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Automation

442: How to Spend Less Time Doing Email with Dianna Booher

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Dianna Booher says: "If you can't write your message in a sentence, you can't say it in an hour."

Dianna Booher shares invaluable advice on how to minimize your email inbox and write more effective and efficient emails.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Just how much time you can save through email optimization
  2. How to reduce useless emails and optimize your inbox
  3. How to compose better emails in less time using the M-A-D-E structure

About Dianna

Dianna Booher’s lifework has centered around communication. As author of 48 books, translated into 60 foreign language editions, she has traveled the globe, talking with clients and organizations on six continents about communication challenges they face at work and at home.

Her firm works with organizations to help them communicate clearly. During her more than three decades at BooherResearch Institute and earlier at Booher Consultants, she and her team have provided communication training programs, coaching, and consulting to governmental agencies and more than one third of the Fortune 500 organizations.

The national media frequently interview Booher for opinions on communication issues, and she blogs regularly for Microsoft, Forbes, and The CEO Magazine.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dianna Booher Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Dianna, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Dianna Booher
Thank you, Pete. It’s great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat once again. I think we’re going to get into some really important stuff. Your book is just a bullseye, I think, and for many professionals that they need to hear. But, first, I want to hear a little bit about you. You say you’re afraid of heights, yet you have 4 million frequent flyer miles in American Airlines. What’s the story here?

Dianna Booher
I don’t know. I’m going to blame it on my mom. You know, we blame everything on our parents. She used to tell me, when I was growing up, I was going to catch my shoelaces in the escalator, you know, “Jump off quickly. Quickly.” And I guess that’s where it came from, I don’t know, but I had been known to even walk over and ask total strangers if I could hold onto their shoulder or their elbow going down an escalator. I just step…

Pete Mockaitis
What do they tell you?

Dianna Booher
“Yes, yes.” At a trade show, would you believe, it was a competitor. She was standing at the top of an escalator about to go down, and I humbled myself to go over and say, “I am totally afraid to get on an escalator. Could I hold onto your arm?” And she just burst out to a hysterical laughter, and said, “Of course.” And it broke the ice, actually, it improved the relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. Was this a training competitor?

Dianna Booher
Yes, it was, a competitor of my training company. But I’ve even tried to get over it by going on tours, or climbing a mountain, doing something to go to this big lookout, and probably every country that I’ve visited, about 60 of them, and I would start off with my husband, you know, and this group and we’re going to go, and I would get to the first or second little stop, and just cling to the side of the mountain till I came back down. I just can’t do it. I just freeze.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, maybe someday.

Dianna Booher
Someday.

Pete Mockaitis
But, nonetheless, it hasn’t stopped you from flying, and building, and selling a training business, so congratulations on that as well. That’s cool. But you’re still in the game somewhat because you wrote a new book, Faster, Fewer, Better Emails. Very on topic, I think, for a lot of us. So, tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Dianna Booher
Well, basically, it’s about productivity and, of course, the writing skill because you want to be on message. But it increases productivity three ways. It gives strategies to reduce the volume that’s about to engulf everyone, it helps you write the necessary emails better so you get the action you want, and, really, the third way it increases your productivity is it helps you write faster because you’re thinking more clearly, and you say the right thing the first time and not have to do it over and over and over.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, that sounds great.

Dianna Booher
So, basically, that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so maybe let’s talk about the why for a second. So, I know I don’t like having a ton of emails hanging out of my inbox. It feels kind of uncomfortable, just a low-level anxiety exists in my psyche when I’ve got it. And I know, listeners, I owe you some messages but you’re not forgotten. It will happen. That’s like two babies.

Dianna Booher
I think most people feel stressed about their email, or at least that’s what a report, you know, when we did our major survey, which is sort of the basis of all the strategies that we give in the book. Well, we surveyed people for more than 30 different organizations across all industries. And we found people are really, really stressed out by their email and not only at work but when they go home, they’re logging back in afterhours and on the weekends to just keep up with it, to start off even again the next Monday.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Well, so could you maybe give us the lay of the land then? You got the survey, some research, some study. Can we get some numbers on kind of what sort of time are we talking about and what kind of time could be saved if we were doing it faster, fewer, better?

Dianna Booher
Well, two to three hours a day, and that’s conservative, according to the research, and we found that 42% of the respondents spend three or more hours a day doing email.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Dianna Booher
And that’s just astounding to me because for many people that’s not their core job. We’re not talking about people whose job it is to sit there like customer service agent maybe whose job it is all day to sit there and respond to email. But maybe their core job is doing an engineering project, or arriving a feasibility study, or doing an engineering report. But that’s just on top of their regular job.

In fact, a story that one CEO was talking about, he was talking to a reporter, actually this story was passed on to me, but the reporter was asking about the volume of email. And he said, “Well, I have a project here that would probably take me an hour and a half to finish, but because I get so much email in here, it’s probably going to take me the rest of the afternoon to do it.” And that was at 1:30 in the afternoon.

So, Pete, the idea is that people just can’t get to their real work because of keeping their email up, staying through the inbox, going through it all the time. And we just found out a lot of things with the email that I was really surprised to know, and that comment from that CEO. It reminds me 55% of our respondents said that they check their email at least every hour.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Dianna Booher
In other words, they just leave it open, and they’re continually checking their email rather than focusing on their core work, and checking it two or three times a day, which is what I recommend in the book. You check it when you come in the morning, maybe check it after lunch and before you go home so you can respond to things that people are waiting on. And it’s either waiting for them before they go home or the next morning. But some people just, as things pop into their box, they handle it so they’re continually disrupted and distracted from what they’re doing.

Another thing that was surprising to me, since you’re asking about surprising things, 31%, in other words, one out of three people said that they spent more than 20 minutes every day just searching for information because they’re disorganized. And so, when they need to send an email or type something, they don’t file documents, they don’t title them consistently so they’re looking for things. They just kind of haphazardly put this here, put that there. So, when somebody says, “Can you send me the numbers on this? Or, can you send me data for that?” they’re searching. And some people said they spend up to an hour a day just searching for things. That’s where the disorganization really cost them a lot of time.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if I guess some would say, “Well, hey, email is sort of part of life.” Just how much savings of time are you seeing when you implement some of these best practices?

Dianna Booher
Well, we have not asked per se different organizations to give us savings. Now, we have on our writing programs. So, when we’re teaching writing programs, before I sold my training organization last year, we surveyed every three years, and we ask organizations to report how much time they saved in writing time. And the average participant, or in the average organization came back to us and said they saved upward of 35% on their writing time, and also, we had to measure reading time.

Now, this was self-report, and we would say, “All right,” when they started, before they went through our program, we would say, “How much time do you spend writing normally? And then how much time have you reduced it?” Not just the next day, well, they remembered all the techniques we gave them. But we would ask organizations, not us, but the organization, their HR department, their training department, go back and ask them three months later, “How much would you say you’ve estimated reducing your writing time?” And the average would be upward of 35%. So, that’s a tremendous savings in just their thinking process.

And then also in reading time, we asked them to do the same thing for their executives’ perspective, you know, all the documents that are coming to them, and basically their job is reading, you know, decide, approve, buy this, consider, have a meeting on that. But all of that is coming to them in written form before they take those actions. And if they can cut the length of documents going to them, then obviously, and particularly if they’re copying six people or 42 people, then they’re saving a lot of reading time. So, it’s another way to measure.

But we’ve also had a client who actually literally, literally measured paperwork, because a lot of people don’t want to keep their screen time so they’ll print out, believe it or not in this day and age, they’ll print out a lot of emails and take it with them on the airplane to read, or take it with them in a briefcase, take it with them on the road while somebody else is driving, if they have a lot of commute time on the train, etc.

And so, this one client literally measured paperwork, how much paperwork did they have before they started this program, and then how much six months later less trash. And that’s an engineering company as you can imagine that would do that. And so, that’s another metric, so reading time and just thinking time and preparation time. So, there’s a lot of ways to measure that we let organizations themselves measure the effect.

And, of course, the results and if their salespeople are measuring the closing rate. If they can’t close a proposal, but after they learned to write better and they have a better closing rate on their emails and proposals where they’re dealing with their clients, that’s a measure as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so much good stuff. All right. Well, I’m sold. Hey, 35% on two to three hours a day, one HR a day, that’s huge. What could you do with that? Wow. So, let’s get into each of it. So, when it comes to, say, first of all, I just got a boatload of emails. How do we tackle that?

Dianna Booher
Well, there are several strategies to cut paperwork and just to reduce the volume. Let me give you one of the pieces before you understand how these strategies play out. When we ask people, “What are the kinds of emails that you get that are just totally unnecessary?” They said, let me check here, “Thirty-two percent of the emails that we get are totally either redundant or irrelevant.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Dianna Booher
And when they defined what they meant, it either doesn’t apply to them. In other words, they’re on somebody’s distribution list and it’s long outlived its usefulness, they don’t need to be on that list anymore. So, people, they put together a list for this project or this certain kind of monthly report, and then they no longer need to get it, but people, rather than cleaning their distribution list, they’re just still sending it over and over so that just clutters their box.

Or, they have no interest in it. They never were interested in getting this information. So, every morning when you come in, and you look at your email, a third of it you don’t need or it’s redundant. Six people have sent you the same thing. So, just cleaning your distribution list and deleting and unsubscribing, rather than just deleting. If for all eternity you don’t need this, then unsubscribe, don’t just delete it. Of course, it takes a little bit longer to take three steps to un-delete, and the safe unsubscribe always asks you, “Why do you want to un-delete? Is this the right email? Why do not want it? Did you not sign up, etc.?” That’ll take you three clicks rather than delete which takes you one click, but then you’re out of it for good. You don’t keep getting it every Tuesday morning, etc.

But here are the kind of strategies that I’m talking about in the book. In fact, the first chapter gives 12 of these. But, throughout, you’ll come up with about 30 or 40, throughout the whole book. But let me talk about some of those that are the most troublesome that clogs up your email. And that is using your email box for a to-do list.

A lot of people open up their email, and they think, “Oh, I need to do something, but I can’t do it right now. I need to finish so and so,” or, “I need to collect this information but I don’t have it.” And rather than schedule that task, pull that over, put it on a calendar, or make a physical note of it if they need to do that, they just leave it open in their email box, and then they open the next thing, “Oh, I need to call so and so. Well, I don’t want to forget that,” and they just leave it in their email box.

And so, pretty soon they’ve got 15 open emails and they keep having to read through those. Then the next day, they don’t remember, “What was that? What was that detail? When was that due?” And they have to read through those. Oh, every time they come across it, they have to keep reading through it and reading through it to remember. So, it clutters up their box, it creates re-reading. So, when they come across something like that, they need to act on it. They need to either move it, file it, make another note of when they’re going to do it, move it over on their calendar, and just get it out of the inbox. It is not your to-do list.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, if there’s a to-do item, it doesn’t belong in the inbox but it should be not forgotten and placed elsewhere. So, do you just have like a separate folder or a label called To-Do or what is it called?

Dianna Booher
Yes, yes, you can have it separate. There are several ways to handle it. If you’re using Microsoft Office 365, you literally could pull that email over on a date to handle it. Let’s say you’re waiting for information to go in that email. Before you can respond, you’re going to get some data next Wednesday on it, then you can literally pull it over to next Thursday because you’re getting the information on Wednesday, and now you can respond on Thursday. You just literally drag it over on that pane.

Or you can make a note. Let’s say you have a paper calendar where you have a list of to-dos. You just make a note, “Respond to Jack about so and so,” and then file that document with that client if it’s merged with your CRM system, your customer management system. Just file it. Or, if you want to, you can have a folder that says “To-Dos” and just pull it in that folder, and then check that folder every morning for what you’re going to do, or schedule it on a certain day. Any number of ways. The point is don’t leave it in your inbox because you just keep having to re-read it and think, “What was this supposed to do? What were the details of that? What was the deadline of that, etc.?”
Pete Mockaitis
I dig it.

Dianna Booher
Yeah. And another thing that clutters up and disrupts people and distracts them from their core work that I was talking about is what I call piling on or hanging on. And what I mean by piling on, let’s say a manager, or just anybody, is working on a project, and they’ve written a document, and they want some feedback, or they’re just sending it out for input. And they send it out, and say, “I’m getting ready to forward this up to chain to such and such. Is everybody okay with it? Or do you have anything to add?”

Well, if you read it, instead of everybody hitting Reply All, and saying, “It’s fine. It looks fine to me. Okay. I don’t have anything to add,” and cluttering up 27 boxes with meaningless comments that all say the same thing, don’t do that, don’t use that Reply All. And not only are you at fault if you’re doing that kind of reply, but also the person who sent that out is creating the clutter too. What you really should do is if you want input, you want feedback, is to say something like, “I’ve put together such and such report that I’m getting ready to mail to Joe Schmo on this date. After you review it, if you have any comments or changes, please reply to me individually. Otherwise, no actions taken. If you see no changes, please no action is necessary.”

And then that takes care of it. You don’t expect any reaction. You don’t need 27 people to hit your inbox with meaningless comments, basically, all saying, “It’s okay. I don’t have any changes.” So, you see how people, they create sometimes their own clutter. You should just ask for an exception, “If you have an exception, email me back. If you have a change, email me back. But if you’re fine with this, no action is necessary.” So, it’s not only the person who’s doing the cluttering by hitting Reply All, but it’s the person who’s asking for the feedback, they’re not asking sometimes in the best way possible.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. It’s nice and clear. So, you put that out there. Lovely. How else do we slim that inbox?

Dianna Booher
Well, I think what I call piling on is similar to that but a little different. And I think people do it for relationship building but after a while it’s just clutter. Somebody is out sick, say, for example, and they send an email, and say, “I’m not coming in today. I’ve got the flu,” and all of a sudden they get 14 emails back, “Oh, sorry, you’re sick. Sorry, you’re sick. See you tomorrow, buddy. Take it easy. No problem. We don’t want the germs,” you know. All of a sudden you got 17 emails again that interrupt everybody else’s work.

Occasionally, if some over-the-top odd, unusual circumstance, then, okay, that might be necessary. And, occasionally, you do that kind of thing to build camaraderie. But when you do that routinely with just meaningless responses, it’s distraction, distraction, distraction, distraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And you could show your support with an individual reply, you know, without involving everybody.

Dianna Booher
Yes, right. Right. Another issue that’s a problem or a thing that people need to think about is just using email for things that email was never designed for. When we first got into big email in a big way back in the ‘90s, people used email for everything because basically that was our only communication connection system, and so we used it to schedule things, we used it to invite people places, we used it for project management, we used it to collaborate with teams. It was just the all-purpose tool.

But that’s not the case anymore. There are all kinds of more appropriate software packages for specific tools. For example, Pete, when you schedule interviews, you use, what is it? Calendly that you use.

Pete Mockaitis
Calendly, yeah.

Dianna Booher
If you’re doing project management, there’s Basecamp, there’s Asana, there’s Workzone, there’s Slack, there’s all kind of project management tools and communication tools so that all of your comments as a group working on a project can move over to that area and be together without cluttering up your email. Whatever tool that’s more appropriate, take it off your email so that it’s done efficiently.

If you’re using Microsoft 365, and you’re trying to setup a meeting with three people, I mean, you’ve seen people go back and forth on their email, like, “But we really need to get together to discuss this. Are you up at the end of the week?” And somebody else replies back, “I can’t do it at the end of the week. I’m going to be out for a couple of days. We’re closing our new house. How about early next week?” Of course, he emails back, “Well, I’m going to be traveling Tuesday. How about Wednesday after 4:00?” “No, I can’t.” And they get six emails going back and forth trying to set a time when, on Microsoft, they could just say, “Cortana, find an open place on our calendars and schedule the meeting,” and it’s done.

So, my principle here, use appropriate software to do tasks that email was never appropriate, it’s just not the appropriate tool now. Maybe in the ‘90s it was. It’s no longer the appropriate tool. So, email is used only for correspondence.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Well, so, now I want to dig into a little bit of the composition side of things. You’ve got a framework, which I want to hit in a moment. But, first, I’d love to get just, you mentioned that you saw some cool results with regard to sales folks having better close rates, or I imagine also opening things up with a cold email and starting a conversation. What are some of your tips for just, generally speaking, writing emails that get responses maybe when you’re reaching out to someone for the first time?

Dianna Booher
Well, several things here. You always want to be specific. The reason a lot of people don’t get action on their emails is they’re just not specific about the action. They write to inform but they don’t persuade. Now, I’m not talking about hard sales. I’m just talking about that need to ask for an action. It’s amazing how many people who are in sales who don’t really ask for the next step, “So, can we meet with you to give you a trial run through this? Can we setup a tour? Can we do such and such?” They have to be very specific about time and date, a task.

The greeting needs to be tailored. You get a lot of emails that you know have gone to the whirls, so to speak. They send it to their entire database because it doesn’t use your name and there’s nothing in there that is specific to you, and there’s no indication that they know anything about you or remember anything about you from a previous conversation. So, there needs to be some tie to what you said previously.

I think it’s also important, in the subject line, that that subject line is not mysterious. I know if you are writing ads on TV, if you’re doing something for the Super Bowl, okay, you’ve got to be clever and cute and whatever, but that’s not email. Email, I call them sublines, S-U-B, and that stands for they need to be specific, they need to be useful, and they need to be brief. So, if you can take the S-U-B, specific, useful, and brief because…

Pete Mockaitis
Otherwise, you’re an S-O-B. I couldn’t resist it. You probably heard that dozens of times.

Dianna Booher
No, no. Quit pranking there, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you bet.

Dianna Booher
But people prioritize by their subject lines. When they’re busy and they’re on their phone, and they’re sitting at the gym waiting on their…sitting at the soccer field waiting on their child to finish the sports workout or whatever, and they’re going through 42 emails, and they’re trying to decide, “Read now, read later, or wait till I get home. Wait till I get back to the office in the morning,” etc. They’ve got to decide and prioritize.

And so, you’ve got to tell them immediately, and some of them actually just read the subject line and decide to delete and make the decision whether, “I’m going to open or send it to somebody else.” So, they need to be able to tell exactly what it is and see what’s in it for them. So, if you could put the action that you want in the subject line, that’s much better.

A lot of times, people just use a topic in their subject line. And what’s far better is to use a headline. Can you imagine reading the newspaper tonight and seeing something like, “Congress. Veto. Terrorist Attack. Weather?” You don’t. You see something like, “Terrorist attack kills 52 people in Malaysia,” or Sri Lanka, or whatever. Or you see, “Trump vetoes X, Y, Z legislation.” Or, “Congress passes X, Y, Z bill.” You see a message, and that’s what you’re…

Pete Mockaitis
this weekend.

Dianna Booher
Yeah, your subject line needs to say something not just introduce a topic. And that’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
You can say this with slide headlines too as opposed to just like report, data, survey. It’s like, “Well, tell me what I’m supposed to take away from this survey, otherwise we might all just draw our own interpretations,” which, if that was what you were going for, that’s okay. But usually it’s not. Usually, you’re trying to tell a story.

Dianna Booher
Right. I was coaching, I coached six executives last week, I was coaching them on executive…they’re already executives but I was coaching them to polish their executive presence and when they actually do a presentation to the board of directors. And we went through the entire slide decks. And, by far, most of them just had a topic as their slide. And I was saying, “Well, what’s the walkaway here? You’re talking about your revenue. But what about your revenue? Are you talking about your goals or are you saying you’re not going to meet your goals, you are going to meet your goals, your goals are falling short of what your budget, or your revenue, or your profitability? Is it that you’re not going to meet your profitability goals for the next quarter? What is the point about that?”

And they, finally, got it. And then once they understood, “We’re going for a headline here, if they could just read this and didn’t see anything on that slide, or they didn’t read anything in that email, could they walk away with a point?” And then they got it. And that’s key in email.

Another thing, too, that keeps people from even seeing your email is the habit, and it’s kind of a recent trend, of putting favorite quotes in the signature block, and putting images in the signature block. It wasn’t a big deal until about five years ago, or maybe it was about eight or 10 years ago, people started putting an image for their signature. Instead of typing it, they started writing, actually doing cursive, so to speak, and scanned it in, and they scan in their like, “Joan Smith,” and then they put that image there, and they’ll put their favorite quote, or they might put a banner, or their company logo.

