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Productivity Hack – The High Velocity Focus Block

These days I meet with a ton of founders and execs who are trying to scale themselves and their contributions ahead of the increasing slope of their businesses’ growth. Personal productivity comes up often and it always resonates with me, as well.

I’m sure I didn’t invent the following, it’s just my implementation and nomenclature of a time and productivity framework that became hugely impactful on my ability to get the right things done.

It’s worth noting, that this type of approach will also benefit contributors at any level, not just senior people, managers or exec’s.

I could have trimmed out some of the personal texture to save length, but my hope is that some of the nuance stays intact to highlight added positive and potentially negative ripple effects.

Over the course of RevZilla, I became a productivity nerd, constantly testing, learning and optimizing my day, week and time along the way. In many cases I also had my Chief of Staff, Lee Anne, to help me refine and implement new strategies.

The goal was to get the most out of the schedule while wasting as little time and effort as possible. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that until I reached a point a few years in where I literally could not extend my day any earlier or later. Working smarter and prioritizing effectively became key.

Also, being more productive is not just completing an array of more tasks during an efficient time window, but also ensuring that progress is made on the most important things.

I could write a novel about my thoughts on the topic and completely detail my daily routine, but for this post I want to stay focused on what I think was the cornerstone of my productivity in its most evolved form: The High Velocity Focus Block.

High Velocity / Low Velocity Work

I used to use the terms High Velocity and Low Velocity to talk about the value of tasks. I stole this terminology from a blog that I read at some point that I could not find to link here. I also think this is probably stolen on some level from Agile metrics. Regardless, I thought of this nomenclature in the following ways:

High Velocity work moves the business forward. It usually solves multiple problems at once or creates meaningful opportunity. It is the work that you, and only you, can and should do. For leadership and managers, this is what should be left after everything has been delegated appropriately. This most important work is also usually the hardest work that takes the most focused time and energy. This work is fully engaged high level problem solving, invention, strategy and planning. Many times, this work is the heaviest lift, as you are solving or creating things for the first time. If you are prioritizing well, this work is high leverage.

High velocity work is the work that you and the business can’t afford not to get done.

Unfortunately, Low Velocity work exists, as well. It is the mortal enemy of the completion of high velocity work – and it’s everywhere and constantly attacking you.

Your office environment is probably a sea of urgent-unimportant interruptions or lesser tasks like email that are easy to complete and satisfy your lizard brain’s need to check the box. You know they don’t really move anything forward significantly but they are all around you and at times can trick you into feeling productive. Other culprits include group meetings with no outcome, quick discussions, random people dropping in, lunch or coffee meetings and other things that are not worth your time but feel good. They can easily siphon whole days (weeks?) away if you let them. Once RevZilla hit the 10-15 FTE mark and beyond, it increasingly felt this way for me until I did something about it.

I watched myself, cofounders and colleagues struggle with the same frayed edge and frustration. Many times, there was a feeling of working all day on other people’s stuff (operations) only to stay late or click back on when everyone left to get to the things that were actually needed. For me, in many cases it was also sporadically coming in early to “catch up” while routinely giving up my weekends to push the business forward.

High Velocity Focus Block / DND

My eventual solve for the misprioritization of productivity was the High Velocity Focus Block, or what my Chief of Staff Lee Anne and I called Do No Disturb, marked off as “DND” on the calendar.

Every day from 6am to 9:30am I prioritized a 3+ hour block of uninterrupted time when I was the freshest to work on the most important, hardest and valuable elements of my universe.

I found it so valuable, in fact, I would get up at 4:45am daily to be in by 6, just to maximize my allotment of unadulterated time. This from a guy who scheduled all college classes MWF so I could sleep until 2:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday.

It literally changed my work life, productivity level and it had a major effect on my focus and demeanor just by way of lessening the constant anxiety of feeling like I was always trying to rush through daily things to get back to the most important stuff. I now knew when the next guaranteed block of time for my focus work was. I could be more focused with everyone else because I had put myself and the business first and then scheduled everything else around it.

I found that I would get so much done in my Focus Block that it didn’t bug me if after my first meeting started at 9:30am the rest of my day was filled with supporting other people’s agendas, internal and external meetings, smaller less important or urgent tasks, email and other low velocity box checking. I viewed it as a bonus if I got back to the big stuff at all.

I did my best to schedule the rest of my day on a descending scale of things I participated in versus drove myself and tasks that were less important or less difficult to complete. We all get mentally and physically tired. Why put myself in a position where something that needed “A effort” would require a second wind that I may or may not actually have at that moment in that day? If I was driving it, I usually would schedule it right after my DND, typically before lunch, and if it was going to be a multi-hour affair I would sometimes infringe on my Focus Block, to guarantee that my team and I were all fresh and focused.

