Author and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof talks about how we’re all living at an unsustainable pace and how to combat burnout through better energy management.
- How to tell if you’re experiencing low-grade burnout
- The best hours to do your best work
- The key to saying no well
Carey Nieuwhof is a bestselling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, and former attorney. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts. His podcast, blog and online content are accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times each month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change and personal growth. Carey and his wife, Toni, live north of Toronto.
- Book: At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities Working in Your Favor
- Book Website: AtYourBestToday.com
- Website: CareyNieuwhof.com
- Book: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
- Book: Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal
- Book: Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Book: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink
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Carey, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Well, it is great to be with you, Pete. Thank you so much for having me.
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to talk about your book, At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities Working in Your Favor. Can you tell us, as you’ve kind of thought through this, talked to people, worked with people, researched, what’s one of the most surprising and maybe counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about people and trying to be at your best?
We’re all in the same boat, we can start there. Almost everybody I know, including myself for a long season, felt overwhelmed over work and overcommitted. It just seems to be almost an endemic in our culture these days, so I think that’s a big surprise. The other thing that really led to the writing of the book, for me, Pete, and really the reorganization of my life, and helping thousands of other people do the same, was everybody talks about time management. But the problem with time management is you’re managing a fixed commodity. Like, nobody is giving you a 25th hour in the day. Nobody’s floating you an 8th day a week.
So, I was pretty good at time management, and I burned out. So, the big surprise for me on the other side of burnout 15 years ago, as I reconstructed my life, was I started to focus on energy management, not just time management, and that’s where I started to find exponential returns is when I thought about how my energy level, and it’s a human condition, everybody’s energy level goes up and down over the course of the day. And when I started to manage that, that’s when I started to see exponential returns in productivity, and started to regain a lot of margin in my life. So, I think that’s probably the most surprising thing.
Well, yes, I definitely want to talk about energy management. So, maybe could you give us, first, a broad picture perspective on what’s sort of like the big idea or core thesis behind the book At Your Best?
Yeah. So, most of us are living in an unsustainable pace, and the big idea of the book is to learn, and I’ve got a system that we can unpack in as much detail as you want. I developed a system to help you live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow. And for my first decade of leadership, I was in law then I moved to church world. I’m a person of faith.
I was leading a rapidly growing church, and after a decade in leadership, I burned out, and it was real struggle for me. And I was living in a way most days that made me struggle tomorrow, made me barely survive tomorrow. And if you talked to most people today, whether they’re stay-at-home parents, whether they’re working part-time, whether they’re full-time, whether they’re in the C suite, or whether they’re entry level, almost everybody goes home feeling overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted, and I was just exhausted. I would get home. I’d flop onto the couch.
So, on the other side of burnout, I started to ask the question, “What does it take to not do that anymore, like, when you’re not feeling well?” And I spent the summer of 2006 really probably clinically depressed because of burnout, and now, 70% of people every year identify with symptoms of burnout, going, “Yeah, I’m kind of burned out or I’m very burned out,” so it’s a real problem. But when I was in that space, I thought, “I don’t want to go back to normal. I want my life out of burnout,” but, like, normal got me burned out. So, how do I create a new normal?
And that’s when I started to really think, “Okay, I want to live in a way today that will help me thrive tomorrow.” And it comes around how to manage your three principal assets. So, if you think about every single person, whether you’re retired, or in preschool, or in a C-suite level job, you have you’re managing time, you’re managing your energy every day, because we all know there are certain parts of the day where we’re kind of dragging and other parts where we feel better, and you’re managing priorities.
And technology has really made it complicated because, suddenly, it’s super easy for everyone else to get their priorities onto your agenda. So, I started to rethink how I approached those three assets. So, when you’re in what I call the stress bio, when you’re overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted, basically, your time is unfocused, you’re not thinking about how to use your time, your energy goes unleveraged, you treat every hour as though it was exactly the same, you don’t really think about your energy levels, and you will allow other people to hijack your priorities.
And so, it took me about three to five years but I built something that I now call the thrive cycle. And on the other side of burnout, I started to think, “Okay, what if I focused my time, what if I started leveraging my energy, and what do I need to do to realize my priorities?” And when I started doing that, that’s when I saw 10X returns in terms of my productivity at work, my level of joy in life, and also the amount of margin I had, like just the free space, the freedom to do what I really felt called to do.
Case in point, in my 30s, everyone said, “Carey, you should write a book. You should write a book.” And I always wanted to write a book but, before I burned out, I just always said I didn’t have the time. So, that was 15 years ago. In the last decade, I’ve written five books. This is book number five. Actually, I wrote six because one I never published. I found it the other day, I’m like, “Oh, I forgot about that one.” It might see daylight some other time. But I’ve written five books, and it greatly expanded my capacity.
