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In the opening essay of Issue #5, I wrote about how Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, believed that just about every manager manages upside down. He preached that great managers spent 50% of their time managing themselves, 25% managing up, 20% managing across, and 5% managing down. In comparison, most actual managers preoccupy themselves with a hell of a lot more downward management than 5% of their time. Peter Drucker, who emphasized managing oneself first, must have inspired Hock. I’ve become borderline obsessed with integrating this idea into my work. One of the best ways to begin managing yourself is to look at how you spend your time. And so, today’s issue will be about doing just that.
“What can you learn about managing yourself from how the most effective people you know manage themselves?”
“Executives who do not manage themselves for effectiveness cannot possibly expect to manage their associates and subordinates. Management is largely by example. Executives who do not know how to make themselves effective in their own job and work set the wrong example.”
Every CEO, founder, and executive I’ve met periodically struggles to manage their time. Metaphors of spinning plates, plates too full, and being pulled in too many directions collide with feelings of overwhelm and wanting to pull one’s hair out and run away to hide in a corner.
The solution begins with conducting a “Time Audit.” Like all decisions, we need information—data—to make them. To audit your time, you need to do three things with the data on how you spend your time:
Note: “Get it; know it; use it” is a favorite mental model of mine, which a little bird once told me is how the NSA organizes their teams (team 1: get the data; team 2: know what the data means; team 3: use the data). I’ve found it to be a helpful model when making decisions many times.
After reading this piece, I’m confident you’ll have the tools to:
The first step is to record how you spend your time. This isn’t something you need to do every day, every week or every month. But I (and Peter Drucker does, too) recommend you do this twice a year for ~3-4 weeks at a time, as our discipline tends to drift after a while.
It doesn’t matter where you keep a record of your time. All that matters is that you do it. A few methods I’ve seen work are a simple spreadsheet, a private channel in Slack where you message yourself every time you switch tasks and then roll the data up later, or reviewing your calendar (so long as your calendar reflects how you actually spent your time). If you have an EA or Chief of Staff, you can ask them to assist you in the process (oh, and if you are an EA or Chief of Staff, suggest this to the executive(s) you support!).
When you’re tracking your time, be sure to classify it. It will be tempting to group activities functionally (e.g., marketing, product, etc.), but that won’t help you decide what to keep doing, stop doing, or delegate. You’ll want to record the specific activities. Instead of classifying an hour as “marketing,” “reviewed product marketing messaging draft” is much better. Similarly, “sourced 25 candidates for head of sales role” is much better than “hiring.” You can add higher-level categories later, but it’s much harder to remember specific activities at the end of the day or week than at the moment. Here’s an example of how I tracked my time this week in Notion:
It’s scary how fast you’ll forget how you spent your time, so as a general rule of thumb, the sooner you record the activity after completing it, the better. To ensure you track and classify your time, I recommend setting up a calendar event before, during, or after lunch, as well as at the end of your day, to record the details of your morning and afternoons, respectively.
Beyond making sure you track your time, you must keep a record that reflects the truth. If you’re using your calendar as a source of truth to review at the end of a day, make sure the block that began the day as “lunch” that turned into a walking meeting with your head of marketing reflects that.
If you want to overachieve, set a goal for yourself at the beginning of each week for how you’d like to spend your time. For example, after reviewing your priorities, you may set a goal to spend 25% of your time on recruiting, 10% on 1:1s, 20% on That Big Project™, and so on. At the end of the week, when you’ve logged and classified all your week’s work, you can see whether your calendar reflected your priorities. Quite often, when I do this with CEOs, they tell me at the start of the week that “hiring a head of sales is the #1 priority,” and then when we review how they spent their time, they spent something pitiful like an hour working on making that hire. The CEO no longer doubts why the head of sales hire has not materialized.
