Anything less is a failure. Anything more means you should aim higher.
It's worth noting that failing doesn't necessarily mean starting fresh with a new idea, but it does mean having the agility to change directions. Microsoft, Apple and Google are very good examples of how the initial company strategy changed and adapted through time until the founders hit on the big idea.
In the early stages of a company, the founder is the single most important contributor to the company's success. The founder has the passion, diligence, and sweat invested to push through any challenges. As such, I believe it's the founder's responsibility to be fully dedicated to the cause. There are hundreds of distractions in life including the need to eat, shop, stay healthy, do laundry, and run errands. Some of these can be and should be outsourced to better maximize your utilization.
The first hire I made was a personal assistant and it is one of the best investments I've made in the company. Simply put, I can bill more hours and bill at a higher rate than the cost to hire an assistant. With an assistant taking care of my day-to-day activities, I have 30-40 hours more to hone my expertise and grow the business.
Outsourcing tasks to help you be more productive investment in yourself and your company. I've been able to grow my business faster, eat better, live better, and spend more time doing what I love.
Create a Stop Doing List
Jim Collins planted this idea in my head a few weeks ago at the Inc 500 conference. Virtually all entrepreneurs carry around a to-do list, but few of us carry around a list of things to stop doing. The discipline to stop doing something is potentially more difficult, but more important than crossing something off of your to-do list. Focus is critical to success and with focus you need to know both what to do and what not to do. On my stop doing list for this year: 1) Stop checking email more than a couple of times a day, 2) Stop working in the company rather than on the company 3) Stop my PhD and 4) Stop working on PriceFight. I've successfully done three of the four.
If you had a stop doing list on the back side of your "to do" list, what would it have on it?
Michael Griffin is the founder of Adlucent, a fast growing search engine marketing startup located in Austin, TX. Prior to Adlucent, Michael was the founder of PriceFight and the Coffee Research Institute.