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The Path To Peak Productivity: UAE-Based Entrepreneurs Share What Helps Them Stay Focused And Efficient At Work (And What Doesn't!) Four startup founders and a leadership expert -all based in the UAE- spill their secrets on what it takes to achieve the ideally productive day.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

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You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Playdate/HeroGo/Hayawiia/ZK Sports
(Left to right) Shamim Kassibawi, founder and CEO, PlayDate ; Daniel Solomon, founder, Herogo; Tahany Taher, co-founder, Hayawiia; and Oliver Kent, Managing Director, ZK Sports and Entertainment

How do you introduce a topic that has been at the forefront of possibly every entrepreneur's mind? Now, I have to admit that when I first set out to write this piece, the intentions behind it stemmed slightly from my own selfish wants. Despite detailed to-do lists and hour-based allocations for specific tasks, I sometimes found myself struggling to have a fruitful day at work. And so, I figured, who better to turn to for advice than individuals who juggle an umpteen number of responsibilities as they run their own business ventures? That's essentially how I came to pick the minds of four UAE-based entrepreneurs on what they believe is the secret to achieving peak productivity.

First, however, in order to bring in a voice of expertise and knowledge on this subject, I spoke to Niamh Jordan, Regional Partner for the Middle East at global leadership development firm TPC Leadership. "First and foremost, investing in one's self-awareness is critical to achieving one's peak productivity," Jordan told me. "Entrepreneurs, in general, can be categorized into more than one category. The first category is the entrepreneur who appears overly confident, and believes they can do everything, which can lead to burnout. The second is the entrepreneur who lacks confidence, lacks belief, and fears failure, and is afraid to take risks. And the third category is the entrepreneur who makes a mistake, and instead of getting back up, they constantly think, 'What if?'"

Niamh Jordan, Regional Partner - Middle East, TPC Leadership. Source: TPC Leadership

Now, for those of you reading this who are entrepreneurs, I will leave it to you to decide which of the categories you belong to. But let me to introduce you to one entrepreneur who doesn't allow negative self-talk to hinder her own productivity: Shamim Kassibawi, founder and CEO of Play:Date, an interactive platform for parents to help build their children's social circle. "When I wake up, I always try to keep my positive thoughts alive," Kassibawi says. "I think of all the amazing things I want to achieve that day. It could be work-related or more personal, such as cooking an amazing meal for my family. I also remind myself that I am going to kill it, and that today will be a hit!' I am going through a seed funding round as we speak- you go through so many rejections, investor paperwork, emails, and research. So, it is crucial to keep my motivation and faith intact, despite me feeling that progress might be a bit slow."

Now, of course, an optimistic attitude such as Kassibawi's is something all entrepreneurs want to channel- but then again, like all good things, avoiding moderation in this regard can prove to be detrimental. As an article published on Verywell Mind, an online platform that offers professional mental health information and resources, puts it, toxic positivity is about taking "positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme." Also known as forced or unrealistic optimism, it is a state of mind wherein an individual incessantly forces a positive outlook on life, without taking into account the reality of a given situation.

Shamim Kassibawi, founder and CEO, PlayDate. Source: PlayDate

Cautioning entrepreneurs against such an approach is Daniel Solomon, founder of HeroGo, a Dubai-based startup that seeks to combat food waste issues by supplying excess fresh grocery items directly to consumers. "Optimism is key for entrepreneurs- that positive outlook is what keeps us going no matter what comes along," Solomon says. "But forced optimism is also a major factor in entrepreneurs getting carried away. It is important to strike a healthy balance. As entrepreneurs, we should have a realistic understanding of our abilities, set achievable goals, and prioritize self-care, which is something we often forget. However, we can't do this alone, which is why entrepreneurs must also find a support system to provide accountability and encouragement, both within and outside of the founder community."

