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

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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 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.

330: Becoming Indistractable with Nir Eyal

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Nir Eyal shares how habits keep users coming back and how to become indistractable in the midst of such forces.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How habit-forming products win over higher quality products
  2. Four steps to becoming indistractable
  3. How to turn a distraction into traction

 

About Nir

Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The Harvard Business Review, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today. Nir is also an active investor in habit-forming technologies. Some of his past investments include: Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), Eventbrite, Product Hunt, Marco Polo, Presence Learning, 7 Cups, Pana, Kahoot!, Byte Foods, Anchor.fm, and Symphony Commerce. Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Nir Eyal Interview Transcript

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

Nir Eyal
My pleasure. So good to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I really enjoyed learning about you and reading your blog and listening to the podcast, Nir and Far. Could you maybe give us a little back story for sort of your background and how you acquired the nickname of ‘The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology’?

Nir Eyal
Sure thing. Let’s see. I started two tech companies. The last one was at the intersection of gaming and advertising. In those two industries I learned a heck of a lot about how companies change consumer behavior.

I was at the forefront of apps back when apps didn’t mean iPhone apps because the Apple app store didn’t exist. I was very early in the game back when apps meant Facebook apps and people were doing all kinds of stupid stuff like throwing sheep at each other and things like that and Farmville, if you remember that back in the day.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, my buddy Luke was a part of the Farmville team.

Nir Eyal
There you go. I kind of had this front row seat. They were – companies like that were our clients. I had this front row seat to see all of these experiments come and go. I learned a lot about how companies change our behavior. I became fascinated by the psychology of designing for habits. I had this hypothesis that the companies that would be able to make it in the future must figure out how to build habits.

I invested a lot of time into learning about habits and then I kind of came up to a wall when I looked for a … to try and explain to me how to build habit-forming products. I didn’t find it, so I decided to write the book I couldn’t find. That’s why I wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. I wrote the book after interviewing academics and practitioners, a lot of the people who helped build Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and WhatsApp and Slack.

I wrote the book not for them obviously. They already know these techniques. I wrote the book for everybody else. I wrote the book for people out there who are building the kind of products and services that can really help people live better lives if they would only use the product.

That’s why I wrote the book because I know there’s so many people out there like I was that struggled … how to build a habit-forming product that can help people build healthy habits in their lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s a whole lot of good stuff there. We had BJ Fogg on the show not too long ago. It’s just a fascinating topic to dig into, habits and how they get formed and the influences associated with them.

Maybe could you just sort of dig into some of the components here in terms of when it comes to your book Hooked and the Hook model? What are some of the building blocks that we can use in forming habits, both in the stuff we’re making as well as just our lives and how we’re influencing our fellow colleagues at work?

Nir Eyal
Yeah, absolutely. My first book is called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. It was really tailored to people – to business people, to people who are building products and services.

My next book actually that’s coming out early 2019 is called Indistractable. It’s about how to manage these distractions. How to make sure we do what we say we’re going to do? Why is it that we get so distracted when we say we’re going to do one thing and then invariably we end up doing something else?

You sit down at your desk. You’ve got a big deadline looming and instead of working on that project for some reason you’re checking email 30 minutes later for no good reason. My study and research into habits has kind of taken me to both sides of the equation.

But let’s start with Hooked because I think it sounds like most of your listeners are professionals looking to find ways to keep customers engaged. We know that it’s much more cost efficient, much higher ROI to keep an existing customer engaged versus having to spend all of that money to acquire a new customer.

That’s really where my sweet spot is. When customers ask me – I’m sorry, when clients ask me how do I keep people coming back, the answer is you have to build a hook.

That if you look at every habit-forming technology out there, whether that product – the best in the business, the people who keep us checking our phones, companies like Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and WhatsApp, and Slack, and Snapchat, every single one of them has what’s called a hook.

The hook is the basis of my book. It’s this four-step experience that users pass through when they interact with a product. I can walk you through those four steps here in a 30,000 foot view of it at least. There’s a lot more detail in the book, but I’ll give you kind of the overview.

Hook has four basic steps. Every hook starts with a trigger to an action to a reward and finally an investment. I know many of your listeners have heard of BJ Fogg or Charles Duhigg. There’s lots of perspectives there, but … is really designed not for personal habits. This is for product habits. When it comes to a product, you have to have these four basic steps. I’ll walk through them very quickly.

The first thing that you have to do is that you have to define your internal trigger. That’s the first step of the hook. Now an internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state. I know for many of your listeners, they say, “Whoa, whoa, wait. This is supposed to be about product design and building great customer experience. What does it have to do with emotions and icky sticky stuff like that?”

The fact is people buy and do everything they do for one reason only. That one reason is to modulate their mood. If you don’t understand that basic psychological fact, then you’re missing something.

Everything you do – it’s called the homeostatic response. When you feel too cold, you put on a jacket. When you feel hot, you take it off. When you feel hunger pangs, you eat. When you feel stuffed, you stop eating. Those are all physiological sensations that make us do something.

The same exact formula exists when it comes to psychological discomfort. When we’re feeling lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re feeling uncertain, we Google. When we’re feeling bored, we check YouTube or the news or sports scores.

You have got to identify, whether your product is something that needs … a habit or not, your first step is to figure out what’s the psychological itch that you are going to satiate for your customers. That’s the internal trigger. You have to know what that is if you want people to do anything.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. This itch, it could be big or small in terms of “I’m worried that I’ll be alone the rest of my life and I’ll never find someone,” or “I’m kind of bored right now.”

Nir Eyal
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Then that whole spectrum. I’m curious do have any sort of insights or research when it comes to which of the – what are kind of the categories of itches and are some kind of way more potent as human motivators than others?

Nir Eyal
There’s a lot of techniques that we can use to find that internal trigger. The criteria here is if you’re building the kind of product that requires repeat use – and we should probably talk just for a second about why should I even care about habits. Why do habits affect my bottom line?

Some of the biggest reasons that habits are so important is that they are a huge competitive barrier that it’s very hard for the competition to swoop in and take your customer away once your user, once your customer has formed a habit with your product.

If you think about people who don’t need a habit, let’s take insurance. Insurance will never be a habit-forming product. It just doesn’t occur with sufficient frequency to ever form a habit. The problem with a product like that – there’s nothing with a business model that doesn’t require a habit, it’s just that your competition can come in very easily and undercut you based on price or some feature.

For example, Geico comes around and says, “15 minutes saves you 15% on car insurance.” Well what happens when somebody else says, “Oh you know what? 12 minutes saves you … percent on car insurance.” Just the next feature or the next discount and boom, your customers have abandoned you.

If you don’t form this habit, if you don’t pass customers through that hook, you are at the mercy of these other factors.

If you think about that compared to Google, for example. If I polled your listeners right now, I’m guessing probably 90 to 99% have searched with Google in the past 24 hours and maybe a couple percent have searched with Bing, the number two search engine. Is that because Bing is worse? No.

It actually turns out … studies, when people can’t tell the branding, when they strip out the branding, people can’t tell the difference between the search results. But the fact is we don’t stop and ask ourselves, “Hm, I wonder which the best search engine would be?” No, we just Google it with little or no conscious thought, purely out of habit. That’s all it is. It’s just a habit.

That’s what’s so amazing about these habits is that it turns out once you have a habit, it’s not the best product that wins. Do you hear me right? I’m telling you it’s not the best product. It’s the product that can create the monopoly of the mind, the thing that we turn to with little or no conscious thought.

We wouldn’t even know if Bing was any better because we don’t even give them a chance because we have formed a habit with some other solution. That’s why habits are so, so powerful.

Back to the topic at hand here around these internal triggers, around figuring out what those internal triggers are. The key word here is frequency. When we’re trying to figure out what are our customers internal triggers, we want to figure out what sparks this itch, what’s this need to modulate some kind of mood that occurs with sufficient frequency.

It turns out the research tells us that if we don’t get the user to do the key habit within a week’s time or less, it’s almost impossible to change their habit. There are some exceptions, but the behavior really has to occur within a week’s time or less.

