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Matt Heinz

Guest Commentary: The last thing most start-ups can afford is wasted time.  By definition you’re still trying to figure out if you have a business, what your customers will respond to, what strategies and tactics will scale revenue and, eventually, lead to profitability and some kind of exit.

But every day, we let time wasters creep into our businesses and cause massive distractions from the core work that will achieve our short and long-term goals.  Below are twelve of the most common and damaging time wasters I see on a regular basis, as well as some ideas for how to avoid or eliminate them in your business.

1.     Email

We equate “doing email” with working, which of course is wrong 90 percent of the time.  Checking email most often means we’re looking for work, instead of getting the core priorities in front of us done.  It feels good to respond to email quickly, get a cleaner inbox, and get that small sense of accomplishment.  But it’s at the expense of real work.

What if you had your email in offline mode all the time?  New messages could only come in when you press the send/receive button.  Outbound emails would queue up in the Outbox.  Then, start checking your email far less often.  This alone will help you and your organization get a ton more work done.

2.    Meetings

Most meetings either aren’t necessary or don’t need nearly the number of people in attendance.  Meetings are often used as a lazy way of trying to make decisions and update others.  Think about the meetings you’ve been in over the past couple weeks.  How many could have been handled instead via a quick phone call or someone in the group making a recommendation and soliciting feedback?  How many meetings did you attend where you could have instead received a short, well-written summary afterward to stay up to date?

Now look at your meeting schedule for the next couple weeks.  Which meetings aren’t really necessary?  Which don’t require you in attendance?  I bet you and your entire team can get several hours of productive work time back this way.

3.    Meetings Without Objectives or Agendas

Recurring meetings are notoriously guilty of clogging up your team’s schedule as a means of updating on one thing or another.  Some are very worthwhile – a weekly review of a pending launch, for example, where there’s a set agenda to review progress & metrics, and to discuss/resolve challenges.

But too often, meetings are scheduled with little more than a subject line.  What are you trying to accomplish?  Why does everyone on the invite list need to be there?  Why do you really need an hour for that conversation?  With a clear agenda, that hour-long meeting might be done in 15 minutes if you stay focused and make good process.  Then you, at minimum, have 45 minutes back.

4.    Laptops in Meetings

There is no clearer sign that you’re either 1) in too many meetings, or 2) don’t really need to be in the current meeting than if you spend most of the time with your nose in your laptop.  You’re not getting much out of the meeting, you’re distracting others, and you’re far less productive with whatever you’re doing vs. staying at your desk and focusing on the work at hand.

There are exceptions to this, of course.  But most of the time, laptops aren’t used for taking notes or presenting data or other activity germane to the meeting.  If the meeting is important and you need to be there, put the laptop down and keep the meeting focused.  The time you invest now should save you and the organization far more time long-term.

5.    Multiple Monitors

If used right, multiple monitors can make you more productive.  Less time back and forth between windows, for example, can add up to significant time savings.  But if all you’re doing is keeping Outlook or HootSuite perennially up on one screen, you’re likely constantly distracted by new messages when you should actually be doing something else.

Unless your specific job is to manage your company’s social channels, you don’t need to be in Twitter all day.  You don’t need to respond or retweet right away.  You could spend all day watching relevant Twitter feeds and get very little important/urgent work done.  Use those multiple monitors judiciously.

6.    Commuting

How many hours do you and your team waste behind a wheel, sitting in traffic?  This could be time back for work, or for play.  Both are important.  I could argue that the single-most important productivity tool for your team is a paid bus pass each month.  Put them on public transportation and the commute time is theirs again.

Yes, taking the bus can take more overall time to and from work.  But that’s time when someone else is driving, to use as you wish to get work done, catch up on some reading, or even just relax and prepare for the day ahead (or decompress on your way home).

But if you must continue driving, use tools like Dial2Do to at least capture the good ideas you’ll have that otherwise would be lost to the road.

7.    Long To-Do Lists

You don’t need more things to do.  You need fewer, more important things to do.  Fewer options, well chosen, will help you get far more done for the business.  This is a prioritization methodology you can teach your entire team.

The biggest problem with long to-do lists is that they actually paralyze people who can’ decide what to do next.  It also makes it far too easy to get the quick & easy work done first, which makes you feel good but might not really move the ball forward.  Short to-do lists – just five important priorities and an explicit #1 priority for the day – will actually help you get more done and make sure the right things get done first more consistently.

8.    Preparing For Board Meetings

Have you ever added up the hours across the organization devoted to preparing for a recent board meeting?  The countless revisions to the slide deck, the new reports and data compiled from and by individuals across the company, and so on.  And how much of that data and deck did you end up actually using?

I’m willing to bet your investors didn’t intend to spend their money paying for your team to prepare for their meetings.  I bet they also get more value out of discussions that focus on your challenges and obstacles vs. reviewing data that’s more important for internal leadership teams and perhaps individual board members to grok in a different context.

More and more people are rethinking the board meeting, many of them the same investors that start-ups think they’re building those long decks for to begin with.  Worth reading a couple perspectives here, here and here.

9.    Not Firing Fast Enough

Keeping the wrong employees around will kill your organization and productivity.  Cultural misfits will distract people.  Employees who can’t focus, or aren’t right for the task at hand, are literally keeping someone more capable from getting it done more quickly.  And the longer you wait to make a change, the more damage you do to the company – in terms of productivity and cultural integrity.

10.    Executing Without Customer Input

Are you building products based in input from a few key executives?  Have you changed your direction (strategically or tactically on a particular project) based purely on the opinion of a board member?  Is your development team triaging features based on anything other than customer input?

If you don’t have a crystal-clear understanding of your customer’s current priorities, pain points and needs, it can be very difficult to execute efficiently.  Product and feature triage based on what’s easiest to build may help you get done faster, but may do nothing to solve the customer’s problem.  Maybe the customer doesn’t actually need more features.  Maybe they just need their current features to work better.

Building products and services that don’t directly map to customer needs and input can be an enormous productivity killer for organizations.  Because if they didn’t need it, or don’t value it, it might have just been a big waste of time.

11.    Executing Without Metrics

You need to decide how you’re going to measure something before it’s built, or before execution begins, not after.  Because if you can’t measure its value and impact, how do you know it was worthwhile?  How do you know if you should continue to invest?  Metrics aren’t always easy, but they’re table stakes for ensuring focus and productivity.

12.    Indecisiveness

You may not know what you’re doing.  By definition, your business is likely trying to do something completely new so there will be plenty of ideas and tests that don’t succeed.   Some decisions will be wrong.  But the worst thing you can do is fail to make a decision, fail to give a project or feature or test a go or no-go call.

Use the data in front of you to 1) decide if it’s worth trying at all, and 2) decide how and when you’ll give it a shot.  This relates to full go-to-market strategies as well as the smallest, tactical tests.  Indecisiveness will paralyze your organization, especially if your employees are left guessing which direction you want them to go.

Not every decision can be made right away.  But even putting a timeline on a decision will let the organization focus elsewhere and not get distracted in the gray.

This is far from a complete list.  Very curious to hear in the comments what other time-wasters may have invaded your organization, which time wasters continue to give you a challenge, and what you may be doing or have done (successfully or unsuccessfully) to eliminate them.

Matt Heinz is president of Heinz Marketing, a Redmond-based sales & marketing firm. You can connect with Matt via email, Twitter, LinkedIn or his blog.

Clock Photo by Ravenelle; monitors by techhie; meeting image by Meet the Media Guru.

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