You’ll get data on how you are and aren’t using your time effectively when you track your time. But it’s also worth discovering if you’re using others’ time effectively. The last step in the data collection process is to ask each of your direct reports the following question: “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?”¹ Be sure to incorporate the feedback you receive as you review your own time-tracking data and decide how to change how you spend your time.
After you’ve tracked your time for 3-4 weeks, it’s time to review the data. For each activity, ask yourself four options to decide how to take action with your time:
“What would happen if this were not done at all?”¹
If the answer is “Nothing,” then you can stop this activity. Another form is, “What would happen if I were not in this meeting?”
“Could this be done by somebody else just as well, if not better?”¹
If the answer is “Yes,” then delegate this activity.
“Does this activity need more work from someone else before it’s ready for my review?”
If the answer is “Yes,” then reassign this activity. A great example is when one of your direct reports sends you a draft asking for feedback, but you feel like it’s not even a draft one. It’s a draft zero. Practice saying, “Hey, Greg, this looks like a good start. Can you take another pass at it first before I dive in? Specifically, I’d like to see more of X and Y.”
“Could this activity be modified in some form to be shorter or a great use of my time?”
If “Yes,” then modify this activity.
Finally, you should be left with activities that make both logical sense and pass your gut test to the question:
“Are these things essential?”
If “Yes,” then keep these activities.
I have a column in Notion with these five actions in a single select. As the last step, I export the data from Notion into a Google Sheet to produce some charts (much prettier versions of which you see in this post).
So you’ve completed a time audit. You stopped, delegated, reassigned, and modified, leaving you with 15 more hours in your 60-hour week. You can now spend that time however you feel it may have the most significant impact. Please take a minute to think how much power a CEO wields with how they spend their time. A CEO who uses her time 10% more effectively can use that time to cascade effectiveness throughout her organization. One project completed this week that would have otherwise been buried in a pile of “I’ll get to it eventually” can set the company on a course that beats competitors to market.
And finally, you can still do one more thing to make your entire organization even more effective. After finishing your time audit, encourage your team to do the same.
And if that’s not enough to convince you this is worth doing, let me summarize today’s lessons:
Hoo Boy, indeed.
After a time audit, many founders find that they’re constantly replying to endless Slack messages, emails, texts, pings, and pongs. Andreas Klinger, previously the CTO at Product Hunt and On Deck, put together a timeless piece on how to use David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology (often referred to as ”GTD”) to process your email inbox more effectively. I’ve used the same system Andreas uses for a while now and can attest to its effectiveness.
What is product management? How do you make great products? How do great product teams differ from mediocre and terrible ones? How can you orchestrate your company to get product-market fit? These are all questions Lenny Rachitsky asks in his newsletter and podcast. Founders, no matter whether you’re a CEO, CTO, or some other CXO, business is all about makin’ products that solve customers’ problems. And if you want to learn how to do that and you aren’t reading Lenny’s Newsletter, then I think you’re missing out in a big way.
I remember one snowy Pennsylvania winter when it was so gaddang cold that our snowblower wouldn’t start, no matter how many times we primed it. Startups can feel similar. Everyone is working hard, but for some reason the engine just won’t get up and running. Andrew Chen is a partner at a16z and led Uber’s growth product teams, and he thankfully wrote a book, “The Cold Start Problem,” to help founders navigate this same challenge. But books can be a big commitment. So start with this podcast.
To me, this is one of those books leaders and managers skip over for one reason or another, and then they read it after ten years of leading and wonder what the hell they were thinking. This book is essential for anyone—not just managers, founders, and leaders—interested in learning how to manage themselves to be a more effective part of a team.
Whether you count yourself part of Founder Club™, it’s hard to deny that founders are a bit different than people who leave the founding to the founders. In this video, Michael Dearing at Harrison Metal lays out five common cognitive distortions of founders that all founders should know. My favorite part of the video is how Dearing highlights how each cognitive distortion lends founders both a potential superpower and also a potential albatross. For bonus points, watch it with your co-founders and talk about what comes up for each of you.