Over the past 12 months I’ve invested considerable time thinking about, experimenting with and optimising my daily routine.
I relish figuring out new ways to become more efficient and better at my work. There’s a limited number of hours in the working week, so the challenge is to use our time so that we not only produce our best work, but also clearly understand what’s going to have the biggest impact.
Despite what you may think, productivity is a perennial, rather a millennial challenge. As mere humans we’re wired to select the path of least resistance and that goes someway to explaining our attraction to productivity hacks, schemes and fads. People have always wanted to do more with the limited time they have. While technology is helping to improve workflows and automate repetitive tasks, one truth remains - you still need to work hard and put the hours in. Nothing worth having comes easily.
It was Brian G. Dyson, CEO of Coca-Cola from 1988 until 1994 who famously talked about the five balls of life and said, “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – Work – Family – Health– Friends – Spirit, and you’re keeping all of these in the air.”
I’ve been thinking about how to structure my daily routine so I grow in all five areas, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll keep it focussed on the first ball, work:
The importance of a growth mindset
We all have the ability to learn and improve, but for this to happen you must be purposeful about it. The way I see it you either have a growth or fixed mindset - if you adopt a growth mindset you believe you can get better through hard work and good ideas, as well as support and learning from others. Whereas, those with fixed mindsets believe their talents are an innate gift and cannot be developed further. Thankfully, growth and fixed mindsets are not set in stone - it is a state that can change.
Importantly, having a growth mindset or put another way an openness to continual development, as well as an understanding of where your strengths and weaknesses lie is no longer a nice to have. While experience and qualifications will righty always be valued, other skills and attributes, such as problem solving, curiosity, creativity and appetite for lifelong learning are growing in importance. Knowledge workers need to be able to adapt and be comfortable continually learning. It’s almost a certainty that throughout our careers new technologies and approaches will appear and disrupt existing ones, so the lesson or warning is to future proof our own careers by being adaptable, comfortable with uncertainty and getting used to frequent change.
This year I’ve been very deliberate about adopting a growth mindset and have build time into my calendar each week to learn. This has reinforced that learning doesn’t need to take place in a classroom - I’ve signed up for online courses, been an active member of sales enablement groups and meetups, arranged numerous one-on-one meetings with industry colleagues, attended company trainings and been a voracious reader and listener of podcasts. The key point here is to take ownership of growth and carve out time each week dedicated to it.
The work smarter, not harder fallacy
During the search for resources to grow and learn, it won’t take long until you hear people trotting out the tired cliché of, “working smarter, not harder” or words to that effect. However, this is a complete falsehood. Fallacy even. Few people are successful just because they work smarter. While there may be some well publicised edge cases or extreme outliers, you’re going to need to put the hard and smart and long yards in. Remarkable achievements are not easy and that's what makes them all the more satisfying. Hard and smart work are not exclusive of each other.
Make marginal gains daily
I’m a big advocate of the marginal gains philosophy and the idea that many small improvements can make a big difference, as well as how improving in several areas at the same time can have a multiplier effect. Marginal gains was developed by Sir Dave Brailsford, Head of British Cycling - he recognised that if the team broke down everything they could think of that goes into competing on a bike, and then improved each element by 1%, they would achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.
The calculations below shows how marginal gains of 1% performance each day for a year creates a dramatic improvement of nearly 40%, whereas a 1% decrease in performance leads to near enough zero:
- 1.01^365 = 37.8
- 0.99^365 = 0.03
While the calculations are entirely theoretical the key takeaway is to try and improve each day, even by just a little. It’s uncommon for people do this, but it’s a shrewd investment. To ensure learning time is used wisely it’s worth understanding your learning style and what kind of thinker you are, as well as investigating techniques to become a better learner. Few people put aside time each week to learn, let alone each day.
As an aside, the power of incremental progress, which is small improvements in oneself should not to be confused with the tyranny of incrementalism, which means focussing on the small projects that yield small results. They can often be conflated.
Responsibility is to autonomy as discipline is to freedom
It took me a while to understand this about myself, but I deeply value autonomy and freedom at work. I thrive when I’m given responsibility to figure out tough challenges. Numerous rounds of feedback, going up and down the command chain and back again, micromanagement, meetings about meetings are not how I get my best work done. Thankfully, my employer, HubSpot is the antithesis of this - we hire smart people for GSD AKA “get shit done” and let them run with it, which helps foster a high performance environment.
Put simply, if you want autonomy and freedom at work you need to take responsibility (or “extreme ownership” as former-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink would say) and remain disciplined. At first glance the idea that responsibility gives you autonomy or that disciplines leads to freedom may seem an odd dichotomy. But let it sink in for a moment. If you want autonomy you need to be able to show complete and total ownership of work, which means being responsible for it - both its success and failure. And you also need discipline - you need to be consistent, reliable and of course, see work through to completion.
