Like many entrepreneurs, I’m constantly on the hunt for ways to improve my effectiveness. I’m always happy when I hear a new tip that might make me a better consultant, collaborator or teammate. And, who is better to learn from than successful CEOs in my own backyard? I interviewed ten, Austin-based CEOs and top executives about their daily routines in order to glean which habits and rituals have supported their success.
While there was a lot of diversity in my conversations, one thing was crystal clear: building a high-performing company is the result of consistent habits. In particular, I identified seven distinct habits that I would like to share. These CEOs, representing industries ranging from tech to higher education, offer actionable advice that you can use to improve your career (or life), regardless of your role or seniority.
Habit #1: Be Early to Rise
Unsurprisingly, I found that it all starts in the morning. The most consistent thing I heard from the CEOs is that they start their days early. Jen Grogono, President and CEO of uStudio, sets her alarm for 5:30 am and spends time relaxing and reading before the rest of her family wakes up. Suzi Sosa, CEO of Verb, works out at 5:30 am in her home gym, gets her kids off to school and then enjoys an hour to herself before work. A normal morning for Jean Anne Booth, CEO of UnaliWear, starts in the dark, usually around 4:30 am! What struck me about these stories is that getting up early isn’t about diving headfirst into work. Instead, the morning hours offer these hyper-busy execs a moment to wake-up, breathe and set the tone for the day.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the barrage of emails, Slack messages, texts and calls, so a couple mornings a week, I start offsite at a coffee shop. I catch up on bigger things, important reading or action items that require attention.” — Autumn Manning, CEO of YouEarnedIt
Habit #2: Don’t Be Afraid to Unplug
“Every day, I try to find time to pray and be still, even for just a few minutes. The secret was relocating my cellphone charger.” — Jan Ryan, Director of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at UT Austin
Whether through structured meditation or not, every CEO also expressed the need to unplug and disconnect from work. Jean Anne Booth meditates briefly everyday using the Unity Church’s Daily Word publication. Eva Bunker, a former CEO who is currently on sabbatical, sees her meditation practice as an antidote to the barrage of chats, texts, emails and calls that can fracture her attention. The CEO of Bold Metrics, Daina Linton, finds her meditation through exercise and says that, “Ballet is my meditation.” Karyl Fowler, CEO of Transmute Industries, is also a big fan of moving meditation and uses yoga, CrossFit, and frequent camping trips, to reflect and recharge.
“I think it’s important for founders to find a way to pull themselves out of the intensity of their daily lives. Finding something you’re truly passionate about and doing it regularly is a great way to stay grounded. “— Daina Linton, CEO of BoldMetrics
Habit #3: Stay Charged with the Right Fuel
“Eating this way keeps my energy very balanced and my body feeling good.” —Suzi Sosa, CEO of Verb
Through these interviews, I realized that being a CEO is a bit like being an elite athlete. A healthy diet is critical when you need to sustain the high function and elevated cognition required to manage a business. Michele Chambers, Executive Director at JP Morgan Chase, talked about how she keeps her office stocked with the foods— fruits, raw nuts, low sugar protein bars—that keep her energy steady. Similarly, Suzi Sosa told me that she strives to eat a diet of 33% fat, 33% carbs and 33% protein. (No easy feat!) She sees her eating habits, particularly watching her carb intake, as essential to combatting the high cortisol levels that can come from a high stress job. Jen Grogono shared that a gluten free diet has treated her allergies and improved her concentration.
