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530: How to Organize Your Time and Your Life with Julie Morgenstern

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Julie Morgenstern says: "You get organized to achieve a greater goal."

Organizing guru Julie Morgenstern discusses how to manage your time for greater productivity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A foolproof approach to managing your time
  2. Two powerful questions to get a grip on your time
  3. How to keep your inbox from taking over your day

About Julie:

Julie is a New York Times best-selling author, and everyone’s favorite organizing guru. USA Today recently called Julie “The Queen of Putting Life in Order.” She’s been featured in publications such as ForbesHarvard Business Reviewthe New York TimesWall Street JournalTimeO, The Oprah Magazine, and Redbook, and makes frequent appearances on national television and radio programs, including the Today Show, Rachel Ray, and NPR’s Fresh Air.

Her company Julie Morgenstern Enterprises provides corporate speaking, training, coaching and books to help individuals, and companies, to tame the chaos so they can make their unique contribution. Julie’s non-judgmental, inside-out approach to problems offers smart, practical and insightful solutions that transform the way people and companies function.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Julie Morgenstern Interview Transcript

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

Julie Morgenstern
I’m so happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I want to hear, so if you’ve got over 30 years of experience as a professional organizer, for folks who’ve got some clutter in their lives, do you have any pro tips or tricks that you use over and over and over again that the rest of us lay people should know?

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah, I think when it comes to organizing, maybe, I was going to say physical organizing any space, any information, anything physical, I model every single physical organizing system on the model of a kindergarten classroom without exception.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Julie Morgenstern
Yup. So, you just picture a kindergarten classroom, it is the perfect model of organization. The room, imagine it, this is a room where you can have like 25 five-year-olds that the within the first two weeks of school, no matter how messy that room gets, at the ring of a bell everything is back in its home by five-year-olds, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Julie Morgenstern
So, how is that room organized? It is organized into activity zones. There’s a reading area, a dress-up area, a building blocks area, a music zone, and everything is stored at its point of use. So, if you’re in the music zone, everything that is related to music is in there. There’s nothing on the other side of the room. If you’re in the arts and craft zone, and you’re painting a picture, and you want to add glitter and glue, it’s right there in the arts and craft zone. Even if there’s an empty shelf in the reading corner, no teacher would ever put arts and crafts in the reading zone.

So, it’s storing items at their point of use as related to an activity, and then everything stored in a container that is perfect for what you’re storing, right? So, like puzzles are in those little slotted trays and they’re very organized. The building blocks area, there’s one cubby for the columns and another one for the rectangles and another one for the arches, and everything has a home that’s a perfect fit for what you’re putting away.

And the whole room becomes kind of a visual menu of everything that’s important to the people who use that space. So, like a kindergarten can just come in and look around, and say, “What is there to do? Oh, I’m going to go over and build something,” and run over to that area. And that’s really how our homes, and our offices, and our filing systems, digital or in paper, should reflect who we are and what we want and where we’re going. They should reflect our activities and reflect our life back to us. It’s a very visual and very powerful and very effective way of organizing everything.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you for that metaphor. That’s already kind of sparking some things for me over here. And so, I want to dig primarily into the organizing of time and tasks things. But, first, maybe could we sort of paint the why for us. Kind of what difference does it make having great organization? Some might say, “Are we just shuffling papers, and to-dos, and calendar appointments from one spot to the other?” Can you make the case, what’s the benefit to be gained from this effort?

Julie Morgenstern
So, being organized, that’s a great question because why bother getting organized. You get organized to achieve a greater goal. Never get organized just for organizing sake. Never get organized just to make things look good or appear good to other people. Organizing systems are really vehicles to get you to your bigger goals. So, you shouldn’t organize anything without saying, “Why?”

And the very common reasons to people, when they hire us to organize them, or lead an organizing, or time management book, or get coaching, people don’t invest that kind of time or money to design a system for their lives unless there is something they are trying to achieve. Very commonly, people want to organize their time and their schedules to create space for quality time with their families and quality time for themselves. That is a very common goal.

If your schedule is more organized, if your space is more organized, you would free up time to be present with your friends, with your family, with your kids, with your spouse, and with yourself. That’s probably one of the most common motivations.

Another, in our work lives, is so that we can, “I want to get organized, manage my time so that I can achieve my greatest, fulfill my greatest potential.” If you’re bogged down with procrastination or you’re always late, and then you feel really guilty so you’re not really confident, which means you don’t really show up and really throw in at meetings or with clients, but you kind of hold back because you feel incompetent, or you feel embarrassed, or you feel like behind the eight ball, then you’re missing opportunities. So, it’s usually to really seize the maximum opportunities at work. Whether you work for yourself or you work for a small company, or a nonprofit, or government, or a big company, it’s really to maximize your opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m sold. And so, let’s talk about you’ve got a particular approach called the inside out, I guess, method, or approach, or style, or flavor. So, can you walk us through what is that and how do we do that?

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah. So, organizing from the inside out is really about designing systems that reflect your unique personality style and goals so that it’s very natural and easy to maintain. And too often we try to organize from the outside in. What does that look like? You just ask somebody else, I go, “Which app do you use for your to-dos or your calendar?” Or, “How many to-dos do you put in your list for the day?” Or, “How do you organize your closet?”

Well, we buy containers and we buy tools, and we think those tools are going to organize us. They don’t. You have to design your system the unique way you think and your natural habits so that you don’t have to change who you are to be organized, but it actually enhances and unleashes your full potential, and it works and it lasts, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds awesome.

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us an example maybe of, “Hey, given your context or your style or approach, you might want to choose A over B”?

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah. Okay, so I’ll give you one or two examples. So, one is people are like, “Where do I keep track of my to-dos?” It’s one of the universal questions of today’s era because there are so many options, and our to-dos come at us from so many different directions. And if you don’t have your to-dos all in one place, you lose a lot of time to transferring information or working on something but you’re kind of worried that, “What am I missing?” so you’re not really focused on what you’re doing because you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s a big problem.

So, people are, like, digital or paper. That’s the big first cut. So, usually, I will ask people to sort of identify, “Are you a visual tactile person or are you kind of a digital linear person?” And a visual tactile person will remember where on a page they wrote something, they’re like, “Oh, that was like three pages back in the upper-right corner in green ink.” Like, they have a visual tactile memory of where information is.

And if you relate to that then you are probably best on a paper to-do system because the act of writing pen to paper emblazons it on your memory, helps you process and group similar kinds of tasks, and just writing it helps you process what you’re doing. And if you try to do it digitally, it’s not sticky. So, that’s like one cut. And then if it’s paper, then you just have to sort of search through the various products that are out there. That’s one example.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s intriguing and very descriptive. I think some people will say, “Yes, that’s me.” It’ll kind of resonate right away. And so, what would be the “Yes, that’s me” equivalent for those who are in the digital linear zone?

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah, I think people who are sort of digital linear thinkers, very often they’re kind of chronologic in their thinking. Like, you could throw out a date, like September 13, and they’ll be, “Oh, that was a Thursday this year. It’s between my sister’s birthday and when I had that proposal due.” Like, they think numerically, chronologically. They’re just great at interfacing with thinking straight into a keyboard or straight into a type pad and they can find things. They can figure out, like, they can setup a database or a contact manager. They think that way. They think digitally.

They rely heavily on search and are never afraid losing anything because all they have to do is have a trigger word and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I could find that.” So, they’re very comfortable and agile and think in a sort of interconnected words and associations kind of thing, rely on the search function. They really adapt quickly to technology, super quickly. They get it.

And they love, because they’re so good at it, they love traveling light, they don’t feel like any attachment to paper. They’re like, “I can find that in the cloud.” They can travel anywhere and find that information and they engage with it. They don’t find it overwhelming, right? They don’t glaze over in front of a screen. They’re using it as a tool. They get it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Thank you. So, very handy there in terms of all the options out there. There’s a quick way to get to the heart of which half of the options are more suited to your brain, so very cool. And then, so you mentioned there’s three steps for organizing anything, the analyze, the strategize, the attack. So, could you kind of walk us through how we might approach that in organizing time or task things for professionals?

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah. So, I just was coaching somebody yesterday who is a very overwhelmed executive, incredibly accomplished man, in a very senior position in a big mid-sized company, very well-established, and he’s working like 15 hours a day, seven days a week, he’s getting everything done, but the cost is so high. He’s exhausted. He can’t get to the proactive stuff. He’s just doing the reactive stuff, and he’s not really present for his family or himself. He’s spread so thin that it’s sort of catching up with him.

And so, he’s like, “How do I fix this?” So, I can’t just come in and say, “Hey, let’s get you a to-do list as a starter.” That’d be an outside-in approach, right? That’s sort of an attack-first-ask-questions-later approach. So, analyze, strategize, attack is a three-step process to finding the system that will work for that person.

Analyze is you, first, have to ask a series of questions to really zero in on what needs to be fixed and what doesn’t. So, I always ask questions like, “Tell me what is working. What’s working about your system right now? What are the things that always get done? What are the things that…?” In his case, I could try to come up with his examples but, in his case, everything was getting done. That was working. What wasn’t working was the number of hours that it was taking. So, that starts to lead to narrowing in on the problem to be solved.

And, “What is it that you’re trying to juggle your time between?” That’s part of the analyze, which is, “What do you need to fit in time for to be truly balanced?” And all of us have to decide that when it comes to our time, “What am I really trying to balance my time between? What are the core, like, the big buckets?” It could be, like, I don’t know, in your field, you do a podcast, it’s researching guests, it could be writing, there’s research, there’s writing, there’s production, and then there’s administrative follow-up. That would be like the four buckets maybe.

So, we all have that. And analyzing is to really understand, “What is it that I need to balance my time between? And then where is my time currently going?” And I always do that and encourage people, like, “You have to think of your time. It’s like a closet. It’s a limited amount of time that’s only going to fit so much. So, how much do we have to work with? Are you working 10 hours a day, 8 hours a day, 12 hours a day? What’s the size of the container for your work? And then what has to fit inside? And how are you organizing it right now? What order do you tackle things in? How do you handle your mornings? When do you do your administrative stuff? Is there any order at all or is every day different?” So, that’s the analyze, “Where are we right now?”

Then, strategize is, “Where are we trying to get to?” so, what would your schedule look like if it was in that shape, size container and it fit everything you really needed to do? We kind of really do a graph to figure it out, “Here’s your ideal schedule.” And then attack is, “How do we get you from where you are to that ideal schedule?” And that’s all the time management skills, “What do you add to your schedule? What do you take out of your schedule? What, in your schedule, needs to be done more efficiently?” And then you just tool it. And so, you get the person into that ideal state. It’s very concrete and, actually, very practical and doable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love it if you could perhaps share, is there a power question or two that you find tends to yield loads of insight as you are moving through these three steps?

Julie Morgenstern
Well, I would say, especially for listeners, there’s really two questions if you want to start to get a grip on your time. And you just ask yourself, “What am I spending too much time on? And what am I not spending enough time on?” And then you’d go about making adjustments to get those things in the right order.

So, if I’m spending too much time on email, on writing, on administrivia, “What am I spending too much time on?” Then you look at that and you say, “How do I eliminate that? How do I streamline that?” I have this thing called the 4Ds which is, “Can I delete it? Can I just get rid of doing this thing altogether? Like, it’s really not enough value for the time invested. Can I delay it? Which is at this month, this quarter, or this part of the year, this period of the business, I’m going to just put this off because right now we’re in, I don’t know, end-of-year financial wrap-up so I can’t also do that strategic marketing plan, whatever. That’s a delay. Can I diminish it? Which is, is there a shorter, quicker, more efficient way to do this?” And there very often it, right?

Like, we just need to find an efficiency and operationalize a repeat task so that it takes a quarter of the time it does because it’s more efficient. Or, “Can I delegate it? Can I give this to somebody else to do because that’s no longer the highest and best use of my time but it’s still really essential for the company, for the business, for living?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. So, there’s a number of tactics for when you’re spending too much time on something.

Julie Morgenstern
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about the equivalent for when you’re not spending enough time on something?

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah. So, you identify, “What am I not spending enough time on?” And, like, the classic, universal, frequent answers are, “I’m not spending enough time on the strategic planning,” or the creative work, the innovative work, that’s in our workday, or developing people. Like, “Not really thinking through my team and how to develop them.”

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense. These things are important but not urgent. Like, it’s got to happen but it’s not on fire.

Julie Morgenstern
Right. But if you don’t make the time for them, you stay in that hamster wheel of always putting out fires because you haven’t spent time developing your people, you haven’t looked ahead down the road to figure out setting up things to prevent these fires. So, it’s so critical and, also, it’s really where we make our unique contribution.

We do not make our unique contribution in constantly fighting fires and all the little stuff. It’s in the big thinking where each of us make our unique contribution, and everybody knows that whether they articulate it in their brains or not. It’s like, “This is where the meaningful work is. This is where I can solve problems and make a contribution but I need time to think.” So, that’s a common one. Not enough time to do those things.

So, “What are you not spending enough time on?” And then you just ask yourself. The goal is now to create the time for it. And you ask yourself, “What is the ideal block of time to work on this?” which I highly recommend you think about as a daily, not like once a month, but what’s a daily strategic planning, daily thinking time, daily research time, quiet time. And what’s the unit of time? “Do I need an hour at a time? Do I need two hours at a time? What’s the unit of time? And what is the optimal time of the day for me to do that?” And then you claim it. You just claim it.

A lot of people it’s the first thing in the morning, right, that that’s when their head is clearest, and they can protect it the most because they have the rest of the day to catch up to any of the urgencies of the day. You grab and block off the first hour of your workday every day or the first 90 minutes of every workday. Or, if the first hour is not going to work, maybe it’s between 12:00 and 2:00 every day when people feel permission to, like, disconnect because they might be at a business lunch, so know that they’ve got a two-hour block with their deep-thinking time.

So, you claim that time and you make it a regular daily appointment in your schedule. And then you let all the other stuff work around that. And there you go. You’ve reduced the thing that’s monopolizing your time and you have created the space for the most important thing you’re neglecting right now. And life changes very quickly. Your sense of control and meaning and impact changes just on those two questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love it. Thank you. And when it comes to think about the time of day for things, you’ve been so bold as to write a whole book called Never Check Email in the Morning. Can you tell us, why don’t we do that and when should we do it?

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah, I mean, email is a delivery mechanism for messages, requests, and reminders, and junk mail, and solicitations, and all kinds of things, but all in all it’s a reactive device, right? Everybody wakes up in the morning and has something they really want to get done that day personally, professionally. If before you get to what you know you want to do, your proactive tasks or activity, you check email first, you are starting your day out, you postpone the proactive and you probably never get to it, then you’re off to the races. You’re going down rabbit holes, you’re getting aggravated, you’re pulled in and you cannot get out.

And I think if you postpone checking email, that reactive device, by anywhere from the first hour, your first waking hour, I actually think it should be your first, all the way through your first working hour, should not be on email. And you start your day proactive, getting your biggest task done before you roll your shades up for business. You’ll get so much more done in much less time, and you start out you in control of technology, not it in control of you. And if you can start your day in control of technology, any other time of the day that you want to put your device away, you’ll be able to. But if you can’t do it for the first hour, there is not another hour in the day you’re going to be able to put it down.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to get your take on this. I buy that and I try to practice that. And then, sometimes, that really important thing that I’m doing, I need to get something out of the email to do that. And then as I open it up, I see all the other stuff, and it’s like, “Man, how do I do this?” I’ve even tried to like put a piece of paper up to hide some parts of the screen. What do you do?

Julie Morgenstern
I know it’s really tough. So, I actually think, for your most important thing in the morning that you’re going to work on, if you pull everything you need by the end of the day before, then you will sort of avoid that situation at least eight out of ten times. You’re going to reduce the need to go in because you pulled it the day before, you’re like, “I’m going to work on that proposal. I’m going to work on that document. I’m going to pull the research.” You pull everything together so you are set by the end of the day before for your mornings’ task. You don’t come in and get setup. You set it up the day before. That’s one thing.

If your first to-do requires you to be on your computer, it requires a lot of discipline and hacks to stay focused. One thing could be that before you go in, you set your alarm on your cellphone to say, “All I have to do is go in, find that email with the attachment and download it, and then shut down my email. That’s all I need to do.” You know where it’s going to be, you know what to look up by search, that is a five-minute task. You set your alarm for five minutes, you go in, you get the thing before that alarm goes off, and then shut it down.

It’s, like, think about going into a supermarket, right? Like, how often do you go in a supermarket without a list? You thought, you went in for three things, you come out with six bags of groceries. But if you go in with a list and a short time limit, it can help keep you focused. But it takes a lot of consciousness to do that, which is what we have to do in our screen-dominated lives. We have to stay conscious.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s helpful. And I like it when you say pull it in advanced. I mean, there’s all sorts of ways we could pull it. You could print it. You could save it. I’m thinking about just making in Gmail just like a super query in terms of, “I only want to see messages from these five people.”

Julie Morgenstern
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And then that’s sort of what’s there waiting for me on the email screen, and it’s like, “All right. Well, that’s what I have and I’m not going to kind of delete that search query. I’m just going to keep that filter up,” so I dig that. Julie, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Julie Morgenstern
Just that when it comes to organizing your time, I think to recognize that you can stay as practical as possible. Try to only solve one or two problems at a time. Don’t feel that you have to overhaul everything at the same time. It’s impossible. Just focus on make a short punch list of things that need to be tooled or retooled, and do them one at a time. And you will see that any aspect of your time management that you address, and you adjust, and you tame or conquer, will pay off in all of your other 168 hours of the day, a week, I mean.