We can talk about what happens if your product isn’t used with sufficient frequency, for example, what if you are selling insurance, how can you build a customer habit. We can talk about that, some ways that you can actually bolt on a frequently occurring habit onto a product that’s not bought frequently.

But what I tend to see, specifically with companies out there that are selling something, like a one-time solution or … product, we are so focused on getting people to check out that we totally neglect finding ways to get them to check in. That’s a big mistake.

This is the future of commerce is finding ways to keep people engaged with us as opposed to relying on these one … transactions that cost us a fortune to acquire these companies and then we lose them to the completion next time.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood, thank you. So now, let’s talk about the action.

Nir Eyal
Sure, the action phase is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward, so the simplest thing that I can do to get relief from the psychological itch.

For example, let’s take Facebook, a lot people think that Facebook is a very habit forming-product. If you are using Facebook because you’re feeling lonely or seeking connection, that would be the internal trigger. The app is simply open the app and scroll a feed.

As soon as you’re scrolling that feed, what happens to your boredom, what happens to your seeking connection? … a little bit. You’ve got that satiation … emotional discomfort occurring just through that simple action.

If you can be the kind of company that figures out even what seems to be trivial little actions, too much thinking, too many steps, too much confusion, any little step that you can remove from the process is going to make the likelihood of the behavior more likely.

I call it the intoxicated test, that you want to build the kind of product and service that is so easy to use that your customer or your user could use it even if they were drunk. That’s how simple your product needs to be, particularly when it comes to digital products.

We want to make sure that’s as easy as possible to get relief from that psychological itch.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. Thank you. Then next up, reward.

Nir Eyal
The next step of the hook is the variable reward. The variable reward phase comes from the work of BF Skinner who was the father of operant conditioning back in the 1940’s and 50’s. He did these very famous experiments, where he … pigeons, put them in a little box … a disk …. Every time the pigeon pecked at the disk he would give them a little reward, a little food pellet.

What Skinner observed was that he could train the pigeons to peck at the disk as long as they were hungry, as long as they had the internal trigger, they would peck at the desk whenever they had this internal …. Great, called operant conditioning.

But then Skinner started to run out of these food pellets. He literally didn’t have enough of them. He couldn’t afford to … a food pellet every time; he started to give them just once in a while. Sometimes the pigeon would peck at the disk and they wouldn’t receive a reward. The next time they would … at the disk, they would get a reward.

What Skinner observed was that the rate of response, the number of times these pigeons pecked at the disk increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement. We see the exact same psychology at work on all sorts of …, wherever there is mystery, wherever there is uncertainty, wherever there’s a bit of the unknown, we find this to be incredibly engaging and incredibly habit forming.

Best examples online if you think about scrolling the feed on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, everything has a feed these days, that’s a form of variable reward. If you think about looking at a deck for some kind of enterprise software and seeking your sales numbers go up or go down, that’s a variable reward that keeps you coming back.

If you think about in the media a story is interesting when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Everybody wants today’s news, not yesterday’s news. What makes for a good book, a good movie, any of these experiences have to have this variability, this bit of uncertainty. We have to build that into the product. It has to scratch the users’ itch. It has to give them what they came for.

This isn’t just cheesy gamification. This is actually addressing customer’s needs, but leaving this bit of uncertainty, a bit of mystery around what they might find the … time they engage with their product or service.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you, so you’re actually better off instead of delivering just tremendous delight every time, kind of at least checking the box to scratch the itch but sometimes just doing it in spades, like with Facebook newsfeed, “Oh my gosh, that person is engaged now. Wow!” whereas, “Okay Trump did something else,” in terms of how satisfying I find that reading of the newsfeed that day.

Nir Eyal
Right. We want to make sure that it’s actually rewarding, it actually gives people what they want.

What we’re finding now with Facebook for example, is that when the algorithm got out of whack, when people started saying, “Oh, this is a bunch of crap I’m not interested in,” they stopped using it because it wasn’t addressing the users’ itch. But they moved somewhere else. They didn’t just stop. They just changed their habits. Some people did, not everybody. But they’re changing their habits.

Now we’re seeing the tremendous rise of Instagram. Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars. There was a Wall Street bank that just tried to assess what the value of Instagram would be today if it wasn’t part of Facebook, it would be worth over 100 billion dollars. Even though everybody laughed at Zuckerberg when he bought Instagram, this stupid little app.

Zuckerberg really gets habit. He knows that if he doesn’t own his customer habit, somebody else is going to capture that habit. It’s very important that he keeps it. People are starting to migrate over to Instagram because it’s giving them more of what they want.

The internal trigger for using Facebook used to be connecting with friends, loneliness. Then Instagram turns out to be a better solution to solve that problem, but it uses the same exact hook.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Nir Eyal
Which brings us by the way to the fourth step. It’s probably the most overlooked. What’s very different I think from my model from other models is this investment phase. The investment phase is something that the user does … some kind of future reward, some kind of future benefit. It’s not about immediate gratification. It’s an act that the user does for a future benefit.

For example, every time a user gives a company data or content or follows people or accrues a reputation, all of these things make the product better with use. Now why is this so revolutionary?

You think about the history of manufacturing, it used to be that customizing a product was very difficult and very expensive. Henry Ford is quoted as saying that you can get the Model T in any color as long as it’s black. The reason he said that is because it’s hard to customize stuff, especially physical stuff.

But if you think about it, what’s so amazing about these products, specifically things that are connected via the internet, and today everything is connected in some form, is that we can actually improve the product with use.

Everything in the physical world, everything we have made out of atoms, your clothing, your furniture, everything that you use, loses value, it depreciates with wear and tear. But these habit forming technologies, if you think about it, what’s so amazing about them is that they appreciate with use. They get better and better the more we interact with them.

They do that because of this investment phase. If you are not improving the product every time the user interacts with it, you are missing a huge opportunity.

Now, the way this all fits together into this infinite loop is that every time I invest in the product, what I’m doing is also loading the next trigger.

We’ll stick with Facebook just because we’ve been talking about this example. Every time I like something, comment, post, friend, I’m loading the next trigger. I’m giving the company the opportunity to have a reason to send me an external trigger once again prompting me through the hook once again, so a notification, a ping, a ding, a ring, something that tells me, “Hey, come back. Something that you did has some kind of follow up action to it. You should come back and see.”

You post a photo. There’s an external trigger that sends you a notification that says “Come check out what your friend said about your photo.” The action is to open. The variable reward is the uncertainty of what they said. The investment now is you write back, you like, you comment, continuing the hook again, and again, and again until we’re all habituated.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. That’s sort of how it all works together. I’d like to look at the opposing side of this. How does one become indistractable in the midst of these brilliant people with huge budgets creating this super hooking stuff?

Nir Eyal
Yeah. Sometimes when people hear this it sounds icky. It sounds unethical. It sounds manipulative. It can be used for manipulation. Anytime that we are using these techniques to get people to do things that we want them to do for our commercial interest, sorry, that’s a form of manipulation.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Manipulation has a negative connotation, but it doesn’t necessarily have to because there’s two types of manipulation. There’s persuasion and there’s coercion. Persuasion is helping people do things they want to do. Coercion is getting them to do things they don’t want to do. Not only is coercion unethical, it’s bad for business.

If we get people to do something they don’t want to do, they complain about it. They regret it. They tell their friends. It’s a terrible business plan. We don’t want to use these techniques for coercion. …. People exercise more, to save money, to get more sales, to use software that helps them use better lives, to use our service that would help them if they would the product.

That’s the disclaimer here as a product maker is to use these techniques to help people do things that they want to do but for lack of good product design, don’t do.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued a little. I think some folks would say, “I wish I could be on Facebook less and yet I find myself going there again and again.”

Nir Eyal
Perfect. That’s a perfect lead in to my next book called Indistractable, which will be available on Audible starting in Spring of 2019. When it comes to answering this question of how do I use Facebook less, the answer is not to wait for Facebook to make a product that you don’t want to use. Okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Nir Eyal
So many people today, the tide’s turned against technology. I’m not saying that these guys are not innocent. There’s lots of things these companies do that I don’t like. If you think about monopoly status, if you think about their use of data, lots of things I’m not happy with these tech companies.

