Rahul Vohra could spend hours talking about productivity. But he won’t, because that would be a waste of time. As the CEO of Superhuman, the $30-per-month email app, productivity is kind of his job. He’s developed philosophies and hacks to live by — both for Superhuman employees and for Superhuman clients. The company’s blog is a treasure trove of posts telling you how to better retain information, or how to write a good email. Vohra has penned many of the posts himself.
“I knew when I was about 12 or 13 years old that I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Vohra said. “I actually started on that path relatively early during university, and so I found myself in a position where I was managing my own time.”
He quickly learned that like most of us, he was pretty bad at it. In fact, he still struggles with managing and prioritizing his time. But now, Vohra has a solid list of coping mechanisms at his disposal.
Protocol caught up with Vohra in November 2020 to talk about how to run a remote company, but we wanted to hear his personal productivity tips too. Below are some of the ways Vohra and other folks at Superhuman stay on top of their work. If you want some tips on how to manage your email using Superhuman, Vohra compiled nine of them here.
Stay in the flow: meditate, inbox zero, switch log
Flow is Vohra’s preferred term for uninterrupted, focused work. It’s a state of mind where work feels like play. In the words of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
“We stop thinking about ourselves, we’re fully absorbed,” Vohra said when describing flow. “There’s a complete distortion of temporal experience. Moments can either stretch out to infinity or hours can fly by in what feels like minutes.”
It sounds magical. But it’s also hard to attain during a workday filled with constantly competing priorities: email, Slack messages, Zoom calls. Vohra has a few daily rituals he completes to best set himself up for flow. First, he meditates. This helps him clear his mind and do his most creative work.
Second, he makes sure to hit Inbox Zero, in other words, keeping his email inbox empty at all times. The goal is to reduce distraction and clean up a cluttered, overflowing inbox. Productivity expert Merlin Mann coined the term in the early 2000s, and it took the tech world by storm. Hitting Inbox Zero is one of Superhuman’s key selling points.
Vohra’s third daily ritual is the switch log. Vohra has a private Slack channel that he messages in every time he starts a task, switches a task and takes a break. He included an example of the technique on the Superhuman blog in 2020. Sometimes he’ll log tasks retroactively, or edit Slack messages when he accidentally starts doing one task over another. The practice grew from a question often asked of tech leaders: Do you know how you spend your time? Vohra found that his calendar didn’t really give an answer. So he started logging his time each day. “Your calendar records what you thought would happen; your switch log records what actually happened,” Vohra said.
“What you can then do is at the end of every week, analyze that data,” Vohra said. “So I then compare my ideal week to where my time is actually going and I can start to use rules of thumb.”
Stagger your company calendar
The Superhuman workplace is geared toward keeping everyone in flow as much as possible. One practice the company has adopted is a staggered calendar. Most people have inefficient calendars, Vohra said, where meetings are randomly scheduled throughout the week with little time for uninterrupted work. In his other role as an angel investor, Vohra recommends CEOs stack their meetings on specific days.
For example, if you’re the CEO of a mid-sized company (100-200 people), hold your team meetings on Wednesday. Stack your 1:1s on Tuesday. Ask the people who report to you to hold their team meetings on Tuesday and their 1:1s on Monday. And so on for the people underneath them.
The staggering helps information flow through a company more quickly, and creates a faster timeline for solving problems. Problems might come up during 1:1s on Monday, be addressed in team meetings on Tuesday or, if necessary, be addressed at the company meeting on Wednesday. “It takes at most two days for information to travel,” Vohra said. “In many companies, I'm seeing very important information traveling as slow as one week or two weeks.”
In this formation, companies have the majority of Monday and Wednesday and all of Thursday and Friday for deep work.
Harness active procrastination, banish passive procrastination
Procrastination is one of the biggest barriers to the elusive flow state of work. Vohra separates the phenomenon into two elements: passive procrastination and active procrastination. Passive procrastination is the “dangerous” one, he said. You’re working on a task, but feel the impulse to turn away for a quick dopamine rush from some other activity. Like frittering your time on Twitter when you’re supposed to be filing a story, for example (cough cough).
“If you’re feeling indecisive, if you’re trying to make deals with yourself, I’ll do this thing and then I’ll get this reward,” Vohra said, “That’s how you know you’re passively procrastinating.”
Active procrastination is when you consciously decide to direct your energy to another task on your to-do list. “The difference between this and passive procrastination is it's actually a useful task, it's a project that you at some point were wanting to do anyway,” Vohra said.
When it comes to passive procrastination, Vohra encourages mindful curiosity. Acknowledge your discomfort, and think about the consequences of watching the new "Bridgerton" season 2 trailer. Will it be fun? Yes, but just for a moment. Before you know it, you’ll go down a rabbit hole of other movie trailers on YouTube. Then you’ll be stressed because 30 minutes have passed and you still haven’t written your story. (This is hypothetical, I promise.)
“Visualize what it would be like to go make a coffee and visualize what it would be like to actually get to Inbox Zero,” Vohra said. “The guilty pleasure of procrastination will actually seem less attractive.”
Active procrastination, on the other hand, can be powerful. Vohra claims that everything he’s been able to do in his career is due to harnessing active procrastination. The idea here is to go with the flow, and follow your mind’s impulse to complete another useful task. It’s “quite literally listening to your body,” Vohra said.
Completing another task, like folding your laundry, might lead to creative thinking that can help you with your original task.
Make decisions quickly
Superhuman uses a “hyper efficient decision-making process,” Vohra said. He found that meetings were rather inefficient in the early days of the company. Certain issues got all the airtime, while others fell by the wayside. To encourage efficient meetings and fast decision-making, Vohra uses a three-step process.
First, if somebody wants to raise an issue at a team meeting, they must write it down and share it with the team by 6 p.m. the day before the meeting. Team members get the gist quicker, as people can read faster than they can speak.
Second, if someone wants to comment on an issue at the team meeting, they must have read and commented on the document beforehand. This saves time, as people are required to come to the meeting prepared if they want to speak.
Third, if a decision is not reached within five minutes, the conversation stops and the team identifies a decision-maker. Superhuman uses Jeff Bezos’ method when thinking about decisions. For reversible decisions, anyone other than the CEO (Vohra) should be the decision-maker. Vohra is the decision-maker for irreversible decisions.
To actually make decisions, Superhuman uses Bain’s RAPID framework for the five roles involved in any decision (Recommend, Approve, Perform, Input and Decide). The decision-maker gathers all the necessary information to make a decision before the next meeting.
“Since everyone is always up to speed and each person takes at most five minutes, in one hour, you can get through as many as 10 decisions with plenty of room for fun and banter,” Vohra said.
Though Vohra’s all about saving time, he recognizes the value of fun chatter during a meeting. At Superhuman, each team meeting starts with employees sharing one amazing thing that happened to them during the week. We all need some positive energy in order to be our most productive selves.