Today, being an entrepreneur can be all encompassing. You are always on, all the time. The danger of living in a world where it is possible to be on call 24/7 is that the majority of your time may be spent fielding phone calls, emails and social posts — meaning the tasks you wanted to complete remain untouched. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We spoke to 27 successful entrepreneurs on what strategies they use to maintain focus and get work done.
1. Don’t let your inbox take over your to-do list.
Name: Tim Chen
Strategy: Each Monday I prioritize what I want to accomplish that week, and then I think about what I’ve done at the end of the week and share it in an email to my employees called “Reflections.” It’s a great way to make space in your head, otherwise your inbox and email becomes your to-do list, which is ridiculous because you didn’t create that to do list. [It was sent to you by other people.]
2. Create time blocks.
Name: Daniella Yacobovsky
Strategy: I am pretty OCD about creating to-do lists, and I am constantly prioritizing what I put at the top of the list. I also think it’s important to break your workload down into digestible nuggets. I break things down into things that feel doable within a span of one to two hours. That helps me methodically sort through everything that’s on my plate.
3. Take it one step at a time.
Name: Oliver Kharraz
Strategy: I had the benefit of studying at a Jesuit monastery. We studied complicated texts and immersed ourselves, pushing our attention spans to the very limit. It’s like meditation in that you learned to direct your thoughts. It’s an active skill, like working out.
Pick something that you want to think about, and only think about that. Don’t let anything else enter your thoughts. Try for five minutes in the beginning — and know that just like a marathon where you start with just a half mile to begin with, in the end you’ll be able to do it for hours once you train for it.
4. Get outside.
Name: Merrill Stubbs
Strategy: Take breaks. I really step away from something after I’ve been working on it, take a short walk, talk to someone who has nothing do with what I’ve been focusing on and stay hydrated. I usually just walk around our office in Manhattan.
Name: Jennie Ripps
Company: Owl’s Brew
Strategy: I try to compartmentalize my days. For instance, I’ll spend an hour before the workday sending out emails, and I won’t look at incoming emails until everything is completely outbound. I find that I focus more when I do only one thing and not a million things; it cuts down on the noise.
6. Stay active.
Name: Ryan Holmes
Strategy: Like lots of entrepreneurs, my attention is always pulled in a dozen directions at once. The one thing that really helps me stay focused is exercise. After I jog, do yoga or get out and do some backcountry skiing, I always come back with more clarity and focus.
7. Take steps toward the big goal.
Name: Jen Rubio
Strategy: My best advice is to keep your eye on the prize. I think if you always keep in mind the bigger thing you are working towards, it’s a good gauge to make sure that everything you’re doing is a step towards that goal. An inch toward the bigger goal can actually be a massive step forward. Whether your bigger goal is to IPO your company or you’re really focused on building a team, make sure everything you’re doing every day is in some way a step towards that. When those opportunities come up, take a step back and ask yourself if it is actually contributing to the brand you’re building.
8. Meet your goals head on.
Name: Julia Hartz
Strategy: Embracing challenges and learning from failures. When we set out to build Eventbrite, we had to face many challenges and come up with creative solutions to get past them. Each time we learned new ways to cope, we became a stronger and more cohesive team. However, staying focused is an ongoing challenge: The bigger you get, the more opportunities you have to take your eye off the prize.
9. Put your phone away.
Name: Dave Rusenko
Strategy: I have a personal policy that any time I’m with someone — at a meeting, dinner, or over drink — that I will never check my phone or watch, and make sure to keep 100 percent focus on the person. This carries into our meetings. We have saying at the office during meetings, “laptops down.” Unless you’re the presenter, the rule is everyone needs to shut their laptop in the meeting. It allows the person to be physically and mentally present.
Name: Jeff Chapin
The strategy I have to remove distractions is pretty simple. Headphones and music with no words and an office where there’s no people.
11. Tackle big things first thing.
Name: Angie Hicks
Company: Angie’s List
Strategy: It’s about prioritizing things during the day. I tend to want to get things off my plate first thing in the morning that are just must dos. I tackle them first and go from there. Inevitable, your day gets away from you, so if it’s big thing it gets the first spot in the morning.
12. Ask yourself the question of nine.
Name: Whitney Wolfe
Strategy: I try to ask myself the question of nine. Will this matter in nine minutes, nine hours, nine days, nine weeks, nine months or nine years? If it will truly matter for all of those, pay attention to it. If it isn’t going to matter in nine minutes, nine hours or nine days from now, you need to not pay attention to it.
This concept of nine has kept me on track from losing focus on the things that truly matter. That way you can respond when you need to, but you don’t spend your time reacting to things that are not going to have any importance in a short period of time from now.
