40 Entrepreneurs Share Their Secrets to Staying Focused
Here is how to stay focused in a world filled with distractions.
Today, being an entrepreneur can be all encompassing. You are always on, all the time. The danger of living in a world where it is possible to be on call 24/7 is that the majority of your time may be spent fielding phone calls, emails and social posts -- meaning the tasks you wanted to complete remain untouched. But it doesn't have to be this way.
We spoke to 40 successful entrepreneurs on what strategies they use to maintain focus and get work done.
Don’t let your inbox take over your to-do list.
Name: Tim Chen
Strategy: Each Monday I prioritize what I want to accomplish that week, and then I think about what I've done at the end of the week and share it in an email to my employees called "Reflections." It's a great way to make space in your head, otherwise your inbox and email becomes your to-do list, which is ridiculous because you didn't create that to do list. [It was sent to you by other people.]
Create time blocks.
Name: Daniella Yacobovsky
Strategy: I am pretty OCD about creating to-do lists, and I am constantly prioritizing what I put at the top of the list. I also think it's important to break your workload down into digestible nuggets. I break things down into things that feel doable within a span of one to two hours. That helps me methodically sort through everything that's on my plate.
Take it one step at a time.
Name: Oliver Kharraz
Strategy: I had the benefit of studying at a Jesuit monastery. We studied complicated texts and immersed ourselves, pushing our attention spans to the very limit. It's like meditation in that you learned to direct your thoughts. It's an active skill, like working out.
Pick something that you want to think about, and only think about that. Don't let anything else enter your thoughts. Try for five minutes in the beginning -- and know that just like a marathon where you start with just a half mile to begin with, in the end you'll be able to do it for hours once you train for it.
Read more about Kharraz: This Founder Says to Succeed You Need to Question Everything
Name: Merrill Stubbs
Strategy: Take breaks. I really step away from something after I've been working on it, take a short walk, talk to someone who has nothing do with what I've been focusing on and stay hydrated. I usually just walk around our office in Manhattan.
Read more about Stubbs: The Life-Changing Book That Helps This Entrepreneur Think Big
Name: Jennie Ripps
Company: Owl's Brew
Strategy: I try to compartmentalize my days. For instance, I'll spend an hour before the workday sending out emails, and I won't look at incoming emails until everything is completely outbound. I find that I focus more when I do only one thing and not a million things; it cuts down on the noise.
Read more about Ripps: The One Thing This Entrepreneur Does Each Day to Stay Productive
Name: Ryan Holmes
Strategy: Like lots of entrepreneurs, my attention is always pulled in a dozen directions at once. The one thing that really helps me stay focused is exercise. After I jog, do yoga or get out and do some backcountry skiing, I always come back with more clarity and focus.
Read more about Holmes: How Following His Heart Led This Entrepreneur to Start a Multi-Billion Dollar Company
Take steps toward the big goal.
Name: Jen Rubio
Strategy: My best advice is to keep your eye on the prize. I think if you always keep in mind the bigger thing you are working towards, it's a good gauge to make sure that everything you're doing is a step towards that goal. An inch toward the bigger goal can actually be a massive step forward. Whether your bigger goal is to IPO your company or you're really focused on building a team, make sure everything you're doing every day is in some way a step towards that. When those opportunities come up, take a step back and ask yourself if it is actually contributing to the brand you're building.
Read more about Rubio: Use This Founder's Top Tip To Make Your Meetings Work For You
Meet your goals head on.
Name: Julia Hartz
Strategy: Embracing challenges and learning from failures. When we set out to build Eventbrite, we had to face many challenges and come up with creative solutions to get past them. Each time we learned new ways to cope, we became a stronger and more cohesive team. However, staying focused is an ongoing challenge: The bigger you get, the more opportunities you have to take your eye off the prize.
Read more about Hartz: The Day This Eventbrite Co-Founder Learned When to Speak Up
Put your phone away.
Name: Dave Rusenko
Strategy: I have a personal policy that any time I'm with someone -- at a meeting, dinner, or over drink -- that I will never check my phone or watch, and make sure to keep 100 percent focus on the person. This carries into our meetings. We have saying at the office during meetings, "laptops down." Unless you're the presenter, the rule is everyone needs to shut their laptop in the meeting. It allows the person to be physically and mentally present.
Read more about Rusenko: Weebly's Founder Explains the Richard Branson Moment That Changed How He Ran His Company
Name: Jeff Chapin
The strategy I have to remove distractions is pretty simple. Headphones and music with no words and an office where there's no people.
