How to get stuff done

I apologize for this being an atypical post — it’s long, and rather than being a quote from someone else, it’s my own. The background is this. In the notes on the excerpt about the problems with collaboration, I referenced a doc I’d written called How to get stuff done in Seeking Alpha. A few readers asked for the doc, so here it is:


Be clear about what you need to get done

  • People who get stuff done have a clear agenda. Your agenda flows from your (or your team’s) goal and key metric. What do you need to get done to achieve your goal and amazing success in your key metric?
  • You can rarely get multiple things done at once (unless you manage other people and can delegate goals and responsibilities to them). So prioritization is key. People who get stuff done always know their top priorities at any given moment. You shouldn’t have more than 3 top priorities at any time, and you should know them without having to write them down. (Though writing them down for yourself can help you to clarify and focus on them.)
  • A checklist of questions to ask yourself: (1) In what way does this help me to achieve my goal and metric? (2) Why is this one of my top three priorities?

Go for quick wins

  • A “Quick Win” is a small project you can get done fast which leads to tangible results.
  • Quick wins are crucial because you learn from successes, not from failures. When you achieve a quick win, your added knowledge changes your perspective, and opens up new opportunities. Since the biggest goal of a startup is to “figure things out”, quick wins are the fastest way to do that as they allow you to learn the fastest.
  • Quick wins are also crucial for motivation. People are motivated by making progress in meaningful work. Quick wins are the best way to achieve that.
  • Practical advice: Suppose you’re choosing between a project with a low probability of success but a big impact if it’s successful, and a project with a high probability of success but a smaller impact if it’s successful. Always go for the project with the highest probability of success, not the project with the highest probability weighted outcome.

Don’t let small projects become large projects before they launch

  • It’s very tempting when you have a good idea to think about all the great opportunities or features that would make it truly amazing. You can find yourself turning a small project into a large project before it’s launched.
  • The problem with this is that large projects almost always have a lower probability of success than small projects, because they’re more complex. So the more you add to a project, the weaker the case becomes for pursuing it. (That’s because you should always go for projects with the highest probability of success, not not the project with the highest probability weighted outcome.) So you can find that when you add to a project, it becomes so large that you then don’t do it. In Seeking Alpha, we call this bloat and burn. You bloated the project, and then it got burned up because it was too large a commitment.
  • The other reason not to bloat projects is that you succeed most by getting things “out there” and then learning from them. If you add extra features before a project launches, you might find that those features weren’t necessary, or weren’t the most important ones to add.
  • So the key question to ask yourself is: What’s the minimum necessary to get this project or product launched? In lean startup terminology, this is called minimum viable product, or MVP. But it doesn’t only apply to products; it also applies to projects.

Maximize what you can get done on your own

  • You have most power over your own actions. Anything which requires collaboration with other people is harder to get done and the outcome is less certain. So maximize the number of things which you can get done without involving other people. You always want to be running a sprint on your own, rather than the “three-legged race” with someone else.
  • If you find you’re dependent on other people to get stuff done, ask yourself how you can decouple yourself from them. What do you need to be able to work independently of them? It’s always better to eliminate the need for collaboration altogether than to figure out how to collaborate well.

Before you ask for help from others, get as far along as possible on your own

  • It’s easier to achieve things which don’t require help from others. So even when you know you’ll need someone else’s help or input, first get as much done as you can on your own.
  • People in SA are amazing collaborators. They’re happy to help other people, even if doing so means spending time on things which don’t further their own goals and metrics. But you shouldn’t expect people to help you before you’ve done your own work.
  • So before you ask someone else for help with something, make sure you’ve thought through the issues carefully, have written down as much as you can (see below), and have got as far as you can on your own.
  • Showing that you’ve put meaningful work into the issue before you ask for help not only means you get more done faster, but it also generates goodwill from people whose help you’re asking for. When they see hard evidence of the time, effort and thought that you have put into the issue before you asked for their help, they’ll respect you and will take the issue more seriously. They’ll be more likely to give you the help you need.

Identify the key person you need to collaborate with, and don’t involve anyone else

  • Minimize the number of people you need to collaborate with. It’s enough to run the three-legged race; don’t make it the four-legged race or the five-legged race unnecessarily.
  • So if you need to collaborate with other people, think about the one person you most need to help you. Concentrate on them before you involve anyone else.

