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616: How to Handle Work in a World Where Everything’s Urgent with Brandon Smith

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Brandon Smith says: "Don't let everything be urgent all the time. Everything can't be equal priority."

Brandon Smith shares how to cut through non-stop urgency and work on what’s truly important.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How urgency is just like hot sauce
  2. What your boss really means when they say everything’s urgent
  3. How to expertly say no to extra work

 

About Brandon

Brandon went from not being able to order a pizza due to a debilitating stutter to becoming a master communicator. 

He went on to teach communication in two leading business schools and has won 12 teaching awards for his work in the classroom. 

Through his work with businesses, Brandon has helped countless employees go from being on the verge of getting fired to becoming some of the company’s top performers. 

Brandon learnt the secret of urgency, what he calls ‘Hot Sauce’ and how different people react differently to it. Today he is the author of The Hot Sauce Principle. 

Used in the right amount, hot sauce can be the very thing that turns a bland or stressful workplace into a place of flavorful productivity. 

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Brandon Smith Interview Transcript

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

Brandon Smith
Pete, really excited to be on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I was just telling you off the recording that your subtitle is so good. Your book is called The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time.

Brandon Smith
Everything is urgent all of the time, yup.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re speaking to my experience and the exhaustion associated with that. But I want to sort of go back in time a little bit. So, you were not always a master communicator. There was a time, I’m told, that you had quite the stutter and were nervous about ordering pizza. What’s the story of the transformation here?

Brandon Smith
Yeah. So, let me tell you a little bit of the story. I don’t know if I can answer the transformation part as well but I can at least tell you part of the story. So, I was the youngest of three boys, I had two older brothers, both were adopted, and my oldest brother was always in and out of trouble, so creating a lot of drama and dysfunction in my house, throwing up.

Well, when I was 10, he took his own life. And during that time, it was a really kind of transformative period for myself and my family. It was a hard time. And I ended up, I don’t know why, but I ended up coming down with a stutter about six months after he died, and I couldn’t shake it, and that was going into middle school, which I do not recommend.

So, every day, before middle school, I would have to go and see my speech therapist early in the morning and we’d work on the letters that always tripped me up, which were the Bs and the Ps and the Ts, so then I would work on those and then go on to the school day. And so, yeah, during my entire middle school career, if you were to call it that, things that involved those letters were really tricky for me. I would find any way to avoid that.

But when you’re ordering a pepperoni pizza, there’s just no escaping. You can’t say, “Can you put those little things on there? What are they called again?” so, then, ordering the pepperoni pizza, that would never really end. I would just get caught in that stutter. And I just decided that people were just kind of messy and dysfunctional, because growing up with my brother, and then the way kids with stutters were treated in school, I thought, “Man, people are messed so I’m just going to keep distance from them.”

And that was kind of my high school years. Really kind of made myself kind of a wallflower, an introvert, and then went off to college, didn’t really know what I wanted to major in, ended up majoring in communications, ironically enough. And then, at some point along the way, my stutter kind of shook free, I suppose. However, I can tell you, when I get really, really tired, or really, really stressed out and tired, it comes back a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, what a story, and I’m sorry to hear about that difficult moment but it’s reassuring to hear that you, ultimately, triumphed and, here we are, benefitting from your wisdom.

Brandon Smith
I’m working on it, Pete. I wouldn’t say triumphed. So, I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you sound great, and you’ve got something important to say, and I’m excited to hear about it. So, first, The Hot Sauce Principle, why don’t you just define that? What’s the big idea there? And where does this term come from?

Brandon Smith
Yeah, you know, the big idea, what I was finding, so I wear lots of hats in the world. One of my hats is I’m an executive coach. Another hat, I teach at universities and business schools. And I was just finding that a lot of the people I was interacting with in the workplace, didn’t matter what kind of job they had, didn’t matter whether they were nonprofit, for profit, big, small, work in the United States, work internationally, two things were true. Time was everyone’s precious resource. Not money, it was time. And everything was urgent all the time.

And that urgency was like hot sauce. One day it just kind of hit me. It’s like just being hot sauce just poured on everything. And while I love that concept of hot sauce for urgency for lots of reasons, one, I like it because a little bit of hot sauce is actually kind of a good thing. I like hot sauce. It adds focus, it adds flavor, makes things a priority. But you put that stuff on everything, if you’re like me, you’re just going to be drenched in sweat, curled up in a ball, and not really able to function. And some people can tolerate a lot of this stuff, and some people can’t tolerate much at all.

So, it’s a nice, simple way of thinking about how we deal with urgency, and that sometimes it’s a good thing. But too much of anything, particularly urgency, is like hot sauce. It just overwhelms us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, you mentioned some people can handle a little, and some people can handle a lot. That reminds me of there is this like local comedian who was making a joke about how some people who are really into their hot sauce will sort of demean others, it’s just like, “Oh, you probably can’t handle this.” It’s like, “You’re belittling me for having a tongue that works properly.” Like, where else has this happened with regard to, “Oh, man, you probably don’t need glasses, but I need huge glasses”?

So, we’re going to dig into that, I’m sure, in terms of just how much you can handle and how much is optimal. And so then, tell us then, what would you say is sort of the most surprising or fascinating discovery that came about when you were putting together this research associated with urgency and what we do about it?

Brandon Smith
I think there’s probably a couple things that really are big highlights that are important for us to think about. First, urgency is a good thing. So, if we kind of flip into another part of the workplace world, all the experts in change management, one of the more famous ones is a guy by the name of John Kotter who teaches at Harvard.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had him on the show.

Brandon Smith
Oh, you had him on the show?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Brandon Smith
Okay. Well, then you know John well. Well, John is famous for change management. And when you look at a lot of the concepts he brings, in his frameworks, he says, “You know what, if you want to turn out a change, the first place you got to start is urgency. There has to be a high-enough sense of urgency.” So, urgency is really important when we’re trying to change.

My kids always joke with me because every year, about a month out, six weeks out to a month out from my annual physical, I will start really doubling down on exercise and health. And they’re like, “Oh, here comes dad’s physical again.” But it’s that urgency. I want to show up really good for the physical. It creates urgency. It gets us to change.

So, I think one big takeaway is that urgency is a really good thing. It’s a healthy thing. We need it. As one client told me many years ago, she said, “I know I need to light a fire in my people, but sometimes I need to light a fire under them too.” So, we don’t want to cut out hot sauce, but the problem is when we, as leaders, just think everything is urgent and we make our emotions, our anxiety, other people’s problems. It’s kind of like kick the dog syndrome.

There’s a whole new set of research studying emotions in the workplace, they’re called emotional contagion. And one of the big takeaways in that research is that anxiety is one of the more contagious forms of emotions. It’s super contagious. So, we want to make sure that we’re not making other people feel that pain. That’s a really, really bad thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Brandon, you know, that rings true in my experience in terms of anxiety. I just pick up on it. It’s just like, “Aargh.”

Brandon Smith
And you think of the year we’re in, it’s really easy for a leader to be really anxious about a lot of things. Anxious about uncertainty, about where the business is going, anxious about their family or the health, so are all our employees. They’re all anxious too. So, sometimes we actually need to be the calm in the storm. We’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m going to show calm today, or peaceful today, so I don’t freak everybody else out and they can focus and do their job.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m with you. So, urgency, it’s not bad, we need some of it, especially in order to make a change. If you don’t got it, it’s probably not going to happen. And so, at the same time though, hey, we’re in a global worldwide disease pandemic at the moment with COVID-19, as we speak. Hopefully, people will be listening to this, years from now, and say, “Oh, I remember that. That was a difficult time. I’m so glad it’s such a distant memory now.” But, in addition to that, you say that professionals these days are in an urgency epidemic. What do you mean by that? And what are the consequences of it?

Brandon Smith
So, the urgency epidemic is when other people put their urgency on us, on you. They make their problems your problem. Notorious for this would be like large publicly-traded companies. So, shareholders and everyone else putting so much pressure on them, so what most C-level leaders do in this company, I hate to say, is they just tell all their direct reports, “All this stuff is urgent. We have to change it all right now. All of it now.”

And I was actually sitting in a meeting a few years ago with a senior leader who said this to the room, and one of his direct reports raised their hand and said, “Well, I totally get that, boss. I totally understand that but help us to prioritize. So, what’s the priority? What’s the order here?” And he looked at him and he said, “All of them are urgent right now equally.” And you can feel the room just deflate.

So, the real epidemic is everything being urgent all the time and having that pressure being pushed down on us. So, it’s kind of like rather than running a marathon where you say, “Okay, I’m going to be done at 26.2 miles,” it’s like run until you drop. Because we can sprint, we can do urgency for a little while, but the school of thought is it needs to be more like interval training. Like, you sprint, you get a little rest, you sprint, you get a little rest. Not just run until you drop.

And so, that’s what the real urgency epidemic costs us. It costs us exhaustion, burnout, and performance, and lots of other things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, this is very much ringing true. Oh, there’s so much I want to dig into there. First, okay, maybe this is a quick one, with intervals, there’s all sorts of different interval timers. I’ve got so many apps on my phone and different recommendations for four minutes on, one minute off. Do you have a sense for what is “optimal interval”? If we really want to make some stuff happen, and we also want to not burn out, what’s kind of the range of, hey, sprinting versus chilling ratio?

Brandon Smith
Oh, man, yeah. Pete, this is tough. I hate to give that, like, classic business school answer, “It depends,” but it really totally does depend. So, for example, let’s say we were a software company, and we did a product release. Well, the natural time to do interval for rest would be right after the launch of a new product. So, if you’re in that kind of a world where you have a beginning, middle, and end of something, then you want to take the break at the end.

There was a company out in Silicon Valley a couple of years ago that tested this idea. And they would launch a new product every quarter, and at the end of every quarter, they’d shut down their business for a full week so everybody could rest, so nobody worked that week. So, at the end of the year, they were actually only working 11 months out of the 12 months because of one week off every quarter. That first year they did it, they had a higher productivity and higher performance and higher revenue than the year before.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. So, working fewer total days.

Brandon Smith
Yeah, fewer total days. If you look at another example of that, you might say like in the quick-service restaurant world, Chick-fil-A is number one in revenue per store, and they are only open six days a week, and they don’t have the late-night hours, like McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Taco Bell or any of the other players might have. So, that’s an example of interval training. They found a way to make that work in their rhythm. They did one day off a week.

So, I think it really depends upon the business but the notion is really important. So, I think almost a better way to think about it is if you’re a leader or a manager, how can you give your folks a break between sprints so they get a moment to catch their breaths? And what are some creative ways you can do it that kind of work for your world?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, can you give us one or two or three creative ways right off the top of your head?

Brandon Smith
So, one would naturally be trying to find an extra day off a week, or working from home. So, there are many uncomfortable things and not pleasant things that came from 2020, but there are some positives. One positive is a lot of employers realized people can work from home. And then, as a huge not only morale boost and perk, but it impacts motivation if used in the right doses in a positive way.

So, allowing people the opportunity to work from home is probably going to be more like our new normal. My guess is, if we look out in the crystal ball, we’re going to see people coming into the office one, two, maybe three days a week, and then working from home the other days of the week. So, that’s an example of interval training, giving people a little more space to get things done.

Another example would be thinking about times and opportunities where you can close and turn off the whole business. So, what makes this tricky is if you’re going to give someone a break, you got to make sure people aren’t pinging them during the break. Like, I could tell you, “Pete, take this day off.” But if customers are still calling you and they didn’t get the memo, it’s not really a day off. So, boundary is really important.

