Startups | 6 min read

Being busy is lazy

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Despite popular belief, time is not your obstacle – you are.

As an executive assistant for the VP’s at Intercom, one of the things that I have learnt to obsess over and be relentless with is time and how it’s spent. Creating and facilitating other people’s impact is my job. This is what I’ve learnt.

Time management and focus are hard, but necessary to have impact. The factors that limit your impact aren’t always obvious – to you, or anybody else for that matter.

A common mistake is believing we must beat time. Being “busy” is a common outcome from this fight, and worse, we often align busyness with “success.” This is the wrong way to look at it. That doing more, or taking on too much, in the same space of time, is the sign of getting shit done.

Straight up, impact doesn’t have to be tired and it doesn’t have to look stressed. Impact understands possibilities, measure and time.

Try to think of it this way, despite what the world and largely our culture tells you, more is not more, better is more. Why deliver lots of work in record time if you’re not nailing it? Customers don’t give you a pass on quality because “you had a lot on that day”. The game has long changed. Nothing is making you “busy” other than yourself. The unpredictable aspect of your world and your impact is quite literally you.

So where is the stability? Funnily enough, it’s time. Time is reliable – it looks something like this: there are 168 hours in each week. No matter what, that is what you’ve got. Broken down,  7 hours of sleep a night and 55-60 hours of work in a week. Spoiler, the rest of your life looks a whole lot bigger than you probably thought. Nice one, right?

Let’s play with your “work” slice of the pie. Impact in the context of this 55/60 hour period is a balancing act. Whatever your position, whatever you mean to your company, you are a part of something bigger that relies on you. Fuzzy feelings aside, you are a commodity that has a duty – one of supply and demand. Assuming you want to supply solid, frequent results – there are some things you must consider.

Quality or quantity? It’s a “this or that” question that comes up time and time again. The answer being both – both matter. Efficiency and effectiveness cannot be mutually exclusive. Impact isn’t an art. It’s a balance. You wouldn’t deliver a punch with a half closed fist.

My all time favorite example of this is Starbucks’ response to their customers wanting bigger servings of coffee. They developed a new cup size, the Trenta. This cup is not only 55% bigger than their biggest serving to date, the Venti, but it is 16ml larger than the average human stomach. Logically we know that their response to their market’s demand is cartoonish (arguably a consumer prank), overcooked, and wasteful, but this is what we do to ourselves all of the time. We overcook tasks, we overextend our resources on a job that has already been done. It’s hard work spent better elsewhere. We run on empty when we don’t have to.

This kind of behavior comes at a high cost. Burnout is the much discussed, new professional apocalypse. You wouldn’t put this lack of focus in your product roadmap – don’t put it in your own roadmap. Be frank with yourself: What needs to happen?

Simplicity Starts Today

Managing Time

  • Schedule – know what your day looks like. Tell others. Express when you’re not available with “busy” time slots.
  • Maintain documented day to day goals. Todoist is an excellent, simple app.
  • Understand how you actually spend your time – track yourself. The Reporter app is excellent at surfacing areas where you are spending time that you may not even be aware of. It’s fast, it’s painless, it’s invaluable information that only you can gather.
  • Ask yourself: What’s the one activity that I could cut in half and still achieve the desired results? Never stop asking it. Act on it.
  • Schedule in blocks of back to back meetings. Give yourself some real time to work alone each day.
  • Proactively create a daily routine around predictable activities like stand-ups, design reviews, 1-1’s, whatever. Do this so that in between those times, you can channel your energy vigorously. When impact really matters.

Managing Focus

  • Always focus on one thing at a time
  • Kill all notifications. Close tabs you’re not using. Close software you don’t need right now. They are all a distraction.
  • Cut out the decisions that don’t matter. Make a strategic routine for stuff that simply does not matter in terms of your impact. The classic example is deciding not to make a decision on what you will wear (Zuck does it, Obama does it, Jobs did it). Apply it to yourself. Use that energy on decisions that do matter.
  • Approach admin tasks periodically, not interrupt driven. Check your email for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening before you leave work.

Managing Demand

  • Cut out meetings that you don’t absolutely have to be present for. Request actionable items or notes instead.
  • Attend meetings only for the length that you need to. Don’t be afraid to excuse yourself and leave
  • Set meetings for as long as they need to be. A meeting is not 30 minutes long because Google Calendar says so.
  • Shut down the meeting when the time is up. Meetings are prepared, focussed events. Let the other person know that they have 5 minutes to get what they need from you.

Impact doesn’t exist within a vacuum, neither do you, and neither does your potential.

Using time efficiently requires discipline, thought and control. You’ve got to own and manage it relentlessly. Fiercely protect your attention and work focus 100% of the time. Never be afraid to cut out the noise (yours and others). It’s often well-intentioned, but it’s trainspotting instead of taking the trip. The same principle works for you yourself and your internal voice. Know when to unleash your ambition and to lower your gaze. Know what is enough.

Try these things, even for a week, and iterate. Take or leave what makes sense for you while remembering that your behavior will always indicate your impact. Doing the right things for the right reasons in the right time matters.

Drive and talent can take you far, but focus and impact will take you all the way.