We have this 168-hours of a week to work with. You make a change in any one area and it’s all interconnected, and everything else lifts. So, don’t try to do everything at once. Just solve one problem at a time and you’ll see big impact.

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

Julie Morgenstern
One of my favorites is a Winston Churchill quote, which says, “When going through hell, keep going.”

Pete Mockaitis
Love it. Thank you. And a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Julie Morgenstern
There was a study done by the University of British Columbia sometime in the last five years that studied the impact of batch-processing email versus continuously processing email. And it was a very extensive, very well-conducted study.

And they found that, and they tested two test groups, and each one, one week they had people just check email all day long continuously, and then the following week, they had them batch-process their email, which means designate specific times you’re going to go into your email, give it your undivided attention for 20, 30, or 40 minutes, whatever it takes to clean it out, then shut it down, and come back at the next designated moment, which might be two hours later.

And they found, to a person, that when people batch-process email rather than continuously-process, they got through the same number of emails in less time. So, we, a lot of times, do it because we think that’s a way to stay on top of things is to keep checking. Actually, you’ll get through as many, you’ll get through all your emails if you batch-process and it’ll take you less time, less real time, which means you’re going to get time back in your pocket by doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. And how about a favorite book?

Julie Morgenstern
My most recent book is a book on time management for the parenting years, which are the most time-stretched years of a human’s life. And I did research for this book on what kids need, how much time and attention do kids need to feel loved and secure, because I couldn’t advise parents on how to divide their time until I’ve got the answer to that question, and I did about eight years of research.

But my favorite from that is a book called What Children Need by a woman named Jane Waldfogel and it was brilliant, and it is really like the essence of the answers in that book. And any parent who’s wondering, “How do I divvy up my time here, and fuel my career, and my marriage, and still be there for my kids?” What Children Need is the best resource I found.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m totally going to read this. Thank you. We got two under two right now. And, roughly, what is that amount of time?

Julie Morgenstern
Okay. So, I put all this together in my book Time to Parent. So, basically, what children thrive on is short bursts of truly undivided attention delivered consistently rather than big blocks of time delivered occasionally. And when I say short bursts, we are talking about 5 to 15 minutes, 20 minutes tops, at a time.

Children have short attention spans, that’s the key. And many experts say they calculate about a minute for each age of life of attention span, give or take, of course there are some variation. But you think like a five-year old has about a five-minute attention span before they dash off to the next activity, and a 15-year old, a 15-minute conversation and they are like, “Okay, I’ve had enough,” or a game.

And consistency is the key. And that’s what you’ll read a lot about in Jane’s book, which is kids need to be able to rely on when they first wake up in the morning that mom or dad is like, “Hey, how did you sleep?” It might only take three minutes but it’s like first connections, they can count on that. When you get home at the end of the day, don’t walk through the door still on your phone, doing one last email, or one last call, or one last thing. Make a mindful transition before you cross that threshold, and, “What is my intention on the other side of that door? I want to let that kid know, my wife know, my husband know, I am so excited to see them and I want to hear about their day.”

And if you do these short bursts, you build them into the fabric and the rhythm of the basic transitions of the day, that is what makes kids feel loved and secure. And if you can occasionally do these big blocks of time, quality time outings to the park or museum, or whatever, those are great, they’re fine, they can make memories, but what they really thrive on is those short bursts delivered reliably. It’s very frame.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Julie Morgenstern
You’re welcome.

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

Julie Morgenstern
I would say come to my website JulieMorgenstern.com and you can poke around there, you can read about the books, you can read about Time to Parent, the Never Check Email in the Morning, my other books, we have a couple newsletters you could sign up for, we have a Contact Julie tab where I welcome comments, questions, queries, and we will absolutely get back to you. And you can find me online, Instagram, just Julie Morgenstern everywhere, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.

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

Julie Morgenstern
Yeah, I would say the call to action is to define, so clearly, what is your unique contribution. What is it that you bring to the table that you know your company hired you for? And you should start 2020 by claiming time for making that unique contribution. Tie it to your schedule, reliable time, every single day. You do that and you will start to really feel not only a great sense of satisfaction but a great sense of control and contribution, and you will start to see real results for it in every other aspect of your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Julie, this has been lots of fun. I wish you all the best in your organizing adventures.

Julie Morgenstern
Thank you so much. Great to talk to you, Pete.

522: How to Defeat Distraction with Joe McCormack

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Joe McCormack says: "If I don't manage noise, it's going to manage me."

Joe McCormack provides noise survival tips for clear thinking.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Top 3 tactics for noise survival
  2. The problem with multitasking and what to do instead
  3. How to train yourself to say no

About Joe:

Joe McCormack founded and serves as managing director and president of The Sheffield Company, an award-winning boutique agency. A passionate leader, he started The BRIEF Lab, a subsidiary of Sheffield, in 2013 after years dedicated to developing and delivering a unique curriculum on strategic narratives for U.S. Army Special Operations Command. He speaks at diverse industry and client forums on the topics of messaging, storytelling, change, leadership, and focus.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Joe McCormack Interview Transcript

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

Joe McCormack
It’s great to talk to you again.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into some of your wisdom about noise. But, maybe, I’ll put you on the spot and say what’s perhaps the most fascinating and surprising discovery you’ve made about this stuff since we spoke last?

Joe McCormack
For me, the most fascinating thing is that this is an issue that affects a lot of people, so just talking to people about the project, it elicits almost an immediate response of something that .

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s certainly resonant. And so then, I’d love to get your take then, sort of how do we get here and what do we do about it?

Joe McCormack
Well, my journey is I wrote a book called “Brief” and it was all about the value of concise communication and being clear, and it was really targeted towards a professional audience, so people that communicate for a living. And the reason for that book was because

So, as I was really promoting that book, and teaching courses and workshops and webinars, it became really readily apparent that there’s this issue that people were still struggling with, which is, “How do you manage the noise of the information overload?” Obviously,

So, if you’re in a meeting and people strategies to handle this as a day-to-day reality, one that is not getting better, it’s just getting worse?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And so then, I’d love to get your take then in terms of do you have some research or data that paints the picture for just how severe this environment is now as compared to before?

Joe McCormack
Well, if you look at it, it’s basically

So, that wasn’t like that, people bought alarm clocks. And that sort of need to be with technology all the time and information and constantly consuming it is becoming, I think, one of the big struggles and people don’t know it because it’s very subtle, maybe incremental, it’s just happening over the last decade. And a lot of people are talking about this and people feel helpless, like, “I don’t know why I’m on edge all the time.” And they feel like they’re always on alert, they’re always on call because they’re tethered to it and they can’t get rid of it seemingly, and that makes people feel helpless and they don’t know why.

Obviously, if you get up and the first thing you do is check your phone, and you find that you have an email from your boss and it’s not good, well, you haven’t had a cup of coffee and you’ve already ruined your day. And then they’re taking the phone, so

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, certainly. Well, that’ll do it. And so then, I’m curious, what is the beginning of the solution?

Joe McCormack
It turns out that raising an awareness of, “Hey, your brain is not an infinite device where you could just…it’s like a battery that just goes on forever. It depletes,” so people need to protect it.

Attention is your most valuable resource.

The second thing that’s related to it is I call this an old-school solution to a new-world problem, and a lot of those answers require discipline, and being intentional, and starting to manage it like you manage anything that’s an issue. You don’t let it manage you. You manage it and you take the upper hand. And I think that’s the big point of the book, is there are things that we can do to start managing these realities and get control back of our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
And you got fun little abbreviations here,

Joe McCormack
Yes. So, if you think about the old-school radio, you’ve got AM and FM, they’re frequencies, and there’s a whole metaphor in the book about dialing in and what you tune into and what you tune out of, and you set the channels. So, AM is awareness management, this is how I manage my own awareness, my own attention. It’s my personal responsibility to do this. And focus management is, once I start to do that, I can help the people around me help manage their focus.

So, if AM first stars with me, and FM means I can be the force at helping other people improve their focus. And those are sort of the two frequencies in the book that we focus on – start with yourself and then help other people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, then you listed out some particular tactics in a noise-survival guide, ten of them. I’d love to hear a couple of those that you think offer sort of the best bang for your buck, they make a world of difference when you do them.

Joe McCormack
I think, for people, when you think about this issue and you think about how it affects people, you’re consuming information which, at the end of the day, doesn’t really make that much of a difference. If you shut it off for a day, your life isn’t going to be that much worse. So, how do you fix it?

Well, one is you have to taking aim. And it starts with a real simple sentence, which is, “In my role,” everybody’s got different roles – parent, brother, coworker, boss, leader, visionary, whatever your role is. People have three to five key roles in their lives, maybe more. “In my role as blank, the most important thing for me today is blank.” And I think people need to write that sentence every day.

“In my role as father, the most important thing for me today is to call my son.” Nothing should get in between me and that. Nothing. Nothing is more important than that. That’s the most important thing. Always do the most important thing. But you have to define it because if you don’t define it, something else is going to compete for it, your attention, so you have to take aim at that. That’s the first thing. And I do that every day and it’s an interesting exercise.

The second thing, is critical, is what people do is, they’re like, “Well, when it’s quiet, I’ll enjoy it.” And it never comes. So, it’s like the play “Waiting for Godot.” Well, during the ending, he doesn’t come, right? So, quiet never comes. It only comes if you will schedule it. And I look at this as scheduled like non-negotiable.

Every day in the morning and in the afternoon, I schedule quiet time. It’s a set amount of time and I do it no matter what. Like, I take a shower and I eat. I never say I’m so busy that I can’t take a shower and I can’t eat. In our lives nowadays, we have to schedule quiet time. That’s the second thing. In that quiet time, I answer the question, “In my role as blank, the most important thing for me is blank.”

And then the third thing is, “For example, an alert or notification comes on my phone. It’s amazing how immediate my response is, “Well, I’ll just check it.” No, no, no, I’m not going to check it right now because I’m doing something else right now. If I do it, the research tells me that it’s going to take me a significant amount of time to go back and regain that focus, so I have to start getting really comfortable with the word no. And that starts with myself.

I’m not telling people to say no to everybody else, though that might be part of it. When a person interrupts you, and they’re like, “You got a minute?” You can say, “Not right now, but I will in 15.” So, you . And when those interruptions do come, we have to recognize them as something that is going to really weaken us, really, really weaken us. So, those are three things, taking aim at the most important thing, scheduling quiet, and then really just saying no when things come.

I think that empowers people. I can do something to improve in this area. I can be a force in managing this, and that’s why I call it attention management or awareness management, is I manage it. It’s my job.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I like that notion. And so, you said a significant amount of time, and I’m a sucker for the numbers. I read a Microsoft study that suggested it could be 24 minutes when folks just check their email real quick for something, and then try to return to what they’re doing. What’s that from you see?

Joe McCormack
They’re all over the place. They could  But the issue is that it’s not…we think that it takes just a nanosecond to regain attention, and the research is it’s like resetting, you’ve got rebuild your mind, so it takes way longer than people think.

Pete Mockaitis
So, at least a couple of minutes and maybe nearly an hour. Got it.

Joe McCormack
Yeah. And if you think about the things that people are doing moment to moment and multitasking, and the research indicates that when you’re trying to do two things, you’re depleting your attention. Now you’re doing three. It’s, like, we’re not acrobats in a circus where we’re spinning plates. That’s a skill for the rare person that can do five things at once. Most of us mere mortals struggle to do one thing well at once. So, why are you trying to do two or three? So, I think that we have to start saying no to some of those things because

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. And so, in that quiet time, I’d love to get your take with the scheduling. What do you find, in your experience and in others who are utilizing this, are some of the most sensible appropriate times to really schedule that in, make it work well for the day?

Joe McCormack
I liken it to like taking a shower. If you like taking a shower at night or in the morning, that’s really up to the person. The issue is

So, the people listening to it right now are like, “Well, all right, that sounds great. I want to do it.” So, when you sit down for 5 minutes and it’s quiet, it’s really noisy because you’re not prepared for it. So,

So, what I’ve devised are just some suggestions of things to prepare so when it comes, you’re ready for it. So, if you think about it, how would you  It’s like listening to a podcast. In a moment I want to listen to a podcast, you curate the podcast. People set your podcast, they subscribe to it, they’re ready for it, they come to listen, they’re ready to go. You don’t just drive your car while looking for a podcast, you’ll crash so you have to prepare before you get in the car.

Same thing for quiet. Think, “What am I going to do in this time of quiet?” And I came up with categories. You can come up with an infinite number of them. One is nothing. there’s a lot of books and research that say it’s good and healthy to let your mind wander and not focus on anything.

Another one is, it might sound funny but  Or plan, or read, or be thankful. Thanksgiving is a big day, right, for a lot of people. Write a list of things, if you have a tough life, that you’re thankful for. I’m thankful for shoes, electricity, my job. I’m thankful for the car. Whatever you’re thankful for, just write a list for 5 minutes, 10. And just come up with an activity and then do that for a set amount of time. And don’t try to be good at it. Just do it. This isn’t a contest. This is like you plug in your device to recharge it. This is the recharging of your brain.

And connected to that is  Don’t go to bed when you’re done and wake up when you feel like it. It’s all part of quiet. It’s like your brain needs to restore itself. It’s under attack all day long. You need seven to eight hours of sleep. And the research tells that high schoolers and college students, they don’t get nearly enough sleep, and they’re on their phones all day long. This is a bad combination. Really bad.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so you’ve laid that out there well. And I’m curious, in terms of you schedule the quiet time, you’ve got a plan, it’s curated for what goes down. And one of the biggest things is you establish your “In my role as blank, the most important thing is blank.” Maybe I could put you on the spot, for today, what did you come up with in terms of these critical sentences?

Joe McCormack
Funny you asked. You’re not putting me on the spot because I do this every day. There’s three big things that I did. One is I prepared for this podcast, all right? That was the first thing because it’s an important thing. I’ve written a book and I need to explain it so I need to prepare. The second thing that I did was I texted my kids. I’ve got kids in college and they’re always moving around and I travel as well so I’d like to stay connected to them. I’d let them know that I’m thinking about them.

A very close family member overseas, my brother-in law’s mom passed away so I prayed for her because I just found out she passed away. And I had a meeting with a startup, which was I got some guys in special operations that have retired and started a new business, and we were talking about their company and their vision and I was helping them with that. So, those were categories. And I do that every day.

And sometime it’s hard to come up with what’s the most important thing and not have it be just a to-do list. But, really, the reason I do it is because it orients my day. It gives my day an orientation so these are things that are like…do you ever go through a day that’s just a blur?

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah.

Joe McCormack
These make the days less of a blur because it makes the days more purposeful and more intentional and less like, “Oh, it’s 10:00 o’clock at night and I don’t know what I did. I can’t remember. And it’s not just today. It’s like I go back for a week, a month, and I can’t remember anything. My day is just a…” The whole thing is just a complete, like, “I’m in my life but I don’t remember any of it.” And that helps orient the day towards those things. And I think, for me, it’s been extremely helpful to do that and I’d like to suggest to other people to do the same.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And just to be able to feel like a winner in terms of, “Okay, I had, I don’t know, hundreds of potential to-do items land in my world, and I did 40 of them. Is that good? I don’t know.” As opposed to, when you’ve established, “All right. In my role as this, the most important thing is that,” and you do those things. You say, “All right, that feels good.” You can feel victorious with the day and ready to take on the next one.

Joe McCormack
You’re absolutely right. There is a book, actually a speech that was given by Admiral McRaven. As you may recall, he was the head of joint-special operations command, and then he gave a speech at the University of Texas. And the point of the speech was, “The first thing you need to do every day is to make your bed.” So, he wrote a book about this.

And what struck a lot of people was when he said that, his point was start your day with a success, and even if your day is a complete failure, when you come home at night, and this is brilliant, and you see that you did the first thing well, your day would not have been a total disaster. And it’s funny, when I was a kid, my dad would always tell us, “When you wake up, get up. And when you get up, make your bed.”

And McRaven, he wrote a whole book about making your bed, and I think the most important thing, do the most important thing. Do that and you’ll feel like you’re making progress in your life because you’re doing the most important thing and not forgetting that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s dead-on. And so, let’s talk about roles for a second. I mean, I imagine we could generate potentially dozens of roles and names for them. What are some of the biggies that come up again and again for you and clients?

Joe McCormack
Yeah, you have your role as leader, subordinate. I mean, everybody has got a boss. You can go to different characteristics like visionary, helper. You can go to partner. You can go to friend. You can go to brother or sister, parent, neighbor. I mean, there’s just things of

So, you think about your role, like during the day, it’s not like the great schizophrenia, that’s not the point. who am I today and what am I doing and what are the expectations? What’s important?” And once those get defined, it brings a lot of clarity. Next it brings a lot of the noise down because I’m clear in this moment right now, I’m not trying to be a father. I’m trying to be an author of a book and you’re the host. You’re not the host and an investment banker, even though that might be something you would do.

So, it gives people clarity about trying not to do ten things at once.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You have a fun turn of a phrase weapons of mass distraction. Can you give us some examples of those and what do we do about them?

Joe McCormack
I think if you just look at your life, there are…a

If you look at it as almost a threat and a reward, but it’s both, it can be helpful but it can also be very, very damaging at the same time. And it has to be managed as such, that it’s not…like, if you look at people bring their phone to bed. It doesn’t belong in bed. It belongs on a table in another room. Put it in another room. Buy an alarm clock.

