How Kathryn Minshew, CEO and Founder of The Muse, Gets It All Done

By
Photo: Rebecca Clarke

Kathryn Minshew is the founder and CEO of The Muse, a website dedicated to career advice and development. She lives in New York with her husband, who is also an entrepreneur. She receives between 400 and 500 emails a day and typically works until between 12 and 2 a.m. She wants to bring about the end to “zombie meetings.” Here’s how she gets it all done.

On the value of puréed vegetable squeeze packets:
My wake-up time usually depends on how late I was answering emails the night before, but typically let’s say around 8 a.m. I will grab either some granola, a Kind Bar, or one of those puréed fruit, veggie, and chia packs that they sell for adults that’s basically just glorified children’s food. They’re amazing. You feel a little bit idiotic because they come in these little squeeze-y pouches. They’re different fruit and veggie combinations, and I always feel like I’m getting a little bit of vegetables in the mornings. Usually, I’m either eating on my way to the office or sitting on my couch with my laptop on my lap, starting to dive into a couple of the big to-dos of the day.

On a typical day:
I usually try to schedule the first open hour or two for any big projects or emails. Then, I’m usually in a couple hours of meetings back-to-back. Everything from sitting down with a couple members of our team, interviewing candidates for our open roles, talking with potential future investors or partners, chatting with reporters. I often will try to have a break if I can around 12:30 or 1. Although recently, things have been so busy that sometimes I’ll eat lunch in one of my internal meetings instead. I’ll grab a soup, salad, or sandwich from Chop’t or Hale and Hearty or something. Usually, the afternoon is a mix of getting a little bit of time to pop into my inbox and make sure everything is under control, as well as a lot of external meetings. We’ll get out of meetings somewhere between 6 and 7:30. Then I will either grab dinner with a colleague, a friend, or investor who’s in from out of town. Sometimes I’m going to a friend’s book-launch party one night and then another night it’s drinks and small bites with the panelists for a talk that I’m giving. Usually I’ll have one night when I’m doing something that’s a bit more fun. Other free nights, it’ll be something that’s fun and enjoyable, but is in some way related to my business or my company. Then I’ll get home anywhere from eight to ten, and then I’ll usually be on my computer pretty much consistently until sometime between midnight and 2 a.m.

On failing to manage her daily flood of emails:
I will get hundreds a day, both internal and external from the team. I’m working on tamping down the volume of that email. We’ve just hired a chief of staff at The Muse, who will be filtering and coordinating and triaging some of the things that come in, so that I can have fewer meetings and less of that email time. Until that person starts, there’s just a lot. I usually do try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night, so I’ll wake up a little more than seven hours from whenever they end. The weekends are really my time to relax. I love what I do so much that I mostly don’t mind not having a lot of downtime, but definitely one of my goals right now is figuring out how to do all the things that I love doing and work 10 to 15 percent less.

On her approach to cutting down on “zombie” meetings:
I look at every meeting and think, Could this be better addressed through email? Could this be better addressed in a different format? But there are still certain things — like the first time you meet face-to-face with a potential business partner or getting your executive team together to talk about strategy or interviews — where there’s no substitute. Many meetings are what we call “zombie meetings”; they were created on a recurring basis at a time when they may have made sense, but they’ve outlived their usefulness and people go every week because it’s on the calendar. I think that reducing the amount of meetings is useful, so that you can focus most of your time on actual work.

I have a few different strategies based on what the meeting is. If I’m meeting one-on-one with a potential partner or investor for the first time, I will read their LinkedIn bio, do a quick Google search, and jot down any impressions, questions, or notes. Things to ask them, areas I want to make sure I cover. I like to do this ahead of time, at least a day ahead of time if possible, in case there’s anything that I want to understand.

On insisting she keep to her calendar:
I am addicted to Google Calendar. I use it for all of my scheduling. In fact, last week something on my phone got out of sync and my calendar wasn’t updating on my phone, and I realized how challenging that was for my organization. Luckily, I got it back in sync, so the world is right again. I put a ton of notes in every calendar appointment so that I can very quickly pull it up. I know exactly who, what, when, where, why, any context. I’m a big relationship person, so if there is any additional background to the relationship, whether it’s who introduced us or what we talked about last time, I like to put that in there.