Those are the kind of things that spam filters catch and keep things from being delivered. So, in the last three or four years, people have learned that, and they stopped doing that. But it’s really the spam filters are getting much more savvy about stripping those out and saying, “This is spam.” Being careful to not send those through from the outside. So, be careful about doing that, and use fewer images that will get clogged or get screened out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. All right. So, that’s some handy stuff in terms of getting the response. And so, now, let’s talk about the process you utilize to craft emails quickly and effectively.

Dianna Booher
Okay. Well, the book which talks about writing faster, fewer and better, there’s two parts to that. I don’t mean faster in the sense that you’re really going to type faster, or that you’re going to zap it all faster, there’s a faster way to get your email through technologically. What I mean by that is faster thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Dianna Booher
If you do it better, and you think better, you will do it in a more complete fashion from the very beginning, and that will result in getting the action done the first time. Instead of having to write seven emails to correct the problem or to handle a situation, you’ll write one email that takes care of the whole situation.

And so, that’s what I mean about, overall, faster. Overall, the whole situation will be taken care of faster. And so, the thinking process, really, is to analyze your audience right up front. Do you have one reader or do you have multiple readers? Who should you really copy? A lot of people, if you think about this, Pete, a lot of people, they have a situation that they need to communicate about, they write the email, and then they think, “Okay, who should get a copy here?” That’s a totally wrong approach, because your email should be tailored according to, just like that slideshow we were talking about a minute ago. The email should be tailored according to who you’re writing to.

So, the first step is, “Who am I writing to? And then, what is their bottom-line message of interest?” If they could just read one sentence, what would that one sentence be? And why do they want to know this? What’s their interest about this situation? And then you ask yourself, “How are they going to use this information? I mean, are they going to actually do the action or are they just going to approve something? Are they just going to forward this email to somebody else, and somebody else is actually going to implement it? And if so, then I need to copy so and so because they need to actually implement it. Or maybe I should put the bulk of this information in an attachment for a reference so somebody can just print it off because they’re the doer, but the person I’m writing to is just the decision-maker on it. They’re just going to approve it, and then they can forward it to somebody else to actually implement this a month later.”

So, you see all those questions matter even in the format of what you’re sending. And then you ask yourself, “Okay, what do they already know about it?” Don’t tell people what they already know. And think about this, Pete, how many times do you get an email that starts off, “As you already know,” or, “As we discussed a couple of weeks ago,” and they spend a paragraph telling you what you already know.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Dianna Booher
Or, “As we discussed in the meeting last week, blah, blah, blah.” And you think, “Yeah, I was in the meeting. Why are you wasting my time rehashing what we decided last week?” That’s a waste of time. So, think about that and then think the last question, and maybe the most important, is you ask yourself, “Okay, how are they going to react when I tell them this? When I give this one sentence overview message, are they going to be skeptical?” If so, that means you’ve got to add the why details to build credibility. “Are they going to be angry? Is somebody going to lose face? Are you creating extra work for them? Is this going to cost a lot more than they thought?”

There’s some typical negative reactions they might have. And that thinking dictates the details you’re going to put in. if you think there’s no negative reactions here, you may not include some of those details. So, that thinking, the answer those questions right up front, immediately tells you what details to include, and what you should omit, what’s just going to clutter it up. And then once you do that thinking, you’re home free, basically. You just arrange it in the MADE format.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the MADE format is the message, the action, the details, and the evidence.

Dianna Booher
Yes. And that’s what I spend a whole chapter on because that is what will revolutionize 95% of what you write. Literally, I’ve been stuck for three decades, I’ve been teaching writing, so I’ve literally read thousands and thousands, and probably hundreds of thousands of emails so I can say it with confidence. In all different industries, all different types of documents, 95% of what we write in the business world can be structured that way. And that is an overview message of one or two sentences, maybe three if it’s a really long document.

And then, so what action next? Based on that message, what do you want the reader to do? It could be a recommendation, big picture recommendation, or it could be a follow-up action. You might be saying, “So, based on that message, here’s the action I’m taking, or here’s the action I want from you, the reader.” And once you get that message and action, then you circle back and then you elaborate on the details.

Now, if they’re just brief details, like a word or a phrase or who or when or what, those brief little details, it could be answered in a word or phrase, or probably already going to be part of your message and part of your action. But if you need to elaborate, that’s the key phrase. If you need to elaborate on the details, then that elaboration comes in this details section. Generally, it’s the how and they why. Most often you can make this, and elaborate, “And here’s why I’m saying what I’m saying. And here’s how to take the action.”

And then the E, evidence, if you have any kind of attachment you want to send along, like, “Here’s a copy of the spreadsheet that I’m referring to, where I’ve done a calculation,” or, “Here’s the copy of the contract that I’m saying I don’t agree with this clause that we’re going to dispute in court,” or whatever, or, “Here’s a map of the layout of this building that I’m saying we need to renovate this particular wing,” or something like that, then you attach it.

But if you use that structure, you just start thinking like that. And then emails are so easy to write when you just think, “Okay, what’s my message, what’s my action? Okay, now, what needs to be elaborated on?” And you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you send out an email.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. And I think so often, it’s like I start writing an email, it’s like, “Wait a minute. What am I really going for here?” And then I like to rewrite it, and then maybe rewrite it again. Whereas, you could just sort of take a moment. So, it sounds like you might even sort of jot some notes on a tablet or some scratch pad somewhere as you’re doing this. Or how do you think about that?

Dianna Booher
Yeah, a lot of times people can. Once they start thinking like this, and they practice this, they can do the M-A-D-E in their head, you know, while they’re getting dressed in the morning, while they’re driving down the freeway, while they’re sitting on the subway, while they’re eating breakfast, and think, “Okay, in a sense, what’s my message? If I just picked up the phone and thought for a minute, and it’s about to cut off, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I got to get on the point of…’ It’s like turn off your cellphone, turn off your cellphone, I’ve got 30 seconds, what would I say?’” And you can figure out that part in your head.

If you’ve got a scratch pad, write it down. You don’t have to even write out complete sentences. Just say, “Here’s the phrase for the message. Action. I want them to setup a meeting. Detail. I need to explain why this fine is going to happen, how much it’s going to cost, and how to setup the three steps to do so and so.” And that’s a scratch sheet of paper, that’s your outline. And then when you get to the computer, you’re ready to just turn it into sentences, and it goes very, very quickly. But you can do that thinking anywhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, I’m wondering, so how do you think about the headline, the subject versus the message?

Dianna Booher
The subject is last. See, a lot of times people fill in the subject line first, but you can’t summarize if you don’t know what your message is. So, always write it first, and then go back and put in your subject line. Your subject line is like the Reader’s Digest condensed version of your message.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that is an even shorter version of the one- to three-sentence message.

Dianna Booher
Right. It’s a summary version of your message and your action.

Pete Mockaitis
House on fire. Insurance payment $5,000.

Dianna Booher
Yeah. Or, “Just hired new VPs; starts next Monday.” That becomes a summary of the longer message of your first sentence which would be, “Our executive senior vice president just hired a junior vice president Mr. So-and-so who’s coming to us from XYZ Corporation. He’ll be starting next Monday, and his key responsibilities will be blah, blah, blah.” That would be the full message, but your subject line might be, “Just hired a new executive vice president; starts next Monday.”

Pete Mockaitis
And the action is, “You need to invite him to the luau. Make the necessary welcome here and acquire a Hawaiian shirt.”

Dianna Booher
Right. And be sure to shake his hands and ask for a raise right up front.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Cool. Well, any other thoughts? So, you do your thinking up front, and then you put that out there with the MADE format, and then you do the subject last. Any thoughts for doing some of the editing in terms of, “Okay, I’ve written a bunch of words on my screen.”

Dianna Booher
Just do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Just do the editing.

Dianna Booher
Do the editing. A lot of people just, when they get through the thinking, they do the one draft and they hit “send”, and send it out, and that’s not a good idea because you’re going to have missing words, you’re going to have an awkward sentence, you’re going to have a grammatical error. So, take the minute to go back and re-read it.

It’s best, if it’s a really important email, to let it cool off, particularly if it happens to be bad news or a sensitive topic. Let it cool off overnight if you can. If you can’t, a couple of hours helps. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back just after a couple of hours, just go to lunch and come back and read it, and think, “Oh, no, I’m so glad I let that sit here. I see two missing words here.” You just can’t see things. You read what you think you wrote. The message is still in your mind. So, always let it cool off if at all possible.

Now, if it’s just a two-sentence email to the guy next door, and you don’t care about a missing word, or an awkward sentence, then, okay, sometimes you just have to do something immediately. But if it’s important, yes, cool off is really important. Now, if you can’t do that optimally, you could read it aloud if the tone is important. Read something aloud to yourself and you can catch errors. If you think, “People are going to think I’m crazy, I’m talking to myself,” pick up the phone and hold it like you’re talking to somebody, or you’ve got your Bluetooth plugged in and you’re just talking out loud, and people won’t think you’re crazy. They’ll think you’re talking to your spouse on the phone. And it’ll sound funny to your ear. If it sounds awkward, it’s stilted or something, your ear will catch it, and you can improve it.

If the sentence sounds too long when you start to read it, it will feel awkward to you, and you’ll think, “Whoa, I lost my breath. I couldn’t get to the end of the sentence.” It’ll help you go back and think, “I need to cut that sentence in two, it’s too long. I ran out of breath, ran out of steam, ran out of energy.” If that, still, you think, “Well, you know, I think I’ve got some hot words in here, and I’m not sure. It could be offensive. It could be a little blunt,” then have a colleague read it.

Don’t read it to them because you add the inflection, and you can change. It could be really blunt on page, but you’re softening it with your tone. So, just hand it to them and say, “Read that and tell me what you think about the tone.” And so, when they pick it up, they can be a more objective reader for you on sensitive matters.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Thank you. Well, tell me, any sort of key software, plugins, add-on, services, tools that make this better, or help with the email struggle?

Dianna Booher
Well, I mentioned things for software to do other things other than email, like Calendly, Slack, Workzone, Smartsheets. Those are the kind of things that you want to look into, just think, “Do I have other things that are not correspondence-related?” Those are what’s helpful to you. ShortKeys. If you find yourself writing the same messages over and over, maybe like a bio, like when I respond to reporters frequently, they want your credentials or your bio, so you have that on ShortKeys, you can just hit two keys or a code, and the whole paragraph goes in.

If you have a certain product or a certain service that you provide, then you hit ShortKeys and the whole paragraph goes in. What you don’t want to do is to write those over and over, because even if you know with your brain what you’re saying, it’s too easy to incorporate an error, to leave out a word just because of familiarity to create a typo, so it’s good to make sure it’s error-free to begin with, and just plug it in with ShortKeys.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about email before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Dianna Booher
I think that you just don’t want to create distractions for yourself. Many people create their own distractions with email because they keep it open and they use it for to-dos, and don’t ask things in the right way. And so, they write six or seven emails to accomplish what the first one should’ve accomplished.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Dianna Booher
I like the quote by Martin Luther who said, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Now, for me, of course, that’s been inspiring because I’ve been a writer all my life, but for others I think you’d do the same thing for your own reputation when you write a good email because that has staying power. It establishes your credibility on any subject.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Dianna Booher
I always like to read the major studies that IBM does, that McKinsey does, PricewaterhouseCoopers, all of the Gallup. I like surveys because I like to keep my finger on the pulse. And, of course, they’re very revealing, our study, with the University of Northern Colorado, their social research lab when we did this major study for Faster, Fewer, Better Emails. That was very revealing. So, whatever study that you put faith in, look at the trends from that.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, over time.

Dianna Booher
Pardon me?

Pete Mockaitis
You mean like over time.

Dianna Booher
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it came out this year, then next year, then the following year.

Dianna Booher
Yes, yes, and how they change.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Dianna Booher
Traveling Mercies. I like Anne Lamott. Basically, anything she writes. I really like her. A lot of people haven’t discovered her writing, but she’s an excellent writer. She has a book called Bird by Bird which is on writing. But Traveling Mercies is more my favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to help you be awesome at your job?

Dianna Booher
I like snipping tool. It’s just so easy, I keep it right at the bottom of my taskbar. I find I use that all of the time. It’s just so useful for adding something, screen capture, to send in an email, to show people exactly what you’re talking about. So simple and yet so useful for so many tasks.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s called snipping?

Dianna Booher
It’s called snipping tool, that’s the name of it. Snipping tools. The icon is like a pair of scissors and, literally, you can cut anything on your screen, and then attach it to an email and send it. You can email it, you can paste it into an email, you can capture the screen and send it as an attachment. It’s like the simplest miracle you can imagine.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite habit, something that you do that makes you awesome at your job?

Dianna Booher
This is weird, I know, because most people like to procrastinate. But I like to move all of my deadlines for any kind of task, I move them forward in case of emergency. Somebody tells me I have to have something done by May 31st. I will move it up at least two weeks because I don’t want to be caught in case of an emergency. If there’s a major illness, if there’s a death in the family, I just don’t want to be stressed out, and I don’t want to miss a deadline. So, whatever deadline somebody gives me, if it’s just a few hours or days or weeks, I’m going to move it forward. That’s just a habit I’ve had all my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with listeners and audience members?

Dianna Booher
Yes, this sentence. I have quoted and collected the most quote collections online more than any other. It’s been out there for a while, and people just keep repeating it and quoting it. It’s, “If you can’t write your message in a sentence, you can’t say it in an hour.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Well, Dianna, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you tons of luck with “Faster, Fewer, Better Emails,” and your other adventures. And just keep doing the good work.

Dianna Booher
Thank you, Pete. It’s been great to be with you.

423: Becoming Free to Focus with Michael Hyatt

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Michael Hyatt says: "What I'm after is... the double win. I want to win at work, but I want to succeed at life. I'm not willing to compromise either."

Michael Hyatt offers useful concepts to upgrade your productivity and focus, including the  freedom compass, the zones of desire and drudgery, and more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to do more of what you want with the “yes, no, yes” formula
  2. Three beliefs that prevent you from delegating your tasks effectively
  3. How to feel like you’re winning each day with the daily big three

About Michael

Michael Hyatt is the founder and CEO of Michael Hyatt & Company, a leadership coaching and development firm twice listed on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing US companies. A longtime publishing executive, Michael is the former chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson, now part of HarperCollins. He is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of several books, including Your Best Year Ever, Living Forward, and Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.
Michael is the creator of the Full Focus Planner, which combines quarterly goal-tracking and daily productivity in a proven system for personal and professional achievement. His blog and weekly podcast, Lead to Win, are go-to resources for hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, executives, and aspiring leaders. He has been featured by Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Fast Companyand Wall Street Journal. Michael and his wife of 40 years, Gail, have five daughters, three sons-in-law, and eight grandchildren. They live just outside of Nashville, Tenn.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael Hyatt Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael Hyatt
Thank you, Pete. I appreciate being on.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy. I think we’ll have a ton of fun. But first I want to hear about something fun in your life. You mention your dog, Winston, is exceptional in your About page and I want to know why.

Michael Hyatt
He’s the perfect dog. His temperament is fantastic. He’s just so easygoing. He always obeys. I don’t know. I feel like we won the lottery with him. He’s an amazing dog.

Pete Mockaitis
How did you get him?

Michael Hyatt
Well, we found out about a breeder in Indiana, who bred Australian Labradoodles. We got the dog from her. Then we sent him to a trainer in Indiana, a lady who actually is a Russian immigrant, who trains dogs for the federal government and for state agencies and therapy dogs and all that. She had him for about six weeks. I don’t know what she did, but some kind of Russian thing, but it’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh Michael, I just love that so much because it’s like you eat, sleep, breathe people, development, and now even dog development. We’re going to find the best trainer in the world. We’re going to spend some deep focus time immersed and come back a renewed dog.

Michael Hyatt
Dog hacks. What can I say?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fantastic. You’re unveiling some more wisdom in your latest book, Free to Focus. What’s the main idea or thesis behind this one?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, the main thesis behind this is you can actually achieve more by doing less if you have the right productivity system. The problem with most productivity systems today is that they’re designed to make you more productive. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, what’s wrong with that?” Here’s the problem.

People start out working a 12-hour day, they get some productivity hacks, adopt a few apps, they reduce it to eight hours and then they fill it up with more work. They try to be productive so they can be more productive.

I say productivity is a means to an end. You’ve got to be very clear about what the end is otherwise you’re just going to fill your life with work, you’re going to be overwhelmed, you’re going to be burned out, and you’re not going to get the kind of work-life balance that makes life rich and meaningful.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talk about defining the end, can you give us a couple of examples of how that gets articulated?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, absolutely. In the first part of the book I talk about stopping and kind of taking stock. Get off that hamster wheel and ask, “Where’s this hamster wheel going? Why am I running this race? What’s it all about?” I say the end game needs to be about freedom. More productivity should lead to greater freedom and specifically freedom in four areas.

I talk about the freedom to focus. Focus is a super power today in our distraction economy. If you want to move the needle in your business and in your life, if you want your business to grow, if you want to get ahead in your career, you’ve got to be able to focus and do the deep work, the creative work that really creates the breakthroughs in your business and in your personal life. The freedom to focus.

You also need the freedom to be present so that when you’re at your son’s Little League game, you’re not on your phone thinking about work or you’re out for a day with your spouse or you’re significant other, you’re not thinking about work or when you’re at work, you’re not thinking about something that’s going off the rails at home. The freedom to be present.

Then third, the freedom to be spontaneous so that your life’s not so managed and not every last second is so planned that you just can’t stop and enjoy life, smell the roses so to speak.

Then finally, the freedom – and this is really underrated, but the freedom to do nothing at all. All the brain research says that we’re the most creative, we experience the biggest breakthroughs when our minds are the most relaxed. That means we’ve got to intentionally have that white space where we do nothing.

I learned this when I was in Italy a few years ago. They have a saying in fact. They talk about a dolce far niente, which means the sweetness of doing nothing. It’s true. You think about when you have the breakthrough ideas, the most creative ideas, often it’s in the shower or out for a walk or doing something that amounts to nothing. That’s what I’m after is freedom. I think productivity should lead to that.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a lovely turn of a phrase, the sweetness of doing nothing. I’m reminded maybe when you said Italy, it brings about images. I’m just thinking about just sort of strolling, just walking with a good friend, catching up and chatting. It’s like I enjoy doing nothing in those moments so much. It’s like I don’t even want to be burdened with having to think about where we’re going and where the restaurant is, just having faith that a good eatery will appear if that’s kind of what we’re up to. It’s much more fun.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, and I don’t think they have bad food in Italy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, in Italy you’re covered. Sure.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Everything I ate there was phenomenal.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. That’s cool. That’s the process in terms of the steps as we’re stopping. We’re taking stock. We’re pointing to greater freedom and a few kind of particular forms of freedom. What comes next?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, in that same section, under Stop, talk about formulate, so formulate a clear vision for what your productivity, you want to accomplish with it. Then secondly, evaluate. This means taking stock of our workflow, our work style. I talk about a concept there called the freedom compass, which I think is really a big paradigm shift and a way to think about your work that makes it possible for you to focus on your highest and greatest work because not all work is created equal.

I talk about kind of a two-by-two matrix, where you have passion intersecting with proficiency. There’s some tasks – and imagine this rotated 45 degrees and you’ve got a compass, where true north is where your passion and your proficiency come together, the things you love, the things that you are deeply satisfying, that you enjoy, plus proficiency, the things that you’re good at.

Not just proficiency in your subjective opinion, but in an objective reality, where people are willing to pay you to do this. That I call the desire zone. That’s where you want to focus the bulk of your time and the bulk of your energy.

Directly south, directly below that is what I call the drudgery zone, things that you hate, you don’t have any passion around it and you’re not very good at. It’s going to be different for everybody, but for me it’s things that look like administrative kinds of activities, like managing my email inbox, managing my calendar, booking travel, even finding the FedEx box, just running errands. All that’s in my drudgery zone. It’s kind of a grind when I have to do that.

Then there’s also the disinterest zone, where you don’t have any passion, but you might be pretty good at it. A lot of people get trapped in this because maybe they were good at something, they lost the passion and they keep doing it because it keeps making them money, keeps bringing home the bacon.

