I've spent ten years running small businesses – and have built, abandoned and tweaked the way I keep myself disciplined countless times. It's still a work in progress (and it probably always will be) – but here's how I do it now.
The small business world spends a lot of time talking about big, ambitious ideas.
Vision. Innovation. Leadership. Your company's 'brand'. We’re obsessed with grand schemes about growth, strategy, markets and performance.
That’s fine. Big ideas are great. But that doesn’t mean we should be ignoring the little things that really make a difference on a day-to-day basis.
That’s why I was so pleased to see Front’s CEO Mathilde Collin talking in detail about the importance of discipline recently. Conversations about discipline (or efficiency, effort, commitment and so on) in the startup scene tend to focus on lengthy odes to the “startup grind” without any real substance. Collin doesn’t fall into this trap, instead going into the small, unsexy – but vital – practices that measurably improve your chances of success.
Inspired by Collin’s example, I thought I’d sit down and list off my collection of practices that have kept me going over the last ten years of running a business.
I’ve broken this up into two areas: My Tools and My Rules.
These are the specific practices I use to keep myself disciplined and productive. In all honesty, you’ve probably heard about these things before – none of them are really my own ideas, but they've certainly changed the way I work for the better.
The weekly plan
This is one of my oldest habits.
Every Sunday, at 6pm, I sit down and write this out.
Weekly plans are hardly anything new. For me, this is really just a pretty boilerplate review of the previous week and a plan for the week ahead, which I’ve tweaked to suit my own purposes.
Writing this out takes quite some time. There have been many times I’ve questioned whether taking the time to do this is actually worth it – when I could be working on something which directly helps my company move forward.
Because of this, there have been a handful of occasions where I’ve abandoned this habit. Each time, the result has been noticeable. I become less organised, lose track of my time, and end up getting less done each week. Eventually, I come crawling back to the weekly plan. It may feel like a frustrating time-sink, but it actually ends up saving time over the week ahead.
Here’s what’s in it:
Setting the scene: I start by reviewing what I think of as my role mission – 'to make everyone on the team 10% more effective.' This is just my own method of articulating internally my role at Charlie, to help make sure I am always focussing on the right things.
I’ll also set myself out a personal win for the week. As my role tends to focus on making things happen for other people, setting out something personal to focus on is really valuable. Some examples might be:
“Make sure my days off don’t interrupt the team’s hiring efforts”
“Feel like we’re making solid progress towards hiring goals”.
Projects & tasks: here, I set out the key projects I want to be involved with this week (such as hiring or performance management) and what clear tasks I need to get done. The key part of this section is being realistic: setting yourself overly-ambitious goals is a waste of time. Focus on what you’ll actually get done.
Reflection: this is a relatively new addition. Here, I try to capture the things I’m worried or excited about, and try to codify any learnings from last week. So far, I’ve found that writing this stuff down really helps tackle any pressure or stress I’m feeling about individual issues.
The Checklist: this one seems to be left out by a lot of productivity gurus – but to me, this is the most important part. At some point I worked out that I could have a super productive week, but not spend any time with my fiancé Emily, or miss my triathlon training. Even though I’d done everything I was supposed to do, I was miserable. So each week I go through a list of questions to help me to interrogate whether I’m actually doing the things that make me happy.
Once I’ve finished my plan, I send it around to all of my team leads. This helps communicate to all of them exactly what my priorities are, but also ensures they can hold me to account if I start to veer from the plan.
I think it's also very healthy for them to see me sharing my concerns. It helps us normalise that behaviour as a company, and hopefully they become more comfortable sharing their own worries as a result.
The Daily Journal
Once again, this is hardly a revolutionary practice. I actually stole this one from my co-founder Rob after hearing him rave about the practice.
On the majority of mornings I try to get up somewhere between 5 & 5:30. This is contingent on me being in bed for 7 hours – so to get up at 5 I have to be in bed before 10… which is not always possible. Once I’m up, I go downstairs, make a coffee, and take 30-45 mins to complete my daily journal ritual before leaving the house.
The key components to my daily journal look something like this:
One daily goal. I think about this like so: if I only got one thing done today, what would I choose? This is extremely useful when you’re in a role like mine – where things tend to pop up from unexpected places and drag you away from your plans.
How am I feeling? I’ve really enjoyed doing an emotional check-in first thing in the morning, It normally prompts the question of “why am I feeling like this”, which is always helpful to understand.
The daily checklist. This isn't a to-do list – it's more of a checklist of things I do every single morning to kick-start my day and get off to the right start.
