For a number of years now, I’ve found that I generally always had a “training partner” for my entrepreneurial goals. A few years ago, this was my great friend Khuram, with whom I consistently had a weekly meeting for over a year. In the meeting, we discussed our achievements and challenges to help each other keep pushing forward.
In the world of weight training, it is well known that having a partner helps with motivation and will mean you can lift more and see gains more quickly. Taking this a step further to the area of personal trainers, research has shown that those who switch from training alone, to using a personal trainer see many improvements.
Similarly, pair programming has become relatively well established and has shown to improve the quality of code, as well as keep both developers in “flow” state for a more sustained period of time.
In the recent months I have been using these techniques in my day to day work on Buffer and my personal projects such as blogging. In essence, my co-founder Leo and I act as personal trainers for each other for our work and life goals. Here are a few examples:
Brainstorm blog posts together, in detail
When I started this blog, every post I wrote completely by myself. It can be done that way, but when Leo had come on board Buffer fully as a co-founder, I soon naturally started discussing future posts with him, and he was super encouraging and interested.
These days, I deliberately brainstorm many of my articles with Leo, right down to the individual sections. It makes my writing task much easier, and the posts are better as a result.
Write a list for the next day
One of the activities Leo and I are trying to build as a habit right now, is to sit down together for 20 minutes at the end of each day, and plan the key tasks we each want to do the next day.
We’ve found that whenever we plan the day ahead, we’re much more productive, procrastinate less, and feel happier as a result. This is something I can definitely recommend you do with your co-founders if you’re in the early stages, or if you’re part of a team you could try it with a co-worker.
Pull the other person in, even for your own tasks
Something I’ve just started doing, and encourage Leo to do as well, is whenever there’s something I need to work on myself, and I find myself struggling to get stuck into it, I will book a slot with Leo to ask him to work through it with me.
This is especially useful for analyzing and brainstorming, where you need to map out many things and come to some conclusions. Although I do it with Leo, I am mostly leading it and it is one of those cases where simply explaining something to someone can help me a lot.
Weekly mastermind sessions
Perhaps the most productive two hours of my week are Friday night, where Leo and I always go to Samovar, drink tea and have a systematic mastermind session which I have learned and cultivated over the last few years. We share our achievements and the other person helps celebrate them and point out interesting patterns. Then, we discuss our biggest challenges right now, and help the other person find solutions or adjustments to make to improve. It’s something I look forward to every week, and I make real changes for the week ahead during every session.
Do you have any activities which you do with a co-founder or co-worker which help you to progress faster or increase productivity? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Photo credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet
A couple of months ago, my co-founder Leo gave me an interesting suggestion: he said I should try disabling all notifications on my iPhone. I find this suggestion especially interesting because it is one that goes against the normal phone setup. It’s so usual to stick to how things are, and with iPhone apps the easiest thing to do is to “allow” all those notifications. It seems almost odd to even consider doing things any other way.
I chose to go along with Leo’s suggestion, although I was admittedly quite skeptical that it would change much. I imagined that I had pretty good willpower, and that I am fairly productive already. Just because I got notifications, I didn’t think that affected my workflow all too much. In hindsight looking back though, one clear indication that it was already affecting my was that I was regularly turning my phone over to stop those notifications lighting up the screen and distracting me.
What it’s like to live without notifications
“Don’t Confuse the Urgent with the Important” - Preston Ni
For the first week that I turned off notifications, I checked Twitter, Facebook, Email and other places regularly. In fact, I still do, although maybe not so much as that first week. After a couple of weeks, I came to love the fact that nothing came onto my lock screen or lit up my phone. I even found that I frequently started to use the switch in Mac OSX to turn off desktop notifications until the next day.
With zero notifications, I feel like I can get my head stuck into a problem much more easily than I did before. I never realised when I had those notifications on that they truly could throw me off my current thought and cause me difficulty getting that focus back. More than anything, I feel a lot calmer. Notifications create a sense of urgency around something that’s not important at all. I don’t need to know right now that someone liked my status on Facebook.
It changes the balance, it’s now my choice
“There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment” - George Carlin
The thing I like the most about turning off all notifications is that it is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look. As Derek Sivers puts it, “everything is my fault”:
But to decide it’s your fault feels amazing! Now you weren’t wronged. They were just playing their part in the situation you created. They’re just delivering the punch-line to the joke you set up.
