So finally you took the leap of faith – left the corporate 9-to-5 lifestyle, and are on your own to launch that startup. A month down the line, you find the idea and the vision are still going strong – but start doubting to how much you are actually moving forward. There is a lot of work, and you are working hard, but whenever you take stock of the situation there seem to be a dozen unfinished tasks.

While this article is focused on the (plight of) single founder, the productivity tips would be equally valid for anyone. The transition is tough from a corporate job to the startup grind. Inspite of the 1000 distractions which are present in a job, there is still a structure to what your are doing (however meaningless you thought that was!). When you start working on your own, for the first time you have to not only do the work but also chart out a proper structure to sustain focus. And no, it is not easy, as I soon found out when I made the change. So, I started looking for what other people who work alone had tried & started testing those methods. If you are in a similar situation where, either you are working hard without seeing any progress or procrastination is becoming an issue – perhaps some of the following would prove beneficial.

[highlight style=’alice-blue’] Lists [/highlight] Yes, I can hear you groaning already. Lists don’t work you say – you have made plenty in your lifetime. But, we have always been making them in the wrong manner. See, a bucket list of everything under the sun is even worse that making none at all. Here is what you should try, every night make a list of the 3 items that must be finished the next day. Just 3, do not overreach. Now – look at your list again, do each of them have a tangible outcome? Making a list point like “network with industry professionals” has no meaning. A point like “get 20 new customers tomorrow” is also of limited use. Each list must be an action point (not an outcome) & each list must have a method to test completion. For example “Research & send introduction emails to 5 people” and “implement that newsletter plugin to increase conversions” are good list items. If you are feeling adventurous – you could further break down each list item into smaller tasks & allocate a time limit to each. I don’t do that, but making a small list has helped immensely.

So to summarize:

  • Make a list of 3 items that must be done the next day
  • Check to make sure that the items are actions not outcomes
  • Check to make sure that at the end of each day you can ascertain whether the task was done or not – no ‘sort of done’.

[highlight style=’alice-blue’] Do the toughest task first [/highlight] Okay, now that you made that list with tasks that have to be done – there is another pitfall to be wary off. We always try to do the easier task first and keep putting off the challenging/uncertain/risky task for later. This can very well be the Achilles’ heel for you list completion and lead to tasks carrying on into the next day. So, first complete the one task that you least want to do! The easier ones will seem like a reward after getting that one out of the way.

[highlight style=’alice-blue’] Short sprints of work [/highlight] Unless you are a superhuman, your mind can only function at full efficiency for X amount of time before it gets fatigued. While the exact time may be different for different people, I have found the Pomodoro technique (Link) to be a very accurate representation of peak efficiency work sprints. You don’t need to buy any books on the Pomodoro technique – it simply asks to put a timer for X minutes (traditionally 25), then take a break for 5 minutes and continue again with 25. After 2-3 such cycles you can take a bigger break of 15 minutes. There are plenty of free apps to make it easy to use this on a mobile. I personally tried a few variations of this method and found it to work in almost all cases:

  • Divide your tasks into units of Pomodoro cycles. For examples, you have to finish this article in 2 units.
  • Make a goal of finishing atleast 10 such sprints each day etc.

Either way, this is an excellent, time tested and free technique that you should try.

[highlight style=’alice-blue’] Form habits [/highlight] This one is recommended by a lot of people including Jerry Seinfield; form a habit one day at a time. For example, maybe you want to get fit or perhaps write a book. Neither of these can be done in a day & if you try to plan too much for a day chances are that pretty soon you would be out of motivation. So take a chart paper or an app like this, commit to a small doable task each day (20 push-ups, write 300 words etc). And mark the date every time you finish the day’s task. Pretty soon you should see a sizable unbroken sequence forming, where you have completed the task for 10-20 consecutive days. After that, your only job is to make sure that this streak is not broken. And trust me, that streak is a great motivator in itself – once you reach the high figures you would do everything in your power to not break the sequence. 

[highlight style=’alice-blue’] Remove distractions [/highlight] Yes, distractions come in many shapes and sizes. There are the obvious ones like, youtube & others – I would think that with sufficient self-discipline you can stop yourselves from checking these frequently. The more difficult ones are those that come in the shape of learning something new. The information out there is just bewildering – everyday I find new articles educating me about marketing or coding or even productivity (like this one!). And I am not even talking about the generic, cookie-cutter ones – these new articles are all written by legit experts & are definitely useful. Unfortunately, you just can’t read/ learn everything or you would never have time to put anything into action. Here is what you should try:

  • For the websites that you like reading, subscribe to weekly newsletters rather than checking them everyday. Something like Hacker News has a curated list of articles sent every week & you would find similar resources for others. Again, do this only for websites that send useful unique content.
  • For others, you might want to consider a way to actually block them out. There are plenty of apps like Stay Focusd (link) that would not allow you to access specific websites once you have set the timer on. Try them, you will find them very useful for increasing efficiency.

[highlight style=’alice-blue’] Diet and exercise [/highlight] And finally, the most important and the simplest of them all. Eat good food and exercise everyday. If you eat a lot of processed food and then are surprised at feeling less active – well you shouldn’t be! There is no magic bullet here – just be aware that whatever you put into your body will have an effect, positive or negative.

Again, this is not the complete list and if you already have a way to work at peak efficiency, keep at it! If not, then keep on trying different ways to increase productivity. Startups are a hard grind and you don’t want to fight yourself to reach that goal – there are plenty of obstacles as it is!


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