Mirroring this need to create a competent group of people one can rely on is Tahany Taher, co-founder of Hayawiia, a Dubai-based platform that offers healthy gourmet food. "Knowing that everything in your life has value is a brilliant starting point," Taher says. "We entrepreneurs put so much energy and focus into our business that we forget about the huge revolving world around us. In order to balance this out, it is important to create a structure that allows the business to flourish, whether you are present or not. We sometimes over-inflate the dependency that our company has on us. You are not needed for every meeting, or for every decision. Choosing a team that will support and run the business is the benchmark of any and all successful businesses."

Daniel Solomon, founder, Herogo. Source: Herogo

Now, all of this isn't to say that managing an entrepreneur's responsibilities is a piece of cake, of course. If anything, Taher describes it best when she says that being an entrepreneur is "like being the entire football team and the manager!" She adds, "As an entrepreneur, you will always find it difficult to strike a balance, but what I have found that seems to work for me is realizing that any decision made from fear or anxiety will always lead to failure. Prioritizing is the most important thing that an entrepreneur can learn- knowing that the world will not end if certain decisions are acted upon the next day is important."

Here, Taher drops a word that often lays the foundation for productivity: prioritizing. And often synonymous with the act of prioritization are to-do lists. But while listing down one's tasks is only part of the solution, identifying which ones need to be ticked off first may present quite the dilemma, says HeroGo's Solomon. "It may depend on the stage of the company or the task the entrepreneur is working on, but sometimes, it feels impossible not to feel overwhelmed- prioritizing tasks as an entrepreneur can be challenging, as all tasks often seem important, and the list never ends," Solomon confesses. "I think the best way one can prioritize tasks is based on impact, urgency, and effort. For impact, I refer to the potential results of a task- how it will impact the business, and what its outcomes are. For urgency, one can look at tasks with deadlines, i.e. the consequences of not completing the task on time. Meanwhile, effort refers to the amount of time and energy required to complete the task."

Related: Happy, Healthy, And Wealthy: How Employers Can Sustain A Productive Workforce

For all the upstarts out there, Solomon's three-step process to prioritize better can certainly come in handy as you run your respective ventures. But it is also important to remember that there never has been -and perhaps never will be- a one-sizefits-all approach to ranking the urgency of tasks. This is something that Oliver Kent, Managing Director of UAE-based sports agency ZK Sports & Entertainment, can personally attest to. Take, for example, how he's learnt to be more mindful about deciding which tasks are more important than others. "I am famous for writing to-do lists, and never actually finishing every task on there, which can be quite demotivating," Kent says. "Often, as soon as you focus on one of the key things on the to-do list, a phone call comes with a new issue, and then half the day is gone. As a result, I have certainly started limiting my to-do list, and only putting the core tasks for the day or the week. Otherwise, I end up with extremely long lists that never actually get done completely, turning them into more of a burden. This is obviously the price you pay for having your own business and being an entrepreneur!"

Tahany Taher, co-founder, Hayawiia. Source: Hayawiia

What Kent alludes to is a significant point to ponder upon: being super-organized may not necessarily be the answer to achieving productivity. After all, we live in a time when even world-renowned organizing consultant Marie Kondo recently confessed to not being as systematic as she used to be, having embraced the challenges of being a working mother while raising three kids. As Play:Date's Kassibawi likes to say, it is important to "leave some room for chaos to enter." She explains, "I like to think of myself as organized chaos. Multitasking is definitely a skill of mine, and I can work on a million things at once. I truly believe that entrepreneurs are born with this ability; there is a particular DNA in us that enjoys the volatility, the chaos, and how things can change completely throughout the course of a day. A successful entrepreneur, in my opinion, must be able to work through chaos. I think there is truth in both: being organized is productive, but there is no denying that disorganized individuals are able to achieve a lot as well."

Taher offers a very similar approach to dismissing the negative connotations that come with unfinished tasks and overflowing to-do lists. "Of course, an ideally productive day consists of me working towards achieving my goals for my business, creating an environment that gives satisfaction to my staff, and creating new avenues for growth," Taher says. "But as an entrepreneur, my mind is always full of clutter. And realizing that everything -even my business- is made up of clutter actually shows me its importance. The one thing I do tell myself is that today's clutter is tomorrow's world changing business idea."

