The key to success? Do less.

Excerpt from How to Succeed in Business? Do Less by Morten T. Hansen:

Most top performers in business have one thing in common: They accept fewer tasks and then obsess over getting them right.

The common practice we found among the highest-ranked performers in our study wasn’t at all what we expected. It wasn’t a better ability to organize or delegate. Instead, top performers mastered selectivity. Whenever they could, they carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel. We found that just a few key work practices related to such selectivity accounted for two-thirds of the variation in performance among our subjects. Talent, effort and luck undoubtedly mattered as well, but not nearly as much.

The research makes clear that we should change our individual work habits if we wish to perform better, but the implications are much more far-reaching. We also need to change how we manage and reward work, how we measure economic productivity and perhaps most important, how our culture recognizes hard work. We should no longer take it as an automatic compliment to hear that we’re “hard working.” Hard work isn’t always the best work. The key is to work smarter.

(1) This doesn’t mean that companies should adopt fewer goals. Companies may achieve more by having teams or individuals working on different goals. But individuals must focus.
(2) My golden management rule: in every interaction with people in your company, ensure you Focus, Empower, and Inspire. This excerpt provides one of the ways to help people become more focused — help them to accept fewer tasks.
(3) Cf. (i) The best work question to ask yourself every morning, (ii) If you want to get more done, stop doing these things, (iii) Saying “no” to good ideas.

How to stop your phone from distracting you and wasting your life

From, “a community of design thinkers, philosophers, social scientists, entrepreneurs and technologists who care about having technology designed to help us live free and fulfilled lives”:

1. Create a tools-only home screen. Limit your home screen to the top 4-6 tools you use frequently to get things done. Move all other apps off the first page and into folders.

2. Open other apps by typing. Typing filters out unconscious choices while keeping conscious ones. Open apps by typing their name.

3. Keep only two pages of apps. With six pages of apps, we find ourselves swiping back and forth through them mindlessly. Keep to two pages, the first with tools and the other with folders.

4. Turn off notifications, except from people. Only get notifications when people want your attention, not businesses or machines.

5. Keep the M&M’s, but hide the wrappers. Colorful icons are designed to trigger us to use apps unconsciously. Put these on the second or third page inside folders, and open them by typing instead.

6. Stop leaky interactions. Set your Alarm or Camera without unlocking your phone so you get kicked out automaticaly afterwards. Swipe up on the lock screen to quickly access.

7. Reduce phantom buzzes with custom vibrations. Create your own unambiguous vibration pattern to distinguish between when people need you vs. a machine. (Go to Settings > Notifications > Messages > Sounds > Vibration > Create New)

8. Buy a travel alarm clock and charge outside the bedroom. Waking up to check our phone sets our day off to a bad start. Get a separate alarm clock and leave your phone outside to charge.

9. Know your bottomless bowls and slot machines. Know which apps are bottomless bowls (trapdoors) and slot machines (constant checking) for you. Move them off the first page of apps.

(1) How convinced are you by these suggestions?
(2) What have you tried which has worked?
(3) An alternative view: “Ultimately, I don’t think we’re going to be able to either liberate or self-regulate our way out of mental fragmentation” — Matthew Crawford.

Is group chat a constant distraction for your employees?

Edited excerpt from Is group chat making you sweat? by Jason Fried:

We’ve been using group chat at 37signals/Basecamp for 10 years. I’ve seen the distraction, anxiety, stress, and misunderstanding group chat can cause. Those are things that can really damage people and an organization.

I believe attention is one of your most precious resources. If something else controls my attention, that something else controls what I’m capable of. I also believe your full attention is required to do great work. So when something like a pile of group chats, and the expectations that come along with them, systematically steals that resource from me, I consider it a potential enemy.

That said, I still think group chat is an important tool in the communications toolbox. I just don’t think it’s the go-to tool. I think it’s the exception tool.

(1) In the full article, Jason Fried demonstrates why group chat leads to constant distraction and shallowness. If you use (or are thinking of using) Slack or Hipchat as your startup’s primary communication tool, you’ll want to read it.
(2) Cf. Samuel Hulick’s critique of Slack in What happens when you mistake user engagement for customer success.
(3) Cf. If you want to get more done, stop doing these things.
(4) Note the extreme contrast between group chat and this approach to email.