Read more about Chapin: Behind a $100 Million Mattress Startup, Casper Co-Founder Shares Advice on Finding Success as an Entrepreneur
Tackle big things first thing.
Name: Angie Hicks
Company: Angie's List
Strategy: It's about prioritizing things during the day. I tend to want to get things off my plate first thing in the morning that are just must dos. I tackle them first and go from there. Inevitable, your day gets away from you, so if it's big thing it gets the first spot in the morning.
Read more about Hicks: This Introvert Founder Swears by This Management Tip
Ask yourself the question of nine.
Name: Whitney Wolfe
Strategy: I try to ask myself the question of nine. Will this matter in nine minutes, nine hours, nine days, nine weeks, nine months or nine years? If it will truly matter for all of those, pay attention to it. If it isn't going to matter in nine minutes, nine hours or nine days from now, you need to not pay attention to it.
This concept of nine has kept me on track from losing focus on the things that truly matter. That way you can respond when you need to, but you don't spend your time reacting to things that are not going to have any importance in a short period of time from now.
Read more about Wolfe: The Founder of Bumble Reveals How the 'Question of Nine' Can Help You Stay Focused
Celebrate your wins.
Name: Kara Goldin
Strategy: Find time for yourself every day to do something you love. For me, that's exercise. It clears my head and allows me to focus on what's important in the moment. Also, celebrate your wins. If you focus on three things that you have done well lately it will help you to tell yourself, "you can do it!"
Read more about Goldin: The Entrepreneur Behind a $90 Million Company Shares How You Can Get Past the Naysayers to Build a Successful Business
Make sure you take care of you.
Name: Bea Fischel-Bock
Strategy: Take care of myself. I'm of no use to anyone or myself if I'm burnt out. The days that I don't get enough sleep or have one too many glasses of wine at dinner, make focusing so much more difficult. I end up being less efficient and productive.
Read more about Fischel-Bock: This Founder Shares Why In Order To Learn Fast, You Need to Fail Fast
Practice saying ‘not now,’ not ‘no’
Name: Daniel Lubetzky
Strategy: As entrepreneurs, we tend to have a desire to create a lot of different things. When there are so many things that you want to do, it's hard to say "no" to any of them. Instead, I try to say "not now." Not now doesn't mean not ever; it just means that we'll get to it once we're done accomplishing whatever we're focused on today.
Read more about Lubetzky: How a 9-Year-Old Taught This Super Successful Entrepreneur About Taking Risks
Name: John Zimmer
Strategy: I removed both Safari and the news apps from my phone. Reducing noise from my phone makes it so when I'm in a meeting, for example, I'm the most focused.
Read more about Zimmer: Lyft Co-Founder John Zimmer: 'You Should Never Veer Off the Path of Your Own Values'
Three is the magic number.
Name: David Bladow
Strategy: Before I go to bed on Sunday, I plan out my week for each day, and ask myself what I need to get done each day. At the top of the list, I highlight my three most important tasks for the week. These are the thing I have to be focused on. I modify it as the week goes on, and I return to that list multiple times a day. If I didn't have that from the get go, it's easy to get pulled in different directions. Before the dust gets thrown in the air, it helps keep me focused on what I need to accomplish for the week.
Read more about Bladow: This Founder Has 3 Simple Tips to Achieve Maximum Productivity
Keep blinders on.
Name: Carrie Dorr
Company: Pure Barre
Strategy: I always think of the analogy of a racehorse: I like to keep blinders on. You should be aware of the competition and who's in the field, but those blinders help me stay focused on what I'm working on and constantly keeps me moving forward to where I'm headed.
Read more about Dorr: This Founder Shares How to Tailor Your Schedule to Fit Your Brain
Name: Bastian Lehmann
Strategy: With our teams we constantly try to question our assumptions. We don't ever want to wake up and find that the world has changed around us. The best way to do that is to question everything, stay ahead of things and understand change.
Read more about Lehmann: This Founder Shares the One Trait He Looks for in Every Hire
Carve out time where you’re completely unplugged.
Name: Randi Zuckerberg
Company: Zuckerberg Media
Strategy: I like to carve out blocks of time that I'm going to be unplugged, which is sometimes frustrating to the rest of my team. But I find that it's hard to do creative, thoughtful tasks when you are interrupted by emails and text messages. I like to carve out two to three hours, where I do a deep dive into writing a piece or working on a speech. That is the most effective hours of my entire day.
Read more about Zuckerberg: Why Everyone Can Use Randi Zuckerberg's Number One Focus Tip
Keep email to a minimum.
