Going for walks relieves stress and helps clear the mind. Long walks are great for thinking things through, but if you’re unable to go for a longer walk, aim to do a short one or even simply sit outside for a few minutes. This will help you reset and destress.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aytekin Tank.
Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. Say hi at Aytekin Tank.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I was born and raised in Turkey and always wanted to be a programmer. This passion began back in the ’80s. I didn’t have my own computer so I joined a weekend class where I could code. Years later, I was fortunate to study computer science at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. I side hustled during school and after graduation with my full-time job. It was then I slowly began my journey of becoming an entrepreneur.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
My love for programming is what really inspired me. My entire life I wanted to be a programmer and was really passionate about seeing it through. One of the side hustles I did during college was creating an app to manage a student organization’s member profiles. I ended up releasing it as an open source product and students paid me to customize it for them. That was my first real taste of entrepreneurship.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I’d have to say my team at JotForm. I started the company in 2006 and worked with a very small team for a number of years. We all became close and helped each other along the way to stay motivated and focused. Even now with 200+ employees, we all continue to motivate each other to be productive and continuously build the company.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When I first started out, I thought that doing multiple things at once was a good thing. I thought I’d grow at hyperspeed and become successful quickly. It took years to realize that this was completely wrong. I finally had an epiphany that I needed to focus on one project only, which ended up being JotForm. I learned that doing too many things at once stunts growth. It’s hard to only focus on one thing at a time, but you’ll notice a difference in your progress, goals, and growth when you take this route.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
There are a million blogs out there that will tell you how to be successful. Some might be helpful, and some might not. But in my opinion, it’s all about being laser focused on what you’re trying to achieve and ignoring the rest. It’s easy to do busywork and think you’re being successful because you’re checking off a to-do list or following recipes from other people. But really, you need to decide for yourself what’s important and put all of your energy into it and focus until you succeed.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I really like The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt, which is a book about creatively solving problems, and Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen, which covers the “Jobs to Be Done” approach and how companies follow this to create valuable products and services.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
One of my favorite quotes is “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,” by Charles Darwin. It’s applicable to life and business. Nothing stays the same, and it’s important to be agile when things happen and adjust accordingly.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
At JotForm, we’re always launching new products to make our users’ lives easier. We’re launching a new product in October to help users better organize, track, and manage their form responses. It’s a really great product and we’ve been working on it for a while now and are excited to release it.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
The first is to look at the stressors from a different perspective. By this, I mean to re-frame whatever it is that’s causing you stress. Viewing it from a new angle can help you see it as an opportunity, rather than a threat.
Second is to go for a walk. Going for walks relieves stress and helps clear the mind. Long walks are great for thinking things through, but if you’re unable to go for a longer walk, aim to do a short one or even simply sit outside for a few minutes. This will help you reset and distress.
Third is to take a real vacation. I make sure to take vacation every year and pick olives on my family’s ranch in Turkey. This tradition gets my mind off of work and leaves the stress at the office. Sometimes it may feel like you can’t take time off, but you can, you just need to prioritize it.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
One of the most important keys to great performance is understanding your “prime time” or what time of the day you work best. There are many articles out there that promise success if you wake up at 6 a.m. and follow a prescribed routine, but the truth is that each person is different and not everyone will be successful if they wake up at 6 a.m. Maybe they are their most productive self at 12 p.m. It’s important to harness your prime time and use it to your advantage.
Second is not to follow a to-do list. Oftentimes, to-do lists are full of unessential tasks. It may feel good to check them off, but in reality, you’re not getting much done at all. To avoid this pitfall, schedule your time around what’s important and what you want to achieve. Make sure to prioritize your area of focus and set aside time for deep thinking and creativity. This is essential for leaders.
Last is to work in batches. Even though it’s important to have a well defined focus and to use most of your time on that, you will also have less pressing things to take care of. This is just life. In order to avoid getting distracted, I suggest working in batches. For example, set aside time to respond to emails, pay bills, etc. When you work with this approach, you’ll still get the small things done, but they won’t take away from your priorities.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I do moving meditations. I love going on walks, exercising, and playing basketball. Moving around and being healthy is so important for bettering your mind and body.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I practice “boxing” my time and energy. I set time periods to focus on one thing at a time and ignore the rest — calls, texts, emails, etc. I will focus only on this one thing for whatever amount of time I set. This helps to increase my motivation and productivity. I do the same with my energy. For example, if there’s a big event or presentation coming up, I box my energy by decreasing meetings, calls, and late nights to make sure I’m prepared and feeling good.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
A few habits that have played a role in my success are prioritizing, delegating, and taking time off. I’ve talked a lot about prioritization and focus, and that’s because combined, they’re one of my favorite habits. When you can effectively prioritize and focus, you’ll get so much more done and see your goals come to fruition.
Delegation is also an important habit. You can’t do everything on your own, so be sure to delegate. Hire people you trust and who work hard, and delegate projects to them. By delegating, you’ll free up more time for bigger picture priorities.
Last is to take time off. Keep in mind that rest doesn’t equal laziness. Everyone needs time to rest and recharge — doing this actually helps us be more productive in the long run.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Plan what you want to achieve and start small. Creating a large, profitable business doesn’t happen overnight; it takes years. But to get to that level, you need to start small and focus. Doing this every day will lead you to where you want to go and stop any bad habits in their tracks. It’s very simple: if something is taking away from your focus, eliminate it.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Flow is so important for productivity, but it can be hard to reach since you need to tap into the subconscious part of your brain. I’ve found that becoming excellent at one specific task helps — for example, writing, coding, doing yoga. Once you get good at this task, you won’t have to think about it, and it’ll be much easier to reach a state of flow. Another thing that helps me is music. The right type of music will help you increase performance and get into a state of flow much faster.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
To eliminate the stigma of boredom. We’re so overly stimulated with everything in our lives, and there’s a fear of boredom that comes along with that. The thing is, boredom is important for creativity. People see boredom as uncomfortable. But when you have boredom in small doses, it helps with focus, productivity, and stress release. I think we need to embrace being bored and look at it as something positive.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
There are so many influential people out there, it’s hard to choose just one. I’d really love to sit down with Eric Ries. He’s one of my personal heroes, and I really enjoy reading his articles and listening to his talks. He’s been a big influence on how we work at JotForm today.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I love contributing leadership advice and business articles to Entrepreneur, Fast Company, The Startup on Medium, and JotForm’s blog. Please feel free to say hi on Twitter @aytekintank
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.