Mike Vardy discusses how to fine-tune your routine and make the most of your time through mode-based work.
- Why you shouldn’t obsess over productivity apps
- How to craft your time with the 5 categories of mode-based work
- How to keep yourself motivated and on-track through journaling
Mike Vardy is an author, speaker, and productivity and time management strategist (or ‘productivityist’) based in Victoria, BC, Canada. His company Productivityist helps people stop ‘doing’ productive and start ‘being’ productive through a variety of online and offline resources. He is the author of The Front Nine: How to Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want, published by Diversion Books, and has self-published several eBooks, the most recent of which is ”The Productivityist Playbook.” He currently hosts The Productivityist Podcast, a podcast that features insights and conversations surrounding productivity and workflow.
- Mike’s Podcast: The Productivityist Podcast
- Mike’s TEDx Talk: How to Stop Time: My Talk at TEDx Victoria
Resources mentioned in the show:
- Tool: OmniFocus
- Tool: Things
- Tool: Todoist
- Tool: Trello
- Tool: Asana
- Tool: Front
- Website: Lifehack
- Website: The Next Web
- Company: Baron Fig
- Movie: The Pursuit of Happyness
- Book: Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
- Book: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
- Book: The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday
- Book: The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield
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Mike, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Thanks for having me. This is going to be a great one. I can feel it already.
Well, I think so too. We were just dorking out and I said, “Oh, I’m going to have to put a note in my OmniFocus about David Allen’s upcoming book.” It’s like here we are as nerdy as it gets with productivity.
Yeah, that’s kind of the way it goes. Once you get two of us productivity nerds in a room, it’s hard to get us not to stop talking about that kind of stuff. It’s just crazy.
Yes. Well, although I want to know, we got two nerds in a room. We’re not going to be doing any professional wrestling because we’re, I guess, in the virtual room. That wouldn’t be very fun to watch. But I understand you have a passion for watching pro wrestling. What’s the story here? Why does it grab you?
It’s like the one place I can kind of go and be like, “Okay, I’m going to watch the Royal Rumble right now, and I won’t be thinking about time or productivity or anything.” And my daughter is into it too, like my daughter will watch it with me.
So, it’s another way for us to bond as well.
Well, fun times and it’s cool that your productivity skills have enabled such feat of reflexibility to enjoy these sorts of adventures as opposed to, “Oh, no, I’m swamped. I couldn’t possibly get away.” We’re talking earlier about you’ve got all your podcast episodes recorded through three plus months in advance, so that’s pretty cool.
So, let’s just get right into it. When it comes to productivity, you’re living happens as a productivity strategist, which is a real cool title. You don’t see that very much in LinkedIn, so kudos. So, boy, you’ve seen a lot of stuff. Could you tell us, just for beginning, what’s maybe the most surprising and/or fascinating discovery you’ve made as you have explored this big world of productivity?
I think the most fascinating, and it probably shouldn’t be surprising now that I think about it, but we were talking off the top, you said you’re putting it into OmniFocus. And when I first started my productivity journey, that’s kind of where I started was with the apps, was with the technology. I spoke at the OmniFocus 2 reveal, I was doing a lot of stuff with The Next Web and Lifehack, and all that stuff, really digging into the apps. I was a math guy, right, so I was really into that.
And so, I was more of a productivity, let’s say, enthusiast who became a specialist and was kind of teaching people how to use these apps and maybe using other methods. But when I became, I kind of evolved into a strategist, I realized that the apps are secondary. We’ve seen apps come and go over the years. I’ve seen plenty of them. And the problem that I’ve seen, the funny thing is that I think the really fascinating part is it hasn’t gone away. You’d think by now we’d be like, “Okay, yeah, right. It isn’t the app. The app isn’t going to do the work for us. It’s the approach first, then the application.”
And I think that’s the thing that I’m really trying to kind of rail against, is the idea that, “Oh, man, you have to get OmniFocus because OmniFocus is the best,” or, “You have to use Evernote,” or, “You have to have the latest and greatest so you leave OmniFocus to move to things, and then you move to this other one,” or, you have to have one that works. No, no, no, you have to have your foundation, your framework, this approach setup first, then the application.