Part of my background is I’m a trained clinical therapist, and any therapist, one of their passion areas is boundaries, and to really do this thing well, interval training and intervals, and protecting ourselves from urgency, we’ve got to know how to set boundaries, know how to communicate that and say no when necessary.

So, I’ll give you one more, a quick one. This is a personal tip that you could use. Everyone listening to this can use this. I started doing it this year. Really easy. I stopped emailing people on the weekends. Period. Now, it didn’t mean I didn’t do work. So, Microsoft Outlook is the tool I use. They have a function, like a lot of emailing software tools, where you can schedule emails.

So, what I did was I would still do my work but I would schedule all my emails to go out on Monday morning when people were actually supposed to be at work or working. And what I found. when I did that, was I wasn’t getting any emails on the weekend. Because, before when I would send an email, there would always be that super hardworking ambitious person at the other end that would kick the email back with a response. And then I would respond, and then they would respond, and now we’re playing an email tennis match on Saturday afternoon.

Well, I’m not playing email tennis matches anymore, and so it allowed me to really get ahead of the week and not feel that kind of pace and urgency. So, that’s a simple kind of interval training that we can all put into our lives. And if you’re a manager, I would encourage you to tell your team that you’re doing that so they don’t send you emails on the weekend either.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay, cool. Well, so already so many great takeaways there in terms of we’ve got to have some rest, and you could think about creative ways to do that. Shut down the whole business, or the whole team, or have particular days off, and so there’s a rhythmic groove that you’re in, and establishing a boundary, showing it to others so that they follow up. So much good stuff here.

I guess I also want to get your take on it is really frustrating when someone says, “All of these are urgent. Right now. And equally so.” Now, in my opinion, I want to get your take on this, one, I think when someone communicates that, it’s really just laziness and that they haven’t actually done the work to determine what is, in fact, the most urgent and/or important yet. That’s my hot take. What are your thoughts? Does that jive with what you believe as well? Or, how do you see what’s behind that message?

Brandon Smith
Yeah. Well, I agree with you completely. I would say when we live in a world where times are our most precious resource and everything is urgent all the time, it will default us to become firefighters. We’re not leaders. It doesn’t matter people’s title. Most people right now, “most leaders” are firefighters. And so, when you’re a fighter, you’re in a reactive posture.

So, what you’re saying is rather than being a proactive posture and really prioritize and sit down and plan, you’re just reacting to the stuff that’s burning that day, and then you’re putting that on other people. So, I agree completely. It’s trying to get them to shift that behavior, which is one of the many antidotes you can do when you’re getting someone trying to push that on you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then, lay it on us, if you think everything is urgent, and whether it means you haven’t done the thinking through to determine what’s truly more urgent, how do you recommend we go about thinking through that, and then arriving at some optimal decisions regarding the urgency of things?

Brandon Smith
So, to help with this, for everyone listening who has a boss, I no longer want you think of your boss as your boss. From now on, I want you to think of your boss as your number one customer or client because they really are. I mean, they are. They can decide to renew your contract or end your contract. So, when we do that, it, all of a sudden, turns on a whole bunch of other tools and competencies that we have around client management because, really, what we’re talking about is client management.

We want to sit down and say, “Miss or Mr. Client,” or boss, “I totally understand that you want to get all these things done. Unfortunately, we have limited resources. So, we have a couple options. One option is I would love to talk to you about the order in which we need to take these on and the importance of each so I can try to meet your needs with what we have. The other option is we can get more resources, so maybe we can find more people to get this done, or hire, or get better software, or wherever else we can invest. So, which path would you like to go down?” Essentially, it’s client management, and you’re forcing them to either trade off or offer more resources.

That’s also a boundary conversation. If you don’t do that, and you just say, “Yes, I’m going to get this done,” then what you’re sacrificing is yourself and your team because you’ll end up needing to work till 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning in order to get it all done if there isn’t enough resources, there isn’t enough time. So, you have to have the courage to also be willing to stand up for yourself and for your team to not sacrifice yourself in the process.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And this reminds me, is it called the project management trio, in terms of like the scope and the resources and the timing, and there’s sort of like a triangle there? And it’s like one of them has got to shift. And I think scope can also maybe include quality. We could do a lot of stuff poorly or we can do a few things really well given how much time and how many people we have available to do those things, and to just get very real about that.

And so, I guess I’m curious, there’s all sorts of data suggesting that we human beings do a poor job of estimating how long things take. How do you recommend we get a clear handle on, yeah, this is really what is a manageable amount for us to bite off right now versus not too much?

Brandon Smith
Oh, this is a tricky one. Now, the simple answer is time and wisdom helps to cure a lot of those ills. We just learn over time that, “Oh, yeah, I estimated I was going to take 10 hours. It turns out it took 40. That was not a good decision.” Like, I have not stained my deck myself in many years. Last time I did it, it took me 40 hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Brandon Smith
I enjoyed doing it but it took me 40 hours. The next year, I hired a crew. It was like 300 bucks and they did it in like four hours. I will never stain my deck again. So, I think part of it is we learn over time. But the other part of this, too, is it’s really important that, as best we can, we try and under-promise and overdeliver when it comes to things like this. Because when we don’t make a gunline that we promised, we lose credibility. And when we lose credibility, it’s in the book, it’s part of a trust formula that I offer, we need to have trust in order to effectively push back on our manager. If she or he doesn’t fully trust us, or we don’t have that credibility, it’s going to be hard for us to push back. They’re not going to listen to us.

So, part of the way, one of the many ways we gain credibility is by kind of meeting and exceeding expectations on a regular basis. And so, it’s all about kind of managing those expectations. So, for example, I could tell my wife I’m going to be home at 6:00 o’clock. If I come home at 7:30, she’s going to be mad. If I tell her I’m going to be home at 6:00 o’clock, and I come home at 5:30, she’s going to be happy. So, it’s just kind of managing that. So, trying to think how we can do that is going to be key.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that really rings true with regard to with the trust. If you try to push back, and there’s low trust, the boss may very well say, “Nah, it’s not that much. You can handle it.” As opposed to, “Oh, no, I really do believe that you’re giving me your honest, genuine assessment of how long things take as opposed to like you’re sandbagging me because you’re lazy,” or something. So, that’s huge. And then under-promise and overdeliver, that’s excellent.

Let’s zoom into kind of the emotional difficulty associated with putting forward a smaller commitment maybe than you think they want, or saying no, or establishing or enforcing a boundary. All these things can be a little bit uncomfortable in terms of that. And I just sort of, this is my personal trick, I remember when I was an employee, and someone asked me, “Hey, when do you think you can have that done?” I just sort of reoriented that question in my brain not to mean, “When do I really think I can have it done?” to, “What is the latest data I can tell you just before you’re going to become irritated with me?”

Brandon Smith
That’s fair.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s kind of how I tried to play it. And sometimes they push back, and I’d be like, “Yeah, I think I could definitely have that by next Tuesday,” and I meant it. I definitely could because I could probably have it three days before that. And then they’d say, “Hmm, yeah, about Friday?” Then I would just sort of say something like, “Yeah, that’s more challenging but I still think that’s doable.” And then, in that way, it’s like, hey, I was never lying, I was never deceptive, I just said, “I could definitely have it done by then,” because I had a great deal of confidence that I had some bugger to schedule. And frequently they just took it, like, “All right. It sounds cool. We’ll do it then.” So, that was my little trick.

Brandon Smith
No, that’s great. It’s managing their expectations. That’s beautiful. That’s perfect.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s one for me. Let’s hear, Brandon, what are some of your faves?

Brandon Smith
In terms of managing some of those expectations?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, managing expectations, saying no when forcing a boundary, when inside, want to people-please and accommodate.

Brandon Smith
So, let’s go back to like saying no. Saying no is difficult because it’s a vulnerable position we put ourselves in. We don’t like vulnerability because what are they going to do to us when we say no? Are they going to reject us? Are they going to get angry with us? What are they going to do? So, we just say, “Well, the path to least resistance is I say yes and just kind of keep on piling and piling and piling.”

Now, that story ends up always ending the same. We have so much on our plate that we end up missing expectations and starting to disappoint others because you can’t just keep piling and piling and piling. So, there are a couple ways that we can say no that will make it a little less emotional for us and easier. So, one very helpful tip is when you’re saying no, that conversation should be 20% no, 80% alternate solutions to solve their problem.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Brandon Smith
Where we go wrong is we spend all the time, like, you asked me to do something, Pete, and I’d say like, “No, Pete, I can’t. Here’s all the reasons why,” and I go through all my list of reasons. You’re not listening to my list of reasons anymore. You don’t really care. You didn’t like the fact I said no. And what I’ve inadvertently done is I’ve set up a negotiation. So, what you’re going to say to yourself is, “Well, if I can counter his argument, then he has to do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. It’s like, “Oh, well, if you could do this, we’d do that. Give it someone else.” And it’s like, “I didn’t mean to invite you into a micro assessment of the rest of my obligations and, yet, here we are.”

Brandon Smith
And that’s what happens. We end up inadvertently turning it into a negotiation. And so, what you want to do is quickly and very succinctly say, “No, I don’t have the capacity to do this, but I want to help you solve this problem. So, I’ve come up with some other alternate solutions to maybe get this problem solved. Let’s work through some of these to find another solution that will get this completed.”

So, you can suggest colleagues perhaps, you can suggest external resources, you can suggest moving things around. So, there are other options that you can lay out at the table. But, in a perfect world, all the other options should not involve you, so you’re kind of going into problem-solving.

Now, the other thing you can also do in terms of saying no is giving people a little more transparency into all the trains running on your tracks. So, often when people load up, even your own boss, your own manager, they probably have forgotten and are unaware of all the stuff you’re doing. So, giving them that window can be helpful.

I had a student of mine years ago, and she did an internship in New York in investment banking. And during that internship, she had multiple managing directors in that office, and they were notorious for coming up to her and giving her big projects. So, one day, one of them came up and gave her a project after his colleague had given her a project the day before. And she looked at him, she said, “I’m happy to do this for you. But in order for me to do this for you, I need to go to your colleague, the other managing director, and I need to tell them I can’t do their project that they gave me yesterday because I’m doing yours instead. Are you comfortable if I have that discussion?” And they looked at her, and they said, “Never mind.”

So, sometimes, showing people what you have going on, and letting them know who you’re going to have to tell no to in order to tell them yes can also re-shift the focus because, now, we’re going into politics and, all of a sudden, this person could put them self in a political limb that they didn’t realize because now you’re going to tell their boss no so you can do their project, or whoever that person may be.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I like that so much because it’s honest, it’s real, it’s genuine. And then, sometimes, the person you’re communicating would be like, “Oh, not a problem. Happy to do that.” And then you learn something from that, it’s like, “Oh, huh, funny. Because from the outside looking in, it had seemed like those two projects were of equal importance but, apparently, one of them is way higher, and I didn’t even know that.” And by having had that conversation and learned that, you’re gaining some of that wisdom, that kind of say, “Oh, okay, this is what’s really important here and what is most valued in this team or organization.”

Brandon Smith
Yeah. So, if we go back to one of our bigger meta-principles today, it was about forcing prioritization. Don’t let everything be urgent all the time. Everything can’t be equal priority. That’s when we get overwhelmed and burned out. In a very kind of geeky way, we need to be lining stuff up in a process kind of way, and say, “Okay, where do I start with first? What’s first priority, and second, and third?”