Name: Heidi Zak
Strategy: I check email once an hour or less. If I check it more, I lose focus. So, I set aside five or 10 minutes to check email and then spend the rest of the time thinking about what I need to be doing.
Read more about Zak: What This Founder Learned at a Farmstand Helped Her Bra Startup
Frequently communicate your company’s goals.
Name: Alex Friedman
Strategy: Regular conversation to realign our goals is something that we've instituted in the business. Over-communication of what we're all working towards, so everybody is always aligned. It is part of our role as founders: to continue to rearticulate the mission, the strategy and what we're aiming for at the end of the day.
Read more about Friedman: How You Can Use Your Computer Password to Make Your Aspirations a Reality
Do activities where you aren’t thinking about work.
Name: Katrina Lake
Company: Stitch Fix
Strategy: Doing things where it's hard to be distracted like running and cooking -- and in some ways it's actually commuting. There's so many days when I take the bus to work, I feel like I can clear my mind. I love that time.
Read more about Lake: Stitch Fix Founder Explains Why the Worst Piece of Advice She Ever Got Was to Raise A Lot of Money
Break big tasks into smaller chunks.
Name: Luis von Ahn
Strategy: I try to break everything into small tasks. I'm not good at doing things that take months, but I am good at doing things that take a half an hour. I break things down into 15 to 30 minute pieces.
Read more about von Ahn: Why This Founder Says the Worst Advice He Ever Got Was to Listen to His Users
Think deeply, away from screens.
Name: Scott Harrison
Strategy: I'm always looking to find time to think on something deeply without interruption. Carving out time away from devices and screens can be extremely beneficial to focusing. Take the time to go on a walk or sit in the park.
Read more about Harrison: Everyone Can Adopt This Founder's One-Step Productivity Advice
Don’t chase every opportunity.
Name: Bruce Poon Tip
Company: G Adventures
Strategy: Yoga, which I do for my morning routine. Starting my day with that activity keeps me very focused. Also, realizing what you say 'no' to is equally as important as what you say 'yes' to as an entrepreneur. If you achieve any amount of success as an entrepreneur, things come flying at you. Opportunities are everywhere, and it's so easy to become unfocused chasing opportunities, because they're a dime a dozen.
Read more about Poon Tip: I Was About to Shut Down My Business but I Changed My Mind. Here's Why.
Focus your to-do list with numbers.
Name: Ayah Bdeir
Strategy: It seems really simple, but just numbering the list of things you have to do. Just taking a few minutes to put the things in order that you need to get done is a very focusing kind of exercise. Then if in the middle of the day something becomes number one, moving that up on the list is actually a very active focusing agent, because then you're like OK if number one doesn't get done, then the rest doesn't matter. It really helps you zero in on what's important.
Read more about Bdeir: This Successful Entrepreneur Explains Why Revenue Is Not the Most Important Thing (and What Is)
Name: Amber Venz
Strategy: It's a two-part strategy. The first part is taking about an hour to myself and really thinking about what my priorities are that day. And the second part is saying no. I've learned to say no a lot more lately, and it has freed up bandwidth for me to focus on the things that are important for the longevity of my business.
Read more about Venz: This Founder Shares the Mindset That Helps Her Stay On Track
Set time limits.
Name: Aaron Levie
Strategy: Most things I'm working on, max, I spend 30 to 60 minutes and then move on to the next thing. It's a strategy that works for me, but it's just not how I define a strategy for staying focused.
Read more about Levie: Why This Founder Says You Shouldn't Be Afraid to Go Big
Let your mind wander.
Name: Deepak Chopra
Company: Founder of The Chopra Foundation, co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing
Strategy: Actually, I stay unfocused, with only awareness of the moment, and its possibilities. I call that experience choiceless awareness. I believe in the experience of effortless spontaneity, getting rid of the notion of separateness and the richness of sensory experience in every moment.
Read more about Chopra: Deepak Chopra Has 3 Simple and Surprising Productivity Secrets for You
Get in your own world.
Name: Vicki Fulop
Strategy: Big sound-proof headphones with music or rainforest sounds.
Read more about Fulop: Use This Founder's Simple Email Strategy to Keep Burnout at Bay
Do away with long to do lists.
Name: Nirav Tolia
Strategy: I am a huge fan of writing a list. The important thing about the list is you have to put it in priority order, because typically of the 15 things that you need to get done only three or four of them are critical. You can waste all of your time doing the things that aren't critical, either because they're fun, they're easy or they're convenient. You really need to shift your mind and think to yourself what are the few things I can do today that will generate the most value?
