8 Ways Founders Manage Distraction and Still Get Things Done

Need Want Do

What do founders do that nobody else does? Have they found a way to do everything? Are they 100% focused throughout the day on building their business and improving their life? As humans—just as with many other animals—we crave social status. We look up to others who have a higher status and we want to be like them. The problem is that nowadays the lives of higher status individuals in our “tribe” are more obscured than ever. Our tribe is now the millions that we see in the news and social media.

When we don’t meet that level of expectation set by our heroes, we get crushed and discouraged. The truth is, even the most dedicated and driven among us lose their focus and become distracted every day. But there’s hope. In addition to curbing your distraction by the aforementioned news and social media, there’s a lot you can do to manage the very same obstacles that the best of us face every day. Yes, the best among us face the same problems we do.

Let’s take Tim Ferriss as an example. Tim Ferriss often talks about the importance of doing 1 important thing every day. As he says in his book, Tools of Titans, “This is the only way I can create big outcomes despite my never-ending impulse to procrastinate, nap, and otherwise fritter away days with bull****.” Interesting, right? That’s someone who knows more about habits and routines than 95% of the population and he struggles with apathy and laziness like anyone else. Nevertheless, due to the usefulness of his advice surrounding this issue, he’s able to productively generate a ton of great content for our benefit, and he is referenced here several times.

TL;DR: Founders know they can’t hold off distraction forever. They mitigate distraction’s effects and keep in motion by limiting their choices and the time spent making them.

1. Founders ACTUALLY USE the 80/20 rule

Being busy is a form of laziness - lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

—Tim Ferriss

Founders understand the 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle) and put it into action. The Pareto Principle posits that 80% of consequences come from 20% causes. This applies to an incredible number of scenarios: 80% of an item’s value may come from only 20% of its features; 80% of the talent on a team comes from only 20% of the players; 80% of wealth is possessed by only 20% of people; and so on.

Essentially, the majority of the value you provide as a Founder will only come from a minority of the actions you take. As you target your important actions more carefully, your value will increase. Even if “do” less, you can accomplish more.

Moving on, the other items on this list can help with targeting important action. If distraction is inevitable (and it is), limiting the number of things that need to be done—and making them valuable—is essential.

So how do Founders do that?

2. They Make a List

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Even if everything on a list doesn’t get done, high achievers still make lists. Making lists gets items out of our heads where they distract us from taking actions and solving problems at any given moment. After you make a list, you may be tempted to carry the items of that list around in the back of your mind. Don’t! That is what the list is for. Just take it one item at a time and refer to the list for your next task.

Your mind doesn’t stop thinking, and your job is to make it stop. As humans, a constant inner conversation is our blessing and our curse. Scientists have discovered that our brain has a “default mode network” that is responsible for churning out the ever-present voices in our head. Masters of meditation can quiet that network at a moment’s notice. One way you can remind your brain it doesn’t have to talk to you is to make that list and trust that whatever is on it has already been thought through. Then just do stuff.

There are 1000 ways to make a list, and everybody swears by their own method. For this article, we’ll be using Tim Ferriss’s method, since he created it to work even when your day is against you. After you’ve made a list of priorities, try using my prioritization algorithm to put them in order and let the algorithm I’ve created allow the most important ones to jump to the top of your list. More info here. And this leads us to our next item. With all these things on the list, and all these voices in their heads, how do founders actually get things done?

3. Founders Focus on the One Thing

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

—Bruce Lee

Have you ever generated a list of goals for your day, and subsequently accomplished nothing on that very same day? You are not alone. It’s an all-too-common story: we’ve made a list, and all of a sudden yesterday’s items appear on today’s docket.

Gary Keller, Billionaire, and founder of Keller Williams Real Estate, wrote an excellent book called “The One Thing” in which he states: “It is not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it is that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.”

Tim Ferriss highlights the same principle in his work and this is a principle I work with my clients to understand deeply. The idea is that when you decide to do just one thing each day you need to focus on your highest leverage task. Identifying high leverage tasks takes practice, but when you get good at identifying and doing your highest leverage tasks it’s like boarding a rocket ship.