But, because we live in such a tech-heavy world where we’ve got a to-do list in our pocket that can do so many things, we tend to focus on the wrong things, and what fascinates me is not only how long it took me necessarily to realize, “Hey, wait a minute. Hold on. This is the cart before the horse here,” but that it’s still such a huge issue today.
You know, that is well said. It’s so fun to talk to someone who’s been steeped into something for a long, long time, and then to kind of walk away, look back at yourself and say, “Huh, oh, how young and foolish I was.” I think Ray Dalio said if you look back at your decisions a year or two ago and you don’t think that you were a little dumb then, then you haven’t grown or learned much. So, that’s a fun little reframe on feeling embarrassed about your past.
And I think that’s dead on because it can get, I don’t know, it’s like shiny objects. It’s like, “Ooh, there’s a cool new thing. Let me try it out.” “Oh, no, no, that’s dumb because it doesn’t do this or that.” And then I guess I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I think there’s some real beauty. Some tools are amazing and helpful and snazzy and it’s so great that they exist.
The sheer enjoyment associated with a fine pencil or pen or notecard or beautifully-designed piece of software can be extra-enjoyable and maybe bring you to use it. But, much like the person who gets the super fancy piece of exercise equipment for the home, no matter how fancy that thing is, you got to do the work if you want to enjoy the results.
Yeah, you have to kind of decide. Hey, like I’m a big, Baron Fig pen and papers. I love my really nice pens, my really nice books. But it takes the stuff that you’re doing with those things, that’s what matters, right? And a good example would be, actually this past weekend, my family and I, we were at a…they had like a car-free day in our downtown core. And we stopped to talk to one of my wife’s friends, and out of the corner of my eye, I didn’t even see it until my son mentioned it, and then my eye gravitated to it. He’s like, “Hey, dad, look. It’s that Big Green Egg that you want.” And it was The Big Green Egg barbecue.
And I went over there, and I’m like, “Oh, man, this is something that I want,” but I looked at the price, I’m like, “This is not something that my wife will necessarily let me get right now.” But that Egg will probably make, if used correctly, I think that’s the key thing, right, like no matter how great your tool is, if you’re terrible at using it, then you just got a really expensive tool that you’re not very good at using.
And then you feel like a tool.
No, the thing is, “Do I need to have that barbecue to barbecue food?” No, I can find, you know. But do I need the cheapest one? Probably not. I could find something in the middle. So, I think it’s about finding, like I think we need to start looking at things from a reasoned approach instead of going like purely emotional or purely logical. And that means like OmniFocus is a great example for your listeners out there who know what OmniFocus is. It’s like it was one of the preeminent productivity apps that largely hung its hat on the getting-things-done methodology when it first came out. It’s now become so much more than that.
But if you stuck with that throughout, you’ve had a beautiful tool to use the whole way, but there’s other software companies that have come along, like Cultured Code’s neat Things, and Todoist, and Asana, and all these other ones. You got to look at what the outcome is you’re looking for. If your outcome is to use tools consistently, like switch tools, then that’s fine. That was my job. I had to do that.
But I think that a great craftsperson can get great results by using a tool that may not be the best tool. So you should be looking at that in getting better. And then, when you can get to the point where, “Hey, you know what, I have the bandwidth to try a new tool or to look at a new app.” You’re rarely forced into something like this. Then you say, “Okay, you know what, I can do that.”
But I think the other key is to make sure that you’ve got a framework that, like let’s say OmniFocus was to stop development tomorrow and shut down. Yeah, but the thing is you know, based on your use of it, because you’ve used it for so long, you’re like, “Okay, I need something that has this functionality,” that’s one way to look at it.
But if you’ve never really used it, like, “Okay, I have a framework,” and that’s how I kind of look at creating TimeCrafting was this idea of, “How can there be a framework that can work in Microsoft Excel, on paper, and OmniFocus, in Things, in Asana, in Trello, wherever?” So, that way you can go, “Okay, well, OmniFocus is gone. I guess now I’m just going to move. I can find another app but the frameworks that I use is easily transferable.” And that’s the thing that I think people need to spend more time and attention to on as opposed to, “Oh, the app will tell me what to do because garbage in, garbage out,” right?
Well, so let’s talk a bit about that bit. So, regardless of the tool, if we want to achieve – okay, I guess there’s a two-parter here. First, let’s establish the goal. What is it that we want to happen? If we aspire to be “productive,” what does that mean and how do we know if we’re winning?
