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By David Aronchick

Congrats on being in a startup – you’ve now signed up for more work than you can imagine. In fact, there is so much to do by the first day you might as well not even start. You’re already behind on the stuff you meant to get done yesterday. How can you possibly hope to catch up?

Startups are all about prioritization – you will already have given up on relaxation, family time and, likely, sleep and you are still going to be bound be the twenty-four hours in a day. So before you even get started, you are going to need a filter before you even start working – it will be the only way to even getting a shot at making progress. So how do you say no? A great article I read on this just the other day, all about finding your one thing. The beauty of applying this filter before you do any work is not just the amount of stuff you will end up saying no to, but what remains will leave you with a much more focused company.

So what happens when you get to that one thing and there are still six million of them? Now comes time to lay out what it will actually take to get them done, and in what order. For something like this, I recommend laying out a simple matrix. On one axis, you put the importance of the task to your company, and on the other the minimum amount of time before it gets completed. Importance is largely arbitrary, just use a course grained measure of one to four, where four is on the order of “Unless this is accomplished, we will have to shut down” and one is “will let us hire one more critical position” (if it does not pass the bar for a “one”, it should not even be part of the list – do it on a weekend afternoon). On the other axis, the time is fairly straight forward, but the important part is not to think of just the amount of time it takes for you to work on it, but the amount of time it takes to actually get done.

It is this second axis that gives you the biggest opportunity for efficiency, especially in a startup. Too often, people focus on what seems most important immediately – we need to move the 25 kg keg of beer to the basement to start the party, so let’s get it going. But what you forget about is the stuff that takes just a second to start, but forever to get finished – the freight elevator that takes ten minutes to get to your floor no matter how many times you press the button – is just as critical. And by waiting on the latter just because it is easy, you cause yourself extra (and unnecessary) pain while you wait.

Thankfully, this time of year gives us the perfect analogy to solve the problem – in basketball, the very best players move without the ball. It does not matter if you are open if you are forty feet from the basket; to maximize the likelihood of your offensive play, you have got to be open and close to the hoop. To bring this to your startup, think about those tasks that take forever, but do not require daily or even weekly attention. They just have to get kicked off so that you can focus on other, near term things. Some examples include:

  • Filing documents with the government such as incorporation, taxes or patents. You will not see results for months, but it has got to get done now.
  • Getting to the right people in an organization to make a sale – getting to your eventual champion takes forever, countless lunches, meetings and phone calls; you’ve got to get it going tomorrow, but do not expect it to close for months.
  • Technical partnering with a giant corporation – you can, of course, get a big win by landing a large cross-partnership, but it will take forever to get there. Get your technical ducks in a row, and then expect to spend weeks spinning your wheels while they get the right people in a room and approval for the simplest things.

Because you have unlimited things to do, it is up to you to say no to most, and pack the remainder in as tightly as you can with the extremely constrained time you have left. The key is always bias to be waiting on someone else, and then gently goad them to move it along (expecting that they will STILL take forever). But, by being realistic about how long things take, and understanding how much can be done without your constant attention, you will be just efficient enough to not get buried under the avalanche.

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