I’ll tell you a funny story about that. I used to use it as an alarm clock. Well, what happens was I used it as an alarm clock, but then I want to check something, and the next thing you know I’m online, and two hours later I don’t know what I’m doing. So, I put it in another room and I bought an old-school alarm clock. So, the clock just changed a few weeks ago. I don’t have my phone to automatically update. I need to remember to change the clock. This was pretty old-school, right? So, I‘ve got an alarm clock, it sits six feet from me, and I didn’t change the time. So, I get up, set the alarm, wake up, it’s on a Sunday, I go to church, I go there, there’s nobody there.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

Joe McCormack
You know what’s so funny? There’s an old lady sitting there, and then there’s a guy sitting in the back, and it was kind of cold, so I’m like, “I don’t know, maybe people didn’t want to come because it was kind of cold.” I mean, I just said this in my head. So, I sit there, and then this old lady, she comes up to me, and she’s like, “Where is everybody?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s cold.” And I’m sitting there, and I’m like, “Oh, the clock’s changed. I’m using an alarm clock. My iPhone didn’t tell me. Oh, I guess that’s not the worst thing in the world.” I sat there for an extra hour.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, there you go.

Joe McCormack
I had built in quiet time. I had another hour but I didn’t go anywhere. My kids were like, “What did you do?” And I’m like, “I just sat there. I mean, why not? There’s worse places to be, right?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Nifty. Well, understood. So, the phone is one of them. And what else?

Joe McCormack
elusive 600. And, basically, the research tells us our brains are great processors, so they process, let’s say, at a rate of about 750 words per minute. This is conscious and subconscious thinking, how fast you can think. People can speak about 125 to 150 words a minute.

So, if you take 750 words per minute processing minus 150 words per minute speaking, you have about 600 extra words. That’s what the brain is thinking while you’re talking, and thinking while you’re listening. And we gave it a name, it was given by a friend of mine, Sharon Ellison, and it’s called the elusive 600. So, in that, those are the thoughts that go through our mind all day long.

Now, if you think about this, so when you’re listening to somebody, or you’re talking to somebody, or you’re just talking to yourself, you’re just walking from thing to thing, what are we saying to ourselves while we’re doing that? And you look at conversations that go bad. So, one of the things we talk about in the book is listening, and I call it you have to be in the moment and give listening as a gift. So, I have no agenda, I’m just listening, like you’re listening.

So, in the moment, thoughts can pop into my head. And if you’re a bad listener, I can’t listen to that thought right now. I just have to ignore it. I have to stay focused. So, random thoughts, negative thoughts, useless thoughts, thoughts that are just not timely thoughts, like, “Oh, I’d love to check this sport, this score in the game.” Well, I’m right in the middle of writing somebody’s evaluation. That’s not a good time to go check the sports score. Like, the quality of that evaluation is going to be in great part how much concentration and focus I gave it. But if a thought pops into my head, it doesn’t have to be prompted by technology,

In the example I used, it’s like if you’re in an office, walk from one side of an office to another to do something and see what people do along the way. They’ll be like going to the copy machine to get a copy, and then they stop to do this, and it’s all random thoughts. Stay focused. Are you getting a copy? I just did this today. I’m getting a copy then I go and get a cup of coffee. It’s like, “No, get the

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the shutdown, say no. What is the answer to untimely thoughts? Maybe that’s a big question many meditation teachers have wrestled with for millennia.

Joe McCormack
I just think Just keep on saying no. Like, there’s a power to the word no. Say no to things that are irresistible. No. Because there’s a power to it.

When you hear a person say it, it’s powerful. “Would you like to go to the game tonight?” “No, I can’t. I have something else to do.” I’m not encouraging people to walk around and tell their workmates and their colleagues no all the time because that would be anarchy.

powerful one at that. And people who are successful do this all the time so there’s nothing new about this. This is an old-school answer to a new-world problem. But this new-world problem presents itself as an irresistible problem. Like, “I can’t say no.” Well, we have to learn to or relearn to say no.

And this is why I call it attention management. I’m managing my attention.

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

Joe McCormack
I think for people, I think a lot of people struggle with this. It’s certainly a big work thing where there are so many things competing for our attentions but it’s really, this competes in all facets of your life. So, it might be discouraging or difficult for people, and I just want to tell people that

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

Joe McCormack
My father was a huge impact in my life and one of his quotes was, “Do something even if it’s wrong,” and he would always qualify it, not morally wrong or legally wrong, but just his impetus was just do something. Just don’t stand around waiting and thinking. Just keep on moving, keep on doing something, which is one of my favorite quotes from him.

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

Joe McCormack
The elusive 600 that I mentioned before we shared, I don’t know exactly where the original research came from, but it came from a woman, a consultant. And what I love the most about it is it gives a word or a name to a reality that people live with, and now they have a name for it. Like, “Oh, that’s my elusive 600.” And I’ve taught our courses at the Brief Lab for now over seven years, and that term has got a stickiness to it, and I owe a lot to that consultant who shared that with me.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Joe McCormack
One of my favorite books, the book is called “Isaac’s Storm” and it’s a book about a hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900. It’s a tragic part of history but it was a storm that nobody knew was coming. And we look at today like everybody knows in advance what bad things are going to happen, it’s like predicting the future. And this was a story about the technology and the science was advancing but it wasn’t quite there yet, and nobody knew. It’s a tragic story but it’s one about like our world is imperfect, and no matter how much technology we think we have, we’re always a little bit behind.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners and clients; they repeat it back to you?

Joe McCormack
Well, in the work that we teach at the Brief Lab, one of the big ones we do in the world of being clear and intentional as communicators, “it gives people a sense of clarity and purpose when they talk, that I just did this day. I just love when people get that concept and use it because it makes them so much easier to understand.

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

Joe McCormack
Go to TheBriefLab.com and we have resources there. You can download two free chapters of the book “Noise.” We have tools that people can use. There’s a treasure trove of resources. We teach elite military organizations and corporate leaders and teams not only how to be concise communicators but now with noise, how to be clear thinkers.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Joe McCormack
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Joe, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in managing the noise and enjoying all the fun that comes with having that handled.

Joe McCormack
Thank you so much for having me.

520: How to Start Finishing Projects with Charlie Gilkey

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Charlie Gilkey says: "If it's worth doing well, it's worth doing badly in the beginning."

Charlie Gilkey discusses how to deal with the obstacles that derail your important projects

You’ll Learn:

  1. The magic number for projects
  2. Signs that a project truly matters to you
  3. When and how to say no to your family, friends, and bosses

About Charlie

Charlie Gilkey is an author, entrepreneur, philosopher, Army veteran, and renowned productivity expert. Founder of Productive Flourishing, Gilkey helps professional creatives, leaders, and changemakers take meaningful action on work that matters. His new book is Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Charlie Gilkey Interview Transcript

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

Charlie Gilkey
Pete, thanks so much for having me. I’m pumped to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m excited to talk about starting and finishing and getting to done. Let’s start with starting, actually. I understand you don’t choose to start your year in January. How does that work and what’s the backstory here?

Charlie Gilkey
Well, there are several things going on. And thanks for that question. That’s a deep cut. Two things going on. One is the business cycle for the business that I’m in or the year cycle starts actually in August for the back-to-school, you know, back-to-work sort of thing. That’s when everyone comes back online, it’s like, “Hey, we got to get after it.” And so, that’s a really important point for my business.

And I’ve also learned that actually doing your yearly planning, if you’re going to do it on the personal side in February, is a way better time to do it because it kind of lets you shake off the high of New Year’s resolutions and all the things that go along there, and I think we’re way too optimistic during that period of the year. And then if you pay too close attention to the goals you set in, it can be a really good way to feel bad about yourself. But if you kind of wait until February, kind of around Groundhog’s Day and give yourself a redo, what I’ve learned is that we end up making way better sort of annual goals and resolutions during that period.

So, I have kind of two periods in which I do annual planning, but that’s kind of par for the course for me, and then I’m always recalibrating plans and working in it

Pete Mockaitis
That’s clever. Groundhog Day, redo, and I’m thinking Bill Murray right now. Part of that was shot near me in Woodstock, Illinois. Fun fact. So, yeah, that’s a good way to think about it in terms of like the day and where you’re going to choose to start and why. So, thank you for that. Let’s talk about the book Start Finishing. What’s the big idea here?

Charlie Gilkey
The big idea is that finished projects bridge the gap between your current reality and that life you want to live and that work you want to do. And so, a lot of us have, you know, we have really big dreams and visions for ourselves. We have that idea of our best work or our best life, and a lot of times we could feel stuck and we don’t quite know what to do. And it turns out that, again, it’s those finished projects that bridge the gap.

And I think it provides a bit of a different take on productivity, and getting things done, and sort of personal development, which either can be far too granular and focused on tasks, or it can be far too lofty and focused on sort of vision and sort of the big view of your life. And the mess of life and the beauty of life is in this middle world of projects.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, okay. Indeed, the finished projects bridge the gap. And one thing I think I’m coming to learn is that almost finished projects don’t. And I’m thinking about all these instances in which it’s like the vast majority of the hard work is done but it’s not all the way finished and, thus, it doesn’t turn into something.

So, I remember once, we’ve got a multifamily home here and we were trying to rent out one of the units and things were almost completely renovated, cleaned, whatever but there’s like a bunch of cardboard boxes in the corner. And I think that prospective tenants can know that those won’t be there when they move in but, nonetheless, I couldn’t help but notice that every showing we did where the boxes were there did not result in an application, and those that we did with the boxes absent, totally cleaned up, did.

And so, it’s sort of like almost done doesn’t pull it off for you. But it’s kind of encouraging in that it means that there’s very little left to get to finished project status. So, those are my own musings on the finished project piece. Give me your take on that.

Charlie Gilkey
Well, I love that. You know, I talk a lot in the book about displacement which is the idea that anything you do displaces a practical infinity of things you could do, or you can’t do one thing, or you can’t do multiple things at the same time, right? Barring simple things like doing the laundry while listening to a podcast. But when it comes to this significant work that we need to do, what I call best work and what I call those things that really light us up and are part of the matrix of meaning-making that we’re in, we tend to only be able to do one thing at a time.

And the frustrating thing about those half-finished projects is that they suck up all of the time that could’ve been going to something else, but they’re not bridging that gap. They’re not doing the work that they’re supposed to do to power your life. And it would be like investing a hundred bucks a month, for however long you want to do it. Let’s just say it’s 12 months, and you don’t get the return on it until the 13th month, and then you decide on the 12th month to just stop, and then everything disappeared, right? It’s like you’ve already sunk in all of that money, you’ve already sunk in all of that time but you don’t get the reward for it just because you decided to jump to something else. So, absolutely.

And one of the things that I really stress in the book is that we should really be focusing on throughput and not load. And by that, I mean I think we commit too quickly to ideas and end up carrying too many projects around with us and too many things that we’re not going to be able to finish. And so, if you make that commitment to where this week you’re going to, like, “I’m going to do these 17 projects,” and you only do three, well, you’ve carried the additional 14. And I think, unfortunately, what we do is we’ll say, “Well, this week, I overestimated this week so I’m going to do 12,” and then we do three projects.

Well, it turns out that if we just focus on the three that matter most and we get through them faster, not only is it just about efficiency but it’s about that momentum that you can build with these finished projects. And so, depending on where you want to take this, Pete, a lot of times when I tell people I like to focus on three to five projects, the first thing that they’ll do is, like, “I can’t. I got all the things.” But let’s do a reality check here, are you actually finishing those things or is it just a continual state of juggling and a continual state of sort of commenting about the status of a project but not actually moving that project forward? Or is that continual story that you’re going to get to but you don’t?

And I get to say, you know, over the decade I’ve been doing this work with people. There’s momentum, there’s more pride, there’s more joy, and there’s more results just from coming from focusing on fewer things, getting them done, and moving to the next thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, boy, that’s well-said with regard to load because you could feel that, and the word itself, it’s like, “I am shouldering a burden, a load, like a camel or an ox. Like, there’s a lot of things on my plate, on my back here.” And so, you identify these are the things that we’re actually going to sail right through here, we’re good to go.

And it’s intriguing that when you mentioned three to five, you’re getting pushback because, I guess I’m thinking about Jay Papasan who we had on the show with the One Thing, it’s like, “Oh, man, you’re being lenient. You’re giving them three to five instead of just one.” So, let’s talk about that for a moment. Why do you think that’s perhaps the magic number there, three to five projects?

Charlie Gilkey
It’s partially because enough studies both with my own clients and work, and external study showed that that’s about the limit of which we can do. Now, I want to pause here. I love Jay’s work and I find that most people can’t just commit to one thing because when you commit to one thing, I think you often forget. Well, there’s different ways of understanding his book and the message, so that’s one thing to talk about.

I want to make room for projects that are not just economic projects. So, for me, anything that takes time, energy, and attention is a project. And so, finding a place for those cardboard boxes you’ve mentioned, that very well could be a project, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s why it wasn’t done.

Charlie Gilkey
That’s why it wasn’t done.

Pete Mockaitis
It took multiple steps. There’s too many to just shove in the alley so I had to take another…do something else there.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, you got to find out where they are, and you got to sort, and you got to figure out which other closet you’re going to put them in, and then you open that closet and realized, “Oh, crap, there’s something in there. This got to go somewhere else.” It’s kind of like a shell game and stuff sometimes, right? But, also, getting married, getting divorced, having kids, moving across the United States, getting a new job, like all of those things are projects.

And, unfortunately, we tend to prioritize economic projects, or creative projects, or work projects, or however you want to say that, and we try to squeeze the work over our lives and the leftover, the time leftover from the economic projects, and we’re just not getting to it. And so, again, not to go overly critical of the One Thing, but it’s like we are not just work-related people. Like, our thing in life, our thing at work is one of the many things that we might want to attend to. We might also need to attend to our aging parents that we need to help transition into elder care, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think that in the conversation, Jay mentioned, “Hey, what’s the one thing within like a context or a domain?” “The one thing in my marriage, the one thing in my business, etc.”

Charlie Gilkey
Etcetera. And so, I think people misunderstand his message in that way, and so I just wanted to say, like, we’re actually super aligned in that way, but that’s where we start saying the five projects, or three to five projects. Yeah, you have to look across the domains of your life and not just pick the one thing, and not just pick like one domain, and say, “I’m going to go all in on that.”

And so, for instance, right now, I’m in the middle of launching this book and doing the PR too for this book, and it’s a major project. I’m also in the middle of reintegrating back into my business after working on the book for so long, so that’s another project. And I’m also getting back into the gym and working with a personal trainer. That’s a project, so that gets me through it.

But, anyway, you asked why three to five. I think that many lets you invest in the buckets of your life that matter without spreading yourself too thin. Two, I think it’s when we look at sort of the cognitive load that we humans can bear, we sort of heard the five plus or minus two, I think, is now four plus or minus two, like, the things we can remember. Well, when you have a fewer number of projects and you can always rattle off what you’re working on, it turns out you don’t need a super complicated productivity system or an app to help you with that. You can always just sort of have those things front of mind.

And the last thing is every one of the projects, another way of thinking through this, every one of the projects that you carry, they need fuel. And I talk in the book about focused blocks which are 90 to 120 blocks of time where you can sit down and make substantial progress on things. So, if it’s a creative project, it might be that time where, let’s say it’s writing, where you actually are able to sit down and get some good words in, lean into the project, get out of the project rut. But it doesn’t have to be creative work, it can be, again, going back to that garage.

A lot of times we don’t end up cleaning the garage because we look at it, it’s like, “Oh, I think I can just move it around,” but you know that it’s going to take you three to four focused blocks because you got to figure out where everything goes and do the organizing. And because we don’t schedule that time, we know we won’t be able to make any meaningful progress, so we don’t actually start.

And so, when we look at the sort of the three to five projects, it’s like, how many of these focused blocks do you have in your life, and in a week, that you can allocate towards these things?” And no focused blocks equals no momentum.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, I’m seeing how the pieces are coming together. So, I’ve got my three to five projects, I’ve got focused blocks for 90 to 120-ish minutes, and then I’m allocating particular focused blocks towards particular projects in order to get momentum. So, I understand you’ve got a full-blown nine-step method, so I think we’re already getting into a couple of them. How about we sort of get the full view here?

Charlie Gilkey
Yes. So, the full nine-step method would be, well, there are different ways we can say this. But where people often will fall down is that they go immediately from idea to working on it, and that’s really not a great way to do it because we don’t do ideas, we do projects, and so we have to do some work to convert that idea. But before we can get there, in chapter two, well, one of the steps is really getting clear about the obstacles that are in the way from you doing this life-changing work that we’re talking about. And if you don’t start with looking at that, the first thing that you’ll do is choose an idea, start working with it, and then see, all of a sudden, that you’re upside down with it and you can’t go forward with it and sort working backwards. So, it’s a root-cause approach.

So, the first step is getting in touch with some of those root causes that keep that gap between our current reality and the life we want to live. So, second sort of step is to pick an idea that really matters to you. And that seems like obvious except for what matters to us is oftentimes not the first things that we’ll pick because of fear, because of the seeming difficulty, and we end up choosing low-hanging fruits, or we end up choosing other people’s priorities.