And, by the way, the leaders and the companies that have really done the best job of keeping everybody focused and aligned during this whole time in 2020 have had anywhere between three and no more than five priorities. They’ve been operating off of a very set list of three to five. They haven’t made everything urgent all the time. They said, “No, these are our big things we’re going to focus on. Everybody, line up around these,” and it calms people’s anxiety, it gets people focused, it’s like just that right amount of hot sauce.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, yes, that three to five is great. The forced prioritization is powerful. One way is to just say, “Hey, I could do that, but in order to do that, I’m going to have to drop this.” And so, you share sort of the constraints. What are some of your other favorite ways of forcing a prioritization?

Brandon Smith
So, when you’re thinking about going to your boss, it helps when you bring a menu. So, rather than say, “What do you want me to do?” we want to be a little more on the author seat and we want to bring them a menu, and say, “I’ve got three different options for you today. Which one of these would you like to go down? Which path?” So, that’s another way that we can force prioritization is by offering options. You’ll learn a lot from people based on what they choose off that menu.

So, a common example is, like, I always feel bad for the creative types in the world because they routinely get customers that say, “You know, I don’t know what I want but I’ll know when I see it.” It’s kind of like forces you to do just do all this guessing. But then if you bring them three options, say, “Well, which one of these do you like better?” People always react to a menu. So, spending that little extra effort in creating a menu will also teach you a lot. You’ll learn a lot about what the incentives and motives are, and it’ll help you kind of know what path you want to go down.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that. When I’m a manager, I like that as well in terms of that’s sort of something I ask people to do, is, “Okay. Hey, each day, send me a quick email on what you did today and what you plan to do tomorrow.” And then that really helps me because, one, I could say, “Oh, huh, no need to do that. Let’s do this instead.” So, I get the heads up so I can redirect as necessary.

And it helps me get a sense of, well, what are their preferences, their strengths, their desires, what would they naturally kind of flow to, as well as their judgment in terms of, it’s like, “Oh, you seem to be under the impression that that is really very important/urgent to me, and it’s not.” So, we can have that conversation, and say, “Hey, actually, we’re totally all set on that front for a couple months, so we can go over here.” They’re like, “Oh, okay, great. Didn’t know. Thank you.” So, I like that, the menu. Very good.

Brandon Smith
So, that made me think of something, another tip. So, we’re spending our time with tips as kind of the employee kind of dealing with the manager. But there are tips about being a more effective manager in this stuff. So, I’ll tell you my favorite example that came from a client. So, I was talking about this idea of urgency and hot sauce. He had a small technology company, about 50 employees, an anxious guy as it is, and so he was just bringing that anxiety into work every day. I mean, everybody was just so wound tight because he was so wound tight.

So, I shared this idea of hot sauce and urgency, and gave him one of my little bottles. I buy these little Tabasco bottles in bulk and hand it out to people. And so, he went out to the grocery store and he bought three bottles of hot sauce, stuck them on his desk. Bang! Bang! Bang! And every time he had an initiative or project that was urgent, when he assigned that project, he would hand that owner of the project a bottle of hot sauce to hold onto until the project was done.

And why that was such a great, really great tip and technique that he did is because he only had three bottles to give out. So, once all the bottles were given out, that’s it. He can’t make anything else urgent until someone gives a bottle back. So, thinking of forcing mechanisms like that that you can do is also another way for you to manage the flow of hot sauce on your teams.

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

Brandon Smith
The only other thing that I would say is also important when we think about hot sauce is just, as managers and leaders, just being intentional, what really is important and making sure we’re communicating that. One of the interesting little missteps I find with senior leaders when we talk about things like executive presence, one of the more common missteps that people don’t realize they’re doing is they talk out loud a lot or they think out loud a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, to their teams.

Brandon Smith
Yeah, to their teams. And they’re just thinking out loud, but their teams are interpreting that as an urgent priority, and they go off and start doing work. And they bring them back a PowerPoint deck the next day or recommendations or something else, and the manager looks at them and says, “I was just kind of just talking. I didn’t really want you to do anything.” So, just being really intentional about what you’re asking folks to do is an important takeaway too for managers so you can keep everybody focused and aligned and just that right amount of urgency.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brandon Smith
One of the ones I actually mentioned a couple times this week, they attribute it to Mark Twain but I don’t think anyone really knows who said it, but it goes like this, “I would’ve written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have enough time.” I love that quote. Because it emphasizes how hard it is to get to finish thinking, how hard it is to have that very concise, like, “This is what I want.” And when time is our most precious resource and everything is urgent all the time, we tend to kind of dump our thinking on people. So, that’s my favorite quote for at least this week.

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

Brandon Smith
Probably the one that is jumping out for me right now is about three or four years ago, a group of researchers studied this question, “What’s the worst kind of boss to work for?” And I thought they would’ve come back with the angry, yelling, and screaming boss, that wasn’t number one. Micromanager wasn’t number one. Ghosting boss wasn’t number one. The worst kind of boss to work for? The highly-inconsistent boss or like the unmedicated bipolar boss, because you never knew what you were going to get on a given day.

So, I thought that was really fascinating because it really speaks to the importance of consistency because anxiety at work comes from a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a contagious emotion. So, we can prevent a lot of that if we’re consistent and predictable. So, that’s one of my favorite pieces of research that’s come out in the last few years.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

Brandon Smith
One recently that I’ve continued to go back to is Daring Greatly from Brené Brown. So, she’s got a whole bunch of books kind of all in the same genre and theme, but I like the study and depth around vulnerability. It’s so important to us building relationships, and even us being more effective as leaders. So, I continue to find myself going back to that one.

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

Brandon Smith
If I think of a simple one that everyone can do, scheduling your emails. Simple tool. Simple-simple, so powerful, saves you so much time, saves you so much anxiety.

Now, I would say, in more recent years, the ability to learn how to hand things off to others who are better at it than you is a kind of tool. And I found it’s gotten me happier, gave me more leverage, and really allowed me to do the stuff that only I can do. So, I’m a big believer in finding ways to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Brandon Smith
Exercise. I’ve always enjoyed exercise and working out, but I’ve been really doubling down on that the last month, so I’ve been finding it’s been yielding a lot of results maybe that’s because I just had my annual physical.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, right.

Brandon Smith
We’re coming full circle, but that’s one that I think is really, really important.

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

Brandon Smith
Simple nugget, going to be something I’m going to be writing about in the future is distinction between being an author and editor, and we’ve touched on it a little bit today. But in every dynamic between a manager and a direct report, there’s always someone who sits in the author seat and someone who sits in the editor seat. And knowing what seat to sit in is key.

So, as the manager or leader, you want to spend the majority of your time in the editor seat, which makes a lot of sense when you think about your great all-time direct reports. They would come to you and say, “Hey, Pete, there’s a problem. Here’s what I think we should do about it. I’d love to get your thoughts.” They’re offering a solution for you to edit.

But where we get stuck sometimes, or tricked sometimes, is we’ll have a direct report say, “What do you want me to do?” And what they’re doing is they’re baiting you into authoring so they can sit back and edit. They can say, “Well, it’s not my fault it didn’t work out. He told me to do it that way.” So, making sure that we’re sitting in that editor seat as a leader is really important. It’ll save us time, and it’ll make our teams better because it promotes ownership, initiative, and critical thinking with them.

And then with our boss, we want to make sure we’re sitting in the author seat. Bring them ideas, bring them a point of view, and recommendations that they can react to, which again goes back to some of our comments earlier around how to more effectively manage our boss.

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

Brandon Smith
It’s very simple. You can Google “The Workplace Therapist.” That’s my handle and I’m the only one. So, you can go to TheWorkplaceTherapist.com. That’s where my blog is, podcasts, where you can get a copy of my book. Of course, it’s also available on Amazon and other places where you might purchase a book. And, again, the title of the book is The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time.

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

Brandon Smith
I think, particularly right now in 2020, I would say there’s two. First, make sure you’re setting healthy boundaries because while people have been working at home and from home, we’re seeing a lot of boundary creep. So, making sure you’re setting healthy boundaries and communicating that. That’s really, really important.

The second thing that I would add, too, is making sure you’re finding ways to remind your boss and other leaders of the value that you’re providing. We’re not always visible, we’re not in front of them every day, and no one likes to self-promote but, at the same time, we’re going to need to make sure that our boss does recognize the value that we’re bringing so we don’t get passed over for that promotion or we don’t get looked over for new opportunities. So, those would be two tips to particularly apply today.

Pete Mockaitis
Brandon, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all the things that have hot sauce on them.

Brandon Smith
Thank you. Really enjoyed coming on the show. Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the great questions. I really enjoyed it.

615: How to Build Laser Focus in an Age of Endless Distractions with Curt Steinhorst

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Curt Steinhorst says: "Distraction at its core is confusion about what matters."

Curt Steinhorst reveals why we often struggle to take control of our attention—and what we can do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Surprising statistics that illustrate our level of distraction 
  2. The essential keys to accessing flow state
  3. How to improve your focus in three steps 

About Curt

Curt Steinhorst is the author of the bestselling book Can I Have Your Attention?, an expert on focus and distraction, and a regular Forbes contributor on Leadership Strategy. 

Diagnosed with ADD as a child, Curt knows intimately the challenges in keeping the attention of today’s distracted workforce and customer. Through Focuswise, the company Curt founded to help teams solve the problem of chronic distraction, Curt and his team apply the science of how the brain works to the reality of how we function in today’s world. 

He coaches founders and CEOs of multi-billion-dollar brands on how to effectively communicate and create focus when they speak to audiences, lead their employees, and engage their customers. His worldwide speeches and training have helped thousands gain the wisdom and practical habits to better manage their focus and put it on the things that really matter in life and work. Clients include Southwest Airlines, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, NIKE, and SAP, just to name a few. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Hydrant. Hydrate all the more effectively, efficiently, and deliciously! Listeners save 25% at drinkhydrant.com/awesome. 

     

Curt Steinhorst Interview Transcript

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

Curt Steinhorst
I’m excited to be here, Pete. Thanks for the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom, and much of it is captured in your book Can I Have Your Attention? But, I understand, when it comes to you reading books, you love fantasy novels. What’s the story here?

Curt Steinhorst
I’m a nerd, really. No. So, I have always enjoyed this weird genre that is fantasy novels, and then Game of Thrones came out and revealed to the rest of the world that it’s not all Bilbo Baggins. Honestly, I have this part of my world where I work really hard, and then focus on the research, and what’s happening in trends in the markets, and workplace trends. And then I have this other side where I want to turn off my brain, and I want to just think about a world that’s not here. And so, fantasy novels are really awesome for that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then, tell me, what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel per se? And what do you think is, like, the core stuff of it that makes it so engaging for folks, such that some of them are like 12-plus books deep in a series, and folks read them all cover to cover, front to getting to the end? What is it that glues people like yourself?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think it’s the same thing, I think, that makes anyone love any great story. And, officially, fantasy novels take place more in the medieval times where there’s swords and then there’s some form of magic, which sounds super nerdy. My wife thinks that I’m crazy to love it. But what makes them powerful is really great characters that have complex challenges.

And it turns out, when you release some of the great creatives in the world to not have to be constrained by the same parameters that are our world is constrained by, what you find is that people are really, really great at imagining things that are fascinating, and interesting, and make you think you enjoy the story just like you would any great story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is cool. And I think that I am thinking about sort of the hero’s journey stuff, it really seems like that is just…like, fantasy just plays into that dead-on it seems, but from my limited experience.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s funny. If you’re looking for something that’s fun and that is a healthy escape, they’re really just incredible stories. So, I didn’t know I was going to promote fantasy novels, but there are some great ones out there. The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, these are just some of the best novels out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a few people know that the very first guest on How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, Mawi Asgedom, he’s famous for a lot of sort of social and emotional skills development and communication things, but he also wrote a fantasy novel for The Fifth Harmony, The Third Harmony? oh, don’t tell him.

