Even the treadmill feels like a depressing metaphor: no matter how fast I run, I never feel like I’m getting anywhere.
So, every morning at 8 am sharp, I meet with a personal trainer.
Hiring someone to help me work out is a privilege, but I enjoy the process far more when it’s social — and knowing that my trainer is waiting ensures that I never skip a day. I’m working with my own nature, not against it.
Daily exercise is just one habit that fuels my entrepreneurial journey. When I started JotForm in 2006, I wasn’t quite so clear. It has taken 12 years of experimentation, failure and learning to develop the habits that support both me and my business.
Recently, I wrote about how setting sky-high goals can actually leave you feeling lost. But what’s the difference between habits and goals?
Aiming to read 50 books by the end of the year is a goal, while carrying a book with you at all times is a habit.
As Farnam Street’s Shane Parrish explains:
Good habits help us reach our goals. Bad ones hinder us.
Either way, habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.”
As we all know (but rarely admit), there are no shortcuts for building great habits.
Startup culture often highlights hacks and tricks and instant turnarounds, but habits are the systems that drive real and lasting success.
1. Follow priorities, not to-do lists
– Stephen Covey
You’ve probably heard of the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule, which holds that a small number of things (or efforts or people) create the majority of the results.
Author James Clear whittles this down to call it the 1 Percent Rule, which states that performing just 1 percent better will eventually give you a major advantage. That’s why habits are so critical:
“The people and organizations that can do the right things, more consistently, are more likely to maintain a slight edge and accumulate disproportionate rewards over time.”
I believe time is our most valuable asset — and working strategically enables me to lead our team of over 100 employees.
Every morning, every Monday, and on the first day of every month, I list my top priorities for that day, week and month.
I’ve learned that not all my to-do list items are created equal. Instead, focusing on what’s truly important can create incredible compound growth.
Speaking of compounding, entrepreneur, investor and Y Combinator President Sam Altman credits his own productivity to the power of taking small, consistent steps in the right direction:
A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot. So it’s worth figuring out how to optimize productivity. If you get 10% more done and 1% better every day compared to someone else, the compounded difference is massive.”
Even if you don’t see this principle through a competitive lens, habits matter. Small efforts add up.
2. Even superheroes need to delegate
As a bootstrapped founder, I’ve tackled design, development, support, marketing, HR, dishwashing and office cleaning.
Even five years after launching my company, I was still doing all the customer support — from morning to night.
The upside of wearing all those hats is that I know how every position works.
I can hire great people and I know what to expect from them. But if you’re spending more time on routine tasks than being strategic about your business, it’s time to get some help.
I delegate when:
I never delegate:
3. Take time off to recharge
Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low.
The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”
Startup culture typically teaches us that rest equals laziness. If we’re not working, we supposedly lack passion, drive, and we’ll never truly succeed.
I’ve found that the opposite is true. Downtime is essential for a thriving business and a meaningful life.
Last summer, I spent three full months away from work. I attended one or two critical meetings, but I barely even checked my email. I spent this precious time with my wife, our oldest child, and our new baby.
I doubt most never-stop-hustling startup gurus would accept this from someone who employs over 100 staff on two continents.
I know I’m incredibly fortunate to take extended breaks. At the same time, I’ve worked diligently to get here and I’ve made rest a priority.
4. Minimize those meetings
We like meetings and huddles because they look like productive work. There’s a buzz in the office that can be contagious.
But as Fried explains, all that talking comes at the expense of creative work, which is often quiet and solitary. We need to experience a flow state to solve problems and develop new ideas.
In response, Basecamp has instituted Silent Thursdays and recurring “library rules,” which is a full day of shushed, focused work. Fried also believes that meetings are expensive:
You’re taking four or five hours of productive work from other people in total and compressing it into an hour of very unproductive — mostly unproductive work.”
He argues that some meetings need to happen, but they should be a last resort.
Fried and his teammates take a fairly extreme position on meetings. At JotForm, we try not to schedule regular check-ins, just for the sake of feeling virtuous.
We hold group demo days and face-to-face conversations when they’re productive, but I never want to fill anyone’s day with pointless gatherings.
The same goes for me. I often have on-the-fly conversations with my team members, because my calendar has lots of open space.
5. Declutter like it’s your job
Before I leave the office every night, I file anything left on my digital desktop. I recycle papers and empty my coffee mugs.
When I’m done, my desk is clear except for my computer, keyboard, mouse, and notebook (open to a fresh page) with a pen on top.
This routine might sound obsessive, but I believe it has dramatically improved my productivity.
Cleanliness helps me to think.
A clear notebook page holds infinite possibilities. There’s something so inspiring about seeing a blank space, ready for creation.
Whether it’s your home, office, computer desktop or email (don’t even get me started on my passion for Inbox Zero), clutter clogs the flow. Clear it out.
6. Cultivate a beginner’s mind
It’s easy to talk a big game about lifelong learning. Many people set targets for finishing books. Online courses are a thriving cottage industry and you could spend a good chunk of your month attending conferences.
At the same time, it’s so easy to get caught in the gym-work-dinner-sleep-repeat routine and realize you haven’t learned anything valuable for weeks — and untangling the Game of Thrones family lineage doesn’t really count.
Exploring ideas is part of my job. I am an incredibly slow reader, but I always have at least one nonfiction book on the go at all times.
I read Hacker News, several blogs, and I stay active on a couple interesting forums. Sometimes I even read article comments, just to take the pulse of a discussion. I love Instapaper and my Kindle iPhone app, too.
Learning is both a conscious habit and a state of mind.
Staying open to new possibilities also increases your creativity, humility and gratitude.
Zen Buddhism teaches this concept as “Beginner’s Mind”. It’s the idea that you’re always learning; you’re always a beginner, ready to absorb new perspectives.