For me, when I started out as an entrepreneur this was accounting. I did it because I didn’t want to pay somebody else to do it and I was really good at it, but I didn’t have any passion and that leads to boredom.

Then on the opposite side of the freedom compass from there, due west, would be what I call the distraction zone, where you like doing it, but you’re not very good at it and you end up escaping there and then it wasted a lot of time.

Again, the key, and it leads to the next part of the book, but the key is to eliminate everything that’s not in your desire zone, the things that you’re passionate about and proficient at, because that’s where you’re going to see the biggest growth, the biggest progress, the most results. That’s the chapter on evaluation.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a nice two-by-two matrix and a clever rotation that makes it a compass. When you talk about doing more of the good stuff and less of the drudgery, what are some of the best ways that we can accomplish that? You have some things about saying no and some things about outsourcing. How do we systematically get our proportions more and more in the desire space?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. One of the things is I think to set ourselves up for success. That’s actually that third chapter in that first section before we get to the Cut section, which is about rejuvenation. This is one of those things that’s easy to overlook because we live in the hustle economy. We’re encouraged to burn the candle at both ends, to work evenings and weekends. Elon Musk said unless you’re working 80 to 100 hours a week, you’re not going to make the progress you need to.

One of the most important things you can do is take care of yourself if you want to be more productive. Getting a good night’s sleep, something as simple as that, can make the difference between whether you’re focused or productive the next day. I talk about sleep, nutrition, exercise, relationships. Those have a lot to do with how productive we are. That’s all the rejuvenation chapter.

But then moving into that second section, the section called Cut. The first one’s Stop. The second part of the framework is Cut. How do we prune all that stuff that’s not in our desire zone? It really does start with elimination. We’ve got to eliminate the stuff that doesn’t need to be done and the best way to do that is to head it off at the beginning by getting better at saying no.

Warren Buffet once said that “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything,” but how do we do that without being a jerk? In the book, I talk about how to do that. I talk about how to give a graceful no. I talk about it using a formula called Yes No Yes. It’s the positive no that William Ury talks about in his book, The Power of a Positive No.

Let me illustrate. I spent most of my career in the book publishing industry. I still to this day get a lot of requests from aspiring authors, who would like me to review their book proposal before they send it to an agent or a publisher. Now, I don’t really have time to do that. I don’t want to be a jerk, but I don’t have time to do that. I have an email template that I use. I respond with that formula, yes, no, yes.

Here’s what it looks like. First of all, I start with an affirmation. I start off not resenting the fact that they asked me to review this proposal. But I’ll say something like, “Hey, congratulations. You’ve done what 97% of most aspiring authors will never do and that is create a written book proposal. That is a phenomenal first step. It’s a foundational step and an important one. Way to go.”

Then I move from the yes to the no. Here I want to give a very firm, unambiguous no, so there’s no misunderstanding. I’ll say something like this, “Unfortunately, in order to be faithful to my prior commitments, I have to say no.” I’ve made it very clear that I’m a person of integrity in terms of trying to be faithful to my other commitments, but I give them a firm no.

I don’t say, “Check back with me in a month. I’m a little busy right now,” because in a month it’s going to be the same story, so I might as well cut it off right now.

Then I end with a positive with a yes so that I leave a good taste in their mouth. I’ll say something like, “Best of luck with your publishing product. Let me know when it comes out. Can’t wait to pick up a copy. All the best. Thanks for honoring me with your request,” something like that.

I’ve never gotten a negative response when I follow up with an email like that. For the most part, people are just glad that they heard back from me because so often we send a request like that and we don’t hear because the person is procrastinating because they don’t know how to respond. They want to say no, but they don’t know how. I make it very clear.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. I find that when you talk about we don’t know how to respond and we procrastinate, I find that I get a lot of requests, it’s sort of like someone’s presenting me with an opportunity, but I don’t think that they’ve given me nearly enough information to even evaluate if it’s worth talking for 15 minutes about the thing.

I’m trying to craft my TextExpander, generic response, which says, “I will need to know more before I can tell you whether or not I can talk to you about this,” which feels a little bit like, “Oh well, someone’s really busy,” but that’s really how I feel. It’s like “You know your product/service/offer better than I do. What you’re saying might be cool, but I really have no idea what this is supposed to be. Where’s the value here? Could you explain that so that I could tell you if we can find 15 minutes?”

Michael Hyatt
See, that’s a perfect example of what I talk about in the next chapter on automation, where you take something like TextExpander or you could use your email apps signature capability, but come up with a list of email templates so that you can respond to the most common kinds of requests so that you don’t have to create it from scratch every time.

I’ve tried to develop sort of this template mentality, where I ask myself if this task I’m about to do if I think I’m going to have to do it again in the future, why not take a few extra minutes now, do it right, save it as a template or a TextExpander snippet so that I can reuse it in the future and not have to reinvent the wheel every time.

For that example, a great way to deal with that using the Yes, No, Yes framework would be to say, “Hey, thanks for thinking of me for your podcast. I’m honored. I would be happy to consider it, but I need just a little bit more information.” Then you’d go through the information that you need and then let it go from there.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. That is a nice sentence. “I’d be happy to consider it. I need some more information.” Tell me, what are some other top templates you find yourself using again and again?

Michael Hyatt
Well, here’s what I did, how I started this. This is probably about 15 years ago. I noticed that there was sort of a limited range of requests that I was getting. I would get requests from people who wanted me to consider a speaking engagement or wanted me to consider serving on a non-profit board or make a charitable contribution or just have coffee with me so they could pick my brain. There were about 40 or 50 of these as I catalogued them.

Then what I tried to do – I didn’t sit down and write all these templates at once – instead what I began to do is incrementally populate a template database. At the time I was using email signatures to do this. Now TextExpander makes it even cooler. But to write these one at a time until I had a library of templates.

Every time one of those requests comes in now, I look for the template where I can respond, very rare that I don’t have a template. Instead of taking 10 or 20 minutes, now it just takes a few seconds.

But it’s not just email. For example, I use Apple Keynote for creating slide decks. If I public speech that I’m going to give or a webinar that I have to give, I always start with a template, like with a webinar. I’ve got seven main parts to all my webinars. They always start the same way. They’ve got the same transitions and the same pivots and the same ending and all that.

It’s kind of like paint by numbers, but again, I’m starting with sort of that template mentality of if I’m going to do this again, how can I do it right the first time so I can reuse it, polish it, improve it, and get better at this and take less time as I do it.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s so much good stuff here. I want to dig in in all kinds of places, but it would be too scattered. First, let’s chat a little bit in the realm of going back to stopping for a moment. You mentioned rejuvenation. I think that we’ve heard from a few sleep doctors, a lot of good tips there and I’m a huge advocate for that. It’s so important.

But I want to get your take on when it comes to nutrition and exercise, boy, there’s a lot of advice out there. What have you found ultimately really yields good quality rejuvenation, energy, and freedoms?

Michael Hyatt
First of all, disclaimer, I’m not a physiologist or a doctor or a fitness trainer or any of that. What I do know is what works for me and I have studied a little bit.

But with regard to nutrition, I found that one of the best things to do is to really take it easy on the carbs. A high-carbohydrate diet creates a lot of problems in terms of focus and productivity. It’s why when we eat lot-quality carbs and we eat a lot of these kind of carbs like at lunch, like I’m talking about white bread, pizza, mashed potatoes, pasta, that’s why we kind of go into that funk in the afternoon and get sleepy because that turns to sugar very quickly. It burns up fast and it just doesn’t keep our blood sugar level at a level where we could be really productive.

One of the things I’ve done, and this is – I may lose some of your listeners here – but one of the things I’ve done for several months now is I’ve been on the keto diet. That’s a high fat moderate diet, a moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet. One of the things I had no idea about was how much brain fog I had until I started doing this diet.

It was actually developed back in the 1930s to help epileptic children deal with seizures. There’s a cognitive relationship between this diet, high fat, and your cognitive function. That’s been helpful to me.

I’m very careful about taking supplements, about checking my blood a couple times a week with my physical – or a couple times a week, a couple times a year with my physician, just making sure that my markers are right so that can serve as an early warning sign to head off problems before they happen.

Then I work out five to six days a week usually about an hour, three days of cardio, three days of strength training. All that just keeps my energy level up. It’s important to move in some way like that.

Pete Mockaitis
When you do the cardio or the strength training, what kind of intensity are you shooting for?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I would say moderate intensity. I’m kind of an achiever, so I’m always trying to beat my personal best. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life that I’ve ever been in. I do work with a trainer, who prescribes a program for me. We get together once a month and reevaluate the program and see where I want to go from there.

I was training for a half marathon this spring, but I injured my foot, so I’m going to back that off till this fall. But typically what I’ll do on the cardio before I had the injury is that I’ll run about 30 minutes of interval training twice a week and then I’ll do a long run and a progressively longer run on Saturdays. Yeah, it depends on what I’m training for.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Well, so now, talk about cutting again. You mentioned that there’s something that we should permanently remove from our to-do list, what is this?

Michael Hyatt
First of all, you should remove the drudgeries of stuff. That’s where you really start is with the drudgery zone activities. Those are not the best and highest use of you. They’re not going to create leverage in your business or your personal life. You’ve got to really focus on those desire zone activities.

Again, that begins with elimination and it goes to automation, and then that final chapter there is all about delegation, which one of the things I found with people that have businesses or leaders, until you can scale yourself, you can’t scale your business.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. All right, so when it comes to that delegation, any particular tips in terms of where to get started if you’re having trouble letting go of anything?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I think the first thing that we’ve got to do, Pete, is confront sort of the limiting beliefs or the way that we think about delegation. In my experience with coaching now hundreds and hundreds of entrepreneurs there’s usually three sentences that rattle around in their head. The first one is “If I want it done right, I have to do it,” what?

Pete Mockaitis
Myself.

Michael Hyatt
Right. Or here’s another sentence that they have. This would be a second sentence. “It takes longer to explain how to do it. I might as well just do it myself.” Or they say, “I can’t really afford additional help right now. I guess I’m going to have to do it myself.” As long as yourself is at the center of all this, you’re not going to be able to grow, you’re not going to develop additional capacity, you’re not going to be able to accomplish what you want to accomplish.

Let’s look at those one at a time. To the person who says “It takes longer to explain how to do it. I might as well just do it myself,” it’s true. It does take longer to explain it the first time, but once you explain it the first time and give people an opportunity to do it so that they can be trained, then you save yourself all the time because you never have to touch it again.

“In terms of if you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,” here’s the beauty of the freedom compass. What’s in your drudgery zone, might be in somebody else’s desire zone. If you hire right so that you have compatible people that offset what’s in your drudgery zone with what’s in their desire zone, then not only can they do it as well as you could do it, they can do it better than you could imagine doing it.

That’s basically how I’ve grown my entire business. I have 35 full-time people. Last year we grew 62%. I hire specifically for people that are doing their desire zone activities so that everybody’s functioning in their strengths and doing the things that they love and the things that they’re proficient at. That’s a real key.

Then the whole thing about affording, “I can’t afford somebody to do it,” you can take baby steps. I’m not advocating going out and hiring a big staff or even hiring somebody full time. You can start as a solopreneur or as a leader just with a part time virtual assistant. That’s how I started.

Back in 2011 when I left the big corporate world, where I was managing a large company where we were doing a quarter of a billion dollars a year and then I stepped into a solopreneur job, where I couldn’t even find a FedEx box. I had to start small. I hired a virtual executive assistant, who worked five hours a week. I did that for a couple of weeks. I saw the value of it. Then I upped their time to about 10 hours a week, then 15 hours, and 20 hours.

But here’s how the conversation often goes. I had a client by the name of Greg. Greg said, “Look, I’ve got a business where I have to have a web presence. I know just kind of enough about web design and web development to do it myself. It’s probably not the best use of my time, but I really don’t feel like I can afford somebody else to do it now.”

I said, “Well, let me ask you a question, Greg. How much do you bill for? What’s your hourly rate?” He said “150 dollars an hour.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “What would it cost you to get a WordPress developer, somebody that was really good that knew what they were doing? They could do a little bit of design work too.” He said, “Probably 50 dollars an hour.” I said, “Then why are you paying somebody 150 dollars an hour that you admit isn’t that good?”

The lights went on. He went, “Wow.” I said, “If you hired somebody at 50 dollars an hour, it would free you up to bill for that additional time and you’d come out ahead 100 dollars an hour.” That’s how we have to think about delegation. It requires an investment first, but boy, that’s when we begin to reap the rewards and that’s when we begin to clone ourselves in a sense because we’ve got other people that are helping us.

Pete Mockaitis
For folks who are professionals and not business owners, what are some key things you’d recommend they delegate?

Michael Hyatt
I think the same thing. Go back to the freedom compass. Start with the drudgery zone because your company is probably not paying you to do those things that you don’t love and those things that you’re not proficient at. If they are, you’re in the wrong job. Get rid of those things because it’s not the best and highest use of you.

Then go to the disinterest zone, then the distraction zone. Again, focus on those few things that really create the leverage, the things that your employer thinks the results you ought to be delivering. That’s where you’re going to see the advance in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. When it comes to cutting, how do you recommend we cut distractions?

Michael Hyatt
Well, you’ve got to have an offensive plan to begin with. I talk in the book about how to design your quarter, how to design your week and how to design your day. Once you have a good offensive plan, then you’ve got to come up with a defensive plan for the interruptions. I distinguish between interruptions and distractions, two different things.

Interruptions are the external things. It’s people dropping by to visit. It’s that text message you get. It’s people interrupting you. I often talk to leaders who say, “I can’t get my own work done because I’ve got so many people interrupting me to help them with their work.” I think one of the best strategies is to have an offense on those two.

First of all, schedule time to get your most important work done. Make it a commitment and put it on your calendar. What gets scheduled is what gets done.

Then, preempt those interruptions by going to the people who are most likely to interrupt you, and you know how they are, go to those people and say, “Hey, look, I’m about to do some really important, focused work. It’s important that I don’t get interrupted, but I want to be available to serve you, so are there any questions you have, anything I can help you with before I go into this session?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Hyatt
This is awesome because, now all of the sudden, you’ve put them on notice and you’ve also not been a jerk about it. You’ve communicated that you want to help them, but you kind of want to do it on your terms.

Then you’ve got distractions. Now distractions are all the stuff that look external, but are really a problem with ourselves with self-control. This could be jumping over to Facebook. The problem is we’ve got multi-billion dollar-social media companies, who are doing a tremendous amount of research and whose entire business model is built on high jacking our psychology and manipulating our dopamine.

They want us to spend as much time on those platforms as possible. Why? Because they’re repackaging our attention and they’re selling it to the highest bidder in the form of advertisers. We have to combat that. The best way to do it, I think, is to use technology to fight technology.

For example, my smartphone, it looks like a really cool device. It does a gazillion things. I’ve got an iPhone XS Max. It does a bazillion things, but it’s a very sophisticated distraction device if I’m not careful. On my phone, I’ve removed email. I’ve removed Slack, which is our internal communication program. And I’ve removed all social media with the exception of Instagram because I’m trying to build my Instagram following.

But even there I’ve used the technology to fight technology. I go into settings, screen time, and I limit my use of Instagram to 30 minutes a day. Even better, I gave my phone to my wife and I said “Set a passcode for that so that I can’t cheat and don’t tell me the passcode.” When my time is up on Instagram, my time is up.

There’s a great app for the desktop that works on Windows or Mac or any platform called Freedom. You can find it at Freedom.to. I don’t have any relationship with them except that I use this program and love it. But it allows you to selectively turn off apps and websites for a specific period of time, which allows you to stay focused when you do your most creative breakthrough kind of work.

The only way to defeat Freedom is to completely reboot your computer. That gives me just friction so that I can remember my intention that I’m trying to get focused work done. It enables me to avoid the distraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. What do you think about mindfulness practice when it comes to building the capacity to resist distraction?

Michael Hyatt
I think it’s really important. I meditate every morning for 15 minutes. It just gives me the opportunity to collect my thoughts, to kind of get centered, to get focused, to get re-connected with my most important priorities. Again, it kind of goes back to the freedom that I talked about before, the freedom to do nothing. It’s often underrated.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’d love to dig in for a moment now. When you say meditation, are you referring to more of a mind training exercise or more of a prayer exercise?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I actually do both. I do pray. I also do just straight up meditation. I use an app called 1 Giant Mind. Are you familiar with that?

Pete Mockaitis
I know a couple. I don’t know that one.

Michael Hyatt
It’s awesome. If you’re familiar with Headspace-

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Michael Hyatt
It’s kind of similar to that, but I actually like it better and it’s free. But 1 Giant Mind. It has 12 initial lessons and then you can go into a 30-day challenge, but the instruction is fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh lovely. Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed a little bit of all of them in terms of Calm, Simple Habit, Headspace. They all give me a little bit of a different perspective. I go, oh yeah, that’s a really good one. Thank you. Much appreciated. We’ll check out another one. Cool.

Michael Hyatt
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, so we talked about stopping. We talked about cutting. Now what?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, so now we get to that third section of the book, which is called Act. It’s a little bit counterintuitive because you’d think that Act ought to come first, but I find that you’ve got to stop, kind of reflect where you want to go, then you need to cut or prune because anything that’s healthy has to be pruned from time to time, but now it’s time to act.

Now, hopefully, you’ve gotten rid of all the stuff that’s in your drudgery zone, a lot of the stuff in your disinterest and distractions zones and now we’re going to focus on how to get more done in your desire zone, the things that you love and the things that you’re good at. That begins with a chapter called consolidate. This is all about designing your ideal week.

The idea is that you want to design a week as if you were in 100% control of your time and resources. What would that look like? If you really wanted to give it some intelligent design and not just be reactive to what came over the transom and schedule those things, but actually we’re very proactive about it.

Here’s how mine works for example. First of all, I’m going to start with on Mondays is when I have my internal team meetings. I batch all these together for one simple reason. It’s the concept of context switching.

In other words, anytime I switch a context, for example, I go from a meeting to I go to some time where I’m working on a project to maybe I’m going to record some video, anytime I go to a different context, there’s a certain amount of ramp up time, a certain amount of time to kind of get into the groove, find my equilibrium and get into flow. Well, the less you can do that, the more momentum you can build.

When I get into that space in my head of meetings and I’m in meeting mode, then I just batch them altogether. Internal meetings are all on Monday.

Tuesday, is all about what I call backstage time. This is my time for preparation on the front stage. Everybody’s front stage is going to look different, but the front stage is what your employer or your clients are paying you, that’s what you’re delivering, but there’s always some backstage work that has to be done in order to do that.

If you’re a lawyer, for example, your front stage might be arguing a case before a court or negotiating a contract on behalf of a client, but there’s a lot of research in the backstage that has to go into that preparation. For me, Tuesday is all about that preparation.

Wednesday and Thursday for me are front stage activities. For example, when I record my podcast, I do that in a day and a half once a quarter and I record 13 episodes in a row. It takes me a day and a half, but then I don’t think about it for another quarter. I get into that headspace and I stay focused and knock it out.

Then on Friday is when I try to consolidate my external meetings. If anybody wants to meet with me, they come in from out of town or a vendor or a client or whatever, I try to move those to Friday. Why? Because I don’t want those meetings interrupting my progress on my front stage days or my back stage days.

Then, of course, I have – and a lot of people don’t know about this – but there’s actually an offstage. All of life doesn’t have to be work. On the weekends, on Saturday and Sunday for me, I’m not thinking about work. I don’t talk about work. I don’t read about work. I don’t do work. Why? Because I want to get back in on Monday morning totally rejuvenated and ready to hit the ground running.

That for me is my ideal week. This could be a game changer for people to begin to get some sense of control back. I would say, Pete, probably in any given week, I’ll probably approximate that about 80%. Things are going to happen. I don’t try to be legalistic about it. But boy, going into the week with a plan is a whole lot better than just reacting to what comes over the transom. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. Yes. What do you think about in terms of total hours of work in a day and a week, energy levels and optimizing that?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I keep my work to 40 hours a week. I can tell you that the science and I quote it in the book, but once you get past about 55 hours a week, there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of time you work and the level of productivity you have. It actually goes backwards after you give 55 hours. There’s been a lot of study done on this.

