Productivity, Wellness, Workspace

How To Stay Calm When You Work At A Startup

Life at a fast-paced company means working quickly and making decisions, completing work or taking risks without all the information. Here's how to approach your work to save time, feel more satisfied and in control.


“Done is better than perfect”  

If you’re a perfectionist, chances are you had a rude awakening when you began work at a start-up. Mark Zuckerberg’s now famous maxim is possibly the highest commandment in start-up culture. But what does it actually mean? It means cutting the dithering and getting the project out of the door before you feel it’s truly finished, knowing you can fix anything later. Even if it goes out with a huge mistake, more often than not, the downside to dropping that clanger is outweighed by the benefit of having got the project out, what you start to learn from it from it being out and the reception it is getting. So, forgo another double-check on that project, send the email without rephrasing your sign-off. Get it out. Done is better than not-yet-done because you’re still tweaking it.

Don’t overthink a decision

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision,” said the American philosopher and psychologist William James. But, as Oliver Burkeman explored in the Guardian recently, your decision may not be as crucial as you think. If you can’t decide between two options, maybe there’s not much in it, and it doesn’t matter which you choose. So don’t spend excess time weighing up the pros and cons of each. Choose one and move on. You’ll soon learn whether it was the right decision. Once again, done is better than perfect.


Be clever about deadlines 

Your time is precious, so allocate it in the most clever way possible. More often than not, that means looking at everything you’ve marked as ‘urgent,’ and giving it a new, more realistic status. This could mean dropping the majority of the work you had planned today. That’s ok. Nothing should be on your to do list for the sake of it. Ask yourself “does that really, truly need to be dealt with, or can it wait?” Prioritise tasks that, if they went uncompleted right now, would block someone ese. And if you’ve got budget but not time, ask yourself “can this be outsourced?” Regular, hard edits of your to do list will ensure it always reflects what actually needs to be done.
Working at a startup

Itemise your ‘to dos’ 

Once you’ve sorted your tasks into priorities, it can be tempting to jump right in. But don’t. Break them down. Write down the steps required to complete a task – and give each a space on your to do list – rather than simply the general task. For example, if you are outsourcing a piece of work, ‘Brief Sandra’ doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s probably more like: Check Sandra is free; write brief (including any research or detail-checking with others), write the email with the details to Sandra, answer any questions she has. That is four, possibly five or six separate ‘to dos’. And they’ll take a lot longer than ‘Brief Sandra’ suggests. Getting into the habit of breaking down your tasks will make you a better worker daily, and generally. Daily, it allows you to: work on your task in increments while juggling other projects (how most people function) and shows you at a glance how far into your big task you are. This strategy also helps you learn (and then know instinctively) how much time things take you to do, which in turn helps you plan your time better – you’ll be more organised and feel more competent. But possibly the biggest selling point of this technique is that it gives you more of that satisfying, motivating, cross-of-your-list feeling – reason enough alone.


Go FAQ yourself.

Wondering if you’ve covered all bases for a project, or stuck at the very beginning and unsure of how to start? Write some Frequently Asked Questions about your project. Pretend you are an outsider looking in. Start with the basics, what fundamental questions would they want answered, to understand this concept or project? What other questions might they have? Ask questions of a piece of work and the answers will provide the essentials of what you need to include. This can work in reverse, too. If you’ve included something that isn’t covered with your FAQs, maybe it isn’t essential.


Find some quiet. 

Minor interruptions can seriously derail your focus: a University of California study found it takes around 26 minutes to return your attention to what you were working on after an interference. Furthermore, if the disturbance led to you visually restructuring your work space (say, opening a new browser window or moving some documents on your physical desk) returning your attention is even harder, because it’s ‘more difficult to rely on cues to reorient one to their interrupted task.’ So if you need to get something done – or to make a decision – urgently, find somewhere you will not be distracted, or tell your colleagues you are not available. Your work will thank you.