I have spent the last eight years developing my own business. The company grew at a steady pace, revenues were rising, we had hundreds of customers and my daily routine consisted of meetings and business lunches with other executives. Two years ago I’ve decided to change this. I’ve packed away all my suites and decided not to go on any more meetings, practically stopping further direct contact with clients. Now the focus of my work is on business process optimization and my crew is in charge of communicating with the clients.
In order to succeed you need to be focused and “attention fragmentation” is one of today’s largest challenges. It’s that thing that’s preventing you from focusing on what’s really important in your work/life, attacking you with a constant influx of news, phone calls, notifications and keeping you busy with meetings and micro-managing issues in the company, either through talking to your employees or shuffling through too many emails.
Maybe this may seem as an unorthodox approach, but I usually prefer to use my own head instead of being just another minion fulfilling other people’s expectations. So here’s a few tips and tricks I’ve devised in order to manage my time better.
No emails in the morning
I’ve read about this a long time ago, but for years I couldn’t understand how someone can start his day without checking emails. Through time I’ve realized that reading emails first thing in the morning leads to me reacting to them, and therefore sets my workflow for the first few hours of the normal working day. Here’s the catch: you shouldn’t react to things but you need to individually set the priorities and your assignments for that day. So go for action, not reaction.
I check my emails after 1PM and there’s another reason for this: I am managing both my time and my energy. The concept of energy is paramount here, because you should work on important things at times when your energy is at the highest level. And by energy I also mean motivation, inspiration or simply the time when you are “in the zone”. Instead of wasting my energy following other people’s agendas I am reserving the beginning of the day for the most interesting things I find at that moment.
Every meeting requires at least 90-120 minutes of your time, if you count in the time needed to arrive at the meeting’s location and then get back into the office. Of course, this also includes the wonders of traffic jams and time spent in searching for a free parking place. And there’s also the health factor, because meetings and luncheons include stuffy rooms filled with cigarette smoke, overly large meals, coffee affecting your blood pressure, sodas and juices stuffed with sugar…
The decisive factor in my case was the fact that 99% of deals were concluded by email or phone, so meetings turned out to be extremely inefficient. There’s also the fact that you spend a lot of your time on getting to know the other side, the occasional patting on the shoulder and ego-boosting and then eventually free-of-charge consulting. It’s much better to spend that time at the gym, as we constantly complain we don’t have enough time for it.
Of course every once in a while I go to a meeting but mostly when I really want to meet a particularly interesting client in person. The “no meeting” policy also applies on internal meetings. We don’t hold formal meetings anymore, mostly because of my fault, because I tend to turn a regular meeting into a monologue on vision and education, which turns out totally ineffective.
Due to the fact that I don’t go to meetings anymore, I actually don’t need a suit anymore. And I didn’t like them that much in the first place as they are much more suitable for bank, insurance or other types of clerks. When you run your own business the suit is no longer a necessary asset and a smart-casual outfit is much more comfortable and can leave a better impression when you meet someone.
“No suit” is also my way of defending from the bullshit-bingo manager alikes who are always ready to spend time eating, gossiping and making questionable business arrangements. Needless to say that the majority of them have no real interest in the benefits of the web-based business. That’s too much bad energy for me.
No phone calls
After a decade of entrepreneurship I’ve realized that the “holy grail” in leading a business is to automatize everything and that every person knows his daily tasks. As long as you as the general manager are talking to the clients the system is not working properly. I am determined not to interfere in the daily operations of my employees and to stop helping them in solving issues. Of course, I am always there to advise them, but it’s their job to solve the problem, not mine.
I often hear how people respond to client calls even after working hours. It’s a big no-no. Once clients realize that you’re there for them all the time, you won’t be able to get any peace anymore. I’ve trashed my old mobile number and the new one is reserved only for my family and closest friends.
There’s no worse distraction than the phone call when someone calls “just for a quick consultation” or a “simple question”. It’s never quick or simple and it disrupts your attention for a much longer period. That’s why I don’t accept calls when I’m working on something and I only return the calls when I’m less busy. Otherwise, my attention would be fragmented and I wouldn’t be able to get the job done.
I work from home. That way I’ve stopped losing time on commuting. Besides that, working from home is much more comfortable: you have access to a fridge with carefully selected foods, you play your own favorite music, and you make your own tea… And there’s no “open door policy”, which I consider to be bullshit. The idea of any employee being able to come to my office, distracting me and asking me mostly nonsense questions is only making them less self-reliant, often asking approvals on even the tiniest things and kills their self-initiative.
The greatest benefit of working from home is that you have your exercise gear right beside you. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but sitting in front of the computer for too many hours will kill you. One of my close friends died recently, two of them had a stroke before the age of 35 and 90% of the guys working in this industry is just fat.
The best way to cure the negative effects of sitting for 8 hours daily is to fit in a yoga mat and a couple of weights near you. That way I’m able to get up from my chair every few hours and do a set of “micro-trainings”. I normally exercise for 5-7 minutes and stop before I break a sweat. You may think that this type of training doesn’t make any sense, but it sure does because I do a set of complex exercises for the whole body which include several muscle groups.
