Varun Arora is the founding director of OpenCurriculum, a Pittsburgh non-profit startup that’s turning the textbook and knowledge-sharing industry on its head. OpenCurriculum allows teachers and students to upload or create educational material in a stylistic fusion between Wikipedia and Dropbox-turned-public. These resources are then curated by the community through a system of upvotes and downvotes to help the best resources rise to the top. They only launched in late August, but since then hundreds of teachers have created accounts to share and vote on their lesson plans and curricula. In addition, he’s succeeding in landing OC a spot in the first ever Y-Combinator non-profit startup session, which he’ll be attending this winter.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Varun last week to talk about the habits that he feels have allowed him to succeed as a social entrepreneur, and develop such a great platform. Anyone who’s interested in entrepreneurship, or just being more efficient and effective could benefit from his wisdom.
1. Delay the Tech
The first thing Varun talked about was how important it is to start your day the right way. He keeps a standard morning routine, but he includes something that many other people don’t:
“One thing I learned from someone at Entrepreneur.com is not to use or look at technology [in the morning]. Particularly email. It allows you to focus on what’s natural and beautiful around you, and not worry about work issues until you actually reach office. This leaves you with positive energy and sets an upward and optimistic mindset for the day and during your commute to work.”
While our natural tendency is to immediately jump in to all of the emails and things we need to respond to, there’s truly no need. Emails are meant to be delayed communications, and if someone truly needed your reply instantly they would call you. Dealing with emails actually raises our cortisol levels (inducing stress) and that effects us for the rest of the day. As I phrased it in my book “Sleep Mastery”: “The morning is about you; not the 100 things the rest of the world wants from you.”
2. Be Fit, Healthy, and Well Rested
Despite frequently working 80+ hour weeks, Varun doesn’t sacrifice his health and fitness.
“I go to the gym 3-4 times a week, 2 hours each visit, doing weights and cardio. Physical stress is the single best way to repeatedly relieve you when you have a number of intellectual and mental challenges related to work. Drinking or smoking is not a good solution; its an easy and lame solution, so I don’t do that stuff. I see a lot of entrepreneurs resort to it. Lastly, I have a very solid and balanced vegetarian diet, and very seldom do I eat something that messes it up.”
And not only does he make time for exercising and eating well, he also makes sure to sleep properly:
“Inspired by Larry Page, irrespective of what happens, I sleep 8 hours a day (very different from what I did during college). This gives me a solid mental balance to focus all day and never feel tired.”
3. Have the Right Tools
Varun uses a number of tools/techniques to keep himself on track:
- Note Taking: “I never enter a meeting or a conversation which may be related to work without a notebook and a good pen.”
- To-do Lists: “I am obsessed with to-do lists. I build several of them on a daily basis, and keep updating each of them. I maintain some long term to-do lists on whiteboards and work related ones on Asana. To be a good to-do-list person, it is important to maintain several of them, and to keep consolidating and iterating on them. Btw, this doesn’t mean post-its. Post its are sometimes counter-productive.”
- Data-less mobile plan: “Not only do I save money, I save myself from socially embarrassing situations where everyone just sits around on their phones not talking to one another.”
- Email prioritization: “I maintain two lists in my inbox. A starred email list, and an unstarred email list. Every email on the starred email list gets a response and every unstarred email either doesn’t or has been dealt with the past and can be let go.”
- Facebook after 2300 (11pm): “This new rule makes me really effective and social. I use/check Facebook only after 11pm everyday. Thus, I am never too away from the action in my friends’ lives, and at the same time, I am not visiting the site every 5 minutes to see if I have notifications.”
- Chair: I work only when I am sitting in a ergonomic work chair, and not in bed and other spots. It brings the world of focus.
4. Don’t Multitask
Varun also recommends strongly against trying to multitask while working. As he puts it:
“Inspired by Arianna Huffington, I do not multitask. Humans suck at it, and I have seen how much of a difference it makes when you actually focus. I can never speak to someone and write something thoughtful at the same time.”
5. Three Recommendations for Social Entrepreneurs
- “Your social innovation is only as valuable as your ability to bring it to life.”
- “Focus, perseverance, and remaining true to values are your finest weapons in combating mediocrity and changing the status quo.”
- “The most powerful asset you can ever have is empathy”