What power! Now you’re like a new super-hero, just discovering your strength. Now you’re the powerful person that made things happen, made a mistake, and can learn from it. Now you’re in control and there’s nothing to complain about.
It was my fault that I received push notifications, too, but by controlling that part of my environment everything is so much more pronounced. And now that it’s my fault, I can work solely myself to be better, to check those notifications less.
I choose to avoid reliance on willpower
“we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it is depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation—whether that’s resisting a cookie, solving a puzzle, or doing anything else that requires effort.” - Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working
The other reason I am happy that I’ve turned off all notifications, is that wherever possible I like to avoid relying on willpower or self-discipline. As Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes put it, we all have a limited reservoir of willpower, and by turning off notifications it means I save some of that for other tasks rather than using it on resisting checking on each push notification that comes in. I’m certainly not suddenly a superhuman with complete focus at all times, but I feel much more in control.
Have you tried turning off notifications? I can highly recommend trying it, just for a week. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Photo credit: Christian Ostrosky
Paul Graham has a fantastic article on the topic of scheduling work as a maker and as a manager, which I’ve drawn insights from and I know many others have too. Here’s a key part of it:
One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.
The great piece is focused around two sets of distinct people in a startup: makers (typically coders) and managers (those with lots of meetings). The interesting thing I’ve found is that as a startup founder you often have to transition from a maker to a manager, and there will also be a period of time when you need to be both at once. I wanted to share my experience of dealing with the transition from maker to manager.
The maker focus
In the early days, being comfortable in a “maker” schedule, for example cranking out lots of code or content fast, is essential. Of course, there is an element of “manager” activities whether it’s getting press or doing customer development, but a large portion of the work around building a great product and gaining traction is “maker” work by nature.
The key question to ask, is, is 1 hour of my time better spent “making” or “managing”? In the first few months, you’re likely just a couple of guys, and you can’t move faster by delegating than by just getting stuck in and doing it yourself. For almost the first year of Buffer, I’d say Leo and I were mostly in “maker” schedules, where we would chat briefly for a small portion of the day, then just get on with our tasks.
I think as founders we all want to be visionary and do more than just write code, but to get to that stage we have to learn to thrive in the maker schedule and get the product off the ground.
The maker/manager split
I learned the hard way that you don’t just switch completely from being a maker to a manager. Additionally, the transition phase between the two is probably one of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a startup founder. There’s no way around it, you have to juggle being a maker and a manager for at least a few months, so you better figure out how to do that. Here’s how it worked for me:
The transition happened after the team had grown to 5 people. I suddenly realised that if I didn’t have a clear idea about what it is best for others to work on, then they would be much less effective. We realised having lists for people was efficient. I made the mistake of dropping coding completely, as I felt like it was no longer an important thing for me to do. I then took some time to think, and realised I needed to spend a number of months being both a maker and a manager. It’s a difficult phase.
Earlier this year, we realised how powerful mobile will be for Buffer, but the team was small and we had no spare resources for Android development. So I decided that I would learn Android from scratch, and at least get the app off the ground and learn what we needed from someone who would eventually lead our Android development. So, for 2-3 months, I spent 50% of my time coding Java, and 50% doing manager tasks.
For some weeks, I spent every morning coding, and every afternoon doing manager activities. This worked well, but often my maker time would overflow as I didn’t feel I’d achieved enough. I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with Eden Shochat about this, and he instantly recommended instead of half days, I do full days. I found this much better, and I also noticed that Ben Kamens does the same.
The manager focus
During the time I spent in the maker/manager split, I came across one of the most powerful concepts I’ve discovered as a first-time CEO: to “fire thyself”. It came from an awesome article by Joe Kraus:
If you’re a founding CEO, I believe that you are doing your company a disservice if you don’t fire yourself from your skill position. Your goal, crazy as it sounds, is to free up 50% of your time by constantly firing yourself from whatever skill position you’re playing.
Over the next month, I searched for a great engineer to take over Android development, and I was lucky to find Sunil. I gradually let Sunil take over and dropped my maker/manager split to 25% Android development, and eventually dropped it completely.