But the average person is buying into what I call the hustle fallacy, where you’ve got to work 80 hours, you’ve got to work 100 hours. That’s a recipe for burnout. It’s also a recipe for screwing up your life, screwing up your health, screwing up your most important relationships.

What I’m after, personally, is what I call the double win. I want to win at work, but I want to succeed at life. I’m not willing to compromise either for the sake of the other one.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to get your take, I don’t know if you would liken yourself to this, but I think of, hey, Michael Hyatt, Elon Musk, two titans, very different perspectives. I guess, when it comes to Elon Musk it’s like I cannot deny that is one successful dude, who has made a lot of things happen and he espouses very much the hustle mentality.

Michael Hyatt
He does.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we reconcile that?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I think it depends on you define success. He’s blown through a couple marriages. He, by his own admission, doesn’t talk to his kids hardly. He’s sleeping at the factory so much so that his fans started a Kickstarter page to buy him a new couch, kind of as a joke, so he’d have something better to sleep on. He’s appeared in the media and said some crazy things, which have led even to fines from the SEC and other federal agencies.

I think it depends on how you define success. Look, I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue, but here’s the thing. Here’s what’s possible. Last year I took off 160 days, now that counts weekends, so 160 days including a one-month sabbatical, which I’ve done every year for the last eight years and my business grew 62%.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome.

Michael Hyatt
I really think this idea of achieving more by doing less – the hustle fallacy, I want to keep my health. I’d like to live a long time. I’ve been married for 40 years, almost 41 years. I have 5 grown daughters, who I adore and who like me. This doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s not because I’m lucky, but I’ve tried to focus on those things.

Again, I’m not trying to hold myself up as the paragon of virtue, but I’m just saying that there’s a different model for success than the one that Elon Musk espouses. I’m not trying to judge him, but just look at the fruit, look at the results.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well done. Thank you. Well, tell me before we sort of shift gears and do your favorite things, any sort of key mistakes folks make when they’re trying to say, “Heck yes, I want to get free to focus and do these things.” What are some roadblocks or some fumbles folks make along the way as they’re trying to enact this stuff?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I think the biggest tip I can give people is to get a plan for your day. This is where you’re going to get the biggest leap forward. I advocate something called the daily big three. Here’s how it goes for most people. They start the day – if they have a to-do list, and not everybody works with a to-do list, which is also a guarantee for being reactive, but let’s say you have a to-do list. The average person’s going to have somewhere between 20 and 25 items on that list.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Before they begin the day, they’re already feeling overwhelmed, like there’s no way that I can accomplish what’s on my list. They get to the end of the day and even if they’ve done half of it, where do they focus? On the half they didn’t get done. They go to bed defeated. This becomes a vicious cycle. It creates a lot of dissatisfaction, a lot of frustration and ultimately leads to burnout.

But the problem is they’ve created a game, they’ve set themselves up to fail by creating a game that they can’t possibly win. What I suggest is instead of that, go ahead and identify the three highest leveraged tasks that you can do today. Not all tasks are created equal. We know from the Pareto principle that 20% of the effort drives 80% of the results.

Let’s just go ahead on the front end and say “What are the three most important things that I can do today?” Now all of the sudden that seems manageable. At the end of the day when I accomplish those three things, even if I didn’t do all the other trivial things, at least I got the most important things done.

You do three important tasks like that a day, you do it 250 days a year, which is the average number of workdays people have, that’s 750 important things per year. That, more than anything else, will give you a sense of control and give you a sense that you’re winning. When you feel like you’re winning, it builds your confidence and it builds your momentum.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I like feeling like I’m winning. Well said.

Michael Hyatt
Me too. Me too.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. I think one of my most favorite quotes is one by Warren Buffet. He said that “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Michael Hyatt
I would say the research that I’ve done into sleep has been probably the most rewarding, especially into naps because I sort of knew intuitively that napping was a powerful way to rejuvenate and kind of reboot in the middle of the day. I’ve faithfully practiced it for about 30 years.

I took a nap today, so between interviews I laid down for 20 minutes, fell to sleep – I trained myself to fall to sleep quickly – I wake up and I’m a little bit groggy maybe for about ten minutes or so, drink a cup of coffee, and then it’s like I’m rebooted.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to know, how do you train yourself to fall asleep quickly?

Michael Hyatt
It’s not unlike training yourself to meditate. I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to fall asleep. What I do is kind of try to focus on my breathing and focus on relaxing. If you do that and do it routinely, you’ll find yourself falling asleep. If you don’t fall asleep, it’s still rejuvenating, even if you do nothing but put your feet up and relax.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Michael Hyatt
I’m one of those guys, I read a ton. I tend to focus on the books that I’ve read most recently. The book that I love that I just finished here about two weeks ago was Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Have you read that?

Pete Mockaitis
I have perused it. Can you tell me maybe a takeaway that was particularly valuable for you?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, the biggest one was on the value of high-quality leisure, so really being intentional about your leisure time and how it correlates to our work, it makes us more productive at work. But that was really challenging and really exciting to think about.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Michael Hyatt
Let me think here for a second. I would say the tool that I’m enjoying the most right now is a tool called Notion. Have you heard of it?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Michael Hyatt
Notion is kind of like a personal Wiki. It could be. A lot of people are using it as an Evernote replacement. I’m still using Evernote, but only as a digital junk drawer. Notion is where I put structured information, information I want to get back to. It’s a whole lot of fun. It’s an outstanding tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting, thank you. How about a favorite habit?

Michael Hyatt
A favorite habit without question is my morning routine, just going through my drill every morning, setting myself up for high performance. Again, I learned this from the world of athletics, where the world’s best athletes have a pre-game ritual. I think of my morning time as a pre-game ritual. That’s the time when I’m going to pray, the time I’m going to meditate, the time I’m going to exercise and get fueled for the day.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get quoted back to you frequently?

Michael Hyatt
I think it’s that one about winning at work and succeeding at life. I think that with my clients, that’s just captivated their imagination and gets them really excited because I think most people have kind of fallen into this idea that you’ve got to give up one or the other. You can’t have both. I think when people are given a model, and that’s what I try to do in the book, Free to Focus, for how that can be done, it resonates with people.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Michael Hyatt
Well, in terms of the book, I would go to FreeToFocusBook.com. It has links to all the places where you can buy the book, but more importantly, it also has 500 dollars’ worth of free bonus material related to the book that you can get just by turning in your receipt. That’s all you’ve got to do. Turn in your receipt, claim the free bonuses. It has some amazing stuff including the audio version of the book for free. Then for all things related to me, just MichaelHyatt – Hyatt with a Y, not an I – MichaelHyatt.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I would say that in this kind of distraction economy where people are so sidetracked and there’s so much sideways energy and so much fake working going on, if you can learn to focus, that could become a super power.

I would just encourage people to differentiate themselves from their competitors and from their peers by being the person that really can deliver the highly creative, deeply important work that moves their business forward, that moves their personal work forward because so many people are sidetracked and distracted. You can differentiate yourself and make a real difference in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Michael, this has been a ton of fun. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Michael Hyatt
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate it.

393: Freeing Up Extra Time Through Optimizing, Automating, and Outsourcing with Ari Meisel

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Ari Meisel says: "If you make something 20 seconds easier or 20 seconds harder, you can make or break a habit."

Ari Meisel breaks down his secrets to greater productivity…from virtual assistants, to the best productivity apps, to easier ways to make decisions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How working at your peak time makes you many times more effective
  2. The power of the 20-second rule
  3. Why you should consider using virtual assistants

About Ari

Ari is the best-selling author of “The Art of Less Doing“, and “The Replaceable Founder.” He is a self-described Overwhelmologist whose insights into personal and professional productivity have earned him the title, “The Guru’s Guru.” He can be heard on the award-winning Less Doing Podcast, on international stages speaking to thought leaders and influencers, and for those who prefer the written word, Ari’s blog posts on Medium offer immediate and actionable advice for entrepreneurs seeking replaceability.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ari Meisel Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ari, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Ari Meisel
Well, thank you for having me Pete. It’s good to talk to you again.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. Well, I think we’re going to get into so much good stuff. I am all about less doing. But first I want to get your take on what’s the story behind you being on the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album?

Ari Meisel
Yeah, it’s the 20th anniversary of that. It’s funny. It’s been coming up a lot lately. The Evil Empire album from Rage Against the Machine, I was 11 years old and Mel Ramos, who is a famous artist and was a friend of my father’s, who’s an art dealer, made that painting for me as a birthday present when I was 11.

The band saw it a few years later in one of his books and they just liked it. They used it for their cover. I never met the band. I was never a fan of the band. I had a billboard of my face in Times Square when I was 15 years old.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, check you out. Well, and your fame has grown since then.

Ari Meisel
Yes, totally. I think it all stems back to that very moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, starting early, that’s good. Can you give us a little bit of a quick background on your company, Less Doing? What are you all about?

Ari Meisel
I empower entrepreneurs to become more replaceable. That’s what I do. That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but the ones that get excited by that are the ones that I usually do the best with. Essentially we’re teaching people how to optimize, automate and outsource everything in their business in order to be more effective. We do that through a number of systems that we teach and processes and methods, but essentially we teach people to be more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we love effectiveness here. Most of our listeners are not entrepreneurs, but I definitely thing that there are some applicable tidbits. Now, you unpack a number of these in your book called The Art of Less Doing. Is there a unique spin that the book takes?

Ari Meisel
Yeah. Originally when I got into this sort of world, the focus was on individual productivity for the most part. I was helping individuals be as effective as possible. Over the last several years, this has developed into much more of a business methodology for growing faster with less pain basically. The Replaceable Founder really takes that framework of optimize, automate, outsource and applies it to businesses.

The goal is to make people replaceable. The reason we do that is so they can have more focus, freedom and flexibility. The way that we do that is through looking at the way that they communicate, the way that they manage and execute processes, and the way that they have their project management system set up.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. I like your alliteration here. You’ve also got the three D’s. What are those?

Ari Meisel
That’s for email and decision making in general, which is to deal with it, delete it or defer it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, tell us, how do we navigate? When is it best to choose to do versus to delegate, to defer?

Ari Meisel
We use email to teach the concept, but it’s not about email. The email problem for most people is not an actual email problem, it’s a decision-making problem. The first thing here is to understand that the three of them are there because those are the only three choices that you should have to make.

Most people treat not just email but decisions in general as if it’s a unique opportunity to make a thousand different decisions every time. It’s not.

If you limit yourself in your choices to three, then you can say deleting is saying no, dealing with it means you can deal with it right now, which could include delegating it, so you get in that sort of habit as well. Then the third D is for deferral, which is the most interesting because that’s really taking into account how you use your time and when you’re best at different things.

Every one of us has a different time and sometimes place where we do different kinds of activities better, such as podcast interviews for example. You would not have gotten this energy from me a couple hours ago, which is why I try not to schedule a podcast interviews before noon my time. It’s something I’ve learned about myself.

Not to mention that my peak time, which is a period when any one of us is 2 to 100 times more effective than any other time of the day, that peak time for me is usually between ten and noon. I can’t do creative work before eight o’clock at night because there’s just too much going on in my head and I can’t write or be really creative.

Knowing that is really powerful because you can make an active decision. You’re not procrastinating; you’re saying, “No, I’m going to do this more effectively at this time, so that’s when I want to look at it.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. We had Dr. Michael Breus on the show talked about the power of when and just some fascinating stuff associated with circadian rhythms and there’s actual biochemical things going on in your body at somewhat predictable regular times that point you to different states that let you be excellent at different sorts of tasks. Can you lay it on us again? What are your times and what are the capabilities you find you have uniquely available at those times?

Ari Meisel
Again, for me, the peak time for me is ten to noon.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say peak, you just mean, “I am unstoppably energetic,” or what’s peak mean for you?

Ari Meisel
The research basically says that for every person it’s different. There’s a time of the day that’s usually 90 minutes and you are 2 to 100 times more effective in that period. What they mean when they talk about effectiveness in that situation is that you’re most able to easily drop into a flow state.

Flow state for most people, that generally equates to a dilation of time. If you’ve ever found yourself in an activity where it felt like minutes had gone by, but it was an hour or two, that’s a flow state. We want that because our brain is just firing on all synapses in that moment.

My peak time is between ten and noon. In theory, I should be using that time for my highest and best use, which in my case is usually coming up with content or really interesting problem solving for whatever the problem might be.

Now, I know that I’m not good on the phone or podcasts before noon. That’s just something I’ve learned about myself. It’s not because I’m not a morning person, but maybe it just takes me a little while to sort of get in that mood or that mode.

Creatively, I can’t do creative work before eight o’clock at night because there’s a lot going on in my house first of all, but also we tend to be more creative when we’re tired because we’re less likely to sort of shoot down the bad ideas and things can flow a little more freely. But it’s different for every person. Some people, their peak time could be five in the morning. I’ve seen that. Some people it’s eleven o’clock at night and that’s when they do their best, best, best.

We all work out at different times or we should. We eat at different times. A lot of that you can see in Dr. Breus’s work. He’s been on my podcast three times because he’s so awesome. A lot of people think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But you really can dial it in and use that timing to your advantage.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m right with you there. The peak then is you’re most likely to drop into a flow state. The creativity is a different animal than the peak?

Ari Meisel
Right, right, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. That’s nice. I guess we’re already digging into a little bit. You talk about optimizing, automating, and outsourcing. One of the components of optimizing is knowing thyself. We’re already talking about some knowing thyself in terms of the times that you’re best for different sorts of activities. Are there any other key parameters you really recommend folks zero in on knowing thyself/themselves well?

Ari Meisel
Sleep I think is another one too. Not everybody needs to sleep eight hours a night in one block. Many people should, but not everybody needs to. That’s not the optimal thing for everybody.

In fact if you look back at old research, well even new research now, the natural pattern of human sleep seemed to be these sort of two different bulk sleeps, where you got this core amount of sleep, then you’d wake up for a little while in the middle of the night and do things, and then go back to sleep for what was then became known as beauty sleep.

Understanding that just because the rest of your team or your environment or your friends or family, whatever, might be on a nine to five work schedule and a ten to six or ten to seven sleep schedule, it doesn’t mean that that’s what you should be doing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great, so get clear on your real sleep needs and what’s optimal for you and not just sort of caving to the norms around you.

Ari Meisel
It’s so individual. It’s so, so individual. That’s the big thing. Understand that you can figure it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Any other knowing thyself things to know?

Ari Meisel
I think a lot of people are just generally unaware of how they use their time and their space and their resources and their money and everything. There’s usually a huge benefit in just tracking sort of anything that we do. You can track things like with RescueTime, you can track how you’re using your computer or your Apple watch and see how you’re moving around or not. That kind of information can be very powerful if you just take the data that you’re producing all day every day and actually look at it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you give us an example of let’s say Apple watch or Fitbit, you’re looking at your steps or movement data and how that can inform a useful decision?

Ari Meisel
One thing I would say is just challenging what you might inherently think you know about yourself. There’s so many people – there’s a lot of people who when they use these tools, they can guess the number of steps they’ve taken in the day and they’re probably pretty accurate.

Most people before they do that kind of thing are very – they’re usually pretty off. Somebody might think that they were on their feet for ten hours; it turns out they were only on their feet for two hours. Or they think that they walked five miles, but they didn’t even walk a mile.

That in itself, being aware of the unawareness I think is huge and the discrepancies because once you get into this and you sort of get to know your body and you sort of inherently understand these things a little bit better. We can make better decisions or we can even understand when we shouldn’t be making decisions because if we’re tired or not in a good place to mentally do things, a lot of people just sort of power through it and then make bad choices. Then those sort of build on each other.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Can you recall a particular bad choice you made when you were tired or poorly resourced?

Ari Meisel
I mean a lot of it usually comes out with my wife and arguments that I wouldn’t normally have. But there – it’s funny actually. I think about a month ago my wife and I had a fairly aggressive argument. It was so out of the norm that she actually stopped and she’s like, “You’re acting like one of the children right now. You should go take a nap.” I can usually operate on pretty low amount of sleep, but this was a bad few days for some reason. I stopped and I realized I was acting like a toddler.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s well said. Cool, that’s a little bit about knowing thyself. Can you dig into a bit of the concept of the external brain? What is it and how should we tap into that power?

Ari Meisel
For the external brain is the idea that we really can’t use our brains the way that we think we can. The human brain is really, really bad at holding onto information. It’s great at coming up with it, but really not so good at keeping it. We try to use working memory for something that it really isn’t, which is long-term storage.

If we have systems in place – and when I say systems it’s important because a lot of people have tools or methods maybe or gadgets, but a lot of people lack systems. If you have a system in place to actually track your ideas, capture your ideas and put them in a place where not only you can save them, but actually act on them later, that makes life a lot less stressful and a lot more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, I’m so with you there. I’m thinking back to David Allen, episode 15 here for us. He said it very well, I might not get it perfect, but says, “Your brain is for having ideas not for holding them or for remembering them.”

Ari Meisel
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s been so huge for me is getting it out of my head and elsewhere. Personally, I love OmniFocus for the actionable things. Someone said, “Oh, this is a great restaurant,” “This is a great podcast.” “You should check out this church,” or place to go. I was like, “Oh cool. I will.”

It’s sort of like all those rich little life ideas don’t float away. They land somewhere and they can be acted upon in sometimes a year plus later, like, “Oh, I am going to watch that movie someone recommended a year ago. I’m so glad I had that recommendation ready to be accessed.” I dig OmniFocus for that and Evernote for more words basically in terms of maybe paragraphs plus. What do you dig for your external brain?

Ari Meisel
Trello.

Pete Mockaitis
Trello?

Ari Meisel
Yeah, I use Trello. I was a really big Evernote user for a long time, but I sort of fell away from it because with Trello it’s more speaking to that idea of having a system. I might capture things all day long from various sources, whether it’s a voice note to my Amazon Echo device or to Siri or a picture of something or a screenshot or I’ll forward an email, and they all go to one place. They all go to one list in Trello as an individual card, each one.

Then at the end of the day, it’s one of my sort of nightly routines is I look at that list and I can sort those ideas into various places. One might be for someone on my team to deal with, one might be for my wife to look at, one might be for me to read later, whatever it might be. But that sorting process is very important to me. You can’t really do that in something like Evernote. With Trello you have that sort of visual idea, like moving things around. It feels very congruent for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. Can you unpack for us the categories? They start by getting dumped into a singular kind of inbox, collection bin. They then go to, “Hey, read this later.” They go to teammate or wife or another person. What are the other kind of categories that it might fall into?

Ari Meisel
Let me think. It could be assigned to a virtual assistant. That’s certainly one. It could be something that I want to talk about in one of my webinars. That would be like, I do a tech talk Tuesday webinar, so it could go to that. There’s not too many. That’s the thing is you don’t want to have too many different options.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then I’m wondering over time I imagine, if you’re anything like me, you have way more ideas that you’re excited about than you can take action upon. Let’s talk about some of the automate components, the decision matrix. What is that and in particular how might you apply it to, “Hey, do I do this or do I not do this?”

Ari Meisel
Well, that decision matrix is the three D’s. Saying no, for example, there’s just a lot more things that we should say no to. If anything, for some people it needs to be the default is to say no. If it’s not a heck yes, then it’s a heck no kind of a thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you for the children who listen to the show.

Ari Meisel
Yeah, right. That’s one thing. Dealing with it means you can deal with it right now like in the next three minutes. If you can’t – and in dealing with it right now, that could include delegating it – but if you can’t do that right now, and you can’t say no, then you have to defer it. At that point you pick a more optimal time for you to do it. That’s the point of it is you don’t have to put too much thought into what, when and why.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to hear then when it comes to the heck yes and heck no, it sounds like that’s kind of a visceral your whole person is resonating with something is what lands you at a heck yes or do you have a more systematic approach by which you are determining “Yes, I shall pursue that and no, I shall not pursue the other thing?”

Ari Meisel
One is just understanding your resources, knowing if something is even possible, which part of that comes honestly from having that clarity of thought that comes from having a system like this. It sounds very circular, but it’s true. That’s the big one.