High-leverage tasks are the actions you can take that make other items on your list easier, inevitable, irrelevant, or unnecessary. Let’s create an example so we can more deeply understand how some things on a to-do list can make the others easier, inevitable, irrelevant, or unnecessary.

Let’s say our list looks like this:

Write an article

Get the groceries

Research 5 people to contact for article

Hire a personal assistant

Make a healthy homemade meal

Go for a run

Buy Amazon Alexa device

In this example, let’s see how hiring a personal assistant can be the highest leverage task on the list. Even if you got none of the other items on the list done in a day, it’s going to help you get them all done on another day. If you hire the assistant then researching a list of people to contact can become the assistant’s task. The assistant can also get the groceries. Those tasks are now unnecessary for you to do. That task also becomes inevitable, because you have a third party who is invested in doing it. The other tasks will become easier because your assistant is saving you time. You wanted the Amazon Alexa to make your life easier but you realized that the assistant was a better option and the Alexa is not irrelevant and unnecessary.

Now that you understand how to choose your highest leverage tasks, let’s talk about turning high-leverage tasks into high leverage habits.

4. Founders Prioritize Consistency Over Intensity

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”


Now that you have a list and one important thing that is actionable and valuable, let’s expand upon this foundation for a methodology aimed at long-term success.

Simon Sinek claims that consistency in leadership is more important than intensity and this dichotomy translates into our self-leadership as well. As Sinek says: “Working out for 9 hours at the gym doesn’t get you into shape. Working out every day for 20 minutes gets you into shape.” We so often treat things with intensity when they should be treated with consistency.

Making a useful list of activities and getting the number one item done is great. On top of that, if you can make a habit of something powerful, it’s golden. What if you can make a habit of making lists and prioritizing tasks? This is an obvious example, so I’ll extend it here. But you could choose any habit that will lead to long term success and ingrain it in your life...

You could make a habit to create a list every morning—or every night before bed. If you were to maintain this habit, look out to the long term effect you will create: Now each and every day has a high-leverage focus. Since habits become easier as we repeat them, your list ritual becomes easier to continue with, which will increase your motivation and potency every day. With habits of focus, distractions become less distracting and less appealing than they ever were before. You see how you are not having to manage distractions in the moment but merely creating habits that make them easy to bypass and ignore.

You will still get distracted. You’ll still have those days where you fall off again. Founders know this, but they do not let it stop them from continuing, consequently, their habits gain momentum.

As you manage your distraction and optimize attention, you are more aware of what is happening when it is happening. You can take more meaningful action toward optimizing your time. With that in mind, there’s an important “law” of how we utilize our time that you can use to your advantage.

5. Founders Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion".

—Cyril Parkinson

I remember the last gathering I hosted at my house. I spend the hours before rushing to get everything cleaned up and ready. Even though the limited time it takes to clean could have been done well before the party’s start I find myself damn near every time putting things away up until and past when the doorbell rings. Why?

Because of Parkinson’s Law.

While not a law of the universe, Founders have found tremendous guidance in this principle. They know they need to have not only a time to start but also a time to be done. Your brain will give you as much time as possible to complete a task if left unchecked.

Just to reiterate, this principle is incredibly powerful. It’s why we’re frantically gathering our things to leave at the last minute for work or an eventing out. It’s saying we are going to file our taxes early this year and then instead filing for an extension and waiting an extra 6 months to file at the last minute the extension is due!

So how do you combat such a powerful law? Here are some tips.

  • Use it to your advantage. For example, focus on the high-leverage thing you need to get done and trust that you’ll take care of the small things sometimes, even if it is at the very last minute.

  • Use it in marketing and sales. Understand that your clients may not make the decision to buy from you until the opportunity is going away. This is why countdown timers work well on some sales pages. Create time-bounded plans for yourself and others with consequences for going over time.