One of the hardest things as a developer transitioning into a manager role has been to get a feeling of progress without writing code. Progress is usually clear with code, and harder with manager activities. However, when you get towards 10 people in your team, coming back to the question from earlier is interesting: is 1 hour of my time better spent on “making” or “managing”? As a founder you’re in the best position to guide people and help them be super productive. That becomes your role. For me, I’m spending a lot of time finding great people to join Buffer, and also making adjustments all the time within the team.
Have you found yourself torn between being a maker and a manager? Are you still coding when you should be building a company and awesome culture? I’d love to hear your experiences on this topic.
Photo credit: Paul Goyette
For some time, I’ve gradually realised that my day is not only occupied by tasks from my todo list. Often, there are lots of other tasks which deserve time in my day just as much as those I have in my todo list. Previously, I found that these extra tasks detracted massively from my feeling of productivity and happiness.
It was when I read a great article from the guys at iDoneThis three weeks ago which I made some concrete changes and started to feel consistently much more productive. Since then, the Anti-Todo List has become a daily habit, so I want to share it with you.
The Anti-Todo List concept
My approach with the Anti-Todo List is to have not just a single list each day, as many of us do now (our todo list), but to have two. The idea of the Anti-Todo List is that it is the account of progress for that day. In some ways it’s a “Done” List. This is really powerful, because you can always look back at your Anti-Todo List and see how much you’ve got done (even if the items weren’t on your todo list).
Just like how you get a little rush by crossing something off your todo list, the Anti-Todo List goes even further and suggests that you actually write the items down fresh, and write all the additional tasks you end up accomplishing which weren’t necessarily on your todo list. This has given me an extraordinary feeling of productivity and fulfilment and I’ve found it helps me sustain my productivity throughout the week, whereas previously I would be “knocked down” a little by the fact I sometimes had extra things come up which I needed to complete.
The Anti-Todo List and feeling productive
I’ve realised that without the Anti-Todo List, whenever I was doing a task not on my todo-list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my todo list, and that it didn’t “count”. Here’s an example, the tasks in the lower half are the ones which were not on my todo list:
The split between todo-list tasks and non-todo list tasks could be defined as proactive vs reactive. Clearly, we need to be proactive in order to make great progress moving forward (we shouldn’t be controlled by the emails we receive), but we inevitably have tasks during the day which are not on our todo list but do deserve our time. The key, is to write those items down in your Anti-Todo list, and get that same feeling as when you cross something off your todo list. With this little change, I now feel more like this most days:
It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-Todo List and feel great about all the things I got done. It’s literally possible to move those tasks above the line and create a feeling of productivity. That’s powerful.
My changing role at Buffer, and the Anti-Todo List
One of the most interesting things happening right now is that my role is adjusting rapidly. Whereas previously I would spend a lot of my time coding, I’m now spending lots of time hiring and working on the culture at Buffer. This has meant I’ve switched from a pure maker workflow to more of a manager schedule.
One of the most important things is that I’m now a potential blocking point for people to get on with their work, and I need to avoid that. Matt Blumberg put it well in his article What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?:
Don’t be a bottleneck. You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut, but you do need to make sure you don’t have people in the company chronically waiting on you before they can take their next actions on projects. Otherwise, you lose all the leverage you have in hiring a team.
As a result, a lot of the time I have things I do during the day which weren’t on my todo-list. Things which come up and I need to do, which are actually a big part of moving Buffer forward. The Anti-Todo list has been a vital lifeline for me in this change from a maker schedule working through a todo list without much deviation, to a manager schedule with useful interruptions.
The other great side-effect is that I can take a look at my Anti-Todo list each day to validate that I’m making progress on the right things. If I have too many unexpected tasks and not enough from my to-do list, I stop to think about whether I’m letting my tasks be defined too much by others. I then make some adjustments and prioritise the more proactive tasks. I think it’s about a balance, and having two lists is a great way to achieve that.
Have you ever tried keeping an Anti-Todo List each day? I’d love your thoughts on this topic or other methods you’ve found useful.
Photo credit: Anna-Maria Mueller
My first post on this blog was one where I pondered whether exercise is a requirement for sleep. The post was actually triggered by my inability to sleep, and I wrote it in the middle of the night. Since then, I have made a number of adjustments and I now sleep much better, so I’d like to share what I’ve changed.