For my inbox, I use Boomerang really aggressively. It allows me to essentially take emails out of my inbox and put them in my inbox again at whatever time I want. So I had a bunch of emails that Boomeranged back in this morning. It’s Monday morning. Things last week that I didn’t need to worry about last week but I wanted to make sure to follow up on first thing Monday morning. I’ll have emails that will Boomerang in around 4 p.m. to remind me to check in, like, Hey, if this hasn’t moved and it’s getting near the end of the day, I should probably check in on that — and then others that will Boomerang in later tonight because I know that I’m going to spend a couple hours cleaning out emails.

There are certain people on my team where I’m concerned if I email them late at night, they’ll feel like they need to respond, so I will deliberately schedule those emails so that I’m handling them during the normal workday.

On how she learned to become super-organized, even though she wasn’t born that way:
I would say it’s more learned than natural. I don’t think that those who know me the best would ever call me naturally or intuitively a hyperorganized person. I have managed to create systems for myself that work well, but I’m also the type of person who will plan to take a vacation and block the time on my calendar, but not actually book hotels or sometimes even flights until three days before.

And I will say that any schedule like this comes with a heavy dose of self-compassion because you cannot do everything. You cannot get back to everyone as fast as you’d like, and that can be really hard for someone who wants to be responsive, who wants to help everyone who reaches out asking for advice, who wants to be on top of every thread. You have to learn to let go of some things, to say no to others, and to forgive yourself for the things that occasionally don’t get done exactly in the way or at the speed that you would have liked.

On looking for the light at the end of the tunnel during stressful moments:
Sometimes it’s heading outside the office for a quick walk. Sometimes it’s going into the kitchen and chatting with somebody on the account management team I love but I don’t get to see that often. But I find that just doing something else, even if it’s three to five minutes, can be really helpful when things feel overwhelming. Secondly, I find it very helpful to sketch out what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like. We had one week where we had a major product launch, a board meeting, and a key hire in the final round of interviews all at the same time. It was very stressful. After that week, I sat down and I sketched out how I wanted us to be able to organize it in the future, so you can really see the light at the end of the tunnel and then take action toward it. I find as long as I’m moving toward a good thing, that I can handle a fair amount of stress.

On snacking to survive and walking as exercise:
I’m always snacking. I’m legendary in our office for my love of snacks. I have a mix of very healthy snacks as well as less healthy snacks, so at any given time my snack drawer next to my desk might include edamame beans, some nuts, some chips, a bar of chocolate, a granola bar, possibly some shelf-stable soup for a day where I just can’t get out of the office. Luckily that’s very rare. I probably break into that once every three to six months. I do prefer the healthy snacks, but I like having a balance because sometimes you just want something salty or sweet. So yeah, it’s funny because for someone who loves snacking so much, I definitely have to remember to eat lunch.

I love walking. It’s one of my favorite things about New York, so I walk pretty much everywhere. I walk to and from work every day. When given the chance, I will often take the stairs, although right now our office is on the 20th floor of our building, so no stairs. That said, I don’t exercise nearly as often as I should or I’d like. In times in my life when I had more free time, I loved cycling and I completed a century, which is a 100-mile bike ride as well as a number of shorter, but still fairly long bike rides. Now I rarely get out there. In fact I’d love to start doing it again a bit more. Maybe the fall will be a good push since it’s not quite so disgusting.

On not having everything but having a lot:
I kind of hate the phrase “having it all,” but I think you can have … You can have a lot. Not everything. But a lot. And so part of being able to do that is making the choices upfront about which of the pieces of the pie are the most important to you right now. There are other times in my life when it’ll be very important to me to work a lot less and to find a way to do that. But right now my husband is also an entrepreneur who is also scaling an early-stage business and so we are able to make it work. A good friend of mine in the industry once said that if you aren’t a little bit nervous then you aren’t pushing hard enough. I think that that may not actually be true for, say, the family side of the equation, but I think on the professional side, if you aren’t a little bit stressed or a little bit nervous, are you challenging yourself to the extent that you should be?