Well, I think it’s often an understanding of what you need to do and what you want to do. I think that those are two things that we need to really get. I know we hear a lot of like, “I have to do this,” and then to have two turns to get to, that could be a big leap for some people to say, “Hey, I have to go to work because I have to pay the bills,” as opposed to, “I get to go to work and I get to pay my bills because of it,” because that’s a pretty big leap.
So, I like to go down, again, reasons, down the middle and say need to, “I need to go to work because,” or, “I need to do this task because this will offer another need.” If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m not going to go into that too deep, but that’s kind of where that comes from. I think that the key here is to understand, “Okay, all these things that are in my head, number one, are they in a place where I can evaluate it properly?” And this is nothing new. David Allen has talked about this, the idea of getting it out of your head so that you can assess it properly.
And then, instead of trying to measure your productivity by quantifiably how many things did you do, because a lot of the time we spent our energy and attention on things that we really don’t need to do or little or want to do, we just do that, and start to look at a balance between quantity of work and quality of work because we can’t just focus on quality of work necessarily either all the time because some things are going to come up, we got to bang some certain things out and urgency shows up, and there’s all these little things.
So, productivity is always going to be personal even in an organization. So, when you’re working in a large organization, you have to look at things from an objective point of view, right, like, “Our objective is to finish this project. Our objective is to make sure all these things are covered.” But then once you start to bring it down to the individual, it’s how they deal with it is very subjective.
One person may handle a task based on their energy levels. If they’re great in the morning, then they will tackle those high-energy tasks in the morning, and then maybe they’ll do their late lower-energy tasks later in the day. If they’re somebody that’s in lots of meetings, they may have to look at like the gaps of time that they have between the meetings and categorize their tasks, like, “Hey, these tasks will take me five minutes, these will take me 10, etc.”
And then other people might say, “Hey, you know what, I’ve got some block of time to do some really heavy qualitative work. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do some writing. Let me take a look at all the things that I’ve categorized as writing.” So, when it comes to being more productive, and not just doing productive, but being productive, it’s important to do like that front-end work first and say, “Okay, do I need to be doing all of these things, or am I just checking off boxes and saying, ‘Look, I checked off 43 boxes today. I must’ve been productive because look at how many boxes I checked off’?”
Versus setting themselves up in a way that they can say, “Okay, I’m approaching my to-do list now, and if I just look at it at face value, I’m going to be less productive because I’m not really assessing it and breaking it down to smaller components, so let me think about it. Oh, you know what, I am tired right now. Okay, so now this list of 43 things, I now need to start off with dealing with the 12 things that I can do when I’m tired, so let me start there.” So, it’s just about personalizing the experience. No matter whether you work for a big organization or just for yourself, and then trying to prioritizing in a way that suits your workflow as best as possible.
Well, so I dig these universal principles here then. So, we’re starting with a really clear picture of what you need to do in order to meet another core need. And then what do you want to do, I guess, think of that in terms of what is rejuvenating and fun and meaningful to you. And you want to get this stuff out of your head so you’re not just continually re-remembering it and forgetting it and stressing about what you may have forgotten, but you’ve got it somewhere else in app or a notecard or a list on paper. Any other kind of just fundamental principles like, “Hey, whatever your tools, you’ve got to make sure this stuff is happening”?
I think that the biggest thing, no matter what tools you’re using, I think I like to look at my work through the lens of the modality that I need to be in as opposed to the project I need to be working on. So, you want to have two kind of lanes that you can travel down when you’re looking at a to-do list or you’re looking at a project management software piece because their design, in the name itself, project management, so you’re almost kind of directed to look at the project in its entirety.
And the problem there is that there could be bottlenecks from other people, there could be bottlenecks from yourself such as energy levels, there could be all of these things. So, what you want to do is have the ability to do that for sure. Sometimes you need to go like, “Okay, I’m putting my nose to the grindstone working on this very specific project and, yes, I’ll be jumping all over the place while doing it, but the common thread is this project.”
But you need to look at another way to work, and that’s like, hey, and I talk like I’ve got five categories of mode-based work. So, I want to look at my tasks by resource. So, where do I need to be to do them? I need to look at them. Energy is another one. Let me look at it. I’ll look at all my projects and see, “Okay, what are all the things that I can do when I’m sick? Because I’m home sick today and I can’t do all the stuff, so let me look at that.” “Let me look at all my tasks by the type of activity because that promotes flow, right?”
