Focusing On What Really Matters in a Startup

Last week I came across an optical illusion that perfectly illustrates life at a startup. Focus as hard as you can on the + in the animation below for as long as you can and note what happens…

Purple dots

Focus hard enough, and all the pink dots disappear. Let your attention waver slightly and those pink dots come back with a vengeance.

Those pink dots are the perfect analogy for the endless list of small things distracting you from that one thing you should be focusing on in a startup.

Animations are deep, man…

Over the past few weeks we’ve been working on ways to help us focus on what really matters and how to make all those little pink dots that come up throughout the day disappear. Here’s how we’re doing it.

Do two things a day

When our marketing team tried to do everything, we did a poor job of every task, so we’ve stopped trying to do everything. Instead, we now try to focus on doing two tasks a day.

It sounds counterintuitive, but selecting only two tasks to work on for the day forces you to really focus on what’s essential and what’s going to have the biggest impact. This is something we’ve been struggling with for a while at Attendly.

By being so selective with what we work on, we’re also able to dedicate ourselves the time needed to get through these big tasks effectively and to avoid letting them drag on over multiple days.

Chunk your pink dots together

Unfortunately, the pink dots are hard to escape from for too long. Communication with customers, support tickets, payment processing, ping pong and a host of other unavoidable daily activities can’t exactly be put on hold while you’re focusing on your two things a day.

Our solution was to note all of our pink dots as they hit our radar and then chunk them together into an hour-long time block once a day. Hit start on your pomodoro app of choice (my new favorite is the task-list-as-a-music-playlist app Task Player) and just power through as much of the list as you can get through in an hour.

I found I was spending less time on the pink dots overall but still providing them with the attention they deserve so that they don’t blow up into bigger tasks. If you need a playlist to get you into work mode, I’ve got a killer playlist on Spotify that gets me through this hour easily. (Warning: it’s angry/schizophrenic)

Hold each other accountable

I usually subscribe to the 37Signals mantra that meetings are toxic but at Attendly we’ve started having morning stand up meetings, where we discuss what we worked on the day before and what we’re working on today. That’s it.

I have a hard time remembering what I’ve been working on, so this exercise in particular has really made me conscious of how I spend my time. It also gives the rest of the marketing team (ie: Scott) a nice breakdown of what I’m working on. I also get some really great insights into what Scott is working on and we trade ideas on how we would approach each other’s tasks.

Our stand ups also hold us accountable. If our two things we had for the day are still outstanding the next day, that’s an obvious indication that something’s blocking our ability to finish the task. Either way, it provides valuable information on how we can streamline our workload and come out on top.

Set an expiry date for experiments

We’re constantly trying new experiments to help validate or debunk our assumptions about our product and customers, but we seemed to be letting them go for too long without review.

So we started putting countdown timers of 2 weeks on all of our trials and creating documentation on the experiment so that before we even start we have a really clear idea of how we’re going to do it and what we’d define as success. The strict timeline also ensures our projects don’t meander and stretch on for too long in either the build, measure or learn phases.

Eric Ries explains a great method used by Toyota in The Lean Startup called Kanban, which is based on the principle of capacity restraint. How it works is that you’ve got a pipeline with four columns: backlog, in progress, built and validated. Each of these columns can only contain three experiments at any one stage, meaning if your experiment’s next stage is full, it can’t be moved until you free up space elsewhere.

This process sets up restraints that ensure lesser-loved aspects of experiments are provided equal attention and that any issues in the production of your experiments can be identified.

Where we’re at now

Getting through these changes has taken a little bit of getting used to but the effects on my work have been dramatically noticeable. I’m making more time for the bigger things, powering through the smaller things more efficiently than before, understanding more about what we’re working on as a whole and learning more through smaller, more controlled experiments.

We still have no idea what we’re doing, but at least we’re focusing harder.