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Efficiency

Like you, I’m a pretty busy guy. I’ve always been high energy and (I hope) high velocity. My job requires me to be in many places at one time (and at any one time have a few dozen different things spinning around in my head). It’s tiring and doesn’t always leave time for the kind of balance I look for in my life. There’s always someone else to talk with, some other conference or “it” even to attend; another great idea to look at investing in. But in the last 6 months or so I’ve really hit a different stride that’s allowed me to both feel more productive and more balanced. Given that every one I know struggles with this I thought it would be worth putting a few ideas down on paper in hopes that others will pile in with what’s worked for them.

Gmail: Gmail is simply fantastic. Sitting here it’s hard to even contemplate the number of years I spent in the purgatory known as Outlook/Exchange. It was a strange purgatory – I didn’t really know I was in it, but at the same time always had an uneasy feeling about it. You’re probably already on Gmail (what hipster tech person isn’t?), but just in case – it’s at the top of my list of things I’ve done in the past year that have really impacted my time. Plus Gmail enables a bunch of other productivity enhancing apps (see immediately below for a few of them).

Unsubscribe.com: If you don’t have Unsubscribe.com run, don’t walk, to get the plug-in. It’s free now, which makes the bar to install it even lower (although as I posted previously, I’d gladly pay for this functionality). The key here is to actually use it. And use it often. I’m absolutely relentless about my use of Unsubscribe. I’ve had the same email address for at least a decade and over the years the newsletters and lists have piled up. At some point I tried to unsubscribe myself from them, but it was impossible to stay on top of. Now with a click of the Unsubcribe.com button they’re gone. I’m not joking when I say that I’ve cut back my email traffic by 150 emails A DAY by my relentless (and continued) use of this tool.

SaneBox: Here’s one you may not of heard of. I understand that messing with people’s email is a recipe for disaster. And everyone has their thing in terms of how they like to have their email sorted. For me that wasn’t any of the other email productivity tools I tried and it definitely wasn’t Priority Inbox from Google. SaneBox uses information in my social graph, contacts, calendar and past email behavior to separate out my email into important (in my inbox), deal with later (send to *another folder* to deal with later, possible spam (anything that’s not caught by Postini) and blog comments (there are some other options as well if you want to mess around with it). What I like most about it is that non-important emails never get into my line of sight. And since I have no email self control this turns out to be pretty important for keeping me from getting distracted. I have one inbox for stuff that I need to deal with right away and another (that I can train by the way) for everything else that I can batch process a few times a day. Slick.

Just say no: Not to be a jerk about it but I say “no” more than ever now. It’s too easy to end up with a full schedule and running from meeting to meeting can make for a very unproductive day (and despite this increase in “no’s” I still have plenty of days where I’m doing just that). But I’m ruthless about saying no to scheduled meetings. Instead, I’m pushing people to Community Hours, which is a great, rapid fire way to meet new people; or I’m calling people; or I’m saying “no”. Meeting time is generally reserved for companies in the Foundry portfolio, companies in which we’re thinking of making an investment and little else. It’s really helped me prioritize what’s most important (which is to say companies in the Foundry portfolio and companies in which we’re thinking of making an investment).

Few scheduled calls: See above for step one of this process. Step two is that I try to stay away from scheduled calls. The more on my set schedule, the less flexibility I have to either work in solid blocks of time or to respond to things that come up during the day. I posted a while ago about my need for a call list app. I found one (CallList), which is a bit kluge but generally does the trick (it’s sole purpose is to manage – both online and in an iPhone app – a list of people that I need to call along with some basic notes and information to give me context). I use this app to effectively manage these call backs. This opens up time on my schedule and also allows me to better make use of down time (for example on my drive to the airport, which if you’ve been to DIA you know is a long one from anywhere one actually might want to live in Colorado).

Batch email: All the research suggests that humans do better when they concentrate on one task for a period of time, rather than jumping from task to task. I’m trying to move my behavior from an interrupt driven mode where I am constantly stopping what I am doing to check in on email, to one where I’m batch processing instead. So I work in blocks of time and try to keep my email in the background except when I’m actually working on email (which is still plenty of my day given how much of my job is done over email).

