Essential Time Management Advice; 7 Great Lessons Guided by YC Partner Adora Cheung
I have seen it in my daily life; it doesn’t matter how much you are doing if you are doing the wrong things. You are just wasting time. Focusing on the right things and managing your schedule makes a big difference; it can make you or break you.
I’m writing my way through my studies in the World’s best startup school, run by Y Combinator. In this article, I walk you through Adora Cheung’s essential tips on activity prioritization from the startup school course “How To Prioritise Your Time”. Adora was a Y Combinator partner for 5 years, and before that, she co-founded and ran Homejoy ending to a $150 Million valuation with her company.
Overall, Y Combinator’s portfolio value is +$300 Billion so, heads up; we’re getting excellent tips today!
1. Defining Time Management
Let’s not jump our guns; first, we need to define what we are discussing.
From the Oxford dictionary, we get the definitive meaning:
Time management is the ability to use one’s time effectively or productively, especially at work.
Productivity is the key here. If you are taking your time and investing it in something, you probably want some results. You want to have a return on your time investment.
While there are tons of books and productivity gurus, you hear interesting stories on productivity and learn about productivity hacks; it all comes down to being on the lookout for productivity.
In essence, you need to be aware of how you are spending your time and on what. From this awareness comes the ability to make choices instead of just floating down the river.
I admit I have done my fair share of floating, and today avoid it to the extreme of getting physical anxiety if I’m not using my time well.
Another related familiar mental factor is undecisive wavering; when I don’t know what I need to prioritise, I get productivity stress.
Anyways, I think we have now nailed the definition and have identified our demand for prioritising activities.
A history note; if you are interested in time management systems' origin, you need to know that time managers and looking precise clock time per activity and employee came from Frederick Winslow Taylor’s work introduced in his 1919 The Principles of Scientific Management. Henry Ford and his T-model’s mass manufacturing was one of the early proponents of it.
1.1 EXTRA: The benefits
Here’s a simple list:
- Less stress and more focus.
- More room for creativity.
- You are acting, not reacting.
- More flow and fewer interruptions.
- More time for you, your family and friends.
- No procrastination.
- Better quality of work which translates to better professional reputation.
When you start to think this over, it makes sense.
Double-extra; while researching for this article, I understood that there are hundreds of books on productivity. Face it; we are not going to read them. Unlike Leon (@leonho). The dude read 100 books on productivity and summarised it all in 15 tips. You might want to check it out.
2. Life is Precious; You Need to Spend It Wisely.
Decisions on what to use your time are easier if you know clearly what spending time wisely means to you.
I have come down to the view that it is about balance. To excel in my work, I need to have my foundations solid. And, I’m not alone in that view; Mark Randolph, a co-founder for Netflix, also says that he is now all about mastering balance.
Ok, so what are Adora’s tips on the greater picture?
Adora explains that it is hard for her to advise on allocating your time across your typical 24-hour cycle. Meaning working, eating, sleeping, family, friends, and hobbies etc. She says basically that life circumstances are different for all of us, and you need to use your own scrutiny to decide what is best for you.
I agree. I have struggled to juggle time between my roles as a father, husband, son, brother, friend, and entrepreneur. It hasn’t always been easy for me, and I’m guessing, from you reading this article, that it hasn’t always been easy for you as well.
If you want to have a high quality of life and success, you need to define what happiness and success mean to you. It would be best if you went deeper than life hacks and investigate what really makes a difference.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl is a good start if you haven’t yet read the book.
Time is your life; spend it well. Make a difference.
Science side-step; according to theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, time is an illusion, as stated in his The Order of Time (2018). Rovelli posits that reality, as it appears to us, is a sequence of events to which we project past, present, and future. The Universe obeys Quantum Mechanics' laws, out of which time emerges, and the current view of time's apparent existence does not come from knowledge but ignorance.
3. Managing Your Time and Productivity
Adora focuses on those hours that you use on your work:
“First, I want to make a real clear distinction between real and fake startup progress. … real startup progress is when you’re really focused on things that really move the needle for your startup and in the beginning, the best way to show this is through growth, in particular growth of your primary KPI.”
So, how do you approach this?
There is a big community at Y Combinator’s Startup school, all trying to get on with their startups. Every week one needs to submit a brief status report on what one has been up to. The updates are a great way to keep one on track and the right task.
Adora explains that by reading through thousands of weekly startup school updates from entrepreneurs, she found that many were not managing their time really well.
Obviously, if your skills and view are not trained, there is a great chance that you are not managing your time effectively.
