How founders and CEOs can focus their time and energy on the things that matter.
- Focus on the things that only you can do.
- Surround yourself with the right people, then empower them to own their outcomes
- Create (and continuously revisit) operational and strategic plans.
- Pick one priority to focus on at a time.
- Put a plan in place for what will change your priorities.
- Set quotas for meaningful but non-priority work.
- Make time to work on the business, not in the business.
When you’re a business leader, it’s easy to get stuck in the weeds of running your company. Founders and CEOs often have to wear many different hats, but this can mean that they don’t have time to focus on the more high-level visioning and strategizing that’s needed to scale their businesses in the long term.
So, how do you get out of the grind to focus on the things that matter? In our experience, it’s all about prioritization. This playbook is here to help founders and CEOs figure out what their priorities should be, while also offering tips for how they can stick to those priorities once they’ve been identified.
Play 1: Focus on the things that only you can do.
When it comes to your business, it can be hard to let go of the little things. But if you’re going to scale successfully, you can’t do everything. So ask yourself: what are the things that only I can do? This question might seem basic, but it’s relevant whether your business has been operating for one year or ten. Your answer should inform your entire time management strategy, from what your priorities are to what kinds of tasks you delegate.
- Shape your role, don’t let your role shape you. One of the benefits of being a founder or CEO is that you get to decide what your role looks like. Embrace that! Identify the unique strengths you bring to the table, figure out what your gaps are, and surround yourself with people whose skills complement your own (see play 2). This can help you avoid jumping in on every urgent thing that comes up and instead focus on the things that only you can do.
- Figure out if you’re more of a visionary or an operator. Every business needs a visionary leader who can drive its strategic direction. But they also need an operator who can put the systems and processes in place needed to grow and scale. Figure out which role you’re better suited for and lean into that. And if you don’t already have one, find a partner who can complement your working style.
- Don’t underestimate the scaling power of your brand. Branding can sometimes feel like icing on the cake of your business, but it’s actually critical. Your brand is your identity, and it should drive how you work at every touchpoint. It’s also key to your scalability. When you’re a newer business, the founder or CEO often is the brand, but that’s just not sustainable. To scale your magic, founders and CEOs need to be intimately involved in their brand’s development. This can help shift the brand from being something you carry to something that the entire company embodies.
Play 2: Surround yourself with the right people, then empower them to own their outcomes.
Figuring out what you want your lane to be in your company is one thing. Actually staying in it is harder. Once you’ve identified the things that only you can take on, you need to learn to let go of everything else. If you don’t already have people in your company who can take on these other tasks, make it a priority to hire them. Then empower your people to own and run with their work.
- Focus on building capacity over fixing problems. If there’s an issue in your business, it can be tempting to just jump in and fix it. But this sets up bad behaviors that can be hard to break (and impossible to scale) in the long-term. Instead, find the person in the company who should own the problem, tap them in (if they’re not already involved), and make sure they have the resources they need to solve it. The issue might not get fixed as quickly as it would have if you’d addressed it yourself, but this will establish behaviors that will help you grow in the right way.
- Empower your people to fail. Letting go of anything in your business is hard. To do this, you have to get comfortable with something that, for most people, is an uncomfortable idea: your people are going to do things differently than you would, and they might even fail. But failure (within limits) is okay. In fact, it’s how people learn and grow. Make peace with the possibility of your people’s failure, otherwise you’ll just keep jumping in when things aren’t being done your way.
- …But set reasonable constraints on failure. That being said, you should always put some limits on failure depending on the priority of the task at hand. If the company might go out of business if a project fails, you’ll want to take a more hands-on approach. But outside of that, you have to let your people lead the way. This will free up your time and capacity, while also giving your people the space they need to grow and evolve as leaders in their own rights.
Play 3: Create (and continuously revisit) operational and strategic plans.
So far, we’ve been talking about your role in your business. But what about your business’s role in the world? As a founder or CEO, you should be focused on helping your company achieve its mission and make the desired impact. This requires intentional operational and strategic planning — something that should drive what your priorities are in the day-to-day.
