Tips for Staying Sharp from Top CEOs and Entrepreneurs

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has a secret: He’s not like those CEOs you see on TV.

On television, CEOs are superheroes. They stay up all hours of the night, plotting company strategy and closing deals on the other side of the world. In the real world, successful CEOs are more like Nadella. They understand that they’re only human. That’s why Satya Nadella makes a commitment to getting at least eight hours of sleep every night and sleeping until 7 a.m.

In a culture in which sleep deprivation becomes a badge of honor, Nadella’s admission might seem shocking. In truth, the best CEOs and entrepreneurs know that winning doesn’t require staying up late — it requires staying sharp and alert by using the best tools at your disposal. You probably don’t need to upgrade to a more comfortable bed with new mattress technology. But you should try some of these entrepreneurial tips for staying sharp from leaders who’ve proven they know how to stay ready for anything.

Clear Your Head Every Morning

Wendy Lea is Executive Chairman of Get Satisfaction and principal at The Chatham Group. Every morning, she takes 15 minutes to clear her mind of excessive thoughts. She writes down thoughts she wants to let go of and puts them in a bag; each morning she walks to a river near her house, and pulls a thought from the bag to float down the river.

You might not have a body of water handy, but you can set aside even just 10 minutes to focus your mind every morning. Try one of these activities:

  • Meditating doesn’t require saying “Om” or getting mystical with your morning. Try taking 10 minutes just to relax, breathe, and let go of busy thoughts.
  • Morning pages, a practice suggested by author Julia Cameron, involves getting a notebook and filling it every morning with the clutter that’s occupying your brain. Cameron suggests scratching out three pages of everyday thought, from feeding the cat to world peace, so your mind is free to think and create.
  • Take a quick walk every morning, whether with a pet or on your own. Listen to some tunes that you like, enjoy a podcast, or simply stay in the present and enjoy the view.

Focus on a Few Things at a Time

Trying to cram every conceivable task into one day requires your mind to constantly shift gears. Every time you have to shift your focus, according to productivity guru and author Todd Henry, it takes anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes to regain your focus.

DoubleClick founder Kevin O’Connor chooses just three to five essential tasks he wants to complete for each week and focuses his to-do list around those tasks. Square CEO and Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey stays focused by dividing days of the week into different themes. For example, he might spend Monday solely on management and Tuesday focusing on product.

Eliminate Distractions

Emails, social network posts, phone calls, instant messages — our days are full of rapid-fire interruptions that take us off task. Fred Bateman, founder and CEO of The Bateman Group, uses a Chrome extension called StayFocusd to keep himself from drifting to time-wasting websites. After 10 minutes on sites like Facebook and The New York Times, StayFocusd alerts him and blocks the websites. He also turns off all email and social media notification pop-ups on his computer and mobile devices as well as audio distractions, like pinging smartphone alerts.

Keep Meetings Focused

Death by meeting — we’ve all been part of meetings that go on forever without solving our most pressing problems. Homejoy CEO Adora Cheung sends out a Google Doc before every meeting, asking which topics people want to discuss. Then, she prioritizes them, ensuring the most important topics get covered and meetings always end on time.

Cultivate an External Brain

Clear your mind of non-essential tasks, to-dos, and obligations by creating a brain outside of your head. For VentureBeat executive editor Dylan Tweney, those external brains are Evernote and Instapaper. Instapaper is for saving articles to read later while Evernote is for getting tasks out of his head.

Tweney sends non-emergency emails to Evernote along with notes and interviews he needs to get to later. He tags his notes according to priorities — “next,” “soon,” “later,” “someday,” “waiting” — and then transfers his priorities to his daily to-do list.

External brains aren’t just for juggling tasks and things to read. Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson uses his address book as an external brain for keeping networking notes. When someone gives him a business card or when he meets someone at an event, he writes down their information along with a note about when and where they met. Then, when he needs to call the person later or the person contacts him, he checks his address book to refresh his memory about how they know one another.

Use the Two-Minute Rule

Possibly the most well-known productivity maestro of the past few decades, David Allen, has a concept called the two-minute rule. If an interruption comes your way and you can complete it in under two minutes, do it. If you can’t, schedule another time to address it. Lolabox co-founder Christian Sutardi is a fan of the two-minute rule because it requires no special systems, apps, or tools. He says it keeps his mind clear and boosts his productivity — and it’s something you can start today.

How Do You Stay Your Best?

If you’ve had success with these tips, share your story in the comments section. Also, tell us about the productivity hacks that keep you focused at work.

By Official Leweb Photos [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

1 Comment ▼

Melissa Thompson

Melissa Thompson Melissa Thompson is a freelance producer and writer at USA Today for the web only video interview series 'Your Take'. She lives in Utah with her 2 kids and husband.

One Reaction

  1. Aira Bongco

    As a CEO, you are probably used to doing a lot of things at the same time. But I am a firm believer of quality over quantity. It is better to be focused on a single task and do it with all your heart than jump from one task to another.

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