Besides this, 2-3 times a week I go to run for a mile and stretch. It takes me about 70 minutes to prepare, go to jogging route in woods, make it back and take cold shower, before I can continue with my work. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, once explained how trainings are his secret to success because they’ve made him more durable, resistant to stress and focused on the job at hand.
Selfcontrol is a great Mac OS app that enables you to block all distractive websites and the most important feature is that you can’t turn it off. This is the reason why you cannot find it on the iTunes App Store, because apps on this store must adhere to some standards and not being able to turn it off is definitely not one of them. With this app you can set a distraction-free time period and then you have to wait for it to expire. This may seem silly but it has helped me a lot. I wasn’t even aware how much certain websites can take out of my time, so now I regularly block Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, news portals and all other sorts of distractive websites.
I use Evernote for taking notes. It’s the place where I write down all ideas, interesting articles I found online, instructions, bills, contracts and practically anything that relates to the company’s paperwork. This app is also available on mobile devices, so it’s easy to make a text, voice or photo note at any moment.
I use a Premium account, because it provides much more storage space. Also, with this app you can use your phone camera to scan documents, OCR them and then do a text search.
Everyone at the company uses Evernote for procedure notes and paperwork. The good thing is that all team members have access to it, regardless of whether they use Windows, Mac or a mobile phone. It’s also very easy to define access rights and assign them to team members.
Trello & Slack
The first thing I must emphasize is that email has become a very unpractical tool for business communication. Primarily there’s the spam issue. Also you’ll be receiving messages from people outside your team on totally irrelevant issues and at the end it’s very cumbersome for simultaneous communication of several persons by using the CC or BCC option.
For team communication we use Trello, because it’s a great tool for collaboration.
Here are the key features in favor of Trello:
- You write down tasks into cards, and then assign these cards to team members. You can set a deadline for each card, use colors, upload a background picture, make a checkbox list, add files…
- Communicating about tasks is simple and all team members are informed about all the changes in a certain task
- Notifications are handled great and you’ll receive them every time you get mentioned or when something important happens to your card
- You can organize tasks by project and define access rights to these projects
- There’s an iOS and an Android app
- Trello is free, although there is paid plan
We used Skype for urgent communication, but we’ve moved to Slack.
The key differences between Skype and Slack are:
- We all have a lot of buddies in our Skype contacts list and mixing private and business contacts is not good because it that creates a lot of noise and distractions. Slack only has business contacts on its list.
- Skype has a sound notification for all incoming messages, while Slack only sends a notification if you’re mentioned in the discussion. In order to mention someone you just need to type his username.
- Slack is much better in creating channels for different teams, for instance #sales, #design, #development. You can also create channels in Skype, but then you get the sound notification problem, because it makes a sound whenever someone sends a message on the channel.
- It’s not necessary to add individual team members into Slack, because you’re entering a group and everyone is already there, which is very convenient for large teams. It’s also accessible through a Web-based interface and it’s much better if you have your own subdomain, like adriahost.slack.com
- Slack has a very powerful search system, files can be exchanged and tagged easily, you can paste screenshot natively on a Mac, and it also has a good iOS and Android app.
- Slack supports public and private channels, and also 1-on-1 communication.
- Slack supports programming code and it doesn’t convert it into funny looking signs and smileys.
- Slack supports integration with many tools. For example, we have integrated Trello, Twitter and Nagios, so everyone on that channel can see what’s going on. Whenever a card gets updated on Trello, it’s visible to team members on Slack; when someone mentions us on Twitter or sends us a direct message it arrives to the appropriate team on Slack; when a server has a heavy CPU or hard drive load Nagios sends a notification through Slack.
- Slack is free, but there are also paid subscription plans.
We use a phone only in a real emergency. Skype still makes sense for voice conversations, especially for international calls or video conference calls, although we try to avoid them as much as possible.
Of course, we have times when we hang out together. Normally we meet on Fridays in the office and spend a couple of hours together chatting. It’s not really a meeting, you cannot even call it “real work”, it’s more of a “happy hour”. We bring our lattes and chat about all sorts of things, and it’s fascinating how much issues we resolve during these times.
A walk into the sunset ritual
For me, this is the most important part of the day. This is my time. Usually I take a walk around the nearby lake at sunset time. This walk is normally about 5-6 km long. After a couple of years this has become a ritual, sometimes it’s in the park, in the forest or at the nearest mountain, but most often at a nearby lake. I mostly walk alone, sometimes with my wife or mother, depending on my mood. I walk to a cafe, have a coffee or a tea, and sit down and watch the lake and the sunset.
I’ve noticed there’s something very relaxing in walking around in the nature, among trees. For tens of thousands of years man has spent most of his time outside, working, hunting, collecting, and our brain is programmed to slow down and fall asleep when it gets dark. I use this mechanism to relax and unwind. I simply have a tea and wait for the sun to set down. This is a good way to reboot yourself and complete your day.