Curt Steinhorst
I’m going to have to get it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, anyway, we’re talking about how fantasy novels have done an amazing job of capturing people’s attention for long stretches, but I understand that the world of focus and attention, here and now, Curt, isn’t so rosy. We are besieged by distraction. Can you paint a picture for just how bad it is right now?

Curt Steinhorst
Well, there’s two levels of bad news on this front. And one is what we’ve been experiencing over the last decade, which is this assault on our attention in, literally, endless ways. So, on average, you have 4,000 to 7,000 advertisements put in front of your face every single day, and $375 billion will be spent to get your attention. And, of course, there’s no safe place because the technology, it allows us to go anywhere and be reached.

And so, we get a lot of stuff for free, which is exciting, at Facebook and Yelp! and Google. And then we fail to realize that they’re actually charging us, and they’re charging us and our attention. And so, the challenge is that it doesn’t stay with us just when we’re at home or at any place. It really comes into work, and we end up in a situation where the volume of messages coming at us, the number of meetings that we’re expected to attend, the people outside of work who can reach us, put us in a place where we’re going back and checking our phones 150 times a day.

We, on average, stay on the same screen for 40 seconds at a time when at work. And if you have Slack or you have Microsoft Teams on a second screen, that number goes down to 35 seconds. So, needless to say, we’re really, really good at flipping based on all that’s coming at us. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing that will keep us from being able to do what we need to do to be able to thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, I love you dropped those numbers. It shows you’re a man who’s done your research, and that’s why we hunted you down. So, I’m excited to dig into all the more goodness here. So, that’s striking, 4,000 to 7,000 advertising messages every day, 150 times a day phone picks up, and 40 seconds average time. Yeah, that paints a picture in terms of attention and focus being scattered all over the place. And it’s tough.

I remember, so right now, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is pretty hot, and I enjoyed it. I think there are some good truths to be gleaned from it. So, the term that really struck me is that we refer to our phone as a digital pacifier that we pick up whenever we’re the slightest bit uncomfortable, like, “I’m a little bored.” And that kind of spooked me a bit, like, “Ugh, I guess I kind of do do that. And I’d like to…” Do-do, pacifiers. I’ve got toddlers.

So, what’s the consequence of this? It’s a lot. A lot of phone pickups, a lot of advertising messages, a very short window in which we’re kind of looking at our screen, but is that fine, Curt? Is that, “Hey, man, life in 2020”?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And The Social Dilemma did do a really great job of exposing some of the challenges, specifically, the adversarial technology, meaning technology that has different interests than we have, can have on us individually, and even deeper on society. I think the core challenge that we face, and there’s all sorts of quantifiable ways at work that we can show, the financial implications, the engagement implications, the tendency that people have to do less work and feel more overwhelmed.

But I think the core challenge, and what I really appreciated about The Social Dilemma is it spotlighted that we are losing control of what actually shapes and defines every single thing about our future, which is what gets our attention, what keeps our attention, how do we take control of our attention. And so, I think that’s the core consequence because you lose control of your own attention, and you lose control of everything.

Pete Mockaitis
You lose control of your attention; you lose control of everything. Yeah, I buy that, because instead of getting the results and outcomes that you really want and care about are important too, which would come from dedicated devotion of your attention to those pursuits, you sort of get whatever the algorithms have determined you should care about, and you get hooked into.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. The analogy that I would use is that we are in an ocean which has become a perfect storm. The pandemic, of course, just added an entirely new dimension, and we’re not going to be able to get out of that. And I think, so often, what we see when people immediately hear, “Oh, you think about focus and attention and distraction. Oh, I feel bad. I’m on my device when I shouldn’t be.” And it’s like that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Technology, being distracted isn’t being on your phone.

In fact, I was walking through an airport, and someone had heard me speak, and they walked up. I was texting my wife while walking to the gate, and they said, “Hey, aren’t you the distraction expert? Caught you. You’re distracted.” I was like, “You nailed it. I am distracted by you. You are distracting me.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, I was crafting a beautiful note to my bride.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, exactly. So, distraction at its core is confusion about what matters. And we’re living in a world where we’re increasingly confused because there are so many things screaming “This matters.” And so, we end up like a raft in the middle of a stormy ocean with no control rather than having the toolset to navigate within the world we live in to still assert control and, therefore, have the ability to get to a particular place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lay it on us, how do we pull that off? You zero in on four key elements that affect focus. Is that where we should start? Or how do you want to tee us up?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think the number one place to start is just by actually realizing that time is not your most valuable resource. Your most valuable resource is your attention. And so, I know that seems like, “Okay, we’ve already talked about that.” But how often do people really think about, “What’s getting our attention?” Like, when you woke up this morning, not, “What did you do?” Maybe you went on a jog. But it’s, “What did you think about?” Or maybe I’m optimistic, maybe you thought about your attention was, “I need to do a job,” but you didn’t do it.

So, it’s the thing that fascinates me at its core is like, “How do those decisions get made?” because I think where most people naturally go when they hear, “I’m distracted,” or they feel like they’re inefficient, they need to be more productive, which are downstream effects of being able to manage our own attention, being able to focus, is they go towards things, lifehacking tricks, that, for me at least, when I started this journey into the research over a decade ago, they worked great for me tomorrow but, at the time, they didn’t work at all. And it’s like, I just kept having perfect advice that I couldn’t execute on.

And so, the reasoning for that is because we actually don’t understand what human attention is for, and what we’re able to do and not do. And so, I would start by saying, like, “I’m going to value my attention and know that everything comes from that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, okay, so that point about those hacks, they work great for you tomorrow, by that do you mean you don’t yet have the fundamental core in place such that those can amplify your effectiveness, and it’s sort of like the cart-before-the-horse type situation?

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. We will seek quick tips which, by the way, are super helpful. They’re really important. I’m going to give several that I think are important. But we do it without really understanding, like, “What is it that’s driving underneath this? What is it that keeps me from actually doing those things?” So, there’s no strings, there’s no endless amounts of things that we can do. Bundle your email. Don’t check your email all the time. But people still do it. And I think the thing that I would say is, “Okay, so let’s change the equation to really understand, like, how I make decisions about my attention.”

And so, a couple huge mistakes. Number one, people don’t understand that their attention is always going to be driven by social influence, meaning other people, what they pay attention to. Like, I could be perfectly focused but if the person sitting next to me has different ambitions then I’m never going to get my work done. So, like, we have to say, “Okay, how do I change the equation in such that it doesn’t cost me more attention than I have when I’m trying to find ways to create more space so I can focus on what matters?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge. And, like, you really have to be in a pretty hardcore sense of isolation for those effects to not matter much. I think I’m just lying to myself, when it’s like, “No, no, no, this is my objective, and I’ve determined it, and this is the schedule. And, thus, this is what shall be.” But, in practice, no, my dear wife or advertiser or somebody needs something now, and here we are.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And maybe if I were to say it’s really simply, often the great suggestions and strategies that we try to incorporate, they cost us the very thing we have the least of. So, like, “I’m going to implement a new project management system. I’m going to change the way I do my morning every morning. I’m going to do a gratitude journal. I’m going to do all of these things.” But the reason that we can’t is because we’re tired, and it’s because we have a lot on our plates, and it’s because that takes work. So, it’s like, maybe let’s think about how we do this in a way that we can actually get it done with our attention in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s get right into the core then, and it might take a while but I think it’s well worth it. So, you’re pointing to something bigger than the tips, and the tricks, and the hacks, and the strategies, and the tactics, to kind of fundamentally how do we go about determining what gets our attention? And I guess, for many of us, the answer is probably like, “I don’t know/It’s not that clearly defined.” So, lay it on us, like, how do we do that? Like, what are the main maybe archetypes, or modes, or flavors by which this happens?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And this is where it gets really fun, and there’s a lot of different frameworks that we can use but I’ll use a really simple one. You have two systems of attention in your brain, and one system of attention is more based out of your right hemisphere, and we would call it bottom-up, or right hemisphere attention. It’s complex. This isn’t the same as right brain, left brain pseudo-science. Then there’s another system of attention that is more top-down is what it’s called, and it’s more based in the left hemisphere.

And so, the right hemisphere is the baseline system of attention. Here’s what I mean by that. Right now, there’s literally endless things that are screaming for your attention. Like, you could be paying attention to this podcast, you could be paying attention to the football game that’s on, whatever, you have endless options.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s hot in here.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s hot. Exactly. And we flip. We’re constantly flipping. But most of it, it hits the right hemisphere first, and what you’re looking for is two things, “Is that thing going to kill me?” So, I am, primarily, like anytime, something is perceived as acutely threatening. Meaning, “Whatever that is could hurt me, I will focus on it,” and that’s when it flips into the other hemisphere, and we give nothing else our attention. Everything else disappears.

And so, the first thing is pain, fear, anxiety. Now, why it’s really important to realize this, is because this is exactly what makes technology so complicated because technology brings things that are far away and makes it feel right here. And so, all of a sudden, we can spend our whole day saying we want to get more work done, we want to get focused. Well, what inputs are coming your way that make everything feel extremely threatening?

There was a fascinating research that was done after the Boston Marathon bombing, and they looked at the stress and trauma levels of people that were at the scene of the crime, of this tragedy. Then they compared it to people who consumed media about it. And the acute stress levels were higher in those that were watching it than those that were there.

And so, that tells us, like when technology brings something to us, we perceive it wrongly, so our attention is always going to go towards stress. And the other thing, and I’ll pause after this one when it comes to our right hemisphere, is then we’re also wired to seek out new fun things, things that our past have said, “That is interesting. Every time I go there, it feels good,” or, “I have no idea what that is.” It’s new, it’s interesting, that’s why I’m always like, “What else could be on Twitter? What else could be here?” because you’re wired to explore. Your brain is made to go in search of things that are interesting.

So, that’s the foundation for what drives our attention, “Is it interesting? Is it threatening?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. Interesting. Threatening. Nice summary. So, when you say bottom-up, you mean in terms of just like there’s a stimulus, and, “Brrp,” as opposed to, “Here’s my masterplan, and I am enacting it.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. Yeah, it starts in the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, that’s handy there in terms of threats, pain, fear, anxiety, and the novelty. And, well, I guess that’s why the news can really suck you in because it’s always new. By the definition, it’s the news. This is something that has happened recently that you probably are not aware of because it’s all across the world. And, by the way, it could be threatening you in terms of if the election outcome you find to be threatening, one way or the other, or COVID, or any number of natural disasters, or economic crisis. Yeah, that’s a real potent double whammy there. The news hits you both.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And we’re seeing like a 79% increase in the amount of time people are spending checking news through digital channels. And so, like, why is this so important? Because we pay attention to what matters the most at any moment, and we say, “How do I get more work done? How I get more focused?” Maybe not a lifehack, it’s more of saying, “Okay. Well, you’re not going to focus on something that has to do with work if you don’t know that it matters a ton, and you don’t block out, you don’t spend less time on the threats that are far away that can be perceived really closely.” So, that’s kind of a step one, easy way to think about practical implications of attention science.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, that makes sense in terms of fundamentally, principally, that’s what’s up in terms of, like, biochemistry, evolution, the human condition, yeah, here we are, we’ve got some predispositions to go that way.