And then when we get into the messy middle, or towards the end of the project, we don’t get anywhere. And that’s largely because, at the end of the day, that idea did not matter enough to us, it didn’t supply the amount of meaning and sort of commitment juice that we needed it to, and so there’s just a certain point in sort of imagine this lever of, like, at past a certain point of difficulty and grit, if you don’t have the amount of internal emotional buy-in and sort of spirit in that project, the difficulty of it is going to win, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Understood.

Charlie Gilkey
And so, you have to pick an idea that matters enough for you to invest a life force that is going to take to push through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And I think that’s well-said with regard to just because you’re doing it doesn’t mean that it matters to you. You very well could’ve chosen it because you passed up the bigger things out of fear, or, “Ooh, that just sounds hard.”

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, it just sounds hard. And I want to pause here because, over the last few decades, I think we’ve lost a lot of grit and we just sort of baked into some sort of talent myth, like if it’s hard it’s not for you because if we look at all the prodigies and the people that seemed to do things super easily, it’s like, “Oh, they got that talent. And the people that have the talent, they should go do those things. And if you don’t have that talent, maybe you go find something else that’s easier for you to do.” Right?

And what that ends up doing for a lot of us is that when we start something and it gets difficult, we sort of encode that maybe that’s a sign that we’re doing the wrong thing, maybe it’s a sign that there’s something else that I should be doing because it shouldn’t be this hard. And my whole point is, first off, if it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing badly in the beginning. Bottom line, if it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing badly in the beginning.

And, second off, in almost all these cases, these effortless talent displays that we see, it’s a lot of hard work and cultivation of those people behind the scenes, so they have a certain amount of budding seed time that we don’t have. And so, I want people to orient themselves so that when they see something that’s difficult, or when they see…well, let me say it this way.

I talk in the book about thrashing. And thrashing is sort of the meta work and emotional flailing and “research” that you’ll do to push an idea forward but it doesn’t actually push an idea forward, right? It’s just thrashing and flailing. And the thing about it is we don’t thrash about things that don’t matter to us. Like, no one has a mini-existential crisis about doing the laundry or taking the trash out. There’s no “Why am I the right person to do it? Is now the right time? What if I’m not good enough?” It’s like you do it or you don’t do it, right?

But when it comes to time to some of these best-work projects, which is what I call these life-changing projects that really only you can do and that change the world in really phenomenal ways, those are the ones where we’ll have all those sort of mini crises, and those are the ones where we’ll start wondering if we got what it takes, and so on and so forth.

And so, it turns out that the more it matters to you, the more you’ll thrash. And so, it’s a really good sign when you’re feeling that feeling of, like, “Wow, this is…” not just that it’s daunting, because you can take on a project that doesn’t matter and could be daunting, but you’re thinking like, “Wow, I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes. I don’t know if I’m ready for this,” those are actually really good signs that the project matters to you, because if it didn’t, you wouldn’t be feeling that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that is one worth sitting with it and remembering because you want it to come to mind when that feeling occurs again. Indeed, wow, yeah, so many implications when you’re experiencing, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know if I have what it takes.” It’s indicative of that’s something you care about a lot or that thought would not have occurred to you at all, the, “I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to…” And it’s not just about how challenging it is, because you might say, “But I don’t know if I have what it takes to take out the trash every day.” The take-out-the-trash challenge, you know. It’s, like, that’s probably not go do it. It just sort of says, “That’s dumb. I don’t feel like bothering.” So, yeah.

And I’ve often had this thought. I’ve said to my wife numerous times, like, when I’m feeling frustrated by something, I think, “Well, you know what, it’d be a lot easier if I didn’t care so much.” It’s like, “If I didn’t care, if my clients were getting great results in ROI from our trainings, then I’d just be like whatever.” But I do and, thusly, I get a little bit worked up associated with if folks are doing the exercises and understanding and connecting with the stuff.

Charlie Gilkey
Absolutely. It’s kind of like envy as a compass. And by that, I mean we’re not envious of other people when they don’t have something that we want. We’re only envious when someone has something that we actually care about. And, unfortunately, we try to wash out the envy, we try to wash it out, but, for me, I’m like, “Oh, maybe let’s pause a little bit and say, ‘What is it in this moment, in that sort of feeling that you have that’s telling you that something matters? And what are you going to do about it?’” as opposed to just pretending like you shouldn’t feel it.

Like, you like what you like, and you value what you value, and that’s one of those learning to center those fundamental truths and that it’s perfectly fine to like what you like and to value what you value, and you have permission to do that, then let you say, “You know what, that man with the shoes on over there, those shoes are really kicking, man. I love those shoes. I wish I had them.” So, what is it about that and what do you want to do to address that?

Maybe you decide later on, “No, maybe I was just being materialistic,” or maybe, just maybe, you like the shoes, and that’s enough for you to say, “You know what, I’m going to do something about that, meaning I’m either going to buy it, or if I can’t afford it, it’s worth it to me to do the work that I need to do to exchange my labor for money I need to get those things.” And that is a choice that I don’t think we allow ourselves to really sink into a lot of times unless they are socially-approved values and likes, in which case it’s kind of a given that we get those.

Like, many people, I know this is kind of straying in the personal finance land, but many people don’t question the value of owning a home because it’s one of those given, it’s like that’s just what you do. You go to school, you get a job, you get a partner, you buy a house, right? And so, deciding not to buy a house and deciding to be a renter for the rest of your life because you realize that 3% to 5% of you the cost of your home is going to be spent in maintenance, and those type of things in general. Like, that becomes important but a lot of people don’t give themselves permission to say, “You know what, this whole home-buying thing, not something I care so much about. I care more about freedom. I care more about that.”

And, again, I’m not trying to make a strong case for that particular economic choice. I’m just trying to say there’s a lot of decisions like that, that we default to the socially-approved cues and, unfortunately, end up living our lives doing work that we would rather not do to get stuff that we really don’t want, and then miss out on this one precious life that we have in front of us and that way we could have lived it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s adding up and resonating there in each of those components in terms of this is just what you do versus you’ve given some real thought to it. And when it comes to envy, I think it’s also intriguing to look and see if there are some finer distinctions because you got my wheels turning in terms of I saw this Netflix documentary about Bill Gates and I had some envy, but I don’t at all have envy for Elon Musk, right? And so, here are these two super rich people who are innovating but there’s a distinction and that is sort of rich fodder for potential insight. So, it’s like, where do you have envy and where is there a similar situation where you don’t? And then we’re really homing in on something.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah. So, what does that envy tell you about your values? That would be the question, right? And where is the lack of envy in other places, not do the same things? So, again, these are really good tools. And the thing about it is, especially productivity but I’ll say the broader sort of personal development, we approach it from a headspace in like a thinking space. But when it comes down to actually doing the work that changes lives, changes our lives, changes other people’s lives, and having the courage and being able to set up the boundaries, it’s always going to come back to your heart space. It’s always going to come back to stuff that really matters.

And so, I encourage people to actually steer with that as opposed to getting caught into all the things sort of in that headspace of what you should do. And, just while I’m on that, just about any time you’re telling yourself you should do something, pause. Because, usually, what you’re telling yourself is that there’s some external standard that is a guideline for what you ought to be doing. And where I want you to pause is say, “But is that really true for me? Is it really true that that’s the right thing for me to do?”

And sometimes when you should, in the case of given who I am and what I care about, this is the thing that I need to do, but I’ve learned so oftentimes, so many times we only use the word should when it’s an external rule, an external guide. And when it’s our own sort of compass, we say, “I get to…” or, “This matters to me,” or, “I want to…” or, “This is meaningful.” Like, we use all sorts of words that are different than the should word. Does it make sense, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I have been thinking about should a lot lately in terms of, I guess, when I see or hear should, I get very curious as well in terms of “What do you really mean by that?” And I find, often, that should, all that really means is, “If one were to invest additional time, energy, money, resource in this domain, there would be some kind of a benefit.” But, like you said with regard to opportunity cost, well, is that really worthwhile?

And I’m really intrigued when I hear it with regard to people talking about TV or Netflix, like, “Oh, have you seen the latest season of this?” And I say, “Oh, no, I should really watch that.” And I’m thinking, “Man, really, should you? I think you got the right idea and I’m the one who should watch less Netflix.”

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, stop shooting on yourself is a long way of saying it.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Charlie Gilkey
Like, if you wanted to do it, you would have watched the show already. If it really mattered to you, it just turns out that, I talk a lot about cage matches, whether it’s a priority cage match or a project cage match, and that’s just a homage to my upbringing in the ‘80s of professional wrestling, where the basic idea, if you’ve never seen this, it’s like a bunch of competitors get into the ring, and the strongest one, some way or the other, ends up throwing everybody else out or beating them into submission. So, I know, terrible metaphor for this particular context.

But there are certain priorities and certain things that they’re always going to win that cage match. If you are a parent and something comes up about your kids, you’re going to displace almost everything else to make sure that their needs are attended to. And so, what I want more of us to do is to look at all the OPP, the other people’s priorities, not the Naughty by Nature O.P.P. song, but that’s also a great song, right? I want to look at everyone else’s priorities and say, “You know what, why and how are those more important than my own?” Because you could be that person that runs around trying to fill everybody else’s priorities and end up exhausted and depleted and frustrated, and still not be able to appease everyone and fill their buckets.

Or, you can say, “You know what, I can’t be everything for everyone. I’m choosing for the smaller set of priorities to be who I am and to live in the way, live and work and allocate my time in a way that really accentuates those values.” And that does mean that there are a lot of people who might be mad at you, there might be a lot of people who decide not to be friends with you, or there might be a lot of other, like there might be some social fallout for that. But, again, look forward into a decade, would you rather have done the things that really are going to power the type of life you want to live or just continue to maintain other people’s projects and priorities?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And while we’re here, as I’m rolling with it, what are your pro tips on saying no?

Charlie Gilkey
Pro tips on saying no. It depends on where it’s coming from, so I got to start with that. Obviously, if your boss walks into the door, walks into the office, and is like, “Hey, I’ve got a new project and priority for you,” be careful about saying no to that because you may not get to say yes to the job tomorrow, right? And so, there’s a context there. And even with bosses, and I’ve had to do this in the military, back when I was in the Army, where it’s like you get handed this project, or you get handed this mission, you’re like, “Okay. Well, I can do this but it may displace some of these other priorities that you have for me and that we’ve already talked about. So, do you want me to do this instead of that? Or like what’s the priority conversation here?”

And that I think always returning to, especially the work environment, to priorities is a good way to talk about it, because you’re not saying, “Screw you. I don’t care.” You’re saying, “I’m here to do a certain job, or I’m here to make sure that I’m providing the best value to this team that I can. We’ve already discussed these other ways in which I could provide that value. Now, there’s this new thing. Is this better than that?” And that’s a good conversation that a lot of teams can have even that a lot of people can have with their boss.

I think when it’s with your friends and family, first off, my observation is that we spend too little time talking to friends and family about what actually matters to us, and so we end up negotiating a bunch of trivial things. We get invited to go to the club, or you get invited to go to watch the football game on Saturday, or you get invited to all these sorts of things, or you get expected to, like, “Hey, can you watch my kid today?” or, “Can you come over?” and there’s never been that talk of, like, “Actually, Saturday is the day that I spend in community service, and that’s why I’m down to soup kitchen every Saturday because that’s super important to me.” We haven’t established our priorities first and so we’re always negotiating what matters on the backside of things.

So, step one is to have more intentional conversations with your friends and family about things that matter to you, the projects you’re working on and how they fit into this life that you want to live, in that way when you do get asked to do something or requested to do something, there’s a preexisting conversation about some things that matter. It changes it, it changes the conversations because the people around you understand that it’s not like you’re sitting at home on that Saturday evening just looking for something to do, right? You have these other plans for yourself and other things that truly matter, so it does help with that conversation.

The second way that I would look in on this one would be to, where it’s a resonant request, meaning it’s from someone who can legitimately make that request, and it’s something that, in general, like you’re open to doing it but perhaps can’t do it right now, is always provide that alternative. It’s like, “You know, I’m sorry that I can’t do that that day because I have some preexisting commitments. Is there a way that I can do that Wednesday or Friday or this other period of time? Because what you’re requesting from me, I actually do care about and I care about the relationship that we’re in here. That particular time is not the best time.”

And the last thing that I would say is, and this goes back to talking about things that matter and being honest with your friends and family, is if there are certain things that you’re being requested to do and they don’t resonate, and they aren’t something you’re ever going to do, don’t BS people and be like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll get to it,” or, “Yeah, it sounds great,” or, “We’ll have coffee in three months.” If you know that you don’t want to have coffee in three months, avoid that. Avoid setting that sort of precedent. And I know that seems perhaps obvious, and maybe it seems hard, but I think too many people are not honest with the people around them for fear of rejection, or for fear of becoming a social pariah, or whatever that is, and we end up negotiating a lot of things that, if we were just being forthright with folks, we wouldn’t have to be negotiating.

Pete Mockaitis
Charlie, I have no interest in drinking coffee with you.

Charlie Gilkey
Hey, I got it. Cool.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s not true, Charlie. I think it’d be a lot of fun.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how does one say that?

Charlie Gilkey
How does one say, “I’m not interested in having coffee”?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Ever.

Charlie Gilkey
Ever.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I think that’s kind of what you’re saying. They’re saying, “Hey, in a few months when things quiet down,” it’s like that’s kind of what you mean is that’s just fundamentally is not worth doing to you.

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, that’s a tricky one, right? Well, here’s what I’ll say. Very rarely do I have someone out of the blue who doesn’t know just ask me to go for coffee, right? So, typically, it’s in the context where they know I got a lot of stuff going on, and so I can say, “Ooh, I’m going to have a hard time.” Or, what I will normally say is, “Hey,” especially if I don’t know them and I really don’t want to have coffee, like, “What’s your thought there? What are you thinking?” And this may just be peculiar to my line of work because I am a coach and things like that.

If it comes up with doing all these things, like, “I’d love to have coffee because I want to pick your brain about something,” then I can say, “Hey, Pete, I’d love to have that conversation. I am a professional coach, and the best way for us to have that conversation would be under this sort of structure. Are you open for that conversation?” And, basically, what that’s saying in some way, without being a butthole about it, is, one…

Pete Mockaitis
It ain’t free.

Charlie Gilkey
It ain’t free. And, two, if it matters to you, like if it matters for you enough to do it, then let’s have that conversation. But, for me to show up and do that for free, like, again, that’s displaced other people who pay me to do this, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah.

Charlie Gilkey
And, on that note, I have a certain amount of time that I just think of as service to the world and community service and things like that. And so, there are some people who are like, “You know what, that’d totally be something that I would pay…” like someone would pay me to do. But, in this circumstance, I just feel called that this is a conversation that I want to be in and so I’ll do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Charlie Gilkey
But, again, I don’t get a lot of that. I know women actually get a lot more requests for coffee, and it’s kind of one of those things. Are they requesting you to coffee to pick your brain? Which is basically that conversation we were just having, Pete. Or are they wanting to establish a friendship? And so, I think, largely speaking, the best way to say no sometimes is to say, “Let’s determine what we’re actually trying to do.”

If you want to avoid that tendency to say yes too quickly, and this does seem to contradict what I was saying a little bit earlier, your go-to is always, “Let me check my schedule and see what projects I have, and see how I can make that work.” And then say, “Let me get back to you in a day or so.” And then that at least gives you enough time to not overcommit yourself, but also think about how you’re going to disengage from that.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you. Well, Charlie, we got a lot of good stuff here. I had a big list going in. You’ve distinguished three different ways projects get stuck, and I think that’s worth mentioning. So, can you give us, what are these three categories and how do we deal with those?

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah, can I get a three and a half here?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, 3.5, yeah.

Charlie Gilkey
Three-point-five because I kind of want to talk about the red zone on this one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Charlie Gilkey
Because the red zone is a metaphor, I’m appealing to American football, where as you get in that last 20 yards of the drive, a lot of teams will fumble it, or a lot of teams will screw up in that last 20 yards, and then end up in a field goal situation, or a turnover situation. And the reason you end up in a red zone is because they’re such tight space that everything working against you doesn’t have to spread itself so thin.

And so, projects can get stuck in that red zone where you’re in that last sort of 3% that seems to take as long as the full 97% before, and a lot of that is just about, again, that’s when your perfectionism is going to come up, that’s when your procrastination is going to come up, that’s when all of the implications of the scope and goal will creep, start coming up. And so, just understand that that’s a normal part of the process.

And in the book, I do give some ways to work through the red zone, but part of it is doubling down at the end and not thinking that you’re just going to be able to slide it home. I’m being super quick there because I’m conscious of time.

The other three sort of ways projects get stuck, so there are cascades, there are logjams, and there are tar pits. Cascades are when you have a series of projects that you got to do step A before you do step B before you do step C, and step A gets behind, so step B gets behind, so step C gets behind, and you might have a whole cascade of those. And at a certain point, I think we’ve all been in that where you start spending more time trying to keep your projects up to date and communicating with people about those projects than just getting those projects done in the first place, and it just keeps slipping on you.

And so, the trick of solving the cascade is you actually have to clip both ends of the cascade. You have to stop new projects coming in and, in a lot of times, you have to look at those projects that are backed up and start deferring them, start dropping them, and start focusing on getting the ones that you can through so that you get it going again. So, you can’t just focus on the new projects.

