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Urgent vs. Important: How to keep the company afloat?

Optimizing survivability of your fledgling start-up
Vladimir Baranov

Founder, CTO / COO / CEO, Executive Coach & Engineering Leadership, Business Innovation, Entrepreneurship, VC and Fundraising, Human Interfaces

During the first couple of months after starting a company you are bound to run into the issue of resource constraint. The new work will just keep arriving and the old work will not be started yet. The new tasks accumulate and create anxiety. All of the promises that will not be fulfilled and will generate reputation damage cross your mind frequently. Even with spending additional hours in the evening and nights and full weekends, there is just not enough time to get all of the work done. The stress keeps coming on in waves, is there an end to all of this? What can be done?

It is quite overwhelming to be experiencing all of this, but there is an approach to address the situation. I have been through a few similar bottlenecks myself and while it does not feel great, it feels worse when you are experiencing it without a framework. Once you get yourself familiarized with the approach below, the tension will subside. 


First of all, you have to recognize that you are no longer in a regular job environment. You are in a survival mode and thus different rules apply. Your goal is to reach product/market fit as soon as possible before your time or capital runs out. This means that you are given permission to be more creative, more succinct, more innovative when it comes to solving your problems. This is an opportunity to review all of your previous habits and approaches to doing work and consider those extinct, and open to updates. You are a racecar and not a sedan. Every part of your day, every tool, every interaction is optimized for achieving only one goal - survival. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of the article.


I would like to introduce you to the concept of personal bandwidth. You might be already familiar with efficient time management strategies and setting your hours properly. However, what I want to highlight is how important it becomes to truly understand what you are capable of and how many tasks you can complete in the allowed time. Do you know how much work you can do in 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc? As you hone in your skills, you will become more effective at estimating how long tasks take and then getting them done. This way you will also clearly understand which tasks you are not able to work on due to constrained bandwidth. Keep in mind that you are also not able to work 100% of the time and regular rest and recovery is important. Skipping recovery will work against your goal of survival as building a company is a marathon and not a sprint.


Keeping in sync with the last sentence, building company is a long journey. Work will come in unpredictable waves. There will be times of complete chaos, and surprisingly there will be times of complete quietness. It is important that you operate accordingly. Breeze regularly during chaotic times and don’t get too relaxed during the slow times. Use slow times to build up your “defenses” for the next wave, work on projects that have been on a backburner, or improve the quality of the projects you are most embarrassed by. As part of building up your “defenses”, make sure to move your future work around the calendar in a way that makes you the most productive. Have a meetings-only or meetings-free day. Our minds crave predictability to operate at their best. 

Asking for Help and Delegation

As I have said before there will be more than you can handle, but! Since you are in a new paradigm you can ask literally anybody for help to get you across the line. This literally means anybody. Use your charm, use your wits, use your bartering tokens, call in your favors. The whole world is available to you. It will be surprising for you to find out how many people are willing to help, make sure to reward them with thanks and personal attention. As you are calling in favors, it is also important to keep the tasks precise and concise with an explicit outcome. It is much easier this way to limit how many times your friend will be helping you on a specific task. And they will also not get frustrated due to lack of clarity. As you get better with this process, you will notice different types of work requiring different types of talent and structure. Pay attention to this emerging property of the process and establish your own delegation guidelines.


I am sure you have heard this before that distractions are killers of productivity. And they are! Each distraction can easily cost you twenty minutes of deep thought. You should start actively minimizing those in your workplace. Turn off notifications, ambient noise, pop-ups, turn your desk away from the windows or pass human traffic. Find out what environment works the best for you. For some it is a large colorful room, for some it is a bland closet, for others it could be a loud space in the middle of the conference room. Pay attention to your body signals too. Those are also distractions. Small physical discomforts over time can turn into a consistent pain that will have to be managed. Set your work space accordingly as your productivity depends on it. 

Quality - MVP

This element will be the hardest to overcome for all of the Type-A personalities. The unfortunate reality is that there is just not enough time to work to perfect all of your tasks. Some will have to be abandoned, imperfect or delivered with gaps in implementation. Prepare yourself mentally for this outcome, otherwise you will try to invest more and more hours, ending up recognizing that the pile of new tasks just got higher. 

What helps, is to keep reminding yourself that it is always an MVP (minimal-viable-product) at almost all initial stages of the company. Redefine what minimal means for you, how bad the duct tape has to be in order to do its job? What is the minimum effort required for the client to receive value? What is your client’s true tolerance for errors? Many of the initial users are quite understanding of the start-up conditions and ready to accept quality risks in order to get the value that they need. 

Urgent vs. Important

The final and one of the most important points that I would like to make is that you have to learn to separate Urgent and Important. You have to set a criteria - which of the tasks you have to work on in order to keep your company afloat and which ones will go unprioritized. Urgent tasks will help you survive and important ones will make “Titanic” more functional, just before it goes under.

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