Curt Steinhorst
I can give you a few more layers because, clearly, we’re not monkeys, we’re not cows. I mean, cows, they eat the grass because it tastes good, they have an associated reward, and they run away from wolves. Like, that’s what they do. We’re not just that. So, that’s where the other system comes in. The other system of attention, it allows us to say, “I’m going to ignore that, that interesting thing, right now that doesn’t matter. I’m going to focus on something unilaterally.” This is the type of work people really want when they say, “I want to get focused.”

And some would say the ultimate state of that type of focus is what’s called flow. Now, what happens there is that when we have our attention prioritized by the left hemisphere, the things that are unfamiliar, literally, you don’t see it anymore, you don’t hear it anymore. It all disappears. Like, you can zoom in for periods of time, and it can be extended.

And there’s ways we can increase and decrease our capacity but, ultimately, we do those things when it’s challenging, it demands something from us, when the barriers to other fun things that give us a reward are not available, meaning, “I need to work on a research project for a bank that I’m working with right now, but I also would love to see what my Fantasy Football team is doing. Like, I’ll do the easier thing,” and when we see that we can make real progress towards it. Like, I feel some level of mastery.

If it’s just a list of tasks, then it’s not satiating. Like, we can’t make our attention go to things that are boring and uninteresting. They have to be challenging and interesting, new and interesting, threatening and interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, run that by us again. So, we got the mastery, we’ve got barriers to easier fun things. And what else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so it has to be challenging, meaning it has to demand enough of our brain that we won’t drift off. Like, boredom is the number one reason people leave jobs, like it doesn’t take enough, “Any machine can do this.” So, challenging, “This is hard.” It has to involve something that we see ourselves becoming an expert. Mastery, like, “By working on how to ride a bike, I’m going to be, like I can do that.” “By becoming a financial advisor by learning the markets, I’m going to be the expert in the markets.” Whatever it is. We have to see that connection. And then we have to have things that are fun, not available to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there it is. All right. So, given that, let’s say we want to, at the very core, primal, fundamental level, focus in on something. What should we do?

Curt Steinhorst
So, start with space, decide where you’re going to do it, that’s really important. The largest neural connection between short-term and long-term memory is space, meaning, I walk into a place, and it says, my brain is cued to say, “This is what I’m supposed to do here.” So, we want to let our space work for us. Like, if I asked everyone, “Where were you when you heard about what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?” Everyone remembers where they were.

And so, I would say if I want to zero in on something, I got to pick a place that the noise isn’t too loud. It doesn’t mean…coffee shops can be really great for this, by the way, for a different reason, but, “I’m going to pick this place as where I’m going to work and the other stuff isn’t available.” Like, we call it going into a vault, “That I’m going to…my phone isn’t going to be as available, my people are going to know I’m not available, this is where I do that.” So, space is the first thing I would always tackle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, I like that metaphor going into a vault, which really…I’m thinking about Fortnite’s The Vault. It’s a huge iron enclosure with a big old dial, like, “Boom! We’re going in there,” and it’s secure, like you can put lots of gold bars in this vault.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s good and clear in terms of others know, like, “Hey, I’m not to be disturbed right now.” Ideally, your phone is off or distant, you’re left in another location, and there could be any number of distractions not available to you. Like, the fridge is not there. Well, lay it on us, like what are best practices for vaulting?

Curt Steinhorst
And it depends on the type of work truly. Like, number one practice is clear barriers to entry in and out. Like, that’s the simple way to think of it. I use noise-cancelling headphones because it’s the random unexpected that you’re like, “Oh, that would be interesting.” Your line of sight is the next thing I would do. Turn off the background noise or put on classical music, and then make sure that what I see in front of me isn’t stuff that would make me want to do it instead.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a PlayStation.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, like a PlayStation.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t have that thing.

Curt Steinhorst
Like, a TV. That’s right. Or, you’re in an open office, we’ll come back there eventually, and you work in the same space with someone you know. Like, we’re social, like, “I’d rather talk to them than do this.” So, we just remove, change our line of sight. Those are kind of the big areas that I would be thinking about. And then, from there, I think it really comes down to if you’re wanting to do more creative work than having the ability to see outside is really valuable. Like, the more distant the horizon is, it actually shows that it allows you to think more creatively. If you’re wanting to knock out an Excel spreadsheet, then it’s actually tighter rooms where the blinders are on are more helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’ve got HGTV scenes running through my head right now in terms of they’re just running spaces for purposes, and it’s not just really stuff for designers to charge more. It has a huge impact in how well you’re able to accomplish whatever you care to accomplish in that space, whether that’s make food, or sleep, or crank out work.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And I would say, okay, if you’re having to work from home, we need to move…once we hit a certain threshold, we get bored, we have to go somewhere else. So, it’s like just match the space to the task. If it’s cranking out a bunch of emails, or responding to quick messages, or just whatever work you’re doing that’s quick and easy, that you can bundle together, that doesn’t require tons of focus, do it wherever. But that work, that by being interrupted, you lose significantly in time and quality, and you know what that is that demands your full attention, just pick a place where that’s all you do. Like, that is the place where the hard work gets done.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I like that a lot. Okay. So, we talked about a vault. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so space first. And then the next piece I would say is like creating the clarity and removing the stuff that clutters your mind that you also feel like you have to get done. So, for instance, the number one predictor of how often you self-interrupt is how many people interrupted you the previous hour. Think of how often you’re interrupted because anytime you’re interrupted, someone is saying, “You should be paying attention to something else. There’s something else that you’re missing.”

And so, it’s really hard to say, “I’m going to focus on this,“ when your list of things that are on your mind that you know you have to get to is really long. And so, we start a couple really, really easy ways to solve this and make it easier on your brain is, number one, starting with, this is in every meeting, is, “What’s competing for your attention?” I’ll start by just doing a dump, a brain dump, anything that’s like, “Oh, I get to this. Oh, I got to do this. I got to do this.” And that’s why it’s really good at the beginning of the day kind of plan out your day by saying, “These are the things I have to get done. These are the things I could get done.” So, I start just by offloading everything.

And then the next really important piece, if you want to do focused work that’s in the vault, is you have to match the time to the task. So, you matched the space to the task, now you match the time. You schedule out, you say, “This is going to take me 45 minutes, and all the stuff that I have to do that I know is important, I’ve scheduled it. Like, I’ve given the time that is necessary for it so then I’m not burdened by, ‘What else I haven’t gotten to?’ I’m aware that there’s time allotted for it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s huge in terms of you can just rest easy knowing that that has a place and it’s going to get handled, as opposed to, “Might this not get done and calamity ensue? I hope not.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And the other problem is I’ve had this, clearly, a client will say, “Well, if I look at my calendar, like there’s still all this stuff I can’t get done so I end up putting 15-minute increments for things to even out.” Okay, great. Well, then you know on the frontend, and you got to either dump it or delegate it. You got to trash it so that, at least at the end of the day, you have permission to be successful.

If your day is scheduled at such a level that it’s going to come apart at the seams at some point, that’s the fastest route to get to less of it. Like, when you’re overwhelmed, what do we do? Like, what do you when you’re already feeling guilty, and like, “Aargh, this is the worst”? We watch funny cat videos, like that’s what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s weird, huh?

Curt Steinhorst
We escape it completely because we want to alleviate that feeling of disappointment, shame, regret.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Curt Steinhorst
So, when it comes to changing that equation, you move from just a to-do list to a prioritized to-do list, and you then move from a prioritized to-do list to a calendared-timestamped approach. Let your calendar be your home screen, and let that guide what you work on, and that changes. I would say, most people have not implemented that. In my work, and if you just did that, you get probably 80% improvement, like you get a long way.

Now, there’s one problem that I have to mention on this, and it’s one of the reasons that people often struggle with this, is that it turns out people are really unreliable when it’s not what they want to do. And so, it’s like, okay, let’s put some breathers in here, and say, “I’m not a robot. At 4:00 p.m., if I put that huge project that I’ve been delaying, odds are I’m probably not going to want to do it right then.”

And so, I would just say, make sure you put the stuff that you hate the most at the times when you’re most mentally strong, which usually is more in the morning for most people. And, secondly, if you’re someone who really struggles with this, just put some gaps where you have like three different things, and let yourself choose which one you want to work on at the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is good because I think that some resistance to this idea is like, “Oh, but then I feel boxed in.” Well, it’s sort of like, “Well, in some ways that’s sort of the point. You need a box in order to accomplish the thing that really matters that isn’t getting accomplished.” But, in other ways, hey, if it is flexible, like one task is not truly way more important than another, then, okay, game on. We can have some flexibility there.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, you’re wired to explore. You’re creative. You do the unexpected. This is what makes us actually better than machines. Machines are always going to be more efficient than us. So, I just think rather than really being frustrated with yourself, you just say, “How do we put that natural curiosity, and interest in the unexpected, how do we put it to good use rather make it end up being debilitating so that we end up nowhere?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is beautiful. So, we’ve got the space, we’ve got the time. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Then we got the people. Yeah, the people. In the work I do, this is perhaps the most underutilized piece of the equation, that when we look at it, organizations, if you work in a company, they want you to be productive. But then we put in systems, and we create culture, and we have teams that all but ensure it will never happen. And so, it’s like there’s 55% increase in the number of meetings and calls per week right now from before when COVID started.

Pete Mockaitis
Before COVID, okay.

Curt Steinhorst
From March until now, we’re seeing a 55% increase. I created this really fun program with Nike called The Focus Fit Challenge. It a four-week thinking of focus as a skill to develop. And we were looking at this team, and it turns out like seven hours of meetings makes it really unlikely that you’re going to be able to do anything else really well.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Curt Steinhorst
And so, yeah, I would say the next thing is to say, “Who steals my attention? Or, who needs my attention? And how do I have a conversation that says…?” because no one benefits from your partial attention. But the reason we all want each other’s attention is because attention is given to what matters, it says we matter. And it also helps other people help us know what matters.

And so, I would just say look at the people who are most likely to want to interrupt you, to want to take it from you, to deserve your attention, and set up some ground rules that says, “During this time, I’m not going to be available at all. During this time, I’m going to be only available to you, and let’s figure out what that needs to look like,” so that now you have advocates for people that previously would’ve been frustrated because it was only going to take a second. It’s like, sure, if we warp the space-time continuum, it’ll only take a second, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. Yeah, that’s great. And then that can feel really good. And I guess that sort of gets to all of this, is that it’s kind about getting really real early instead of late in terms of like you’re not overscheduling, then the day comes apart at the seams, we feel like a loser, failure, because you ruined it. And not with people telling them, “You get this much time, or you don’t get this much time,” and then either disappointing them or you not following through. It’s like you’re making the calls in advance in terms of, “This is going to happen, this is what’s not going to happen, and I am comfortable and responsible with regard to the consequences of it,” as opposed to, “Well, I hope I can make maybe get lucky and get it all done. Let’s see what happens.”

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, that’s right. When we look and we see how people are feeling about work, there’s been an over 31% increase in burnout during this period, even though at the beginning we’ve got a lot of things cleared from our plates. There’s been this 48% increase in team chats, and it makes sense. It really does. Like, “If we can’t see you, then we want to hear from you more often.” But what’s happening is we’re creating a culture where responsiveness is everyone’s highest responsibility, and then we see and we wonder why this engagement occurs, frustration occurs, people feel like there’s less work-life balance, they can’t unplug. Home relationships suffer. At work, relationships are not being built because we’re dislocated.