- Develop short- and long-term plans to drive your business in the right direction. To give yourself space for both your long-term visionary goals and your more tactical short-term objectives, we recommend doing two kinds of strategic planning. First, you’ll want to create an overarching plan every three-to-five years outlining your long-term vision. Then you can craft yearly plans for how you’ll get there.
- Keep the scope of your plans limited. It can be tempting to try to cram everything into your strategic plan. But if everything is a priority, then nothing is, so remember to keep things limited. Ask yourself: what has to happen for the company to thrive in the coming years? Then pull out three or four strategic priorities to help you get there. It can also be helpful to break your plans down by the type of goal, picking one for your customers, one for your culture, and one for your community, for example.
- Use KPIs and OKRs to set goals and measure progress. Your plan needs to provide a high-level strategy, but it also has to be actionable. This is where key performance indicators (KPIs) and objectives and key results (OKRs) come in. For each strategic priority, explain why it’s important, how you’ll measure success, and what success looks like. Your KPIs and OKRs should be tangible enough to be actionable, but not too prescriptive. Once you’ve set them, track your progress throughout the year (and pivot as needed). Then use these metrics to inform next year’s strategic plan.
Play 4: Pick one priority to focus on at a time.
We know, it can feel scary to pick just one thing to work on when you’ve got so much going on. But if you hone in on your #1 priority (whether it’s for the day, the week, or the month) and make it your mission to work on that until it’s done, you can really maximize your time. This might feel drastic, but it can help you put things in perspective and understand when those things that might feel like fires in the moment aren’t actual fires. And this can help you shift from operating in reactive mode to being proactive in your work.
- Choose a priority that plays to your strengths and aligns with your strategic plan. Your priorities should be based on how you’ve defined your role (play 1), what you’ve decided to delegate (play 2), and your strategic plan (play 3). From there, prioritizing gets a whole lot easier. Does an opportunity come up that’s a little outside your lane but is absolutely critical to your objectives? You might want to pick it up. But if something pops up that’s outside your lane and doesn’t align with your strategic plan — no matter how tempting it is — you should probably let it drop.
- Intentionally ignore low-priority items. This might be a little controversial, but we’ve found that giving yourself permission to actively ignore low-priority tasks can help you get back a sense of control over your time. When deciding whether to let an out-of-the-blue phone call or email disrupt your day, ask yourself: is this more important than my #1 priority? When doing this calculation, think about what the cost will be if you don’t focus on your priority. This can help make the choice of what to focus on a lot easier.
- Don’t let yourself get carried away by things you like, but aren’t critical. We mentioned in play 1 that you should shape your role to fit your strengths, but that doesn’t mean that a CEO who’s a great coder should be working on projects. No matter how fun a task might be for you, before working on something new, ask yourself if you’re the only person who can do it. This will help you hone in on your critical actions and resist the temptation to get caught up in anything else.
- Park your ideas in a backlog. Sometimes, it’s your own ideas that can derail you the most. While visionary thinking is a quality that makes founders and CEOs great, it can also be a constant source of distraction. Whenever you have a brilliant new idea, ask yourself if it will help you achieve your #1 priority. If not, park it in an idea bank or backlog and revisit it when it’s more aligned with your immediate goals.
Play 5: Put a plan in place for what will change your priorities.
While play 4 is critical for effective time management, it’s a fact of life that unexpected things will come up. You have to be flexible enough to take advantage of new opportunities that come up, but it can be hard to accurately assess these in the moment. To keep yourself from spinning out into reactive mode whenever something that looks urgent comes across your desk, identify what kinds of things should bump your other priorities and what can be ignored.
- Define what unexpected opportunities will automatically become priorities. Work ahead of time to identify the kinds of things that might come up unexpectedly that would bump your other priorities. Opportunities to build relationships with new customers or to grow your brand might be high priorities for you. And in the early stages of your business, hiring the right people might be absolutely critical. Determine what these automatic high priority items are for you early on so that you can ignore the less critical (but seemingly urgent) ones that come your way.
