This is a chapter from the book Starting & Sustaining which is a system to help you build and launch a web app with less pain and fewer mistakes. The entire book is free to read on the web.

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Defend your productivity

When you start a business, your ability to concentrate and focus on important work is under constant assault. By its very nature, starting a business is distracting. Product development. Customer support. Research. Design. Marketing. Financials. Legal. There’s no shortage of tasks needing your attention. Your ability to choose the right tasks will have a lasting impact on your success.

The best way to prioritize is by understanding which tasks are truly important for building a healthy and sustainable business. Then do everything you can to ensure that those tasks receive your undivided attention. You have to use your limited time to your best advantage, and that means you have to excel at shutting out noisy and unimportant tasks.

The tactics vary. If you’re a morning person, maybe it’s getting up before everyone else and quietly chipping away at everything that needs to be done. Maybe it’s turning off all notifications and alerts so you can focus without interruptions. Maybe the pomodoro technique works for you. Regardless of the tactic, you have to constantly be on guard against distractions.

In hindsight, I made countless mistakes with Sifter in terms of productivity. First and foremost, as your own boss, chances are that you’re going to be at one of the two ends of the work spectrum. You’ll either be too relaxed and not work hard enough, or you’ll burn yourself out working a lot of hours but not being fully productive for all of those hours. The key is to work the right hours on the right things. To do that, though, you have to pay attention to how you spend your time.

Let’s break this up into things you should pay close attention to.

Customer support will chew up your day into tiny little pieces if you let it. You should go out of your way to give great support, but response time is only a tiny fraction of great support. Timely support is important, but don’t let it interrupt your real work. Find ways to automate and give customers self-service. This simultaneously increases your effective response time and reduces interruptions. And don’t do knee-jerk support. It took years of that for me to realize how poorly I was managing my time on the most important work of improving the product.

The flip side of automating customer support is making time to have real conversations with customers. Ideally, you would do this in person, but video and phone calls work as well. The key is to not settle for only having conversations via email. It’s not the same, and email conversations will never help you uncover your customers’ real problems or understand their situation in the same way voice conversations do. This is one of the most difficult but critical tasks that will help your business. Don’t avoid it. Embrace it. Carve out time to talk to customers. That’s the best way to ensure you’re working on the right things.

After you talk to customers and begin to understand their needs, do something about it. Improve your product. Don’t just arbitrarily add features that are convenient, safe, or of a reasonable scope. Dig deep to discover that thing your customers truly need and find a way to give it to them.

On a related note, fix your bugs, not just for your customers’ sakes, but for your own. Bugs hurt your business, but more importantly, they interrupt you. Your customers never encounter bugs at convenient times for them or you. Invest in the systems and processes to monitor your application, and catch and prevent bugs wherever possible. When bugs show up, have all of the logs and tools you need to find a quick fix.

Remember, though: you don’t always have to drop everything to fix a bug. If you’re working on something more important than that bug that just came in, finish what you’re doing. Don’t get sidetracked. Then fix the bug.

Also, quit checking your metrics and analytics. Looking at your numbers doesn’t improve your business. Doing something as a result of the analytics is the real work. You must be deliberate about your metrics. They’re a tool. Casually browsing them is a waste of time. Set aside time once a month to set new goals and review your previous goals. That’s when you look at your metrics. Use them to determine whether you achieved your goals. Then use them again to identify where your business is weak and where you need to set new goals.

Be particularly sensitive to being drawn into metrics in the early days. Until your business takes off, your numbers will be so small that they’re virtually meaningless. The only metrics that matter are the one-on-one conversations that you’re having with your customers. Let them be the measuring sticks of your success.

Finally, don’t be afraid to outsource and delegate. After you try it the first time and it fails, don’t give up. And it will fail the first time because delegation isn’t magic. It’s a learned skill. There are countless tasks not in your wheelhouse, and you’re doing yourself and your customers a disservice by doing those tasks. Outsource bookkeeping. Outsource your system administration. If you have the cash to outsource something that’s not a core part of your business, do it.

When you’re juggling the countless aspects of building a business from scratch, your biggest struggles will center on prioritization and time management. There will be so many things to do that your true expertise and interests don’t cover, and you’ll have every excuse available to procrastinate. It’s a constant battle to get yourself out of your comfort zone. Your productivity is your most valuable asset, and if you don’t protect it ruthlessly, it will be stolen by a thousand tasks screaming for your attention. Do whatever it takes to find your focus and hold onto it. Deep work is all that matters right now.

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