Balancing the Conflicting Pulls on Time in a Startup

10 work hacks I use for maximizing founder flow

Time, like any resource, has multiple pulls. In a startup, there is a basic pull for activities outside and inside the building.

Startup founders must do both well, but you can’t be simultaneously in two places.

Time Disappear Stock Vector Illustration and Royalty Free Time Disappear  Clipart

The problem is further exacerbated if you are close to the product because time is utilized very differently when going from product development to customer development. Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay on the two types of schedules: manager’s schedule and maker’s schedule.

Managers typically organize their day into 1-hour blocks and spend each hour dealing with a different task. Like programmers and writers, makers must organize their day into longer blocks of uninterrupted time. The cost of context switching is low (and expected) in a Manager’s schedule. It is high (and a productivity killer) in a Maker’s schedule.

Activities outside the building (customer interviews, usability testing, customer support) tend to be on a Manager’s schedule, while activities inside the building (design, coding) are usually on a Maker’s schedule. Trying to find an equilibrium point between these two pulls is more art than science, but a fundamental concept must be present to maximize productivity — flow.

What is Flow?

There are two different definitions of what I mean by flow, and both apply here.

The first comes from psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who defines flow as a mental state of operation when you are at your best. When you are in flow, you are so immersed in an activity that nothing else matters. You lose your self-consciousness and sense of time.

Activities that flow typically have the following attributes:

  • Have a clear objective
  • Need your full concentration
  • Lack of interruptions and distractions
  • Clear and immediate feedback on progress toward an objective
  • A sense of challenge

While flow can’t be triggered at will, you can arrange activities to allow for flow, which coincidently is also the second definition of flow.

From Lean Thinking:

When we start thinking about how to line up essential steps to get a job done to achieve a steady, continuous flow with no wasted energy, batches, or queues, it changes everything, including how we collaborate and the tools we devise to do the job.

What follows are specific work hacks I use to allow for flow.


Creating Daily Flow

I generally group my daily activities into three categories: Planned maker activities, planned manager activities, and unplanned maker/manager activities.

Work Hack 1: Establish uninterruptible time blocks for maker work.

My planned maker activities are typically product and writing tasks. Because these activities need an uninterruptible block of time, I schedule these very early in the morning (6 am-8 am) or if I'm exercising that day (8 am-10 am). I usually schedule this task the night before; it is the first and only thing I do. I don’t check email/social media or look at anything else. No one is calling at that hour, so distractions are minimal. I find two-hour blocks work best for me.

Work Hack 2: Achieve maker goals as early in the day as possible.

I’ve tried both staying up late and waking up early, and I prefer the latter as it isn’t interrupted by sleep, and I'm starting with a clean slate, which allows the day’s activities to flow better. I also find that accomplishing something tangible early in the day sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Depending on the day of the week, I might allocate more 2-hour blocks later in the morning or afternoon, but they aren’t as intense as the first one and can be interrupted by something more urgent.

Work Hack 3: Schedule manager activities as late in the day as possible.

Planned manager activities, like team and customer meetings, are easier to schedule because they are time-boxed and calendar-driven. Unless there is an unworkable schedule conflict, I prefer to schedule these for the afternoon to avoid interrupting my morning flow.

Work Hack 4: Always be ready for unplanned activities, especially customer support.

Unexpected interruptions can surface anywhere throughout the day — server issues, customer support calls, etc. You have to be prepared for interruption, especially from customers. This is also a good place to apply a five whys process to ensure unexpected incidents don’t become recurring.

Creating Weekly Flow

Aside from organizing the day for flow, I also group specific tasks and activities by day of the week.

Work Hack 5: Identify the best days for planned customer development.

For instance, Mondays and Fridays are usually bad days for initiating new customer contact as people are generally either recovering from the weekend or getting ready for it. I plan these types of customer development activities between Tuesday and Thursday.

Work Hack 6: Take advantage of customer downtime.

Since Mondays and Fridays are usually slower from a customer perspective, I use them for larger maker tasks like writing. My writing topics are usually identified on Friday, outlined roughly over the weekend, written/proofed on Monday, and published/shared on Tuesday.

Work Hack 7: Balance face time with customers.

Not all customer development activities require face time. Beyond the initial customer discovery stage, there is a strong tendency to rely more heavily on asynchronous communication using tools like email, forums, and online usability testing. While all these tools are great for lowering real-time distractions and achieving scale, I still find it important to create opportunities for face time with existing and new customers.

Unscripted conversations are the best way to learn about unscripted problems.

Eliminating product waste

Waste is any human activity that absorbs resources but creates no value.
- Womak/Jones

Building a product to specifications is hard enough. When faced with a startup environment where problems and solutions are largely unknown, it is optimal to iterate around less building and more learning.

Work Hack 8: Avoid overproduction by making customers pull for features.

Customer pull is another concept from lean thinking, and it requires that no good or service be produced until a customer asks for it. More than 80% of my effort is spent optimizing existing features versus building new ones.

Work Hack 9: Razor focus on your 90-Day traction goal.

Having a single clear goal helps inform validation strategy and prioritize the most critical tasks and experiment loops to tackle.

Work Hack 10: Build product to flow.

You might have noticed I don’t have days or tasks identified for building, testing, or releasing work products. That is because we follow a continuous delivery process where all our products are built, tested, and packaged automatically at the end of every maker task where we ship something daily.

Going back to Womak/Jones definition of Waste:

Waste is any human activity that absorbs resources but creates no value.

Manufacturing processes have traditionally been arranged around machine time, breaking tasks into batches and queues. Lean thinking challenges this approach and calls for arranging around human time and organizing tasks so they flow.

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