My good friend and Trulia co-founder Sami Inkinen posted a fascinating, in-depth analysis of his personal productivity on his blog the other day that details the challenges of getting things done as the founder of a startup. I instituted quarterly time-logs with the Trulia sales team back in 2009 where everyone individually tracked everything they did for a week in 15-minute increments using a simple spreadsheet template so we could find opportunities to automate, delegate or eliminate redundant tasks to optimize people’s time and output. I will write a more detailed post about that process and share the Excel template I created to make that work next week. In the meantime, let’s take a look at how one of the most productive people I know used a similar time-log exercise to track how he spends his six day, 67-hour work week as President of the second largest consumer real estate site in the country below.
Through my early experience at McKinsey&Company, I – unfortunately – learned that time is almost an unlimited resource in getting things done: after all, there are 7 nights a week that exist as a flexible resource you can always tap into. But we’ve always been focused on Impact at my company Trulia, not just getting things done or pure output. After having a growing feeling that maybe I’m not maximizing my impact despite lots of to-do’s (and what I thought was a high output), I decided to do what one of my friends, Ron, encouraged to do: take an inventory of time use.
I decided to track my time use by 15minute intervals for three weeks. I used a simple and quick approach:
- Define three things: (i) activity (e.g., desk work, meeting), (ii) area of impact (e.g., HR, strategy, sales), (iii) specific work (e.g., interview candidate) and (iv) perceived impact on business (1 to 5).
- Use an always-on spreadsheet to track all activities several times a day to keep an accurate track. This only took <5minutes per day to complete and worked universally across all devices, which was better than some of the time tracking applications I found.
The results were quite interesting and different from what I expected. Most shockingly, of my 70hr and 6-day work week, about 3.5 hours each day went into low-quality meetings and unnecessary emails. So much about being super effective!
Hours worked per day
Turns out my weekly input at work was about 67 hours, typically 6 days a week with Saturday off and a “short” day of about 6-8 hours on Sundays. While this is far from the 100hr weeks, I felt a bit overworked at the end of the period with limited time for “white space” and more creative thinking.
Type of work
The first eye-opener came from the high-level split between type of work: 84% or more than 9 hours of my average 11hr work day went into email and meetings, which seemed like an obvious area of focus to have a bigger impact.
Most shockingly, a deeper look revealed that a total of a quarter (26%) of my total time went into uncategorized email aka “Inbox work”. That’s 17 hours a week cranking email mostly for the sake of email.
I was glad to see that I was spending a good amount of time on other areas that were actually real focus areas for the quarter:
- Clients, partners, sales, other external relationships: 25% of my time, which was important given my focus on growing revenue top line and cultivating client relationships.
- Recruiting top talent: (only) 15% of my time. I’ve always considered recruiting as one of the most important roles of a founder (and any senior leader in a company). I thought I was making a huge effort to recruit top talent, but I should spend way more than 15% of it; Clearly an area for improvement for future.
- Strategy work: 12% of time. This was longer term planning, things beyond current quarter. Seems too low for a founder. Staring at your feet when running fast is the easiest way to stumble, so another area of improvement.
- Logistics/prep includes travel, driving to meetings and other “hanging out at office kitchen” type of time use, which was only 4%.
It is clear to me that if I want bigger impact, I need to focus on eliminating or getting more out of meetings and email, rather than adding more hours to a 70hr work week.
When I looked at the actual use of meeting time, the good news was almost 45% of it was in client/external meetings, close to 20% in recruiting and the average Perceived Impact Measure (1=low, 5=high) was about 4.1, so I wasn’t totally wasting the time. However, 1.1hrs/day was wasted in low impact (<4.0) meetings, or almost half a work day per week.
I’ve decided to implement the following improvements to my meetings in the future:
- Stop participating in “nice to know” –meetings.
- Define my personal meeting goals and contribution before a meeting. If impossible, skip.
- Stop scheduling 1 hour meetings, instead 15, 30, 45minute meetings.
- Try to do 5 minute “meetings” at the water cooler without scheduling them
Email was the biggest time sunk with almost 3.5hrs per day, of which most was uncategorized “stuff”. I’m now focused on getting rid of that by doing the following:
- Outlook/gmail always offline, only sync it a few times a day
- Batch process email: flag anything that seems to take more than 15seconds and reply/delete the rest immediately. Flagged emails I batch process at least once a day (end of day). Keep inbox always empty.
- More effective use of BCC and stop (or limit) sending unnecessary “ok” , “thanks”
- Encourage everyone to write short emails with a clear summary and next steps in the beginning.
- Fast delegation of tasks and responsibilities to one (or more people) to stop huge group emails and chains in the beginning
- Sort long chains by subject at the end of day: either delete, make a decision or delegate after reading only the last email in the chain
This exercise confirmed again that the best gains for bigger impact come from more effective use of time rather than adding more hours to work week.
In addition to re-engineering my meetings an email use, I am trying to implement more white space and proactive and long-term planning/thinking to minimize reactive work (aka firedrills). One way of achieving that is to have mini-breaks between meetings and focused work periods. These guys have some good principles that I’ve been using for some times: Energy proj. Of course, sleeping helps too.
Another change I’ve already implemented is better weekly planning: I try to allocate time for the really important things each Sunday, before the start of each week. For example, to be more effective in recruiting, I define specific tasks for each day or week that drive towards that goal.
I plan to repeat the time inventory exercise in the next 6-12 months to keep myself accountable and track progress…