Weekly planning and productivity for startup founders

September 15, 2020

Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- inspires confidence amongst co-founders, employees, users, customers, and investors like planning an ambitious amount of work and then accomplishing that work consistently. So it’s critical that a founder learn the best rhythm for productivity and then accomplish what they said they were going to accomplish.

The rhythm and cadence of a BigCo is pretty well known: annual planning and budgeting, quarterly reporting and OKR setting, monthly updates, weekly sprints, and daily standups. It’s the drumbeat to the corporate world.

Many of the founders we work with come from BigCo-land and are used to this rhythm. But they immediately fall over trying to apply this cadence -- consciously or not -- to their brand-new startup.

It fails for two main reasons:

  1. There’s no urgency in this rhythm. None at all. The feedback loop is up to a year-long, and if there are minor delays throughout the process, it’s no big deal to slightly readjust. This ends up reducing overall productivity and output.
  2. The turnaround time is too long. To go a month, quarter, or year without changing priorities reflects a lack of listening at the earliest stage. While I don’t want to argue against focus, there should be continuous, minor adjustments along the way.

What’s a better rhythm for a pre-product-market fit startup?

Startups should operate on a weekly cadence. Every founder should be planning their priorities every single week. Here’s how we do it at Assembler Labs. Over the years we’ve tried lots of systems, but this is, by far, the most flexible, simple to do, and ultimately leads to the highest productivity.

Carve out some time Sunday evening every week to do this. You want to start Monday morning with a bang, not by spending time planning.

Start with a blank slate and plan your goals. 

Figure out what the most pressing things are for your business: do you need to figure out why churn is so high? Build new features to help your “somewhat disappointed users” to become your happiest? Understand what channels will lead to the fastest growth? Find out who the correct buyer is in your sales cycle? Prospect and build your top-of-funnel?

Choose no more than three high-level goals. This often looks like one goal focused on testing a hypothesis (”important”) and one goal that just has to get done (”urgent”).

Sometimes these goals rarely or never change for the first year or two. If you know your business has a virtuous cycle, you can use all or some of the states of the cycle as your top-level goals every week.

Get the most important tasks in each of those goals

Stack rank the most important tasks in each of these goals. That could be the top 3 features you need to build, or the survey you need to administer, or whatever. Whatever the real action that needs to be done goes into this step.

Get that shit on your calendar immediately

We built Motion to satisfy this exact use case, but you absolutely need to get your tasks on your calendar. If you don’t block off the time on Sunday evening, you’ll never make time for it throughout the week.

Choose ambitious-but-achievable goals

This is a critical step, which is why I break it out even though it’s really part of the scheduling step above.

When you’re putting the tasks on your calendar, make sure you choose an amount which is ambitious-but-achievable. Here’s how I do that.

Imagine a perfect week. One where you just crush every hour of every day and are incredibly productive. What does it look like? Mark that down as 100%. Every week won’t be like that, but that’s what you’re going to strive for.

Now, imagine what 90% of the way to perfect would look like. That’s what you’re aiming for every week. It’s ambitious -- after all, it’s almost perfection every single week. But it’s also achievable. You can do it.

So, schedule that amount of work.

Do what you say you’re going to do

That’s it, when it comes to planning. But now comes the absolute most important part: do what you say you’re going to do.

You just planned a week. It’s Sunday evening, so get a good night’s rest and wake up in the morning ready to attack the whole week. Your job now is to complete everything on your calendar before Sunday rolls back around and you do it all over again.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing inspires confidence amongst co-founders, employees, users, customers, and investors like planning an ambitious amount of work and then accomplishing that work consistently.