If you want to do a bunch of research, it’s almost better to do the research that you need to do all at once because you get to that mindset, right? And then the other thing is just to say, instead of jumping, I’ll use the meeting example again. What often happens when people come out of a meeting and they only have, say, a half hour between that and their next meeting is they won’t go to their to-do list, they’ll go to email because email will tell them what to do but it’s somebody else telling them what to do.
Instead, they could look at their to-do list and go, “Okay, I know I have a half hour, let me look at all the tasks that I’ve decided that are going to take me five minutes or less and try to crank out six of them, or six or less,” that kind of thing. So, I think it’s important, and I believe it’s important, I know this from the work I’ve done with clients, is that you can’t just look at your to-do list at face value. You need to dig into it a bit more.
You need to almost, in some instances, break your to-do list down because, in some cases, you’ve got a to-do list segment that says, “Work on report.” Well, that’s ambiguous and that’s really a project. You need to break that project down into its smallest particles, and then segment it so that your to-do list, which may have grown from 43 visible things, or invisible things partially, to like 116 totally visible things. Then you’re going to need to look at it and go, “Okay, how do I look at this in a way that allows me to at least feel like I’m moving the needle forward?”
And that doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. But once you start doing that, then you can feel that you’re being actually productive because your mind and your direction is being kind of propelled forward based on simple questions like, “How do I feel right now? How much time do I have? What type of activity do I want to do right now? Oh, I’ve been told I need to get on the phone right now. Well, what other things can I do while I’m on the phone?”
So, you’re not thinking in terms of just going down the to-do list in sequential order, instead, you’re kind of looking at it from a vantage of, “What modality am I about to go into that I either need or want to go into? And then, how can I group these things together so that instead of me having these little periods of downtime as I switch from task to task, I can actually just keep moving the needle forward?” It’s kind of like that movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” right? You’ve seen that movie with Will Smith, right?
Oh, yeah. It’s been a while, where he’s selling those things.
Right. And he said, “I need to maximize my time.” One thing he doesn’t do, which I think is he didn’t do washroom breaks, so he didn’t go get up to drink water. I would not advocate for like dehydrating yourself while you’re working. But the one thing he does do, which I think is clever, is he never hangs up the phone. He just puts his finger on the – and this is, of course, back when people were definitely using more office phones as opposed to cellphones.
And so, what he did was he was putting the phone, you know, he just clicks on it, and that way he wouldn’t lose the three seconds or whatever it was, or two seconds, that it took for him to pick up the phone every single time. And then he went a step further and said, “You know what, this is also a waste of my time. I’m not going to start at the bottom of the list, instead I’m going to go right to the top.”
So, that allowed him to do that because he was thinking about his work instead of just going through the motions as they were given to him by his superiors who seemed to know better because that’s the way it was always done. You have to challenge those biases, and that’s when you can be truly productive, and that’s when you can start to see outcomes that you never expected because you’re challenging some of those biases that are either kind of thrust upon you or that live within you.
Well, so let’s talk about these five boats here. So, we get like the resources are available, may be the phone, may be the internet, may be a computer.
Or a person. A resource can be a person too, right?
Sure. Yeah. And then we got the energy, hey, we’re feeling sick, we’re feeling energized, we’re feeling creative, or we’re feeling lethargic. We got the type of activity in terms of, “Hey, is this research?” And then we’ve got the time available. What’s the fifth one?
The fifth one is actually what I teach clients, I call it theme-based. The way I structure my time is I give every day, and, again, not everyone does this when they start working with me. They give themselves one, a daily theme. So, when I wake up first thing in the morning, I don’t say, “What am I going to do today?” I ask myself, “What day is it?” And, today, as we’re recording this, it’s a Thursday, so I’m like, “Oh, it’s Thursday.” Well, Thursday, the theme is learning, “Okay, so what learning am I going to do today?”
So, I’ve already kind of whittled down my to-do list a little bit by saying, “Hey, today is learning day,” and then I can look at my much larger to-do list in a much more segmented way. So, basically, the acronym is TREAT, theme-based, resource-based, energy-based, activity-based, and time-based. So, when you work by modality, you are treating yourself and you’re working much better.