So, that’s the overview, that’s the nutshell, Pete.
Well, that’s inspiring. So, there’s a beautiful sort of after state in terms of five books and joy and margin and freedom. Can we visit briefly the before state in terms of burnt out, didn’t want to get off the couch? What was life like just before you’re like, “Whoa, I’m burnt out” and in the midst of the burnout?
Well, it was strange, and I don’t want to paint an idyllic picture. I still have days where I’m stressed. I still have days where it’s like, “Whoa, that was too much.” Last week, I had a really busy week. But I think the key that a lot of people lacked is the ability to recalibrate quickly. Going to bed on time, getting up the next morning, you’re like, “Oh, battery back up to 100%.” And so, that’s what I’ve been able to navigate for over a decade now on the other side of burnout.
Prior to burnout, it was getting to the point where I had a terrible formula. So, I started our church, and I’ll use that as the case study because that’s what I was doing full time, started with a half dozen people. Well, I started with three little churches, three little baby churches. Half dozen attended one of the churches, the average attendance was 14 at the second, and the mega church had 23 people.
Mega. All right.
So, very manageable. It’s like running opening day on a business, you have five customers. It’s like, okay, you can handle that. It wasn’t that bad. I remember getting bored the first week I went to work. By Wednesday, I had my sermon written and I thought, because I trained as a lawyer, I’m like, “I don’t even know what you’re supposed to do.” So, I called the chair of our elder board, and he goes, “Well, go visit people.” I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I got lots of time.
But then, almost instantly, the churches started to grow, and at first it was sustainable. Till we got up to about 200, I just put 200 people. I put my pedal to the floor, and I’m a pretty energetic Enneagram 8, if you follow that stuff. Like, I got a lot of energy and it was fine. But the problem with that is it doesn’t scale. And so, I started to get more and more tired, and my bad broken formula was more growth equals more hours. Well, that just doesn’t scale.
So, our church grows from a handful of people to a hundred people, to 200 people, to 500 people, to 750 people, 800 people. At this point, I can’t remember people’s names, I’m up five nights a week, but I think, in my 30s, “I’m superhuman. I can handle this. I can do this.” On the inside, I should’ve seen the warning signs. I didn’t. People kept telling me, “Carey, you’re going to burn out,” and I thought, “Burnout is for weaklings. I’m not weak. The rules don’t apply to me.” So, there was that, and that’s definitely looking back on it. That was arrogance on my part.
I also ignored warning signs like I was starting to feel numb. Life is emotional. People go through good times and bad times. And when someone said they were getting married or having a baby, which should be really joyful, I had a lot of muscle memory, and I could kind of like smile and nod.
Yeah, “That’s great.” But on the inside, I’m like, “I don’t feel a thing.” And, conversely, if somebody came up to me on the weekend, even someone I knew, unless they were really close, and said, “I got a terrible diagnosis this week. I have cancer,” I knew what to say but I couldn’t feel it anymore. And that was really, really alarming to me, but I hadn’t been in that state, and I’m like, “Well, someday this will work out.”
So, ironically, you asked what was it like before I burned out. To some extent, I was on top of the world. Church was the largest it had ever been, I had started speaking outside of the church because we’re growing quickly, and people would ask me questions. So, I remember I flew down to Atlanta, and I spoke in front of 2500 people gathered from around the world at a conference, worked really hard for months on that talk, it was the biggest audience of my life to date. And by all accounts of everyone in the room, I crushed it, like knocked it out of the park. I’m, like, amazing. My wife and my boys were with me. And when I flew back to Toronto from Atlanta, when I got off the plane, it’s like I fell off a cliff and it’s like my body went on strike.
So, that numbness that had been building for a couple of years, the turmoil in our marriage, we were fine on the outside but there was struggle on the inside, the lack of sleep, all of that caught up with me, and it’s like my body said, “Well, that’s it. We sent you all kinds of warning signs, but now we’re strike.” The body was on strike. And I didn’t declare a finish line so my body did. And I went into what probably, had I gone for a diagnosis, and I went to a counselor, I didn’t see my doctor about it, I should have, he probably would’ve said, “Carey, you’re depressed.” And I lost all my passion. And I’m a very passionate person. I became very cynical. I kind of thought life was over, and it was painful.
And I got up most days, you hear these stories of the guy who can’t get out of bed. I got up pretty much every day, maybe a little bit later, and I’d go to work and go through the motions, but there was nothing on the inside. And you can get away with that for four months but you can’t do that for four years. And by the grace of God, the first flickers of passion started to return in the fall of that year. That happened in May of 2006, where my energy just tanked.
