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Automation

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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088: Getting Automated with Dan Caspi

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Science genius Dan Caspi talks automation, software, and why we shouldn’t be afraid to learn a little code.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Processes that you can automate that you didn’t know you needed to
  2. Nifty hacks to help you maximize Excel
  3. A checklist to serve your need for computer speed.

About Dan
Dan has a PhD. In Organic Chemistry and is a senior scientist at AbbVie. He is also currently serving in a hybrid Process Chemistry/Chemical Engineering position as a member of the Center for Reaction Engineering.
Dan is highly proficient with technology, programming (Perl, Python, PHP, JS, HTML) and computers, and is the computer genius behind Element 26, a boutique computer consulting company based in Evanston, Illinois.

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