Double down on wins quickly
Never underestimate the importance of speed. By moving more quickly than the industry or competitors, organisations can accelerate the pace of innovation, get more work accomplished and stay relevant to clients. There’s a very real cost associated with being slow - and a great deal to gain from being first. In my role I don’t strive for perfection - I’d much rather launch something that is 80% or 90% ready and iterate, rather than wait until reaching 100% perfection.
However, and this is crucial, when you do gain traction with a project you want to be able to move quickly to double down on any wins and maximise its success. The obvious thing about striving for perfection is that it’s really, really hard to achieve, but what’s less apparent and often overlooked is the diminishing returns you’ll see by focussing too much time on taking something from great to perfect. You need to remain focussed on results and impact, rather than presentation and aesthetics.
I’ve covered a few key ideas that help me stay and remain productive, now I want to share some of the approaches I use to create a daily routine for growth:
1. Have a tool to prioritise
I’m ruthless about what projects I take on at HubSpot. As an individual contributor (IC) partnering with over 100 sales professionals I need to be good at prioritising. It’s an ongoing challenge to balance the needs of individual sales teams and sales reps, but in truth, the communication and stakeholder management part of the role is a greater challenge than prioritising what’s most important.
To help remain focussed I use a matrix to prioritise what work I will tackle. I’m not advocating you use the same approach, but I would advise you to have a tool to prioritise. What I like about the matrix is that clearly and easily shows what will have the biggest impact and how many sales reps a project will influence. Perhaps predictably, a large number of requests fall into low impact and low number of sales reps quadrant, which I have to decline. These are a distraction and will make you busy, rather than impactful.
Apple’s Steve Jobs was characteristically clear on this topic, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
2. Aggressive calendar management
Each Friday I plan what I need to do the following week in order to hit my goals - I then add the activities that will enable me to do exactly that to my calendar. Early on in my career I only used my calendar for scheduling meetings, but leveraging it as my action list helps me become more productive. I know exactly what I need to do each day, and importantly can visualise the tasks, how long they will take and how much time I’m allocating to them. This is hugely important as every project you take on is at the expense of something else.
Aggressive calendar management also means declining many meetings and where possible I default to meetings that are 20 minutes in length. Reducing the default time of meetings was a minor change that has had a big impact. It means I’m away from my work for closer to 30 minutes, rather than 40 minutes and it sets the right expectation with other attendees. I’m yet to be in a 20 minute meeting where we needed additional time.
Conventional wisdom holds that meetings and communication are generally a good thing, but I’m inclined to agree with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos when he says, “Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”
3. An early routine
I’ve been researching the morning routines of successful people and in the vast majority of cases they share the same two key characteristics - they wake up early and they’re hugely disciplined. This makes perfect sense. Waking up early gives you the time and the discipline means these activities soon become a routine and behaviour.
I’m by no means, naturally a morning person. Never have been and probably never will. However, I’ve found that by going to sleep earlier and subsequently waking earlier I can complete work more quickly and hit my flow earlier in the day. As a new father, I recognise that free time early in the morning may be the only time I get to myself all day.
Another reason to rise early and have a productive routine is to beat the competition. We’re all competing - whether that be with your direct competitor for a sale or the person you sit opposite for a promotion.
4. Exercise is a natural reset
I’ve found exercise during the day (for me this is a 5km jog) is a highly effective way to become more productive. It helps relieve stress, is good for me and I also find myself coming up with new ideas or solutions to problems. To use advertising legend, David Ogilvy’s turn of phrase, exercise helps me unhook my “rational thought process”.
Ogilvy advised people to unhook their rational thought process “by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.” This way, “the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.” Good ideas can and do come from anywhere, but it helps if you are happy, healthy and relaxed. I’d also suggest having a system for storing ideas - I use the Notes app on my iPhone.
5. Recognise when you have most energy
At different times of the day we have different levels of energy to accomplish tasks. You need to understand when you’ll be at your sharpest to undertake the tough tasks and when is the right moment to do work that requires less mental energy. For me, this means getting into work early to tackle the big, challenging tasks, rather than waiting for later in the day. It was Mark Twain who advised we, “Eat a live frog every morning” and I find myself nodding in agreement with the sentiment.
My daily routine is in a constant state of optimisation and while it changes frequently, the small number of goals I focus on rarely do. I’m a firm believer that it’s better to do a couple of things well, rather than many in a mediocre fashion. To that end I try and limit myself to three or four key projects at any time. Without this focus my role would expand by stealth and ultimately I would have less impact.
If you’re interested in creating a daily routine for growth you need to set aside time to make this happen, understand where you’ll have the biggest and then prioritise your work accordingly. However, it all starts with carving out time and protecting it fiercely. This crucial first step sounds easy, but is rarely taken.