Do the most important stuff first thing in the morning

Edited excerpt from 8 Things Every Person Should Do Before 8 A.M. by Benjamin Hardy:

Willpower is like a muscle that depletes when it is exercised. Similarly, our ability to make high quality decisions becomes fatigued over time. The more decisions you make, the lower quality they become — the weaker your willpower.

Consequently, you need to do the hard stuff first thing in the morning. The important stuff.

If you don’t, it simply will not get done. By the end of your day, you’ll be exhausted. You’ll be fried. There will be a million reasons to just start tomorrow. And you will start tomorrow — which is never.

So your mantra becomes: The worst comes first. Do that thing you’ve been needing to do. Then do it again tomorrow.

If you take just one step toward your big goals every day, you’ll realize those goals weren’t really far away.

(1) Not sure that “the worst” should come first. Surely it should be the most important task to hit your long term goals?
(2) Re. “The more decisions you make, the lower quality they become” — Cf. Limiting decision fatigue.
(3) The core advice here is to think about your goals and start your day by being proactive, not reactive. Cf. If you want to get more done, stop doing these things.
(4) Because the ability to focus and block out distractions is so fundamental to startups’ success, I’ve broken out a new category for Focus vs. Distractions. You can find it in the list of Best Practices for Startups.

Can you achieve great things if you’re a regular Facebook or Twitter user?

Edited comments from Matthew Crawford, quoted in In an age dominated by distractions, there are still reasons to focus:

Just as food engineers figured out how to create hyper-palatable foods by manipulating levels of salt, fat and sugar, there are some forms of media that have created hyper-palatable stimulation that seems to tap into something hard-wired in our brains.

Strategies for asceticism or self-regulation are having a renaissance right now – which is interesting because it’s not an idea that we associate with consumer capitalism. You can sign up for these services that will turn off your Wi-Fi for some particular period of time. People are finding ways to use technology to regulate themselves against the temptation to use more technology, which makes perfect sense.

But ultimately, I don’t think we’re going to be able to either liberate or self-regulate our way out of mental fragmentation. I think the remedy is rather to be absorbed in some worthy object that has intrinsic appeal, the kind that elicits our involvement in such a way that our mental energies get gathered to a point. And once that gets under way, I think it feels more like abandon than self-control. I work on motorcycles and make parts for them, and when I’m in the shop, hours go by without any sense of distraction. I get really, really into it.

(1) “There are some forms of media that have created hyper-palatable stimulation that seems to tap into something hard-wired in our brains.” As entrepreneurs, this is the explicit goal we strive for — to create highly addictive products. The exemplar is Facebook, which has crushed Twitter on frequency of use.
(2) But from a consumer’s perspective, having easy and constant access to addictive digital products is destructive. As Matthew Crawford writes elsewhere, “Just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.”
(3) To achieve anything meaningful, we need to clear time for deep thinking. That is probably inconsistent with being a regular user of Facebook, Twitter, HN, Reddit etc. See Justin Musk’s description of How Elon Musk manages his time.
(4) As entrepreneurs, we need to ask ourselves whether the products we are building are good for users. Or are they the digital equivalent of heroin?
(5) Perhaps this question shouldn’t be binary, but about frequency of habit and usage. Seeking Alpha is a good thing — it helps you make better investment decisions, empowers you to think and decide for yourself, fosters open debate about stocks, and has created community and friendships for people who help each other with their investing. But is there a usage level above which it becomes negative? We’re nowhere near there yet — but would we have the courage to limit usage if we got there?

The best work question to ask yourself every morning

Edited excerpt from How to Spend the First 10 Minutes of Your Day by Ron Friedman:

Ask yourself this question the moment you sit at your desk: The day is over and I am leaving the office with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. What have I achieved?

This exercise is usually effective at helping people distinguish between tasks that simply feel urgent from those that are truly important. Use it to determine the activities you want to focus your energy on.

Then—and this is important—create a plan of attack by breaking down complex tasks into specific actions.

(1) I like this question a lot, because it forces you to be proactive. It’s easier but far less effective to default to reactive, “feel busy” tasks, like replying to email.
(2) See: If you want to get more done, stop doing these things and How to clear time for deep thinking.

How truly great entrepreneurs manage their time

Edited excerpt from Justine Musk‘s Quora answer to How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson?:

They are unlikely to be reading stuff like this. (This is *not* to slam or criticize people who do; I love to read this stuff myself.) They are more likely to go straight to a book: perhaps a biography of Alexander the Great or Catherine the Great or someone else they consider Great. Surfing the ‘Net is a deadly timesuck, and given what they know their time is worth — even back in the day when technically it was not worth that — they can’t afford it.