And the themes don’t have to be daily either. There are some people who they can’t do a daily theme at least at work. They certainly can at home. So, what they’ll do is they’ll do what I call a horizontal theme which is, “Oh, it’s 9:00 o’clock. And from 9:00 to 11:00, I focus on research, or I focus on communication, or I focus on administrative work. And horizontal themes are often used when I talk with clients for things that they can’t just like wait an entire week, or they need to do daily, so they block out, say, an hour or two of that time to focus on that kind of stuff.
The great thing about themes is they’re very personal. I have some clients that don’t do daily themes but they have, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., they have what’s called serving mode, so they tag their tasks as serving, and it’s the tasks that every else needs them to do. And then they go for lunch. They come back from lunch from 1:00 to 5:00, they go into self-serving mode, which is all the tasks that they need and want to do.
And because they do that, what happens is any of the tasks that end up being self-serving are often serving others anyway. So, they’ve got this flow and then, instead of looking at this massive responsibility list, they could say, “Okay, well, the mornings I’m going to take care of what other people really need and want from me, and then in the afternoon, I’m going to take care of what I know I need to be working on, which often is what other people might need as well.” So, it creates just less friction and more flow.
And so, when you work by modality, and theming is one of those great things that kind of adds to it, then you’re really crafting your time in a way that works for you.
And what I think is really reassuring about that is, one, you’re sort of like, “Well, I work in an hour. I don’t know. I got 90 things I could choose from.” It’s like, “Okay.” Well, by segmenting it, it just gets sort of simpler in terms of less decision-making and I think you can feel more comfortable. This is how I feel at times, it’s sort of like if there’s not a designated place for some stuff that needs to happen, there’s almost like a low-level anxiety or panic in terms of, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get to do the things that I want to do. I’m a suffering servant and a martyr at the whim and mercy of all of these requests from all these people.”
In terms of like, “Well, no, this is the time that I do my stuff,” and I dig that. So, that’s a cool way to theme that. I think it can really be handy. And I also want to get your take, when you said there are sort of a different sort of brain space or mode, like research, when I kind of cluster a number of research-type activities together because then your brain is in a research mode. I know that there’s maybe an infinite number of kinds of mental states we can catalog. But do you think of, shall I call them sub-modalities, huh, sub-modalities for activity types that tend to, you’re like, “Yeah, this is like a cluster of related brain function, and here’s another one”?
So, let’s use this as an example. Today is my learning day, right? So, that’s also an activity, right? So, it’s not only my daily theme, but it’s an activity. So, I can say that today is my learning day, and then the activity mode I want to go into is researching. Now, they could be mutually exclusive, but learning doesn’t have to be necessarily super active. It can be, “I’m going to go just discover things and notice things.” Whereas, research is a bit more deliberate, “I’m going to dig into these things.”
So, what happens with—you can get very personal with these, like you can get as narrow as you want with them, but what a lot of people will do, especially in apps, like we were talking about earlier, is they’ll use two or three modes per task. They’ll say, “I need to read Ryan Holiday’s latest book,” so that’s researching mode and it’s learning mode and it’s also, let’s say, deep work which is a type of energy level, right?
So, then they can decide, it gives them a bit more options as to say, okay, for me—I’ll use me as an example—I could do it on a Thursday, I could do it whenever I want to research something, or I could do it, and Friday is my deep work day, I could do it on Friday. So, you can kind of use the different modalities with each other to kind of create this easier way to filter or give you multiple options to filter.
What I kind of liken this to is the Goldilocks factor. I call it the Goldilocks factor which is if your modalities are too wide, then you don’t filter your list enough. So, like home might not be the best modality if you work from home because it’s not just the home, it’s your home where you live, so that might be too wide. Whereas, if you were to say third drawer in dresser, that would be what I would call too narrow, like you’re going to run out of things to do, which means then your brain goes, “Well, now what?” And then it wants to go do the random things that the brain wants to do because it doesn’t want to do hard work, right?
So, you want to find that like just right factor. And for some people, like for you, you might say, “Hey, I need a very specific kind of thinking modality that’s very specific,” and you might have enough tasks in there to fill it which means that that’s going to work for you. But, for me, deep work is just right. If I have it too wide, if I was just to say qualitative work, oh, my goodness, that could be miles long. So, it’s about just figuring that out.