Nobody wants to be a time-waster with poor time management skills. However, living by the minute with a tightly scheduled real-time calendar can be a major downer for your creativity and a source of stress.
You need to be skillfully in setting time limits and be your own manager of your activities.
“Time burns money and money is the very basic thing that keeps a startup alive… There’s always a high opportunity cost to doing your startup. So it’s super important to use your time the best way possible to maximize your startup’s chance for success, which means you need to be really good at identifying and prioritizing tasks that are going to be the most impactful for your startup’s progress” >>Adora Cheung
While in flow, you might feel like you have endless hours in your use, but that is not based on reality; perception of time can play tricks on you. Instead, let’s categorise our time into three buckets:
- Productive hours
- High-energy or peak hours
- Unproductive hours
It helps if you are sentient in your time usage.
For me, productive hours sit between 6.30 am to 5 pm, while the high-energy hours being 9–11 am, just after my second cup of green tea for the day. Yep, I am a morning person.
Recognise when you excel, meaning having your prime time, and do your most important work then. And, it’s okay if you are not a morning person yourself!
4. A Tool for Prioritising Your Time
“To move the needle on the KPI is the highest leverage thing you can be doing. It always comes in the form of tasks that involve talking to users and building, and iterating your product, nothing else.” >>Adora Cheung
Adora makes a clear stand that there can be many activities that one is doing for the startup, e.g. winning awards and attending conferences. Still, not necessarily all of them make a difference in moving the KPI, Key-Performance-Indicator or the North-Star-Metric.
She suggests first making an hour-based diary for a week or so and then at the end of the period looking at it and defining what activities are of low impact and what high in terms of moving your KPI. Often, you one surprised that, in fact, many are low impact activities.
I get it; we need a tool to prioritise our time!
Given that we typically carry lists of tasks we need to get done, the matter comes down to prioritising our tasks.
Next, before showing her time management trick (the task priority matrix), Adora advises us on two things; task impact and task complexity.
4.1 Define the impact for each task in your list of activities
“There are three grades you can give to each task on your list, high, medium, low. These definitions are a little arbitrary in the sense that it’s all relative to whatever else is on your list. In general, high means it’s a task you believe that will help you meet your goal for the week with high probability. Medium is you’re not sure, but with okay probability you can hit your weekly goal. And low is with very low probability.” >>Adora Cheung
If we aim to make sales, it is clear that using your high energy time for stocking up the staff coffee and biscuits cupboard is not optimal time usage since that task has zero probability of moving your sales target.
Similarly, returning a call to a client who’s about to decide positively on your offer is a high impact task despite how stressful the call might be for you.
4.2 Define complexity for each task
“We can grade complexity in three ways, easy, medium, and hard. So an easy task is something that you can do in less than a day. That means you can do a bunch of easy tasks less than a day. A medium task is something that takes one or two days for you to do and a hard task is one that takes many days to do, and you may not complete it within the week. >>Adora Cheung
As before, you might be quick in making a call or writing an email might, but preparing a custom proposal might be another thing.
You probably now see where we are going at.
4.3 Create a priority task matrix from your tasks
While in the frenzy of activities, you need to separate trivial activities and focus on high-value activities. You need to meet your deadlines and move the needle for your KPI. Priority Task Matrix is a great time management tool, and you don’t need software for that.
“So once you go grade all of them… you can easily stack rank all the tasks in your list, and it’s pretty easy to choose what you should prioritize.” >>Adora Cheung
Eventually, this should become your new habit. The technique of defining task list tasks with impact and complexity will lead you to schedule your time optimally. Thus, you will get more productive time, and your urgent tasks will get your best energy levels. While unimportant tasks and routine tasks are done when you are dozing off in the late afternoon.
Heck, you and your team might even get some leisure time. And you know that this precious time, now with your productivity-minded new habits, will be uninterrupted! =D
Advice on cutting time interruptions. If you run a team, it helps if you schedule time for interruptions; let your folks know when you can be interrupted. As a father of two daughters and an experienced C-suite professional, I know interruptions can drain my mental energy. Also, put that smartphone away or switch on the aeroplane -mode. It’s pretty hard to concentrate while the thing is beeping away there every minute or so. Instead, have separate chunks of time devoted to email and your apps. Again, raising your productivity.