By the fall, I felt the first flicker of hope, and it’s like my heart beat for a millisecond again, and I’m like, “Oh, emotion. This is good.” And then it was gradually, but it took years, like three to five years to really find my new footing to say, “Okay, I think this is the new normal,” and for my heart to fully function again. And I’m so grateful it did, but, man, anybody who’s ever burned out, like it is awful.
And now, I read a Deloitte study, summer of 2021, if I get this right, it was in the 80s. I think it was 82% of senior executives leave work every day emotionally exhausted and physically drained. And according to a study done before the pandemic in 2019, 70% of adults in their 20s and 30s say that they experienced some of the symptoms of burnout in the last year. So, I think we’re just living at this pace where it’s kind of like, “I was feeling like me 15 years ago.” Now, it’s like, “Whoa, there’s a lot of people, like millions of people are in that state every day.”
The other thing I would say is I’m not a doctor, I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’ve created this category I call low-grade burnout, having taught thousands of people about this. And low-grade burnout, the working definitions are the functions of life continue but the joy of life is gone. In other words, yeah, you’re getting up, you’re shipping podcast episodes, you’re taking the kids to soccer, to dance, you’re socializing with friends, you’re going to work every day, maybe you’re even setting records, but there’s no joy in it. You’ve built a life you want to escape from. And I think that’s a kind of burnout that’s just in the water supply these days.
Wow. Well, thank you for sharing. That’s powerful stuff and a wakeup call for many in terms of like numbness or joy, whether it’s all the way gone or like halfway gone. It’s like, hmm, to note that as an indicator, like, “Something is amiss here. Adjustments need to be made.”
Pete, it’s almost a human condition now but my point is it doesn’t have to be. Like a lot of us, you get into your late 20s or 30s and you grow a little bit cynical, and you think, “Oh, I guess this is life.” There’s that old movie with Jack Nicholson, I think it’s Helen Hunt, this is, “As Good as It Gets.” And a lot of us to that point, and that’s the whole point, right? We’ve built these lives and we’re like, on the outside, I had it all. Like, I had a beautiful wife, great sons. We were the church everybody would travel to, to see, because it’s where it was going on. But on the inside, I was dying.
And I think there are so many people now who are in that place where it’s like, “Got the house, got the car, got the job, got the family, got the girlfriend,” whatever your life situation is, “…but how come I’m so flat on the inside?” Now, I think, as a person of faith, some of that is spiritual. And you’re not even going to be able to figure out what that is until you get a level playing field, and you can say, “Okay, let’s get time, energy, and priorities working for me, and then I can actually see, ‘Is this the right job for me? Is this the right relationship for me? Is this the right life circumstance for me?’” Because if you can’t feel anything, you can’t assess anything, but that is now what passes for life for so many people.
Okay. Well, all right. So, joy, that’s a huge a motivator, a huge why to try out some of your goods, Carey. And if that wasn’t enough, your approach also liberated for you a thousand productive hours a year. Can you share with us sort of that math and how it results in such a staggering result?
It’s a little crazy, and when I wrote it down, I remember the first time I quantified it, I thought, “I feel like that infomercial guy.” But it’s actually what happened to me, and it’s got a bit of street cred because, before I wrote the book, I taught this to leaders around the world and also offered a course that we ran, I think, 3500 leaders through. And the results are three hours a day to three hours a week.
Somewhere in that ballpark you’d expected that level of result.
Somewhere in that ballpark. So, three hours a week, it’s like, yeah, I became somewhat more productive and I freed up three hours a week. You know what that boils down to? That’s about 160 hours a year, which you think, “Well, that’s not that much.” That’s like getting a month of vacation, like your next four weeks are free because you’ve eliminated so much of the clutter in your life. If it did for me, and it’s done this for hundreds of other people, maybe thousands now, three hours a day, it is not hard to waste three hours a day. It’s the same with your time as well. Like, it doesn’t take that long.
And the biggest section of the book is on priorities. The first part tells you, “Here are some tips on how to use your time. Here’s how to leverage your energy,” which seems to be the big gamechanger. But the bulk of the book is actually on priorities because, otherwise, you have a good theory. And what happens every day is you start in reactive mode. First thing you do is you look at your phone, then you dig around in your inbox, then you’re on social media. And, suddenly, what you’ve allowed is other people’s priorities to determine how you spend your day.