And when I work with clients, and when people follow my work, and they listen to – I have a daily podcast as well called Three Minutes of TimeCrafting. I kind of try to distill that down a bit because, again, this is something, when you start to adopt TimeCrafting, which is this methodology that I teach, it feels overwhelming at first, and people go, “Oh, that’s too rigid. It seems inflexible.” But you don’t have to adopt it all at once unlike other ones that I’ve tried.
And also, I would caution against it because one thing goes wrong, and you probably encountered this too, if one thing goes wrong, you’re like, “Well, this won’t work,” and you just throw the whole thing aside, right? So, that’s the way I look at it, is you can have very specific, as specific as you need, these modes to be, or you can have them as broad as you need them to be. And they can evolve over time too.
And what’s interesting there is that these aren’t just arbitrary, “Hey, this is a dorky fun thing we like to do is to add categories to stuff,” but rather it is useful in the sense of, it’s funny you mentioned that Friday is your deep work day. And my internal reaction was, “That is insane. I would never make Friday my deep work day because, Friday, I’m tired from two kids under two, and sleep deprivation, and four intense work days, and I want my deep work day to be Monday when I’ve rejuvenated from a Saturday and a Sunday, and I can like go and do like the hardest, trickiest thing the world has to offer.”
And so, there you go. It’s personal. It’s like neither one of us is right. I imagine you’ve got your reasons and your personal preferences and values and environmental contexts that make that a very sensible choice for you and it would be a poor choice for me.
And the great thing about that is my deep work day wasn’t always Friday because when my kids were younger, and I was home, the person who’s working from home, I was in the same boat as you. But now my kids are older, they’re normally out and about on Fridays. I try to take care of business Mondays through Thursdays, and then on Fridays, I’m like, “I don’t want any meetings. I just want to be from 9:00 until 2:00 or 3:00, I’m just focused on the deep work.”
And I also include some deep conversations with friends. So, again, my definition of it isn’t just like, “I’m going to focus on like just sitting in my office all day doing deep work.” Sometimes it’s, “I’m going to go have coffee with a friend. While having coffee with them, we’ll have some deep conversations.” So, again, it’s all how you personally define it.
The one thing that really made me buy into the idea of theming your days is when I wanted to move my deep work day which I think was on a Tuesday before. It wasn’t a Monday because Monday was like my admin day. All I had to do was take that deep work day and move it to Friday and the tasks migrated there naturally because they were tagged as such. So, I just knew to look at the deep work tag on Friday now instead of Tuesday. So, instead of like changing the due dates and all that stuff, it was just a natural migration for me.
And, again, I know clients that have creative days, and two of those days per week rather than just one, right? So, you can make it work for you the way you want. You could theme one day. You could theme seven. You could have all horizontal themes. You could say, “You know what, Mike, I love these five categories of modes, but I’m really into time.” Great, then just use time. You don’t have to use them all. You just have to figure out what works for you.
And then, when it comes to health and nutrition and fitness, if you keep doing the same exercise over and over and over again, your body will adapt to it and won’t be as tough to do it, and you also won’t see the results. The results will start to change, right? That’s why they shake up your exercise. That’s why when you’re on a food program, they start to do that as well. They’re like, “Oh,” in fact, I’m on one right now, and my nutritionist is like, “Guess what? We’re changing some of your nutritional stuff.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Because you’ve plateaued, like there’s nowhere for you, so we have to change things up to kind of shock the system a little bit.”
So, productivity is a lifestyle. It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle, and that means that things are going to evolve. And you know what, when your kids are in school, you may say, “Monday, I need to leverage that for this, and Friday is going to be my family day.” My buddy Chris Docker does that, he takes Fridays off. He calls it family day. So, again, that theming can really help because it helps you, like you said, remove decision fatigue and it promotes flow over friction for sure.
And I’m just thinking about the shifting, it’s like I’m usually not very good in terms of like if I’ve been sort of deep into sort of a spreadsheet evaluating an opportunity and the implications and possibilities of an initiative, and I’m thinking hard about that for like 70 plus minutes straight, and then someone wants to chat about some emotional like stuff, it’s like I feel like I‘m really sorry I’m not effectively here for you because I’m still with the spreadsheet. But if you have a little bit of separation, you got less dramatic shifting of your whole kind of brain state whiplashing it back and forth.