  • Use habits instead of deadlines and create deadlines and timelines for your habits. If you give yourself a deadline to hit a revenue goal to hit 1 million in sales six months from now you might be cramming six months later, and you might miss your target. If you set a daily goal of $2800, and forget the long term goal, then you’re cramming each day. But the strong daily habit you build may result in overachievement six months later.

6. They Rinse Attentional Residue

“ Lose an hour in the morning, and you will spend all day looking for it.”

—Richard Whately

Researcher Sophia Leroy describes Attentional Residue as, "...when thoughts about a task persist and intrude while performing another task." If, in the midst of a meeting about sales, you are finishing up an email about product development then you are experiencing the effects of attentional residue. We often don’t realize how dropping our focus from 100% to 80% can be the difference between success and failure.

This is why founders take pains to create optimal transitions between periods of intense focus. Think of managing attentional residue like washing your hands before you eat. Create quick but effective habits to let go of previous tasks and areas of focus and move on to the next with 100% commitment.

Here are some things you can do to optimize focus and attention and conquer the problems associated with attentional residue:

  • Create blocks of focus on only one topic for 60, 90, or 120 minutes at a time.

  • Add transitional time between focus blocks of 15-20 minutes. Use this time to meditate, go for a walk, listen to music or have a healthy snack and water.

  • Schedule meetings with others that force you to quickly shift your attention from one topic to the next.

  • Make a few quick notes when you finish a period of focus that will help you pick up where you left off.

Come up with some of your own tricks, and use this guiding principle: Managing attentional residue is as much about remembering what you need to remember when you need to remember it as it is about forgetting what you need to forget when you need to forget it.

7. They avoid Information Overload

“Do you ever have so much to do that you just take a nap?”

—Jim Gaffigan

As Peter Roetzel defines it:

"Information overload is a state in which a decision-maker faces a set of information... comprising the accumulation of individual informational cues of differing size and complexity that inhibits the decision maker’s ability to optimally determine the best possible decision..."

Wow. Nice overloaded, informational definition!

TL;DR: Too much information inhibits action.

Our brain is acutely affected when it has a lot on its plate. This triggers anxiety and avoidance of the mountain we have given ourselves.

I wish I could say that in climbing a mountain of information, it’s as simple as starting your journey with a single step. But it doesn’t work like that with information. When faced with seemingly overwhelming resources and things to do, we shut down and turtle-up, making no substantial progress. That’s natural. It’s less about climbing the mountain and more about planning a different journey.

Many Founders learn to develop a deeper sense of when Information Overload begins to set in, are able to take a step back, and re-evaluate where they are and what they can do with the time they have. This is also why having only a short “to-do” list is so essential; it makes it more difficult for information overload to occur at all.

In my coaching I help clients become aware of overload moments. For example, if the research required to complete a task is taking 4 times as long as you thought it would, it’s time to switch to a different task. Many times a new task allows our brain to process the information we already have in the background anyways. Or the new task provides the information we need to go back and solve our original problem.

So, beware the temptation to climb mount information, and perhaps you should even blow it up!...

8. When They Can’t Beat it, They Destroy it

“Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterward looks for victory.”

- Sun Tzu

Youtube personality and educational content creator CGP Grey was once asked what he does to stay on track and avoid temptation. He said he’s actually terrible at avoiding the things that distract him most, so he just gets rid of them entirely. He wanted to stop eating so much junk food - so he didn’t even buy it. If it wasn’t in the house, he couldn’t easily get to it, and that created an impediment to bad habits. He wanted certain websites to stop distracting him, so he uses pesky blocker programs to bar them from his access.

Is this self-trickery a cop-out? Not at all. Vices and old habits are extremely hard to break. Removing the stimulus entirely prevents temptation, and, if we one day return to such things we’ll have a much better chance at a better relationship with them.

Inspired to get things done today? Download my prioritization tool to get started now. Just enter the tasks on your list, rate them each from 1-10 on ease, urgency, and impact, and sort them by their composite scores. You’ll be knocking off the items on your list in no time.