But the other one is also having the places to sort of delegate into that can possibly deal with it. What I mean by that is I have a number of virtual assistants. I have people on my team that I might think it’s a yes, but I have a system in place to sort of send it over to one of them to then validate that idea or at least move it a little bit farther down the field.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. You’ve also got a concept called set it and forget it. How does that work? Is this an infomercial?

Ari Meisel
Yeah. That’s how I think through automation. Automation to me should be something that we just sort of set up and then it just runs in the background and we just don’t have to think about it anymore. That could be simple things like a trigger through an IFTTT, for example, that if something happens here, then do something else over here. Or a process that is in place that people can go through a very detailed checklist, but it’s still that – that’s how you should be thinking about automation.

It’s not something that you should have to monitor or watch. I forgot who it is actually, but somebody, a friend of mine describes automation is just something that means he doesn’t have to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, automation means I don’t have to do it, which is great because in a way, that expands your mindset or how you’re looking at it beyond that of software, robots. Automation can very much include people, people engaging processes, which include a high or low-tech application there. If you don’t have to do it, then that means it’s been automated as far as you’re concerned.

Ari Meisel
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, you mentioned IFTT, if this, then that. It’s so funny I’ve looked at this app several times and thinking, that’s just cool. I’m sure I could probably find some use for it and yet I haven’t. Tell me, what are the most game changingly useful things you’re using IFTT for?

Ari Meisel
First of all, any time you find yourself in a situation where you say ‘every,’ so like every time this happens, every time a customer signs up, every time I book a podcast or video, every time I record an interview, every time I send a Tweet, every time I hire or fire someone, that ‘every’ should be a trigger to think about automation because typically that should mean it’s something that’s repetitive.

That’s one way of thinking through it. All those things that we do on a regular basis, on a repetitive basis, those are things that should be automated. I’ve automated hiring processes, content dissemination, even using machine learning to segment out potential customers from people on my email list. All of those things can be done with automations.

But at a really simple level, if you want to look at the things that you know you should be doing, but not you’re not doing them, that’s a great case for automation, like, “I’m on Facebook and I know I should be on Twitter and Instagram, but I’m not.” Okay, well you can automatically at the very least post all the things you put on one place into all the others.

I know that I should have consistencies so that if I change my Facebook profile picture, I should probably change my Twitter one as well. But those are the kinds of things most people are just like, “Ah, I’m busy so I’ll just let that one go for now.” A lot of those things where you should be doing them and you’re not, you can pick up the slack with automation.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say things you should be doing, I think one of the first things that leap to mind could be exercise, meditation, and sort of things that are boosting your effectiveness across the board. You talked a bit about attaching a new habit to an existing one, how does this work?

Ari Meisel
There are a lot of people who are way better about habits than I am. My friend James Clear, who wrote Atomic Habits, is one of the better ones to be honest.

But if we have a good habit in place already, like most of us probably brush our teeth, then you – and you want to bring in a new habit, then you can associate it with the existing habit. That’s like an anchoring effect. It just makes it a lot easier to implement that habit.

The other thing that I like is generally if you make something 20 seconds easier or 20 seconds harder, you can make or break a habit that way as well. The most obvious example of that is if you want to drink more water throughout the day, have a big thing of water at your desk, you don’t have to get up and go get water. If you don’t want to eat cookies, don’t have cookies in your house.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s nice, so 20 seconds easier or 20 seconds harder can make or break it. Well, then I’m wondering then if there’s a threshold number of seconds that’s like beyond that, “Ah, it’s just too much,” like “If it’s 35 seconds, okay, okay, fine, but if it’s 55, forget about it. Ain’t going to happen.”

Ari Meisel
Yeah, all the research I’ve seen is around 20 seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good. That’s helpful. Okay, cool. That’s a bit about the automation side.

Now let’s talk about the outsourcing. You mentioned virtual assistants a number of times. Most of our listeners are employees and not entrepreneurs or business owners, but I can tell you that when I was an employee, I used virtual assistants to great effect. Can you unpack a little behind this? Virtual assistants, what are they really, really good for and where do people go wrong when they try to make good use of them?

Ari Meisel
Even in your personal life you should be using virtual assistants because it allows you to focus on what you do best and delegate the rest as has been said before. I use the VAs for over 100 hours a week in my personal life with my four kids and booking travel for me and my family and signing up for after school things and insurance.

You have to understand the return on investment there is not necessarily something that you’re going to be able to directly measure in dollars. It’s just going to make your life better.

The biggest problem with outsourcing in general is if people try to do it as a first step and they can’t. If you take an ineffective problem and you just hand it over to somebody else who has less information, less context than you and expect some magical result, it’s just not going to happen. You have to start with the optimizing first, then the automating, then you can get to the outsourcing.

Because also if you give work to a human being that an automation could do, then you’re effectively dehumanizing them, which doesn’t work either. We have to get better at communicating what our needs are. A lot of that comes from going through and creating an optimized process to begin with.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a great point in terms of “I don’t like this. You handle it,” often doesn’t give you some great results on the other side.

Tell me a little bit when you talk about that optimization, what I found is some of the hardest thinking that I do, which has been just tremendously rewarding in terms of the return has been how do I take this gut feel type decision and turn that almost into an algorithm that we can use to determine – to get pretty far.

For example, I get tons of incoming podcast guest pitches. It’s like, “Oh my gosh.” One by one by one, I was sort of looking at them is like this is nuts, but every once in a while there were some really amazing people who came in. I thought “Well, I can’t just ignore them all.”

I really had to stop and think. It’s like, I want guests who are relevant, who are authorities, and who are engaging. Now, what exactly do I mean by relevant? What exactly do I mean by authoritative? How would I assess or measure or evaluate that? What exactly do I mean by engaging? Now, I can have that – it just goes in terms of the pitch lands and someone evaluates it per all my parameters and then I only look at a small set of finalists.

That’s been huge for me. Is there a particular way that you think about turning things from, “Okay, I can handle this,” until it’s so darn clear that someone else can handle it repeatedly?

Ari Meisel
Delegation is a muscle. You need to practice it and do it and it becomes a lot more natural. It’s not necessarily even so much that there’s an algorithm. But if you say there’s only three choices in these situations and that’s it. There’s only three choices. You sort of create innovation by artificially restricting your options.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, I dig. Can you give us an example of that in practice?

Ari Meisel
I mean, that’s one, the three options. If you say there’s 20 different things you could do, but you say, no, you only have three options. That’s a good one.

For me, if you artificially restrict time. A lot of people say “There’s no time in the day. There’s no time in the day.” It’s just not true. It’s just that priorities are messed up and people don’t have good systems.

If I told somebody that works a nine to five job what would you do if you could only work till four, you had to leave at four? For most people that’s pretty straightforward. That’s a fairly easy way to think through it. “Oh, I would skip lunch,” or “I’d take one less meeting,” or something.

But if you say to the same person, “What would you do if you could only work an hour a day?” that’s a very different question. That creates a whole different – you need a totally different way of thinking to make that work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You’re already getting the wheels turning for me. It’s like, “Well, I would have to figure out how to have other people do the things that I’m no longer doing,” is what I would do with that hour, kind of like wishing for more wishes, if you will.

Ari Meisel
Yeah, right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. When it comes to these virtual assistants, boy, how does someone find them? Where would you recommend they go, they research, they explore? What are some first steps there?

Ari Meisel
I’ve worked with over 20 different virtual assistant companies over the years, including owning one myself. In that time my favorite one is a company called Magic. People can go to Less.do/Magic to get connected with them. There’s a reason for that. There’s dedicated assistants, which I think create just another bottleneck that you give to somebody else. Then this is what’s more of an on demand model.

Magic has 15 people. Half of them are in the States. Half of them are in the Philippines. They work seamlessly as like one giant entity that really knows your preferences, understands what you need, and their response time is about 30 seconds 24/7. They can do all the different things. They charge I think it’s like 51 cents per minute or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. I’ve seen ads for Magic, but I’m like, okay, well, I’ve used a lot myself. Are they any good? It sounds like you’ve been around the block. You say, “Oh yes, Pete. They are legit.”

Ari Meisel
Oh yes, Pete. They are ….

Pete Mockaitis
That’s valuable information. One of my favorite places I’ve gone to is OnlineJobs.ph, which is for hiring people in the Philippines, but you’re going to significantly more work upfront in order to select that winner. That is a bit of work, but I found that on the backend it’s oh so rewarding when you have those champions.

Ari Meisel
Right, yeah. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. You also talk about outsourcing your outsourcing. What does this mean?

Ari Meisel
I’ve had Magic manage other outsource reliers. In outsourcing we generally have the generalist and we have specialist. Generalist would be the admin sort of VA. The specialist is more like the graphic designers and the programmers and stuff like that. I’ve had Magic manage them in some cases, so then I’m not even having to deal with them. I can have sort of one point of contact.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, Ari, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ari Meisel
No, that’s the main thing. We have a couple different programs that we offer. We have something called a Replaceable Founder, which is a really great online course and now a one-day intensive workshop that we actually offer here in New York City. That’s something that I would recommend people checking out at Replaceable.fr.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ari Meisel
Yeah, I sure can. I just have to pull this up. Too long, but it’s long enough that I can’t remember it. It’s a Robert Heinlein quote, if you’ve heard of Robert Heinlein.

Pete Mockaitis
I think I see his name in text in my mind’s eye, but I don’t recall anything more.

Ari Meisel
He wrote Tunnel in the Sky. He wrote some of the – he was sort of an Isaac Asimov contemporary.

But anyway, he said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, con a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Ari Meisel
Oh, that’s a good one. The Zeigarnik Effect probably. Bluma Zeigarnik in the 1920s in Berlin was a Russian doctoral student. She discovered this part of the brain that not only pushes us to complete the uncompleted, so it’s like the voice in our heads that pushes us to complete the uncompleted, but it’s also where we sort of process open-ended information.

Pete Mockaitis
So we know that that part of the brain exists. Are there any kind of key implications for how we live our lives differently knowing that?

Ari Meisel
Yeah. Yeah, it’s a really important understanding for us because we actually are more able to recall that kind of information than in any other setting.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Ari Meisel
My favorite book ever is Emergency by Neil Strauss.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Ari Meisel
Favorite tool. That would be Trello, really Trello.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Ari Meisel
Favorite habit. My nightly sort of brain dump, sorting of ideas that I do in Trello. It’s huge for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your folks, that gets them nodding their heads and retweeting and telling you how brilliant you are?

Ari Meisel
Well, I hope so. I think just this concept of being replaceable. It opens up a lot of ideas and philosophies and emotions for some people to understand that that’s a really good thing. It’s not just about replacing yourself in terms of the functions that you do and bringing other people to do them and empowering them, it’s also about re-placing you to the sort of glory and comfort and happiness that you once had.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s clever. Re-placing, to place again yourself.

Ari Meisel
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s profound. Thank you.

Ari Meisel
Thank you. There we go.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ari Meisel
They should go to LessDoing.com. We’ve got this really cool little free mini course that people can go through. That’s a bunch of videos. Actually, if they go to Less.do/Foundations, they can get into that.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Ari Meisel
Seek replaceability in everything that you do. If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well Ari, this has been a real treat. Thank you for taking the time and good luck in all you’re up to.

Ari Meisel
Thank you.

368: Upgrading Your Productivity through Accountability with Focusmate’s Taylor Jacobson

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Taylor Jacobson says: "In order to upgrade your life, upgrade your accountability."

Focusmate founder and CEO Taylor Jacobson breaks down how tribal psychology and accountability partners can do wonders for your work and life.

You’ll Learn:

  1.  The biggest distraction drivers in the workplace
  2. Four streamlined to-do list hacks
  3. Why NOT to rely on willpower

About Taylor

Taylor Jacobson is the founder and CEO of Focusmate, building productivity software that works when nothing else will. He’s a trained executive coach with clients like Yale, Cornell, and Wharton, a wannabe adventurer, and a recovering pizza addict turned holistic health aspirant. His work has been featured in CNN, GQ, The Huffington Post, Men’s Health, and more.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Taylor Jacobson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Taylor, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Taylor Jacobson
Thanks for having me Pete, excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Me too. I want to get your take first of all about your 3,000-mile bicycle ride.

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah. Fun story. I just moved back from India and I was getting ready to do an MBA, although truth be told, I was kind of waffling on whether I wanted to do it. I always sort of wanted to do my own thing. I was debating.

I reconnected with a high school friend, who just wrapped up his stint in the Marine Corps, was taking some time off and I think we did a workout, we grabbed coffee and he said, “By the way, I’m going to do this thing we’ve been talking about since high school. I’m going to ride my bike from Boston to Seattle. You should do it with me.”

This goes all the way back to middle school. We can tell some fun stories about middle school because middle school stories are always fun if painful. But going back forever, I sort of knew that doing cool, hard stuff especially with somebody else was like this silver bullet for me.

I’d always wanted to do this particular challenge of riding my bike cross country and just was like, “Oh my God, this amazing person, a Marine, good friend of mine, is going to do this thing. This is my chance to do this really hard adventure.” That kind of flipped the switch for me of saying, “I really didn’t want to do this MBA anyway. I’m going to say yes.”

The next day we went to REI, we bought a tent, bought a sleeping bag, some stuffed sacks, whatever we needed. I think we had maybe a week before we were going to head out, so we did a couple you know – we loaded all the stuff on our bikes and tried to figure out how to ride with all this stuff strapped on there. I’d say we mostly figured it out. And then we just took off.

There’s a lot I can say about the ride, but one of the things we’ll get into in this conversation a lot is the power of your peers and the power of accountability and the power of just doing things together. I’ve never done that ride by myself, but I don’t know that I ever would or could.

Doing it with this friend, Brendan, every day you multiple moments, where you’re not having fun at all. But there’s just something about – your mind just kind of shifts when you are doing it together and it makes it a little less painful and it also – it sort of cements the reality that you just are doing it and you’re not going to give up.

For me the mental narrative when I’m doing virtually any kind of exercise, certainly cycling like this, certainly if it’s raining or there’s head winds or anything like that or it’s cold, which happened plenty, the debate raging in my head is like, “Should I quit or not?” That’s a little shameful to admit, but that’s the truth.

If I have somebody else there with me, it’s a whole different conversation. I’m just committed. I might be complaining in my head, but quitting is kind of off the table.

I won’t nerd out too hard on why that shift happens just yet while I’m telling this story, but needless to say, we made it. It took us 52 days, took some days off in the middle, went out for drinks in Bismarck, North Dakota because of course, you’ve got to do that. Yeah, incredible trip.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, so every night you were just outdoors in the tent?

Taylor Jacobson
Most nights. Probably if I had had my way, we would have done more camping, but Brendan was a good voice of reason and when we’d pull into bigger towns, maybe once a week or so, he’d say, “We are getting a motel and we’re sleeping in a bed.”

We slept outdoors a lot, which I grew to really love. I miss it sometimes. But yeah, we tried to give ourselves a chance at a little bit more of a restful time to – especially if it was really cold or rainy or what have you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. It’s one of those things, you’ll remember it forever. It seems like some real seeds got planted there associated with the power of partnering up and accountability. Could you also tell us the tale behind your company and concept Focusmate and how you saw personally that this is some powerful stuff?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to go back to 2011 for the start of this story, which predates my company by a bit. I was living and working in Mumbai, India. I had been a top performer my whole life.

Pete Mockaitis
At work.

Taylor Jacobson
Went to Duke.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Duke.

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, went to Duke, management consulting out of college. I was employee 6 at Teach For India. I was cruising. Then our office location changed in Mumbai and a kind of reasonable commute became much, much more arduous. This is a very long, very sweaty, just miserable commute, where I’d be like changing clothes when I got to the office. I just wasn’t digging it.

I basically begged my boss to let me work remotely. She sort of conceded. She was really reluctant, but I was just like, “I have to do this.” I started working remotely and I was excited about it, but her apprehensions turned out to be kind of – I don’t know what the right word is, but –

Pete Mockaitis
Justified, dead on.

Taylor Jacobson
Justified, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Prophetic.

Taylor Jacobson
Yes, thank you. In short, I could not figure out how to be productive while I was working remotely. It was really bad.

I would say I’m sort of a busy or productive procrastinator. I’d be like doing stuff constantly. I’d put in a good eight hours of something would be happening. I’d have my computer there on my lap, but I just wasn’t getting my job done. I wasn’t working on the really important stuff.

The next conversation I had with my boss was about a different topic, about my performance. We had a couple of those over a course of a few months. Eventually she didn’t fire me, but she basically said, “You can work here, you just can’t work for me.”

I drew a lot of ego strength from being a top performer, it just hit me really hard. I didn’t have the kind of resilience toolkit yet or sort of the mental pick-yourself-back-up toolkit yet. I kind of took this segue to start working for myself. I started my first startup at that time, but of course I was still working from home.

Kind of simultaneously because of this really conspicuous big failure, the first real big failure that I couldn’t kind of explain away, I went into this spiral of shame and depression. I really didn’t know how to get out of it. Of course, I was working alone, accountable only to myself, dealing with all the same things that had previously caused me to procrastinate. It was pretty nasty.

I won’t say that I figured out a lot in that phase. Kind of the first thing I figured out was just how to stop shaming myself and that was a good first step. But what happened was I started reading about self-improvement.

I started reading about behavioral science, and productivity, and all the productivity hacks, and blogs, and spirituality and just being in that really bad place actually and being motivated like that really cemented my passion for self-improvement and set me on this path.

Prior to starting this company, I was an executive coach for a number of years. That was a great opportunity to kind of take all this philosophy or research and be accountable to work with people on their real problems and see what works and what doesn’t work. Focusmate grew out of that.

I was working with a client, someone I had known for a really long time, sort of self-proclaimed procrastinator, also really high performer at the same time. He had an investor presentation coming up, really, really big and really important presentation, career-making type of meeting.

He called me up and he said, “Man, I have this meeting in two weeks. I need my investor deck and I haven’t started on it.” An investor deck for a meeting like this is something that could easily take you couple months to get into good shape. So he was really freaking out.

I had known him for long enough that I had kind of given him every bit of coaching that I knew. He didn’t need more coaching; he just needed to have his feet held to the fire. He just needed to sit down and do it somehow.

And so, I had meanwhile been procrastinating on writing a blog post at that time, something that I procrastinate easily for months. And I just said, “Listen, why don’t we just get on Skype tomorrow and I’ll sit there with you. And I will write my blog post and you will work on your investor presentation. I won’t even charge you because I need this too.”

And so we did that. It was crazy. We sat down. We both shared exactly what we’re going to do. Within a couple minutes, we’re just working. Two hours flies by. Both of us were kind of giddy at the end of this because we had just tapped into something that neither of us had ever experienced before.

He and I did that very day that week. He finished his presentation. That went great. But that was sort of the seed of realizing, “Oh, there’s something really powerful here.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. It’s intriguing I imagine, boy, you really get into a dark place with regards to, “Hey, I’m a top performer. I kick butt all the time. Win, win, win is what I do. And yet I can’t pull myself away from-“ I don’t know if it’s Facebook or Netflix or cat videos or memes or gifs, whatever might be distracting you. What do you think that’s about in terms of our sort of individual capacity to resist distraction? What’s the deal there?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, that’s a really good, important question. I think the answer is actually – you can go read epic blog posts about this. You can read the Wait but Why has a really classic blog post on procrastination.

But I think it’s kind of simple, which is we spent 99% of evolution living in tribes, basically just trying to survive. We’re wired to function in that environment. What we’re not wired for is to have everything on demand and constant barrage of stimulation and opportunities for pleasure.

Pleasure could be Netflix or Seamless or – Seamless is food delivery here in New York or just email. That instant dopamine hit of getting a new email. I think it’s just we’re not wired to deal with the environment that we have today.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. You mentioned that there’s some data suggesting that distractions are getting worse and worse. Can you sort of unpack some of that to lay out just what’s at stake here?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, so some crazy data. I didn’t really fully grasp even until I started really building Focusmate and trying to understand what’s going on. Just like a few interesting things to look at.

Chronic procrastination is the most severe kind of procrastination. It’s a diagnosable condition. The study that I looked at for this starts tracking chronic procrastination right around the time that computers come into existence, like 70s, 80s.

The first data point they have on chronic procrastination is that it affects about 5% of the adult population. That number has gone up steadily until the most recent data point for this particular research on chronic procrastination is 2007, where it effects 20%, 1 in 5 adults.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s 2007.