And then you’ve got that really important thing to do at work, the project you’ve got to turn out, the report you’ve got to give in to your boss, the client you’ve got to meet with, the deal you’ve got to land, but you didn’t get to it. And the reason you didn’t get to it is because, “This guy called and then I got called into a surprise meeting, and then I’ve got 17 texts I haven’t responded to yet. And, oh my gosh, I looked at my inbox, it’s a disaster. It’s on fire.” And then you got pulled into another meeting, and someone knocked on your door, and said, “Hey, can I just have five minutes of your time?” but it wasn’t five minutes.
Or, you’re in a cubicle and everyone is distracting you every three minutes. The next thing you know, it’s 4:30 in the afternoon. In my law days, you’re still not ready for court tomorrow, you’re still not ready for whatever that big project is, and now what do you do? You take that home with you. And so, what the “At Your Best” system does, the thrive cycle does, is it makes sure that you get your most important stuff done. And then, all of a sudden, you’re like, “Oh, okay, I am now in a place where I got the big stuff done. Yeah, there were some flashfires and, yes, I had that impromptu meeting at 2:00 o’clock.”
But you can walk out of the office at 4:00 or 6:00, or close your laptop if you’re working from home, at whatever your normal signoff time is, and you’re like, “I’m done. I’m going to go for a bike ride. I’m going to go out for dinner with friends,” and you’re not thinking all the time about that giant project you have to get done. So, that’s what really where the claim comes from. And if you do that, if you reclaim three peak productive hours in a day, that’s 1,095 hours in a year.
Yeah, okay. So, then three hours that have been frittered away in a meeting that didn’t need to happen, or an email checking, or social media frittering that didn’t need to occur, by liberating three a day, we get over a thousand a year. Understood. Well, so then, let’s get into it. What are some of the like top practices that are so transformative for folks?
There’s a million time-management books out there, a lot of which I’m huge fans of, and some of the authors of whom endorsed this book, like Greg McKeown, Cal Newport, David Allen, I’ve interviewed him for my podcast. Probably the breakthrough for a lot of people when you’re looking at “At Your Best,” is I call my own language out. And the language I hear a lot of people use, it’s simply this idea that, “I don’t have enough time.” The whole idea of time famine.
So, when it comes to managing your time, it’s pretty easy to say to yourself, like I did all through my 30s, “Pete, I don’t have time to write a book. You don’t understand how busy I am. These things grow like crazy. Like, I haven’t got time to write a book.” And then, one day, I had this realization, and I don’t know why, everybody knows this, but it just hit me like a ton of bricks one day, it’s like, “Carey, you have the same amount of time as any other human being on the planet. If you’re running a Fortune 50 company, nobody gives you a 25th hour in the day. Like, it just doesn’t happen. You have the same amount of time as everyone else.”
And then I started to think about how productive some of my heroes were, and made me go, “What gives?” And so, what I made myself do, and this is what I would encourage every listener to do, is start admitting, or stop saying, I should say, stop saying you don’t have the time. Start admitting you didn’t make it. So, just stop saying you don’t have the time. You actually have the time. What do you want to do? And I’ve asked lots of leaders about that, like, “What do you want to do?” and people are like, “I want to launch my own podcast,” “I want to write a book.”
Or, I remember one person said, “You know what I want? I want a weed-free garden. Like, my garden used to give me so much joy, and I just never have time to weed it.” I’m like, “Well, you actually have the time, and you can do that.” Other people want to paint, and they want to do different things with their life, “I want to learn how to cook,” “I want to learn how to ski,” or whatever it is. You actually have the time, “I want to crush out the next quarter’s goals before midnight on the day before they’re due.” Okay, great. Well, you can do that. And so, stop saying you don’t have the time, start admitting you didn’t make it. So, that’s time.
And then energy. So, you have 24 equal hours in a day, but, as you know, not all hours feel equal. People like Daniel Pink and Cal Newport have identified, using brain research and science, that most people seem to have about three to five peak productive hours in a day. If you really think about it as a writer, having written books, all my author friends would tell you they cannot write for 17 hours a day. It’s just not true. Well, you could but by hour seven, you’re spewing garbage at that point.
And if you’re up against a deadline, “Yeah, sure. Okay, I can work till midnight if I have to because I have to get this chapter in,” but you’re not producing your best work. Most writers would say success is a thousand good words a day, which doesn’t sound like much but that may take you three to five hours. So, you’ve got three to five hours in a day where, I’d argue, you’re at your best. So, we usually think about this as like morning people, night owls, or people who hit their peak midday. What would you say, Pete, I’m curious, are you a morning person, a night owl? I call that your green zone, your best. What are your best hours in the day typically?