However, this one particular question around how do I use the product less, why are they making products that I want to use all the time, don’t hold your breath. If you hold your breath and you wait for them to make a product that is less good, you’re going to suffocate. That doesn’t make any sense, right? They’re not going to make a product that is worse, that you don’t want to use as much.

In fact, if you think social media is habit forming, just wait until we all start using virtual reality and all the other stuff that’s going to come down the pipe in the next few years. This is going to look like nothing.  We’ve got to build the skill of becoming indistractable. We haven’t been taught how to cope with all of this distraction, all of these things – the cost of living in a world with so many good things.

Right now we are talking thousands of miles apart from each other on a free service that technology has made possible. If you would have told me as a kid that this would be possible, I would say “Nah, that’s science fiction. No way are we going to have all this stuff,” video calling and classes for free, and the word’s information at your fingertips. It’s amazing.

But the cost is that we have to learn these skills to cope with managing our attention. How do we become indistractable? Well, it’s a great question. It intrigued me for five years. Since I published Hooked this is all I’ve been thinking about. I tried all kinds of techniques. What I ended up with was another four-part model. I have a thing for four-part models.

The first thing to realize is that distraction starts from within, that time management is pain management. We talked about earlier when it comes to building habit-forming products about how important it is to attach your product or service to an internal trigger.

On the flip side, as a user, this means if you are doing something that you don’t want to do – if that’s the definition of distraction is something I didn’t intend to do and I did anyway – you have got to understand that distraction starts from within.

The icky sticky uncomfortable truth that a lot of us don’t want to face because it’s so much easier to blame Facebook or the sugar industry and the baker who makes the cookies and Coca Cola for making sweet beverages and all of our problems we can blame on somebody else, the icky sticky truth is that we don’t like to face is that these internal triggers start from within.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like I’m bored, and that’s why I went to Facebook.

Nir Eyal
That’s right. If you can’t stand hanging around your kids because they’re driving you crazy and so you’re checking Facebook to escape from them, that ain’t Facebook’s fault. If you sit down at your desk and you check email/Slack because you can’t stand to work on that really hard boring project right now, that’s not Slack’s fault. We have got to figure out what’s going on inside us and fix the problem or learn to cope.

Now some of this problem comes from the workplace. I was giving a talk and I asked this question to kind of prove this point. I said, “Look, here’s how we know it’s not the technology’s fault because if you won the lottery tomorrow, you have 40 million dollars in your bank account. You never have to work for money another day in your life. Do you still check your work email account? Do you still check those Slack panels at 11 o’clock at night?”

This one woman stood up in the front row one time and she said, “Yeah, I’m going to use my email one more time to send everybody a message that says ‘Screw you suckers!’” I think that’s about right. It’s not the technology. It’s if anything our addiction to work.

So many of these internal triggers come from the workplace. And in large part, and I talk about this a lot in the book, they come from sick work cultures, cultures that cultivate and create these negative emotional states that we seek to escape with our devices.

The first step, we can go a lot into the culture and how we change the culture of a company, but the first step, big picture, is to find those internal triggers, learn to cope with them, and to help our organizations become healthier environments that don’t create so many of these internal triggers that we seek to escape. That’s the first step.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, let’s get the overview, then maybe I’ll dig in.

Nir Eyal
Okay, I’ll do the overview real quick. The first step is to manage our internal triggers. The next step is to make time for traction.

The idea here is that so many people complain about distraction, but when I ask them what did the news or Facebook or your boss or your kids distract you from? What were you so distracted from today? They take out their calendars and I look at the calendars of most people and they’re blank. There’s nothing on their calendar.

The fact is you cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from, which means we need to get into the practice of scheduling out every minute of our day. It’s okay to schedule time to do nothing. I want you to schedule time to do nothing. I want you to schedule time to think.

But if you don’t schedule your day, somebody else will, your kids, your boss, your significant other, Facebook, Donald Trump, somebody’s going to eat up that time unless you decide what you’re going to do with it. That’s making more traction.

The third step is to eliminate, to hack back those external triggers. We know that two thirds of people who own a smart phone never adjust their notification settings.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh my gosh, wow.

Nir Eyal
Right? Crazy. How can we start to complain that technology is addictive and it’s hijacking our brains and it’s irresistible if we haven’t taken ten minutes to turn off these goddamn external triggers … don’t serve us?

To be clear, they’re not all bad. If an external trigger helps you wake up in the morning or reminds you to go exercise, that’s great. It’s leaning towards traction. But if it’s not, if it’s making you do something you … want to do, it’s leading towards distraction. We have to turn it off.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. I am just – that is a shocking statistic to me because whenever I get a new app, I get a notification from that app. I’m like, “No, no, no OfferUp.”

Nir Eyal
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I wanted you to notify me if someone wanted to buy the thing I put up. I did not want you to notify me if one of my random friends is now using OfferUp. I don’t care. This needs to go.”

Nir Eyal
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m pretty merciless on that. I’m stunned to hear that two-thirds are like, “Okay, whatever. Sure you can interrupt me in any way at any time about anything.”

Nir Eyal
Yeah. Crazy, right? I don’t think we have a right to complain about technology being too addictive until we start to take these simple steps. That’s why I’m not worried. I love teaching people how to hook others to form healthy habits. I also think it’s on us to make sure that we don’t get unhealthily hooked. That it’s our job as consumers to take these very simple steps to put technology in its place.

Frankly, I should say actually, I misspoke there, all distraction. Because look, if you haven’t dealt with those internal triggers, it’s not going to be just Facebook, it’s going to be the television set. If it’s not that, it’s going to be radio or it’s going to be magazines or it’s going to be trashy novels. It’s always going to be something unless if we figure out how to deal with distraction at large.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got it.

Nir Eyal
Oh, and there’s one more step I forgot to tell you about. The last step, you know how we talked about traction is actions you take that you want to do, distraction is the opposite. The opposite of traction is distraction. Distractions are all the things that we do that we don’t want to do.

The last of the four steps that we can take is to help us make traction – sorry, distraction less likely. We do that through pacts, all kinds of ways.

This comes from Ulysses in the Odyssey. Ulysses is sailing his ship past the island of the sirens. They sing this magical song that any man who hears wants to crash his ship onto the island of the sirens and dies there, so Ulysses comes up with this idea.

He says, “I want you to tie me to the mast of the ship and no matter what I do and what I say, don’t let me go,” because he knows he doesn’t want to get distracted. He doesn’t want to do something that he knows he doesn’t want to do. It works and he sails his ship right past this … and he didn’t become distracted.

We can use the exact same techniques ourselves. It turns out that there are literally thousands of free apps and Chrome extensions and tools that we can use to build these pacts in our life.

For example, whenever I want to do focused work, I use this little app. It’s free. It’s called Forest. I type in how much time I want to do focused work for and in that period of time if I pick up my phone and do anything with it, there’s this little virtual tree … die.

Pete Mockaitis
It dies.

Nir Eyal
Okay, stupid little virtual tree. Who cares about this virtual tree, right? But it’s enough of a reminder, “Oh, you took a pact with yourself not to look at your phone.”

Another thing I like to do is I find a focus friend. Many times when I do writing and writing is really hard work, it doesn’t come naturally for me, I’m very frequently tempted to get distracted, Google something or check email. I write with a buddy. I have somebody, a focus friend, who I get together with and we write together. You can do this in the office too. Find a colleague.

Then the final thing I’ll mention, and by the way, in the book I mention literally dozens of different things you can do. Another thing I do, I use this website that I liked so much I actually became an investor in it. It’s called FocusMate.com. FocusMate.com, all it does is you pick a time when you want to do focused work and then you’re connected with somebody else, somewhere in the world for that period of time.

In that time you log in, you see them on your – it’s a video feed. They see you. You say, “Hello. How are you doing? Go.” Then you start working. It’s amazing how just seeing that person holds us accountable. It’s a pact that we make with that other person to only do focused work during that period of time.

In short, these four techniques of managing internal triggers, making traction more likely, hacking external triggers and then finally, making distraction less likely, if you do these four things, you will manage distraction. You will become indisractable.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful and so cool. I’ve heard of a number of these tools, but Focusmate, wow, that’s another one. How does the person know if you’re looking at your email?