And that’s the thing, if you were to say, “Hey, Mike, can you talk to me tomorrow?” which is Friday, I would say, “I’m sorry, no, I can’t,” like, immediately. Like, there’s no friction in my own head. It’s understood and the brain has created this pathway that knows that Fridays I don’t do meetings. And there have been exceptions to the rule, like that’s the thing, is that you have to be flexible enough to have exceptions to the rule, but you don’t want those exceptions to become the rule because then the theme starts to fall apart.
So, if I have a client, like let’s say I missed a meeting with a client the previous week, let’s say I’m sick, and they’re like, “Well, we can’t do any of the meeting except next day.” I’m going to do the meeting, right, because it’s not on them, it’s on me. That said, if they cancel the meeting, and they say, “Well, could we do next Friday?” they’re likely going to get a no because now I have to decide where that boundary lies, and that’s what all of this is. It’s all about creating boundaries that you are willing to live with, and then sticking to them, because if you don’t stick to your own boundaries, you can’t expect anybody else to.
Right. And I know the professionals listening here will say, “Well, that’s nice for Mike who has his own thing. I’ve got a boss and teammates to contend with.” But I think that you may have less kind of leeway to establish whichever boundaries you care to establish, but you still have some. And I think that people can often appreciate it, like, “Okay, cool, yeah. You know what, I like that you’re being so thoughtful about your day and your time and using it to maximize kind of what we’re up to. So, yeah, I understand your rationale. That works for me and thank you very much.” Now, you might also get some folks who are not as understanding, but I think it’s worth a shot especially when it’s powerful and meaningful and impactful.
And that’s why when someone says that, and believe me it’s not the first time I’ve heard that, again, don’t do all of it. You don’t have to theme every day. Start at home. I‘ve had people say to me, like, “There’s no way I could theme my days.” And I said, “Well, when do you do your grocery shopping?” “Well, Saturday or the weekend.” “Okay, when do you do your housework?” “Oh, normally on Saturday or the weekend.” “So, what about laundry?” “Well, yes, Sunday or Saturday.” I’m like, “So, what you’re saying is like Saturday or Sunday it’s kind of like the day you do household stuff?” “Like, yeah, mostly I would do it.” “So, household day would be like Sunday or Saturday?” And then, all of a sudden, it’s like, boom! They’re like, “Oh.”
Again, you’re already doing it in some instances. Just own it. Just define it. Because once you do that, then there’s no ambiguity and there’s no confusion. So, if you have a burnt out lightbulb in your home office, or you have to do something, and you’ve got this honey-do list, let’s say, if you want to call it that, you’re like, “Hey, you know what, I know this needs to get done, I’m going to get out of my head. Where do I put it? Oh, Saturday is household day. Great, I’ll put it on household day.”
So, you’ve got to get those biases out of your way because what most people will do, and I’m generalizing it, but I hear it a lot, “There’s no way I could theme my days.” I’m like, “Well, could you try with one? Could you try with a certain period of time?” Clearly, we’ve had theme times in our schooling. We know what a lunch hour is. That’s a theme to time block. It’s not like they don’t exist. It’s just you have to be able to say, “Okay, you know what, I’m willing to put a boundary here. Just here. Just in this one instance based on my situation and let’s see how it goes.” And then take it from there.
You can add more, evolve it, whatever you need to do, but don’t just dismiss it out of hand, like you said, without trying it because it’s worked not just for me, who works from home, but I’ve worked with executives who are the boss, as well as middle managers who are not the boss, and they’re managing up and down. So, it can work, it’s just you’ve got to figure out where your just right is.
Well, boy, we’re having fun and we’re short on minutes, but I must ask. So, let’s talk about motivation for a moment.
What are your top suggestions for keeping the motivation going strong and minimizing the risks that you’re going to burn out?
Well, I think, again, when it comes to that, journaling is such a huge component. And, again, I don’t know that a lot of people talk about this. We’re hearing more about it. We’re hearing more about journaling but not when it comes to productivity as much as I’d like to see. I think that when you look at your to-do list and your calendar, it gives you kind of a broad strokes of what your day looked like but there’s no story behind it. You can look at your calendar, and say, “Oh, I had a meeting at this time,” but you’re not going to chronicle your feelings about it, or you’re not going to say, “Hey, what worked and what didn’t.” You’re generally just going to see it and then you’ll try to, again, remember what it was like.