And so, all I would just say is it’s about being proactive in this but it’s about really giving yourself permission to succeed. Like, this is the challenges when we react and don’t set clear agreed-upon expectations. What we end up doing is we allow the unspoken expectations of others to drive us, and then we actually teach them what they should expect. And so now, we’re emailing immediately back, and now they’re frustrated if we don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Curt Steinhorst
So, if you reliably don’t respond to emails for a day, like the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, then guess what? No one expects it. Now, I understand some are like, “Tell my boss this.” Right. Let’s start with all the other relationships you have a little more power over, setting some healthier boundaries, and then we can have a conversation with your boss about saying, “I want to do this really well. Can we set some rules around how I know when I’m allowed to do the uninterrupted work?” You know what I mean? So, let’s start with the people that we care about, and just say, “Let’s figure this out together.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Or, even just yourself in terms of, ‘No, 7:15 to 7:45, I’m not looking at any devices. I’m taking a shower, I’m journaling, whatever.” And then, yeah, start not at the hardest possible boundary to enforce but the easiest.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And here’s the other thing, one of the reasons we’re like, “I’m not going to do it from 7:15 to 7:45.” Look, if the alternative, if you’re going to stop looking at your phone while you sit on the couch and watch TV, or the rule becomes about constraint, rather than saying, like, “What’s this replacing?” So, make sure that if you’re going to set ground rules, make it because there’s something better. You know what I mean?

It’s like, “From 7:15 to 7:45, we’re going to have a fun high-low day to talk about that,” or, “I’m going to take my kids on a wagon ride.” Like, have something proactive, and then before you get into it, mind a gap. Like, give yourself a gap that says, “I’ve just looked at everything in the world, nothing needs my attention now. And now I’m going to actually give myself permission to just be here.” It’s like close up before so you know nothing matters, and then do something fun, do something that does matter with that time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s perfect. Well, Curt, I think you’ve done a fantastic job of diagnosing what’s going on here and why we find ourselves in this spot, and what are some things we can do. Lay it on us, you’ve shared this wisdom with many people. I’m sure some have adopted it to tremendous effect, and many others have done nothing. Why? What’s sort of like the holdup, the roadblock, the mistake, the thing that you could help us overpower so that we’re in the group that transforms?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think there’s a couple things that would drive our inability to see real progress here. One is that we actually don’t know why we’re doing it. And the point of efficiency and boundaries around these things always has to be founded in something worth focusing on. And so, people aren’t going to just be more efficient and productive if the end is just more efficiency and productivity, and climbing a ladder without a picture of where they’re headed. And so, I would say the biggest thing is like know what you’re devoting this extra uninterrupted energy to, and know that it’s worth it.

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

Curt Steinhorst
You know, I would just say focus is possible but make the goal not to be an efficient machine. Make the goal instead to eliminate all the stuff that waste your time, distracts you, so that you can actually have a chance to really thrive in this moment. I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, and so I’m all too familiar with distraction. And what doesn’t help us is an unrealistic expectation towards efficiency without a realization that we’re all capable of focus when we know what matters.

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

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, my favorite quote is “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are,” by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher.

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

Curt Steinhorst
Well, I already mentioned the Boston Marathon research. I‘ve been using that. I think that’s really, really interesting and fascinating. The interesting study out of Michigan State talks about how walking through nature actually restores your attention. It’s called Attention Restoration Theory. And I’m really fascinated by how subtle amounts of background noise actually increase our ability to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I can’t let that go. If I wanted to get me some of that, what do you recommend I do for my subtle amounts of background noise?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, the coffee shop, subtle background noise there. I would say the key is if you can get outdoors and into actual nature, that’s the number one thing you want to do. If you can’t, having the feeling of movement is good. You just don’t want it to be people that you know. So, you want to go places where the noise has a small amount of noise. It creates what’s called the inhibitory spillover. It forces the system in your brain to inhibit, block out everything, so you just kind of want a dull lull in a subtle stimulation through movement that’s in the background. So, coffee shops are actually probably the perfect place to be able to get that.

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

Curt Steinhorst
There’s a book called The Social Animal by David Brooks, that I think is the most entertaining and beautiful narrative on the fullness of human sociology and psychology right now. So, if you want to understand like all that’s out there in a really fun way, that’s the book I’d recommend.

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

Curt Steinhorst
I’ve gotten really where I love the tool Notion. And the reason I love Notion is it’s a system that you can build on but it allows for me to have full visibility on all the tasks I need to do, but even deeper. It allows me to have content that gets linked and referenced across so it’s not me having 12 versions of Google Docs. I use databases and things like that to be able to consolidate research and consulting work and strategies into a single place.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Curt Steinhorst
I have a monthly note that is my idea, interesting ideas and thoughts. And so, I actually used to use Evernote, now I switched to Notion. And anything I’m thinking about, like, “Oh, gosh, that podcast. I really want to watch that podcast, or someone recommended an article, or a quote I came across, or I should use one kind of sunscreen versus another,” like anything. Rather than trying to file it, I throw it all in a single note, and then once a month I do a full review. Even when I read articles, I’ll keep the whole article if it’s for my space but if it’s not, I’ll just pull out the quotes and link it so that, at the very least, if it’s something I found interesting, I will review it twice. And then I’ll file it wherever it belongs later, but I feel no pressure. I just dump it in a single spot.

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

Curt Steinhorst
I think, I guess, the thing I see on Twitter more than anything is the very basic, that your attention is the most limited, valuable, precious, and misunderstood resource. And there’s no greater gift that you can give to someone than your undivided attention.

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

Curt Steinhorst
The website is probably the first place, FocusWise.com. And then, if they want to add an email, my email is CS@FocusWise.com. And then social platforms are complicated but if that’s your cup of tea, LinkedIn is definitely the place that I’m most engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And any final challenges or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Curt Steinhorst
You make some simple changes. Don’t do it by putting more work on your plate. Do it by making your space help you out. And do it by just looking at your time, and saying, “I’m going to divide my time. I’m not going to divide my attention.”

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all the things you’re attending to.

Curt Steinhorst
Hey, this has been my joy. I’m really grateful for the time.

609: Why You Need to Stop Multitasking and Start Singletasking with Devora Zack

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Devora Zack says: "You can either do one thing well or two things poorly at any given moment."

Devora Zack debunks multitasking myths and shares how singletasking can help you get more done– one thing at a time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why multitasking reduces your efficiency 
  2. How to unplug effectively 
  3. Why we get addicted to multitasking 

About Devora

Devora Zack is CEO of Only Connect Consulting, a Washington Post bestselling author and global speaker with books in 45 language translations. Her clients include Deloitte, Smithsonian, Delta Airlines, the FDA, Johns Hopkins, and the National Institutes of Health. She has been featured by the Wall Street JournalUSA TodayUS News & World ReportForbesSelfRedbookFast Company, and many others. She is the author of Networking for People Who Hate NetworkingManaging for People Who Hate Managing and Singletasking. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

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Devora Zack Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Devora, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Devora Zack
It’s a pleasure to be back with you. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear, you’re doing a lot of interesting work and research and speaking and training. Tell me, have you had any cool insightful new discovery since the last time we spoke?

Devora Zack
Oh, yeah, I’ve had so many cool discoveries since we last spoke mostly about how to transform the virtual environment into one where people really can connect in deep meaningful ways whether it’s networking or interpersonal connections. It can be done. And I’ve had a great time uncovering those possibilities and helping people feel more connected during this challenging time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that sounds so good. We might have to have a third appearance because that’s right up our alley. But we’re all prepped up to talk about singletasking today. But if you found some tools, yeah, maybe drop those into the favorite things and integrate some of that and the goodness here as a sneak peek. So, I want to talk to you about singletasking, sort of what’s the big idea here and how do you define singletasking versus multitasking? Like, what counts versus doesn’t count when we’re determining something multitasking?

Devora Zack
Well, just let’s start with understanding the foundation of my work, which is that multitasking is a myth. It’s actually impossible to do two simultaneously competing activities in your brain at the same time. So, when people claim to be multitasking, what is actually happening is what the neuroscientists call task-switching. And when we’re task-switching, what’s happening neurologically is our brain is very, very rapidly moving back and forth between tasks, and that has all kinds of negative impacts on our lives internally and externally.

It makes us less productive, which is interesting because the big reason people say that they “need to multitask” is because they have so much to do. So, doing that makes us unable to enter an emerging state or a flow state because, by definition, we’re not focusing deeply on one task in front of us. It lowers IQ and, here’s the biggie, it even shrinks the gray matter in the brain. So, multitasking isn’t really multitasking, it’s task-switching and it has a whole range of negative effects on us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, those sound negative. So, could you share with us any of the most hard-hitting research, like the alarming numbers or studies or stats that would make us say, “Whoa! I’m convinced. I got to cut this out”?

Devora Zack
There’s so much. I think that what is alarming and overwhelming is that this international research done over the past 10 years in the highest esteemed institutions and organizations are all in agreement, they’ve all been consistent, that attempting to do more than one thing at a time is neurologically impossible, and that it does everything from harming our relationships, it makes us much less respectful than we used to be of people who are standing in front of us engaged in a conversation, and it also makes us feel professionally because we’re not able to maintain focus on one thing at a time.

And just as a quick aside, when you said I have a virtual environment, what’s interesting and maybe it links to singletasking, it absolutely does because it’s getting even harder now because we’re all sitting behind screens so much at the time, it’s very tempting to allow ourselves to be distracted.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, totally. It’s sort of like right now we can see each other but you don’t really know what I’m looking at. I’m looking at my prepared questions but I could be looking at any number of other interesting news articles or Facebook or you name it while, supposedly, having a meeting, and I’m not really there at all.

Devora Zack
And we have all kinds of reasons for that. We can say, “Oh, I’m very effective at doing this. I can get away with it,” or, “I’m being more efficient,” or, “The meeting is not interesting anyway.” But one thing I can say is that, just to do a reality check for ourselves, we know when someone else is not giving us their full attention, whey they pause between a question and answer, when they ask to repeat. So, we’re not tricking anyone either when we’re living distracted lives. I call it SBS, scattered brain syndrome, that we’re dealing with these days.
Sometimes people say to me, “But, Devora, I can multitask, I can go for a run and listen to music, or I can empty the dishwasher and talk on the phone.” So, that’s an important point to raise because it’s all touched in my book called “When Multitasking Isn’t Multitasking.” So, it’s only considered multitasking if the two activities are competing for the same brain space. So, if, for example, I’m on a conference call and I’m squeezing a stress ball, that’s totally fine. It’s when I’m on a conference call and returning emails that things start to fall apart.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, it’s like we can’t compete for the same channel or function stream or capability. I guess, are there…how might we segment that? So, running and listening is fine, stress ball and online meeting is fine, I guess one is physical and one is mental. How do we think about the channels that we have available that are distinct from one another?

Devora Zack
It’s a good question and an important question because we tend to err in the direction of thinking that things are not competing for the same set of our brain. So, for example, if I’m driving in my car, and at home, on a route, I take all the time, then I may not need as much of my conscious part of my brain as if I’m on a business trip driving in the rain in the dark and somewhere I’ve never been. So, we tend to overestimate our ability to do two things at once. So, I caution people to really think hard about, “Are two tasks really separate?” And as a good example, something that people think they can do, is walk down a busy street while talking on the phone. And, in fact, while we’re all aware by now of the terrible dangers of texting while driving, but a more recent phenomenon is texting while walking. And it sounds silly, but, in fact, there are people fall down staircases, walk into traffic, bash into other people, just because they think, “Oh, I can handle it. I can do it.”

