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  • Author Tim Metz

The productive start-up manifesto

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"To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
- Henry David Thoreau

While 21st century technology is poised to unleash the Future of Work, our work habits are still stuck in a previous era. The way we run organizations, measure our progress, go about our days, and use our devices, all find their roots in the Industrial Age. This has to change.

A decade from now, people will look back and laugh at how we currently live and work. It will seem as crazy as working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week in factories appears to us today. More important, they will look back and know the revolution began with startups.

As the founder of Get Saent, Tim Metz knows all about focussing like a pro and maximizing productivity. 

Why startups? 

Startups are the perfect birth place for the Future of Work. Changing course at a large corporation is like trying to steer a mammoth tanker in a different direction. Startups, in comparison, can change course like a speedboat: if the crew embraces a new approach to work, they can be off to new lands in a matter of weeks, not years.

Startups also have the potential to change the world. It’s where passion, dreams, and pizza come together to result in true innovation. Unfortunately, too many are places of waste. They squander away heaps of money and, more tragically, human potential.

Startups can ignite the workplace revolution today rather than tomorrow and change the world along the way.

Empowering human intelligence

In this age, information and knowledge are the key economic resources. To create value from them, only one tool is cut out for the job: the human brain.

The Future of Work is about optimizing for humans. To be creative, to solve the pressing problems of our times, to stand out in an onslaught of automation, you and your team need to optimally use your brain.

While this sounds obvious, few people and companies have adjusted to this reality. We chronically multitask, we are expected to be available 24/7, we work 60+ hour weeks. Yet all of this is based on the industrialist’s understanding of productivity: more equals better.

When you run a factory, that’s probably true. Factory workers are easily replaceable because they do standardized, monotonous work. Driving them to work longer hours equals more output, which is why hours worked is traditionally such an important productivity metric. And whether the workers feel creative or inspired is not all that important in the overall management of the business: if a person gets fed up or ill, you just swap them out for someone else.

If you look at our current notion of work and productivity, you’ll find that these principles still drive most organizations, management methodologies, and performance reviews. This is a fallacy that undermines results, health, and happiness. To realize the Future of Work, we need to redefine productivity by taking our cues from modern research, especially neuroscience. We need to leave the Industrial Age behind once and for all.

Your brain is the new black 

When it comes to optimizing work for our brains, two elements are crucial: focus and balance. 

Focus 
No big problem was ever solved by someone permanently glued to his smartphone. Without the ability to concentrate, you’re effectively a zombie. Multitasking, constant interruptions, permanent connectivity. All these things stand in the way of true concentration. Yet in a knowledge economy, what we need more of is focus -- much more.  

Balance
“No matter what kind of work one does, it’s essential to step away on a regular basis, to recharge and gain perspective. In an always-connected world, the need for these gaps is more urgent than ever, yet harder to find.” - William Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry

To function optimally, your brain needs downtime from work and the internet. Often. Just consider these research results:

  • Our brains can only sustain concentration for 60 - 90 minutes at a time, then they need a break.
  • Top consultants who were forced to turn off their phones in the evening performed better than those who didn’t (and they felt less stressed!).
  • Checking our emails and messages just before going to sleep creates anxiety, stress, and affects the quality of our sleep.
  • Results rapidly diminish when people chronically work more than 40 hours per week.
  • Elite performers in many disciplines take large breaks in the middle of their days (90 - 120 minutes at least). This was the defining difference compared with those who were just considered good.
  • Those who take regular time off (evenings, weekends, vacations) report being happier and less stressed, and hence more creative as a result.
  • Taking time away from digital devices can improve memory, sleep, posture, and make you more receptive to new ideas.

This list could continue for a while --the research is overwhelming. It all points in one clear direction: to get optimal results from your brain, you need to give it regular downtime. The brain is a sprinter that can work in high bursts of focus, then needs rest. Instead, we’re currently treating it like a marathon runner. This needs to change, and this is the element we refer to as balance.

The Future of Work 

To succeed in the Future of Work, we need to organize ourselves around focus and balance. But before we look at how to do that, it's important to understand the two major culprits blocking our way: Psychology: What feels productive might not actually be productive. Technology: We need to acknowledge the negative effects of modern technology on our (mental) well-being.

  1. Psychology: What feels productive might not actually be productive.
  2. Technology: We need to acknowledge the negative effects of modern technology on our (mental) well-being.

Some examples:

  • Multitasking makes you feel productive, but every piece of research shows it leads to mistakes, drains your energy, and takes longer than doing one thing at a time.
  • Working on something without pause for hours on end in the face of a deadline seems like the right thing to do. Yet taking short breaks every hour will actually make you more effective.
  • We all check our smartphones, email, and social media a gazillion times a day, even though most of us are aware of the negative effects (see Balance above).
  • We check our devices even when we’re supposed to be doing something more important, like work, being with our kids, or having dinner with friends. This is a clear sign of compulsive or even addictive behavior.

To sum this all up, here’s one sentence that captures the problematic situation we’re facing:

We’re working based on an outdated paradigm for work,
engaged in the wrong behaviors that nevertheless feel right,
addicted to devices that further encourage those same behaviors.

The Ten Golden Rules for The Future of Work 

The solution is less complicated than it might seem. Based on all the research around those key pillars of focus and balance, we can define a simple set of rules that will lead to productivity, fulfillment, and happiness:

  • Aim: Do one thing at a time. Single-task instead of multitask.
  • Focus: Spend four hours per day doing Deep Work (uninterrupted focus).
  • Recharge: Take, on average, ten minutes of breaks for every one hour of work.
  • Moderate: Spend at most 30 mins per day on social media for personal use.
  • Unchain: Limit email and IM checking to two times per day.
  • Reflect: Have a meeting-free day each week.
  • Disconnect: Disconnect from work (and the internet) for a consecutive period of twelve hours per day.
  • Learn: Invest four hours per week into non-urgent, long-term personal development tasks (e.g., reading, researching, learning).
  • Respect: Make agreements with those around you about when to interrupt, and when not.
  • Rest: Disconnect from work one full day per week (Sabbath).

These ten rules contain all the elements required to achieve optimal performance in the Future of Work. You will see extraordinary results when you organize your startup around these principles, instead of “trying to get better at multitasking” or obsessing over outdated metrics such as hours worked or lines of code written.

Making it happen 

If all this sounds difficult, you’re right. Your instincts will tell you to go in the other direction, and digital devices will try to derail you at every turn. This is why so many are stuck in the old paradigm, unable to escape from the Industrial Age. If it was easy, everybody would already be doing it.

But we’re not alone in this battle and can call on help from an unexpected ally: technology.

“Today’s machines could go a lot further toward helping us out. Having made the philosophical choice for a more inward life, I would have appreciated a device that acknowledged focus as a worthy goal and offered easy ways to achieve it.”[Einde van tekstterugloop]- William Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry

We can shape technology based on these Ten Rules so that it works for us, not against us. While your instincts will pull you in the wrong direction, technology can show you the right way. When your willpower wavers, a tool can give you a helping hand.

So these are the two keys to making the Future of Work happen: end ignorance by following the Ten Rules, and use smart tools to keep you on the right path. The route is now clear, all you have to do is make the choice to embark on this journey with your entire team towards a more productive, healthy, and happier life. It’s yours for the taking!


Would you like some tools to help you connect to the here and now? Check out our down-to-earth course on Mindfullness.

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