“In startup mode, and then later in growth mode, it’s easy to go for convenience and start eating junk food that’s quick and easy. But to sustain your peak performance, your body and mind need heathy foods.” — Michele Chambers, Executive Director at JP Morgan Chase
Habit #4: Never Slack on Exercise
It’s impossible to talk diet without mentioning exercise. Not only do these CEOs exercise, but they make it a priority in their packed schedules. The CEO of StoryFit, Monica Landers, regularly does weights, pilates and yoga. (In fact I met her in a Pilates class at Castle Hill Fitness.) Jen Grogono does Bikram yoga four times a week and says that it’s one of the most valuable times in her week. Jan Ryan, the Director of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at UT Austin, craves intense, long distance bike rides and finds that they allow her to think more creatively and solve complex problems. Eva Bunker shared how she has practiced Aikido and, now Systema, and appreciates how the philosophical and spiritual elements of martial arts impact the rest of her life. A common thing I heard from the CEOS is that their exercise routine not only has body benefits, but brings mental benefits that extend into the office.
“I’ve found that doing half-Ironman triathlons is pretty much the perfect exercise to keep my body as tired as my mind — and thus, everything balanced.”- Jean Anne Booth, CEO of UnaliWear
Habit #5: Reflect through Writing
When I find time to write in my journal, I find it grounding. It helps me focus my thoughts, and the CEOs I interviewed described similar experiences. Jan Ryan told me that she always keeps a pad and pen beside her bed. To calm her busy mind, she writes down those nagging thoughts that pop up when it’s time to sleep, like undone tasks or exciting new ideas. Autumn Manning also journals regularly, usually in the mornings and on weekends. Jen Grogono shared that writing helps organize her thoughts, better understand herself and provides a productive way to process important emotions.
“You’ll rarely catch me in a meeting without a notebook. I write things mostly because I learned at a young age that writing helped me organize my thoughts and remember important things I had to do.” -Jen Grogono, President and CEO of uStudio
Habit #6: Make a List, Set a Goal
“Even though the title of CEO implies that I’m the boss, I do, in fact, submit to a higher authority — my calendar.” — Monica Landers, CEO of StoryFit
As a lifelong list maker, I was not surprised when many of the CEOs told me that they heavily rely on lists. Even those who didn’t mention literal lists talked about the importance of goal-setting or following a strict schedule to accomplish tasks. One of my favorite anecdotes came from Eva Bunker, who told me that she uses a modified version of the Agile development methodology in both her private and business life. She creates long-term “epics” and weeklong “sprints” to reach goals and optimize how much she can do while maintaining a sustainable pace. Jan Ryan talked about how she plans on Sunday evenings, when she creates a list of what needs to be done in the week ahead. She even makes sure to leave white space to allow for creativity and spontaneity. Likewise, Suzi Sosa talked about her ever-present to-do list, which is synched between all her devices. She writes down every single thing she must do — work and personal — and constantly reorganizes the list based on her shifting priorities.
“In both my private life and in business, I use a modified version of the Agile development methodology.” — Eva Bunker, former CEO of Critical Watch
Habit #7: Always Be Leveling Up
“I practice, read or research something entirely left field. This can be anything from a documentary to learning about a new artist. This ritual ensures I take a break but am still learning.” —Karyl Fowler, CEO of Transmute Industries
Lastly, the CEOs gave me good insights into how to keep growing year after year. Their answers revealed that these executives are committed to lifelong learning, self-improvement and expanding their knowledge base. Jan Ryan says, “I’m always learning, that’s my happy zone. My curiosity about the world has only grown throughout the years.” Karyl Fowler describes how she feels like time is wasted when she’s not learning or engaged, so she creates “learning distractions” that allow her to take a break, but that still keep her engaged and growing.
“Ever so often I find I’ve walked right up to the edge of my comfort zone, and I’ve taken on something I know nothing about. But it makes my life fuller...” — Jan Ryan, Director of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at UT Austin
As I reflected on the various conversations I had, I kept coming back to this Peter Drucker quote: “Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.” I believe the seven habits I just described all connect back to time management in some fashion. If you are a founder or part of an early stage team, the success of your company really depends on your habits and effectiveness. Start applying a few of these habits into your daily routine (but maybe don’t try them all at once…) and, hopefully, you’ll find some of the same rewards that these CEOs talk about.