Why create a sleep ritual?
As an early stage startup founder, I’ve found the emotional ups and downs to be incredible. In my experience so far in building my latest startup, there have been many different events which have caused a huge amount of joyful moments, and there are undeniably times when you wonder how you are going to progress and how you are going to handle the sheer chaos in which you’ve chosen to live. It is easy to work long hours, become very unproductive and find yourself enjoying the moments less.
In my experience, you have enough against you if you’re running a startup that feeling exhausted for the majority of every day is not a wise idea. I’ve realised over the last few months that balance, however elusive it might sound, is very important. A key example is how crucial feedback and communicating with users is at the beginning of a startup. For me, I find that the emails I write are much better, and the energy I can put into responding fast and positively to Tweets is higher when I am well rested.
What is a sleep ritual?
I learned about rituals from The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. Whilst habits are often seen as activities you have to force yourself to do, rituals are instead activities which you are pulled towards. A good friend introduced me to the book, and also helped me craft a new ritual to help me get to sleep at a good hour and in a good state of mind each night. It takes some time to convert a habit into a ritual, but once you have it becomes something that does not require thought or energy, and instead can provide you with vast amounts of extra energy.
I’ve adjusted this ritual over time, and it can be simplified to two important parts:
Disengage: An activity to allow total disengagement from the day’s work. For me, this is going for a 20 minute walk every evening at 9:30pm. This is a wind down period, and allows me to evaluate the day’s work, think about the greater challenges, gradually stop thinking about work and reach a state of tiredness.
Avoid re-engaging: After the activity, go straight to bed. Be sure that all devices are in a separate room to the one you sleep (and slient). Once in bed, do not read books which are related to your work in any way. For me, this means reading fiction.
Adjusting and improving the ritual
It’s important to start with something simple, so that you can keep to it and allow it to convert from being a habit you struggle with to a ritual you are pulled towards doing. Once you are performing the ritual regularly, you can start to add more good habits and let those become rituals too.
Recently, I have combined early morning exercise with my sleep ritual. The sleep ritual helps me get a good night’s sleep, and allows me to get up very early. I like early mornings, and I like to start the day feeling refreshed and confident. I’ve also been trying to make going to the gym a regular part of my life, and I’ve often struggled to fit it into my day. I now go to the gym as soon as I wake up, and this is perfect since whatever chaos my day brings, I can almost always go to the gym before it starts.
Don’t worry if you miss days. It’s important to avoid guilt, and instead learn what is best for yourself and try again. It took some time, but I perform my ritual almost religiously now during the week. However, I don’t usually do it at the weekends. If I miss it one day, it is often due to being overwhelmed by everything that is going on. In those cases, I’ve found becoming consciously aware of the reason I’ve slipped out of my ritual, and then making a definite decision to start it again has allowed me to reduce the impact of stress.
I know that with the ritual, whatever chaos the day has brought, I can feel fresh the next day.
Do you have a ritual which helps you to sleep well and feel good each day? Do you think it is something you’d like to try? I’d love to hear from you.
Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Whilst building my latest startup, which I’m glad to say is picking up nicely, there have been times when things have started to go a little crazy. It might be being featured in a big blog, lots of tweets about us in a short space of time, a big influx of signups or a few consecutive people upgrading to a paid plan. When this happens, it is very easy for your thoughts to drift off and to start thinking of the bigger picture possibilities for the startup long into the future. I’ve realised that part of the process of an early stage startup is to steady yourself when those occasions arise, and to stay focused on the immediate tasks such as making sure customers are happy, improving the user experience or working on upcoming features.
Why do we start to “think big”?
I’ve been trying to think about why it is that these thoughts emerge especially at times when some “minor successes” occur. It seems that most of the time, it is a result of a chain of thoughts, each a step further than the previous. Before you know it, you’re thinking about how your startup is going to change the way something is done in a profound way. It often happens when you’re with someone else and neither of you stop the chain of thoughts. It may be healthy to be ambitious, but often these thoughts occupy more time than they should and stop us doing the real work we need to do to get anywhere near to those thoughts becoming reality.
Before conquering the world…
It is easy to look at the success stories of the world and think they started at the top. Let’s try and question that and think how all successful ventures or entrepreneurs started with something small. Facebook started just at Harvard. Google started as something used by just a few at Stanford.
