Starting your own business isn't easy - but it also doesn't have to involve endless hours of work. Aytekin Tank explains how and why to cut back
by Aytekin Tank
“Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”
Maybe you’ve already seen this quote from serial entrepreneur and Shark Tank star Lori Greiner. If not, I bet you’ve heard a version of it. Startup founders are infamous for busy-bragging. Sometimes it even feels like a competition: Who can work the longest? Who can sacrifice the most? Who will sleep at the office and go a full week without natural light?
Yes, starting a business is hard work, and Greiner’s dedication has clearly paid off (she’s created over 700 products and holds 120 patents). But the willingness she describes is really about freedom.
Whether they’re chasing a big idea or solving a real problem, most founders also want to call the shots, to make their own money, set their own hours and to create something they care about. So why are we all trying to outwork each other?
I don’t believe in the 24/7 hustle and grind. It’s not productive. And it’s starting to kill us.
I also know first-hand that starting a business is not easy. I’ve been on a 12-year entrepreneurial journey, slowly building JotForm into a global company with 3.7 million users and 110 employees.
So where is the balance? How can you fulfill your vision without sacrificing yourself?
Instead of logging more hours, the answer is to make the most of the hours you work. If you’re smart about time management, you might be amazed by how much you can achieve in a sane, focused week.
Here are five strategies that help me to avoid overworking – even when there’s always more to do.
1. Minimize your active projects
Time management is attention management. Controlling your work is a matter of focus, not creating a crazy-strict schedule. When you focus your attention, you maximize your time, which increases your motivation. It’s a productive cycle that feels really, really good.
At any given time, I have no more than three core goals or active projects. That’s it. I say no to everything else. I delegate or save any outside tasks for later.
You can also try a more sophisticated approach. In a Fast Company article, Google for Work director Thomas Davies described the problem with most time management strategies: “Managing time starts from the premise that your workload is going to be what it’s going to be, and the best you can do is keep it ‘manageable.’ But
what if you could design your work day instead?”
Davies decided to create a new strategy. He divided his work responsibilities into four quadrants: people development, business operations, transactional tasks and representative tasks. Then he slotted every task into one of the four quadrants.
Once he had a high-level view of what actually occupied his time, he could decide what mattered most – and what made him feel most energized. Now he tries to maximize his work in those high-value quadrants.
If this method speaks to you, give it a try. As Davies explains, you’ll soon realize that not all tasks are created equal. Armed with that knowledge, you can be mindful of where to dedicate your attention.
2. Mono-task, don’t multi-task
Establishing core priorities will narrow your focus. You also need to perform just one task at a time. That’s because, as Phyllis Korkki wrote in The New York Times, multi-tasking is a biological impossibility: “Your brain may delude itself into thinking that it has more capacity than it really does, but it’s really working extra hard to handle multiple thoughts at once when you are switching back and forth between tasks. Your ability to get things done depends on how well you can focus on one task at a time, whether it’s for five minutes or an hour.”
To create a mono-tasking environment, Korkki suggests that you remove all temptations – even if that means installing anti-distraction programs like Freedom or FocusMe. Also, use just one screen. Work in set chunks of time, and if you lose focus, get up and walk around.
You can also try the popular Pomodoro technique, which breaks the day into 25-minute, highly focused intervals, followed by a five-minute break. After four intervals, you take a 15-minute break – ideally away from all screens and mobile devices.
3. Cut back on meetings
Meetings have become a contentious topic in entrepreneurial circles. Tesla founder Elon Musk told his staff to “walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it’s obvious you aren’t adding value.” And Basecamp’s Jason Fried says “it’s hard to come up with a bigger waste of money, time or attention than status meetings.”
Some meetings are critical, but many are not. Unless the meeting can remove a roadblock or it’s essential for team cohesion, find another way. Send an email and follow up later. Say no and protect your time. You’ll be helping colleagues and co-workers to regain their focus, too.
I’m honoured to receive a lot of requests for coffee and casual get-to-know-you meetings. I mentor some young entrepreneurs, but I politely decline everything from speaking invitations to networking events as well. I wish I had time to accommodate everyone, but I just don’t. I have to draw a firm boundary – and you should as well.
4. Make quick decisions
Hording decisions creates stress. When your mind is buzzing with many different choices – from what to eat for lunch to which job candidate to hire – it’s almost impossible to have a productive workday.
Now, imagine your brain is a whiteboard. Every time you make a decision, you’re wiping off more scribbles. Soon, it’s clear and ready for creative thought.
When it comes to decision-making, speed is the goal here. There are very few decisions that can’t be made quickly. I know that goes against conventional wisdom, but give it a try.
If you’ve already gathered enough information, combine that data with your personal instincts and make a choice – now. Don’t have enough data? Then forget the decision and gather what you need.
Once you have the right information, make your choice and move on. Repeat as needed.
5. Make the most of your work time – then step away
Vacations and downtime are essential for success. There’s just no way around it. You can hustle with the best of them, but at some point, your body is going to say no. The mind will rebel, too. You’ll be less analytical, way less creative, and your emotions will eventually overrule all logical thoughts.
I’m currently spending the summer in Izmir, Turkey. We have a small office here. It’s also a beautiful city by the sparkling Aegean Sea. So I’m going to work four-day weeks and explore the nearby beach towns with my family. I realize this is a great privilege – and I know you might have a few more questions.
Don’t you feel pressure to show your face in the office? Do you worry that your team will lose morale and slack off if you’re not there?
Honestly, I’m just not concerned about it. I guess some employees might slip into 'relaxation' mode if I’m not in the office, but I also know that our teams love their work. They’re knee-deep in meaningful projects, and I have great respect for what they contribute to JotForm.
I encourage our employees to take time off, too. If you don’t take vacations, you’ll burn out and eventually produce less. As the CEO, my job is to ensure our teams are motivated and they don’t hit roadblocks. Our employees won’t function well if they don’t take care of themselves.
How on earth can I ease up when I’m just launching or growing my business?
I promise it’s not impossible. Even during the early days of my company, my wife and I took three months off to travel across Europe. It’s a matter of planning and sticking to your priorities.
For example, if you’re working in your business, it doesn’t function without you. When you work on your business, you can develop systems and processes that let you step away. You build a company that doesn’t break if you’re not answering every email or performing every single task. Even as a solopreneur, you can plan to hit pause – if it matters to you.
I know the details can be tricky, and this is a far easier proposition with an online business. But ultimately, life isn’t all about work. I don’t know about you, but I don’t to want to work, work, work and then retire for a couple years before I die. I want to enjoy my life and my freedom.
So, be strategic. Ask for help. Develop systems and safety nets that allow you to step away, even for a short time. You and your business will be so much better for it. Soon, you won’t even dream about using the word 'hustle.'
Aytekin Tank is founder and CEO of JotForm, an online form creation software with 4 million users worldwide and more than 100 employees. A developer by trade but writer by heart, Aytekin shares stories about how he exponentially grew his company without receiving any outside funding.