Some key aspects of my daily checklist:
- Diary review. This forces me to make sure there are no clashes, cancel things that aren’t needed and prepare my thoughts for important discussions.
- Email clearing. I’ve become a huge fan of multiple inboxes and focusing on clearing only high priority emails has really benefited me. There are always emails to reply to – limiting myself to those that are important and time sensitive has helped stopped me from living in my inbox.
What I’m grateful for. Here, I have a go at listing out 3-5 things I’ve been grateful for. I’ve noticed that these tend to end up being the small things rather than big flashy events or gestures.
Evening review. I’m bad at this one, and need to work on it. Regardless, I try to spend 15 minutes in the evening checking my diary for tomorrow and going through my emails and prioritising them so I can table the important ones in the morning. I also try to jot down how I’m feeling and see if I can come up with an unexpected win from the day.
Ending the day feeling organised and focusing on a positive has made me feel much less anxious when I go to sleep at night – failing to close off a day with some sort of housekeeping review like this is dangerous: you can end up turning stuff over in your head until the small hours of the morning.
These are some constraints I try to put on my behaviour each week. They’re designed to reign in some of the habits I have which I’m aware can chip away at my productivity.
External Time Vs Internal Time
I’ve always been a fan of making sure that every minute of time in my day is blocked out with either a meeting or task. It gives me a bizarre sense of calm knowing that all I have to do is look at my diary and I’ll know that I’ll never be at a loose end.
As a rule of thumb, my time should be split roughly 80:20 internal vs external.
I’m a COO, and so being heavily focused on internal stuff is unsurprising – this ratio might look very different for people in different leadership positions. My role mission for the last 9-12 months has been to make everybody in the company 10% more effective. That means that the majority of my time is focused on our current team – hence 80%.
That leaves 20% for external things, such as swapping hiring tips with a COO at a similar company. I’ve been through phases where my internal/external split was closer to 90:10 and I don’t think I was a super happy person.
Interacting with external counterparts is extraordinarily important. It helps you learn and grow, and gives you a benchmark for how you’re doing in your role.
Emails are not my to-do list
For the last 10 years, I’ve been one of those nauseating people who live in their inbox and reply to things creepily quickly.
I’ve known for a long time that this isn’t always the best place for me to be spending my time, but hitting inbox zero is an exhilarating feeling, and one that I’ve struggled to give up.
This year I’m I’m making an active attempt to not live in my inbox. I’ve made a few changes that have helped with this:
- Deleting my phone's Gmail app. It is extremely rare to have an emergency that arrives via email and needs to be dealt with ASAP. If something’s really that important, it will come in via Slack if it’s internal, or a phone call if it’s external.
- Keeping the Gmail tab shut on my computer apart from when I’m actively doing my emails. This stops me from absent-mindedly flicking back to my emails and wasting time going through unimportant stuff which has just shown up in my inbox.
- Scheduling time. It’s extremely easy to spend multiple hours in your inbox without really focusing. Instead of letting myself get dragged into this, I schedule two 30 minute blocks during the day to tackle my inbox, focusing on high-priority emails first.
- Email labelling system. Around a year ago I picked up this system and I’ve never looked back.
Have a non-negotiable hour of me-time
For the vast majority of my life, the team takes priority over pretty much everything. That means I’ll happily drop external projects or tasks to make time for someone in the team. It’s always been important to me to make my team feel like they can talk to me or grab me for help with something whenever they want.
Unfortunately, there’s a serious downside to this. If you spend your entire life actively trying to live for others, you find yourself losing the ability to selfish.
Selfishness is generally considered something negative – but being able to dedicate time and resources to yourself is a crucial part of remaining healthy and happy.
A little over one year ago, I made one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I cordoned off an hour on Monday evenings to be totally, selfishly mine.I never book over it or move it. I don’t care what’s going on with the business – I need this. Currently, I use this time to visit a therapist – but you could use it for anything. Just find the time to do something which is focused purely on yourself.
This 60 minutes is for me to vent, moan, discuss challenges and exorcise stresses. It’s had a fantastically positive effect on my mental and emotional wellbeing, and I can’t ever see myself removing this from my weekly routine.
I’m generally a proponent of flexibility in the workplace – but the tactics I’ve outlined above are largely rigid. I think this is OK: discipline, focus and rules are important parts of tackling challenges and dealing with pressure. Having said that, this isn’t a science: different people may work in different ways – so if you’ve got another method of coping, or you think one of my ideas is rubbish, or you believe there’s something crucial I’ve left out, I’d love to hear from you.
You can get in touch with me here: firstname.lastname@example.org – or leave a comment below.