Richard Branson may be trying to bring space travel to the masses with Virgin Galactic, but he started out with a magazine called Student. The spiral of success is what you should focus on - trust that with each achievement you will be more informed and better positioned to tackle the next, slightly bigger challenge. Don’t go for space travel right away. It took Branson 38 years.
My thinking here is reflected by Mark Suster who conveys a similar message very eloquently in his recent post titled Why Entrepreneurs & VCs Should Focus on Basecamp, Not the Summit.
Is it so bad to have ambitious thoughts?
I personally love to think big. It’s something I almost pride myself for - there is a lot I want to do, and I truly believe I will achieve it. I think it can be argued that it is healthy to have ambitious thoughts. Perhaps depending on the type of person you are, you either think big too much or you don’t think big enough. It is those of us who think big too much who need to pay attention to this the most. A certain amount is definitely healthy, but beyond a point it becomes a huge time sink, and could actually stop you reaching your goals.
How to steady yourself and keep moving forward
In the recent months, being able to become aware of when I have these world-changing thoughts and being able to stop them in their tracks before they stop me moving forward has been something I’ve found myself needing to do time and time again. This applies to everything, too - keeping your initial product minimal, going for smaller press before you’ve built up momentum, or even realising you can get started without waiting for perfect conditions.
Working with others can help a lot. I’ve been delighted to have a great pro-active friend join me with my latest venture. However, it is worth noting that if you’re working with someone else, one of you needs to stop those thoughts before they take up a lot of time. Inevitably the discussions start, and they’re fun, but then comes the time to get working again.
In the end though, no one else is going to do it for you - you need to stop thinking about changing the world, and do the nitty-gritty to get one step further. I’ll certainly need to come back to this article to remind myself.
Have you experienced a similar thing? How do you handle it? Is it really a bad thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Photo credit: [Mr. T in DC]http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/2515431156/)
Recently I have struggled to get to sleep at night. When I need to be up at 8 and working away on either my own projects or exciting client projects by 9 it is vital that I wake up refreshed and ready for a challenging day. So why am I having trouble sleeping?
Busy lifestyle pushes exercise aside
In the last few weeks I’ve found myself a lot busier than usual - client projects and multiple side projects of my own.
As a result, I’ve not been exercising as much as I usually do. I am now starting to think that exercise is not something that can take a lower priority when things get busy.
I’m mentally drained from the day’s work, but physically I have just been sat at a desk all day and I have too much energy to fall asleep. This distinction is important. In order to sleep well, I am starting to realise I need to be both mentally and physically tired.
Does exercise have an impact?
After around a week and a half away from the gym, one evening I decided enough was enough and I went and swam 50 lengths. The result? I got back, went to bed at 10pm and I was asleep before I knew it, and slept right through. I felt refreshed and ready to get on with things again the next morning.
A simple search on Google reveals many results similar to this one:
Exercise is important for a healthy life. People who are physically fit have a better quality of sleep. A healthy body and a relaxed mind will increase your chances of being able to fall asleep and gain the benefits of a good night’s sleep.
Quality of sleep
That point could easily be overlooked in that last quote. It mentions quality of sleep. So what is quality of sleep? The way I see it, generally quality sleep is sleep when you’re not stressed. So in order to get quality sleep we need to feel we’re happy with what we’ve accomplished in the day - be it work or much needed renewal. Another component could be our environment - I live in central Birmingham and it can get noisy at times, though I don’t feel like this affects my sleep as much as the other factors.
Time to make a few changes
I think I need to get more exercise, otherwise this is going to become a real problem. It should be easier to motivate myself to exercise when I know that sleep, and ultimately my energy levels throughout each and every day as a result depend upon it.
How do I fit it in?
The only thing now is, how do I fit in the crucial exercise I need in order to fall asleep each night? Do I need to exercise every day, or will once every two days give me the chance to stretch myself physically enough in order to be able to put my head to the pillow without being awake for hours? I’m going to start off by trying to exercise every couple of days, alternating between cardio and weights as I have done in the past. I’ll probably write about how it goes soon.
Have you had trouble sleeping before due to not exercising? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Photo credit: Colton Witt