Nir Eyal
They don’t. By the way this is one of dozens and dozens and dozens of different things we can do. The idea isn’t oh, this is the solution for everyone. The idea is to use these techniques, to try them on for size. Some work for a while, then you have to find a different solution. Some work for some people and don’t work for others. The idea is it’s a process.

Becoming indistractable is like personal growth, you’re never done. There will always be potential distractions, but by identifying where your problem is, “Oh, it’s the internal triggers,” or “Oh man, it’s these external triggers,” or “I haven’t made time for traction,” or “I need to make distraction more difficult”—By understanding where the problem is we can do something about it.

… I think every other book I’ve ever read on this topic is like this ten things you can do. It’s not organized. It’s not clear in people’s brains where these different techniques fall into place. Then of course it becomes very difficult to utilize them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now I want to go deep into the root of things at the start when it comes to just acknowledging your internal itches there. I think that one fundamental one is I’m just actually not okay with being bored for more than one minute.

Nir Eyal
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that’s pretty common because it’s sort of like – I’m thinking about the train right now in Chicago, the L. Often 100% of people in a train car will be on their phones I’m looking at. Maybe they’re doing fantastically wonderful things, that it’s rewarding and fulfilling and satisfying for them, but my hunch is it’s not. That some of them are just killing the time and they could be putting their mental energies into something that serves them better.

How do you grapple with that one? I’m not comfortable being bored anymore because I’m used to being constantly entertained.

Nir Eyal
Yeah, well the first step is to ask if it’s really a problem. If you take the train every day and during that time – there’s this myth that people can’t multitask. I know you’ve heard that a lot, right? That we can’t multitask, we can’t multitask. That’s not really true. We can multitask.

… what we can do is utilize different channels. We can’t utilize the same channels. I can’t ask you to solve two math problems at the same time. I can’t ask you to watch two television shows at the same time. I can’t ask you to watch – to listen to a podcast in each ear. But we can certainly multitask different channels.

Actually, this utilizes a technique we call temptation bundling, where we can take something we enjoy, something we like as a reward and use it to help us build a habit, to incentivize a behavior that we may not really enjoy.

For example, … I never liked working out. I just didn’t like going to the gym. What I used was this technique that has been well researched now. I actually listened to my podcast as my reward for going to the gym. That’s the only time I listen to podcasts.

I’m using different channels. I’m exercising with the physical channel and I’m listening with auditory channel. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.

If part of your commute to work involves enriching yourself with listening to an audiobook or a great podcast, that’s fantastic as long as it is intentional. If you’ve planned ahead – for example, for me, every night from 7:30 to 9:30, that’s my social media time. That’s time I literally have on my schedule for checking Facebook, and Reddit, and YouTube, and all the stuff that I want to check online, but it’s only for that time.

I’ve taken what otherwise would be a distraction at any other time of the day and I’ve turned it into traction because it’s done with intent. I’ve planned ahead and it’s on my calendar that that’s when I’ll do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. If folks do find they’re in a place where it’s like “I’m going on Facebook,” “I’m going on YouTube instead of paying attention to my child or talking with my friend who’s in front of me at a restaurant or something.” Once you notice “Hey, I got this itch that I seem to have this need to scratch compulsively and I wish I didn’t.” What do you do?

Nir Eyal
What do you do? Let me give you a few techniques, okay? The first thing that we try and do is to actually fix the problem. If the problem is something that we can solve, if it’s a deeper issue, if it’s caused by a difficult life situation, a toxic work culture, these are things that we need to actually fix in our lives or they’re going to just keep coming up again and again and again.

It’s finding the things that we can fix and then learning to cope with the things that we cannot fix. I’m not naïve enough to say that everyone can just leave their job or fix everything in life. There are pains in life. Life involves some degree of suffering.

The problem is that we expect our technology or a pill or a bottle to make everything pain free, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we become dependent when we haven’t learned how to cope with pain. Time management is pain management. We have to learn that. Here are a few quick techniques that we can use. Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

One technique that we can use that psychologists tell us is incredibly effective is to name the internal trigger.

If we can name the source of the discomfort and look at it as an outsider would, meaning you’re working on a big project, it starts to get kind of boring and you start reaching for your phone, you literally start saying to yourself, “Oh, there my hand goes reaching for my phone because I’m feeling what? This project is difficult. It’s hard.” We start literally talking to ourselves like a third party will talk to us, like a good friend might talk to us.

Then what we want to do is to use a technique called surfing the urge, kind of like a surfer on a surfboard, where we allow some time for this negative – this uncomfortable sensation to wash over us.

I use a technique called the ten minute rule, where I will just give myself ten minutes when I catch myself about to get distracted or even in the middle of the distraction I say, “Okay, what am I feeling right now? I am going to give into this temptation. I am going to do this distraction, but in ten minutes.” I literally set a timer. I tell myself “It’s fine. I can give into that distraction. No problem. In ten minutes.”

Then all I have to do is in that ten minutes just do this exercise, just surf the urge, get curious about that sensation, be with that discomfort. Don’t do what I used to do which is tell myself, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me. I must be a loser.” I beat myself up. I was so mean to myself. Instead, it’s normal. It’s something that happens to every person. It’s happened for every human being that ever lived.

This is how we get stronger is that when our body tells us oh, this is something difficult that you’re trying to grow into … totally normal response to have these negative emotional states. To just stick with it for ten minutes and almost always what you’ll find is that sensation subsides. That’s how we develop our ability to manage pain, which is how we manage our ability to manage time.

This is why every other technique out there hasn’t worked for people because we have all these productivity tips, but fundamentally even if you use these productivity tips, if you sit down at your desk, and we’ve all felt this – you have a to-do, you know what to do exactly, but then it’s hard and I don’t want to right now and it feels bad. If we don’t cope with that, if we don’t learn these techniques to overcome that discomfort, we’re never going to be our best.

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

Nir Eyal
No, that’s – we covered a lot. You asked some fantastic questions. If anybody wants more information, my website is NirAndFar.com. That’s N-I-R, spelled like my first name, Nir and Far. Not near like the real word, but like my name, NirAndFar.com. Yeah, I hope you come to the website. I’ve got some resources there. Again, the book will be out early 2019.

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

Nir Eyal
Yeah, so one of my favorite quotes, it’s actually a part of the mantras that I repeat to myself every day. It’s a quote from William James, the father of modern psychology. He said “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” I think that’s a really important life lesson that the art of being wise the art of knowing what to overlook.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. How about a favorite book?

Nir Eyal
There’s a lot. This is always such a tough question for me because so many of my friends are authors. I always get in trouble.

I’ll say one of my latest favorite books is a book actually about addiction, which I think is the best book I’ve read about what addiction really is. I think most people don’t understand what addiction really is about. They call everything addiction. But there’s a book by Stanton Peele called Recover. Recover and Peele is spelled P-E-E-L-E, Stanton Peele. I really, really enjoyed that book. I thought it was fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Nir Eyal
A favorite tool. I mentioned a few of them. One of the tools I don’t think I mentioned, maybe I did, it’s called Time Guard. Did I mention Time Guard?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think so.

Nir Eyal
Okay, so Time Guard is a terrific tool. It’s not my favorite app. It’s free. Here’s how Time Guard works. Remember we talked about pacts and how you can see these pacts with yourself, kind of like Ulysses did? The way Time Guard works is it will block out certain apps and websites on your phone when you don’t want access to them.

Remember how I told you how I allowed myself social media time between 7:30 and 9:30 and I turned a distraction into traction? Well, Time Guard, if I slip up and I accidently open up Instagram, Time Guard doesn’t let me use it. It turns off the connection to that specific app or YouTube or whatever you want it to whenever I try and use it during the off hours.

It was really great at breaking that bad habit. Now it doesn’t happen as often because I’ve learned that it doesn’t work during those times, but Time Guard is a great tool for breaking that habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Of all these habits you’ve formed and broken, what’s one of your favorite habits?

Nir Eyal
Wow, there’s so many habits. It’s hard to decide. I think one of the habits that’s really served me well – and a lot of people don’t know that there’s a slight nuance between a routine and a habit, so it might be worth clarifying.

