Here at Mailbird, we are obsessed with productivity. Especially, as it relates to the workplace. That’s why we are excited to open up this new series exploring how people working in successful tech startups manage their time and their work effectively. We want to learn how top tech executives, writers, reporters, programmers, and people in various other roles stay on top of their work. We will also explore the challenges they face every day, ranging from overcoming their own behaviors to dealing with common workplace distractions.
Today, we are really excited to talk with Becky Kane of the to-do list and task management app Todoist. We had an awesome call with Becky where we asked her a wide range of questions to try and understand how she stays productive as a content writer for Todoist. We also went into a few challenges she faced early in her role, and how she overcame those challenges to become more productive and just get stuff done.
Describe your role at Todoist:
I’ve been with Todoist for about a year now. I primarily do content marketing, so I run our company blog. It’s a lot of writing and content strategy, and project management; making sure you get all the copy and design together. Then it’s a lot of outreach as well to influencers, guest posters, collaborating with freelancers. It’s a lot of email time.
Can you describe a typical work day?
I’m trying to get more of a routine down right now actually. I love the idea of theme-ing days because, at a start up, it’s so common to have a lot of different projects going at the same time. I’ve been trying to reserve some days for blog things, so one day where I will be writing a blog post. One day a week where I’ll be doing all of the editing for the next week batch of blog posts and making sure they are all uploaded in time and everything. Then setting aside a day where I do all of the blog promotion and making sure that’s all happening. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, but it’s easy to get side-tracked from what your plan is earlier in the day when you have a lot of other projects that might require attention to keep them moving forward. It’s definitely tricky, but that’s what I aim for.
Would you say you are faced with a lot of potential distractions while you work?
Yes, definitely. I’m always signed into Slack. It’s what we use for internal communication on the team. Doist has people all of the world, so it’s a great tool to keep in sync. I just sign into Slack from wherever I am and I am instantly connected to everyone. But, I’ve also noticed that that little Slack noise is like a trigger for me. I feel like one of Pavlov’s Dogs. Even if it’s not on my computer, if it’s somebody else’s computer in my co-working space, I’m just like, “Oh! What’s that? What’s happening?”
I definitely realize that if I really need to get work done, I have to be signed out of Slack on my computer and let it go to my phone where I can triage it. Otherwise, I fell like, “I have to do it immediately.” If it’s on my phone I can look at the notification and decide, “Okay that’s urgent and I need to reply to it right now.” Or, “I can do it later.”
Would you describe your work situation as flexible?
Oh my goodness, it’s the definition of flexibility. This is the first position I’ve ever taken that’s been 100% remote, so I can work whatever hours I want to since there are team members all over the world. If I am working weird hours in the U.S. it’s probably going to be normal hours for somebody working halfway around the world. There’s also no expectation about where I need to work.
Overall I love it. Obviously, it’s very convenient. But, there’s a lot of danger because I really do believe in routines and their ability to help you become more productive by just eliminating decisions throughout your day. I joined a co-working space and I’m there 5 days a week. I usually work there until lunch, at least, and sometimes I go back afterward lunch at home. I also try to keep somewhat regular hours so people know when they can expect me online. Then I always have Slack on my phone, so if somebody messages me I can always respond if it’s urgent.
Do you feel this kind of structure helps you stay more productive?
I would say you have to figure out … It’s nice to have the flexibility to figure out what works for you. I’ve realized that I actually work better if I get up in the morning and start work at a normal hour and try to work intensely in the morning. Then in the afternoon I’ll do things that require lower energy and so that’s how I’ve dealt with it. Everyone works so differently and just not having that expectation or pressure to be at work at a certain time really gives you the flexibility to experiment and see what works for you. Not having a commute, I think, makes me infinitely more productive too.
Can you point to one distraction or situation as your biggest challenge in staying productive?
The biggest challenge for me is probably staying productive despite all the messages and notifications. I think it’s just the sheer number of platforms we use to communicate on and I’m not always great about turning them off or muting them when I need to focus. Sometimes I forget to sign out of them and then I can’t help but get distracted every time there’s a notification. 10 minutes later I’m like, “Oh, crap, I was working on something else. Where was I, what was the thought that I left off on?”
I think mostly it’s been about creating an environment where I have focused time. Most interruptions totally self-initiated. You lose a little bit of focus and then, just out of habit, you’re signing into Facebook or opening up your messaging apps to see what’s going on. It’s been important for me to time box my tasks and say, “This is what I’m working on, I’m going to sign out of everything else,” or, “These are the platforms that will on during these hours.” The biggest source of distraction and challenge to my productivity is definitely the plethora of communication tools that are at my disposable.