- Avoid the temptation to chase every possible business opportunity. When it comes to actual contracts, it can be especially hard to say no in the moment. But if you’re constantly responding to every Request for Proposal that you think might be in your wheelhouse, you’re letting the whims of the market shape your business. So, when looking at new opportunities, always bring it back to your strategic objectives. Ask yourself whether the work aligns with your values and overall direction. And if it doesn’t, don’t hesitate to say no, even if that means leaving money on the table.
- Focus on building and maintaining your strong ties. When considering what new calls to take or relationships to build, it can be helpful to think about the strength of your ties. Strong ties are the people in your network that impact your direct line of business, like your customers and partners. Weak ties won’t have the same kind of immediate impact, but they could be converted into strong ties. Carve out time to work on maintaining your strong ties and building up the weak ties that could be critical to your business in the future.
- Separate the “nice to haves” from the “must haves.” This can help you decide what kinds of things you’ll let yourself get pulled into, especially when you’re getting asks from internal teams. If someone requests your help, start by asking if you’re the right person in the company to support this. If not, don’t be afraid to tap in someone else. If the issue is something you can help with, think about what its impact will be before saying yes. If it’ll help you achieve your operational and strategic goals, it’s a “must have” and should be prioritized. Everything else should be considered a “nice to have,” which means it’s not critical that you get involved.
Play 6: Set quotas for meaningful but non-priority work.
While it’s important to focus on your priority, you also need to make time for the other things that matter to you. The key here is making sure this meaningful but lower priority work doesn’t eat up all your time. To keep that from happening, it can help to set quotas for how much time you’ll spend on items that aren’t a strategic priority, but that are near and dear to your heart.
- Think about what kinds of nonpriority work matter to you. This looks different for everyone, and it could involve just about anything. Is there a cause you’re passionate about that you want to spend time promoting? Is it important to you that you help internal teams get unstuck when roadblocks come up? Identify the things that matter to you outside of your priority so you can make sure to work them into your calendar, too.
- Decide how much time you can devote to each category of nonpriority work. Once you’ve identified the categories of nonpriority tasks that you’d like to make time to work on, you can start to figure out how much time you want to put towards them. Come up with target quotas for each category (for example, 5% of your time will go towards helping remove blockers for your teams), test this out, and adjust as needed.
- Stick to the quotas you set. This is easier said than done, since it’s always going to be tempting to say yes to that last-minute speaking request for a cause you’re passionate about. But remember: your time is a finite resource. If the new request is more important than the work you’ve already committed to doing in this category, maybe it should take precedence. But if not, give yourself permission to pass on it.
Play 7: Make time to work on the business, not in the business.
As a founder or CEO, you have the tough job of steering the ship of your business. This means you always have to stay one step ahead, maintaining a high-level strategic focus that can be challenging to keep up. While the previous plays offered strategies for how you can decide what to focus on and avoid getting derailed, this one is all about making time for that deep, strategic work. This is how you put the strategy in place to build the future that you want.
- Iterate on everything. While strategic plans are critical, you shouldn’t treat them like they’re set in stone. Continuously ask yourself what the company needs to be doing, whether your priorities are changing (and why), and what you need to be focusing on to help the business succeed. What your company needs from you today as a founder or CEO might be totally different than what it needed from you two years ago. Your priorities and working style should reflect that.
- Take a step back when you need to. Sometimes, you’ll find that you just need to push pause on everything. Don’t be afraid to do this — whether it’s pausing on meetings or even on going after new business — if you feel the need to re-evaluate things. Hutch’s parent company, Fearless, did exactly this after a period of rapid growth. Founder and CEO Delali Dzirasa stopped taking new meetings, and he put a hold on pursuing new work for a few weeks, focusing instead on setting the business up for success.
- Be protective of your time. Time doesn’t always feel precious in the moment, but it’s one of your most limited resources. Be intentional about how you spend it, because what you focus on today will impact your business tomorrow. Knocking out low-priority tasks can give you a sense of accomplishment in the moment, but this comes at the expense of your actual priorities. After all, when you’re busy treading water, it’s hard to make forward progress. But with the tips outlined in this playbook, you can break the cycle and start taking your business to the next level.