6 Time-Management Tips From Accelerator Programs

Want to work work smarter—not longer—hours? Start here with advice from Y Combinator, Techstars, Founder Institute, Excelerate Labs, and Seedcamp.

For startup accelerator programs, teaching wannabe entrepreneurs time management skills is critical. These camp-like incubators have one of the steepest learning curves of any professional environment, and making sure entrepreneurs stay productive is the key to success. For startups, managing time is a matter of sink or swim, and infant companies can only succeed if they stay on task.

Of course, balancing your time isn’t reserved for startup founders tackling the first part of their business plan. It applies to anyone who’s eager to work smarter—not longer—hours. So we asked founders and partners at the world’s top accelerator programs for time management tips they always share with bleary-eyed entrepreneurs. Here’s what they said:

1. Avoid the email time suck. 

"Email is my worst enemy, so I only check it three times a day," says Jonathan Greechan, partner at the Founder Institute, an accelerator program in 13 cities around the world. "Keeping email open all day is the quickest way to kill your productivity." Instead, he’s developed a schedule when dealing with email: "First thing in the morning I glance over most emails and address only the critical ones. Midday I check progress on the critical emails I addressed in the morning. And before I go to sleep my main goal is to clear volume and smaller or menial tasks. On especially busy days I only check twice a day, cutting out the midday scrub." 

Sometimes taking longer to respond can be even more effective, Greechan says: "It may sound bad, but ignoring emails is a good way to make people not as dependent on you—in most cases, they can find the answers or solutions themselves. If you are always quick to answer, they will get lazy and be always quick to ask."

2. Choose your most important goal each week.

Techstars chief executive David Cohen tells entrepreneurs to focus on one big goal each week. "This mental exercise makes you figure out what really matters, and focus time and energy on it at the cost of other, less important things," he says. "Focusing on the right priorities can help you do more faster. I remember when Isaac Saldana of SendGrid decided he wanted to bring in an outside CEO. He focused on this until it was finished as his number one priority, and it accelerated the company more than anything else he could have done. Now SendGrid is on fire, and Isaac contributes as the technical leader, which is further propelling the company. It's all because he focused on the biggest and most important thing through to completion."

3. Know your productivity limits. 

"Most people have a maximum for productivity," says Troy Henikoff, chief executive of Excelerate Labs in Chicago. "I had an employee that would produce the maximum amount on 55 hours a week. The rest of us had to work 80 hours to get done what he did in 55; but if he worked more than 55, his total productivity started to drop. Make sure you know your limits and the individuals on your team's limits."

In addition, be sure you understand the most important tasks that need attention. "Do not get urgent confused with important—it is easy to get sucked into all those urgent issues, but you really should be prioritizing by what is most important," he adds.

4. Be like Dorsey: Take breaks to prevent burnout. 

"We encourage founders to not underestimate the importance of exercise, sleep, and taking breaks to restore energy and creativity," says Harj Taggar, a partner at Y Combinator in Mountain View, Calif. "It's better to average eight solid hours of productivity a day than it is to output 12 hours of mediocre ones. [Twitter cofounder] Jack Dorsey is running two $1 billion plus companies and he finds time to take Saturdays off to recharge."

5. Skip some meetings. 

It’s tempting to take every meeting that comes along, but it can be more distracting than productive, says Y Combinator’s Taggar: "Don't waste time on meetings," he says. "Once you're a YC company, there will be an endless stream of people wanting to meet with you—investors or people offering ‘mentorship’ who will pull you in all sorts of different directions. During YC, block these out and focus on the two things above. One meeting can blow an entire day of productivity."

Techstars’ Cohen tells entrepreneurs to avoid meetings that last longer than half hour. "Meetings with no goal, also known as ‘coffee shop’ meetings, can be huge time wasters if you're not efficient with them," says Cohen. "Always know why you're meeting, and make sure it's important—try to keep them to 30 minutes, max."

6. Say "no" when you need to. 

Reshma Sohoni, partner at Seedcamp, a venture accelerator in London, tells entrepreneurs that accepting offers of everything from meetings to seemingly related projects can quickly kill productivity. Sohoni teaches newbie founders the importance of saying no. "Entrepreneurs—especially early on—will say yes to everything. It's really a hard balance to strike," she says. "Whether that's in having too many meetings or taking too much on for the team, entrepreneurs really need to make decisions fast about when and where to say no. It's a critical skill [we] all need to learn." 

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[Image: Flickr user Eduardo Amorim]

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