What is your secret to dealing with, or overcoming, this challenge?
Definitely if I need to do deeply-focused work – any big strategy thinking for content or writing a blog post – I just try to sign out of everything on my computer. I usually have my phone nearby and just have Slack because it’s the only urgent messaging that I need to be available for. I’ll leave those notifications turned on and nothing else. That definitely helps a lot.
I think the most important thing is just setting boundaries and setting expectations with your teammates that, “This is when I’m going to be responding to email or this is when I’m going to be on Slack”. Just so they know what to expect as well and know that you’re working on other things and so they can set their expectations accordingly.
Something I’ve learned over the past year working with the team is that you don’t have to respond to everything you’ve been attached to in some way. Sometimes you’ll get cc’d on things and it’s just not necessary for you to comment on them. When you’re a remote worker, you can sometimes feel like, “I don’t want them to forget about me, I want to feel like a part of the company. I have to respond to this.” Getting over that instinct was important for me.
You’ll get emails where it’s like, “You know what? It’s probably okay if I don’t respond”, or if you do need to respond “it’s okay if I don’t respond right away.” I think that sometimes people get really caught up thinking, “I have to get to inbox zero!” and going through all of the emails and taking care of them immediately becomes the goal. Letting go of that a little bit has helped me better manage my time.
I just think it goes company-by-company. The team has to set the expectation for availability and how communication is going to happen in order to make sure people feel a part of the team without having to respond to every single thread. That’s huge and I think Todoist has been doing a really good job of it. Sometimes our COO will hop on a thread or if somebody posts on Slack about company-related things on a weekend he’ll be like, “Come on guys, log out and enjoy your weekend.”
Do you use any tools or apps to help you stay productive?
Yeah, oh my goodness, I’m such a tool junkie. I have way too many. Obviously, Todoist. I use it all the time. I actually used it before I started working here which is how I ended up knowing about the job posting. Just keeping your tasks all in one place. It’s just such a relief to be able to not worry about what I’m forgetting. We also use it for team collaboration. I do a lot of project management with Todoist which is just awesome when you’re a remote team and you need to keep everybody on the same page.
I use Toggl to track time because I like to know where I’m spending my time. It helps me discover things like “Oh, you know what? I’m really spending too much time on email and not enough time on this other aspect of my job that’s probably more important.” So just making sure that the way I’m spending my time is lining up with my work goals overall.
For me, having a password manager saves so much time and I use Dashlane to store all my account credentials. Not having to sign in or remember passwords all the time, or dig around trying to find them is awesome.
I use WorkFlowy for taking really quick notes on things. This helps me out a lot as a content marketer because I’m always coming across things and I’m like, “Oh, that would fit with this other thing I was thinking about for a blog post,” or, “That would make a great blog post topic,” or just, “That’s interesting, maybe it’ll be relevant someday.” I throw it in WorkFlowy, I tag it and then I can forget about it. Someday in the future, I can go back and search for it when I’m doing research for a blog post.
Do you have a favorite one?
I feel like it’s cheating, but I would probably have to say my favorite one is Todoist. But if I had to pick another one that I just 100% could not live without would actually be Dashlane. I just think that is such an incredible tool to be able to save my passwords and not have to dig around for them. I wouldn’t be able to work or log in to the accounts I need without it.
Do you have any behaviors or rules that you follow to stay productive?
Because of my job writing for the Todoist blog, I read a lot of self-improvement books. My latest is Essentialism. I am really beginning to appreciate the philosophy of doing less but doing it better. It’s all about being more focused. You’re going to be less stressed. You’re going to do a better job. I just think it makes so much sense, especially for people like me that are terrible at telling people, “No.” His advice for how to tell people, “No,” was really helpful for me. Just in general I’ve been trying to be more intentional about the projects that I commit myself to and what’s realistic in terms of my time. I recently wrote about it on the Todoist blog (https://blog.todoist.com/2015/10/15/tips-on-how-to-gtd/), where I cover Essentialism and getting stuff done at work.
It can be really hard, when you’re at a start-up, to stay focused. There are just so many things that could be done, and there’s so many projects that people want to get started and they want your help on them. On the one hand, you want to be a good team player. But, if you’re not working on the things that are really interesting to you, you’re going to burn out. You’re not going to be as happy and productive as you could be. Learning to say “No” to the things that I don’t find interesting is important. However, it’s even harder to say no to the things I really do find interesting and I know would be a good experience, but sometimes I already have too much on my plate.