A habit is behavior done with little or no conscious thought. A routine is just a behavior frequently repeated. When people say reading is a habit or running is a habit or working out is a habit, it’s not really a habit unless you do it with little or no conscious thought. I can’t call any of those things, even though they’re helpful things, habits. I would call them routines.

But I think one of the healthiest habits I have is changing my food habits. We know that health and fitness is not made in the gym, it’s really made in the kitchen. Over years and years of changing my diet, I’ve started to create this habit of preferring healthier food. I think that’s really – I hope … we’ll see how long I live. I hope I don’t jinx it by saying this. But hopefully it will become a habit that serves me well in years to come.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Is there a particular nugget you share that seems to be frequently cited and quoted back to you?

Nir Eyal
I think – I don’t know if I can make this a nugget size, but I’ll try my best. The message I really want to leave folks with is that we can do this, that when people think about distraction that the current narrative is that it’s someone else’s fault. It’s the big tech companies that are hijacking our brains. That’s just not true.

In fact, believing it is dangerous because what this does – we know that – there’s been several studies now that show that the number one determinant of whether someone can reach their long-term goals is their belief in their own power to do that goal. This is incredibly important.

If you believe that your brain is being hijacked, if you believe that you’re powerless, you make it so. That’s the message I really want to leave folks with is that we have the power to manage distractions. We have the power to become indistractable.

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

Nir Eyal
Sure. This has to do I think with the workplace because so many of our internal triggers come from toxic work cultures. My challenge – and I know this isn’t easy and it’s not something that everybody can do and that’s why it fell into this challenge category.

I want you to observe your workplace culture around responsiveness to technology. I want you to see if you might be able to at least spark a conversation around why your company is as responsive as it is. If you have a great tech culture, that’s terrific.

The reason I think this is such an important challenge is what we find is when companies start looking at this problem of tech overuse, what we find time after time is that tech overuse in the workplace is a symptom of a larger dysfunction, that if your company can’t talk about this problem of tech overuse, there’s all kinds of other skeletons in the closet you can’t talk about.

What companies are finding is is that when they open the dialogue, when they create a work environment with psychological safety where people feel safe talking about this problem, which by the way, nobody likes. Even hard charging bosses don’t like checking their email at 11 o’clock at night. Nobody likes this problem.

The idea, the challenge here is see if you can spark a conversation with a colleague about the responsiveness through technology in your work environment and if there’s some things you can start doing to potentially change that culture. I’ve got some resources on my website as well that can help you with that and reach out if there’s any questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Nir, thank you so much for this. This was a real treat. I wish you tons of luck with the upcoming book and all you’re up to.

Nir Eyal
Thank you so much. This was really fun.

239: Building Yours Systems for Success with Sam Carpenter

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Sam Carpenter explores how you can effectively work with the collection of systems that make up your work and life.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The benefit of seeing your complex life as a simpler collection of systems
  2. How to analyze and fix the kinks in your system
  3. Top systems that are most often dysfunctional

About Sam 

Sam has a background in engineering, journalism, publishing, forestry, construction management, and telecommunications. An author and entrepreneur, he is president and CEO of Centratel, the premier telephone answering service in the United States. Other businesses he founded and operates are Work the System Consultants and PathwayOne, an online marketing firm based in Italy.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Sam Carpenter Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Sam, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Sam Carpenter
Thank you, Pete.  Glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it was really fun chatting with you, that in between the time you said, “Yes, I’ll do this interview”, and this interview happening, you announced a run for governor.  How’s all that going?

Sam Carpenter
Right, in the state of Oregon.  Very well.  We’re ahead in the polls, I’ve got 50,000 followers on Facebook, and I only announced three weeks ago.  So, it’s fun.  And I ran for US Senate two years ago, and that was not fun. [laugh] It’s good to be in the lead and it’s good to have a lot of people behind you, so it’s been very fun actually so far.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.  I’m glad you’re not just sort of losing your sanity along the way.

Sam Carpenter
I didn’t say that.

Pete Mockaitis
Fun and insane – I guess not mutually exclusive.

Sam Carpenter
I may be insane, but I’m not losing my insanity in any sense, no.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we chat with folks with all sorts of ideas along the political spectrum, but the idea I’m most interested in learning from you is as an area of your deep expertise, when it comes to systems – you’ve got the books Work the System and The Systems Mindset.  So, could you share with us what are the big ideas behind these books and why they’re helpful?

Sam Carpenter
Well, the two books – they are interesting – one was written in 2008 and the other one was published in 2016, and they both have the same thread.  And the central thread is this: It’s that our lives – and I’ll get a little sort of metaphysical here, but not really – our lives are collections of systems and processes.  And in our houses – and you and I were just talking about our houses for instance – I can turn around here from my computer and I could go to the sink and turn the water on and the water will come out, because the system of delivering that water is a good system and the water pressure is right and the little town here in our second home here in rural Kentucky, the water system works well.  And I could go flip the light switch on over there – that’s a separate system.

Those systems have nothing to do with each other, anymore than your heart has anything to do with your kidney.  I know they’re connected and I know they work together, but really, they’re separate.  And it’s the same for your radio in your car and your brakes in your car.  And every tree that’s outside my window right now is separate from the trees next to it.  Your life is a collection of separate systems, and if that’s the truth, the hand of God reaching down is not going to get you where you want to go, some new law isn’t going to do it.  What’s going to do it is seeing your life as a collection of systems.  And moment to moment, since 1999, when I walk through a room I see a collection of systems, or when I’m driving in the car – every car is a separate system, every driver and every car is a separate system.

And then you can fix things.  If your life isn’t going very well, then take it apart and find the most dysfunctional systems and work on those first.  But another loan from the bank isn’t going to help, and another wife is probably not going to help.  So you take things apart.  And so, Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less, which was published in 2008 and is in its third edition and we’re just doing another printing now – I think it’s our 12th printing – it talks about business and gives you documentation and processes, and how to document your processes, how to define them, how to pick them out, how to correct them and how to make sure they stay good.  And then The Systems Mindset: Managing the Machinery of Your Life – it’s the same thing, but it’s designed for people who don’t own businesses.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.  Thank you.  And maybe could you help define a little bit for us – when you say a “system”, do you have a precise definition on the components, or what makes a system a system?

Sam Carpenter
It’s an entity that stands on its own with a purpose.  For instance, a car is a separate primary system, okay?  And its purpose is to get whoever’s in it from point A to point B.  And a house is a system – an enclosed system – which is a collection of subsystems designed to house you.  In a business a separate system would be your phone system.  Another system would be how you answer the phone at the front desk.

At Centratel – and I’m sure we’ll talk about Centratel – how you answer that phone at the front desk is very well defined.  There happen to be seven steps: You pick up the phone, you put a smile on your face because if you put a smile on your face, there is a smile in your voice, and you answer in a very certain way.  And anybody who answers the phone, answers it exactly that way.  And the way we got that system to be perfect was we took all the people together who answered the phones, including me – the owner of the company – and defined what a perfect answering system would be.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I’m intrigued.  If we could maybe make this come to life all the more.  So, could you walk us through what is a perfect phone answering system, that could come in handy for anybody who picks up their phone.

Sam Carpenter
Well, I gave you the first two steps, and then you define how you want to… I can’t remember how they’re doing it at Centratel now; it seems to me it’s changed a little bit, but it’s something like this: “Centratel, this is Mary.  May I help you?”  Very generic, but if John’s answering, it’s the same thing, except he uses his name.  And then the next couple of points in that process: Try to help the caller get to the destination they want to get to, whoever it is – our CEO, our tech guy, whatever it is.  And then another system will take over once it’s delivered.

Everything is documented too; everything is exactly documented – how our operators answer the phone, how we handle a complaint, how we do a sales pitch, our marketing.  There are many, many, many processes.  Now people don’t walk around reading those processes; they are documented.  But the fact that they’re documented and on our hard drive means that they’re paid attention to.