It’s worth noting that my ideal goal as the CEO of a properly scaled org was to delegate all ops and get to come to work and decide where to apply myself, focus or tap in. In nine years that never happened.

We were always growing too fast, things were always changing too much, I was also the defacto CMO until my transition out and there was always at least one or two other exec seats open. All that created a need for regular cycles and contribution to the day-to-day on my part. My daily regimen was my weapon against my actual reality versus my idealistic goal.

It’s also worth noting that you can make the “well I’m a night owl” argument. I was, too, early on. I started as a late-night guy earlier in my career and into RevZilla’s first few years. I gradually started my day earlier as time went on. While I do think early is a easy choice for many, my argument here is not for early, it’s just for active prioritization of a person’s freshest time blocks.

The High Velocity Focus Block can be at any point in someone’s day and people’s rhythms can be different. The goal is the regimentation and anchoring of the time block to allow you to prioritize and make progress on the right things and let the rest of the day take the impact of having to hit the moving targets.

Take into account what the cultural norms of the org, your team and the other execs are when choosing your regular time slot. Your changes will impact them and potentially set an example.  Also, if you are not the CEO, your ability to stave off interruptions from your manager and have them hopefully leave you alone needs to be a consideration. Hard to ignore a knock-knock from the big boss at your door if your time happens to coincide with their desired window to pop-in.

Implementing a High Velocity Focus Block

Whether you are a founder, CEO, executive manager or even individual contributor, there are simple elements to this framework which can really bring a ton of value. Here are some basic steps for how one might go about utilizing this in their own daily routine:

  1. Make / Find the Time – Commit to finding or creating at least a 2-hour (preferably 3-hour) block that you will place at some point in every day that will not change. You may have to adjust your schedule (it’s worth it). You need at least 2 hours because many of the hardest and most important problems need 30-60 minutes just to allow you to fully immerse and catch your brain back up with all the relevant details of where you left off. I called this “booting up.” Many times you are just hitting that magical “flow” state at the hour mark, and when you get there and realize you only have 1 hour left after you’ve fully spun up, it will leave you wanting more.
  2. Pick a Regular Time Slot – You goal is to find your peak mental, emotional and physical energy to maximize productivity. Think about when you are freshest and most excited about solving the hardest stuff. (“Finding your peak” comes from a great productivity article I read years ago here.) Many Coders talk about late nights, many managers, execs or people with families I know use the early morning, but it can be really any time of the day. You just need to know that you can stick to it, schedule around it daily and that other people (boss, team, peers, clients, etc.) will respect your desire to disappear or at least do their best to leave you alone.
  3. Schedule, Commit, Communicate – Place your focus block on your calendar daily and commit to scheduling around it. Communicate to others what you are doing and why, if they ask or need to know. If you are not using the calendar with stringency and fidelity at this point, I encourage you to begin taking it seriously and respect it, as it can be a cornerstone of defining where your time goes. If you don’t, others won’t, either. Depending on your place in the org, an AA or EA is huge for helping with this. Scheduling is such a time suck overall. More on offloading low velocity and scheduling at a later date.
  4. Your Manager – If adding the Focus Block to your day is going to interfere with time that you are usually casually reachable by your boss, make sure you at least inform them of what you are doing. I’d potentially frame it as “trying something new to boost productivity”  and ask for a blessing. Give yourself some breathing room and see if you can get some buy in, versus painting it as you are fully committed to this exact approach out of the gates. You may find your self tweaking it as you go. Positioning as “Trying” it sets the stage for adjustment downstream. Much of this goes for your peers, as well.
  5. Your Reports – I always say great management and leadership is just like great parenting. It’s not about “do what I say, not what I do,” it’s about modeling what you want to see from them. Part of coaching people up is giving them a role model, exemplar or playbook to aspire to. The best way to get them to raise the bar is to demonstrate how you’ve raised your own. Being disciplined about a regimen that puts the hardest, most valuable stuff at the center will speak volumes about what you deem important and what you value. If your team’s normal schedule will be affected, start with a “I’m trying something new so this is why our team’s schedule is changing.” Don’t be afraid to communicate, share or even evangelize what’s working in the hopes they will adopt a path toward more efficient productivity that no doubt aligns with all of your and the company’s interests.

Using The High Velocity Focus Block

Post implementation, here are my rules for getting the most out of the 2-3-hour daily focus block.