So, I think that when you want to keep yourself motivated, and there’s two types of motivation that can happen here. Either the motivation of the negative components can motivate you or the positives, whatever. Again, there’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal or to chronicle or a daily log or whatever you want to call it.
But I think that taking five minutes at the end of your work day, or at the end of your day in total, is a good way for you to get perspective on what’s going on in your world and realizing, A, we have way more time than we think, and, B, every day is a scholar for the next day. I can’t remember who said that, a Roman scholar said that. But that’s what it is.
And the more you journal the less likely you’re going to have to do that big massive review like two weeks down the road or a week down the road because you’re kind of keeping yourself course-corrected as you go. And, again, like people have said, “Oh, well, how should I journal?” I don’t know, it’s the same reason I don’t know what app to use. Use an app, use paper. If you need prompts, there’s plenty of places to find prompts. Use your theme days as prompts, “Hey, today’s daily theme was learning. Okay, did I do learning today? Yes. Oh, great. What did I learn? No. Well, why not?”
There’s always something, the story you can tell. You don’t know what to write about? Look in your phone and see what photos you took, right? Scan through your email and see what email you responded to. There’s always something. But it’s that story that matters because it’s the story that’s going to motivate you to either make a change or keep going.
Gotcha. Thank you. Well, now, Mike, tell me, a couple of your favorite things. How about a favorite book?
Oh, boy, there are so many good ones. Getting Things Done is the book that kind of got me into productivity in the first place, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that. I like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I love Pressfield’s stuff. And I really like Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way. I like the stoicism introduction kind of was the reasoned approach to things that was. So, his book The Obstacle Is the Way, and Ego is the Enemy, as well, I’d say that those are kind of the ones that I return to quite regularly.
And I know that you have evolved beyond it’s all about the tools but, tell me, what are some of your top favorite tools that you personally have to be digging right now?
So, I’m really liking this app called Front because it’s kind of that bridge between email and task management that I’ve been looking for, for a long time. I can assign emails to my team members right within the app, I can comment on them, so I can kind of keep my communication silo external to my project management which is what we used Asana for, but I can integrate them if I want.
So, Frontapp.com is it, and it’s iOS and web-based. I’m really digging it right now and I’ve only really scratched the surface of what it can do, but it’s really kind of been the thing that’s allowed us to keep emails that we don’t necessarily need in our project management app, and yet keep moving the ball forward with certain things there. So, I’d say that’s probably the one that I’m digging into most right now.
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your listeners, and readers, and clients?
Stop worrying about due dates and make every day a due date. So, theming helps with that, the idea that when you think about it, and I’ve got monthly themes, and I talk about that as well, but people tend to focus on the, like, “This is when this thing is due, so I will let that sit there and let it kind of linger and linger. And, oh, no, tomorrow it’s due,” And then they go and do it. As opposed to taking a little bit of time every single day and just doing it.
And so, I dropped that in my TEDx Talk and it was kind of one of those things where people are, “Oh,” it’s like a little bit of a hum for them. So, I’d say that that’s one. Think about your taxes, right? If you start working on your taxes at the beginning of January rather than the beginning of April, how much easier would your taxes be to do.
Gotcha. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yes. Look at your tasks or your to-do list and ask yourself, “Is this the smallest that this task can be? Is there a smaller level? Are there smaller particles to this thing?” Because when you do that, then it makes it easier for you to kind of categorize them and move the needle forward a little bit on each one, as opposed to the work on report that you leave on your to-do list and then leave it unchecked because you didn’t finish it. Whereas, if you were to write 100 words for the report, or do research for the report, or spend 30 minutes on research for the report, that’s something you could check off.
That’s the kind of thing that you can do to keep yourself moving forward because you need that encouragement, you need to see that you’re moving the needle forward daily because when you see that, then it makes the work rewarding, and it makes you feel like you’re actually being productive instead of just checking off boxes with the hope that what you’re doing is actually getting recognized and happening on a daily basis.
Awesome. Mike, this has been a real treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun and keep on doing the good work.
Thanks so much for having me, Pete. I really do appreciate it. And I hope there was a lot of value in what I had to share today.