And here’s the other thing, Pete, which is pretty cool.  If your life is a collection of systems, and therefore your business is a collection of systems, wouldn’t it make sense to work on those systems 24/7 and have other people do the actual work?  So, my management staff of seven at Centratel – we have about 40 people there, we do 400,000 a month at the call center, the little answering service.  All of those managers do nothing but work on systems, and if I catch them doing the work, I give them a lot of grief.

For instance, I found my CEO Andi was answering the phone because we had a real rush.  We take messages and deliver them – that’s what our answering service does.  So she has a console on her desk, and it got really busy in there and she jumped on to help the 15 or 20 TSRs that were out there to handle the traffic.  And I said to her, “Don’t ever do that again.”  We were laughing, don’t get me wrong.  And she says, “I know, I know.”  I said, “It’s so heroic, and I guess there’s some value in showing everybody out there that you care, but don’t do it anymore.  I pay you way too much money to do this other stuff, and the TSRs understand that.”  Our telephone service representatives – regular people that answer the phones.  “They understand that you have things you have to do in here.”  For instance, we’re putting $100,000 new heating system in our building – that’s got to be her top priority and she can’t get distracted.

But my point is this: It’s that everybody who’s in management works on processes and systems.  And so she’s working on this process and working on this system.  And we have three words that we use, Pete: automate, delegate, delete.  That’s what a manager should be doing all the time.  Automating it so you don’t have to do it over and over.  Anything you do over and over again, you shouldn’t be doing probably.  A real chief, a real manager, is always on a new project doing creative things.  Automate, delegate to somebody else – an assistant, for instance, or off site.

Automate, delegate, delete.  So many things we do we shouldn’t be doing at all; there’s no pay off.  And you go back to the 80/20 rule, which is absolutely the truth of the matter: If you can get rid of all the superfluous stuff that has no ROI – return on investment – you’re going to have more time to expand on the things that are profitable.  I do consulting, because Work the System is a book on how to do all this stuff, and you wouldn’t believe the businesses we run into, you wouldn’t believe the government of Oregon.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.  So, I’d love it if you could maybe walk us through some examples of let’s say… The audience here are professionals, they want to be awesome at their jobs.  Can you give us some examples of some systems that probably could benefit from some attention, or maybe some transformative innovations or interventions that you’ve brought about for some folks, that can spark actionable ideas here?

Sam Carpenter
Yeah.  The innovation that most companies should have, and most don’t, is what we call – and it’s a document – it’s called the Strategic Objective.  And you can get my book at WorkTheSystem.com and download it for free.  The whole book, audio, or any number of text iterations.  And we fixed over 500 businesses in the last seven years – Josh Fonger, my main guy and I.  They don’t have documentation.  And so, the main system you need is a system of what is it you do and where do you want to go.  And it’s got to be more than a mission statement.  A mission statement is a total distraction.  “Oh, we want to be the best and we want everybody to love us and we want our employees to be happy and all our customers to be happy”, and blah, blah, blah, blah.  It means nothing.

What you need is to take it apart in more detail.  Instead of a little paragraph it really needs to be on one sheet of paper, maybe 300 words, and you list what you do, where you want to go, kind of how you’re going to do it, the things you’re not going to do, sometimes the tools you’re going to use.  And you have to get everybody going in the right direction.  And if everybody is going in a different direction, they all have their own little individual ideas of where you’re going, it’s going to be a dysfunctional mess, and 9 out of 10 businesses are dysfunctional messes, small ones.  The big ones didn’t get big by being dysfunctional messes.

Now, I have a system of documentation I use – there’s other systems – the point is, everybody has to get on the same road, whatever process they use.  And then another document is the Operating Principles.  So we have 30; we call them 30 principles.  These documents are in the back of the book, in the appendix.  And the principles are like, “There will be no clutter in the office”, figuratively or literally.  I’ve got the book here – I could read through them, but you get the idea.  There’s 30 principles and we use these principles for gray area decision-making, when you’re not really sure really what to do.  “What would you do here?”

Well, another one is the simplest solution.  Occam’s Law – the simplest solution is invariably the correct solution.  And I had somebody define it – a new employee, a manager that I think I’m going to hire for the campaign – she said, “The simplest system is the most elegant system.”  And that’s a beautiful thing.  So, that’s just one of the principles.  And we have 30 principles there, and the person could go to the book and plagiarize both the meaning and the tone of both of those two documents I’ve mentioned.

And then the last series of documents – there are three – are the Working Procedures.  And that is where we document how you answer the phone, how you handle a complaint.  We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of them in the office.  But if you don’t get everybody going down the same road and doing things the same way, you’re going to have a mess.  And the other thing is you don’t have a system for them to say, “Hey, this is changed over here.  Process A over here is no longer any good, because one, two and three happened over here.  We’ve got to change the process.”  And then you’ve got to let everybody know the process has changed.

So you can see how I, as a leader, work on processes and systems and protocols, and these are the things that get everybody going in the same direction, and you become efficient, because the thing that kills businesses is inefficiency.  Fire killing – that’s what it is.  Fire killing destroys businesses, fire killing destroys administrations and government, fire killing destroys marriages, it destroys everything.  You want to get from A to B in the most efficient way possible, and you can’t be waylaid by problems that come up because you didn’t have a process to prevent the problem from happening in the first place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.  So I want to get super, super tactical here, if I could.  So Sam, do you have a system for doing your laundry or having others do your laundry, and what is it?

Sam Carpenter
No, this is very interesting.  The new book, The Systems Mindset, is for anybody who doesn’t have a business.  And in there I say you don’t need to document this stuff in your personal life.  You need to document how the car wreck goes on the car – you need to write down somewhere that the front connectors are 18.5 inches back from this corner of the windshield.  And maybe how you change the filters in your HVAC system, maybe, if somebody else is going to do it.  But there isn’t much documentation in your personal life; it’s a matter of thinking.

So The Systems Mindset subtitle is Managing the Machinery of Your Life.  But in a business, because you’ve got a lot of people doing this stuff, John needs to know how Mary does it, and Mary has to do it the same way Frank does it.  You’ve got to get everybody doing things the same way, and then those are the people who create the processes.  It’s not top-down like military; I don’t write up all the procedures.  I wrote up the first procedures for the first few months – that was in 1999.  I haven’t written a procedure in a couple of years.  And the one I wrote was for me in the office.

But they write the procedures.  What a great way to do things is to have the people who do the work do the procedures, because they know how it works – they know how to talk to the customer, they know how to do this, how to do that.  Now, my CEO and I keep everybody going down the same road.  “No, we don’t want to have this new service; it just isn’t in keeping with where we want to go.”  And you can go back to the strategic objective and figure that out and make an argument for it.  But for instance, if we had extra space in our office, we could have a tanning salon for example.  I mean, it would make sense; there’s people there 24/7.  It could be Bend, Oregon 24/7 Sam’s Tanning Salon, and it would probably make money.  But we’re not going to do that because it’s got nothing to do with our main concern, which is telecommunications and so forth.  So, it keeps you going.

And so when you ask me for, “Give me a process, give me a system” – those three documents are critical.  And then you can go down to how you handle a complaint, how you can… So, what happens is, and I’ll get to your main question, which I think I understand, is when Josh goes out in the field, what he does is go in… And either one of us can walk in any business and tell you in 20 minutes what the problem is.  And sometimes your brother-in-law does need to be fired, okay?  Sorry about that, explain it to your wife, but he’s a problem.  We get into that too, but once we get into the business, we see how it’s run and what are the mechanical – and “mechanical” is such a great word – what are the mechanical irregularities and dysfunctions?  And you fix the biggest problem first.

And maybe the biggest problem is your brother-in-law needs to go – okay, I get that.  But within the business there are processes that need to be documented.  For instance, if there’s something that’s handled by six different people – say it’s a 20-person business – six different people and they all handle it a different way – that’s ridiculous, because some are going to do it real well and some are going to do it in a horrible way.  Why don’t we all do it the real, real fine way?  Put all six people down at the table, “Okay, what’s the first thing you do?”  And then it’s, “Number one – do this, number two – do this, number three – do this, number four – do this.”  And then when that process is done and everybody agrees it works, you put it into place and you move on to the next biggest problem.