Read more about Tolia: This Successful Entrepreneur Shares How You Can Build A High-Performing Company While Staying True to Your Values
Always ask yourself ‘why?’
Name: Jennifer Hyman
Company: Rent the Runway
Strategy: Focus on the big picture and the "whys" behind your work. If your work isn't mission driven or emotionally resonant to you, it will be very hard to maintain passion and focus over a long period of time, which is critical in entrepreneurship. Too often, ambitious, type A people stay on "the track" going from great college to a competitive job to the next competitive job without stopping to think about what they are passionate about and how they want to spend their time. Personally, I am inspired by creating a new behavior in the world: renting clothes that makes women feel like the best version of themselves every day. Focusing on this mission to empower women not only keeps me focused, but helps me prioritize the right strategic choices for the company.
Read more about Hyman: Rent the Runway's Jennifer Hyman Shares Her Worst Advice Ever: 'Shut Up and Act Sweet'
Communicate what kind of support you need.
Name: Christene Barberich
Strategy: Getting enough sleep is really important, especially as you get older. I think sleep is critical in terms of feeling good, having energy and a clear head. But also having clear communication with the people and partners around me, whether it's in my personal life or in my professional life.
If I feel overwhelmed, it is important that I communicate what my priorities. I always sort them into one of two piles: Do I need support or do I need space? Do I need support to actually get things done? Or do I need space because I really have a creative problem I want to solve? And sometimes you do need both. It's just important to be able to clarify which is more important and when.
Read more about Barberich: Why Your Done List is Just as Important as Your To-Do List
Do the think you are putting off first.
Name: Sarah Kauss
Strategy: I try to do the most important thing or the thing that I most dreading first thing in the morning and get it over with.
I look at my calendar and think about what is that thing that's going to drive the business. What is that thing that I need to do that's going to have the impact on the bottom line or have the impact on the day and just do it.
Read more about Kauss: This Successful Entrepreneur Shares Why You Should Do The Thing You Dread Most First Thing Every Day
No more email on your phone.
Name: Barbara Corcoran
Company: Forefront Venture Partners
Strategy: It's hard. I used to be the most focused person I've ever met. You couldn't sway me off what I was after. Yet, I would describe myself in recent years as having a touch of ADD, which is not me or never used to be me. I think it's a result of all the technology. I've declared technology my enemy to a large degree. I have a need to answer everything properly and not to forget anybody. I don't have a computer on my desk; I just do everything on my phone. And what I did is I took my email off my phone. So rather than looking at God knows how many I got in a day -- all very important of course, until I realized none of it was important. I probably went from maybe 150 emails to none. I bought myself a lot of time. I feel so much better. I actually [have time to] reflect after I've had a meeting or conversation now.
Read more about Corcoran: Shark Tank's Barbara Corcoran Explains Why You Must Make Time in Your Schedule For Fun
Work in short bursts.
Name: Tristan Walker
Company: Walker & Company
Strategy: I spend the first hour and a half of my day reading. I try to read three to four hours a day. I don't have too much time, so I just try to find those little nuggets to learn something and get into a working mindset.
Read more about Walker: This Successful Entrepreneur Explains Why You Don't Need Billions to Build a Brand That Hits Home
Weekly accountability check ins.
Name: Payal Kadakia
Strategy: Every Sunday evening writing down goals for the week -- and sticking to them.
Read more about Kadakia: This Successful Entrepreneur Explains Why You Can't Succeed Unless You Invest in Yourself
Company wide progress reports.
Name: Melanie Perkins
Strategy: Good communication is one of the most important aspects of being a good leader and helping the team make good decisions on achieving their goals.
Throughout the week, each team catches up daily progress, and on Fridays we do a company-wide standup which is a great opportunity to bring everyone together and share knowledge. Our structure of small, empowered teams enables everyone to be nimble and move quickly and also gives each team ownership over their work so they can be as effective and creative as they can be.
Rad more about Perkins: She Was Told 'No' 100 Times. Now This 30-Year-Old Female Founder Runs a $1 Billion Business.
Name: Marco Zappacosta
Strategy: The best strategy I've found is to have a shortlist of two to three items that are critical things that I need to get done. What it does is it gives me something to turn back to. I email myself the list. It is something to remind myself: OK, I've got the time, what should I prioritize and dig into? That lets me avoid the noise of what can be going on and keep my mind focused on a couple of critical things that need to get done in that time period.
Read more about Zappacosta: The Productivity Secrets of an Entrepreneur Whose First Business Idea Turned Into Multimillion-Dollar Company