Covey's Four Quadrant Time Management Matrix

[The following is an excerpt from my essay “Time Management for Startups: Quantify, Prioritize, and Automate” that originally appeared on Sixteen Ventures. To read the article in its entirety, including Lincoln Murphy’s forward, conclusion and other productivity recommendations, please go here.]

Whenever I write a guest post or article, I start by brainstorming how I can organize a collection of past experiences into a targeted story or message around a topic. I started doing that for this essay too, when a simple thought occurred to me: I have a lot of different experiences to choose from. In fact, I’ve been working at or on early-stage SaaS companies for over five years now.

Wow. It certainly hasn’t felt like five years. Between trips to CES and SXSW (and close to a dozen different countries), hiring — and, sadly, firing — great people, building two successful businesses and struggling through two disappointing failures, five years got archived in a flash, almost 2,000 days.

Could I have made better use of that time professionally? Could I have achieved more goals over that span? On reflection, I think the answer is “yes” – particularly early on. Because entrepreneurship is so centered around urgency, most of us not only find it challenging to maintain healthy work-life balances to begin with, but we often over-focus on the next customer meeting or feature release or conference, and the one right after that, failing to optimize around our most precious resource: time.

Why Time is So Precious for Startups

Startup time is different than normal time. Startups succeed by doing more with less, and they rely on the core advantages of speed, focus and vision to grow and distrupt rapidly despite smaller budgets, fewer people, scarcer resources and less established brands. Somewhere between 75-90% of startups fail and the average Y Combinator startup goes 23 months between its founding and either exit or failure. If you consider Y Combinator class-members to generally be the cream of the crop, that means the average tech startup has an even shorter lifetime. But although startups fold as a result of things like founder incompatibility and lack of product-market fit, ultimately, every startup’s most previous resource — and biggest risk – is time.

Running out of money, not getting product traction, getting beat out by a competitor – all symptoms of not moving fast enough and losing out to time.

Paradoxically, despite the fact that time is the lifeblood of innovation, most entrepreneurs don’t really focus on time management systematically or strategically. Prioritization is done out of necessity, so execution can keep base with business realities (i.e., getting sh*t done).

But science and success suggests there are some better ways, and if you’re willing to commit to five more minutes of reading you can take advantage of them too.

Three Principles for Optimizing Startup Time

Although there’s no one size fits all time management cure-all, here are three practical, data-backed productivity principles I strongly encourage you to test professionally, particularly if you work at a startup:

1. Passively quantify how you spend your time
2. Prioritize for growth impact by focusing on growth importance, not growth urgency
3. Automate as much as [non-]humanly possible

Let’s walk through each one.

#1 Passively Quantify Where You Spend Your Time

At a unit level, time is easy to quantify. The challenge is actually collecting the data. I’ve seen time tracking attempted everywhere from tiny tech startups to Fortune 500 companies and it fails almost every time. Some people are too busy, some people are too lazy, some people have bad self-reporting biases and for virtually everyone involved (except maybe the consultants trying to implement it) it’s a distraction, an unpleasant obligation, an after-thought.

But there’s power in that data when you passively collect it, just like it would be great to have a food log when you go on a diet if it could be automagically generated for you.

Enter RescueTime. Install it, set it, forget it and RescueTime starts tracking how you much time you’re spending using a specific app or browsing a given website. Over time you’ll be able to see how and where you allocate your time, providing you with a base data layer you can analyze to understand your habits, inefficiencies, and go-to resources, then work to optimize around them.

If you want to improve your productivity and you’re not tracking how you spend your time, start now, but make sure you’re not investing more of your precious time in order to do it.

Want to read about suggestions two and three? Continue reading the rest at Sixteen Ventures.

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