Yeah, you know, it’s funny, and, I don’t know, I don’t think this is always the case, but over the last, I don’t know, six years, it really seemed like it is the morning…and we had a couple sleep doctors on. And so, in the earliest of mornings, we’ve got what one called groggy greatness in terms of, “I might not be super alert, but, wow, I’m getting a lot of good ideas. I don’t know if they’re good yet, but I’m getting a lot of ideas which I’m parking to later evaluate to see if they’re good.” And then maybe an hour into the day, it’s like, “Okay, let’s get after some stuff.”
Yeah. Could you put it on a clock? When people think about this, they usually find they can. So, is it like 5:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m. for you, 8:00 a.m.? When does your green zone start?
So, yeah, if I wake up at 6:30, I feel really raring to go at 7:30.
Yeah, great, 7:30. And then when do you start to fade? A little bit mental clarity, a little bit of brain fog, like when does that hit?
Well, in some ways, after maybe around 90 minutes of doing something, it sure is time for a break, but then it’s not over. I would say, well, I’ll put it this way. At 1:30 p.m., I sure don’t want to schedule something important. It’s, like, I am sleepy and I will be, hopefully, lying down for a power nap, if possible, around then.
Thanks for being so honest about that because I think, in the ‘90s, when I came into the workplace in law, there was this idea that we were robots, we were superhuman, and sleepy was for wimpy people. And what you just admitted, along with every single person listening to this podcast, that you’re human, and that’s the way humans operate. So, my hours are 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. That seems, these days, to be my best. If I’m lucky, after a power nap at lunch, I’ll get another incredible hour, and that would be my green zone.
Cal Newport says we have four of those hours a day where you can really do deep work. Daniel Pink would agree that it’s a very limited window. And even if you’re a night owl, I was talking to my wife, she was talking to someone who says her best hours are between 8:00 and midnight. It’s like, “Wow, more power to you.” But at that point, if I’m on a sofa, I’m probably falling asleep in the next 20 minutes. Like, that’s just me.
So, you have green zones, those are your best hours. And I’d encourage you, even if you can’t say exactly where they are, like pick a zone. Is it morning, afternoon, evening for you as a person listening to this show? Then you also have, on the other side, red zones. It sounds like 1:30 in the afternoon could be a red zone for you. 4:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon is getting into my red zone.
So, we’re having this interview later in the afternoon, so I had a little quick nap at lunch, and then I went for a 30-minute bike ride before I jumped on because I wanted to be mentally clear, kind put some paddles on the heart to get me going and make sure that I was going to deliver for you and your audience. But, normally, 4:00 to 6:00, it’s either I need a nap or I need to get my body moving.
And then everything in between is just yellow. You’re not at your best, you’re not at your worst. And the way to think about it, and this is the Archimedes lever for almost everybody who’s tried this system, if you’ve got your best hours, start focusing your best work in your best hours of all the things in your job description. Let’s say your job description has ten things in it. Even if you’re a founder, you know this. It’s like you still have parts of your job that you’re not very good at and that aren’t that important. That’s like every single job, there is no dream job where it’s all 100% everything you want to do and you’re still good at it all the time.
I know for myself, right now, I write books and speak and run a digital communication company. If I write well, that’s number one, that’s what I’m best at, that’s what I’m gifted at, I’m a communicator. If I have a clear and compelling vision, if my staff are aligned, and if we have the money to do what we’re called to do, then everything is going to be okay. If I start writing poorly, if the vision is fuzzy, if my team starts to fight or bicker or gossip, or if we run out of cash, we have problems.
So, what I do in my green zone is I try to focus on the things that move the needle in those four areas. Write killer content. If I’ve got an issue with the staff or I’ve got to clarify vision or the future, I’m going to do that in my best hours in the morning, and I’m going to protect those hours. I used to be the king of breakfast meetings, and I’d go to a breakfast meeting, and you know how those worked.
You get up at 5:00, 6:00, whatever, make it to the restaurant for 7:00, you’re supposed to be done at 8:00 but it went long, it’s now 8:30. Then you stop by the coffee shop, grab a coffee to go into the office, you get into the office, five people stop to talk to you, and then you get in, and you look at your phone, you got like five texts, you’ve got a whole bunch of unread emails. Next thing you know, it’s 11:30, it’s time for lunch.
Well, if that’s my life, I’ve got like a chapter to write, or when I was a preacher, a sermon to write, or I’ve got a vision document I’m working on, now my best hours are gone. I just burned that fuel. It’s gone and it’s not coming back. And then if the afternoon is a whole bunch of like reactions and meetings and all that stuff, by 4:30 in the afternoon, I haven’t moved the needle. I’ve spent the entire day doing not what I’m best at. What is probably inconsequential and not that important, I now go home and I’m like, “I got to write that chapter.” And then I see my wife and she’s like, “What are you doing tonight?” It’s like, “Sorry, I got to work again.” When my kids were young, it’s like, “Got to work.”
