I spend a lot of time with startup CEO’s, founders, and executives. As a coach (and previously as a founder/CEO), I am routinely inspired by the energy, vision, and no-quit attitude that I observe. But there is one mistake that I see in nearly every leader I meet.

An early stage company’s primary currency is focus. A startup is at a disadvantage against a large incumbent on nearly every measurable variable. Resources, depth of leadership, industry experience, marketing might, etc., the incumbent wins every time. What a well-run startup has that a big corporation lacks is the opportunity to relentlessly focus on what really matters.

A startup can avoid bureaucracy, politics, legacy tech debt, overpaid middle-management dead-weight, and other problems that plague incumbents. A startup can, should a startup choose, focus relentlessly on what matters.

So why are so many entrepreneurs trading away focus?

Signs you may be lacking personal focus:

  1. You are not setting clear, measurable, personal goals for each quarter and each week
  2. You are not blocking chunks of undistracted focus time throughout your workday
  3. You receive more than one audible/distracting phone alert per hour
  4. Your laptop alerts you of every incoming Slack message, text message, and email
  5. You check your email more than 3x per day, often even when no new messages are present

Signs you may be failing to provide your team focus:

  1. A team member picked at random cannot name the 3 top priorities for the company this quarter
  2. A team member picked at random cannot point to a list of accountabilities within the company (ie who owns what to keep the ship afloat)
  3. An average team member is attending more than 2–3 hours / day of meetings
  4. No clear guidance is present on when to use Slack, email, or Zoom (or what the expected response time is on Slack resulting in an always on mentality)
  5. Your employees look fatigued and burned out not rested and energized

How to set yourself up for success:

  1. Meditate. Daily. Even 10-minutes of focused meditation per day can help retrain your brain to focus on the present.
  2. Block your calendar. Aim for at least 3 hours per day of focused work time. Stay out of meeting purgatory.
  3. Turn off your alerts. On your phone, on your iPad, on your laptop.
  4. Check email 1–3 times per day, no more. The more email you send the more you receive.
  5. Clear your desktop. Hide your dock. Hide your menu bar. This is a screenshot of what my desktop looks like as I am writing this post.

What does your desktop look like as you are reading this post?

How to set your team up for success:

  1. Set clear goals. I recommend a quarterly OKR practice where the team (or senior team) works together to examine the key risks of the business and recent learnings then sets 2–3 key objectives for the next quarter. Each objective should have a measurable success criteria, clear owners, and defined resources.
  2. Set a regular cadence for written updates. Get out of random check-ins and updates. Whoever is owning a given objective should provide a written update on a regular (ie weekly) basis. This should be part of a full-team or full-company update doc so that everyone knows when updates happen. Updates should be written so that the team doing the work has to collect their thoughts and present them in an organized fashion. Questions should be asked only after everyone has done the reading. Bonus points for asking the questions right on the Google doc.
  3. Establish clear guidelines for synchronous and asynchronous communication. For example: use emails for anything requiring 24 hour response (72 hour on weekends). Use Slack for a 1–2 hour response. If something is truly on fire (almost never is), call the person or go to their desk and interrupt their work. (Train the team to turn off notifications because real-time responses are not expected nor rewarded.)
  4. Set clear meeting guidance. Meetings should be short, carry an agenda, have an owner, have notes kept and shared by one notetaker, and be ended when the agenda is complete or the time allotted is up. No meeting should be more than 50 minutes; most should be 5–15 minutes and done standing up. Meetings should always start and end on time.
  5. If you work in an office, make the office a quiet work zone. Conversations are great on walks, in the kitchen, or in a meeting, but work areas are for quiet, focused work. There is no need to interrupt work because blockers are shared via Slack or email as outlined above.

Let your teammates work.

For most of us, a sense of deep joy and accomplishment is possible when we experience flow, or focused work, and when we leave the workday with a sense of accomplishment. We love to let our creative or analytical juices flow.

When we allow interruptions to rule the day, or when we fail to slow down and set clear goals, we rob ourselves and our teams of focus.

Our projects grind along, our companies fail, and we burn out.

Slow down today to help your self and your team move toward focus. Your mind and your team will thank you.