5. How to Measure and Optimize Your Skills
“How do I know I am prioritizing my time well? …Am I working really on the right thing or not?… What was your weekly goal? Did you succeed? If not, what was the biggest block of the growth? What did you do? And what was the predicted impact and what was the actual impact? And what did I learn this week? What were the big learnings this week?” >>Adora Cheung
Adora advises us to evaluate our performance and track it weekly. This helps us to improve our selection and prioritization of our tasks. Also, she recommends, once in a while, reviewing all weekly updates from the start to date to answer if we are learning fast enough.
When you practise, you get better. When you track, you know you are getting better.
Experiment on making status updates: If you want to get a feeling and learn one tried-and-tested workflow on making quick and to-the-point status updates, try setting up an account at the startup school and start submitting status updates. You don’t need to make it a big fuzz; write them to yourself and see what has happened after two months. You might be positively surprised, and if nothing else, you will learn the process.
6. Setting Your Goals and Deadlines; How to Be in Charge of Your Life.
Let’s start with SMART goals. While this originated in 1981 by Doran, Miller and Cunningham, it has recently been widely adopted by the digital marketing industry, for example, Neil Patel (Neil’s PDF on setting SMART goals), who is a dude hard to miss. The framework comes down to setting SMART -goals, as follows:
- Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
- Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
- Achievable (agreed, attainable).
- Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
- Timely (estimated, scheduled).
While goals can be general or specific, they essentially need to be realistic. For example, if your website traffic growth has been averaging 5% per month, it is unlikely that it will suddenly jump to +10%.
Example SMART goal: By creating 10 AI-assisted, high-search-volume-keyword -targeted blog posts with clustered pillar structure each with a 2200–2600 word count, costing us 15 000 € to produce, we aim to receive new website traffic for 20 000 visits during the first 8 months, of which 10% will convert to leads via the lead magnet, and 33% of these leads will convert to 600 clients thus resulting in 60 000 € in new revenue with an average of 100 € in sales per customer.
6.1 A to-do list to boost your productivity
Now, are you ready to ditch your bad habits? I would like you to add to your to-do -list the following:
- Revisit your goals and apply SMART to them; double down that they are realistic.
- Make a list of your tasks.
- Transform your task list to a priority task matrix with impact and complexity.
- Track, analyse, fine-tune and repeat! You should see your stress levels going down in a heartbeat.
A time experiment. If you feel playful, try colouring your 27/7 calendar with different colours for different chunks of time, e.g. use green for spare time, blue for break times, purple for lunchtime, red for your peak time, yellow for regular work time etc. Do you get the point? Add family time, spouse time, domestic chores time, hobbies time ect. Use standard coloured time blocks that you like; you choose the colours, of course. With this time management strategy, you get a process of organizing your office hours. Look at it to decide if you are happy with it. Then do the same again in 6 months or so to see if there has been any change.
7. List of Effective Time Management Tips
“All right. So I’ll end with one final piece of advice which is moving fast. So in the beginning of your startup, your primary objective is to move as quickly as possible to prove that you’re building something people want. The faster you figure this out, the faster you can pivot into something or have the confidence that you have product market fit and can start scaling, and building a tremendous business.” >>Adora Cheung
Speed is essential. You want to quickly know if you are onto something, which justifies continuing, or you need to start doing something else.
I’ll end my part on a brief list that I have compiled and edited on my favourite tips on the topic.
- Decide beforehand how much you are willing to use on your activity; it is good to have a time constraint.
- Don’t oversell; understand how many projects you can keep in your mind.
- Use your high-energy time for the most important tasks and projects.
- Understand when you need to delegate and/or outsource.
- Treat yourself well; schedule time for breaks.
- Daily check what you need to prioritize.
- Understand and follow the Pareto -principle; use the time to activities that give you a high output.
- Do not waste your time waiting; you can always listen to some relevant podcasts, read a book, or do a simple breathing meditation practice.
- Less is more.
- “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us”. Viktor E. Frankl.
- Build a healthy habit of evaluating yourself at least a few times a year.
Life is listening to you. Make your new time management skills count!
Productivity Books: If you are still hungry for books and want to look into creating keystone habits, you might check out Sean’s and Morgan’s book “Hacking Growth”. Though not 100% on topic for productivity, it is on point on how to grow your company super quickly, which, I would argue, is the ultimate guide on using your work time well!
Henri Yoki, in the pursuit of productivity and implementation of goals, tries to keep his mind sharp, level up, keep a process of planning ongoing and become a content marketing strategist, while during his outbursts of energy, he is avoiding major failures and outgrowing time-wasting habits, he looks into inspirational sources and tries to develop his soft skills in a rather busy schedule while still in control of his time with his priority matrix.