So, there are times, Pete, where people will come to me and they’ll tell me what they’re doing, it’s like, “All right. So, first thing is we’re on a new project diet, right? You don’t get to take on any new projects until we get these ones done because we don’t have any space to add anything anyways. It’s just going to be a frustrating conversation for both of us three weeks later because you’re going to tell me, ‘I didn’t make any progress on anything.’ And I’ll ask you why, because you didn’t have time, so on and so forth, so let’s not do that.” New project diet.

So, you got to sort of clip both ends. Once you get enough of those projects going, then maybe start accepting new projects back into the pipeline. And how that might work in a work context is, again, talking to your boss and being like, “Look, here’s what’s happening. I’m not able to get any of these projects done because of the rate this is coming. I need two weeks or I need a week where I can just focus on getting these things caught up. Here’s my plan for that. Is that all right with you?”

And a lot of times, when faced between you not getting something done, and you getting something done, bosses and teammates would much rather you get something done. And so, it’s not as hard of a conversation as people make it. You just have to admit that the amount of inputs that are coming in exceed your ability to put them in the output mode. And that’s a hard conversation for a lot of us to have, but having that conversation after four months of struggling, doesn’t do you any favors. If you see that, you might as well get ahead of it.

You know, a lot of what we’ve been talking about today is about taking the hard parts or maybe the pain parts of getting stuff done and putting them on the frontside of things, because the idea is that at some point, if you’re going to be falling behind and overcommitting and your projects are going to be stacking up on you, there’s a certain amount of pain that that’s going to cause. We know that. And so, it’s not necessarily avoiding the pain. It’s, can you put some of the pain at the beginning of it so that you don’t have to face so much of it later on? So, cascade, that’s how you handle cascades.

Logjams are when you have too many projects competing for the same amount of time. This is the classic case where you have five deadlines on Friday, and you start looking at all the work it would take to do those deadlines. There’s just no way you can do them all at the same time. So, it’s different than the cascade, because cascade, you can kind of think of like projects stacked back to back. A logjam is like projects stacked on top of each other, and there’s just a certain amount that’s kind of like trying to push the golf ball through the garden hose. It doesn’t work, right?

So, with the logjam, some of it is similar in the sense of like a no-new-project diet will help but you really have to get real about, like, “Which of those projects that are trying to compete for the same amount of time have to be done?” Like, if you don’t do them, you’ll get fired, or it will cause a lot of pain, and which ones are nice to do? And those nice to do ones, or would be good to get done, or the ones that get deprioritized so you can focus on getting those ones that will get you in hot water done, and then you can sort of reestablish the flow of your projects again.

And the last one is a tarpit. And I’ve learned this for a lot of creative projects, but a tarpit is when that project is like you sort of touch it a little bit, and then the second you let it go, it starts sinking in a tarpit, in like one of those Jurassic tarpits, it gets stickier and deeper and deeper. And not only do you have to work to pick it up, you have to work to pull it out of it all over again. So, if you’re ever stuck with one of those projects and the mental or spiritual or literal closet, you know what I’m talking about. It’s so hard to resurrect those things. And then once you do, the second you let it go, it starts sinking back in there.

And so, the thing about tarpits is a lot of times it’s some layer of fear that keeps that thing hiding in the background, or there are some deep sort of emotion around it, and you’ve got to get clear about what that is before you get back into that project, because if you don’t address it, the same pattern of it sinking deeper and deeper is going to keep happening.

And then the other thing about tarpits, projects in a tarpit, is you want to make sure to give it enough time, enough of those focused blocks that I’ve talked about, that you can go ahead and clear all of the muck and get some significant progress on it, because, I’ll tell you what, there are a few things better than seeing one of those tarpit projects and figuring out, it actually does still matter to you, you’ve just been daunted or overwhelmed or steered by it, and then it’s knuckling down for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, getting it done. It’d be like, “You know what, it’s done. It’s out of my soul. It’s out my emotions, out of my brain, and I can move onto the next thing, feeling so much more buoyant, and not just weighed down by that project that’s just sort of haunting me from the closet.”

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us some examples of projects that often fall into the tarpit category?

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah. So, creative projects and creative, broadly speaking, so if you want to write a book, yeah, that can be a tarpit project. If you’re a musician, you’ve been meaning to write an album, those fall into the tarpit pretty quickly because it can be challenging to bare your soul in the ways that it takes to do that type of creative work.

A common tarpit project that I’ve seen from people, I haven’t had this problem yet because of the age of my parents, but it’s when you end up with heirlooms and sentimental items that you inherit from your parents when they pass. They end up in garages and closets where you just can’t get in there, and you can’t figure out what to do with your mom’s baby shoes that she gifted to you for some reason.

And so, those types of projects, and anything around clearing out the material belongings or material items that exists from relationships, so it could be that you have that box. I know of a few of my female friends that have boxes of letters and cards from boyfriends they had in high school, right? And I’m like, “Well, okay. So, what’s that about?” But just getting in there and figuring out what to do with it and things like that can be a total tarpit.

For a lot folks, financial stuff, getting your taxes in order, figuring out where all your money has gone, is going, might go, anything around money can be one of those tarpit projects which is like, “You know, I want to get in it, I get in there, I poke around a little bit, but I don’t actually make the investment. I don’t actually buy the insurance. I don’t actually do the thing that I need to do.” Those tend to be classic sources of tarpits.

And what else? I think those are three pretty good cases of that.

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

Charlie Gilkey
I know we’re wrapping things up, but I wanted to talk briefly about success packs because it’s a game-changer for people. And success packs are just a group of people that you put around yourself and your project that really help you figure out how to go. I would normally talk a little bit more about this, but the thing about success packs is they help you convert “how” problems into “who” solutions.

And when you use them, it takes a lot of that overload that we can feel, that overwhelm that we can feel about having to have it all figure out ourselves, and all the work that we might do, and feeling alone, and just realizing that we have a team of people that we can reach out to for different reasons. And so, whenever you’re wanting to do work that matters for you, before you start making heavy plans, before you start jumping headlong in there, think about the group of people that you would want to put around you that will be your advisors, that will be your helpers, that will be the people who benefit from the projects, and that will be your guides so that, again, you’re not stuck doing this type of work alone.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you. So, now, tell me about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring.

Charlie Gilkey
This one is from Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching and it goes, I’ll give this version of it, “Because the master is aware of her faults, she is faultless.” And the idea there goes that because she’s honest about her limitations and constraints and who she is, those limitations, constraints and character quirks don’t end up tripping her up and making her life harder than it needs to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood.

Charlie Gilkey
And so, I love that because I think a lot of times we don’t want to talk about those constraints and limitations and challenges. It’s kind of like when people are like, “Well, we don’t want to talk about the hard things because it makes them real.” But if you arm is broken, like you talking about your arm being broken doesn’t break it. It’s already broken. So, what are you going to do about it? And so, I love that one because whenever I’m, one, it allows a lot of room for humility but it also allows a lot of room for hope at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Charlie Gilkey
I’ve been really geeking out on the marshmallow test, and especially that they got it wrong.

It turns out that that was largely, when they did the research on the data and they tried to run it again, what they found out was actually a determination of someone’s social status was actually what was determining their ability to hold out or not. And the reason I’m super pumped about that finding is, one, having grown up as a poor kid, and just seeing how different realities manifest because of just where you grew up on the opportunity divide, gave me a lot of hope there. But it also reminds me that we need to be super careful about the judgments we make on people, and that we need to dig deeper when we’re starting to see some of these types of trends.

And so, again, it’s one of those big things that’s largely grit determined what you would be able to do in life, and it turns out that where you start in life determined how much grit you may have. And that means, in some ways, grit is a muscle that we can all work on, and our future is not necessarily predicated by where we grew up, even though that has a super strong influence on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Charlie Gilkey
Well, since I got the quote from that, I probably should say the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Charlie Gilkey
The tool that’s popping up to me is the AlphaSmart Neo2 which is a late ‘90s word processor. It’s, basically, a keyboard with an LCD screen on it. And it’s really helpful for writing when you’ve been super distracted, or when you got a lot going on. It’s actually what I wrote about 95% of Start Finishing on. And when it comes to quality words and volume of words, I have yet to find a better solution than the AlphaSmart Neo.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. Thank you. And how about a favorite habit?

Charlie Gilkey
That would have to be my morning routine. And so, I drink tea and meditate for at least 25 minutes in the morning, and that 25 minutes setup the rest of the day. And there’s a marked difference when I don’t have that 25 minutes than when I do, or when I don’t prioritize it. So, that is the habit that keeps all the other habits going.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Charlie Gilkey
I don’t have a really good one but what resonates is a quote but something that a lot of readers have said about this book, is really commenting that the part about them not being uniquely defective really stands out. So, I can say it in a quote form. So, in the book, I talk about, in chapter one, I just remind people that we’re not uniquely defective. We’re not fated to being able to get our stuff together. And we’re not fated to always be in struggles with that. And I think that’s such an important point because a lot of times we approach really important stuff from a frame of like there’s something uniquely defective about us that’s going to keep us from being successful.

And when you let go of that belief, when you let go of that way of orienting yourself to the world, and you see that, to quote Marie Forleo of like everything is figure-outable, and you are fundamentally able to change if you will yourself to do it, it opens up the world of possibilities. And so, yeah, that’s the one I would put down as you’re not uniquely defective.

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

Charlie Gilkey
So, if you’re interested in the book, go to StartFinishingBook.com, that’s all one word. If you’re interested in the broader body of work that I’ve got, you can find it at ProductiveFlourishing.com.

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

Charlie Gilkey
Yeah. In the next full week that you have, reach into that closet of your soul where you put one of those projects that really matter, one of those ideas that really matter, that will make your work better, that will make your colleagues work better, that will make your workplace better, and start thinking about, “How can I spend at least two hours this week bringing that idea to life and turning it into a project?” Start with that two hours and if that’s all you’ve got is two hours a week, better to work on that and make work awesome than to leave it in there waiting for a better time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Charlie, this has been so much. Thank you and good luck in all of your finishing projects.

Charlie Gilkey
Thanks so much for having me, Pete.

517: Doubling Your Productivity with Tim Campos

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Tim Campos says: "Give yourself that time."
Tim Campos discusses how he doubled Facebook’s productivity—and how to double your own.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to how Tim doubled Facebook’s productivity
  2. The biggest mistake people make with their calendars
  3. The two kinds of time professionals have

About Tim

Tim Campos doubled productivity for Facebook while he was Chief Information Officer between 2010 and 2016. Now, Tim runs Woven. Woven is a digital calendar that helps people get the most out of their time while studying the analytics behind how we’re using our time.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Tim Campos Interview Transcript

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

Tim Campos
I am glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and hear some of your tales of increasing productivity at Facebook. And, for starters, I understand that just a couple of weeks into your job, you’re called into a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg himself. What’s the story here?

Tim Campos
Well, actually, it was from Mark Zuckerberg’s EA. She sent me an urgent note, two weeks into the company, she said, “You’ve got to show up at Zuck’s desk first thing tomorrow morning, and there’s something really important that we need to discuss.” And I was really excited, I was happy that Zuck was interested in getting strategic with IT from the get-go. This is a really good sign when a CEO is that interested, and so I showed up.

The first learning was Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t actually show up until 10:00 in the morning so an 8:00 a.m. meeting is a sign. The second was I was ambushed by Anikka and Camille, this is Mark and Sheryl’s executive assistants, and they basically sat me down and said, “Look, this calendar thing does not work for us. Here’s a long list of problems that we’re having. These are not only strategic issues for us. They’re becoming embarrassments for Mark and Sheryl. And you got a week to fix them.” And it was a rude awakening to the challenges of calendaring at a next-generation company like Facebook’s.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting because, so, weren’t they just using the same stuff everybody else uses? But what are they using and what was wrong?

Tim Campos
Yeah, they were using Microsoft Exchange which is what everybody else uses. But a couple things that were different. One is Facebook, at the time, was using a much higher density of Mac and Apple devices than anybody else, so 80% of the workforce is on Macintosh, and most of the workforce used iPhones at the time. And the second thing was just the nature of how Mark and Sheryl’s schedules are very dynamic, a lot of changes to the calendar events and this was really aggravating many of the problems that already exist with calendars.

So, they were experiencing problems where a conference room would forget about the meeting, or it could get double-booked, or Mark was supposed to be in one place and the calendar said he was supposed to be in someplace else, and these were hugely embarrassing for everybody involved. And to fix it required me to do something I’m actually quite good at, which is getting into the details of how this thing was built, why is it behaving the way that it is because it wasn’t just a simple problem of this button hadn’t been pressed or something like that. And it gave me insight to why calendars are so bad.

And throughout my tenure at Facebook, I had a love-hate relationship with the technology. And, with time, I got so motivated to do something about it. I actually decided to quit my job at Facebook and start a company to help the calendar be a lot more intelligent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool, yeah. Well, so what a nice prompt and bit of inspiration. And I guess I can understand how that would be embarrassing, it’s like, “Well, you’re one of the most advanced tech companies in the world and you’re telling me that your calendar is wrong? Okay. What else is broken over at your organization?”

Tim Campos
Yes, exactly. And, for Mark and Sheryl, part of why I was hired was, and this was 2010, and Facebook had no specific plans to go public but they knew that was going to happen, and they were concerned if something like this doesn’t work, what does it mean for the financial system? What does it mean for the things that really matter for the company? And so that’s why it was such an important issue for them and why they hired me.

But, like I said, as I got into the nuts and bolts of this, my job at Facebook was the productivity of the workforce, make everybody more productive including myself, and that starts with time. Time is the most valuable asset that we have. And one of the things that I found that was just incredibly frustrating is it was so difficult to understand how I was spending time, in fact. I wanted to know from my EA, like, “How much time am I spending at 101s? Or, how much am I spending on sales versus finance versus recruiting?” It took my EA hours a week to just do the math on it. And why wasn’t that a simple button that you press on the calendar to get that question answered? I just never understood that.

And things like we want to have effective meetings, or at least do an effective meeting, have a purpose for it, have a reason for this meeting to occur, whether it’s a staff meeting, or an interview, or a 101, and those meetings require agendas and some of that purpose to be communicated ahead of time. Sign on a calendar, in the description field maybe there’s some information about how to log into the meeting if it’s a BlueJeans meeting or a Zoom meeting or something like that, but everything else is nowhere to be found. If that stuff exists, it’s hidden in email someplace. Another system that is just absolutely built to drain our time. And none of us have time to go search email for why we’re supposed to be in an event, so you end up spending the first 10 minutes of every meeting setting the stage what the purpose is as oppose to doing what you really need to be doing, which is meeting, getting something done, making a decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, there’s so much I really want to dig into here, so let’s see. Okay. So, that is one of your big claims to fame there, is doubling the productivity of the Facebook employees. And so, I want to give you a hard time for just a moment. So, when you say productivity, you’re specifically referring to the metric revenue per employee moving from 900K to 1.8 million per employee. And I guess doubling productivity, on the one hand, makes you think, like, “Wow, everyone is getting twice as much stuff done. That’s awesome.”

And so, I guess there’s certainly some of that, which we’ll talk about, although, for the skeptics listening who are saying, “Well, yeah, but, I mean, Facebook makes a lot of their money through ads, and that platform doesn’t really require any humans to do anything. So, isn’t that more just a function of more people buying ads and having a similar number of people in the workforce?” So, I’ll let you make your case, Tim.

Tim Campos
Oh, it’s absolute a fair criticism, and I’ll be the last to say that 100% of Facebook’s productivity gains were solely due to things that my organization was responsible for. Quite the opposite. There’s a lot of things that Facebook would do for itself in terms of how we built the product. You point out some industry aspects that contribute to productivity. But it’s worth looking at revenue per employee because it’s a useful benchmark. It’s easy to calculate across different companies, and you can look across an industry to see what’s the standard here.

For technology, for example, most companies are between 300,000 and 400,000 in revenue per employee. For a company like Google, at the time they were closer to 1.1—1.2 million per employee. But the other thing is how is it trending. As we’re growing as a company, what do we have to grow and what don’t we have to grow? Most companies, for example, they want to grow revenue but they don’t want to grow costs. That’s how you grow profit and that’s how a company is valued.

And you can achieve a lot of that through economies of scale, that if you’ve got a manufacturing facility, or, in Facebook’s case, a data center, you can drive more revenue out of that data center without having to build another one, then you’d get more profit. Well, for knowledge-based companies, the human capital is the thing that you’re looking for economies of scale with, “Can we do more without having to hire more? Can we support more customers without more salespeople? Can we recruit more engineers without having to hire more recruiters?” And these were the challenges that my team was given.

And we accomplished that, in large part, through technology innovations. So, we think things like, “How do you do CRM? How do you manage customer information? How do we source for candidates? What’s the way to make predictions about who would be the best candidates? We can surface those resumes to the recruiters first.” And by doing enough of that, we were able to offset the need to grow as much proportional to the company.

Actually, oftentimes, a lot of companies get less efficient as they get bigger because you need middle management, you need people inside the company just to coordinate with other people, and that’s tax, that’s an overhead. And it can become just a significant driver of cost and bureaucracy. And this is something Facebook was deathly afraid of as they got bigger and why we placed so much emphasis on productivity.

