Founders: Being Busy Doesn’t Mean You’re Being Productive

Founders are constantly being pulled in different directions. Putting out digital fires, answering questions, knocking out administrative and logistical tasks.

It can be difficult to sit down and finally knock out that:

  • Article you’ve been meaning to write
  • UI component for a new feature
  • Pitch deck to prospective investors
  • Code for a new integration

Are you too busy for important work? Being busy doesn’t always equate with being productive. Productivity requires time for “deep work.”

Deep work happens when you’re able to work with an uninterrupted focus on typically a hard or complex problem.

The term comes from the eponymous book by Cal Newport. It’s Newport’s term for focused, distraction-free work on high-value tasks.

As he puts it, “Deep work is my name for the activity in which you are focusing intently, for a long period of time, with zero distractions, on a cognitively demanding task. That means zero glances at an inbox, and zero glances at a phone.”

One year, Newport published nine peer-reviewed articles and a new book, all the while never working past 5:30pm or on the weekends.

Founders, in particular, have a hard time achieving deep work. And for this very reason, it’s paramount for founders to build deep work into their schedules.

It might surprise you to find out that the majority of founders polled only spend a fourth or less of their work week doing deep work:

SavvyCal founder Derrick Reimer also asked other founders how they manage to get deep work done during the week:

Here’s how founders can get deep work done—according to successful founders.

Schedule it

The overwhelming majority of advice from founders who get deep work done weekly is to schedule it on your calendar.

And not just a loosely held commitment. It has to be literally scheduled on your calendar as a specific block of time on a day.

“Deep work is scheduled. It doesn’t just happen spontaneously.”
–Manuel Frigerio, Founder of SparkLoop and ReferralHero

Some even go as far as to commit an entire day only to deep work.

Arvid Kahl likes to dedicate a day to his deep work and then set expectations for those who might interrupt him. It’s easier said than done, but it can be an effective way to build it into your schedule every week.

Nadia Tatlow of Shift made a company-wide initiative to implement “Deep Work Wednesday.” It eliminates distractions that day, makes meetings more focused, and gives employees something to look forward to every week.

Related read: How the Busiest People in SaaS Manage Their Email

Whether it’s an hour on Mondays, three hours on Fridays, or all of Wednesdays, put it on the calendar and treat it like an important appointment. It’s an appointment for yourself—one where you need to be fully present and commit yourself to whatever creative endeavor you need to get to.

Some founders with children, like Michele Hanson of Geocodio and Baird Hall of Wavve, have pointed out that it can be difficult for parents to get deep work done. Early mornings before the kids wake up and late nights after they go to bed can be the time to work on something for an hour or two undisturbed.

If you’re using a tool like SavvyCal to schedule meetings, you can set global presets that help you protect your time.

Calendar screenshot

To avoid scheduling meetings during your deep work sessions, you can block those days or times off from ever getting booked.

Batch similar tasks together

Our brains aren’t computers. Computers can switch between tasks and plow through loads of unrelated items relentlessly. Brains cannot. But this is what allows us to do creative work.

While computers can execute one task after another with no care for the context, our brains need time to get into “flow” on a particular project.

“It turns out that actually firing up our brain to work on something is a messy, long-term process. It’s something you have to rev up and get going,” Newport says in his book.

Context switching, or switching rapidly between unrelated activities, has an incredible cost on your productivity. Anytime your phone dings or you check your inbox, you’re switching your context.

“Schedule every minute of your day.”

The duration of the switch doesn’t matter, either. Whether it’s one minute or 10 minutes, every switch has the same impact on your performance. It’s called “attention residue.”

So if you’re going to give into temptation and read an email, read a hundred more. If you’re going to check Slack, check all the channels. If you’re going to write a tweet, write 10 while you’re at it.

If you’re going to do deep work, really do deep work. Write that article. Design that UI component. Resist the temptation to switch to something else in the middle of it and just devote yourself to seeing it through.

Newport recommends that you “schedule every minute of your day.” Divide your work day into blocks and assign activities to each one. Keeping context costs in mind, this method also forces you to be thoughtful about batching similar tasks so you make the most of each block of time.

Here’s an example of Cal’s hand-drawn calendar.

Calendar drawing

Cut out distractions

Even with a scheduled time like “Deep Work Wednesday,” distractions are still going to find their way to you. The phone buzzes. Someone calls your name. There’s a weird sound outside.

The smallest things can interrupt flow and distract you just enough to make a difference.

This is why noise-cancelling headphones and a bangin’ playlist are recommended so often.

Apple’s AirPods Max and AirPods Pro are always staples to consider, as well as the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and Sony WH-1000XM4.

If you don’t already have a go-to playlist that kicks your mind into gear, try out Brain.fm or Julian Shapiro’s Writing Flow playlist on Spotify.

Apps like Centered allow you to input tasks and then play music for each one of those tasks to help you fly through the list.

Screenshot

Turning on Do Not Disturb on both your phone and computer—or, if you’re really brave, Airplane Mode for both devices—works wonders.

Adam Waselnuk goes as far as to remove internet access: “DO NOT allow any internet access until after the deep work time is done.” Of course, if you need internet access to do your deep work, this is a no-go. But if you can do your deep work without being online, this little trick might come in handy.

Batch meetings together

Just because a window of time is available doesn’t mean that you want meetings to be scattered across it.

Calendar screenshot

Four 30-minute meetings can actually consume five hours in a day due to switching costs and attention residue. Batching meetings together can literally unlock hours in the day that you didn’t have before.

With a scheduling tool like SavvyCal, you can rank availability presets to encourage recipients to book your preferred times to meet.

Booking screenshot

Delegate shallow work

The Eisenhower Matrix is an incredibly useful framework for planning out what to work on. But its real value is for figuring out what not to work on.

Tasks can fall into four distinct quadrants, two of which involve not doing the task, either by delegating it to someone else or deleting it altogether.

Here’s an example from Todoist:

Todoist screenshot

Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do something. This is a common trap that founders fall into.

Shallow work is always necessary. But if you allow it to take over your time, then there’s none left for deep work.

As strange as it sounds, a founder’s job is to work themselves out of a job by giving it to someone else.

Shallow work, what Cal Newport defines as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted,” should always be delegated or deleted from the task list.

There will always be a certain amount of logistical and administrative work only you can complete. But if someone else can do it, let them. Challenge yourself to only work on what only you can do.

Getting a virtual assistant through a service like Squared Away, Zirtual, or Shepherd can help you minimize the time you devote to shallow work and maximize the time you devote to deep work.

Deep work only happens if you make it happen

If you’re not careful, shallow work can take over your entire week. Shallow work happens to you. And you can feel productive by filling your time with busy work that doesn’t actually amount to much.

To make progress, move your business forward, and grow, you need deep work.

To recap:

  1. Schedule it
  2. Batch similar tasks together
  3. Cut out distractions
  4. Batch meetings together
  5. Delegate shallow work

If there’s one thing to take away, it’s this: To be truly exceptional at the work you do and get it into the world, you need to be able to devote enough time and focus to making it happen.

More resources for startup founders

 

Corey Haines
Corey Haines
Founder of Swipe Files

Corey is the founder of Swipe Files. Previously the Head of Growth at Baremetrics and first marketing hire for Cordial. He's consulted with dozens of startups on marketing and growth.
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