Years ago, I came up with a new method for tackling the never-ending To-Do list that comes with being a CEO.
At the end of every day, I would turn everything off (put my email away, my phone on silent, etc.) and think hard about what I want to get done in the next 24 hours. “When I show back up to the office tomorrow, what do I want to focus on? What is most critical for me to prioritize?” To get started, I would just list action items that came to mind. But as we all know, a list of 20 different things isn’t very actionable—so once I had a lengthy list of priorities, I would then challenge myself to narrow that list down to the most important one or two.
And the next day, that’s what I would focus on first.
When I started to see how impactful this small habit was on a day-to-day basis, I started applying it to the week—going through the same process on Fridays, and prioritizing what I needed to get done starting the following Monday—and then the month, the quarter, and even the year.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about “productivity” over the years, it’s that unless you make a deliberate decision to run your day, your day will run you.
Once I had my one or two top priorities in place, here are the other 6 things I started doing on a daily basis to make myself a more effective leader for the business.
1. Dedicate my “early” mornings to myself.
When you set your priorities the night before, your mornings are free to focus on things that put you in the right frame of mind.
One of the most stressful things you could possibly do to yourself, in any professional pursuit, is wake up to a dysfunctional morning routine. When you’re trying to make your coffee and think about what you’re going to have for lunch and thinking through all the things you need to continue doing to build a business, it can feel overwhelming knowing which foot to start the day on.
Which is why, if you truly want to build any sort of productive schedule, the “productivity” part actually begins the night before.
2. Abandon the need to be “constantly reachable” via email.
Any leader will tell you that email ends up being a hindrance more than an asset.
Many years ago, I gave up trying to be the overly productive person who would respond to every message within a timely fashion. I’ve learned that my time is much better spent chatting with people directly, observing and interacting with different parts of the company, and making little lists of areas to improve. These tend to fall into three categories:
- Opportunities that can be leveraged
- Issues that need to be resolved
- Decisions that need to be made
Others within the company here at Reveille have started doing the same. In fact, many people on our leadership team spend far more time using more real-time communication methods such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams than bouncing emails back and forth. And as a general rule, we encourage everyone to never feel the need to start firing off emails late at night.
Again, you don’t want to wake up the next morning to a completely different priority list (unless it’s an absolute emergency).
3. Pick up the phone—but also protect your time.
Whenever I call someone, the first question I ask is, “Do you have a minute?”
Conversely, I’m more inclined to pick up the phone from people who respect this same way of approaching spontaneous conversations. We all are busy. We all have our calendars organized, our days plotted out. Calling someone up, even if it’s just for a quick chat, can sometimes throw a wrench in a window you might have blocked off for yourself. So, in the same way that you would ask the other person if they had a minute, you should also feel allowed to say, “Hey, sorry I can’t chat right this minute, but I’m free in an hour.”
The more you can set these boundaries with people both inside and outside the company, the easier it will be to protect your time on a moment to moment basis.
4. Keep tabs on multiple time horizons for the business.
Every single day, you should have a sense of how you, your team, and your company are doing—today, tomorrow, a few months from now, and a year from now. There are obviously several time horizons to keep in mind when building a business.
The first thing, top-of-mind, is cash management. If you are a startup, or even in the building years of early customer adoption, this area of focus never goes away. When are you “required” to show profit, is the economy getting in the way of your growth-investment (cash burn blues), what calibrations in your assumptions may need attention?
Number two is focusing on sales and revenues, and how those variables impact priority number one (runway).
And number three is what investments the company is making in new products, new departments, new talent, etc., and what your expectations are for those time horizons. How long until that new department is up and running successfully? How many more years will you be able to sell that product for, before needing to scrap it because it’s no longer relevant?
5. Carve out time every day to think about new growth opportunities.
There is a lot to be said for letting your mind wander.
Every day, usually sometime in the early morning, I’ll bike for an hour either before going to the office (or quarantining at my desk at home). On the road, I bike in the hotel exercise facilities. I might pull off somewhere and people-watch for a bit. I’ll stare at the traffic, and other bikers riding by. I’ll let my mind go wherever it wants to go, without any real expectations (which is very different than the state of mind we’re in when we’re in the office). Sometimes, an exciting idea or two will come out of it. Other times, it’ll just be a relaxing break after a busy morning of calls and meetings.
Either way, the value of this sort of “quiet time” is dramatically undervalued and under-discussed in the business world. But I couldn’t imagine my life without it.
6. At the end of the day, let work go.
And finally, one thing I believe is incredibly important is to let go of work when the workday is done.
I know a lot of people who struggle with this—not just at the CEO level, but at every level in the professional world. We’re in a day and age now where there’s this underlying expectation that you be reachable at all hours of the day, always focused on your “work life.” But the reality is, that’s not a healthy way of building a business or having meaningful relationships.
Whether you work 8, 10, 12, or 16 hours per day, when you finish work, turn it off.
Go see your friends. Spend time with your family. Eat and enjoy a nice dinner. Don’t plop yourself back down in front of your computer and get back into “work mode” at 9 p.m. Most of those To-Do list items aren’t that important anyway.
They can wait.