Editor’s note: Investor and entrepreneur David Gardner is founder of Cofounders Capital in Cary and is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.

I think it was Dale Carnegie who said the secret to success in business was in knowing how much time to spend on each task.

The manipulator of time management

As I managed and observed sales teams as a young entrepreneur, I began to recognize a common problem. My sales reps would sometimes spend a disproportionate amount of their time on activities that they perceive as less stressful or difficult. In other words, they gravitate towards the tasks they are most comfortable performing. For example, making cold calls to potential decision makers was often the most lucrative activity a salesperson could do but only a small percentage of their time was actually spent systematically making those calls and follow ups.

Understandably, making cold calls is one of the most unpleasant tasks sales executives have to perform. No one wants to dial for dollars, interrupting important people who are often dismissive or right down rude. It can make you feel unimportant and needy. I noticed that many of my reps would spend inordinate amounts of time making minor improvements to their sales collateral material or proposals. Sometimes they would research a company for a ridiculously long time before making the dreaded call. Many of these reps were not achieving quota, and all of them wanted to earn more commission, yet they chose not to allot their time in the most effective way to achieve their stated goal.

As I began reading every book I could find on managing sales people, I found one author who noticed this same phenomenon and coined it “call reluctance.” He noted how humans have a natural defense mechanism built into their subconscious to avoid activities and situations that make them feel inferior or lower their self esteem. He pointed out how this tendency had to be identified and managed through personal discipline in order to reach one’s high-performer potential.

Operational bias in entrepreneurs

As I began investing in startup companies and coaching entrepreneurs, I found that what I knew of call reluctance was actually part of a much bigger phenomenon which I now call “operational reluctance” or “operational bias.”

It is not just sales executives who subconsciously gravitate towards the parts of their job that they like and feel most comfortable doing. If founders come from a coding background, I often find that they spend too much time on the technical aspects of their business to the detriment of other critically important functions. If they come from a marketing background, they often spend way too much time in the weeds managing campaigns and branding even as other parts of their business languish.

In my book, The Startup Hats, I point out how entrepreneurs have to be able to perform a lot of roles simultaneously and reasonably well until they gain enough traction and funding to hire others who can perform those duties more effectively.

This is why operational reluctance is so detrimental for early-stage entrepreneurs who are deciding minute by minute how much of their precious runway they should spend each day on sales, product, accounting, hiring, management, etc. If they spend inappropriate amounts of time on the tasks they enjoy doing the most then other critically important tasks will suffer. There is little margin for error in a startup and operational bias can be the wrench in the gears that eventually leads to catastrophic failure.

Defense against the dark arts

Successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs have the same number of hours in their day.  The only difference is how they choose to use those hours.

The cure for operational bias is the same as it is for sales call reluctance. I encourage founders to carefully manage their precious time. Their minutes should be rationed as meticulously as a day trader manages his stock portfolio. At the start of each day, decide how much time should be allotted to the various roles and tasks that must be done and stick to those ratios. If you have determined that two hours per day are needed for cold calling then schedule that time each day and stick to your schedule. If you are still wearing the QA hat or fundraising hat, schedule those hours proportionately and watch your metrics. A well managed and adhered to schedule is the best defense against operational bias.

There are a few final tips on time management that I’ve learned over the years.

Schedule the tasks you like the least first each day. If you hate past due receivable collection calls but have to get them done then do them first thing in the morning and check that off of your list.

Remember the 80% rule. When you have accomplished a task about 80% as well as you can do it, move on to the next tasks or activity on your schedule. The last 20% or “polishing” stage always seems to take as long as the previous 80%. In a startup, good enough is often all you have time for. Better to meet the minimal requirements of all important tasks then to only get a couple of them done perfectly. If you have more time at the end of week, you can always circle back and do more polishing.

The most important thing is to be self-aware. Know what you like and don’t like doing and how that might subconsciously work against your time management decisions. Manage your precious time meticulously. Things are always popping up that will demand your attention so leave some gaps between scheduled tasks so you do not get too far behind schedule. Reprioritize as necessary but try to keep the same ratios. Stick to your schedule, and it will significantly help you to proportionally ration your minutes appropriately. Learn to think in terms of opportunity costs. Remember that everything you say “yes” to represents something else to which you will have to say “no.”

I honestly believe that more than any other factor, time management is the single most important skill for a startup entrepreneur to possess.