Productivity (without a good memory)

The first time it happened it as like waking up from a dream. I was standing on the wrong subway platform, with no idea how I’d ended up there or why. The next time I was in the elevator, headed to General Catalyst. Over years, I’d been to the office many times. This had never happened. Yet, here was I was in the elevator, completely stumped about what floor I was going to. I pushed every button and waited until the doors opened and I saw GC.

Before I started a company, I had prided myself on my exceptional memory. I rarely needed to take notes (when I took them, it was the benefit of creating shared information and a record of what happened — not because I’d forget things). I sent follow up emails, because I instinctively knew when it had been X months since an event.

People asked me about my productivity strategy and I’d laugh and shrug apologetically. There was no strategy. I just had a good memory.

Then, suddenly, it didn’t work. The more times I couldn’t remember a simple fact, it became clear the existing system wasn’t going to hold up. That caused me to embark on a few months on self discovery and learning what it meant for me to be productive as a founder.

Create an interesting weekly routine

The most important thing is to be motivated to do my best work every single day. In 2016 I made my New Year’s Resolution to experiment with routine until I found something that worked. No productivity tool was going to save me if I didn’t feel good and want to work.

I used a variety of different timescales. The most important one was a weekly routine. In particular, I set up an exercise cadence on a weekly routine so I wouldn’t get bored, and I’d have things to look forward to (a slight different wake up time, a different type of exercise). This keeps things from getting stale and lets me work on the right projects on the right day. It creates ebbs and flows in the week and a sense of forward progress. I also decided to have one day off per week from meetings.

Task system

I used to just do tasks as they came to my mind. I’d usually have been worrying about the most important task for long enough that I’d know what it was, and do it first.

Early in the process of starting something, tasks started slipping by the wayside. Follow-up emails didn’t get send. Essays didn’t get written. Occasionally I’d forget to show up to a meeting (hi Ian). I wasn’t struggling with overall accountability. Early on we’d started using Trello to track what we got done as a team each week. I needed a way to track all of minor tasks. I settled on Todoist.

I ended up with three projects:

  • Company for things actually related to Ellen and Pauls’ new startup.
  • Personal-Professional for things like writing and speaking, that do help the startup, but aren’t blocking the team.
  • Personal for everything else.

Within the Company project I created a few lists:

  • To Do. This is what one would expect of a todo list. It has all my action oriented to do list items (with dates assigned). Anytime I say I’ll do something, I add it to this list and set a date.
  • Downtime. I accumulated a lot of things I wanted to do at some point, but weren’t urgent. I’ve just added them all to this list. When I get downtime (hence the name) I go through the list for an appropriate task. Sometimes tasks get promoted from downtime to To Do.
  • Morning Routine and Close Down (more on this later).

Todoist keeps me honest for actually doing these simple but important tasks. I use a similar structure for the personal-professional and personal todo projects, but those tend to be less time sensitive.

Morning Routine (task momentum)

I also experimented with morning routines. We’ve all read the morning routines of people who wake up at 4am and do four hours of things before anyone else arrives. I don’t do that. I wake up a reasonable hour — somewhere between 6 and 8am depending on which part of the week it is. If I’m exercising I do that and get ready for my day. It’s flexible. Sometimes I have meetings right away, sometimes I don’t.

What isn’t flexible is what happens when I get to my desk. As soon as I’m at my desk, I start on a specific set of tasks to get myself into the work flow. All of them are easy and designed to build momentum and support me throughout my day. This reminds me of the article on micro-progress.

The way I track those is within a section of my Todoist called “morning routine” (and each item repeats daily). This might not necessarily happen in the morning — sometimes I have meetings all morning and I do this after lunch, or at 5pm if need be.

  • Set my desk to standing. It’s always good to have energy! Same for coffee. Sometimes I feel like I “should” give it up, but I like it, and I haven’t seen a noticeable change.
  • Write 750 words. I write my morning pages in DayOne. Sometimes this results in good ideas that will later get fleshed out for the office. Sometimes it results in me realizing I have a bunch of tasks I hadn’t documented. Sometimes it just results in me being in a good place before I start to add other ideas. Often I use it to reflect on what I’m hoping to get out of the day, or ways I’d improve the day before. It takes me ~10 minutes to write the 750 words.
  • I add everyone I met with the day before to my Airtable list and on LinkedIn. I use a modified version of Danny Crichton’s CRM, his blog is here. If I’m doing something more intensive (fundraising or hiring) I make a specific Google Sheet.
  • Look through my sent emails to see if I should follow up. I use Jonathan Kim’s no response script.
  • Updating Trello so everyone on the team will know my status.

If I find myself repeating a task over and over again, I’m likely to turn it into a “process” that I can fit into my routine. I have a similar set of end of day tasks.

Do the hard, creative work as soon as I’m ready

At some point through my important (but easy) tasks, I feel motivated and ready to do my most challenging work for the day. As soon as I hit that point, I switch over. There’s no sense in wasting good creative time on the tasks I can get back into when my energy wanes. I get through as much creative work as I can.

When I get stuck I have a variety of techniques to refocus: discussing the work with someone else, moving back into my unfinished morning tasks, or handling the urgent tasks that have come up throughout the day. The key is to only do enough of them until I’m back in the mind space to do the necessary creative work.

(But don’t wait)

This works for me because I know I’ll feel the motivation to do the hard creative work. After years of honing my routine, I trust that I’ll be ready between 8 and 10am. The key is to create your own reliable process to support making sure the creative work (as well as the important and urgent work) gets done. If this means you need to set a time: do it.

Other stuff

There’s a few other things I’ve found that help me to maintain productivity (without a good memory).

  • No sugar mid-day. I started avoiding sugar during the week because my cofounder Paul does. I found that not having an energy slump after lunch definitely helps me. I’m not sure the no sugar in the evening matters as much but I try to stick to it.
  • Doing the crossword puzzle. I need to have time to talk to my husband and both of us like doing activities. We’ve been doing the New York Times crossword puzzle together everyday (which takes about 10 minutes on a Monday and up to an hour on Friday).
  • Remembering my work falls in three buckets: urgent tasks (someone will ask me for them), important tasks (need to be done, but no one will ask), important creative work.
  • Reading books. Reading books is breathing. I read a lot.