Clement Kao is the CEO and Founder of Product Teacher, a career coaching company specialising in helping product managers optimize their personal performance, for sustainable success.
A common theme Kao encounters is entrepreneurs and founders trying to push multiple tasks over the finish line within a short time frame (sometimes a single day). Studies have shown that this kind of context switching (e.g., from meeting hosting to writing a funding application) can lead to lags of 25 minutes on average, while the individual’s brain tries to get “into gear” for the new activity.
Furthermore, the Pareto Principle applies – in any given situation, 20% of the efforts produce 80% of the desired results. The trick is identifying which 20% of the tasks at hand are most vital.
We talked through a host of productivity tips and hacks to help manage busy schedules and full task lists. Our conversation should prove helpful to both entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Whether you’re a solopreneur or a busy manager, there should be something here to make you rethink your working week.
Recognizing that everyone’s patterns of energy are different, design your day around when you are most productive in specific tasks. Journaling and noticing which days were better than others can provide invaluable insight into how to improve your work scheduling.
Remember that saying “no” to the demands of others for meetings can be better for both parties. By rescheduling, you’ll find a time for the meeting where you are at your most effective.
Kao uses the Eisenhower Matrix, which is a four-quadrant approach with two axes:
• Important / Unimportant and
• Urgent / Not Urgent
Depending on where a task falls in this matrix determines the priority it should be given.
• Important AND Urgent tasks should be done first.
• Important but non-urgent tasks should be scheduled for the future.
• Urgent but non-important tasks can be delegated to others.
• Non-urgent and non-important tasks can safely be ignored.
The latter part of the quadrant is often overlooked but it can be very liberating to determine what you definitely don’t need to do.
Further to Tip 1, by aligning your energy level with the task at hand, you’ll always improve effectiveness. There are three other things you can do to carve out time to focus on one task:
• Set personal SLAs with colleagues – let them know how long it will typically take to get a response from you. Be realistic in this assessment.
• Consider scheduling specific slots to reply to Slack queries or emails.
• Also think about turning off your “always open” communication channels for period when extreme focus is necessary – close your email server and put your phone on silent.
Kao imagines himself as two personas – the Executive and the Executor. The executor is the one who does the task, and the executive is the one demanding results. Focused personal time slots are reimagined as “meetings with oneself”.
Demands from others which threaten these vital, focused periods are thought off as intrusions which will displease “the boss” (the Executive self).
Remember that the other person’s preferred time for a meeting is only their first choice and may be arbitrary. It may be easy for them to reschedule. Using a task management platform like Trello can be very helpful in prioritizing and scheduling.
Kao has three tips for not being avoidant when it comes to the tasks you hate:
• Firstly, schedule them in fixed, immovable blocks and consider these unshakable.
• Secondly, make sure these occur at the same time each week, so that a routine builds.
• Lastly, ease into them by allowing imperfection at first. You’ll warm up and improve.
There are times when all the above productivity hacks are thrown out and you’re simply firefighting a growing list of equally urgent tasks. This is “wartime” and it’s okay to apply a more instinctive, reactive response, says Kao.
However, its also vital to differentiate real wartime from organizational chaos. One rule of thumb is to ask if there’s “light at the end of the tunnel”. If not, you’re in a chaotic situation, rather than a temporary battle.
Dig yourself out of chaos by finding 30-minute slots, either before you start work or at weekends, to chip away at one problem. This will buy you time savings downstream, and a positive snowball effect should occur.
More time to think = more time savings = even more time to think.
Kao advises to consider work and life priorities within the same list. It’s okay for family and relationships to take precedence at times. Another useful tip is to write out a list of priorities (move to paper) – there’s a visceral pleasure to scoring out a “to do” list.
Small rewards are helpful when you’re working painfully hard. Take a break and give yourself a small reward.
Both in terms of your workflow and literal tech solutions, if you have too many different tools or stages, it can make you less productive.
Map out your workflow, including the different software platforms you’re using and look for redundancies. Are you using too many highly specialist tools? Could you use more all-in-one solutions or automation to help reduce your need to context shift?
Kao acknowledges that this one is a little unusual. He plans his workday by considering three personas (different energies he has at different times). For Kao these are:
• The Craftsperson – who comes up with new ideas.
• The Curator – who sifts through possibilities and makes decisions.
• The Conspirator – who loves collaborating and picking others’ brains.
These parts of him function best at different times of the day / week so he schedules accordingly.
Observes Kao, when you’re working with other people who are less good at focusing or using their time efficiently, it’s okay to pull them aside for a discussion. Never express concerns in a group setting. Instead have a one-to-one meeting where you ascertain:
• Whether the individual is aware of the problem,
• Whether they are motivated to change and
• Do they have the methodology and time to improve?
You can then take a collaborative approach to working on time management and productivity issues.