Taylor Jacobson
2007.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve got 11 years to catch up to see how big it is now.

Taylor Jacobson
Totally. By the way, 2007 is when the first smartphone, when the iPhone came out. You can extrapolate a little from that. We’re in a pretty bad place with – this is hardcore, severe procrastination affecting a lot of people, somebody you know.

Another one is adult ADHD scripts. So from about let’s see, 2003 to 2015, adult ADHD scripts went up by over 3 times. And then the other just terrifying statistic is about a third of the workday now is wasted on distractions. Just a couple hours a day every day wasted on distractions.

Pete Mockaitis
Do we have a breakdown of what are the big distraction drivers there in the workplace? Is it more so folks dropping by or is it more kind of self-inflicted, like, “Oh, I keep looking at the news or my phone?”

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, that’s a good question. I haven’t looked at that data for a little while, but I know that noise is a big one, especially now we have open offices are unfortunately still really trendy even through there’s really no evidence to support that they’re good and there’s a lot of reasons why they’re bad. But, yeah, noise is hard for people.

If you’re introverted – I’m introverted – or if you’re sensitive to noise – I’m hyper-sensitive to noise – we know that introverts are a lot of people and a lot of people are sensitive to noise, so for certain types of people especially, working in an office environment can just be totally crippling.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. There it is. It’s big in terms of distraction affecting us more and more at a bigger scale. You stumbled upon a powerful anecdote with that Skype chat and then you went ahead and built a whole company around this. If I want to get me a Focusmate, how do I make that happen and how does it work?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah. The premise behind Focusmate is basically just using this technique, this kind of tribal psychology of accountability to unlock productivity. A kind of simple way to think about it is it’s like an accountability buddy or a study buddy on demand.

We have a standard session format. This is a 50-minute video working session, where we make it possible for you and your partner, your virtual co-worker, to sit side-by-side over video while you both get work done for 50 minutes. At the beginning of each session, you each commit to what you’re going to work on. You write it down and you get to work. At the end you check in with each other and talk about how it went.

It sounds pretty simple and it actually is, but there’s also a lot of behavioral triggers packed into that interaction. Part of it is when we schedule things in advance, our intentions further ahead are actually better often than our intentions right in the moment.

Then reflection, stopping and reflecting is – a lot of research shows that that improves productivity even though it doesn’t feel as good as just doing stuff. This forces you to stop and reflect on what you’re about to do.

Writing down what you’re about to do increases productivity. Telling somebody what you’re going to do increases productivity. The immediacy of doing it right after you write it down and tell somebody, also increases productivity. There’s a whole bunch of layers that go into why it’s so effective.

And part of what we’re building also is really enabling you to have a really customized experience so that the virtual co-workers that you have are exactly the right people for you, the people that you want to be working for, whether that’s because they’re actually your favorites, so to speak, that you’ve added to your tribe or that that’s based on your preferences of how you like to work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Is this free or how do I get me some of that?

Taylor Jacobson
It is free. All you’ve got to do is go to our website, Focusmate.com, and sign up.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Are there any kind of corporate firewall IT blah to contend with when using this software?

Taylor Jacobson
It’s a totally browser-based experience, so you shouldn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Taylor Jacobson
You shouldn’t have any. Yeah, but let me know.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. I like the way you sort of unpacked that in terms of it’s really just a few simple practices, but they have a compounding effect and they all kind of come together. Then that’s cool.

I’m a huge believer in accountability. I was sort of already sold. I read a book about accountability groups in college and I had a powerful experience as well in terms of, “Hey, we’re making commitments to one another and we’re sharing this is what I’m going to do and we’re checking in with each other regularly.”

You’ve added the real time dimension of “We are sitting down now looking at each other doing the thing,” which is a whole other level, so that’s awesome.

Taylor Jacobson
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
Then tell me, do you have any sort of stats on the effectiveness or the measurement of just the extent to which it gets the job done? You and your buddies think it’s really cool and a good experience, but how do we measure it in terms of sort of like a yes or no I got the job done or how do you put numbers to prove that this is doing the trick?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, so we’ve done some internal surveys. The results are kind of crazy. 100% – this is about a 60-something person study, so pretty small, but we think significant. 100% of the respondents said, “Yes, this improves my productivity.” Of those, 96% said, “It improves my productivity by at least 50%.”

Then just on the anecdotal side of things, we have many, many, many people who are saying, “I’ve tried everything under the sun and nothing has worked until this. I have severe ADHD and I never thought I could do X. I just wrote it off. I was never going to get to do this goal. Now, I actually think that I can.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. I’m intrigued then. That’s one sort of tremendous tool we now all have in our toolkit. We can just go to Focusmate.com and grab a partner on demand so that’s great.

So I imagine though as you’ve done your research, you’ve sort of determined a few other kind of best practices and themes when it comes to humans and our capacity to focus and be productive and stay on task and beat procrastinating, so what are some of your other pro tips beyond getting a partner?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah. I think it’s useful to actually kind of abstract one step because really the principle that is at work is around this tribal psychology. There’s this great quote from Jim Rohn that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I must have seen that quote like ten times before I really understood what it means.

As I started to study psychology more, the way that I’ve come to understand why that really works, because it’s not magic, it really works. The reason is that we are social animals. We evolved in tribes where if you wanted to eat, you had to hunt. If you wanted to hunt successfully, you needed to collaborate with other people.

Or you wanted to raise a child, well, there was no baby monitors, so if you wanted to step away to do something else, you relied on somebody else. Or you got a cold, well, on how earth did you survive a basic common cold living in a tribal society? You completely relied on other people to take care of you.

We’re really hard wired to respond to these social triggers. There’s plenty of places that you can see this in life today, just stuff like why might you buy a Nike shoe versus a New Balance shoe? Well, a Nike shoe is going to send-

Pete Mockaitis
Because Steve Prefontaine, of course.

Taylor Jacobson
Of course. Well, that’s funny because it kind of gets at the thing, which is that Nike stands for something else. What that really means is it sends a different message both to you, but also to other people around you.

You go into an office, why is every guy there wearing basically the same thing. Well, that’s because you want to fit in. In a tribal society, it’s really, really costly if you stand out. The minute you stand out, you get ostracized, you’re dead. The way our brains our wired is we conform to the behaviors around us.

That works both ways. That means, hey, if your spouse turns on Netflix every night at 7 like clockwork and you really want to study up on machine learning. Sorry, but it’s not going to happen. Netflix is on and boom, your willpower is gone. You’re probably just going to sit on the couch too.

But it works in the other direction too. Since we’re talking about running, just one of the coolest examples I’ve seen in 1954 this runner – what’s his name. I want to say Roger Bannister, don’t quote me on that. But basically no one had ever run a four-minute mile before. In 1954 this guy he breaks the four-minute barrier for the first time. Remember this thing has literally never happened before.

Suddenly, two months later, somebody else does it. I just checked the research on this. As of today, over 1,400 people have broken the 4-minute barrier.

When your brain makes that switch to something is possible because somebody else did it. Something in your environment sends a signal about what’s possible, suddenly it’s also possible for you or it becomes normalized for you.

On a really practical level, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. The way that plays out is, you start to internalize the way that people around you are speaking and their body language and soon the way that they think and the way that they act and all these things you’re just – the way your brain is wired is you’re just subconsciously absorbing all those things. You actually can’t help but start to be like them.

It’s not a totally rational thing in today’s society, where you can totally pretty much survive on your own, technically, but it is still a really, really incredibly powerful hack where if you change the people that are in your environment, if you change that social environment, it will just change who you are from the inside out.

That has so many implications for our work, but in the very immediate who’s your boss, who are your co-workers, who are the people that you talk to about work, those sort of things can actually have a very, very direct impact on your output, your results at work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s huge. Part of the game is just hey, pick some great people and be around them frequently.

Taylor Jacobson
Completely, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well so then, we’ve got sort of that lever to pull. Then I’m wondering in terms of when you find yourself without people at your disposal or maybe you have a shorter window in which you need to focus, like 20 minutes instead of booking a 50-minute advance session, what do you recommend in the heat of battle to sort of stay on task and focused and to beat procrastination and to keep at it when you’re not feeling it so much?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah. I think this can be a tough one. One of the things that I find really helpful is this idea of doing less better.

When you sit down and you’ve got 50 things on your to-do list, which all of us have at least 50 things on our to-do list, it can be really crippling, especially when you only have in this case 20 minutes or something. You might be a little weary and decision fatigue has set in. It’s really crippling and that’s one of the things that makes it really hard to be productive when you only have 20 minutes.

Actually really streamlining and I’ve heard different approaches to this. One person shared that she uses a Post-it note every day and she can only fit about three things on there so that’s how she plans. She just uses a really tiny surface. That’s one way to do less better.

I’ve borrowed a technique or adapted a technique from Jake Knapp.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, we had him on the show.

Taylor Jacobson
Oh nice. Yeah. Jake wrote an article about what he calls the Burner Method or something like this. Sorry, Jake, I’m going to totally screw this up. But the essence of it is to do less better and to really simplify.

My approach to this is I take a blank sheet of paper every day and I divide it into a top half and a bottom half. On the top half, I literally put just one thing usually. If there’s other things I absolutely must get to that day, they go on the top half. That’s a really, really high bar for things you absolutely must, must get to.

And the bottom half is like okay, bonus if I finish that thing at the top, here’s some more tasks I can get into. On the bottom right is personal tasks, administrative, “I’ve got to pick up my dry cleaning” or “I’ve got to – “right now I have write a thank you note is in that bottom write corner. I find that it helps avoid decision fatigue when it’s just extremely simple and you can just focus on that one thing.

And then kind of related to that, I like to say that we should write our to-dos like we’re giving instructions to a robot or to a computer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that.

Taylor Jacobson
What that’s about is really about specificity and reducing complexity. Our brains don’t like complexity. When we create it, we procrastinate. When you see something on your to-do list that says write a presentation, to reprise our old example.

You actually can’t write a presentation. You can create a blank document in Keynote. You can write an outline with some slide headers. You can sketch out some graphic, some ideas for visuals for your slides. Those are things that you can actually do, but it’s not physically possible to do the activity of write a presentation. That’s another fun little trick is write your tasks like you’re giving instructions to a robot.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. That’s sort of one of the tenants of GTD, Getting Things Done, methodology.  We had David Allen on the show back in the day, episode 15, awesome dude.

Taylor Jacobson
OG productivity baller.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah and a personal hero. But it really resonated because if on your to-do list it just says ‘mom,’ it’s like there’s a whole other level of – I don’t know if it’s consternation or friction, it’s like what does that even mean, ‘mom.’ It’s like, “Oh, mom’s birthday.” Okay, well that’s closer, but what’s the instruction for mom’s birthday. It’s like, “Visit Amazon.com to find something that mom would like for her birthday and order it.” Okay, that’s what I’m doing.

Then you sort of really cut through a lot of that resistance in terms of “Oh, it’s not ambiguous at all. This is what’s happening is I’m opening a window and going to Amazon.com and buda bing buda boom.”

Taylor Jacobson
Totally. Yeah, I love the level of specificity that you just went to because that’s exactly what is necessary for our really terrible brains.

But it’s funny how much resistance – I still find this, I got the habit down now, but there’s – you’ll still find there’s resistance when you’re writing down a task to just write those extra words and do that little bit of extra thinking when you’re planning.

I find that doing all your planning and reflection together as its own task and making sure that, “Okay, now while I’m doing the reflection and planning, I’m going to take the time to write down ‘go to Amazon.com and research gifts and buy gift for mom,’” whatever you’re going to write down.

The other sort of hack that I use on this is sometimes you need to write something down that is complex and it’s not the right time now to actually plan out the specific actions around that. So you might actually need to write a presentation and you just need some kind of place holder on your to-do list to work on that. It may not be right to break that into the 12 steps that are actually involved.

When I encounter that situation, i.e., every day, you can just write plan out the steps to write the presentation. Actually treating the planning as its own task I find is a really helpful way to sort of get around the stuckness on complex projects.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, tell me, you’ve got a turn of a phrase I find intriguing. You say ‘Stop relying on willpower.” What’s the key message there?

Taylor Jacobson
Oh gosh especially in the US, we have this notion of rugged individualism. I subscribe to it so much as you might guess from someone who does a cross-country bike ride, but it’s also kind of toxic in that I think it has us think that there is some glamour or glory or righteousness about muscling through things. That can look like trying to do things on our own. It can often look like just trying to use willpower.

I can’t count the number of, days that I wasted earlier in my career just kind of shaming myself because I thought, “Gosh, I really just should be able to willpower myself through this obstacle.” And it doesn’t’ work. There’s plenty of evidence that it doesn’t work. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that does. We’ve talked about some of the stuff that does. But I think just the key message is to just let go of the notion that there’s something better about muscling through.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. It’s almost challenging in terms of you hold on just like, “But if I were some sort of a hard core super achiever, I could do it.” But the word Navy SEAL comes to mind, but even then, they’re working in teams.

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, yeah, they’re working in teams. They live together. They have routine. All of it.

This is like the part two to this idea is it’s okay to get some support, but not too much. There’s a line that we draw somewhere in our minds, where it’s like, “Okay, I can call up a friend and ask for help on this, but I really shouldn’t call two friends I don’t want to take too much of this person’s time or whatever.”

Of course, you need to use social intelligence and be gracious and not overtax your relationships, but separate from that, I think we just kind of put a barrier on what’s acceptable to create as support in our lives. Categorically, there is no limit to how much support is okay. I really think it’s just if there’s a way to get the job done, maybe you should use it.

So accountability is one great way, but I’m sure you’ve had plenty of guests who talk about stuff like automating things in your life, where, “I’m not necessarily reliable to get my laundry done when it should be done, so I just have a pick up set for once a week, where I’m like, all right, I guess I’ve got to scramble and get my clothes together because the person is coming,” just to give a couple examples of any way that you can avoid using willpower to do something, might be a good idea.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, tell me, Taylor, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Taylor Jacobson
No, I’m good. Let’s do it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, how about you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, so, I’m going to just trot this one out again. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. That’s Jim Rohn.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Taylor Jacobson
There’s a study called The Power of Kawaii, which is this concept of viewing cute baby animal photos. What they looked at is what’s the impact this has on your productivity. I’m talking about this because it’s a perfect example of tribal psychology of we can’t help when we look at a picture of a cute baby animal, it actually boosts cognitive function, it boosts mood, it boosts concentration. Pretty crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard references to this. I said, “What?” I never scratched beneath the surface, so while we’re here, you’re thinking that it’s the tribal psychology explains this. Can you make that connection for me?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah. The kind of obvious connection is-

Pete Mockaitis
It’s an animal, we should kill it and eat it.

Taylor Jacobson
Well, okay. There’s that. I think it might be more intuitive for people to think about raising kids. When you have a baby there’s this blob that really doesn’t give you much interaction. There’s really no reward for a long time. There’s just a thing that has a lot of needs and also causes you a lot of distress.

How do we get through that crucible? Well, a lot of it is just the way our brains are wired. When you look at a baby, what happens? You calm down. You feel better. You can concentrate. They’re evolutionarily optimal to ensure the survival of the species. You can extrapolate one layer or in this case, the research suggests that this effect also extends to looking at other kinds of animals that are also babies.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, interesting. Thank you.

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now could you share a favorite book?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, you mentioned Navy SEALS. I’m actually reading right now a book called Living With a SEAL but Jesse Itzler. This guy, Jesse, who is a really successful business guy, he invites a Navy SEAL to live with him for a month and to train him.

In addition to being really inspiring, it’s also hilarious and amazing example of how changing your environment, changing the social structure and putting this other really high-performing person in your environment is transformative for Jesse. It’s awesome. Highly recommend it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. How about a favorite tool?

Taylor Jacobson
A favorite tool. Well, I’m going to just be self-promotional and go there and say Focusmate. I wouldn’t say it if this is something that as a recovering procrastinator has really changed my life and changed even my identity, where I feel that I can rely on myself to get my most important work done. It’s been transformational for me and a lot of other people. I think it can be really effective for a lot of your listeners as well.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah, I wanted to choose something a little maybe uncommon. The habit that I want to share is around positive self-talk. This is something that probably the first million times I encountered it I was like this is some woo-woo crazy stuff. But it’s actually made a huge difference for me in the last few years that I’ve really started to get some momentum around it.

It cuts a couple ways. When something goes well, I’m actually sometimes out loud verbalizing, like “Great job,” or “Boom.” I’ll keep it clean on here, but I’ll enthusiastically congratulate myself. It just kind of – it literally creates, maybe dopamine actually in this case, but literally creates a chemical response where it sort of cements that experience in my memory or something that makes it actually more tangibly positive and helps me build on it.

Sometimes I’ll do that even if it was mediocre because there’s just like, “You know what? You did the best you could given what you knew at this point in time, so that’s awesome.”

And then plenty of times something goes terribly I walk out of a meeting and I just feel like I did terrible. In that situation too, I’m not telling myself “You did great,” and trying to steamroll the negative feeling, but I will really say to myself, “It’s okay. And it’s not all on you. There’s another person in this interaction. What did you learn from this interaction?”

Shockingly, after many years of thinking this was a crazy thing, it’s actually become a really indispensible and career-changing tool for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. And a part of the key is saying it out loud?

Taylor Jacobson
You know, I have found that sometimes saying it out loud makes it a little – what is it? It can make it a little more real. It can also help reinforce the habit as you’re building it. It’s kind of fun too. Maybe it’s a little crazy and I’m just a crazy guy, but yeah, something about saying it out loud, it’s maybe a little extra oomph.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks when you share it?

Taylor Jacobson
Yeah. We’ve really talked about it a lot. It’s just this idea that in order to upgrade your life, upgrade your accountability.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Taylor Jacobson
You can email me at Hi@FocusMate.com. You can also head over to our website, FocusMate.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Taylor Jacobson
I do. My challenge is – you can call it an audit of the people in your life. It’s not just your work life, although that’s certainly an important category, but it’s really everyone that you spend a meaningful amount of time with. It’s your friends, it’s your romantic partner. And to ask yourself – I guess there’s two questions.

One is, are there sort of – are there roles in your life that – or needs that you have that you don’t have somebody who’s serving that role. I think of these as roles that you are casting for in your life. That’s sort of list one.

List two is people in your life or behaviors that some of those people in your life are exhibiting that are causing drag, that are slowing you down, that are sort of – again, if you are the average of the five people who you spend the most time with, are there people in your life that you actually don’t want to become more like them?

And then go find the people that you’re casting for in list one and in list two, either establish a boundary with those people or if you need to actually cut those people out from your life. I think actually following through with those two things can completely change your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Taylor, this has been a real treat. Thank you for sharing your experience, your vulnerability, your story, and your cool software with us. I’m just a huge fan of what you’re up to and I wish you all the best.

Taylor Jacobson
Thanks so much Pete. It’s been really great being on the show.

350: Productivity Principles to Make Time for What’s Important with Jake Knapp

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Jake Knapp says: "I see every day as an experiment rather than a judgment on my character."

Jake Knapp shares how to deliberately design your day around what’s important to you, and how to give yourself more energy in the process.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A fresh definition for what makes a day successful
  2. Why and how to set the highlight of your day before it starts
  3. Approaches to clear out distractions for laser focus

About Jake

Jake spent 10 years at Google and Google Ventures, where he created the Design Sprint. He has since coached teams like Slack, Uber, 23andMe, LEGO, and The New York Times on the method. Previously, Jake helped build products like Gmail, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Encarta. He is currently among the world’s tallest designers.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Jake Knapp Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jake, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jake Knapp
Pete, thank you so much for having me, really excited about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to have you as well. I want to start where perhaps many of your interviews have started, your lack of a spleen. Tell us the whole story behind this.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, I don’t have a spleen. I lost it while playing basketball. Not like it fell out or anything. But I was in high school and playing basketball. I took a really weird hard fall, where I actually sort of got caught up with my legs caught up on somebody’s shoulder and fell down really hard.

I lived – I grew up on this remote island, not super remote, but you have to get there by ferry boat up in Washington State. In order to get sort of medical care, you have to be helicoptered off the island if it’s an emergency. They did that. By the time they got me to the hospital, I had almost bled to death internally.