You really do start with the biggest problem, I don’t care what it is.  I can almost guarantee you the second problem won’t have anything to do with the first problem.  It will be something completely different, I don’t care what kind of business you’ve got.  And you work through based on what are the biggest problems first, and all of a sudden you get through five of those big problems and things start to smooth out; there’s not so much fire killing.  You might’ve fixed 60% of all your problems by fixing those five things.

And it could be anything; in a machine shop, it would be how the guys are doing a certain piece on the machine, and everybody is doing it in their own way.  It might be a drill press, it might be a lathe, it might be anything.  But you’ve got to get the guys together and sit them down and say, “What’s the best way to do it?”  And Frank over here is doing it this way and he says, “Oh John, I didn’t know we could do it that way.  Yeah, man, it’s really great.”  And then John is going to learn something from Frank too.  It’s really the most simple thing and it’s all based – at the beginning of our chat here, Pete – it’s all based on the mechanical fact that our lives are collections of systems and processes.

That little beagle that’s sitting on the couch in the sunroom there – he’s a separate system too.  And I just got this Garmin tracker for him because he’s a hound, and when we go out in the woods, he’s gone, man.  If he gets a scent of anything, he’s gone.  And so this fabulous tracker – and it took me about a half hour to figure it out on how to work – I can take him out and it’s got a little antenna that comes up, and the documentation is the little book I got with it.  But he can run anywhere and I know exactly where he is.  He got out 600 yards from me the other day and I just went back and got him.  And it’s even got a little what they call a “stimulator” on it – it’s actually like a chock that you can adjust.  And I adjust it so he knows it’s happening, not so it hurts him.  But if he gets out too far, I can just hit a button and he knows to come back to me.  That is a separate system too.  It’s a separate system from the beagle; the beagle has nothing to do with it; they just work together very well.

And that’s how a business should be – if you could take your business apart and stop believing you just need to hire a better manager or if you could just get that other loan – no, no.  Instead you go exactly the opposite and you take it apart piece by piece, but you’ve got to get this thing in your head, about the separate systems.  So Work the System and The Systems Mindset.  The Systems Mindset book is a smaller book.  It’s in two parts.  The Work the System is in three parts; the middle part is about documentation.

But essentially the first part of each book is getting the systems mindset, and that means you can walk down the street and you see separate systems; you don’t see this massive confusion.  I like to say “a mass confusion of sights, sounds and events”.  The barking dog over there has nothing to do with your belly ache, has nothing to do with the dog on the end of your leash.  And the trees when you’re walking by have nothing to do with each other; they’re all separate.  When you can drive down the road or walk down the street or sit in your house and really see that – that’s called the systems mindset.  And it usually comes in an instant, it comes in a flash.

It did for me, it happened one night.  I won’t go into how that happened, but I woke up the next morning and I saw the world differently.  And that was in 1999 and my whole life got cleaned up at that point.  I was a mess.  I was a mess in the business, I was a mess in my personal life. Everything cleaned up beautifully, because I started facing reality.

Do you know what it means to be red pilled, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Is that from The Matrix?

Sam Carpenter
Yeah, man.  It was the greatest science fiction movie ever made, in my mind.  So, listen to this: “Morpheus…”  And this is 1999.  “I’m trying to free your mind, but I can only show you the door.  You’re the one who has to walk through it.”  And so in the campuses there’s this thing called redpilling, and that is all of a sudden seeing reality for what it really is.

But back to The Systems Mindset – redpilling in my mind is seeing your life as a collection of separate systems.  Very few people will get it right away.  Some people who are listening to this get it right as they’re listening to it, but most don’t; it takes a couple of weeks.  Download the book, look at it – your life will change forever.  You’ll get what you want out of life.  I got everything I wanted out of life.

I’m going to run for governor for just the hell of it.  I mean, that’s not really true – I’m going to run for the hell of it because I’ve got the time, and I want to make some big changes in our state.  The forests are burning down, the government’s out of control. I mean, why not go for something big?  I see it in that sense: Why not do something big, because the rest of my life has come together so well?  I have the time and the money to do it.  I have more money than I need, I’ve got more time than I need.  This is something I can do.  And I’m in my late 60s, and this is the time of my life when I want to help.

I have a non-profit overseas and people say, “How come?”  And I say, Why not?”  There’s a bunch of teachers over there; you know what they make in these back-country Pakistan towns?  $15 a month, Pete.  And the kid’s tuition is $1 a month, and that’s high.  And so, I can go over there and get so much bang for my buck with my non-profit to help those kids. So if you could see your life in this way, everything comes together, everything starts to make sense and you start getting what you want out of life, because the reality is, your life is a collection of systems.  And if you treat it that way and go for the most dysfunctional systems first, or the biggest system that you think you can get a grip on, all of a sudden things will go your way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us some examples then, in terms of for individuals for systems they have that are frequently dysfunctional, or how do we zero in on, “Of all the systems in my life, this one is probably the most dysfunctional and should get my attention first?

Sam Carpenter
Are you talking about in a business environment?

Pete Mockaitis
No, I’m just talking an individual professional.

Sam Carpenter
An individual professional.  Okay, number one – communications.  And so, that’s what we were talking about before we started talking here.  So, we have these tools; one’s called EVM, and we’ve been using it for many, many years.  It’s relatively new, and if you have an iPhone or Android, doesn’t matter, but there is a way to attach a voice message as an attachment on to an email.  It’s powerful stuff.  It’s how I run my companies.

So, I’ve got 40 people at Centratel.  I could get on the phone after we finish here and I could say, “Hey everybody, just want to let you know I’m coming back tomorrow.  I am, by the way, flying back from Kentucky.  And we had a great report, great numbers, our bottom line was terrific.  I just want to thank all of you.”  And I say that, I attach it to a group email and everybody gets it.  Josh – Josh is my field guy and we’re partners.  He’s in Phoenix, but he’s on the road all the time.  I don’t even know where he is most of the time.  So, “Hey Josh, I was thinking about this or that, and what do you think about this?  Get back to me.”  Well, he might not hear it for a few hours ’cause he’s working with a client, but he will get back to me in the same way.  We very rarely are on the phone at the same time, and it’s the same with my CEO, and it’s the same with my campaign people – very, very seldom.

So to the professional who’s got people that he or she works for, I would say, do that, because our tendency, Pete – maybe your tendency, and it used to be my tendency – is to sit down and write a long email.  I’m sorry, it takes 20 minutes; and with an EVM I can do the same in two minutes.  And you get your tonal inflection in there, the whole thing.  The only thing we document are processes, and anything that is very sensitive or complex information, we sit down and do an email.  So, if your professional is super efficient, they will be better at what they do.  And there’s other tools out there, other communication tools too.

One of the big things I changed recently, because this tool has been bugging me… And what happened was, I had my PC computer, we were down in Savannah, Georgia, and I lost it.  I lost it in the hotel.  It turned out somebody had found it and picked it up and it got put in the wrong place.  I ultimately found it three days later, but it ruined the vacation, because I knew half of it was on the Cloud and half of it wasn’t.  And Diana and I said… I know that I can get another PC and download most of it, but there’s so much that I’m going to miss and I’m going to be struggling to put the pieces together for a year, and it’s going to be like my house burned down.

So we had been talking and she’s kind of had the same problem, where booting her computers all day long.  It’s a Microsoft problem – sorry about that, Bill Gates.  But I got my computer back, everything was fine, but you know what we did?  We said, “To hell with it.  We’re switching to Apple’s computers.”  And we switched to the Mac Pro, and I’ll tell you what – replacing that system with this system was one of the best movies I made in the last 10 years.

Pete Mockaitis
And so now it automatically backs up then to the Cloud?

Sam Carpenter
Everything’s on the Cloud, everything makes sense, everything’s intuitive.  You know what?  What do you use, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
I also have a MacbookPro.

