Open an executive’s calendar, and you’ll likely see small colored blocks stacked up like a perilous Jenga tower, from early breakfast meetings to evening events, with not much white space in between. From an outside perspective, this may imply decision-making power or importance. But CEOs and business leaders themselves don’t often see their mountains of meetings as badges of honor. More often than not, those appointments distract them from their real priorities.
It’s easy to get caught up working in your business–product reviews, investor calls, and one-on-ones with key staffers, for instance. Those are all necessary tasks, but the most successful executives need strong habits to keep them working on their business. The distinction is crucial. I’ve interviewed hundreds of founders and investors on my podcast, many of whom rely on certain routines to stay on top of their most pressing goals without losing sight of the big picture–or drowning in meetings all day. These are some of the best tips I’ve heard from six execs who’ve been guests on the show.
Commit To A Daily “Power Hour”
The bkr glass water bottle is perhaps the only water bottle that’s sold in the beauty departments of stores like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Sephora. How did founders Kate Cutler and Tal Winter convince buyers to stock their products in the early days? Their daily “power hour.” At the same time every day, Cutler and Winter spent an hour researching and reaching out to buyers to secure new accounts–no matter what else needed doing that day, that one-hour block was sacrosanct.
The power hour is 60 minutes to dedicate your undivided attention to a specific task. It’s a pledge to make progress on your most important goals amidst the constant flow of incoming requests and responsibilities. How you spend that power hour is up to you, and its function can change as your business grows and your duties evolve; try committing to one to improve your most critical business metric, acquire a new skill, or strengthen a weakness.
This habit can be particularly helpful for completing tasks where you usually procrastinate. Schedule a recurring event on your calendar, and just don’t move it. If you can stick with it, you’ll put in nearly 260 hours every year.
Talk To Customers Daily
Tweets, DMs, emails: Manish Chandra, CEO and founder of the fashion marketplace Poshmark, responds to 100 user inquiries each day. That may sound like a chore, but it helps Chandra get some breathing room from the obligations of his packed calendar.
Leaders are often advised to focus on strategy, but Chandra prioritized staying close to “Poshers” since founding the company in 2011. “It’s my direct conduit into what’s really happening, unfiltered through data or the organization,” he told me. “It allows me to keep my ear on the ground as we’ve gone from a single user to tens of millions.”
Leading any company that aims to make a real impact in users’ lives requires learning about them every day, but that’s not always easy to do. The more companies scale, the further removed from customer interactions executives tend to become. But A/B tests, data crunching, and surveys won’t always reveal your users’ needs. As Chandra has found, turning customer interaction into a personal, daily practice helps him continue to make sure Poshmark is building the right products.
Spend At Least One Day A Week Outside Your Industry
Perhaps the most dramatic way to resist the tyranny of your overbooked calendar is to set aside time to get outside of your entire industry, not just your company. Hooman Radfar is a partner at Expa, a startup studio that works with founders to develop products and build their teams. As he sees it, he gains an edge not by immersing himself in tech but by exploring disciplines outside it–like biology, music, and philosophy.
Radfar says he’s constantly asking himself: Am I getting enough exposure? Am I seeing different countries? Talking to people in different fields? Reading about new subjects? “Creativity is the combination of ideas across disciplines and thought patterns,” he shared. “If you aren’t pushing yourself to discover what’s out there, you’re going to miss it.”
Fika Ventures partner Eva Ho has a tactic to ensure she doesn’t miss anything, either–no matter what appointments, challenges, and meetings might crowd her workday: Every week she spends 25% of her time with people outside her field. “The world is so much bigger than where we live. There are many people living lives that we know nothing about,” she pointed out. As an investor, it’s Ho’s job to know a lot about the companies and spaces she invests in, but the startup world itself can be all-consuming and, like Radfar, she needs to mix it up.
You may even be able to use your jam-packed calendar to help. Since you’re scheduling loads of calls and meetings anyway, why not add one appointment each week to speak with someone whose work is totally unrelated to yours? Then scale up to two or three of these meetings each week over time. Or if you resist the idea of more scheduling, try to find a recurring habit like mentoring, volunteering, or joining a club. And no, you don’t have to commit a whole day or more each week–just find a structure that works for you, and don’t neglect it.
Let Your Mind Wander For Three Hours Total Each Week
Dennis Mortensen, CEO and founder of the personal assistant tool x.ai, has been rigorously achieving “inbox zero” for two decades–except on Sundays, when he walks the length of Manhattan (13.4 miles) to clear his mind.
His practice has three requirements:
- No tech.
- No companions.
- No agenda.
Just you and your thoughts. “Come with an empty mind and let yourself wander,” Mortensen explained. “At the end of the three hours, everything you’ve been thinking about for the past week will end up in the right boxes.”
He readily admits that this ritual isn’t for everyone. Some prefer yoga, drawing, or hiking. But Mortensen says that some form of mindful activity is crucial to balance out the time he spends on tactical stuff like firing off emails, bouncing between meetings, and the like. Just find what’s right for you, he advises, and dedicate a set period of time every week to leave your to-do list behind and be alone with your thoughts. Don’t be surprised if the answers you’re seeking reveal themselves.
Jenna Abdou is the host and producer of Beyond the Headline at 33voices, a podcast where founders and investors share their stories and highlight the tactics they use to build industry-changing companies. Jenna also works closely with startups and venture capital firms to produce unique content series in addition to writing about startups, consumer trends, and women in business.