Get out of the office: I wrote an entire chapter on this in Do More Faster and I’m trying to take my own advice to heart. Maybe it’s Boulder. Or maybe I can get away with it more because I’m a VC. Whatever it its, I’m trying to take more walks, hikes and bike rides in lieu of lunch meetings, “coffee” and meetings where I sit in a conference room. I’m not talking every meeting, but a few times a week where instead of sitting around talking, I’m walking and talking. Not only are the meetings more fun, but I find that I stay much sharper for the rest of the day when I get both some time outside and some basic exercise. Obviously these are to be avoided if you need to whiteboard something out or if you need to dial someone else in, but if you think about it you’ll realize that you have plenty of meetings each week that can happen outside of the four walls of your conference room or office.

Don’t worry about Inbox Zero. I was never a great Inbox Zero guy – I use my inbox to keep emails to deal with later too much to get down to fewer than about 5-10 emails at one time. But it used to stress me out that I always had a few things left to do. No longer. I try to get back to people who email me in a reasonable period of time. And I try to respond to most emails (I’ve given up on “all” emails in that last sentence in the last 6 months as well – some emails just don’t deserve to be responded to…). But I’m a lot less stressed about it and as a result I’m a lot more efficient at getting back to people.

Don’t panic! In this world of social media and always being connected, there’s somehow always the sense that you’re missing out on something. And you know what – that’s right. At this very second you’re missing out on something. It’s probably fun too. And there are lots of other cool people involved. But not you. So don’t worry about it and pay attention to what you’re doing now, vs. what you’re not doing. This goes for missing something in your Facebook feed, letting something pass you by on Twitter, etc. If it’s that important someone will repost or retweet it and you’ll see it. Or maybe not. And the world will go on.

This is one of those topics that could go on forever. These are just a few ideas that have worked for me to lessen the load at “work” and make more time for “life.” I’d love your thoughts as well. (and here I’ve focused on the work side of the equation – there’s another entire post that one could write on the life side)

September 12th, 2011     Categories: General Business     Tags: , , ,
  • http://one.valeski.org Jud Valeski

    batch email: +1
    gmail: +1 (I, like you, truly can’t imagine the previous world anymore… or how unbelievably inefficient it was)
    say no: +1

    here’s another. I resisted an “assistant” all of my life. I found a virtual one that lives in the same timezone that I do at http://prialto.com/ she’s freed me from schedule ping-pong email threads that eat up an exorbitant amount of time.

  • http://one.valeski.org Jud Valeski

    batch email: +1
    gmail: +1 (I, like you, truly can’t imagine the previous world anymore… or how unbelievably inefficient it was)
    say no: +1

    here’s another. I resisted an “assistant” all of my life. I found a virtual one that lives in the same timezone that I do at http://prialto.com/ she’s freed me from schedule ping-pong email threads that eat up an exorbitant amount of time.

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      Jud – I could truly write a treatise on what a big different having Tracie has made to my overall efficiency. In fact – I think I’m going to repost with that init. Love the pointer to virtual assistant!

  • Xavier

    I think a business people trying to capitalize on the opportunities before us, we forget that we are actually in control. We choose who we hire, work with and what to pursue. That said, delegating to others who are capable works like a charm. Avoiding the meeting to confirm the meeting also does wonders and last (possibly the hardest of all) is saying it like it is: if I have to jump through a hoop of fire to meet with you today, I am going to decline and ask that we re-schedule. If it is as good as you they say it is FOR ALL THE RIGHT REASONS, it will be here tomorrow or at the end of the week.
    It is your life, and until you figure that out, all the aid you think you have are only treating the symptoms.

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      right on xavier. having great people around you and delegating is a key to keeping on top of things for sure!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10200438 Erik Skurka

    Seth, love the post and love the new tools! One UX consideration. I like when the in-line links open in a new window instead of same page. That way I can go play with the tool/read the article after I’m done reading yours. Just a thought!

    Hope all is well in Boulder.

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      sorry erik. i thought it was set to do that. i’ll change that…

  • http://www.facebook.com/shannon.kinney Shannon Kinney

    Great tips here. I am in the process of doing the same thing to my schedule, and one friend suggested the http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/ for using those chunks of uninterrupted time to maximize productivity. Working well, but it is hard changing your schedule! 

  • Jeff Macco

    Seth – great post.

    A play from Warren Buffet’s book – instead of saying “no” - ‘I can’t say yes at this time’ - which I’ve found helps makes me feel good about saying no instead of feeling guilty about the potential of being percieved as a dick.

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      nice jeff – i’ll try that.

  • http://twitter.com/spencerrascoff Spencer Rascoff

    Good post Seth. 
    This type of post has been on my list of future blog posts which I’ve been intending to write, but haven’t gotten to for months. I guess that sort of is the point, right?