So, that’s time and energy, and we can talk about priorities separately because that’s a big thing. But those are the big ideas. And so, what you do is you protect those peak three to five hours whenever they are from outside distractions, and you do what your best at when you’re at your best. That’ll move the needle.
Yeah, that’s great. And what I’m thinking about is like then there are some things that, I don’t know if there’s a word for this, Carey, but I think there needs to be. Maybe there’s another language. But it’s almost like fertile-ness, or like fertility. It’s sort of like there are some activities, like writing a chapter for a book, that’s perfect. Thank you. If you do that with great energy, you get a better result versus there are other activities that it doesn’t matter what energy you bring to them, like you still check the box, regardless. Like, maybe it’s a mandatory training that…hey, you and I like training. We do training. But there are some trainings or like…
Your fire drill training.
I think there are some sort of like compliance-y things, like you have to check the box in order for it to be checked. And it is checked, and, thusly, you can proceed. But it doesn’t need to be like masterfully checked. Like, you don’t get a better result if you bring more brilliant time, energy, attention to it, to a certain task. And other tasks, it makes all the difference in the world. Like, “Hey, I’m going to make some decisions about my priorities, and my vision, and what projects I’m going to pursue versus not pursue.” Boy, that matters a ton, if you’re doing that sort of like attentively and brilliantly, or half in the bag. Like, that’s huge, versus other things don’t.
So, is there a word, Carey, for like the condition in which something yields more the better you attend to it versus the opposite, like, “It doesn’t matter as long you get that box checked”?
No, that is a really good point. I’ll bet you the Germans and the Japanese have a word for that because they always have great words. I speak neither Japanese nor German, but I would call it, you used the phrase, I think, inconsequential. There are things. So, for example, I’m not my executive assistant. I have an EA. Her job, because we get hundreds of emails a day into the inbox, her job is to do a really good job responding to all of the emails that need a response. That needs to be her green zone.
Email, for me, tends to be transactional. Pete saying, “Hey, do you want to be on my podcast?” it’s like, “Yes, I would like to be on your podcast.” I want to be polite. I want to be nice, but that is not the highest value-added work. Me showing up prepared for this interview, to have a good conversation, that’s actually important.
So, what I would say the word that I would use, there’s inconsequential things. Email is relatively inconsequential. I can do that in my yellow or red zone when my energy isn’t at its peak because I’m just saying yes or no or being kind to people, and I can do that on autopilot. Writing a chapter for a new book, that has impact. So, the word I would choose is impact. And the thing to think about, I’ve got a Venn diagram in “At Your Best,” and if you buy the book, you get all these downloads for free with it off the website. But imagine three circles, so: gifting, passion, impact.
So, gifting can be your skillset. I’m, by nature, a communicator. When I was a kid, I was like in public speaking contests. When I was in law, loved being in court. I was in court almost every day. I was only in it for a year but, man, I loved being in court. When I was a preacher, guess the part of the job I like the most? Growing a church and preaching. I loved the communication part. Guess what I’m doing now? Podcasting, writing books, writing articles, connecting with leaders. Communication is a gift for me that I think I was given, and it’s also something I really enjoy doing most days. Most days I really enjoy it.
It also happens to have the greatest impact, that when I communicate well, everything goes better. When I communicated well in law, my clients won. And when I was preaching, the church grew, when I was preaching well. When I’m writing well, I wrote a post yesterday, it’s funny you mentioned you get ideas at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for a while, and I woke up at 5:10, and I said to my wife, “The post was fully formed in my head. I went downstairs, wrote it down really quickly.”
Like, that kind of rest and margin allows your brain to be free. And, sure enough, this one did connect with leaders and tens of thousands of leaders read it in the first 24 hours. I’m like, “Awesome.” That’s a good example. So, there you have impact. So, ask yourself, “What is the biggest impact of that work?” Like, when your boss says, “Well done,” was it because you filed your expense report on time? Well, maybe, if you’re in accounting, yes. But it’s really probably for those things that move the bottom line of the company forward. What is it in your job?
If you’re a receptionist, super important to do customer service well. And, by the way, the bar is so low on that these days. All you have to do is be a kind human. If you’re a kind human on those phone calls, if you’re a kind human, and when somebody comes in, and says, “Hey, would you like a glass of water, or a cup of coffee, or that kind of thing?” man, that goes a long way. I say to our customer service people, like, “Just be kind to people. Just give them a timely response. Like, that has such an impact.”