Sam Carpenter
Yeah.  So, everything’s intuitive, it never breaks, you could go a month without having to reboot it.  You know what I’m talking about.  I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with a PC, but you want to kill yourself.  I’m sorry, you want to put a bullet in your head half the time.  And 30 years I was a PC user, because of the systems we used professionally in the call center.  I don’t need to do that anymore because I don’t do much in a call center.  I don’t do more than an hour of work a week at the call center.  So, the process, “How’s your computer doing?” or, “How’s your…”  We went from Androids to all iPhones, because they’re just more reliable, and everybody doesn’t have something different.  And I don’t care how many extra apps you can get on an Android; the basics never fail on the iPhone.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell me, this electronic voicemail – I assume that’s what EVM stands for – it sounds pretty handy.  How do I start doing that in my life?

Sam Carpenter
Well, there’s a native on the iPhone that works.  I like Say It & Mail It.

Pete Mockaitis
Is that a website I can go to?

Sam Carpenter
I think you can find it on Google.  I like that, I use them both.  Say It & Mail It – you’re pretty much limited to five or six minutes, and you can’t stop it and then start it again.  So if it’s something quick, you know what you’re saying, if I’m leaving a message for Diana or something – it’s real fast and I use that, and you can get it on an Android too.

Pete Mockaitis
So I can do this natively in email on my iPhone.  How does that work?

Sam Carpenter
Yeah, it’s there.

Pete Mockaitis
The menus, the settings for mail.  Okay, got it, cool.  So communications is one system – make sure that your technology isn’t causing you all kinds of headaches and frustrations and crashes and restarts and delays; your email isn’t dominating your life, in terms of lots of long messages that take a lot of time.  What are some other systems you think professionals can get some big gains?

Sam Carpenter
Yeah, here’s another more of a mental thing, and I know you’re into the mental part in the consulting you do.  Don’t ever have more than 30 emails in your inbox, okay?  Ever.  And you know what I do with my email?  I don’t have a task list – there is another simplification.  My task list is in my email.  When I open my computer and look at my inbox, all my tasks are there.  Oh, I have some on my calendar, like this one, so I don’t forget meeting with you today.  But I have all my tasks and all of my correspondence is in one place.  Obviously it’s on my iPhone too.  Think about those processes and systems.  So take apart your day.  What are the things that are frustrating you?  Figure out a way to make it really good, automate it, delegate it or delete it, and work on the processes of your life.  You know what I mean?

Your car.  Okay, so I have this argument with people all the time, and half your listeners won’t like what I’m going to say.  I don’t believe in buying a used car, because when you buy a used car, it’s used for a reason, usually, unless some young kid went off into the military and didn’t expect to, and this kid is perfect.  Some used cars out there are perfect, but why would you want to give up the best years of a car’s life – the good smell, you know it’s not going to break, you know you’ve got a great warranty.  I always buy a new car.  People say, “Well, as soon as you drive off the lot…”  Yeah, that’s true – as soon as you drive off the lot it loses value, but with a used car, the best years of its life are gone.  So you buy a used car with 40,000 miles – I’m sorry, it’s going to be the muffler, it’s going to be the belts, it’s going to break.  I guarantee you almost all the time there’s some big problem that made that car be a used car.  So, one of the systems I have in my life, one of these mental systems, is I buy close to the best and I always buy new.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.

Sam Carpenter
These are head processes, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright.  Well, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Sam Carpenter
Well, another thing we did, and people can’t run right out and do this, but we built this house we’re in.  We moved in the last day of July, and this house is exactly the way we wanted, right to the size of the TV to where the hearth is to how the lights work.  Try to design where you live. But take the time to work on the place where you study, the place where you live, the place where you sleep.  Take the time to do it.  Clean the garage, get everything in order.

There’s that, and then you go back to the business.  You’ve got to document your primary systems if more than one person is doing the processes.  That’s number one, and it could be anything.  I don’t know what people do out there – they sell cars, they sell insurance, they’re working for a big corporation, they’re an engineer with a high tech company – you’ve got to document the main things that the people around you are supposed to do.

And it makes a lot of sense in some cases to document the processes you do, because when you get them down on paper, you can say to yourself sometimes, “Why am I doing this like that?”  And then you get them down on paper and you say, “Why am I doing this at all?”  And you get super efficient. And everything I’m doing with the campaign right now has to do with building the machinery of the campaign.  And when I get elected, I will go into Salem, Oregon and I will do the same thing there and work on the processes and the systems.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.  Thank you.  Well, now could you share with us a favorite book?

Sam Carpenter
How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World – Harry Browne.  This was written a long time ago, back in the ’70s.  He did a second version in the ’90s.  He ran for president on a Libertarian ticket.  And he’s deceased now.  And it says, “Freedom is living your life the way you want to live it.  This book shows you how you can have that freedom now, without having to change the world or the people around you.”  It’s a brilliant book.  I don’t have any problems at all with it, and I’ve read it a number of times.  This hard copy here cost me $140 on Amazon, used.  It’s out of print.  And I give it to my very best friends and closest people and I say, “This is mandatory reading if you breathe.”  [laugh] It’s my favorite book.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.  And tell me – how about a favorite habit, a personal practice of yours that’s effective?

Sam Carpenter
My clean-up habit.  So I take 30 minutes every day at some point during the day and I just clean stuff up – I pick up the table, I do something in the garage, the car may need it.  I spend 30 minutes a day, at least, cleaning up after myself.  Not that I’m a slob, but if nothing needs to be cleaned up, I do some organizational thing to jump ahead.  That is a really good personal habit to have.  And I exercise every day, of course.  Maybe not every day, but five days out of the week.  It’s so important to get some aerobic exercise and some resistance training if you can, to keep that brain system working right and keep this incredibly complex miracle that is our individual bodies working properly.  And I am convinced that aerobic, heavy breathing, pushing your heart, cures a lot of evils and cures a lot of problems that you’re never going to have.  It prevents them happening.

Here’s another saying, and this is mine: “You can’t measure the bad things that don’t happen.”  You can’t measure them.  And that’s a very important thing, and I think keeping the clutter picked up and getting out in the woods and climbing or skiing or doing whatever it is anybody wants to do, cycling – very important in keeping your brain together, but you can’t measure it really.  You can’t measure the good that it does you, and you can’t measure the bad things that it prevents.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright.  And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Sam Carpenter
WorkTheSystem.com is a good place, and there is a link there to TheSystemsMindset.com, and you can go there.  And people can Google my name and there’s all kinds of stuff out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.  And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Sam Carpenter
Yes, I do.  Right now, right this moment, even if they’re not at their jobs, even if they’re driving in the car or listening to this on their smart phone walking down the street – just look around, wherever you are, even in your living room or your desk at work – but look around and see the separate systems around you.  As I described right at the beginning here, Pete, I don’t care what environment you’re in – you can see 100 separate systems around you if you look for them.  And do that little routine over and over, and all of a sudden it’ll dawn on you, “Oh my God, that’s the way the world’s put together.”

My big TV down here has nothing to do with what goes on in the laundry room over here, with the washer.  They just have nothing to do with each other; they’re separate from each other.  Yes, they all work together – I get that.  But here’s the thing – let me leave you with this – if you walk down the street and you get hit by a car and your leg is shattered, you know what?  They’re not going to take you to a dermatologist.  You’re going to go to an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in that.  And so, keep that in mind – the people who do well in life learn to compartmentalize the world around them, so they can find the dysfunction, see the dysfunction and get it fixed.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, beautiful.  Well Sam, thanks so much for taking this time here off the campaign trail and such, and I wish you much luck in the systems of life and the impacts you’re looking to make!

Sam Carpenter
Well, thank you, Pete, I enjoyed this.  Will catch you later.

097: Email Anxiety and Euphoria with Andy Mitchell

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ActiveInbox founder Andy Mitchell shares insights gleaned from years of collaborating with the many diverse users of his email and task management software product.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why email won’t die for a while… and what to do in the meantime
  2. Why we experience euphoria at an empty inbox, and how to get there more often
  3. How to avoid the productivity death spiral triggered by working late

About Andy
Andy Mitchell is the founder of ActiveInbox for Gmail, an email tool and task manager combined into one. He maintains an ethos of ‘leaving more in the world than I take out of it.’ Day to day, he’s trying to ensure the team is all pulling in the same direction to craft the best product they can. Prior to ActiveInbox, he worked in a number of high-tech roles at LocallyCompared, ProductiveFirefox, Dakin Flathers, and MeeCard.

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