So, really, to spend time in self-evaluation about not only, “What can I physiologically handle doing two things at once?” but also “Maybe I’m diminishing my life experiences personally and professionally by deciding that I’m never where I’m at.” So, part of it is being where you are. Like, how about, when I work with coaching clients, I often encourage them, to take a walk even for 10 or 15 minutes outside without their phone and see how that experience is different from what a lot of us have gotten used to. And the other side of all these studies is they’ve discovered that even if we spend 15 minutes a day being “non-productive,” like if we’re doing a crossword puzzle, or just taking a walk outside, that that actually increases our productivity by 25% overall.

So, there’s lots of good news too, is that by giving ourselves some downtime, for example, there was a Harvard Business Review study that found that if you take lunch, like even half an hour at work without doing work at the same time, that you’re more productive over the course of the day. So, if you got to feel guilty about, “Oh, I’m not working hard enough,” just reverse that guilt, and feel guilty if you’re not spending some time, I call it time-shifting, shifting down your time so that you can do things that maybe seem idle but actually are very rejuvenating.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Devora, I love that. And any encouragement you can give me to play a game of Fortnite or have a nap or take lunch in the middle of the day?

Devora Zack
Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that. Fortnite, actually…no, I’m just kidding.

Pete Mockaitis
She’s got it all. She’s got it all prepared. And I love the point about just sort of diminishing the quality of your life when you’re not paying as much attention. I remember, boy, when my buddy Mohamad was in town from Dubai, he was on the podcast, and we were just sort of walking in Chicago. We’re trying to find a place to eat, that’s the goal, we’re going to eat lunch. But I was just so happy to see him and having so much fun with the conversation, but I actually made the conscious choice, it’s like, “I’m going to devote zero attention to looking for a place to eat and all attention to chatting with and enjoying Mohamad.”

And it was funny, we walked around kind of aimlessly for a good while, which is fine by me, I’m sure. Any of the food would be perfectly adequate, and then we happen to bump into a great spot. But I think that’s a good point in terms of we can be, without even being aware of it, diminishing our life experience by not thoughtfully, conscientiously choosing “This is the one thing I’m doing now.”

Devora Zack
That’s right. We tend to blame our technology for the interruptions. There’s a section in my Singletasking book called “If Your Phone is so Smart, Can You Teach It to Heel?” and it compares smartphones to puppies. So, we’ve all been around puppies that are cute and adorable and lovely, and around puppies that are out of control and jump up on the table and don’t leave you alone. And who is responsible for that? Is it the dog or is it the owner? So, I think we all kind of know, it’s the owner’s responsibility to keep their puppies, to train them so that they’re good members of a shared society or sidewalk.

And we do the same things with our phones. So, maybe you and I are meeting for lunch, and we haven’t seen each other in a year or two, and I’m like, “Oh, darn. I can’t believe my phone is going off again. Just a minute. Just a minute. This is so annoying. Oh, no, here’s another text.” So, in reality, technology obviously can be a great friend of ours and super useful. However, we need to be in charge of it rather than letting it run away from us.

And there’s all kinds of tips and techniques in my book about ways to manage technology personally and professionally. So, I’ll tell you a fun one since we’re talking about going to lunch with a friend. I’ll tell you a fun one, which is that we can go out with a group and, depending on when you listen to this podcast, to socially distance if necessary, and everyone puts their screens, anything that have screens, onto a chair off to the side, and the first one to touch the pile of phones or screens treats everyone.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. A little pressure.

Devora Zack
Exactly, a little peer pressure. And there’s a version of that you can use for work which I encourage people do, which is if you have a team meeting, is to give everyone, or have everyone if you’re working remotely, an agenda and a pen or pencil, and the only electronics that’s allowed to be on is whatever you’re connecting through, whether it’s Zoom or another platform, and make the meeting half the length of time with everyone committing to be fully engaged. And you’ll be amazed how much more efficient you are, and how much more community you build, and more better connections, because people are there actually together instead of being a million different places at once.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like that so much. Well, so we’re going to dig into some particulars when it comes singletasking and how to do it optimally and sort of avoid the multitasking and the distractions, and technology as being one of them. I got a real chuckle, you’ve got an appendix called “Retorts to Multitask-hardliners,” and I think I’ve been here before, and I think some listeners are probably here now, and say, “Okay, yeah, I think I maybe heard about some of that research. And that might be true for the population at large and maybe the majority of people in a given study, but, you know, that’s just really how I like to operate, and it really works well for me. And, boy, I feel so productive, so multitasking works for me, but maybe not most people.” Lay it on us.

Devora Zack
So, I would say, first of all, what kind of mistakes are you potentially making? Like, if you’re responding to an email and, in a team meeting, are you fully engaged or are you answering the questions? Did you hear the questions? And, at the end of the day, how much have you actually gotten done? And then compare it, just test a little bit, just spend an hour or two focused on whatever is at hand. And I really encourage people to start small, and you’ll be blown away by how different your work is and how different your mood is when you focus on one thing at a time.

Another piece of resistance people have to the concept of singletasking is they think that it implies that we’re somehow less productive, or we get less done, or we don’t have as many capabilities, and it’s not about that at all. You can get 10-12 things done in the course of a day while singletasking at any given time. So, it’s not saying you can only do one thing in a 10-hour period. Maybe you can do one thing for a 20-minute period, and that’s all you’re doing, and then you switch to another thing. And it’s the conscious choice that a lot of us aren’t making these days about “What am I committing to in this moment? Am I going to watch my kid play a sport? Or am I editing a legal document for tomorrow’s meeting?” So, just pick one for that time. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the other choice. It just means that’s not your choice in this specific time period.

Now, another resistance people have is they just don’t have the tools, like, we’re overwhelmed. So, set up systems that will not require superhuman strength to overcome temptation. So, an example is if you’re driving in a car, we all know we shouldn’t text while we’re driving, but,” It’s just this once, and I’m at a stoplight, and I’m late, and I’m lost, and I’m going to an important meeting, and I’ll keep looking at…” Like, we always have reasons to convince ourselves to do things that aren’t maybe in our best interest. But don’t require yourself to combat those reasons. Set up, I call it, a fence. Set up a fence to mitigate the temptation in the first place. So, when you get into your car, toss your phone in the backseat under a pile of coats and start driving.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that.

Devora Zack
And you’ll be cursing yourself, probably you’d be like, “Aargh!” but in the end you’ll get there alive.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. What is it, Ulysses or Odysseus kind of getting himself tied to his boat so he could hear the siren song but not be tempted to go toward it and its destruction? It’s sort of like you just decide, you cut off that option, it’s not available to you. So, there it is.

Devora Zack
That’s a great analogy. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And so, I want to get your take in terms of sometimes multitasking feels really good. Is there some neuroscience or some dopamine or neurotransmitter stuff going on in terms of the sensations and how it feels to switch or do a lot of things quickly? What’s going on there?

Devora Zack
So, our brains crave novelty. So, if I’m sitting at my computer inputting data for three hours, and then something pops up on my screen that’s different, my brain is pretty psyched, so there is something to that. And then what we would do then is, there’s various techniques we can use, but one of them is to turn off all auditory bings and all visual popups so that when we’re focusing on writing something that we’re completely focused so we don’t get that novelty in there.

Another is to say give yourself treats. Like, if I’m going to work for 45 minutes, then after that I can do something that’s completely different. Create that novelty for yourself. And you might be surprised at how deeply you go into a thought state, and so I recommend actually setting an alarm so that you don’t have to keep looking at the clock or wondering how long it is. And then when your time goes up for doing your tough tasks, the harder one, then even if you’re like, “Oh, I feel like I could go longer,” it’s better to stop and take a break, because if we stop a task while we’re still excited about it, the next time we engage in it, we’re much more likely to have a positive feeling about it as oppose to if we work, and work, and work until we’re just hating our jobs, and then you’re going to avoid it the next day.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that is just a powerful reframe for me personally. Thank you. To stop when you’re still excited about it means you’ve got some enthusiasm ready for next time. And sometimes I think it’s, “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be enthusiastic about this. I better milk it for all I can right now because it may never come back.” Like, if I feel like doing my taxes right now, that’s a rare event so I better really run after it until it’s absolutely gone. But, instead, I should stop while I still got some enthusiasm left.

Devora Zack
That’s right. It’s like an old saying about a party, “Leave while you’re still having fun.” What you can also do is to do a little self-awareness about why do you think this time, working on your taxes, felt okay. Do you happen to have music on in the background? Were there no distractions? Were you sitting in a different environment? Was it that you did it following an exercise? Just try and identify maybe what made it different so you can replicate that. And other times, it’s just a matter of you don’t feel like doing it. You force yourself to, and 15 minutes into it, it’s not so bad, and you’re in the flow.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. Very nice. Well, so I’d love to get your take here, when you talked, you mentioned sort of setting an alarm or an amount of time, “I’m going to do this for this window.” You’ve got an approach called the cluster tasking technique. Tell us how this works.

Devora Zack
So, many of us have an activity or two that takes over our day and it prevents us from getting any of our bigger work done. So, as a way of example, for a lot of people it’s messaging, whether emails or IMs or texting, and we can spend all day messaging and then we never get to the bulk of what we’re here to do. A study, which wasn’t even that recent, it was a few years ago, so I bet these numbers have gone up, found that we look at our phones at an average of 150 times a day for a total of four hours.

So, what we can do instead is to put those tasks, that repetitive task, and for right now we’re just going to call it messaging, it could be a different task for you, and we’re going to find two or three cluster times during the day where that’s all you do. So, maybe it’s right when you get into the office in the morning, right after lunch, and maybe 4:30 near at the end of the day. And you can decide this is a half an hour block, a 45-minute block, and a 20-minute block, or whatever you decide. And so, during those times, all you were doing is reading and responding to messages, and during the rest of your workday, you’re not looking at your messages. And this is a tough pill to swallow, at first, for many people because you’re like, “Well, I have to be available all the time,” and so I’ll address that in a minute.

However, if you’re not like going off the grid for two months, if you do it three times a day, you’re only going to be not looking at your messages for a couple of hours at a time, and, as a bonus, when you are looking at your messages, that’s all you’re doing so you’re not distracted, so you make fewer mistakes, and committing to two different things at one time, or writing the wrong date for an event, so you’re way more efficient overall. So, that’s a great simple technique to try. A lot of my clients say it’s worked really well for them.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that.

Devora Zack
Yeah, thanks. You give it a try. It’s very useful.
So, people say to me sometimes that they need to be available to others and so they have to always have their phones on and nearby. And a general true rule of thumb is if you try to be everywhere for everyone all the time, you’re never anywhere for anyone with full focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Any of the time, yeah.

Devora Zack
So, you can either do one thing well or two things poorly at any given moment. And when people say, “Oh, you need to be available all the time,” if I’m coaching someone, and I might ask some follow-up questions, like, “What do they think they really mean? They really mean that you follow through what you say you’re going to do, that you’re going to be responsive, that you’re clear about deadlines?” And people get used to the idea that “Even though you may not be available to me every minute of the day, when we’re talking, I get your 100% full attention so our conversations are more efficient and shorter, and I get the picture of how helpful it is.” And there’s going to be exceptions.