Oliver Kent, Managing Director, ZK Sports and Entertainment. Source: ZK Sports and Entertainment

Now, embracing the disorderliness of entrepreneurial life is one thing. But when it comes to navigating one's way through it, there exists a question that is a hot topic of contention: is multitasking good or bad? A 2021 study by Stanford University's Neuroscience Institute found that multitasking often poses more harm than good. Multiple other studies have also shown that multitasking can negatively affect one's brain efficiency, and thereby productivity. These are findings that Solomon would agree with. "Entrepreneurs must multitask, especially at the early stage of a company's journey; however, multitasking can result in decreased productivity, particularly since, as humans, our brains are not built to perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously," Solomon says. "Personally, I find switching back and forth between tasks can usually lead to mental fatigue and decreased accuracy when performing tasks. Although, there are certain simple tasks -such as listening to music while researching creative product design, for example- that can have a positive impact on our overall productivity. I find this helpful; however, this may not be helpful to someone else, since the ability to multitask effectively varies from person to person. It is essential to find a balance between the demands of multitasking and one's own limitations."

The quality of discernment, you will find, is the hidden element in unlocking your own productivity potential. But how does one discern in a way that suits one's best interests? "Simply put, asking others for feedback, and being in tune with the three intelligences -mind (what is my brain saying?), heart (what am I feeling?), and intuition (what is my gut telling me?)- will help distinguish between the actual reality versus the perceived reality," TPC Leadership's Jordan explains. "It is important to understand that it is not always smooth sailing, and if things are difficult, to have empathy and self-compassion. It takes a high level of emotional intelligence to understand our capacity, and acknowledge our limitations in the moment, and realize when it is necessary to say 'no.' Our greatest investment is ourselves- mind, body, heart, and spirit."

Taking care of oneself -especially one's mental health- seems to be yet another way to stay productive. For example, entrepreneurs with families and kids might find Kent's approach of gauging his level of energy across different times of the day as a useful tool to adopt mindfulness. "First thing in the morning, I normally go to the gym, take the kids to school, and spend an hour or so catching up on non-essential tasks," Kent explains. "Around 10am, I really get stuck into the to-do list, and everything we've got going on with clients. Around 4pm, I know that my energy levels really drop, so I take myself away from work, and go back home, see my kids for an hour or so. I always make sure to practice the sports that I love, and also make sure that I see the kids throughout the week, because those one or two hours always takes you away from the workplace, and allows you to clear your head, and focus on other things. And so, 90% of the time, I find it easy to step in and out, and not get dragged into working 24 hours."

Now, for individuals with more "workaholic" inclinations, Taher's self-care journey may provide inspiration. "Earlier in my life, I used to be a nose-to-the-grindstone type of person, whose entirety was based on achieving one goal only: overachieving numbers that I had either put in front of myself, or that others had put in front of me," Taher recalls. "However, as time progressed, I started realizing that my fire hadn't diminished, but my capacity to handle the fire had. That is when an evolution started taking place within me- meditation and mindfulness changed my whole perspective on how I viewed goals. They are still very important, but now, they have become a want, rather than a need. When something makes the transition from want to need, so does your drive. Now, I feel more energetic than ever before, and I find myself in a space that values the parts as much as the whole."

Kassibawi too offers a similar take on how taking better care of her mental health has led to better results at work. "The term meditation is different for everyone, and that is the beauty of it; we all meditate through our own methods," she says. "It could be praying, yoga, exercise, walking, running, or simply sitting alone in silence. I sometimes struggle to stay focused for too long, I have to get up and walk around, stare out the window for a bit, and I find that this increases my productivity. I like to meditate as frequently as I can, usually three times per week. I am a firm believer in the law of attraction. Although we all have bad days, we can choose to turn them around by not letting that energy ruin our day." That's a point I'm going to keep in mind the next I feel less productive than usual- and I hope that you, dear reader, do the same. All the best!

Related: Questioning The Status Quo: Distilling Both Sides Of The Debate Between Office Work And Hybrid Work

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.

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