13. Celebrate your wins.
Name: Kara Goldin
Strategy: Find time for yourself every day to do something you love. For me, that’s exercise. It clears my head and allows me to focus on what’s important in the moment. Also, celebrate your wins. If you focus on three things that you have done well lately it will help you to tell yourself, “you can do it!”
14. Make sure you take care of you.
Name: Bea Fischel-Bock
Strategy: Take care of myself. I’m of no use to anyone or myself if I’m burnt out. The days that I don’t get enough sleep or have one too many glasses of wine at dinner, make focusing so much more difficult. I end up being less efficient and productive.
15. Practice saying ‘not now,’ not ‘no’
Name: Daniel Lubetzky
Strategy: As entrepreneurs, we tend to have a desire to create a lot of different things. When there are so many things that you want to do, it’s hard to say “no” to any of them. Instead, I try to say “not now.” Not now doesn’t mean not ever; it just means that we’ll get to it once we’re done accomplishing whatever we’re focused on today.
16. Delete distractions.
Name: John Zimmer
Strategy: I removed both Safari and the news apps from my phone. Reducing noise from my phone makes it so when I’m in a meeting, for example, I’m the most focused.
17. Three is the magic number.
Name: David Bladow
Strategy: Before I go to bed on Sunday, I plan out my week for each day, and ask myself what I need to get done each day. At the top of the list, I highlight my three most important tasks for the week. These are the thing I have to be focused on. I modify it as the week goes on, and I return to that list multiple times a day. If I didn’t have that from the get go, it’s easy to get pulled in different directions. Before the dust gets thrown in the air, it helps keep me focused on what I need to accomplish for the week.
18. Keep blinders on.
Name: Carrie Dorr
Company: Pure Barre
Strategy: I always think of the analogy of a racehorse: I like to keep blinders on. You should be aware of the competition and who’s in the field, but those blinders help me stay focused on what I’m working on and constantly keeps me moving forward to where I’m headed.
19. Question everything.
Name: Bastian Lehmann
Strategy: With our teams we constantly try to question our assumptions. We don’t ever want to wake up and find that the world has changed around us. The best way to do that is to question everything, stay ahead of things and understand change.
20. Carve out time where you’re completely unplugged.
Name: Randi Zuckerberg
Company: Zuckerberg Media
Strategy: I like to carve out blocks of time that I’m going to be unplugged, which is sometimes frustrating to the rest of my team. But I find that it’s hard to do creative, thoughtful tasks when you are interrupted by emails and text messages. I like to carve out two to three hours, where I do a deep dive into writing a piece or working on a speech. That is the most effective hours of my entire day.
21. Keep email to a minimum.
Name: Heidi Zak
Strategy: I check email once an hour or less. If I check it more, I lose focus. So, I set aside five or 10 minutes to check email and then spend the rest of the time thinking about what I need to be doing.
22. Frequently communicate your company’s goals.
Name: Alex Friedman
Strategy: Regular conversation to realign our goals is something that we’ve instituted in the business. Over-communication of what we’re all working towards, so everybody is always aligned. It is part of our role as founders: to continue to rearticulate the mission, the strategy and what we’re aiming for at the end of the day.
23. Do activities where you aren’t thinking about work.
Name: Katrina Lake
Company: Stitch Fix
Strategy: Doing things where it’s hard to be distracted like running and cooking — and in some ways it’s actually commuting. There’s so many days when I take the bus to work, I feel like I can clear my mind. I love that time.
24. Break big tasks into smaller chunks.
Name: Luis von Ahn
Strategy: I try to break everything into small tasks. I’m not good at doing things that take months, but I am good at doing things that take a half an hour. I break things down into 15 to 30 minute pieces.
25. Think deeply, away from screens.
Name: Scott Harrison
Strategy: I’m always looking to find time to think on something deeply without interruption. Carving out time away from devices and screens can be extremely beneficial to focusing. Take the time to go on a walk or sit in the park.
26. Don’t chase every opportunity.
Name: Bruce Poon Tip
Company: G Adventures
Strategy: Yoga, which I do for my morning routine. Starting my day with that activity keeps me very focused. Also, realizing what you say ‘no’ to is equally as important as what you say ‘yes’ to as an entrepreneur. If you achieve any amount of success as an entrepreneur, things come flying at you. Opportunities are everywhere, and it’s so easy to become unfocused chasing opportunities, because they’re a dime a dozen.
27. Focus your to-do list with numbers.
Name: Ayah Bdeir
Strategy: It seems really simple, but just numbering the list of things you have to do. Just taking a few minutes to put the things in order that you need to get done is a very focusing kind of exercise. Then if in the middle of the day something becomes number one, moving that up on the list is actually a very active focusing agent, because then you’re like OK if number one doesn’t get done, then the rest doesn’t matter. It really helps you zero in on what’s important.