How Can You Be Productive?

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Answer by Patrick Mathieson, venture investor at Toba Capital:

I’m a full-time venture capital investor and part-time software product manager. My tips:

You’re about 200 percent more productive before anybody else arrives at the office and after everybody else leaves. This is obviously just another way of saying “minimize distractions.” Large uninterrupted blocks of time are fabulous for getting real work accomplished, and rather than force the issue via gratuitous calendaring or time-blocking, it can be much easier to simply work during hours when nobody is around to bother you. For me, this also means that if something prevents me from getting into the office super early, I occasionally say screw it and just shift my day’s work schedule to something like 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. to take advantage of as much quiet time as possible.

Goal yourself on output, not results, at least in the short term. My investing career didn’t really go anywhere until I decided to meet with at least 10 to 15 new people each week. In my last product manager gig, I couldn’t understand what the developers wanted from me until I had written about 50 user stories and participated in two months’ worth of daily scrums. I have many more examples. Focusing too much on results can be paralyzing, especially in fields like venture capital where the feedback cycles are extremely long. A better strategy (that also helps you sleep at night) could be to tie your efforts back towards the daily repeated objectives that will lead to big success in the long run. (More here.)

Saying “no” to things is crucial. However it’s also true that saying no to people gracefully is really, really important. I’ve been astonished at the number of referrals I’ve gotten from deals that we passed on. (More here.)

Read widely outside your field, and hang out with people who don’t work in your industry. Get out of the echo chamber, man. Most of the best ideas come from synesthetic thinking (combining two concepts from disparate fields), not from analytical thinking (breaking a single problem down into smaller and smaller pieces). Even better is to listen to satirists who are highly critical of your field. @Pinboard is my personal favorite.

Ask a question (or write down a question to ask later) the instant your brain begins to feel fuzzy from lack of comprehension. Too often we bite our tongues when faced with concepts that we seem to understand about 80 percent and only raise our hands when we’re completely lost. That means that there’s thousands and thousands of accumulated concepts and facts that we only partially understand, which is pretty bad if it’s your job to understand a market or a technology with extreme precision. It’s a mental form of accumulated rounding error. Don’t let this fester—be a trigger-happy question-asker. Nobody will think you’re dumb for asking “stupid” questions (though they will think you’re dumb if you ask the same stupid question three times in a row).

The best way to ensure that you fully understand something is to explain it to someone else. Ways to do this: Deliver a presentation to your whole company, educate the interns about your product, try to sell your product to customers even though you’re the back-end software engineer, or write answers on Quora.

Experiment. Learning curves are steepest at the very beginning. That means that if you test out three new things for two hours each, you’ll learn a lot more than you would if you tested one thing for six hours. Very useful for synesthetic thinking. (Though not so good for mastery, which is a different topic entirely). Even if you’re being generally ruthless about saying no and minimizing distractions, it’s still a good idea to build “20 percent time” somewhere into your weekly schedule.

Don’t eat bread in the middle of the day if you don’t feel like falling asleep from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Vegetables are better.

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