  1. Become Unreachable and Invisible – Make yourself invisible and shut out the world. Shut your email. DND your phones. Kill messenger. Put your headphones on. Close your blinds / door / etc. Tell your assistant, secretary or EA, if you have one, to gatekeep like a champion while making a list of needs from those who attempted to drop by. Be sure to have your EA also ask for a sense of time urgency for each item / issue. You don’t exist unless something is literally on fire (which you can define). Train people this is the case. Explain why, if they ask. There is a huge cost to interruptions breaking flow. There is an even larger cost to actually context switching to quickly speak with someone, pick up a call or come out of the weeds on your current focus. To immerse again you will need some sort of mini “boot up.”
  2. Warm Up Task – Low Velocity of any kind in this block is the enemy, but I always found a 5-minute “warm up task” like answering an email or hitting something tiny, easy and quick makes it much easier to get momentum for tackling something larger and gets your synapses firing. Since I used a single TODO list, which housed low and high velocity followups, it was quick and easy to pick one thing. Be sure the warm up task doesn’t turn into 3 or else you just ate 15 precious minutes you could find later. This is the “Make your bed” principle from the General McRaven UT Commencement Speech in action. Some people don’t need this step. Skip it if you can.
  3. The List – Everyone has their own system, but somewhere, easily accessible and with good hygiene, have the list of the most important High Velocity items with quick links to where to find the work. I used Workflowy and many times linked to Google Docs. Your brain is for processing, not for storage. Write down at least the most important stuff concisely and cleanly and keep it prioritized. Don’t waste time deciding what to do. Look at your list, reorder quickly if absolutely needed and dive in. Reordering things is low velocity. Try to do this step late in the day before for both high and low velocity list items. Usually, 5 minutes is enough to tweak a clean list.
  4. High Velocity Work – The core of this entire structure. Use as much of this time as humanly possible to work on the most important and heaviest lift(s). Many times it will only be one thing. Outside of the warm up – no Low Velocity allowed. I found myself minimizing distractions and fully immersing, not coming up for air. I know others who baked in a coffee or bathroom break at the 45- or 60-minute mark. I was always concerned that if I prairie dogged up, those who needed answers from me would pounce, causing me to context switch and challenge my state of “flow.”
  5. Bookend – Take the last 15 minutes to come up for air and leave yourself a clean edge to come back to, at worst case, the next day. Put notes in the header, leave yourself gDoc comments, make a mini todo list at the top, update your main TODO list. Anything you can do to make it easy and immediate to pick up where you left off reduces the “boot up” period for the next block.
  6. Optional – EA Daily Rundown – Side note if you have an EA or AA, I found a ton of value in doing a daily 15-minute run down with my Chief of Staff / EA Lee Anne before my post focus block schedule started. I used the last 15 minutes of my focus block and started my “bookend” phase at the 3 hour mark vs 3:15 mark. I would bring her up to speed on progress I made and what I needed and she would help ident’ notables on the upcoming schedule and anything low velocity but notable that came in while I was heads down. For that to work, your support team obviously needs to come to start prepping while you are sequestered.

Ripple Effects

It’s worth noting that many people use any extra morning time upon arrival to check email, catch up on low velocity back log and “prep” for their day. I used to be in the same boat. My hack for this became email catch up block in the afternoon and before I left for the day. I also did 10-20 mins in the early, early morning after I woke up and before I got into the office. I also would batch some email and low velocity catch up on the weekend when I was home and it was harder to be fully focused.

If you leave the low velocity unattended for too long, you will become a bottle neck and other people will start burning until they are important enough to move up your list. The “let it burn until it matters” method is laden with the managerial debt of eroding morale and toasted social capital. Avoid the negative ripple effect of becoming a uber-productive black hole that does not respond to others regularly.

I did eventually evolve into working with a full time EA to take on all scheduling and to help filter and prioritize all velocities of tasks. It was super high leverage but that is a whole other post for another time. My point is that whatever your Focus Block is displacing in your current routine will have to be rerouted into less pristine time or potentially delegated, if you are able. Be aware of it. Plan for it. Again, no black holes.

As a final side note, as I was putting this together, I was made aware of a productivity book called Essentialism which highlights an approach called “Top Goal,” I believe. I have not read it, but apparently the book is solid, covers a lot more than just this aspect, but the framework very similar.

This is not surprising at all. Lots of talented people fighting the same daily battle are going to arrive at very similar solutions that are mostly just named or ordered differently. Mine was the High Velocity Focus Block, coded as DND on my calendar.

So while there is some nuance to implementing, the framework is actually pretty simple when you look at it through the lens of “make sure you actually work on the most important stuff every day”. The hardest part, however, is committing to the time and then actually having the discipline to use it for truly High Velocity. Like anything else, it’s all about how well you can execute. I was never perfect at it, but I strove to be as consistent as I could be.

All in, making daily progress on that which is most important will absolutely create a sense of foundational satisfaction for your day. You also will move the business forward, potentially reduce your weekend or off-hour catch ups, lessen your stress and model a killer example for those around you.

There is really no downside. Argue with me.

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