    Anyway, this post finally inspired me to get unsubscribe.com. I came close after your last post in which you raved about it, but I never got around to it. This time I did, and so far it has been great.

    • http://twitter.com/spencerrascoff Spencer Rascoff

      One other applet that I like for efficiency is gwabbit. It is a plug-in for email which lets you quickly add contact info from a sender, by pulling info out of the sender’s email autosignature. 

      • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

        great tip to gwabbit. i’m getting the plug-in straight up!

  • Steve

    You might this email “snooze” feature of interest, if you have low email self-control — it lets you look at the email but then postpone dealing with it and not have to see it again until the timer runs down.. http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/gmail-snooze-with-apps-script.html

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      I didn’t include boomerang in my post, but that’s a similar plug-in that allows me to keep on top of follow-ups. 

    • Pete

       A better version of that snooze script for GMail is now available (http://ccgi.philfam.co.uk/wordpress/2011/08/25/86) which fits into the 43 folders type of mentality.

  • http://mschade.me/ Michael Schade

    Wow, great post–thanks for sharing these tips, Seth. I certainly agree on giving up on Inbox Zero (IZ)–at least for the most part. It used to stress me out too, which meant that I’d avoid tackling the issue and constantly feel guilty about the lingering emails in my inbox. Now that I’ve stopped caring about IZ, I’ve actually been able to much more casually handle the emails in my inbox, using IZ as less of a goal and more of an ideal.

    SaneBox is certainly something that I’ll need to try–Priority Inbox does an okay job for me, but it’s usually hit or miss, and I have aways wanted something that can take my social graph and other information into account.

    I can’t stress your get out of the office point enough. Even if it’s not for meetings (though I do the idea of walking meetings, and will certainly try that), just getting away from work can make you so much better at work. I’ve written about this on my blog before, where I talk about how taking the time to exercise can improve an entrepreneur’s work (or anyone’s work, really).

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      Thanks Michael. The out of the office analogy for me is the change that happened to my work style when I had kids. I was much more focused and my workday become much more about getting shit done and ignoring the rest – because time wasted was time away from my family. I think getting out of the office regularly has the same effect. If you know you won’t get some vitamin D time in the sun if you don’t pound through something, you’re pretty motivated! Not to mention how much better you feel (and more productive) when you return…

  • Anonymous

    Great post Seth. I found Gmail and cannot imagine going to anything else at this point. I use so many of the features that are with it but I’m truly hooked on the calendar. I love that I get emails reminding me of things I have to do. I will certainly look into Unsubscribe.com since to manually unsubscribing does not seem to work.

    I thought you might find this humorous. My son was in the other room and I shouted out to him to check out this post and he said he was and told me where he was at in it – which was the same paragraph I was reading.

    I truly liked your “Beware of Asshole VCs” especially since my son and I are currently in the middle of that world. You have a great sense of being. Thanks and please, keep writing!

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      Thanks Dina. Appreciate the comment. And glad to hear that you and your son are not only on the same page but on the same paragraph!

  • http://twitter.com/NattyZ Natty Zola

    Great post Seth. 

    I’d also add that setting certain days as ‘Makers’ or ‘Manager’ days helps a TON.  Especially if your role involves product or technical development or you just need time to think and plan.  I’m sure you’ve seen this, but Paul Graham has a great post on this here: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

  • http://twitter.com/NattyZ Natty Zola

    Great post Seth. 

    I’d also add that setting certain days as ‘Makers’ or ‘Manager’ days helps a TON.  Especially if your role involves product or technical development or you just need time to think and plan.  I’m sure you’ve seen this, but Paul Graham has a great post on this here: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

  • http://twitter.com/NattyZ Natty Zola

    Two more things to add.  

    - Being aggressive about labeling and auto archiving in Gmail is a really helpful way to remove email from your inbox into folders you can review later.  Prevents unexpected distraction.
    - Gmail shortcuts are incredible and save time. Worth the learning curve.

    • http://www.sethlevine.com sethlevine

      Good points. And good to remember that if you hit “?” in gmail it will give you a list of the shortcuts (which, as you note, are key)

  • http://www.buywigonline.com Yesuifen20

    t and you’ll see it. Or maybe not. And the world will go on.
    This is one of those topics that could go on forever. These are just a
    few ideas that have worked for me to lessen the load at “work” and make
    more time for “l