So, I completely agree with the criticism, but at the end of the day, I think it survives review when you take a look at what we did that a lot of the growth in productivity ultimately comes down to, not just the culture of the company or the space that it’s in but tooling. And Facebook has absolutely grown its productivity much more than even companies like Google and Microsoft which are already very productive on their own.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Tim, thank you. I am convinced. You checked that box. I think I can do the due diligence here. So, let’s talk about, then, what are some of the interventions that made the biggest impact and are the most transferable? Because I imagine most listeners are probably not going to say, “Hey, let’s build out a new system that helps predictively surface resumes of candidates,” although some might, so that’s not off the table. But I’d love to know which ones have the most impact and are the most transferable?

Tim Campos
Well, I think it does very much depend on what kind of business you’re in. So, if you’re a lawyer and you’re trying to make yourself more productive, optimizing recruiting is not going to help, or even optimizing your ability to predict what a customer might need. So, you really have to adapt your productivity strategy for the business and even for the role that you are in. But a few things that I think are general strategies that we employed. One is really understanding what are the long poles and getting things done.

So, for Facebook, the biggest function in the company is the product organization. The second largest function is the sales organization. The product organization, their productivity is driven by how much code can they write and is that code impactful. And, to be quite frank, that really wasn’t a problem that my organization could fix for them.

But sales is a different story. Salespeople, you know, they got to meet with customers, they need to understand which customers to spend time with, and there were a lot of things that we could do to help them be better prepared for those conversations. And, especially, because Facebook’s customer base was growing so much, having a much richer and better understanding of, “Who’s an advertiser of the company? What is their advertising objective? What problems are they trying to address with Facebook advertising? Where are they in their journey? Are they being successful and, therefore, they need some more advanced advice? Are they just starting and they don’t really know how to use the different advertising products?” would affect how the sales organization would approach customers.

And so, a lot of what we did was just centralizing information to make it clear at what stage a customer was in, and that helped to give the sales organization the right tools, the right conversations to have with companies, conversations that were specifically designed to help them alleviate problems with the advertising products, and help them be more successful with accomplishing their objectives, and, therefore, spend more with the company. And we became very, very good at this.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. But, you know, I’ll tell you what, that resonates in terms of you’re centralizing information. And, in a way, that doesn’t seem like such a revolutionary move but, in practice, it makes a world of difference. So, just even putting on a podcast, you know, and sort of like, I’ve got to pull a lot of different pieces of information in terms of after this interview is concluded and before it’s published to the world.

And I’m pulling information like, “Okay, what’s the date of the release? And who’s the guest? And who are the advertisers? And what’s the copy for that advertisement? And is that copy new or is it similar as to last time? And who’s the next guest that we’re going to tease at the end? Is there anything cool happening that we’re going to mention? What are the parts of the interview that we’re going to cut versus sort of try to tease?”

And so, it’s actually pretty cognitively intense and it requires me to kind of open up, like, five or six different windows. But, sure enough, with my awesome team (Thanks, guys) has put more and more of that into one place and so I can do less work in terms of, “Yup, I like that teaser. Yup, I like that quote. Hmm, yeah, I agree. We should cut that part. Yup, that’s the sponsor. Let me change a few of the key words or segues,” and then away it goes. As opposed to, in a way, this is going to make a big deal if I spend 8 minutes pulling information from different places. But multiply that by hundreds of episodes, or occasions of an activity, and you’re really impacting productivity simply by centralizing information.

Tim Campos
And making it easier for people to access.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Tim Campos
Another example of this was, “What do we do for recruiting?” It’s the same thing, same objective, where this information about a candidate, their resume, their LinkedIn profile, who they’ve met with, if they’ve given us permission to answer this question, who are they friends with, Facebook friends with, in the company, who might know them, have they interviewed in a previous stage. Like, maybe they declined to accept our offer but a couple of years later, now we’re interviewing them again. What was the outcome of those interviews? What did people have to say?

By just centralizing all this information, it streamlines a recruiter’s ability to put the right candidate in front of the right manager quickly. And so, you can follow the same methodology in almost every role. I do this today for a little bit for my customers. When we onboard users, some of our users request personalized onboarding where we literally get on the phone with them, talk with them about what they’re trying to do with their calendars, and teach them how to use the product.

And we start with all the information that we know about them going into the discussion so that we don’t have to ask them things that we should already know, like, “What platform are they using? And do they have a lot of calendar data or just a little bit of calendar data? Are they busy? Are they not so busy?” And, by having understandings of these questions, we can more effectively tailor our conversation to our customers in a way that’s going to give them a better outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in practice, this streamlining, I guess, at times that requires you and your crew to create some custom applications and coding and such. But what are some of the things that the every-person can do to realize some of these gains associated with centralizing information?

Tim Campos
Well, I’ll actually start by saying some of what I did, actually everybody can do.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent.

Tim Campos
For example, with sales at Facebook, we changed the onboarding process for a salesperson. Most salespeople are not technical, right? However, they can be taught some aspects of technology, so we would send them to data camp.

Data camp was a way of understanding how to answer a customer information at Facebook, so how to access the data, and how to write queries, how to use SQL, and we would teach them how to fish on their own so they wouldn’t have to come to us to get us to build some special custom report for them. They could do it on their own. And that empowered people.

So, there is a bit of self-learning that can be employed, even for the individual, of, “Learn to use the technology yourself so that you can solve some of these problems.” It very much does help to have an advanced, very business-oriented technology function to partner with who can help solve some of the more complicated things that you can’t do.

So, if you’re a manager at a company, and you have some control over this, that can make a gigantic difference, and, therefore, IT professionals still have a job if the rest of the world becomes coders and able to do this. But I think then there’s even simpler things, “How do you organize your time? How do you spend your time? What are the things that you spend your time on?” This has huge impact on most people’s lives because most of us, in today’s day and age, we’re knowledge workers, where it’s our thoughts and ideas that result in the value that we create. It’s not our ability to pick up a brick and move it to another side of a room and put it down. For those people, there’s a different way to drive productivity. But for knowledge workers, time management, and time allocation, has a huge impact on what people do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to talk about that in just a moment. I’m thinking, with regard to using the tech yourself, you could even have some of the tech do some of the centralizing for you. I’m thinking about Zapier, for example, right now.

Tim Campos
Great product.

Pete Mockaitis
I have Zapier yank the stuff from my Calendly scheduler onto my Google Sheets media sheet, and I think that’s pretty awesome. And so, sure, so maybe you could have someone make a quick app, or maybe Zapier or a tool like it can do some of the automation for you. But, moving past the tech, yes, let’s discuss organizing your time. What are some best practices and worst practices that are really high impact?

Tim Campos
I think one of the best practices around time management is to be deliberate and proactive about your time, deciding upfront, “This is how I want to spend my time in the next week or the next month,” and blocking it, giving yourself that time by saying, “Okay, I’ve got to write this presentation. I’m going to schedule time on my calendar to make that happen. I’ve got to do this investor or customer outreach. I’m going to schedule time for those things.”

And even though they may not involve other people, just by taking the time to block it. Now, when somebody else makes a request of my time, either I know I might not want to do take that request at that particular time, or I can, again, be proactive, “All right, that means I won’t be able to do that presentation on Thursday morning but I can still get it done Friday afternoon, so I’ll just move that time block from Thursday morning to Friday afternoon.”

Conversely, I think one of the worst things that people can do is be reactive. If we’re responding to the request of others, we are responding to their definition of what we want to get done, of, yes, what we want to get done, not our definition of what we want to get done. And it is best to own that and not give that up. And we see with Woven, as an example, that most people don’t schedule that far in advance. Most people schedule the events that they have two or three days in advance. Why is that important?

Well, imagine, I’m really busy and I got all these things going on, and somebody says, “Hey, can you go and meet with me for this lunch meeting sometime in mid-December?” If I don’t have a proactive view of what my calendar should be and how much time I should be spending on networking or personal relationships, it’s easy to say yes to that when it’s actually not as important for me, and I just gave away some time that’s going to prevent me to do something that I need to do when that week comes.

On the other hand, if I am very proactive about my time and I’m using these time blocks to forecast my availability, I might know that I can only spend three hours a week on these kinds of personal discussions. And if I already have three hours that week scheduled, well, maybe I’d push it up to the following week in that way I can just preserve it and not put myself in a position where my time is being dictated to me, I’m a slave to my calendar, instead of what it could be where I’m the master of my time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, this is really expanding my brain and I love it. The phrase you said that’s sticking with me the most is give yourself that time. And, for me, it’s such a flip because ever since I was a kid, it’s been very important to me to have “free time,” and I think that just means time that I don’t feel obligated to something or someone so that my brain can just percolate or I can decompress or whatever. And so, when you talked about scheduling the time, sometimes I’ve done some of that but I’ve also had some resistance in terms of, “Oh, boy. Well, then if all these hours are spoken for, then when is the ‘free time’?”

But when you say it that way, “Give yourself that time,” it really does shine a light on it in terms of saying, “Well, if you don’t schedule that time for that important thing for you, it’s at risk and it will likely just not occur, so you have to give yourself that time.” And that language feels as though you’re giving yourself a gift, or a treat, or some sort of luxury spa time or something.

Tim Campos
That’s exactly what events are, they are gifts of time. And you could give yourself time to do nothing.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah.

Tim Campos
I mean, maybe some people need that sort of free unencumbered time just to think and take a breath, experience what’s going on around them, and that itself can be the objective. But you won’t have it if you don’t reserve it.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, when you say that, that’s also connecting to I was watching this Netflix documentary about Bill Gates, like Inside Bill Gates’ Brain, and he schedules think weeks, which I think is awesome. Like, “This is what this week is about. It’s me reading a lot of books and thinking about them,” and it sure seems to be effective for the guy. So, he gave himself that time with good effect.

So, I’m also intrigued by that notion that most people only schedule items three or four days in advance. That kind of gives you a little bit of a clue that you’ll have better luck getting on people’s calendar if you schedule it with a greater amount of lead time, so there’s a little tactical takeaway right there.

Tim Campos
Yes and no. So, it’s easy for people to say yes, but what happens?

Pete Mockaitis
They change up on you.

Tim Campos
Yeah, if things get really busy, and then all of a sudden now somebody needs to reschedule, and they need to reschedule because they didn’t properly plan. And that’s a burden on them and it’s a burden on you. So, reschedules are probably 20% to 25% of events that something changes after they are put on the calendar. And they’re hugely impactful in terms of being a time drain because imagine all the prep that you had for that event. If I rescheduled this podcast for you, you both weren’t able to do a podcast with somebody else, and any preparation that you did for this podcast would have been not necessarily wasted because, hopefully, we would reschedule for a different time, but done at the wrong time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I’d have to refresh my brain on who you are and your background and what I want to ask you, so there would definitely be something lost.

Tim Campos
And that holds true for one-on-ones, for staff meetings, for interviews, for any kind of event that there’s a drain on both parties when the time has to change. So, it’s much better if people can be proactive and effectively forecast their time. Now, obviously, things happen, right? So, maybe you get sick or there’s an emergency thing that you could not have planned for. Those things are obviously going to be disruptive but even there, the more proactive you are about managing your time, when those emergencies happen, sometimes you can anticipate you’re going to have an emergency, therefore don’t book 100% of your time. Have some time left over for emergencies. Or other times, because you weren’t able to in this particular case but you are elsewhere, when you reschedule, you’re only going to have to reschedule once, or you only have to reschedule one other thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, Tim, you really piqued my curiosity. You dropped a couple of fun stats that I did not know before, and you are uniquely positioned to know working over at Woven there. So, most people only schedule items three to four days in advance, rescheduling occurs to 20% to 25% of events. Any other intriguing benchmark data points that have real relevance for professionals?

Tim Campos
Here’s a very interesting fact. We looked at, “When does the workday start?” And we had a debate within my team on we put default work hours in the product. Should those default work hours be at 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m.? And when do they stop? Do they stop at 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m.? And it’s fascinating to see that it’s not a simple Bell curve when you look at, “When do most meetings start?” There is a very strong bias against early morning meetings. Most people don’t schedule before 9:00 or 8:00 o’clock. There’s a significant drop off there.

And there’s a strong bias for later evening meetings. Some of those makes sense, right? We’d like to have a dinner meeting than a breakfast meeting. But it does get to, “Where does one have the most control over their time?” And it’s when there aren’t things that are being scheduled in the universe, and that’s the morning.

And this very much fits into my own personal experience. I find that if I’m going to have my most productive time of the day, or if I’m going to have the time to work out, it’s usually in the morning. It’s not in the evening. If I try to do things in the evening, inevitably something gets in the way that I didn’t plan for. And so, that bias turns out not to be just slanted to me and the people that I meet with, but it actually seems to be somewhat universal.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that is a great takeaway. People say, “Hey, wake up early and do your stuff. It’s magical and powerful,” and it seems like that’s largely just because it so happens that your odds are better if you’re having less interruption by third parties if you take that strategy.

Tim Campos
Yeah, absolutely. What we found that’s really interesting is there’s something magical about 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. meetings. It’s the highest frequency of events that occur in our system is the 10:00 a.m. or the 11:00 a.m. meeting that seems to be when people would want to go begin their day. So, it’s also, conversely, the worst time to try to schedule something. It’s not an easy time to get access to a meeting. More people than any other time are busy there. But there’s a lot more richness and depth into this.

I mean, what’s really interesting is that a lot of what is different about time allocation for people is very contextually dependent, “What company do I work for? How big of a company is it?” And so, certain predictions I could make are different depending on the context. If I were to say, “What’s different about a smaller company than a bigger company?” I can tell you one defining difference between those two. Small companies tend to spend most of their time meeting outside of their company. They schedule with people who are not inside of their corporation. Whereas, large companies tend to spend most of their time meeting internally. And the difference is striking.

I mean, you go from a 10-person company to a 10,000-person company, you go from 80% to 90% of the small person’s time is externally focused, whereas, 90% to 95% of the large company’s focused is internal. And imagine all of the people who don’t have an outside view, a company like Facebook where 90% to 95% of the time that the workforce is spending is with itself, then you don’t have the same sources of information and insight that you would have if everybody spent more of an equal portion of their time internally and externally. It can very much lead to different kinds of biases and perspectives.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s very thought-provoking. Thank you. I would schedule some time to think about that later, and while I’m with you, dig more into the notion of…so let’s talk about optimal calendar management. You’re a human being, you’re a professional, you’ve got a number of goals you want to achieve inside work and outside work. You mentioned that one of the keys is to really proactively give yourself that time on the calendar specifically during this time and doing that even if it’s just with myself. What are some of the other pro tips in terms of really maximizing our use of the calendar to get great results?

Tim Campos
So, the most valuable events on your calendar are going to be recurring. Now, they could be recurring but you haven’t been strategic about how they got there. I used to have this problem at Facebook where I would setup one-on-ones, those one-on-ones would go on into perpetuity, and they might’ve been important in the early days but, as time went on, the one-on-ones were less important yet people were still having them. So, they were taking up time on my calendar.

But when you get into things like time blocking, where you have, for me, I like to reserve the time in the morning for maker time, short time, time to work on the things that require uninterrupted intervals. I make those recurring meetings so that they’re always there and I look very strategically at the recurring events that I have. And I also try to minimize them so that I don’t have recurring events just because somebody said, “Oh, we should always have this particular meeting at this time.” It may be important for me to have that meeting on a regular interval but not necessarily at that specific time. So, recurring events are very important.

I think another thing that is really notable is the difference between – I wish I could properly attribute the thought here. It didn’t come from me, for sure, but this idea that there is two kinds of time that people have – maker time and manager time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I think that came from someone in The Lean Startup movement.

Tim Campos
I wish I could attribute this. In fact, you’re making me…

Pete Mockaitis
But I love the idea. It hasn’t come up before. Lay it on us, Tim. Lay it on us.

Tim Campos
It’s an incredible idea. There are certain tasks that we have to do, like email or making coordination, quick calls. They don’t take a lot. The context switched to start, perform, and complete them is very low. And then there are certain things that take a while to get your brain going to do and then complete. You think of like a software engineer, for them to code, they have to really sort of get in the mood, get going. If they have to write 10,000 lines of code, they can’t just split that up into 5 minutes here, or 5 minutes there, or 5 minutes someplace, because the whole thing ties together, and they have an idea in their mind that has to be front and center. Or if I’m writing a document, or a presentation, for me, I need a lack of interruption in order to complete that. And so, that happens during maker time for me.

Manager time is time that I reserve for all the stuff that can be interrupted. It is not challenging at all for me to be interrupted from going through my email, because each email only takes a few seconds or maybe a few minutes to complete, and I don’t need to go through my email all at once. I could do that in 10 minutes here, and 10 minutes there, or 10 minutes there. Slack, dealing with Slack, or dealing with customer service, customer response, just small inquiries that are easy to respond to and deal with.

And so, my manager time, I try to reserve for the times in the day that I will most likely have conference calls, or coordination with others, because what that leaves me with is these little holes, so 30-minute holes here and there, that I could not put my presentation-authoring time in, but I could easily put my manager time in.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it makes great sense. And so, your personal approach is to have more maker time in the morning and more manager time in the afternoon. And so, do you think that that is a, dare I say, universal best practice given the human condition and energy levels? Or do you think it’s more a person-by-person condition?

Tim Campos
Oh, I absolutely believe it’s the person-by-person. I know many people who are quite the antithesis of me and they’re most energized and engaged in the evenings. Mornings, it takes them a while to wake up, and so they need to do lightweight tasks. My co-founder is this way, for example. So, I do think that each individual has to find what works for them and then optimize it, but the concept holds true. The concept that there are different activities that you’ll perform that require lack of interruption, and others, activities which are interruption-friendly.

Pete Mockaitis
Interruption-friendly. That’s well-said.

