CEOs on old-school work habits that you should still practice

Technology is helpful, but sometimes traditional methods can be more effective in getting stuff done.

CEOs on old-school work habits that you should still practice
[Photo: SB Stock/iStock]

For most professionals, lots of tech is necessary for a productive, efficient work day. Apps help with everything from note-taking and reminder-setting to project-tracking and information-gathering.


And with every promising startup offering a solution that promises maximal workplace effectiveness, it’s becoming rarer to see people doing things that used to be commonplace like—gasp!—taking notes by hand. But that doesn’t mean all of these traditional habits should fall by the wayside. Plenty of leaders, like Sheryl Sandberg, who writes goals in a notebook daily, are still fans of old-school methods. We asked several entrepreneurs to explain the benefits of these methods: 

Plan your day on paper

Before you turn the lights off to drift to sleep, what do you do? Watch Netflix? Read? Scroll through Instagram? A more productive and effective habit might be writing down a recap of your day, says Nate Checketts, the cofounder and CEO of Rhone.

Each night, he goes through his calendar for the day ahead and transfers everything into a notebook. This lets him see where his open blocks are, creating areas for him to make progress on goals. “I’ll write down the most important thing I need to accomplish the next day and put a hold on the manual calendar, so I know I have it blocked off to complete,” he says. “I then add a maximum of three additional things I want to accomplish and, if applicable, add them in as well.”

In the morning, rather than hitting snooze, Checketts reaches for the same notebook before he unlocks his phone. He also writes down up to three things he’s grateful for or looking forward to. Both practices keep him on track, he says. “I have learned to really love the grind of building self-discipline.” 

Call instead of emailing

Though email and Slack messages can be appropriate for quick chats, they also can result in miscommunications, snarky responses, and time-wasting conversations, says the CEO and founder of M.M. LaFleur, Sarah LeFleur. Instead, LeFleur has a policy of picking up the phone to clear up any potential issues. “As soon as a conversation starts to get complicated or gnarly, phone is a much better medium to communicate,” she says. 


In addition to reducing the risk of irritability between colleagues or clients, LeFleur says it always shows just how much you care about the project at hand. It’s worked well in the past, says LeFleur, who recounts a time when a customer was upset and sent a not-so-friendly email to LeFleur’s personal email. Rather than ignore it, Le Fleur picked up the phone. “She was so thankful I took the time to call that she ended up visiting our store the following day and making another big purchase,” she says.

LeFleur also calls potential hires, especially ones she’s really excited about. Not only does she want to show how committed she is to onboarding new team members but she believes it can make or break a lead who is on the fence about a job offer. 

Using business cards

Though business cards aren’t exactly archaic, more and more companies are doing away with them, since most can just share emails at networking events or meetings. But for Abigail Cook Stone, the founder and CEO of candle company Otherland, physical cards are a necessity. 

In fact, she took things a step further: All business cards double as matchboxes. “For me, using matchboxes was a no-brainer for an introductory moment that feels so much more personal than simply connecting over social media or email,” she says.

So far, it’s been well-received by potential customers, clients, and others, especially since it serves as a conversation starter. “For creative, design-forward professionals, especially, it’s worth going the extra mile with a clever, memorable design that speaks to their company’s product or services and showcases their brand’s personality,” she says.


Write thank-you cards

When Jennie Smythe, CEO of Girlilla Marketing, was a kid, her mom insisted she write handwritten thank you notes for any gift she received. Though it took effort, she was impressed by how appreciative her out-of-town family and friends were for the small token of gratitude. It’s a practice she still exercises professionally and personally today.

“Sending handwritten notes in a world where we are so inundated with digital communication is very personalized and intimate,” says Smythe. “Often people don’t even know how much you appreciate them until you send a note expressing what they may have said, done, or inspired you to do. I really get a kick out of celebrating a good idea, a promotion, and the almighty ‘just because.'” 

Why not just post something on social media? Well, it’s not private, she says, and there’s still value to be found in the extra effort it takes to sit down, write something sincere, and mail it off. “I truly believe that to see someone’s handwriting is now a rare vehicle to inspire a deeper connection.”

Subscribe to newspapers

No, your New York Times digital subscription doesn’t count. According to Jessica Zutz Hilbert, cofounder of Red Duck Foods, nothing can replace flipping through a paper, feeling the ink on your fingertips, and catching up on news. Today, she subscribes to The Wall Street Journal, The Oregonian, and The Portland Business Journal.

Though she doesn’t have a standing time when she reads the paper, she carries pages around and finds idle minutes throughout her day to catch up. Each morning, it’s this ritual, along with a trip outside, that kicks off her productivity. “I take a step outside and get a breath of fresh air. That breath of fresh air, especially in the mornings, can be so mind-clearing,” she says.


So why not read those articles online? She says a physical paper clears away distractions from advertisements, messages, and social media. Not only does she get a break from the ever-present blue screen, but there’s a sense of accomplishment when finishing a story—or 10. “When I’m reading about my communities, whether it be local, national, or international, I want to literally feel like I’m a part of it,” she says.

Hold tech-free meetings

More and more, businesses are encouraging employees to leave their phones to the side during meetings. But what about not bringing them at all? And leaving your laptop behind too? Less than five years ago, this was the norm, and it’s still in practice at some companies like Bite Toothpaste Bits, led by CEO Lindsay McCormick.

For all team gatherings, phones are put on silent, out of sight, and laptops are closed, except for the one projecting the agenda. For McCormick, it was a no-brainer decision since meetings can be powerful and productive but only when all employees are engaged and involved. “If you’re on the invite list for a meeting, it’s because your input is vital, she says. “The fastest way to get things done is for everyone in the room to give their complete focus and attention.”

Plus, it can have added benefits. “It helps our team bond because moments of downtime don’t end up with everyone grabbing their phones and instead leads to people to chatting and catching up.”