Workplace

Finding flow: Superhuman's CEO wants to help you get stuff done

Rahul Vohra has some tricks for achieving “flow," an uninterrupted, all-absorbing state of work that resists procrastination and useless meetings.

Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra

CEO Rahul Vohra has developed philosophies and hacks to live by — both for Superhuman employees and for Superhuman clients.

Photo: Superhuman

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.

Policy

Google is wooing a coalition of civil rights allies. It’s working.

The tech giant is adept at winning friends even when it’s not trying to immediately influence people.

A map display of Washington lines the floor next to the elevators at the Google office in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Google has faced intensifying pressure from policymakers in recent years, it’s founded trade associations, hired a roster of former top government officials and sometimes spent more than $20 million annually on federal lobbying.

But the company has also become famous in Washington for nurturing less clearly mercenary ties. It has long funded the work of laissez-faire economists who now defend it against antitrust charges, for instance. It’s making inroads with traditional business associations that once pummeled it on policy, and also supports think tanks and advocacy groups.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Sustainability. It can be a charged word in the context of blockchain and crypto – whether from outsiders with a limited view of the technology or from insiders using it for competitive advantage. But as a CEO in the industry, I don’t think either of those approaches helps us move forward. We should all be able to agree that using less energy to get a task done is a good thing and that there is room for improvement in the amount of energy that is consumed to power different blockchain technologies.

So, what if we put the enormous industry talent and minds that have created and developed blockchain to the task of building in a more energy-efficient manner? Can we not just solve the issues but also set the standard for other industries to develop technology in a future-proof way?

Keep Reading Show less
Denelle Dixon, CEO of SDF

Denelle Dixon is CEO and Executive Director of the Stellar Development Foundation, a non-profit using blockchain to unlock economic potential by making money more fluid, markets more open, and people more empowered. Previously, Dixon served as COO of Mozilla. Leading the business, revenue and policy teams, she fought for Net Neutrality and consumer privacy protections and was responsible for commercial partnerships. Denelle also served as general counsel and legal advisor in private equity and technology.

Workplace

Everything you need to know about tech layoffs and hiring slowdowns

Will tech companies and startups continue to have layoffs?

It’s not just early-stage startups that are feeling the burn.

Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images

What goes up must come down.

High-flying startups with record valuations, huge hiring goals and ambitious expansion plans are now announcing hiring slowdowns, freezes and in some cases widespread layoffs. It’s the dot-com bust all over again — this time, without the cute sock puppet and in the midst of a global pandemic we just can’t seem to shake.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Entertainment

Sink into ‘Love, Death & Robots’ and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite picks for your weekend pleasure.

Image: A24; 11 bit studios; Getty Images

We could all use a bit of a break. This weekend we’re diving into Netflix’s beautifully animated sci-fi “Love, Death & Robots,” losing ourselves in surreal “Men” and loving Zelda-like Moonlighter.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt

Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Workplace

This machine would like to interview you for a job

Companies are embracing automated video interviews to filter through floods of job applicants. But interviews with a computer screen raise big ethical questions and might scare off candidates.

Although automated interview companies claim to reduce bias in hiring, the researchers and advocates who study AI bias are these companies’ most frequent critics.

Photo: Johner Images via Getty Images

Applying for a job these days is starting to feel a lot like online dating. Job-seekers send their resume into portal after portal and a silent abyss waits on the other side.

That abyss is silent for a reason and it has little to do with the still-tight job market or the quality of your particular resume. On the other side of the portal, hiring managers watch the hundreds and even thousands of resumes pile up. It’s an infinite mountain of digital profiles, most of them from people completely unqualified. Going through them all would be a virtually fruitless task.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories
Bulletins