Tim Campos
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Most of my life is in maker mode these days with some manager here and there with my team.

Tim Campos
I’m envious.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it is fun. It is fun to chat with you, interruption-free, or think hard about what the future, the next cool product, or whatever to make. And so, you’re right. I don’t feel as friendly when I’m interrupted in those moments as opposed to when I’m doing emails, like, “Oh, sure. Hey, what’s up? Interrupt me away.” Interruption-friendly, nice turn of a phrase. Boy, we’ve got so much good stuff I want to jump in. So, at the risk of being a little bit scattered, let’s hear a smidge about you’ve got a cool phrase. You say that lazy people are often the most productive. What’s this about?

Tim Campos
Well, it’s a learning that I’ve had over the years. It started when I was at Silicon Graphics, my second company, and we had a build engineer who was a self-professed, he would just say, “I’m super lazy.” If you ask him to do something, “I don’t really want to do that.” “Why don’t you want to do it?” “Because it sounds like work and I’m lazy.”

But he was also one of the most productive people because he was so lazy at what he was doing, he valued free time. And so, part of how he would allocate his time is finding ways to eliminate the repetitive recurring activities that were a drain on his time. And so, he built tons and tons of automation.

And this, I think, in part was endearing to me because my first job as an intern is the same thing. I found a job to be working at a company called Sybase, and the job was really boring. It needed to be done but it’s really boring. And I was grateful that they were paying me but I didn’t really want to do it so I wrote a bunch of automation to figure out how to do my job in less than 45 minutes of the day, and then I had all these other time to do other stuff, and, eventually, more interesting work found my way.

And so, I started to see that there’s this pattern. And when I got to Facebook and had an opportunity to work with some of the best engineers in the world, I saw that this pattern was strongest in those engineers, that they would find ways to just eliminate the work from work, to cut the work out of work, in large part by just identifying where the redundancies are, and whether that manifest itself as an architecture in terms of how they would design something so they wouldn’t have to reimplement things over and over again, or a process for, “How should we assess candidates who are being considered for hire? Or, how should we do our performance reviews?”

That these engineers were really good at identifying ways to simplify the work. And if you ever them, “Why?” it’s because they didn’t like it. They were lazy. They didn’t want to do the work so they found ways to eliminate it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a cool perspective in terms of lazy we might define as highly motivated to not do work. And then, as a result, they have an extra dose of creativity and persistence to do what’s necessary to do the automation or the simplification or the elimination such that that work doesn’t have to be done because they don’t want to do it.

Tim Campos
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I’m reminded of David Allen we’ve had on the show a couple times, of Getting Things Done fame, and he says that he’s so lazy he doesn’t want to have the same thought twice, which is why he’s got this whole system of organize your mind so that you don’t have to have your brain continually remember things. It’s done for you.

Tim Campos
I think it’s brilliant. It’s brilliant. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg is famous for wearing the same clothes every day because he didn’t want to allocate thought-time to what he’s going to wear.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

Tim Campos
So, he didn’t actually wear the same pair of jeans and the same T-shirt, but he had hundreds of the same T-shirts so he didn’t have to think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup. I’ve heard that Einstein and some others similarly, and Steve Jobs certainly had recurring motif in his apparel. Maybe last one before we hit the fast faves. How do you think about burnout? And what should we do to prevent it?

Tim Campos
That’s a great, great question. Yeah, for myself, what I have learned is that the hardest part about burnout is detecting when I’m in it because it’s a vicious cycle, “I am busy and so I’m not being as…I’m working really hard so I’m not getting as much rest. I’m not taking a break. I’m not thinking creatively, and so things are taking longer, which means I have to work even harder, and then I’m busier,” and it just builds upon itself.

One of my leaders at Facebook that I worked for was, his name is Jonathan Heiliger who said this. He pointed out, the analog was cycling, that one of the things he loved about cycling is that you’d climb a hill and it’d be lots and lots of work, and then when you get to the other side of hill, you coast, and you coast down. And you actually really needed those pauses and effort in order to be able to complete a century, without going on to be able to complete the century, that you would sprint and you would pause, you’d sprint and you’d pause.

And he brought that same idea into work, he’s like, “Look, there’s going to be times when we’re all going to be working really, really hard together, and we’re going to be really busy. And after those times, it’s really important we all, in our way, find a way to pause, take a break.” And I think that one of the reasons why his organization was very effective and productive was because of this notion of sprinting and pausing. And this is an idea that you can bring into your own life, that if you haven’t taken a vacation, or you haven’t…one of my favorite ways to pause is to take a class, to learn something new and different. Then, yeah, maybe you should, maybe it’s time to do that.

And I always find for myself, when I make that time, when I give myself that time, I’m rewarded in either a brilliant idea that comes out, or just that renewed energy that I have to bring to my job. And I know it’s hard. I’ve certainly suffered from this where you just get to a point where you feel like you can’t do it, you can’t take a break, and sometimes that’s exactly what you should.

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

Tim Campos
Well, I love these questions, they really prompted a bunch of great ideas that I love to talk about, so, no, I think we’ve gotten through all of that, and there’s nothing that comes to mind that I really wanted to get out there that we haven’t had a chance to talk about yet.

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

Tim Campos
A good friend of mine says, “There’s no time like the present.” It’s very much get-things-done kind of mindset of if you can do it now, just do it. And one of the things I love about my product is scheduling. We’ve come up with a way where you can create that event and schedule it without having to have everything figured out. Put together a schedule and then send it off to somebody. It’s got times that they can have on their calendar and they decide which of those times work for them and, lo and behold, we’ve eventually scheduled. But just getting it done now, whatever it is, when you can saves you having to put it on your to-do list and manage it later.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I’m super intrigued about how Woven does the tabulation of the categories of time usage, like that’s cool. So, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Tim Campos
The one that comes to mind is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Not to get too political on this but in today’s time where it seems like we don’t all agree on things. This book really studies some of the motivations and the reasoning behind it, and it’s surprisingly applicable even outside of the context of politics. When you are working in a work environment and you have a difficult coworker or a difficult boss, it provides a different perspective on how their mind might be organized to better understand the rationale. And I found that that book, in many respects, has changed my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite habit?

Tim Campos
Going for a walk with my wife. It’s probably one of the best things that we can do is just take that break, take that step away from the noise of life, my children, company, housecleaning, everything, kids’ college applications, taking a step back and going for a walk, enjoying each other’s presence, and enjoying the gorgeous outside, taking a breath, enjoying life.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you?

Tim Campos
Well, both my team at Facebook and my team at Woven know that I’m a firm believer in using data to make decisions. “Data wins arguments,” is what we used to say at Facebook. And so, when you don’t have the data, the question is, “Why? What is the measure that you should have?” And whether you’re talking about retirement, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for blah, blah, blah.” “Well, why don’t you have time? Is it because it’s not important? Or is it because you haven’t properly allocated your time to allow those things that is important to get done? And then, well, how do you allocate your time? Where is the data on that?” So, I definitely find that data wins arguments.

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

Tim Campos
Well, if they want to learn more about Woven, our website is Woven.com, very easy to find. If they want to just keep in touch with me, I’m easy to find on Twitter @tcampos is my Twitter handle. And between those two, I would love to hear from people.

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

Tim Campos
Take control of your time. Spend time on what matters most and go find the tools and the capabilities to help you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Tim, this has been lots of fun. I wish you lots of luck and much enjoyment in all the ways you’re spending your time.

Tim Campos
Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed this interview. It’s been fantastic. You have great questions.

515: Mastering Your Motivation with Susan Fowler

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Susan Fowler says: "You're always motivated. The question is, "What type of motivation do you have?"Susan Fowler explains what we get wrong about motivation and how to make the shifts to master it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Major misconceptions about motivation
  2. The three keys to mastering your motivation
  3. An overlooked leadership practice to improve engagement

About Susan

Susan Fowler is dedicated to helping others master their motivation and achieve their highest aspirations. A sought-after speaker, consultant, and motivation coach, she has shared her message on optimal motivation and thriving together in all fifty states and over forty countries. Susan is the bestselling author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does, and coauthor of Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager with Ken Blanchard. Her latest book, Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals, released last June. Susan is also a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership program at the University of San Diego.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Susan Fowler Interview Transcript

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

Susan Fowler
Thanks, Pete. I’ve been trying for years to be awesome. I hope there’s something that I can help other people be awesome with.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I definitely think there is. You’ve done some research in the realms of motivation. Maybe, for fun, could start by sharing a surprising or fascinating insight you picked up from your research into motivation?

Susan Fowler
You know, there are so many surprises. I’ve been studying motivation now for almost 25 years, been very involved in the research community, and there are thousands of amazing academicians and behavioral and neuroscience researchers out there. But what’s most surprising is, I think, that we’ve just had this totally wrong impression of what motivation is, and it’s hard to change our perspective because a lot of our notions about motivation that were developed during the B. F. Skinner days, where we did all the research on animals and operant conditioning, you know, carrots and sticks, it’s so prevalent in our society. It’s embedded into psyches that it’s hard to change our perspective because it’s literally built into our language.

So, for example, when we ask a question like, “Are you motivated?”, or if you ask yourself, “Am I motivated to do something?” that’s just the wrong question. That question literally sets up a paradigm that we now know is not true. So, I think what’s most surprising to me is how powerful, exciting, and valid, and applicable the new science of motivation is, and also how challenging it is to change people’s perspectives based on what they already know even if they know it doesn’t work.

Pete Mockaitis
So, could you give us a short synopsis of what would be the current model of motivation and then how is that broken?

Susan Fowler
Thank you for asking that question. You know, there’s basically three prominent theories of motivation that are embedded, for example, in leadership competencies in the workplace, or that the workplace tends to use to reinforce their ideas of motivation. So, one is the one I just mentioned would be of Skinner when they did all this research on animals and realized they get, for example, they could get pigeons to do what they wanted them to do if they gave them a pellet and it was called operant conditioning.

And so, the rationale was, “Well, we can get pigeons to do whatever we want them to do. Maybe we’d get people to do whatever we want them to do if we just give them something.” And so, that’s where the carrots came in, and then people thought, “Well, the carrot is not working so let’s use a stick. Let’s give them pressure. Threaten them or make them fearful.”

And the thing is all those things do motivate us but it’s what’s called suboptimal motivation. It’s the kind of motivation, like the carrots, it’s like eating junk food. When you eat junk food, your blood sugar rises and you get a burst of energy, but then you crash. And when you’re eating all that junk food, it might give you that burst of energy but it’s not healthy, especially in the long run but even in the short run. It diminishes your creativity, your innovation. And so, that’s really prevalent in the workplace.

Another thing is like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that is the most popular idea of theory of motivation in the world, and Maslow didn’t even come up with that triangle, Maslow’s triangle, the hierarchy. He was writing about psychological needs and really started people thinking about psychological needs instead of biological drives. But the hierarchy has never been proven and even Maslow would be dismayed if he thought people were actually just using his theory that came out in the 1940s as their basis of motivation.

And then the other one is really prevalent, and I see it all the time in the workplace, is achievement motivation. This whole idea that what people really want is power and status and clout and money, and that leaders especially have this kind of special motivation to achieve without thinking about the implications or what’s behind the achievement and what they’re doing to themselves and others. So, what we really need, basically, I would say, Pete, we’ve been in the dark ages when it comes to motivation and yet there is a totally different way of perceiving and using motivational science and that’s what my purpose is to get my message out there so that people can do things differently.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, then what is the optimal theory as far as what we know now in terms of what really does motivate people?

Susan Fowler
Well, they’re operational but at a suboptimal level. Well, I think what is really basic is that people are not lazy, all right? So, we have this notion that people are disengaged at work, and oftentimes they’re disengaged because we’re not motivating them enough, or we’re not motivating ourselves enough, we don’t have enough perks or benefits, we have to make everything a game to make it fun because, otherwise, we wouldn’t do things.

But that’s just the opposite of what science says about our human nature. Our human nature is we want to thrive. We want to have meaningful challenges. We’re actually motivated by meaningful challenges. We want to make a contribution. We want to feel like we’re doing meaningful work and be connected to people.

And so, what the research has shown is that there are three psychological needs that when these three needs are satisfied, when we can create them, or when we’re experiencing them, especially in the workplace, but this goes for life, then we are going to thrive. And when we thrive, again we’re going to be more productive, more innovative, creative, we’re going to have a sense of wellbeing, and we’re going to generate positive energy that is sustainable.

So, the key to motivation is these three psychological needs that we can create because they’re real and they’re things that we can actually create in the workplace. If you’re a manager, you can help create it for others. And if you’re an individual, you can create it for yourself. And that’s really what my book Master Your Motivation is all about. It’s about how you do you create your own choice, connection, and competence. Those are the three psychological needs.

Pete Mockaitis
And the choice is where the key comes in, it’s like you choose what matters to you?

Susan Fowler
Well, actually, it’s interesting. Choice is what gives you a sense of autonomy. Otherwise, you feel that you’re being imposed on. You know, there’s a difference between getting up in the morning and saying, “Ugh, I have to go to work,” “I have to support my family,” or “I have to make money so I can live,” versus “I’m choosing to go to work. I’m choosing to make a living. I’m choosing to live a certain lifestyle.” 

You know, the reason that diets don’t work, think about this, as soon as you go on a diet, what do you say to yourself? You say, “Oh, I can’t eat certain things. I can’t eat that muffin, I’m on a diet.” So what happens is, immediately through your own language and through your own interpretation, you have just eroded your perception of choice. So, you’ve just eroded one of the three key psychological needs.

So, we think, “Oh, wow, I can’t have that muffin.” What’s the first thing you want? You want that muffin. And you think it’s about the muffin, but it’s not. It’s about your need for choice. It’s about your need for autonomy. And so, what we need to learn and part of the skill of motivation is to be able to say, “I can choose to eat this muffin or choose not to eat this muffin because I have a goal to lose weight,” and then we’ll talk about that in a minute, “I am choosing not to eat this muffin.”

It seems like just a reframing but it’s more. It’s literally creating a perception that stimulates a part of your brain that activates this psychological need that is absolutely necessary for what we call optimal motivation. So, choice is your interpretation or internalization that no matter what’s happening around you, you have choice about how you react to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds like one great practical tip right there. You don’t even say, “I can’t do this,” or, “I must do that.” It’s like, “Well, hey, because of this, I’m choosing this.” And so, it keeps that choice factor alive and functioning for your motivation in that domain. So, that’s already very handy. Thank you.

Susan Fowler
Right. Well, yeah, think about this. It’s so funny because people will send out like a meeting invitation. They’ll call the meeting, send out an invitation, and then it pops up on their calendar a couple weeks later, and they go, “Oh, I can’t believe I have that meeting.” I mean, they called the meeting. But just the fact that it’s on their calendar can oftentimes trigger that thing of, “Oh, I don’t have a choice. I have to go to that meeting.” And so, we actually do it to ourselves all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you then maybe share a fun story that kind of illustrates there what’s really possible in terms of someone who felt unmotivated and then dug deep into the three needs and tapped into some great motivation to do great things?

Susan Fowler
Well, can I just point out, Pete, that just in your very question, which is a kind of question that would be normal to ask but it actually sets up the wrong paradigm of motivation? So, we use the term unmotivated. Well, the research shows is that you’re always motivated. You’re always motivated. The question is, “What type of motivation do you have?”

And so, if you’re motivated by money, or power, or status, or image, or even fear, or guilt, or shame, you’re motivated but you’re motivated, what we call, sub-optimally. And so, you’re either not going to take action or you’re going to take action but you’re not going to be persistent at it. So, that’s the first thing I really want people to maybe get in their heads is that we’re always motivated and it’s really important for us to think about the type of motivation that we have.

And then, the other thing is that we tend to think we need to have motivation to achieve great things. And so, I would just challenge, what is a great thing? What does that look like? And what the research will show is that just achieving small everyday goals is more satisfying than some big pie in the sky. I know we need to have those big hairy audacious goals, but what really gives us day-to-day satisfaction is seeing progress and sometimes it’s the mundane things in life.

I’d love just to share one example of myself that’s just a little thing. So, I travel a lot for my work. I do a lot of international travel and so I go through security at the airport a lot. And that’s something I will never be inherently motivated to do. In other words, I will never find that just naturally fun, or what people call intrinsically motivating to go through security.

So, one day, I’m at security and I get all tense. I feel really a lot of pressure because I’m usually in a hurry, and also, I hated going through there so I want to get through quickly. So, I’m looking at all the lines, and I’m thinking, “Which of these lines is moving fastest? I really need to get through the line fast.” So, I’m looking at the TSA agents to see which one lets you through best, and I’m looking for lines that are short, and I’m also looking for a line that doesn’t have like a family in it with a bunch of kids.

Pete Mockaitis
This reminded me of the movie Up in the Air where he’s analyzing and profiling all the different people in the airport, where he’s trying to figure out who’ll probably go faster. Okay, so you got your statistics and heuristics that you’re there, and you’re going. All right, I’m with you.

Susan Fowler
Yes, exactly. Exactly. So, I find a line that I’m going to get into, and then I stop, and I just have a mindful moment. And this whole concept of mindfulness is so powerful when it comes to motivation. Just to be aware in the moment, “What am I experiencing?” And then in that moment I thought, “Well, I’m feeling pressure and tension and stress and all this stuff.” And I think, “What am I doing? Susan, you talk about this stuff. This is what you write about. You research this. What are you doing to yourself?” And I thought, “Okay, I am obviously sub-optimally motivated to go through security. What do I need to do differently?” And I thought, “I need to shift my motivation.”