(1) Thank you Bryan Chong for the tip.
(2) Cf. (i) Time management: An extreme approach to email, (ii) Should you blog (or tweet)?, and (iii) If you want to get more done, stop doing these things.

If you want to get more done, stop doing these things

From 9 Habits You Need to Stop Now by Shane Parrish:

1. Do not answer phone calls from people you don’t know.
2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night.
3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time.
4. Do not let people ramble.
5. Do not check email constantly.
6. Do not over-communicate with low profit, high maintenance customers.
7. Do not work more to fix being too busy.
8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7.
9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should.

(1) Cf. Cal Newport on How to clear time for deep thinking and Time management: An extreme approach to email.
(2) In conclusion, Shane writes: “Work expands to the amount of time you give it. When you give it a lot of time, it will consume that time. Give it less time and you’ll be more productive.” Is that always true?
(3) Cf. Can you be a great business leader if you’re lazy?

Saying “no” to good ideas

From 14 Ways To Be A Great Startup CEO by Jason Baptiste:

You will be inundated with a list of requests from potential partners, investors, employees, and more. They will all sound absolutely wonderful. As you grow, you will also have the resources to execute more of them. Don’t. It’s easy to say yes, but so very hard to say no. By having an uncanny ability to say no, you can keep your company on track with the large vision you maintain. It will also keep your team members (notice I don’t like to use the word “employees”) laser focused and feel more rewarded as they are able to focus on one thing for a good chunk of time. I’ve seen too many startups sink because the CEO keeps changing what the head of product and engineering should be doing.

(1) The job of a great manager is to focus the company’s limited resources on what’s most impactful. That means saying “no” to good ideas.
(2) Saying “no” to bad ideas is easy. It’s the good ideas that can distract and de-focus you.

Time management: An extreme approach to email

Reposted (with permission) from Cal Newport:

This past October, the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize for his work predicting the particle that bears his name. The only problem: no one could find him.

Peter Higgs, it turns out, is not interested in being accessible. He has no e-mail address because he owns no computer. He does own a cellphone, but he only answers it if he knows the caller.

It’s easy to imagine Higgs as a recluse, but as The Guardian reported in its Nobel coverage, he’s actually quite busy. It’s just that his definition of “busy” doesn’t include an inbox.

I like these types of stories. They’re not useful as a direct source of advice (most of us probably need to keep our computers). But they do provide a nice reminder about the type of work that ends up changing the way we understand the world.

How to clear time for deep thinking

Excerpted from Cal Newport:

Deep work is phasic. Put another way, to ape Rushkoff, we’re not computer processors. We can’t be expected to accomplish any job any time we have the available cycles. There are rhythms to our psychology. Certain times of the day, week, month, and even year are better suited for deep work than other times.

To respect this reality, you must leave sufficient time in your schedule to handle the intense bursts of such work when they occur. This requires that you constrain the other obligations in your life — perhaps by being reluctant to agree to things or start projects, or by ruthlessly batching and streamlining your regular obligations.

When it’s time to work deeply, this approach leaves you the schedule space necessary to immerse. When you’ve shifted temporarily out of deep work mode, however, this approach leaves you with down time.

This is why people who do remarkable things can seem remarkably under-committed — it’s a side-effect of the scheduling philosophy necessary to accommodate depth.

(1) Cf. Creating time for reflection.
(2) Cf. Can you be a great business leader if you’re lazy?

Creating time for reflection

Tony Schwartz describes how a completely offline, two week vacation enabled him to think about longer term, strategic issues, in a way that his hectic daily schedule doesn’t allow for. (Thanks to Rachael Granby for forwarding this.) He concludes:

It’s not possible to race between meetings and e-mail all day long, and simultaneously reflect on what all this frenzied activity is accomplishing. We can’t think outside the box when we’re simply running around inside it. It doesn’t make sense to do more and more, faster and faster, if we’re not stopping intermittently to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I’ve already introduced two experiments in my company this week.

The first is to offer all of our employees the opportunity to take time away from the office, simply for reflection. All I ask is that they come back afterward and share with their colleagues, in some form, whatever insights they’ve had.

The second is to introduce two 15-minute periods a day during which people are invited to come into our conference room and sit quietly, in meditation, or simply reflecting — one at the start of the day, the second at midafternoon.

Do you think this will work?