As the head of a globally powered tech incubator, the DMZ, I’ve worked with hundreds of early-stage founders. Building a business is a massive endeavor, and time and time again, I’ve seen entrepreneurs become so focused on day-to-day demands that they forget to think strategically. Long-term success, however, requires thinking beyond the horizon — and implementing the right systems is what helps make space for that critical work.
For founders, that starts with prioritizing time management, networking and leading their teams. Small but mighty, these habits form the foundation of your success.
That was something I learned early on when I was in the infantry in the Canadian Armed Forces. As soon as the alarm went off at 5:00 a.m., we were trained to jump up and make our beds. At first, it was not immediately obvious why such a simple task held so much importance in our routine, but I soon realized that small act set the tone for the day. It helps to complete that first task, so you feel like you’ve been able to accomplish something, even if the rest of the day might not go according to plan. That’s the way I look at good habits even now — they help you get into the right mindset for whatever comes next.
These are the five habits I recommend every entrepreneur implement in their own lives:
1. Schedule your time effectively
All founders can fall into the trap of wanting to succeed more than anything else. But trying to do it all will lead to burnout. In order to ensure you have the time you need to do your most impactful work, you must be ruthless with your schedule.
I suggest getting into the mindset of building “buckets” of time. I have seven or eight buckets that are really important to me: There’s a bucket for work, professional development, family, travel, exercise and so on. Each one has time dedicated to it, and when I’m focusing on one, I try to be fully committed to it. Use your calendar and schedule time for everything. And I mean everything. It sounds ridiculous, but I block off time to think.
There’s so much truth to the idea of loving yourself first — it allows everything else to fall in place. The minute you start putting everybody else before yourself, you dig yourself into a really dark hole that can be hard to get out of. Love yourself enough to find out what things you need to put first for you — that aren’t related to your business. Maybe that’s waking up and meditating, going to the gym or taking a long walk. Whatever it is, the first thing you do each morning should be something that will get you into a positive mindset and ready to attack the day.
2. Read the news
This is such a simple thing that entrepreneurs often overlook, but it is incredibly important. Staying informed about what’s happening in the world is about relevance — you need to be able to participate in conversations about how the markets are doing, the economic issues and the social issues. In order to be strategic about your business, you must be able to understand both macro and micro trends. Make it a habit to skim through the news every morning so you’re in the know.
3. Check in with your staff about more than work
My number one rule for being a good manager is to touch base with people about themselves, rather than just their jobs. I’m a walking manager, in the sense that I’ll chat with everyone as I move through the office (and I do mean everyone, from the guy who cleans the coffee machine all the way up to the people who run the programs and the partnerships on the international level). When managers actively listen to their people, it fosters better communication, builds a better culture and helps them feel more comfortable approaching you with important issues or the next great idea.
4. Network — the right way
Networking is another essential habit — it opens doors, offers new ideas and inspires. Some people, of course, are much better at it than others. For years, I would go to three to four networking events a week, if not more, and when I got home, I’d feel absolutely drained. I’ve had to learn how to make networking more conversational and figure out how to be myself instead of trying to be someone that I’m not. Now, I’m far more intentional about what events I attend, and I always have a clear idea of three things: why I’m going, who I want to connect with and what points I want to speak to.
I also put more energy into other forms of networking, including on social media, where a strong presence can unlock countless opportunities. I make it a habit to regularly post my perspective on various issues on LinkedIn. These posts prompt my followers to engage with these topics, which often leads to people reaching out asking to chat more or inviting me to be a guest speaker. It is resource-intensive; it really takes time and energy to do this, but it ends up opening up new doors. It’s also worth it purely from an access perspective, because you’re hitting thousands of people in seconds instead of chatting with five people in an hour.
5. Set goals and say them out loud
I also make goal-setting a habit. I don’t get fancy about it; I just write down the four big things I’m aiming to accomplish in the next six months with my team, for example. Then I tell people about them. Going public with your goals means you can be publicly held accountable, so don’t be afraid to showcase yours. It will keep you honest and motivated to figure out how you’re going to accomplish those things.
It’s also important to revisit your goals, whether they’re daily ones on your to-do list or big-picture goals that might take months to achieve. Circumstances change, and you may end up having to reprioritize. And that’s okay — goals are a navigational tool. They keep me on the right path and give me the ability to understand my purpose, because I always revert back to asking “why am I doing this again?”