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Russian composer Igor Stravinsky reportedly did a 15-minute headstand each morning. Inventor Nikola Tesla performed 100 toe curls every night. Poet and author Maya Angelou only wrote in hotel rooms.
We may snicker at the quirks of famous creators, but we all have entrenched habits, whether we’re aware of them or not. In fact, research shows that about 43% of our everyday actions are habitual. Your morning espresso? Habit. Choosing an aisle or window seat? Habit.
Habits are powerful — and they run a wildly subjective gamut from good to bad, with loads of gray in between. Yet, the variable nature of entrepreneurship can make it tough to create and maintain constructive habits. “Consider the almost daily schedule upheavals that require us to drop what we are doing or had planned to do and choose the best response right now,” writes researcher Michelle Segar, author of The Joy Choice.
People with busy lives and ever-changing roles, schedules and responsibilities often struggle to put complex behaviors on autopilot, Segar says. In the 17 years since I launched Jotform, I’ve implemented some key habits, like spending an hour with my personal trainer before work. At the same time, I’m a classic founder. My attention gets splintered, and my calendar often resembles a chaotic LEGO tower.
Although habits are essential, there’s another tool entrepreneurs should use to maximize their time and focus: automation. I’ve spent the past decade automating my most repetitive, manual workflows and building a team that does the same. If you want to kick-start a habit, like checking email just once a day, automation can minimize the mental bandwidth required to make the change. Or it can take over a task entirely; you don’t even have to think about making or breaking a habit.
Let’s break down three common habits that trip up entrepreneurs, and how automation can smooth the road to success.
Related: 3 Ways to Automate Your Busy Work and Boost Your Productivity
1. Letting your to-do list run your life
Most of us develop the list-making habit early in life. Teachers, parents and coaches tell us to battle overwhelm by itemizing tasks and crossing them off, one by one. But a list doesn’t reflect what’s important versus what’s urgent. That’s how “buy printer paper” ends up on the same list as “launch new website.” And if you can’t do it all — a truly impossible goal — it’s easy to feel like you’re failing or falling behind.
You’re not failing. The only problem is thinking you have to personally tackle everything on your list. Instead, take a cold, hard look at your calendar and to-do list. Choose the single most important item — the activity that could transform your business — and give it your undivided attention. Later, examine the remaining tasks and consider what you could automate. For example, let software schedule (and re-schedule) your meetings. Set bills to auto-pay. Use automated tools to parse reports and organize social media posts.
The more you start to automate, the more opportunities you’ll find to let machines do the heavy lifting. Adopting an automation-first mindset will give you more time to think strategically and grow your business.
Related: From Mundane to Magic: The Incredible Benefits of Automation for Small Business Owners
2. Doing everything yourself
Founders know they need to delegate. But what if you’re just getting started? Before there’s a team to share the workload, you’re covering sales, IT, marketing, operations and maintenance. Thanks to recent advances, technology can now be your assistant — and it has deep expertise in nearly every function your business requires.
With AI and automation tools, you can track your competition online, receive search daily trends in a custom spreadsheet, employ chatbots for customer support and so much more. For every task you’d like to delegate, there’s a strong chance someone has built a free or low-cost solution to meet your needs.
Research from Columbia Business School also shows that women are socialized to feel guiltier when they delegate tasks than their male peers. In my experience, bootstrapped founders (of all genders) often struggle to delegate, too. They identify a need and move immediately to address it — whether they should or not.
Thankfully, automation doesn’t have feelings, nor does it value your deep self-sufficiency. It doesn’t mind backing up a server at 3 a.m. or adding yet another line to the spreadsheet. Most importantly, delegation is a habit you can strengthen over time. Just like editing your to-do list, re-assigning manual and repetitive tasks gets easier with practice.
Related: 5 Ways Automation Can Help You Manage Your Team
3. Saying “yes” all the time
As an entrepreneur, you’ve already said “yes” to an idea or opportunity. Chances are, you’ve also accepted many requests along the way, from taking introductory meetings to exploring new directions. You’re primed to say yes. As author and habit-building expert James Clear explains, saying “no” is equally important. “When you say no, you are only saying no to one option,” writes Clear. “When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.”
Sometimes, “no” is the best choice for your business. Automating tedious activities protects your time, focus and energy and opens the door for innovation. As I was writing my upcoming book, I realized that modern business requires a machine for success. When you automate your busy work, you create that machine and then refine and improve it over time. Instead of spending all your time baking pies, you can develop increasingly better recipes.
Whenever I share this principle, someone inevitably suggests that saying “no” is a luxury reserved only for founders with money, power and established businesses. These puzzle pieces certainly make it easier, but “saying no is not merely a privilege reserved for the successful among us,” Clear says. “It is also a strategy that can help you become successful.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Related: How to Enhance Business Automation and Unlock New Levels of Operational Efficiency