Be explicit about what you need from people

  • When you ask someone for help, your goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to help you.
  • Be as explicit as possible about the deliverables you’re requesting from them. They can’t help you if they don’t know exactly what you want from them.

Minimize your “ask” of other people’s time

  • Ask yourself: “What’s the smallest amount of time I need from this person to get this done?” And then keep your ask to that minimum. So, for example, if you need someone to update your team, don’t ask them to attend your entire team meeting if they are only adding value for a fraction of that time. Ask them to come for five minutes, deliver exactly what you need them to deliver to your team, and then they can leave.
  • Great people have short meetings and short phone calls, and write short emails, because they respect other’s time.
    Bundles are always less efficient and less focused. So try to keep phone calls, emails, meetings and documents to a single topic.
  • Meetings become exponentially less effective the more people are in them. The optimal number of people in a meeting is two. If you have to collaborate with more than one person, try to do one on one meetings or phone calls with each of them instead of a group discussion, because it’s more time efficient for them and therefore more respectful of their time. (One on one conversations will also probably be more effective for you.) Then, if you need to, circle back and tell them the results of all your conversations.
  • Avoid multi-people conference calls. They’re highly inefficient, so it’s not fair to invite people to them. Most people end up doing email while they’re dialed into a conference call.

Write it down

  • Documenting things helps you to think them through. Often, before you write something down, you think you’ve thought something through. And then you start writing, and lots of questions emerge that you hadn’t thought of. Writing things down is an amazing tool for achieving clarity.
  • Writing things down also makes collaboration easier. Other people can read and reread a written document and think about the issues. In contrast, in person or phone conversations force people to react immediately without having time to consider the issues carefully. (In Amazon, every strategy meeting starts with time to read a paper on the topic prepared by the “owner”.)
  • Sharing written materials is particularly important when you’re working with people in different time zones. They can read the document and think about it while you’re asleep, and get back to you in time for the start of your next day. Unlike a phone discussion, sharing something in written form doesn’t require that both parties be working at the same moment.
  • Sharing a high-quality written document with others shows them that you’ve put the work in yourself.
  • Google docs are easier to comment on than emails, are easier to format, and don’t get lost in people’s inboxes. Emails are more direct, and can get someone’s attention fast.

Tips for writing emails to get things done

  • When you send an email to someone, the goal of your email is to make it as easy as possible for them to help you. So before you send the email, make sure you know exactly what you need from them, and keep your email laser focused on that.
  • Try to avoid CCing people. If you really need something from someone, they should be in the “To” line, and you should write their name at the beginning of the email so there’s no doubt that the email is meant for them. If someone is only important enough to appear in the CC line, ask yourself whether they should be copied on the email at all. If you still want to include someone in the CC line, explain at the beginning of your email why you’ve CCd them.
  • There’s no need to CC your manager on emails. You should update your manager about your progress on key projects in a one-on-one, not by CCing your manager on emails you write to other people.
  • Subject line: put thought into the subject line to make it as effective as possible. The goal of the subject line is to help the recipient understand exactly what’s being asked of them. So be explicit about the topic, and where possible, your request of them. For this reason, don’t forward emails with a subject line which is unhelpful to the person you’re forwarding it to. Edit the subject line for them.
  • Be explicit as you can in the email about what you need from the other person. You can even use phrases like “Action item for you:…”. What exactly do you need them to do, and why?
  • Don’t make the recipient of your email read a thread. It’s extra work for them — and your goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to help you.
  • Keep your emails as short as possible.
  • Put time into drafting your emails carefully. Read over each email before you send it, and ask yourself whether it’s clear, and whether there’s anything non-essential you can cut out.
  • Emails have advantages over phone calls: you can draft emails more carefully, the recipient can read them multiple times to ensure they’ve understood the email, and they enable people in different time zones to progress rapidly without requiring both people to be online together. Phone calls also have advantages: they are more personal, are better suited for anything emotional or sensitive, and can be more effective for eliminating misunderstandings. Sometimes the best approach is to use both, particularly if you keep your emails and phone calls short.

5 thoughts on “How to get stuff done

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