Do less, focus more: why entrepreneurs should say no to multitasking
There is no end to the demands on an entrepreneur’s time. Every minute spent dealing with marketing, managing client relationships, or paying taxes is time not spent on business development, hiring, or sales. It is hard to know which tasks are the most urgent and where to spend time.
To a certain extent, this is a mindset issue. Business owners are generally addicted to achievement, expecting themselves to be the best at every aspect of their work. But spreading attention between too many different tasks and concepts causes stress and dissatisfaction. As a four-time entrepreneur, I’ve found a better way to manage my time: focus.
Eliminate the unnecessary
The key to focus is to eliminate distractions and unnecessary tasks which would otherwise take up attention. Tim Ferriss popularised this concept in The 4-Hour Workweek, which introduced the DEAL acronym: definition, eliminate, automate, liberation. The key part here is elimination: removing any tasks which are not mission-critical for business owners. This frees up time to concentrate on what really matters – the task that is currently at hand.
The art of saying no
Entrepreneurs often claim that saying yes to opportunities is a key factor in success. While openness to new experience is a helpful entrepreneurial trait, I think it’s even more important to know how to say no. A person has a limited amount of attention to give, and spreading this attention over too many projects just means that nothing gets done well. In the words of Steve Jobs: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
A similar approach is taken by Warren Buffett, who advises entrepreneurs to list their top 25 career goals, then to select the top five goals that really matter from this list. These five are the focus goals – and vitally, the remaining 20 goals are to be avoided at all costs. As desirable as these 20 other goals might be, in the short-term they are merely a distraction from the five key goals. It’s easy enough for entrepreneurs to turn down projects that don’t appeal to them, but it’s the projects that are good but not great which are hard to turn down.
One thing at a time
Over the last decade, multitasking has become a common approach to time management. Juggling multiple tasks and projects at once feels exciting and productive; it feels as if a lot is getting done. However, the scientific research on this topic is clear: multitasking leads to difficulties focusing, worse memory, and being slower at switching between tasks than working on one thing at a time. Despite how productive multitasking feels, in reality tackling one task at a time is clearly a more efficient way to work.
Working on one task at a time allows people to find their flow and to get into a ‘deep work‘ state. This refers to the ability to focus on a project and to give it full attention, turning all available cognitive resources to the task without getting distracted. Rather than constantly thinking about multiple issues at once, such as being in a staff meeting while also worrying about finances and feeling sad about missing family time, people should fully commit themselves to the current task and perform it as optimally and efficiently as possible. This intense concentration makes workers more efficient, and also leads to higher quality work as they think deeply about the issue at hand.
Good enough is good enough
When choosing where to exert their focus, many entrepreneurs worry that if they focus on one task at a time, then they won’t be able to get to all the important tasks that need their input. That’s why a second important aspect of focus is knowing when a task is completed to a reasonable degree, so the entrepreneur is freed up to move onto the next task. This is counter to the values of many entrepreneurs, who suffer from perfectionism. I’ve talked before about the problems with perfectionism and how it holds entrepreneurs back, and this is a demonstration of that problem – not knowing when something is good enough.
Here’s a tip: focus on one task until that task is completed to a “good enough” status, and then put it aside and move on to the next task. Business owners need to decide what “good enough” looks like, quantify it, then make sure that their team understands and works towards that end. This is certainly easier said than done, since deciding what success looks like in any particular area is always a challenge.
In terms of practical advice, I have several methods which help me to focus and get into a state of deep work. I use categorised todo lists to organise and prioritise tasks:
- The Momentum app for Chrome is a digital todo list that appears on my browser’s home page, allowing me to organise and prioritise tasks. It also lets users set a daily focus activity.
- I print out a singular focus area and hang it in my office until it is complete. This focus area is normally a department, like marketing or finance, and consists of multiple individual tasks under one thematic umbrella.
Both these methods have been real game-changers for me. They help me to hone in on my area of focus. And they also help to down out the sea of distractions by reminding me that it’s okay to let some opportunities pass by. As long as I keep focus on my primary goal, I’ll make progress.
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