Have you always been able to balance getting things accomplished with emails, messaging, scheduling, and so on?
Oh, my gosh, no. Not at all. My friends from college still think it’s pretty ironic that I run a productivity blog, actually. I think it helps that I can empathize with people’s productivity challenges. I think some people are just really naturally good at it and I’m not one of them.
My advice to those people who may be struggling, and thinking that everyone else is on top of their stuff and getting so much more done: I would say first, that you’re not seeing the whole picture and those people may not be as with it as you think. You, yourself, have all of the information about what you are, and are not getting done. From an outside perspective, you might look like somebody who has it all together too. Just try to keep that perspective. Stay focused on yourself and how you are getting your work done.
Then, focus on what tasks are going to give you the most return for your investment. I am a big believer in the 80/20 principle, where 20% of your changes will produce 80% of the results. I really believe that there are a lot of productivity articles and advice out there that get pretty nit-picky into the details. In most cases, I am like “Well, yeah. This might improve your productivity a little bit.” Then there are overarching strategies and changes that I think can have more of an impact on what you do, and what you end up accomplishing during the day. I would say, just try to focus on improving one thing at a time and make sure that it’s going to produce the biggest impact.
How do you measure your productivity? Or, How would you determine if you were productive any given day?
That is a really good question. People just don’t ask that question very often in the productivity blogosphere. This can be especially hard when you’re a remote worker. I’ve realized that I need external feedback on goals. I need to talk through what I’ve accomplished and what I should be working on with someone else. I started doing a weekly call with the head of marketing at Todoist, which has really helped me a lot to get clarity on what I’m doing.
During that time, I chat with her about what I’ve accomplished the week before, and what my goals will be for the next week. I don’t always accomplish everything I lay out the week before, but I think that’s good to have an external gauge. If it’s just in my own head, I tend to be much more negative about my progress than necessary.
The other thing that helps me measure my progress is having that single main task to accomplish each day, and doing it really well. I usually have a list of more than one item that I’ll be working on during a typical day, but I really try to use that one main task as an indicator of if it was a productive day or not. If I get other things done, that’s great, but as long as I get that one thing done I can feel pretty accomplished most days. I’ve tried doing that with 5 tasks or 3 tasks and it’s just not for me. I end up unhappy more days than not so now I just have one that is my main focus.
Have you learned anything about yourself as you have gotten better at managing your productivity?
Recognizing that I perform better with an external source of feedback has been really important to my productivity. Especially, as a part of a remote team. Todoist really empowers its employees to take charge of their own work, which is awesome. However, that means you have to be able to manage your time and goals. For me, I discovered I really needed that weekly call with my supervisor to have a gut check of what I’m working on, and to make sure it’s all lining up right. That was definitely one thing that I learned about myself.
The other thing I learned about myself is that I tend to focus on what I haven’t gotten done, instead of what I have gotten done. I tend to focus on the negative. Especially as a remote team, without constant personal interaction, it can be really easy to let your perception get skewed. I think that’s also a reason why having the external feedback is really important, because it brings me back to reality. I realize that the situation is not always as bad as it seems in my own head.
What would you suggest someone do if they were in a similar situation as yourself and might be having trouble staying on task or getting things done?
Try to work on your perspective. I think guilt is the least productive emotion. And, when you feel like you’re not getting enough done, you start to feel really guilty. I just think that leads to more avoidance, more procrastination, feeling overwhelmed.
Begin by being really up front with your teammates about your challenges, because I think that helps a lot. The sooner you realize that you’re not alone, and that everyone would like to be a little bit more productive, the sooner you can fix any issues. When you have a team that’s striving together to overcome their own personal challenges, it creates more of an environment where you can share your learning, and what has worked for other people.
Also, talk to your supervisor or boss. Say “You know what … I could really use some help.” I think most people don’t consider doing this because you’re supposed to be doing your job perfectly, and that’s what you want your boss to think. There’s an idea that it’s a weakness if you rely on that external feedback. That you should be completely self-reliant. While that may be the case for some people, I think most people benefit from opening up that communication in order to get better at how they manage their time and responsibilities to get even better at their position.
I believe it’s a lot easier to start making changes if you initiate this with your boss before it becomes an issue they have to bring to you. Set some time to go over your challenges, as well as the things that you’ve accomplished. Particularly, if you are a remote worker, I would say getting that feedback and starting those conversations with people is the best thing you can do.
I like reading Buffer’s blog posts about their team transparency and how they all have personal goals that they share with the team. They’re just so transparent with themselves as a team and with the the general public about what their challenges are. I think that creates a really healthy environment.