I had about – as it turns out they just had to sort of cut me open, see what was going on, and they had to take the spleen out because there wasn’t time to fix it, so I have no spleen and that’s the backstory.

Pete Mockaitis
That is wild. It sounds like you play basketball hard. Maybe that is a good thing for people to learn about like, “This guy is a badass.”

Jake Knapp
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Your latest book, it’s called Make Time. What’s sort of the big idea behind this one?

Jake Knapp
Well, to try to tie it into the spleen, I guess.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh please do.

Jake Knapp
Let’s see if we can. That was a near-death experience for me at the tender age of, I guess I was 16 at the time. I suppose that a lot of the idea in Make Time is about making good use of time. It’s about the idea that we have limited time in our days and in our years and in our lives and every day matters.

I think a lot of times it’s easy for the important things to get pushed off to someday, important work projects, important people in our lives, important hobbies or things that we hope to do or dig into or invest in. This is a book of sort of practical techniques for making time every day for whatever is important and making attention for it so that you can really pay attention and enjoy every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. It sounds super worthwhile. I’d like to maybe get a picture in terms of the difference this research and material and insight has made for you or your co-author or some readers. Could you give us maybe a little before/after or transformation story/case study of kind of what it’s doing for folks?

Jake Knapp
Yeah, it’s probably best to tell my story, my experience with it. I’m a designer by trade, a software designer. That’s what I have done for about 20 years. In my life I was building products. I worked at Microsoft. I worked on something called Microsoft Encarta, which most people probably don’t remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I do remember that.

Jake Knapp
Oh, okay, cool.

Pete Mockaitis
The encyclopedia on CD ROMS?

Jake Knapp
Exactly, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That brings me back.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, that was great except – it was great the first couple years I worked there. In the early 2000s when I was there it was kind of when Wikipedia was just taking off. It was also – I learned a lot of lessons. I learned a lot of lessons about the business of software. About 15 years ago I was really like, “Gosh, really every day is important. I need to make the most of it.”

But I think that this crucial moment, it’s something I describe in the book happened in I suppose around 2012, where I’m with my two sons. One of them is a baby at this point and the other one is maybe eight years old. I’m playing with them in the living room in the evening. It’s this great moment. It’s this great family moment.

I’m on my iPhone. I’m on my iPhone and I don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m just unconsciously pulling it out and looking at my email or looking at Facebook or whatever. My older son was like, “Oh, dad, what are you looking at on your phone?” not like trying to call me out.

Pete Mockaitis
Excuse you.

Jake Knapp
Just like, oh, like he was curious, like it must be something interesting if you’re not going to playing trains with us here. I was like, “Oh man, I don’t even have an answer for that. I don’t know why I’m looking at my phone. I have no good answer.”

I just – that kind of thing has happened to me a number of times, but at that one finally it was like something kind of clicked where I was like, man, I have been working for many years to try to figure out how to as effective and as efficient as I can at work, as productive as possible.

Yet here I am rushing to process as many emails as possible and go through as many meetings and get as much done as I can so that I can be home early and spend time with my kids and yet I’m not even mentally present. I’m just kind of checked out.

At that moment I was like, screw this. I deleted Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and YouTube and I shut – there’s a way to turn Safari off on your iPhone. I figured out how to do that. Just kind of in this kind of craze. I even deleted Gmail and I worked with the Gmail team at that time. I was like I can’t even handle this. Just took everything off of the phone.

The weird thing was that that was – that actually ended up feeling amazing. I kept the phone. The phone had still a lot of great stuff on it.

Pete Mockaitis
You can make calls. You can get and receive text messages.

Jake Knapp
Right. But you’ve got maps. You’ve got Uber. It’s got a great camera. They’re actually still – even though smartphone if you take away all that stuff, there’s still a lot of great things it can do.

That was – that is kind of like this moment where at that shift, all of the sudden I was like wait a second. I have just been accepting whatever kind of came at me from new products that came out or the expectations at work. I’ve just been kind of saying, “Yeah, I’ll meet this req. I’ll do this. They’re all good.”

I started to realize that the default settings were not necessarily beneficial for me and taking on everything was not necessarily – and this is kind of an obvious realization, but for me what happened from there till now was that I started to kind of question the way my days were spent, the way my time was spent.

My co-author and colleague at the time, John Zeratsky, and I were working on this process at work, where we were helping teams. In one week, we did this thing called a design sprint, where we would totally structure the whole week and have the team focusing on one project for the whole week. We were optimizing how they spent their time and we started to just do the same optimizations with our own time.

For me, it went from like I had this long-time dream of writing a book, but I had never even written so much as a kind of a blog post. All of the sudden as I started to make these shifts, the kind using the tactics from the book, I started to create time and space to write, basically by shutting down other things, saying no to other things, redesigning my calendar.

It’s kind of changed my life. Since then I’ve written three books. One of which is not published yet, but just coming out. Then another one, which is just finished. It feels more whole. It feels more like the way I want to spend my time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. You said it feels more whole, could you give us maybe a little bit more of a picture if you could paint in terms of the before and the after, how does it feel? Because I think some folks might need an extra push or oomph of motivation.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, totally.

Pete Mockaitis
They’re thinking, “There’s no way I could do that.”

Jake Knapp
Yeah, I guess actually that’s kind of the – I would have said the same thing if I heard this because I’ve read every productivity and time management book and often felt like they were – there’s a lot of really smart systems out there and philosophies, but for me at least, when I applied those, I usually just ended up feeling guilty. I was like I’m not doing that thing and I’m still just as overwhelmed by everything that’s going on.

The simple before and after I guess would be that before I used to judge my success at – let’s just talk about work, my success at work based on how productive I was, so how well was I kind of getting done all the things that I needed to get done.

I would every day – like working at Google, the amount of email that you receive is just astonishing, like come into work – actually maybe it’s not so astonishing. I don’t know. But at least when I first went there, I couldn’t believe how much stuff happened on email.

I’d come to work in the morning and have hundreds of emails to deal with. I felt like if I processed all of that email by the end of the day and got back to zero, that was like I’m on top of my email. If everybody who puts a calendar request on my calendar – if I can go to those meetings and help everybody with what they have going on, then I’m helping everyone on the team and that’s really good.

If I’m kind of processing through all of the to-do list, all the items on my to-do list and I’m on top of my to-do list, if I’m doing all those things, then I’m being productive. That’s kind of the before.

The after is I still have to deal with emails. I still have to meet with people. Those things don’t go away. You can’t zero those out. But the after is to start with what is most important to me each day before I do anything else, to figure out what is the one thing that at the end of the day when I look back on today, I want to say is the highlight of my day.

Sometimes it might be spending time with my kids. Sometimes it might be – there’s this big, sizeable chunk of this project that I want to do today. But I’m going to start with that thing and I’m basically just going to put me first on the schedule. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to clear that out.

If it means that I’m not checking my email until after that work is done, then I do that. If it means I’m going to have to push some meetings around or say no or cancel something, that’s what’s going to have to get done. But that thing always comes first. It means that the chances of it getting done are – they’re like 95%. They’re not 100%, things happen, things come up.

But that’s really the shift for me has been from trying to be productive and trying to get as much checked off as possible to trying to be really purposeful and to look for a way to do larger things, not just tasks.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. You’re saying now how you determine whether or not you had a success that day is whether you did the key thing that you identified as opposed to whether you did everything?

Jake Knapp
Yeah, absolutely. Kind of I guess we’re pulled in two directions in the modern world. If you have an office job especially, but I think it’s very hard to escape because technology and email and messaging is so much a part of all of our lives.

We talk about this in the book, about being pulled between on the one hand what we call the busy bandwagon, which is like this expectation of instant response, this expectation of speed, this sort of cultural norm that we have in the United States of fill your calendar as close to full as possible. If somebody asks-

Pete Mockaitis
I loved your graphic in the book. It made me chuckle.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, yeah. It’s just like busy. It’s just like every single moment is busy. Sometimes it’s like three things at the same time overlapping. I feel like that is actually quite widespread, this notion of being packed. If somebody asks me at work or in my personal life, “How are you?” this expectation that if I say busy, that’s a good thing. I’m like, “Oh man, it’s crazy, crazy busy,” that people will say, “Oh, yeah, yeah good.” It’s sort of insane.

On one hand you’ve got that pull of okay, just a fire hose of stuff coming at you. You respond to it as fast as you can, go to everything you can, work as much as you can. On the other hand, you get exhausted from that.

Then on the other hand, we’re pulled by what we call the infinity pools, which is all of this entertainment or distraction which is available at our fingertips at all times and is incredibly compelling. There’s always something new on my phone or on my laptop or whatever, the non-stop breaking news, the social feeds, the updates from my friends, all these cool things. There could always be something new.

My personal email is like this. There always could be something new on there. These things are sort of pulling back and forth. Netflix. All these things are just kind of pulling you in the other direction. Once you’re too exhausted from the busy bandwagon, the infinity pools pull you back.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s a great point. It’s like, “I’m so exhausted, but I want to sort of be entertained and rejuvenated, but I don’t want to go hiking because that’s too hard, so maybe something fun will be on the news or Netflix.”

Jake Knapp
Yeah, totally, totally. It’s just – it’s not our fault that we don’t have the time for the things that matter the most to us. We’re stuck in the middle between two really powerful forces.

The fundamental idea that we have is – and this thing that we observed, especially from getting the chance to work with a lot of different teams. We worked with probably 150 different companies. We would have the chance to say what they were doing all day at work for a week and to experiment with it.

It turns out you change a few of those defaults, the default settings, the default work cultural settings, and you start to open up time and attention. Because things are so crazy right now, you actually don’t have to make the largest changes to have a really significant impact.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a nice optimistic view. It’s like it is so screwed up-

Jake Knapp
It’s so bad now.

Pete Mockaitis
If you do just a little bit, you’re going to see huge gains.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. For example, one of the things that we talk about in the book is the importance of building energy and this is just a simple observation. If you want to focus on something every day, if you want to have 60 to 90 minutes of time where you really focusing on something, you’re in the zone, you’re going to need energy, physical energy, mental energy. You’ve got to have a full battery to do that.

We’re all sort of basically the same kind of creature we were 200,000 years ago. We’re in this modern world. Everything is totally different. It’s not – we don’t live in caves anymore. We don’t live in the wild. We’re in homes and we’ve got screens everywhere. Things are really out of whack.

But if you want more energy, a simple change you can do is start dimming the lights and dimming your screens in the evening time and to not look at screens after say 8 PM. You can start actually turning down the lights in the house to make it more like if you’re not living in a house, which is the sun sets. Maybe there’s a fire. This is kind of the environment we grew up in. Sorry, not grew up in, but evolved in, which I guess is the same as growing up.

Pete Mockaitis
As a species. Yeah.

Jake Knapp
Yeah. But otherwise, the default is there’s blue light or bright white light shining on us until we’re so exhausted we’re lying in bed with our head spinning trying to fall asleep. You make that little shift and that makes a huge difference. Those opportunities are everywhere. Those little things where stuff is so out of whack and you make a little shift, it can make a huge difference.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that a lot.

I love the way your book is organized. You just gave us one great tactic when it comes to the energizing. Because you’ve got sort of four steps and then underneath them what you might call clusters. Then underneath those, 80 tactics. It was really kind of fun so you can sort of just jump into whatever catches your attention or go deep into “Oh yeah, I need to know everything about this.”

Could you maybe give us kind of the overview picture of what are the four steps and the maybe your sort of super top favorite tactic that you have in each of them? I know you’ve got 80 to choose from, but if you could start with four and then maybe we’ll go a little more.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, I’ll try. I’ll do my best. Yeah. It all starts off with that idea of setting a highlight. Again, it’s starting off in the morning or perhaps some people they do it the night before. My co-author, John, does it the night before. But it’s looking at the day ahead and saying, “Okay, when this day is over –“ let’s say somebody says, “Oh hey, Jake, what was the highlight of your day today?” I should design that. I should in advance figure that out so that I make it happen. I make it as good as possible.

I find that actually it’s pretty easy for people to get into the zone where they can just make a gut decision about what this highlight is, but at first it’s kind of assessing, “Okay, is there something that’s really important to me?” Maybe it’s not urgent. Maybe there’s nobody begging for it, but it’s this project at work. Perhaps it’s really – I know it’s important and I know it can easily get pushed aside.

Maybe it’s something from work. Or maybe it’s something that’s going to bring me joy, like I want to spend time with somebody I really care about. Or maybe it’s going to be something really satisfying, like making progress on a hobby. Whatever it is, it’s picking that thing that’s going to be probably 60 to 90 minutes long.

It’s not a task. It’s like more than a task. It’s not a whole big giant goal, but it’s in between. It’s figuring what that thing is and writing it down. Today, this is going to be my highlight. Highlight, that’s step one. Step two is-

Pete Mockaitis
If I may-

Jake Knapp
Yeah, excuse me.

Pete Mockaitis
… dig it up for a smidge. I like how you distinguish that. It’s not a task. It’s not a goal. It’s in between. It’s 60 to 90-ish minutes, something that can be done within a chunk of attention or one sitting or standing. I think we’re both on standing desks right now.

Jake Knapp
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So kudos. It makes me feel cool if the productivity guru thinks it’s a smart move. I love my mat too, the Topo.

Jake Knapp
The mat is huge.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh me too. Is it the Topo by Ergo?

Jake Knapp
Yes, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
What are the odds? I did not see your mat earlier. Well, look at us, a couple of dorks.

Jake Knapp

Yeah, yeah, Dork City here, but yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s fun. You can kind of – it seems like I’m playing a little bit with – someone said it’s like a playground for your feet. I think so.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, right. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So highlight was where we were discussing.

Jake Knapp
Highlight.

Pete Mockaitis
But when it comes to highlight, so it’s more than task. It’s less than a goal. It’s 60 to 90 minutes. I want to get your view on – boy, there’s many, many ways that you might land upon what to highlight. What are some of your favorite provocative questions or criteria or guideline to say ah, of the thousands of things that you might choose, here are some indicators that it might really be worth a highlight?

Jake Knapp
I think that one of the best ones – and if you’re starting off trying out this make time framework, this is a really good one because it yields immediate results. It’s usually pretty easy to answer. It’s like what would be the thing that if at the end of the day I didn’t do it, I would be so pissed off at myself? I think this is all-

Pete Mockaitis
Pain avoidance. Yes.

Jake Knapp
I know I experience this a lot. I feel like a lot of people experience it. I hear people talk about this a lot. It’s like “I can’t believe that – like I knew this was the thing that I really needed to work on and yet I was just reacting to other stuff all day long. How did that happen? I’m kicking myself now.”

That’s really – that’s like probably the easiest one – the easiest way to find the highlight is like what will you – is regret avoidance. There’s a lot more positive ways to do it, but yeah, it’s that. It’s sort of like, “What would I – what would be such a bummer if I didn’t actually do it?”

Pete Mockaitis
I love that so much. Often I sort of feel that the pain of that sort of the next day or week, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’m in this crazy rush. I’m so unprepared. I feel real dumb. Why didn’t I handle this yesterday or whenever I should have?” Yeah, sometimes the regret comes at the end of the day like, “Oh bummer of a day,” and other times it comes later when you’re reaping what you’ve sown.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Then the flip side, the flip question is what might create a really nice memory for the day. If I can imagine the memory – I think for people who keep a gratitude journal or have ever done that, I think it’s hard to keep any kind of a journal consistently, at least that’s my experience.

But if you’ve ever done that and you ever think about writing down at the end of the day something that you’re grateful for, it often – it has this nice effect of evoking these little snapshots. It’s like, “That was really lovely when I took a walk in the park,” or, “when I was focused quietly and I was practicing music,” or whatever – well, I guess it wouldn’t be quiet if you were practicing music but, “I was focused and I was practicing music.”

I think those snapshots – like what would be a really lovely snapshot for my day. That’s another kind of provocative question that can help and often helps me.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Okay, so we talked about highlight. What’s laser?

Jake Knapp
Okay, laser is about clearing out distraction, creating some space so you can focus on that thing. I think that this is maybe where the way we think about accomplishing these highlights, accomplishing these things you really care about each day is different from a lot of systems or a lot of the way people talk about this problem with distraction today.

Because we – I feel like it’s very rare nowadays we talk to someone and say, “Oh, how do you feel about your iPhone, your Android, whatever, your smartphone?” Very rarely will people say, “Oh yeah, everything’s great about it.” People have mixed feelings about their phones. They feel like they’re on their phone too much.

I feel like there’s a tremendous amount of guilt about phones. Even Apple and Google are like – they’re releasing software to help you – or at least to measure how much you’re on your phone so you can presumably in the future feel even more guilty about it.

But our sort of take on this is yes, those things, those paths of least resistance will distract you and they will keep you – they’ll get in the way of doing that thing that really matters to you, that highlight, but when you know what the highlight is, like half the battle is won when you actually have this thing that you’re excited about doing, when you know – when you start to identify “This is my priority. I’m putting me first.”

Then like, “If I cannot be distracted for an hour, an hour and a half, there’s a great reward.” That’s part of the thing that I think is different.

The other thing is we’ll say we have a lot of concrete tactics for shutting things off. The whole deal with laser is you’re going to shut off distraction, you’re going to be completely offline. You’re not going to be using anything that isn’t mission critical to your highlight. By shutting that stuff down, this is another place where things are so out of whack, you can create time. This is a place where you can actually make time.

If I’m not constantly bouncing around between email and Slack and a million other things, but I’m just doing one thing, it’s like there’s more hours in the day all of the sudden. If I’m not constantly checking my Facebook feed or responding to things in that way, again, I’m kind of creating time because I’m not sort of Swiss cheese-ing my attention. It actually sort of creates time out of nothing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. Then is there a particular kind of time that you just snag on the calendar, like this is the window and do you aim for a particular window or vary it or what’s the best way to play that game?

Jake Knapp
Yeah, as I mentioned I’ve been – I’ll just tell you personally what I do. I think everybody has to – we talked about this idea of designing your day. Everybody has to design their day with what makes sense for them. We have some different patterns, different things that we do.

Like I said, for the last couple years or last year and a half I’ve been self-employed, but before that I worked for Google for ten years, before that I was working at Microsoft for years and years. I was very used to this idea of being at work all day.

Sometimes in many jobs you don’t really control your time when you’re at work. I had this goal of writing books. I figured out many years ago while working at Google that if I want to make time for that, what I needed to do was really reclaim some time at the end of the day.

After my kids went to bed, after everybody went to bed, I realized there’s this window of time, because I’m kind of a night owl, when I’m actually usually awake, but I’m not getting anything out of that time because I’m just – my battery is drained and I’m just distractible. I’m just watching TV or whatever. I’m just kind of winding down.

Not that there’s anything horribly wrong with that, but I realized there’s a goldmine of time that I can sort of reclaim. For me at that time, it was at the end of the day. That was highlight time. For my co-author, John, he created that time at the beginning of the day. For him, it was first thing. I’m going to do that before I do anything else.

Often at work, the highlight time might be – it’s always easier earlier in the day before there are other commitments that have come up, before emails have come in. I think as soon as you open up your inbox, all of the sudden you’re in reaction mode. It’s very hard to keep that sort of nice clear focus that we often have when we wake up.

The morning time tends to be better usually before other things happen. But a lot of times it’s a matter of what we call bulldozing the calendar and actually pushing some things out of the way to make it whenever you can.

Our sort of hypothesis is that you can do this at some point in your day every day. It might be before anything starts. It might be after everything’s over. But a lot of the times you can clear it in the middle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. We did the highlighting. We did the lasering. You mentioned energizing. Let’s hear a little more about that.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, the energize it’s like, okay, you’ve got the target, which is your highlight. You know where you want to head today. You know what you want to happen. What I do with laser is you’ve – we’ve got a lot of tactics for shutting down distraction so that you can be – your mind can be clear and you can be ready to focus, kind of getting into the zone.

Energize is all about having the physical and mental energy to do the thing, to really bring your best attention to your work. I think there is so much out there in the world about ways to be more physically active, ways to eat better, ways to sleep better.