We do online courses, and we offer a 30-day money back guarantee. The industry standard on refunds for online products is 10-30%, depending on your field. We get a lower than 1% return rate. Why? Well, first of all, we give it to anybody who wants it. No questions asked, so they know it’s there. Secondly, we try to over deliver on value. That has a super high impact. That’s important. That deserves your green zone.
So, think about, “Where is my biggest impact? Where is my gifting? Where is my passion?” You get those three things going together, that’s how you use your green zone. That’s how you use those peak three to five hours a day. And then, finally, for personal application, Saturday and Sunday maybe you’re not in the office, but I used to give my wife the leftovers. I’d mow the lawn in the morning or I’d wash the car in the morning. Well, if that’s my green zone, maybe we should go for a breakfast date, and then I can wash the car later. I can mow the lawn when it’s like, “Hmm, should I have a nap or should I mow the lawn?” You see?
So, you start to rethink that because my wife is more important than my lawn, as much as I’m like a lawn guy. Definitely more important than the lawn. So, you can start rejigging your priorities, in that way you start showing up more for the things that really matter in life.
That’s beautiful. Okay. So, right there, green, yellow, red, have those three to five peak productive hours on super high impact stuff that where the things align there. So, then let’s talk about priorities. How do we think through and establish what is top and what is middle and what is low?
So, priorities can run in two directions. One is to think about, “What is of greatest impact?” so definitely do that exercise: passion, gifting, impact. And that could lead into a promotion or a new job for you one day. But, again, if you can determine that, you know your priorities. The priority section of the book is really designed to help you get this from theory to reality. Because if all you do is implement what we’ve talked to today, and you’re like, “Good. I’m starting that tomorrow,” you’ve heard it already, you know what to do, I promise you it’s going to blow up in your face.
And the reason it’s going to blow up in your face is everybody else is going to ask you to do something else. You’d probably say, “I’ve got two meetings in my green zone five days a week. What do I do with that?” We can talk about that. Or, even if you don’t have meetings, you’re like a morning person, you’re like, “Yeah, my first meeting is at 11:00 a.m. that’s ideal,” you will distract yourself. We have devices now that just buzz and chirp and distract us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including in our green zone, and then you’re sitting down, maybe you’ve turned off all notifications on your phone, but you’re sitting down, someone knocks at the door, “Hey, Carey, can I have five minutes of your time?” It’s like your green zone goes up in flames.
So, priorities is really as much about, “How do you stop the world from hijacking that green zone?” Because if you use it well, and you get those three to five hours in, some days it’ll be three, some days it’ll be five, but you get those in and you start using them consistently, you’re going to start feeling like you could go home by lunch because you’re like, “I got the report in,” “I’ve solved the problem,” “I created the new pivot table that’s going to change accounting.” Whatever you’re doing, you got it done and you’re like, “Oh, it’s just a meeting this afternoon. It’s just an inbox this afternoon,” like everything else feels easy.
But the world will conspire against you to hijack your green zone. So, first thing I would recommend is stop distracting yourself. Even when you get into that green zone, you get into a comfortable environment, a quiet environment, if you’re in a cubicle, put headphones on. Headphones are the universal, “Don’t bug me” symptom.
Nir Eyal, who also endorsed the book, he writes in his book Indistractable, you can talk about in your office, put like a little traffic cone on your desk, a mini one, and when the traffic cone is there, it’s like, “Hey, I’m in my zone. Please don’t bother me until after.” So, you’ve got to set up some signals to stop distracting yourself. So, I would suggest turn off all notifications on your phone.
By the way, if you’re wondering how to do that, and you’re listening to this in real time, iOS 15 just released some amazing features where you can now set different levels of privacy for different times in the day. Just released days ago as we record this, but I’m excited to try out these ideas with red, yellow, and green zone because a lot of people are afraid to totally protect their green zones, turn off their phones, shut off all notifications because they’re like, “Well, what if my kids need me or what if my boss needs me?”
We used to have to set up favorites to do that. Now, you could set up a green zone feature on your iPhone, if you have an iPhone, and you could say, “These three people are allowed to reach me during my green zone. That’s it.” So, if it’s your boss, your spouse, a child, that’s fine. And they’re probably not going to call you very often, but block the rest of the world out. It’ll be there later in the day.
So, you want to stop distracting yourself, and then you’ve got to stop…you’ve got to learn how to say no so you don’t overcrowd your calendar. Happy to talk about that if you want to go there and talk about mastering the art of saying no.
Well, thank you, Carey. That was absolutely on my list. So, how do you say no well?
