Office Hours: 4 Tips for Time Management at a Startup

How to organize your life and block out the noise

By Antonia Dean, VP of External Relations at VFA

Startups are known for many things — disrupting whatever industry they’re in, cool perks, tech-enabled everything. Working at a startup can mean taking on more responsibility than you’d get in a traditional job, managing projects on your own, and a lot of freedom in figuring out how to get things done.

If time management is a challenge for you, this freedom can be a gift and a curse. When you’re starting your career, it can be hard to know what you should be doing when, how best to structure your day, and what productivity hacks actually work for you–especially if you have a hands off manager or a lot of leeway in completing your projects. This is probably the most common things that managers will tell you that their junior team members struggle with, and the one area where even incremental improvement can result in a big payoff.

Try some of these tips, tricks, and apps to help you get there.

Keep Track of Your Calendar

I’m notorious for living my life guided by my calendar. It’s a habit that started early in my career, when I worked in a company that was extremely meeting focused. And meetings weren’t just meetings. There were pre-meetings to prepare for the meetings, post-meetings to download how the meeting went, and follow up meetings to discuss what was discussed in the meeting. Depending on who was attending the meeting, all of that prep ratcheted up a notch because it was a career sin to waste a more senior leader’s time by being inefficient or unprepared.

 

To make sure that I kept my stuff together, I started checking my calendar religiously — knowing what meeting was scheduled when, who was attending, and what I needed to do to prepare. Knowing that my boss’ status meeting with her boss was on Thursday meant I had to schedule a pre-meet to prep her for Wednesday morning (enough time to gather materials or pull together any last minute decks), which meant I had to have all my stuff done for the prep by Tuesday afternoon. Knowing what was coming helped me to understand the most important things happening that week, and prioritize what I need to do, create, or request to be ready for it.

Many startups like VFA are thankfully less intense, but I still use my calendar to help prioritize my week and my day. This is a habit that’s bled over into my personal life. I am absolutely not going to remember our plan for brunch if a calendar request didn’t come with it.

Give Everything a Deadline

One of the things inherent in my calendar method is that dates automatically create deadlines. If your job is much less meeting focused, or you simply prefer a to-do list method, one thing you absolutely must do to stay on top of work and manage your time is assign deadlines to everything. Everything. No really, everything.

Tasks and goals without deadlines are just wishes and dreams. Don’t believe me? We’re only a few months into 2018, so think back to all the things you resolved to do or do differently this year. I bet the ones that didn’t have specific due dates (like lose ten pounds, finally run a marathon) didn’t get done. Deadlines give goals and wishes an urgency and a sense of realness. “Lose ten pounds” might not get done, but “go to the gym for Thursday 10 am boxing class” probably will.

Take this same approach with your work. Give yourself a deadline for everything and try your best to stick to it. If things come up that force you to miss your deadline, give yourself a new deadline based on when you can know you can get it done. Letting something be overdue for three months is just as bad as not giving it a date in the first place. Your mind will start to ignore it.

At VFA, we use Asana and I’ve come to really love it. The to-do list functionality, reminders, and the ability to assign tasks to people make it really easy to stay on top of what’s happening and what’s coming. I’ve also worked on teams that swore by Basecamp. Lastly, some people just use the reminders app on their phone or schedule to-do’s into their calendars. Whatever system works best for you, just make sure to give everything a deadline.

Block Your Own Time

If your team has a lot of meetings, you may find yourself spending most of your day reacting to other people’s requests or talking about what needs to be done. In an open plan office, you might be easily distracted by your coworkers’ convo about their latest TV binges. In other words, it’s really easy to end up spending your day at work doing a lot of things besides your work.

It’s important to make sure you carve out time to dig in and focus on your own projects. Treat your work time as you would a meeting and block some time on your calendar to get it done. I have no shame in blocking time on my calendar as “Do Not Disturb” or “Do Not Schedule.” This allows me the time to focus on just the task at hand, lets my coworkers know not to request a meeting, and knowing that I have one hour set aside to complete something helps me use that time more efficiently.

If this isn’t a common practice at your company, make sure you run this by your manager first so they’re aware. You don’t want them hearing from a colleague that you’re suddenly unavailable to meet.

Close All Those Browser Tabs

Right now, as I write this, I have 10 browser tabs open. I’m actually proud of myself. This is a low number for me.

Like many people, I end up spending a lot of time reading things on the internet, even in the midst of work. A coworker will Slack out an interesting article and I suddenly find myself down a rabbit hole. While trying to figure out a potential solution to a current challenge, somebody emails me a video they swear will have me in tears, and so on and so on. We’ve probably all been there. All those open tabs are distracting and visual clutter.

Force yourself to close tabs for anything you’re not actively working on. I keep open my email and calendar tabs (of course), and then only what I actually need for what I’m currently working on. If I open something and can’t get to it immediately, I add that item to my to do list in Asana, copy the link into the description, and then close the tab. For articles and headlines that caught my eye but I can’t read right away, I use Pocket. If it’s just something I know I’ll want to look into later, I group those tabs together into a new window and then minimize it. Out of sight and out of mind.

These are just a few of the time management tips that work for me. If you’re always overwhelmed, running behind, or can’t keep track of your projects, maybe they will help you too!. If you have some tips that we missed, share them in the comments below.

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