And this is where motivation as a skill comes in. So, I thought, “I’ve got to practice what I teach.” So, I started thinking, “Okay, one of the reasons I’m sub-optimally motivated is I don’t have choice.” I have to go through security, right? I have to go through that. And then I started thinking, “Well, I don’t really have to go through it. I don’t have to travel. I don’t have to do this as a job. I could choose to do something at home, just stay home and write.” And I thought, “Well, I’m choosing to travel and I know how much I love it once I get there and I’m working with the people I’m working with, so I am actually choosing to go through security. Okay, I’ll give that one up.”

And then I thought, “I’m really competent,” that’s the third psychological need, “I’m really competent. I’ve been through a million times. I’m pretty well geared-up to do it.” But what was missing from me, really missing from me in that moment was connection. And connection means that you have some deeper meaning, you have a sense of the values that you hold, or that you’re making a contribution, or that you feel an affinity with the people you’re working with. And I realized I didn’t have any connection going through security. I’m not sure it really works. I’m kind of thinking sometimes that it’s just bureaucratic thing we have to do to make people feel safe but I’m not sure it really works.

Anyway, I have all these negative reasons not to go through security. And so I thought, “Okay, but how do I shift my motivation?” Well, in order to shift, what you can do, one of the ideas, is to align whatever you’re doing to a value that you have. And so I started thinking about my values. So, it means you have to have values and know what they are. And the first thing that popped into my mind as a value is learning. I love learning. I’ve always been a teacher, a learner. And I said, “Okay, what could I learn going through security?”

And I realized I could learn patience because I obviously am not a patient person. It’s just not my personality type, so it’d be something I would have to do consciously. And I said, “Wow, okay, I value learning. I’m going to learn patience.” So, I found the longest line and that had a family. It had a family with a father, a mother, and two kids, one was a toddler, one was a newborn. They had more stuff than I realized you could even take through security. And after standing behind them, they were just struggling, and I finally said, “Would it be okay if I held your baby? Maybe it would be helpful.” And they said, “Oh, would you? That’d be so great.”

So, I’m holding this baby, Pete, and I’m realizing, “Wow, I’m really having a wonderful moment here because I love babies. I love holding babies.” And so, they go through security and I’m going, “Excuse me, you want your baby?” “Oh, my gosh, yes.” So, they grabbed their baby and I helped them on the other side packing up and everything, and I go to my gate and I’m thinking, “Wow, that really worked out great because I love holding babies.” And I see the father coming towards me, and he says, “Oh, I’m so glad I found you.” He said, “We just feel terrible because we never even thanked you for your help.” He said, “This is the first time we’ve ever traveled with two kids. We had no idea how hard it would be. And we don’t think we could’ve even gotten through the security thing without your help and we never even thanked you. So, I just want you to know you made our day today, you really helped us.”

And I said, “Oh, no, no, no. Thank you. I love holding babies.” And so, we’re going back and forth, thank you, thank you, thank you. And I get on the plane and I’m reflecting, which is part of the skill of motivation. And I’m reflecting on what just happened, and I realized I not only have experienced what we call the inherent motivational outlook, is that I actually enjoyed holding the baby. That’s something I love to do. But I also had experienced what’s called integrated motivation. Because my life purpose is to be a catalyst for good, and in that moment, I had helped a young family and they told me that I did good. And that felt so satisfying, I can’t even tell like the joy I experienced in that moment, that sense of wellbeing. And I knew that, from then on, I would go through security differently.

Now, that’s been years that that happened, years ago that that happened. And anyone who travels with me or see me traveling will tell you that I enjoy going through security, not because it’s fun going through security but because I’m able to live my values, and I’m able to live my life purpose every time I go through security, so I’m always on the lookout for an elder couple that I can help, or a young couple that I can help, or a single mother traveling, or just being nice to the TSA agent who’s getting a lot of backtalk from people. So, that’s literally changed the quality of my travel experience, which is a huge part of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s lovely. So then it seems like, in the terms of what we’ve discussed here, so we’ve got the choice element present in the story, “Hey, this is the career I’m choosing. I prefer fast and being with people in those places, and part of that is security.” And then for the connection, we’ve got, “Okay, what are my values?” And then you’ve come up with learning and, “What’s something I can learn here?” And patience is the thing you’re going to learn. You’re going to be patient in that context with the security line. And then forming connection with the folks who are there. And so, competence, did we touch on that?

Susan Fowler
Well, the competence, I already felt like I had because I’m really good at going through security, but I have to tell you I think that’s a really good question, Pete, because I actually feel more mastery now of going through security because I know how to do it, I’m able to help others. So, what the research shows about these three psychological needs of choice, connection, and competence is that they’re all totally interrelated. And I call it the domino effect.

If you are missing one, the others will fall. So, if I said, “Oh, I’m choosing to go through security,” but didn’t have the confidence to do it and didn’t feel like I was making progress, or if I was going through security and I was choosing to do it but I found no meaning, no connection with other people or to my values or to my life purpose, then all the choice in the world wouldn’t matter. And you’re not going to find connection if you don’t feel a sense of choice. You’re going to feel pressure and tension and stress, and you’re going to feel like people don’t care about you if they’re putting pressure on you. So, they’re all totally interrelated.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s great. Well, then I’d love it if we think about professional workplace here. Let’s say someone, they’ve got a project, and you know, they’re just not feeling it so much. They’re responsible for it, and so it seems like day after day, rather than to finding or making the time to proactively advance that project, they tend to, “Oh, what’s in my email? My desk needs to be tidied.” So they’re kind of procrastinating or putting it off. So they’re doing some of the less value work instead of pursuing this project which is important although doesn’t light their fire in terms of they’re just not feeling motivated with that over the course the days. So in that world, how would you recommend we apply some of these principles to summon or stir up or whatever you want to call it, to get those motivational juices flowing?

Susan Fowler
Yeah, when we’re sub-optimally motivated to do something, how do we shift into optimal motivation? And so, how do you apply the skill? And I’ve got so many examples, and especially in my book there’s one that I love, like filling out expense reports. I mean, who is actually “excited” to fill out expense reports? The only reason you might do it is you need your money back, but it’s drudgery.

And so, what I’m encouraging people to do to create choice, connection, and competence is to ask themselves, “Okay, what choices do you have?” And as soon as you ask that question, “What choices do you have?” just the idea that you have choices will often help you make the right one. But if you say, “What choices do I have?” And you say, “Well, I could choose not to submit my expense reports.” Or, if you’re working on a project like you were saying, “I could choose to not work on this project,” or, “I could choose to just do the minimum, put in the minimum amount of effort, and just get by, and hope that it’s okay, and that it doesn’t make me look bad.”

So, what you do is you just go through in your mind, and this takes a couple of seconds, to say, “Okay, what are my choices? And then, how do I feel about those choices?” And so, if you get in touch with the fact that you have choices, I mean, when you’re laying in bed in the morning, just get in the habit, and I do this every single morning, I go, “Okay, what choices do I have today? I could choose to lay in bed for another couple of hours or I could choose to get out, get up and write my blog that’s due this week. I have a choice of what to do.” So, that’s the first thing, no matter what the project is, no matter what you’re working on, is to ask, “What are my choices? How do I feel about those choices? What choices have I made that I’m glad I made? Or what choices do I wish I had made?” So, just to think about choice.

And then the second thing is to ask, “What connection do I have with this? And so, what I find meaningful.” So, in my book, Calla is writing about, “Okay, I’m choosing to do my expense reports,” but it was drudgery and she hated it. And then when she asked the question about connection, she realized that Jenny Luna is the gal that would receive the expense reports, and if Jenny doesn’t get them on time, and if they’re not completed correctly, Jenny is the one that suffers because, then, she can’t meet her deadlines that needs to go into accounting, etc. So, Calla said that she realized that, for her, doing it so that Jenny wouldn’t suffer because Calla has a sense of purpose around being a good friend, around being the kind of person that helps others not hurts people. And so, she said getting in touch with that connection was really important to her.

And then Calla realized that the company had gone through a new system and she didn’t have the competence she needed. So, she realized that she was missing two of the three psychological needs for doing expense reports. And once she got in touch with, she’s making the choice, she really wanted to do it because she cared about Jenny and she wanted to be a good organizational citizen, and she needed to learn more about how to do it. She actually got tutored and, in my book, she actually wrote about that experience, and how that transformed her expense reports. And I actually double-checked it with Jenny Luna, and Jenny confirms Calla does her expense reports correctly and on time every month.

So, that’s just it. It’s just asking ourselves, “What choices do I have? How can I have connection here? Where can I find meaning whether it’s to a person, to my values, through my sense of purpose, through making a contribution?” And then asking ourselves, “How did I learn? What did I learn? How did I grow?” And so, if we would just ask ourselves at the end of every day even, “What were the choices I made? How did I make connection? And how did I grow? How did I learn? How did I build competence?” If we could just learn to ask those questions around choice, connection, and competence, we literally would shift our motivation and it transforms the quality of that experience.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to get your take here. So when you’re managing other people and you want them to experience motivation, what are some of those best practices we can take on so they’re getting connected to those drivers of motivation?

Susan Fowler
So, if you’re a leader, I think one of the things you need to do is start to think about the competing leadership competency. So, if you’re being held accountable, for example, to drive results, I think you need to realize that your method of driving results may actually be putting people into suboptimal motivation. If they’re feeling imposed on, if they’re feeling like they don’t have choice, if you’re using your power to get things done, like, “Do this because I told you to do it,” like a parent often says to a child, then you’re driving for results could undermine the very results that you’re trying to get.

And so, as leaders, what I am constantly teaching, and I’m just sharing with you that I just delivered this message to 300 leaders at the biggest bank in Russia, and basically asking them to, every day, ask people, “Okay, tell me about the choices you made today. Or, let’s talk about the choices you made. And what did you like or what didn’t you like?” Or, let’s say you’re saying to someone, I do a lot of work with pharmaceutical industry, and the FDA has real boundaries. You can’t do this and you can’t do that. What I’m trying to teach leaders is, “Okay, how do you have a conversation about, okay, here’s what you can’t do. But what can you do? What are the options you have within the boundaries? We don’t want you getting creative with the way you approach doctors then talk about research, but where can you be creative in terms of the way you interact with the doctors that you’re selling to?”

And so, we’re trying to teach leaders how to have conversations, or what I call motivation conversations, that really create choice, connection, and competence for people. And so, to ask people, “You know, here’s a goal, this is a goal that is required for your job. How do you feel about this goal? What’s meaningful to you about it? How can we align this goal with the values that you have? Not the values in our organization, although, hopefully, the goals align to organizational values, but your own values.” And what we found is that most leaders have never had a values conversation with the people they lead. We plaster the organization’s values all over the walls and make sure people memorizer them, but we’ve never asked individuals to actually think about, “What are your values? What is it that you bring to work every single day and make decisions with?”

So, I’m encouraging for leaders to have those values conversations to help create connection for people at work, and to ask them, “How do you feel like you’ve made a contribution no matter what your job is?” I was talking to a janitor at a high school the other day, and I asked him these questions about choice, connection, and competence. And you can’t believe how these man’s eyes lit up, and he said, “You know, there’s a lot of kids at this school that come from underprivileged families, and I’m like a surrogate father. I’m kind of like the wise sage or guru, and they come to me, and they tell me their problems, and we talk.”

Now, this is a janitor at a high school who works nights because he has a day job. And he is so optimally motivated in that janitorial job, and the primary reason is because he feels like he’s doing something good for the kids, and he also feels that when he creates the school that’s clean and pristine that he’s giving them an environment they might not have at home.

So, it’s just fascinating to me how, as a leader, you can have these conversations and reinforce the values that a person has that they might have but never thought about. Maybe they haven’t consciously chosen them and talked about them, so, yeah, those conversations are really important. And a leader can always ask at the end of every day, “What did you learn? How did you grow? Tell me about the progress that you’ve been making,” so that you’re reinforcing their sense of competence.

Pete Mockaitis
You also have a term I really want to touch upon for a moment. What is a fatal distraction? And how should we counteract that?

Susan Fowler
I love the concept of fatal distractions because it implies, for me, that we have a basic nature, and that what happens when we are acting lazy, when we are slacking, when we’re doing things that we’ve been held accountable for doing, what fatal distractions implies is that there are things that, outside of ourselves, or the way we’ve interpreted things, that pull us away from our basic nature of experiencing choice, connection, and competence.

So, a fatal distraction, for example, is, in a game, wanting to win, and wanting to win for ego purposes, or wanting to win because there’s a prize. This is why I’m so hesitant about gamification in the workplace. Research has shown, for example, that a lot of HR departments will say, “Hey, join our healthy contest. If you lose the most weight during our contest period, you’ll win an iPad.” And what the research says is that 12 weeks after the person wins the iPad, they revert back to their old habits and actually gain the weight back plus more weight. Plus, they then have this belief that, “Wow, I failed. I may have won the game but I’m never going to win in the long run,” and so they stop trying.

So, all of these fatal distractions, these games, these incentives, the rankings, all these stuff that we thought, because of the carrots and the sticks and the achievement motivation, all those theories that are out there, that counteract our true nature. So, a fatal distraction is the belief, for example, that, “People don’t care about us, and it’s not worth us caring about others.” Or, a fatal distraction is that, “I have to do this or I’m going to fail,” or, “I have to do this or I’m going to feel guilty.” It’s all of the negative self-talk is a fatal distraction, so are all the shiny objects and the junk food that entice us in the workplace every single day.

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

Susan Fowler
I think the thing that I really want people to hear is that motivation is a skill, that if you become aware of your choices, the connection you have or don’t have, and the competence you have or don’t have, that you literally can change the quality of your everyday experiences. And that’s what it takes to eventually achieve great things. You don’t achieve great things overnight. You achieve great things because you have day-to-day optimal motivation that keeps you doing one step, another step, another step. And so, that’s what I would encourage people, is just to really think about how they could create choice, connection, and competence in their lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, now, could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Susan Fowler
I happen to see a young woman on the internet and she described herself as a self-quoter, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve always wanted to have the nerve to do that.” And so, she’s inspired me. And I wondered if you might permit me to just read the last paragraph in my new book because it really says in kind of a nutshell what I believe and it’s important to me. So, I’m going to do a self-quote, which is very audacious.

“A common thread of every great spiritual practice throughout history is the belief that human beings can raise their conscious awareness and live life at a higher level. The belief that change is possible entices you to greet a new day. Hope if a belief that things, and you, can change for the better. Not believing that you can and do change is to wonder what your human experience is about. We are beings with self-determination, and the ability to reflect and mindfully choose who we are, what we believe, and how we behave. The skill to master your motivation may be your greatest opportunity to evolve, grow in wisdom, and be the light of the world so desperately needs.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And do you have a favorite study or experiment or research?

Susan Fowler
Oh, a favorite. Oh, my gosh. You know what I have, Pete? No, I don’t. I have an entire book called Self-Determination Theory that is a handbook of thousands of research studier. And one of the reasons that I’m so, I guess, enamored with or have such a strong belief in the research basis for what I write about is that thousands of researchers have been doing very structured and progressive research for over 60 years, and it hasn’t been one big research study that proves it. What they’ve done is systematically and very consciously and with intent built these ideas on really solid, solid research. So, I think the message I’d like to get across is when somebody says, “Oh, there was a research study, and here’s what it proves,” I would never do that.

What I would say is, “You need to have meta studies, and you need to have years and years of validating the conceptual ideas and the theoretical framework.” And I’d like to think, I’ve been told, that I’m representing this volume of research in a way that honors the work that those researchers have done for over the past 60 years.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Susan Fowler
My favorite book is probably Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. He didn’t know about the three psychological needs but that is what helped him thrive. And if you read that book in light of what we talked about today, it’ll give it an entirely new meaning.

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

Susan Fowler
I can’t live without my iPad. The thing I love about my iPad is that I use it for news, I use it to keep in touch with people, I use it for social media, I use it for games, I use it to shop. I can’t think of hardly any aspect of my life that I don’t use my iPad for. And since I travel so much, I would say that if there was an iPad chip in my forehead, I probably would be happy.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Susan Fowler
I think I have an issue with the whole concept of habits, and so what I would rather say is that I have a ritual. And my morning ritual is, before I put my feet on the floor, I say a prayer, and then I also ask myself, I remind myself, “How am I going to create choice, connection, and competence today?” So, you might call it a habit but habits are subconscious, and a ritual is something that I consciously do because I know it improves the quality of my life.

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

Susan Fowler
I hope people will take the “What’s your MO?” for motivational outlook, “What’s your MO?” survey. It’s free. You get immediate results. It’s on my website at www. SusanFowler.com.

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

Susan Fowler
One of the things that I would challenge people to do, my life motto is that I teach what I most need to learn. And so, when I realized that there’s something lacking in my life, I delved into it as if I would need to teach it to someone else, not because I want to show them up or because I want to use my expertise power or whatever. But I feel that when you can turn around and teach someone else what it is you’re learning that that’s a form of mastery. So, go through life and think, “What is it that I really need to learn? And maybe if I taught it to others, it would reinforce it in myself.”

Pete Mockaitis
Susan, thanks so much for sharing the good word. I wish you lots of luck and motivation in all your adventures.

Susan Fowler
Thank you so much, Pete. Same to you. I appreciate it so much.