How to be more productive

I’m constantly experimenting with my personal productivity. As you can imagine, people who know that often ask for tips as to how they can improve their own. I’d start by noting that the concept of personal productivity is not as straightforward as it sounds (see this in-depth discussion by Laetitia Vitaud). But I’m still happy to share a few tips that I think anyone in the startup world can put into practice.

Emails: use a method called ‘Yesterbox’. Like it or not, emails have become the center of our professional life, especially if you interact with lots of outside parties, and even more so if you, like me, use email as your primary channel for accessing content (typically via newsletters). A method that works well for me is the late Tony Hsieh’s ‘Yesterbox’, which is documented here.

  • Let me sum it up in two rules: 1/ Never answer an email on the same day, unless it’s obviously urgent; 2/ Dedicate 2-3 hours every day to processing all emails received the previous day. The main point of ‘Yesterbox’ is that every morning you have a clear idea of how many emails you need to go through during the day, and you can adjust your schedule accordingly.

Social media: pick three. In my not-so-unique experience, social media can become a major distraction—and not just because of the time spent using it, but because the more apps you use, the more effort goes into checking what’s new and going through your notifications. My approach is to use no more than three different social media apps, and to delete the rest.

  • I use Twitter (a lot), LinkedIn (a bit), and The Family’s Slack (yes, that counts as one). I still have a few other accounts here and there, but they’re marginal. I have a private account on Instagram, but it’s only for sharing pictures with family and close friends (and, no, sorry, I never watch your stories). And I do have WhatsApp, but I only use it for occasional 1-on-1 messaging.

Meetings: keep them concentrated. Maybe you are a manager, in which case you have to make peace with having a manager’s schedule, as once described by Paul Graham. But if, like me, you need to make room for quite a lot of alone work (whether it’s emails, consuming content, producing content, or working on spreadsheets), then you need to avoid being stuck in too many meetings.

  • An approach that has worked for me is a ruthless use of long ‘No Meeting’ slots in my Google Calendar, complemented with a Calendly link that I send to everyone from the outside who wants a meeting. Obviously, I’m still scheduling internal meetings on my ‘No Meeting’ time, but since I’m the boss I can still preserve long slots for alone work 😉

To-do lists: randomness is your friend. I like to start every day with a clear overview of everything I have to do during the day: emails, meetings, writing, etc. Some days, the list is rather short and it’s easy to have it completed by the evening. But on other occasions, the list is so long you’re at risk of 1/ not being able to finish everything and 2/ prioritizing easy tasks over hard ones.

  • To avoid the curse of constantly delaying hard tasks, I use...a die. I divide all I have to do into numbered elementary tasks (for instance ‘60 emails’ become ‘6 times 10 emails’, to be processed in reverse chronological order). Then once I’ve completed a task, I roll the die to determine what comes next (use this app to add as many sides to your die as necessary).

Writing: an overlooked productivity lever. In Jessica Livingston’s great book Founders at Work, there’s an interview with software entrepreneur Philip Greenspun, in which he explains why he forced every programmer in his company to spend at least two hours every day writing about their code: 

I wanted to make [programmers] true professionals in the sense that lawyers and doctors and... engineers are professionals. That means they would have to develop the skill of starting from the problem. They would invest some time in writing up their results... I tried to get the programmers to write, which they didn’t like to do.

People don’t like to write. It’s hard. The people who were really good software engineers were usually great writers: they had tremendous ability to organize their thoughts and communicate. The people who were sort of average-quality programmers and had trouble thinking about the larger picture were the ones who couldn’t write.

What does it mean in practice, especially if you’re not a programmer tasked with writing your own code’s documentation? You simply have to set aside some time every day to write a newsletter, a blog, your personal journal, or simply memos to your colleagues (on that, check out Amazon’s best practices). It really is a game-changer: it helps you see the big picture; it improves your decision-making skills; it creates an archive of well-polished content you can copy-paste or link to; it creates a constant incentive to learn new things and get better at what you do.

  • To many people, this time for writing and reading and learning seems like it’s not work, but it’s also precisely what makes you more productive at work—constantly updating yourself for higher performance. It’s the old Zen proverb: “If you don’t have time to meditate for an hour every day, you should meditate for two hours” 🧘🏼‍♂️

These are only a few tips among many. What are your own tips for getting more productive? Which, according to you, are the most relevant for a startup founder?