A coffee cup of energy
I like to think everyone wakes up each morning with a certain amount of energy and focus. I visualize mine as a big cup of coffee. As I go through my day, my cup slowly empties as I do work and make decisions. I’ve found that little decisions throughout the day drain my cup just as much as big decisions. I’ve also found that this coffee cup isn’t replenishable - once your daily energy and focus are gone, they’re gone.
Sure, I can force myself to work after that cup is empty, but there are significant costs. My work suffers from a quality and efficiency standpoint. My health and personal relationships go by the wayside. I sleep less. I eat worse. It’s not sustainable, but it’s the way the majority of us live. We live this way simply because we don’t know there's an alternative. And not only an alternative - a simple one.
As I’ve transitioned from the “corporate” world to the “entrepreneurial” world I’ve learned a lot of things. Figuring out how to maximize my productivity and health is by far the most important. This post is about starting to work like an entrepreneur, so you can improve your daily life and have energy ready to recognize and capitalize on a new opportunity when it arises.
Adding entrepreneurial workflow to a 9-5 job
When I was an analyst at a financial company, I lived a hectic, draining lifestyle. My days were constantly interrupted by meetings and distractions. I’d check email every 5 minutes. I rarely focused on anything that interested me outside of work.
Then, I had an idea for my first startup. I had played Division III college basketball, and I knew that the recruiting process was a mess. High school players would send in highlight tapes and game film to schools they were interested in, hoping coaches would watch it and reach out. If coaches were interested, they’d come and view a game in person (if it fit into their schedule). It was an incredibly inefficient process, one that let great players constantly slip through the cracks.
I decided I wanted to make what essentially amounted to a LinkedIn for recruiting. Players would upload game film, create profiles, and contact coaches they were interested in. Coaches could group players they were interested in, and allocate their limited resources accordingly.
It was perfect - except for one thing. I had literally no idea where to start. I didn’t even know anyone who knew where to start. I was completely lost.
I wound up grabbing lunch with the cousin of a friend of mine who had a healthcare startup. We clicked, and he became a mentor. He said that if I wanted to really give this startup a chance - without quitting my job - I’d have to optimize my days to spend good energy on both my startup and my day job.
He laid out a plan where I woke up an hour and a half early each morning to work on my basketball startup. I’d then go to work. This essentially amounted to adding an hour and a half of work to my already packed day - nothing was removed.
He claimed if I maximized my energy, there’d be more than enough time to do both really well. He was right. Within 8 months I had a viable startup and had been promoted. Understanding workflow has changed my life.
Here are my 5 favorite tips for maximizing energy and focus each day. Hopefully they’re helpful to you as well, whether you’re looking to start a company or simply increase your productivity and your free time.
5 tips on maximizing focus and energy
1) Automate small decisions. There are two types of decisions - those we need to think about, and those that are automated. The second kind are called habits, and they make up the majority of our days and lives. They take way less out of the coffee cup than decisions we need to think about. The goal is to shift as many decisions each day to the habit side, and to make these decisions as healthy as possible. This might sound like a weird practice, but it’s the most liberating thing I’ve ever done.
I don’t need to worry about what I eat for breakfast or lunch - I decide the night before when (more on decision process in #2). I take the same route to work every morning, check email and Twitter during the work day at the same time (10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm), go to bed and wake up at the same time, etc. I automate all the stuff that doesn’t matter, so I can have a free, clear mind for the things that do.
2) Plan once the cup is empty. Every day, the goal is to empty your cup. Sometimes that’ll be at 3pm, sometimes it’ll be 8pm. The goal is to empty it with tasks that are important. Once it is empty, it’s time to do the mundane things. That could be answering emails, cleaning, or laundry. It also should be creating your plan for the following day. Each night I plot out my breakfast and lunch for the following day, I lay out what I’m going to wear, and create a work schedule with what I need to get done and when I’ll do it. That way I waste no energy doing it the next day. Going into the day with a full plan frees you to really focus on tasks without worrying about anything else.
3) Habits, schedules, and constraints breed creativity. I’m most creative when I have strict constraints on my day. I’ve got everything scheduled, and I’ve got an hour and a half to solve a problem. I always work on problems in 1.5 hour segments, then I take some sort of break. I can usually get through four separate 1.5 hour segments each day. When I’m planning for the following day the night before, I’ll schedule out these four segments with the four most important things I need to get done. The end time forces me to be action-oriented. Nothing is open-ended.
4) Sleep early. sleep often. There are only a few things that will add some coffee back into your energy cup. Exercise can add a bit, as can caffeine and eating well. However, the only real solution is long, deep sleep. The bad rap sleep gets is shocking. Sleeping doesn’t make you lazy. It’s actually one of the most important things you can do.
When I was in college, my mom used to remind me that “nothing good ever happens after 1am.” I’ve adjusted that a bit - there’s nothing great happening after 10pm on a weeknight. Head to sleep and get 8 hours. You’ll notice the difference.
5) Practice makes perfect. When I was building my basketball recruiting startup, I wasn’t able to get through a full hour and a half of uninterrupted work each morning. I know how crazy that sounds - it’s not a very long time and it was the first thing I did each day. But I simply wasn’t used to working on anything that long without being interrupted. You might not, either. We are used to being tapped on the shoulder every five minutes. Start with 45 minutes, and build. Humans are incredibly adaptive - you’ll get used to this framework and thrive in it quickly. But it will take a bit of practice early on.
Practice goes for creativity as well. Being creative is no different than learning to play the piano. It’s not innate - it’s learned. Think about ideas every day to keep the creative bone limber - write out 15 ways to make lines shorter at your soup place at lunch, or 15 alternatives to college. Stretching your idea muscle every day is important so you’re ready with a great solution when a problem you can solve falls into your lap.
Bonus: Email maintenance. I know people have service jobs where you need to respond to emails quickly when they come in. In that case, be ruthless with email filters so only important ones can ping you when you’re doing focused work. The effort needed to get back into the “flow” of difficult work after being disturbed by an email is incredibly high - it can easily take 10-15 minutes each time. Make sure these distractions are worth it.
The biggest takeaway here is to be cognizant of your energy and focus limits, and to be purposeful with how you spend your time.
We’re all busy. We’ve all got jobs. By thinking about all the decisions you make throughout the day, transitioning as many as you can to healthy habits, you’ll see drastic improvements to your quality of life. My goal is to get you all thinking like entrepreneurs. The quality I admire in the best entrepreneurs is their ability to maximize their strengths.
Doing everything with a purpose will start you on that track. Then, once that idea hits, you’ll be ready to capitalize on it.
Brian is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and currently the founder of Find Your Lobster. He’s also a teacher at General Assembly, and the EIR at Mayday-Mayday-Mayday, a branding and design company. He can be found on Twitter. Check out his first IrishCentral post, about how anyone can be an entrepreneur.