Well, it’s hard. One way is to determine, Pete, what you need to say yes to and what you need to say no to. And Greg McKeown talks about this in Essentialism, I’m paraphrasing him, but imagine all the requests that come your way as being somewhere between a zero, “Definitely don’t want to do that,” and a ten, “Oh, my goodness, I can’t wait. I want to do this so bad and it’s the right thing to do.” So, zero is like “No way,” ten is “Fantastic!”
Most of us are smart enough intuitively to get rid of the zeroes to fives, it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really want to do that,” “No, that’s not a really good use of my time,” “No, thank you so much, but I’m okay.” Our lives get filled up with sixes, sevens, and eights. And what Greg McKeown says is if it’s not a nine, it’s a zero. And that was really hard for me. Even as I was developing this material, I have so many opportunities and I want to say yes, but that filter of, “If it’s not a nine, it’s a zero,” is a really, really powerful filter.
So, what I would say is start using a new filter in your decision-making. And another way to look at it, I think Seth Godin came up with this, but ask yourself the question, because six months from now, someone is asking you to do something in February, you look at your calendar, and, by the way, if you implement this system, your calendar will not be blank six months down the road. But most people’s calendar is blank, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I have time in February.” But then February comes and it’s all filled up and you don’t have any bandwidth for it.
Seth Godin says, “Would you put it on your calendar tomorrow?” If the answer is yes, then it’s probably a nine. If the answer is no, then it’s probably not a nine. It’s probably six, or seven, or eight. So, a lot of us get somewhat moderately excited about an idea, it’s a six out of ten, and we say, “Yeah, I’ll do that in January,” and then January comes around, and it’s like, “Oh, why did I let that on my calendar?” And I think there are a lot of people who are like, “Why did I let that on my calendar?” create a new filter. And then what you do is you master. Now you know what to allow on your calendar.
And then the second thing is, “How do you say no?” Well, we say no every day just because it’s the size of the audience. And I think what you say, if you can say this honestly and with a clear conscience, say, “You know, I’d love to do that. Pete, I’d love to help you with that project. Unfortunately, in light of my current commitments, I’m unable to do so. But thank you so much for asking me. I really appreciate it. I wish you well. Carey.” That’s short. Simple. It’s clear. It’s not like, “Check with me in two weeks,” because then they come in two weeks, you’re like, “Yeah, I still can’t really do it.” It’s just clear.
And Steve Jobs famously said what was best about Apple’s innovation was not what they said yes to, but what they said no to. And by having that undistracted time, by having a focus that was pretty legendary, he and the team at Apple were able to come up with products that nobody else could come up with. And that was the singular focus on saying no so that he could say yes to a phone that changed the world, or to a device that played a thousand songs in your pocket.
And if you get that kind of margin in your calendar, if you get very good at saying no, you have to overcome FOMO in everything, you will find that you probably can start to realize things in your life and at your work that will astound you and surprise you.
All right. Carey, this is awesome. Anything else you want to make sure to say before we hear about a couple of your favorite things?
No, I would just say ask yourself this question, “Are you able to run at this pace forever?” And most of us would say, “I’m not able to run at my current pace forever, maybe not even another month, maybe not another week.” And the problem there is if your life, if you’re saying to yourself, “Well, Carey, it’s just a busy season,” seasons have beginnings and endings, and if your season doesn’t have an ending, it’s not a season. It’s your life. And do you really want to live that way? And if you don’t, I’d love to help.
All right. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Okay. Winston Churchill, “Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I love what Daniel Pink did in his book When, when he analyzed surgeons and discovered that even they struggled with what we’ve been talking about today. Did you know that if you have your surgery at 8:00 a.m. you are far less likely to have complications? And if your surgeon operates on you at 4:00 p.m., there’s a 400% spike in challenges with surgery in the afternoon over the morning because we’re all humans.
That’s a good study.
Yes, a very good study.
And a favorite book?
Favorite book? I love Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times. Fantastic book.
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Oh, I use Evernote a lot. I have just thousands of notes in Evernote. Been around for a long, long time but it’s a go-to.
And a favorite habit?
Habit would be going to bed early. My wife says she married an 85-year-old man. But I love sleeping in on the frontside. I think it makes me better in the next day, so I try to get to sleep by 10:00 every night.
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
Yeah. You know, the one that keeps coming back is “Time off won’t heal you if the problem is how you spend your time on.”
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Yeah, you can go to AtYourBestToday.com, that’s the gateway into the book. And we’ve got some special offers there for people, so just AtYourBestToday. Don’t forget the today part. And then you can find me at CareyNieuwhof.com. A very hard name to spell, but if you butcher it, Google will probably get you there.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yeah, I would say you can do this. Find those peak three to five hours, protect them, and you will see results starting pretty much overnight.
All right. Carey, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck and fun and adventures at your best.
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been a joy to be with you today.