I think this new, certainly in the last few years, a lot of stuff feels like it’s so intense. It’s like – a lot of like really – like these supplements you should be taking or just like a lot of – it feels really stressful. It’s like really – in sort of the last few years as we were – as John and I were really into this topic and researching it a lot, you read this stuff and I just feel so bad about myself because I’m like, “God, I’m not doing anything.”

Our kind of principle is like look, if you just do a little, you get a huge amount of reward. Just do a little, that’s fine. If your goal for getting more physical activity is that you want to improve your cardiovascular health, or you want to live a few years longer, all those are wonderful things, but they’re very abstract. They’re very far away.

If I want to get more physical activity because I want to look better, like look like somebody in a magazine, realistically I’m not going to get there. I think a lot of those things are really disheartening.

Our whole point is if you will just build the energy so that you get an immediate reward today of you had more focus. The thing that you really cared about, that you were really excited about, you got more out of it because you had more energy, you get an immediate reward for doing it.

In my experience, that transformed the way I looked at exercise, the way I looked at eating, the way I looked at sleep, and even the way I looked at talking with people. Actually talking with people face-to-face instead of over texts or emails or whatever, is actually a way to boost energy. We’re social creatures and we get an energy boost from talking to people.

A lot of those things, if you have this immediate reward and you realize that you don’t have to do something heroic, you don’t have to be training for a marathon or anything, if you just get a little emotion, if you just change a few small things about the way – maybe you have coffee, for example. Most people drink coffee. There’s little tweak you can make to that to boost your energy.

Then when you have this immediate reward loop, it’s a game changer.

Pete Mockaitis
What I’m hearing is the key to really getting this energy thing flowing is not so much doing a long-term program of supplementation that will mold your biochemistry into something else over the course of three months, but rather finding the things that give you more energy that very day?

Jake Knapp
Yeah. I mean I don’t want to say that – there’s a lot of folks who are experts in the body and experts in what you can do with it and the kinds of things we all ought to be doing. I’m just not that person. All I can say is if you really care about your time and you really care about the quality of your day and the quality of your experience in the moment, energy matters.

The kinds of things you need to do to have high-quality energy today, they’re not crazy. You don’t have to start some new boot camp with a trainer. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. You don’t have to do crazy things. Small little things, these kind of tactics we talk about in the book, that can make a big difference.

For example, I take the bus to work for years and years, if you can find a way to get off the bus a couple stops early and walk a little further, it actually creates more energy throughout the day. That’s not – that doesn’t sound like I’m really exercising a lot, but just that little bit of extra walking will give me more energy throughout the day. A small thing like that.

There’s a lot of little tactics and ideas about just tweaking the knobs on things to get a boost.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I resonate with that walking piece because my Fitbit tells me my step count. It’s tricky working from home. Sometimes that step count is tiny. It’s like … crack the four digits. It’s like 920 steps. Oh wow, that’s really a bummer.

Sure enough, I really do notice kind of the difference in terms of feeling zesty, alive, energized and rearing to go if there are days of tiny amounts of movement versus even moderate amounts of movement.

It’s funny because I think I used to have a little bit of this ‘go big or go home’ hardcore, being like, “That’s not a workout if there’s not a weight bench involved,” or “That’s not a big enough dumbbell to mean anything.” It really doesn’t seem to be the way our body’s work.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, right. We evolved for constant motion. That’s part of being a hunter/gatherer, you’re moving around a lot looking for food. We thrive, our brains perform better when we’re moving.

But this idea of ‘go big or go home’ you’re exactly right. That just totally mirrors my experience. We were talking about basketball earlier. I mentioned this in the book. I was really into basketball, really, really into basketball. I’m six foot eight. There’s really no avoiding it. You’ve got to-

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, freakishly tall.

Pete Mockaitis
Could not tell from the video.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, yeah, video takes off a few inches. Yeah, I loved playing basketball. As I started my career I would – I’m playing in these gyms and leagues and things. I loved playing basketball. When I’m playing I can’t – it’s hard for me to stop, so I’ll play to the point of exhaustion and then would come back to work. I might be playing at lunch just wiped, just wiped out.

Every time at basketball, you’re almost inevitably going to get some kind of little injury, whether it’s somebody cuts you with their nails, which is gross, but totally happens, or it’s a twisted ankle or an elbow to the face, whatever it might be. I’m just kind of a bit broken and worn out. I can’t do anything the rest of the day, so I’m actually kind of sapping my energy.

I can’t – I have to recover, so it becomes this irregular workout. Then all of the sudden I might not do it for months because it takes – the threshold to get in there and play basketball is pretty high and then I’m overdoing it. This whole cycle was really busted. But for me I was always like, well, that is exercise. It doesn’t count unless I’m doing – it was like this whole ego thing for me.

At some point I realized after doing that I – I had taken my son for a jog and he’s a baby in the stroller the day before. I get back to work exhausted from basketball. I’m like, “God, I’m worked. I can’t do anything.” Then I realized that the day before I did this jog, which didn’t even count to me, I was just getting my son some fresh air, and I felt way better the whole day at work.

That for me made the connection that I needed to do something small every day. I started to just try – okay, I’m going to change my parameters. The small everyday thing is great. It’s fine. We don’t have to be ultra-marathoners. We don’t have to be – do anything heroic. We don’t have to have eight-pack abs. It’s all right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. I wonder any kind of guidance or threshold when it comes to the amount of motion that’s just right, like not so trivial that it makes minimal difference and not so big that you’re just wiped out from having done it. Any sense for what’s just about right?

Jake Knapp
Yeah, I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen a lot of – looked at a lot of studies, read a lot of books about all kinds of studies about the health effects of exercise.

I think one of – there’s a book that does a really nice summarization of the effect of lots of things on the brain. It’s a book called Brain Rules. This was really – this was also the thing that finally when I saw it happening for myself and I had read this book, I believed it. Those two things together made it happen for me.

He says, you look across all the research, it’s like 20 – 30 minutes gives you kind of the optimal – it’s going to give you a mental boost. It’s going to give you most of the benefit that you’ll get. Even if you work out longer, you’re going to get most of the benefit. In my mind it’s like if I can get 20 to 30 minutes a day, that’s great. I try to work it into the structure of my day.

For example, a typical day for me now is take my younger son to school on the bus and run home. That run happens to be about 25 minutes and it’s just perfect. That’s built into my day now and I’m never going to be running a marathon with that level of everyday exercise, but I have more energy and I feel sharper mentally every day with that amount of exercise.

But the other part of it is to not be down on yourself if you can’t get to 20 for some reason. You’re feeling a little under the weather, there’s just not quite enough time. If I can get five or ten minutes in, if I can just take a walk. Anything helps.

A lot of times not having this super harsh threshold for yourself, will mean that I get out the door and maybe 10 minutes turns into 20 minutes. Maybe once I’ve broken the ice, it actually goes longer. But 20 to 30 is I think a really nice guideline if you can build it in.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Finally, the reflect stuff is in there.

Jake Knapp
Yeah. This idea of reflect comes from I think from being steeped in building technology products for so long. We talked so much about having hypothesis about what might happen when we build a product and then launching it and trying to measure what happens.

This idea of measuring and running experiments is really built into the culture at Google. I think both in the way that we built products and in the way teams worked and the way individuals worked, this idea that we’re going to run an experiment and we’ll measure. It’s basic scientific method stuff.

But the challenge I think with a lot of these systems people talk about, people like me talk about for doing things, a lot of the studies that we hear about, a lot of the science that we hear about is that it’s – it might be credible when I read about a scientific study, but I’m not going to really, really, really believe it until I know it’s true for me.

Knowing what’s true for me and my life is the most powerful thing. Having that experience of what happens in my life when I do this thing.

The idea with reflect is that I’m going to – at the end of every day I’m just going to take note of what I did during the day and see what worked and what didn’t and kind of take note on that and just start to frame this idea of what I choose to focus on, so the highlight part and this idea of distraction as a thing that I can experiment on and this idea of building energy as a thing that I can experiment on.

Once those things are framed as experiments, it also makes me be a lot gentler on myself. I’m not going to be as self-critical. I’m going to realize that if I falter today, if I made a mistake, well, what can I try differently tomorrow that might make it work?

This is not something that you have to do for your whole life. You don’t have to constantly at the end of every day be filling out a form, but we think that if you start off doing this process in the first—maybe week or two—you’re answering a few questions and just taking a moment to reflect back on the day, that you can pretty quickly tailor a system that makes sense for you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good.
Well, one exercise that you did Jake, which I find really intriguing because I’ve done a little bit of this is tracking your energy. First of all, how do you quantify that and how do you record it and how do you input it? I want to hear that side of things. Then I want to know, what are some of the insights that emerged for you? Was it worth doing?

Jake Knapp
Yeah, it was worth doing. It was an extremely dorky activity. I have to – this is before the era of Fitbits. Nowadays you can measure your sleep with an app and tuck your phone under the pillow. There’s a lot of smart watches. There’s so many things you can do. This was – I suppose it was 2008 I want to say, maybe 2009. I just thought I don’t feel like I have a handle on my energy. I don’t feel like I know where it’s going.

What I did was I kind of hacked together this system of things using a Google spreadsheet and a form that I could answer a few questions on the form and it would put the answers into the spreadsheet and a calendar notification that would come up at a time when I knew I would typically be at my desk at work and would prompt me to fill out what I call the Jake pop quiz.

I would answer the questions and then it would go into this spreadsheet. Then over time I could go back and kind of look at that spreadsheet and see what was what.

I didn’t have a – there wasn’t really a way that I could think of to accurately quantify my energy, so I just said okay, I’ll accept that it’s going to be unscientific. I’m just going to score it on a scale of I think one to ten. I’ll make notes of the things that I did.

I started as I did this first it was just kind of what’s my energy level then maybe some open comments I would fill out for myself. Then over time I started to realize – I thought that I had an idea about what some of the things were, the patterns that were giving me energy or taking energy away, so I started to ask some specific questions about exercise and what I ate and how I slept.

I have to say that the conclusions, the sort of findings from this, they were exceedingly impactful for me, but – and I’ll tell you what they were – but I’ll tell you, they’re going to sound obvious and stupid, but they were very powerful.

One of them was if I exercise in the morning, I have a lot of energy throughout the day, I have more energy throughout the day as long as I don’t overdo it, so a small amount of exercise in the morning makes me feel better all day long and more energized. Obvious, right? This is not groundbreaking New York Times front page news, but this was a big deal for me.

Pete Mockaitis
When you know – like you know, know, know it’s true for you having seen it in your own log-

Jake Knapp
Exactly. Yes, exactly, right.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re now absolutely convicted as opposed to “Oh, well studies suggested,” like you said earlier, “Oh studies suggested that this is good.” Okay, yeah, well maybe I’ll give that a shot. It’s a very different level of oomph internally.

Jake Knapp
Yes, totally. My usual experience of reading a study about health is to be like, “Interesting,” and then also feel bad about myself. That’s the mental path – I mean I guess this is neurotic, but I’ll read about it and be like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and then like, “Oh man, I should really do that.” But ‘I should really do that’ it just doesn’t happen. It just makes – I just don’t feel good.

This was like, oh yeah, when I do that thing, when this happens – it was just a much more concrete way to introduce that idea into my head. It was something I knew already, but I started to believe it.

Another thing was don’t eat a really sugary dessert after lunch. That kind of craters my energy. I have a sugar crash. Pretty obvious. I don’t think anybody would be like, “Wow, I can’t imagine that having a sugary dessert after lunch would make you not feel good,” but lo and behold that was really useful for me to hone in on.

It was insights like that, the things that are really obvious. But what I started to I guess dawn on me is that it’s like a little tiny shift, as I shift these things just a little bit and I see every day as an experiment rather than a judgment on my character, it’s a whole new ballgame. It’s a whole new ballgame.

Focusing in on my energy and on the things that I could do with my energy – because when you have energy, I’m happy and I can kind of work on the things I want to work on. I can be more present with the people that I’m with. All these good things flow from that.

Again, it makes this instant positive feedback loop. I’m getting good results right away. I don’t have to wait months and years for this health habit to pay off.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Well, we could talk at length about 80-ish tactics, so maybe I’ll just hit the one you mentioned earlier. What’s the thing you can do with your coffee or caffeine for better energy productivity?

Jake Knapp
The number one thing that you can do is to figure out what your cutoff time is. This is – I know that this is true and I know that it does not sound very thrillingly new and fresh.

But if you talk to doctors – if you know a doctor and you talk to a general health doctor and say like, “What’s the number one thing people come to you for?” A lot of doctors will tell you – I have a friend, a couple friends who are doctors who will say, “Yeah, the number one thing people often struggle with is sleeping.” They have a hard time falling asleep. A lot of people come to the doctor for that.

“Okay, what happens when somebody comes to you because they’re having a hard time sleeping?” “I’ll ask them when’s the last caffeine that you have during the day?” The answer is often either that they don’t actually know when it is or they know when it is, but they say “But it’s not that. It’s not caffeine.”

Pete Mockaitis
“It doesn’t affect me that way. I know.”

Jake Knapp
Yeah, “It’s fine.” The truth is that caffeine affects everyone differently. It does affect everyone differently, so it might not be that, but there’s a good chance it is because caffeine stays in the bloodstream a lot longer than we think. Well, doctors and scientists know how long it stays in it, but I don’t know. I don’t consciously think about how long it stays in the bloodstream.

Like four hours – the way you metabolize it, it varies by person, but typically even like four hours after you’ve had the caffeine or the half-life is really long. Often you might have coffee at four and then be going to bed and you still have a lot of caffeine in the bloodstream.

The caffeine is blocking the thing that makes us groggy, so there’s this little molecule that’s supposed to bind to the receptors to tell us that it’s time to go to sleep and if the caffeine is still there, it’s going to mess with your sleep. Then this creates obviously this compounding effect. You have a hard time sleeping one night. You have lower energy the next night. You need more caffeine. It’s problematic.

That’s a big one. But really I guess the bigger thing is just if you identify caffeine as – because most of us consume caffeine in one form or another if you – which means we’re addicted to it. Most of us are addicted to caffeine.

You don’t have to stop drinking caffeine, but if you’re aware that this has this really powerful effect on your energy, this drug that we’re taking into our system has this really powerful effect on your energy – I’m a coffee drinker myself, but if you know what it’s doing and how it works and then you can design the way you use it so that you have your peak energy when you want it.

You’re not drinking caffeine when you’re not going to be getting a benefit from it or actually harming your energy level. It makes a huge difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there maybe a starter rule of thumb you might try out?

Jake Knapp
Yeah, starter pack, yeah. The starter pack for it is to wait in the morning until like maybe 9:30 to have your first cup of coffee because when we wake up we have cortisol that kind of will naturally – it’s a stress hormone, which is naturally higher in the morning. It’s going to kind of arouse your body up and wake you up. It’s kind of how our body naturally wakes up.

If you have caffeine then while the cortisol is ramping up, it’s kind of wasted. You’re getting this – the lift from the caffeine, you were going to get it anyway from your body.

But what happens is if you have coffee first thing in the morning, your body comes to be accustomed to that and it’s going to produce more of the drowsy-causing molecules so that you’re going to feel drowsy, you’re going to feel groggy or you’re going to have more sort of withdrawal symptoms in the morning and you’re going to need the coffee just to fight the withdrawal symptoms. It’s kind of wasted.

Basically I think of that first coffee in the morning as being really wasted. Unless if you really enjoy – if you get some satisfaction out of it as a ritual, that’s fine, but you should know you’re kind of causing yourself trouble maybe for nothing. 9:30 AM is the range of the first cup of coffee.

Then I think for most people it’s smart to maybe start with 2 to 2:30 PM as the last cup. Then see what happens. Some people can go a little later than that. But I usually think of that as the coffee window.

I think one of the key things is having coffee before you crash, so before you get tired. Once you’re already tired – this is a really big deal.

I have a friend who’s way into coffee. He’s basically read every study. He’s started a couple coffee companies. He’s bought beans in Central America. This guy is just way, way into coffee. He sort of informed me about all this stuff.

He’s like, “The biggest deal is, you’ve got to know that if you’re already tired, it’s kind of too late for the coffee to do its thing.” By the time you’re already tired, all of those receptors have already – the groggy thing has already bound to the receptor thing and the coffee, which the – caffeine, which would normally get in there and kind of block it from binding, it doesn’t have a place to go.

That’s another kind of big key. Caffeinate before you crash, and start a little later than you think, and end a little sooner.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. Well tell me Jake, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jake Knapp
Yeah, I think that the biggest thing kind of in summary to consider—if you were to consider taking a look at my book, I think the biggest idea is a small shift can make a big difference. And our time is really important. It’s all we have. All we have is our time and all we have is our attention. That is what our life is made up of: time and attention.

If a day goes by where we’re constantly distracted, we sort of lose that day.

If you’re willing to try a few experiments, I think that you can get more out of each day. It doesn’t have to be a huge, dramatic life shift. It’s really small things that can change the balance of the way those moments are experienced.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jake Knapp
“There’s more to life than increasing its speed.” It’s a quote from Gandhi.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jake Knapp
There’s this study from Berkeley. I can’t remember the author’s name at the moment. But it’s basically like when you interrupt someone, it takes them on average 23 minutes to get back to the task that they were working on, which is just astounding, 23 minutes. That’s so long. That’s a significant part of the day to take 23 minutes to get back to the thing. I think it’s actually it’s like this wonderful number that seems both astonishing and also extremely true at the same time. I love that one.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Jake Knapp
My favorite book, one that really sort of changed my view on things is this book called Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

But the one that I think I would really recommend is this newer book by the same author, these brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, called The Power of Moments.
Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool?

Jake Knapp
One of my favorite tools is something called the Time Timer. It’s like an alarm – a timer basically with a big face, but it’s got a dial. You can turn the clock dial and you see this big red disk come out that shows you how much time there is. Then once you let go, the red disk starts to disappear. At the end it beeps.

It’s very simple actually, but it is brilliant because it makes time – the passage of time visible in a way that no other thing I’ve seen can accomplish. It’s a physical object. It’s not something on screen. There’s something about a physical object sitting on my desk, how powerful that is, or sitting on a conference table in a meeting room, just incredibly powerful tool for making the passage of time visible. It creates I think a wonderfully positive sense of urgency.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, whoa, I pulled up a picture, so it’s kind of like a pie chart that’s shrinking.

Jake Knapp
Yeah, a pie chart is a great word. Yeah, pie chart, that’s an excellent descriptor. Yeah, so it’s shrinking. It’s just constantly shrinking.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Jake Knapp
I think that probably the one that’s been the most powerful for me is exercising in the morning before I do anything else.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers in particular?

Jake Knapp
I think that the idea of deleting everything, all the apps on your phone, but keeping the smartphone is something that has been surprisingly sticky and powerful idea.

I think that we’re so used to the idea that we should get as much as we can, really get our money’s worth out of new technology that the idea that you would really selectively cut off a lot of the potential functionality of an amazing device like a smartphone and that if you just have half of what it can do or a third of what it can do, it’s not only just as good, it’s actually better to make it distraction free.

I highly recommend experimenting with deleting the thing that you think is the most distracting on your phone and if possible everything that has infinite content. Taking email off of your phone is unbelievably life-changing for me.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jake Knapp
You can check out JakeKnapp.com just if you want to find out more about me. But if you want to skip me and get straight to the book, it’s on MakeTimeBook.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jake Knapp
Yeah. I would say if you can make a – identify what the most important project to you at work is right now and think about what’s something that’s going to take 60 to 90 minutes on that most important project. Not a task because sometimes a task is so small that it’s just not meaningful and it’s easier to push aside, but dig a little bit deeper and find that larger chunk of time that’s going to be 60 to 90 minutes.

Then put it on the calendar and make an agreement with yourself that during that 60 to 90 minutes, you’re going to turn off your Wi-Fi, you’re going to put your phone on airplane mode, you’re going to go totally offline and just do that thing for 60 to 90 minutes and see how it feels. I predict that you’re going to feel more awesome afterwards.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Getting more awesome, that’s what we do here. Thank you Jake. This has been a lot of fun and so is your book, Make Time. I wish you and the book all the luck and success. I hope that you are transforming lots and lots of people’s experience of time and work and life goodness.

Jake Knapp
Thanks so much Pete. Really appreciate you having me on.