So, if you were on a conference center, and there’s a huge conference that day, you might need to have your phone with you all day, but just to be aware that there’s exceptions but, most of the time, to err in the direction of saying, “Here is when I’m doing this particular repetitive task.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I like that turn of a phrase there in terms of you can do one thing well and two things poorly, and I think it’s possible, although rare, that, you know what, doing two things poorly is the right choice right now in terms of there’s sort of a mandatory conference call of little value to you and to your team, but it’s, “Hey, everyone’s got to do this thing, so it’s like, okay,” so you just got to do it. But your desk is also a mess and even just a little bit of attention is going to make it better. So, you can make the conscientious choice that, “I know what’s happening here. I’m going to do two things poorly, and that’s the right answer. But most of the time it’s not.”

Devora Zack
And there’s also ways to work within that situation. So, for example, if, again, when I’m working with clients and if they have exactly what you just described, a mandatory department-wide meeting that’s two hours every Thursday, or whatever it is, that there’s an opportunity to, in some cases, delegate that responsibility to maybe someone who works for you who could actually learn from the call and it would be a benefit for him or her to be on that call.

You could say to the group, “I’m available for the first half of the call. So, the items that I can contribute to, is it possible to discuss this in the first half?” And this isn’t always possible, but I’m just saying to always explore options so that you really are where you need to be. And sometimes, also, you might think, “Oh, this call is boring,” and so you start organizing your desk, and then you might miss something, and maybe there was something interesting that just happened.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, there is the risk you take.

Devora Zack
But one thing for sure is that if you’re on one of those calls, you can tell when someone is doing something else, and they’re not impressing you with their professionality when you know they’re distracted. So, part of it might just be building a reputation with someone who’s present.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood, yeah. Thank you. Okay.

Devora Zack
I’m a tough cookie.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, absolutely. Sure. And I think there are some exceptions to every principle or guideline, like, “Hey, hundreds of people are out there, everyone’s muted.” Okay. But even then, you have options as oppose to it’s either/or, doing two things poorly or giving this my full attention. You can get creative and say, “Well, maybe I’m here for this part, maybe I’ll delegate,” so there’s many ways to slice it, which I like.

Devora Zack
Actually, one thing I heard recently is that doodling can be a very useful device in staying focused on a conversation. The doodling doesn’t take up a conscious part of your brain, and kind of releasing that extra energy, just by drawing images on a notepad can help people stay focused. That’s another new technique I learned recently.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we’ve got some lifelong multitaskers, and this is kind of challenging in terms of training the attention to zero in on the one task, how do you recommend we develop that skill, that focus, that discipline?

Devora Zack
So, there’s really two parts of our lives, to speak broadly, that we can apply to singletasking. One is internally, and we’ve talked a little bit about that, like in our brains, how to manage our brains, and the other is externally, how to manage our environment. So, the first thing I’d say is start small and pick something that you can manage and that you think is doable, and also start with something tangible.

So, we have these smartphones and they’re incredible. As a matter of fact, I heard someone recently say, “Really, the phone is just a rarely used app on the smartphone.” They do so much more than just phone-calling now, and so that can be very convenient. It’s also our alarm clock. It’s also our camera. It’s also our flashlight. It’s so many things. And I encourage people to look for places to unbundle some of the potential areas of usefulness in our phone because it can lead to distraction. And a good example is we all know, and every sleep scientist in the world would tell you, the worst thing you can do before going to sleep is to look at your phone, for all kinds of reasons, because the blue light wakes us up, because there could be a stressful text popping up, a news report we don’t want to see. But when we use our phones as our alarm clocks, that’s the last thing many of us do.

So, how about investing in a cool old-fashioned alarm clock that you can play your favorite song to wake you up, and see what it’s like to wake up and fall asleep in a relaxed atmosphere is one example. And so, looking for ways to unbundle. Like, when I teach seminars, I time people a lot of times for timed activities, and for a while I used my phone because there’s a stopwatch on it. Then I realized that I wasn’t unbundling, so I got just an old-fashioned kind of handheld stop…what is it called?

Pete Mockaitis
Stopwatch?

Devora Zack
Stopwatch, right. And it’s great, and it keeps me focused. So, look for ways to help yourself succeed.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, before the stopwatch, I had it around my neck, and just even feeling the pressure of it around my neck was a little reminder, “No, no, I’m on the clock for this one.”

Devora Zack
That’s good.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I’d love your view then, if folks think, “I am too busy for singletasking. I have to multitask,” then a part of the game is really just identifying, “Well, hey, what’s truly the most important thing? Like, what is really worth that?”

Devora Zack
Also, learn some of the science because you’re actually too busy to multitask. You will be way more efficient in getting things done by focusing on one thing at a time. And in my book “Singletasking,” I have some examples of going through a typical day while you’re attempting to multitask versus singletasking and seeing how the time flow works, and it’s based on reality, just through a lot of different people’s experiences, and it’s remarkable. So, we start off with like, “Oh, there’s this bad news.” But now we have this great news that you can live a more sane structured life by doing one thing at a time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell me, just how many hours a day do you think is at stake here in terms of excellent singletasking versus poor multitasking? What kind of a lift, or a gain, or a timesaving do you think this adds up to on a daily basis?

Devora Zack
Maybe all our waking hours. It depends what measurement you’re using for what’s a good use of time. So, if you consider a good use of time being with a significant other for 45 minutes for dinner without anyone looking at any screens and talking about interesting topics beyond just the mundane? Do you consider a good use of time to be taking your dog for a walk outside? So, it depends how you define it. What I will say is that in terms of work tasks that there have been, again, studies that show that when someone is having a pure focus on one activity at work at a time, that they’re more creative, more structured in their output, they get it done in less than a few hours, and so it really works in your favor to be fully focused.

And some people say, “I can’t focus anymore. Like, I’ve lost ability to focus because that’s the kind of world we’re living in.” So, when people say that, I encourage them, or you, as you’re listening now, to think of something you love to do. Just think in your mind, if you’re listening to this podcast, of something that you enjoy, it really brings you happiness. And when I ask that question with people in the room with me, I get all kinds of so many different types of answers. Maybe it has to do with doing an athletic activity, or an instrument, or a craft, or a conversation with someone you care about.

And what we find is that there’s a correlation between that act, whatever activity you thought in your mind or said out loud, and the fact that you’re totally focused on it, that it focuses you when you’re doing it, that nothing else exists in the world, that if you love going to museums, and when you’re in a museum, that’s the only thing that exists in the world, or reading a book, or running a race, or whatever it is. That’s part of the appeal. And so, it also shows that you can do it. You can focus. If you thought of even one thing in your life that you really get fulfilled doing, then there’s a correlation in that and being able to focus your brain on other activities. And that’s called mental elasticity.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Well, tell us then, if let’s say there are some interruptions outside your control, a sudden emergency, an interruption, how do you recommend we refocus?

Devora Zack
Okay. Great. So, I’m glad you asked that because there are emergencies, and we want to go with the flow when there’s an emergency, and it doesn’t negate everything else you’re working on when there’s not an emergency. However, we’re always looking for ways to manage emergencies. So, an emergency can be big or small. So, a smaller type of emergency is you’re being interviewed on a podcast, let’s say, and you’re working from home and someone barges in and starts yelling in your office, your home office, for example, so that would be an emergency you need to deal with.

But we always want to take it one step back, and say, “Is there anything potential I could’ve done to anticipate a possible emergency and how to make sure it doesn’t happen?” So, I encourage people to, very simple low-tech technique, put Post-It notes on your door, if you have a door where you’re working, at home, virtually or in a shared office, and make a note saying, “This colored Post-It notes mean don’t come under any circumstances. This one means come in if it’s super important. And this one means I just closed the door because I don’t like the breeze. Come visit and we’ll chat a little bit.” So, again, it has to do with setting up systems.

Now, let’s say there is something that distracts you and you asked about pulling back in. How do you get focused again? And I would say taking a little in-between time, like, “Maybe I got so scattered or overwhelmed by the emergency that I can’t seem to focus back on the work I was doing before. So, that’s a perfect time for me to let myself go for a walk, or to talk to someone, or get some fresh air, to reboot.”

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

Devora Zack
One thing I’d like to share is that singletasking is a relatively new idea, and it’s also a super old idea, it’s in our nature. So, when we were hunting and gathering, we wouldn’t have done very well if we were distracted all the time, so it’s kind of part of our ingrained human success. It’s ingrained in us to be successful by singletasking. And it’s also a new concept to a lot of us today, this day and age, and so to be kind to yourself when you try these techniques and to give yourself plenty of space to mess it up and to take two steps forward and one step back.

And there are a lot of activities suggested, and also that you can actually use in the book Singletasking. So, the first part of the battle is convincing yourself that it’s worth a try, and the second part is learning how to do it, just like some people are organizing and structure their physical environment, and for others of us, it just seems so impossible. So, there are techniques that can help you be successful. So, I wish you all the best of luck in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Devora Zack
You’ll be happy that you did.
Pete Mockaitis
Well, now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Devora Zack
I love quotes so much. I change my favorite quotes all the time. Okay, here’s one of my favorite quotes right now. I’m sorry, it’s Steven Pressfield, “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb, the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

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

Devora Zack
It’s a scientist named Douglas Merrill, and he works on this area of focusing our brains, and the quote is “Everyone knows kids are better at multitasking. The problem? Everyone is wrong.”

[36:18]

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. And a favorite book?

Devora Zack
The Phantom Tollbooth.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job, or to help virtually remote-working folks connect all the better?

Devora Zack
My favorite tool in helping virtual folks connect all the better is in building connections among them through embracing technology instead of fighting against it. So, I teach a class called “You Are Not Alone,” and instead of saying, “Here are all the things we can’t do,” we take whatever technology each of us has and we figure out what we can do based on what’s right in front of us. And it sounds simple but it makes a huge difference in how we build connections with each other, and how we accept what the possibilities are given what the reality of the situation is.

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

Devora Zack
Yes, especially for people that are in fields like ours, whether you’re interviewing people, or working with people, or inspiring people, or writing books for people, what’s a great rule of thumb, because there are so many so-called experts out there, and I love this one. Elinor Glyn, an author, “Life is short. Avoid causing yawns. Be interesting. Be fun. Be unique. Be quirky. Engage people.” Life is short. We don’t want to be the cause of any yawns.

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

Devora Zack
My website is MyOnlyConnect.com, and it has tons of samples from media, podcasts, TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and all sorts of information about my three different books. Networking for People Who Hate Networking just came out in a second edition. It has tons of new chapters and sections that people are finding really useful in this day and age.

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

Devora Zack
Yes. It’s another quote but it’s also a call to action. It’s from Philo of Alexandria, and this is especially important today, “Be kind for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Devora, thank you. This has been a treat and I wish you all the best in your singletasking adventures.

Devora Zack
Thank you so much. You, too. I hope it works well for you.

605: How to Stop Firefighting and Start Executing with Chris McChesney

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Chris McChesney says: "Get very comfortable with the currency of results."Chris McChesney discusses how to achieve more with your team by following the four disciplines of execution.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three roadblocks to execution 
  2. The only two things that create engagement 
  3. How to instill accountability in 20 minutes 

About Chris

Chris McChesney is the Global Practice Leader of Execution for Franklin Covey and is one of the primary developers of the 4 Disciplines of Execution. For more than a decade, he has led FranklinCovey’s design and development of these principles, as well as the consulting organization that has become the fastest growing area of the company. 

Known for his high-energy and engaging message, Chris has become one of the most requested speakers within the Franklin Covey Organization, regularly delivering keynote speeches and executive presentations to leaders in audiences ranging from the hundreds to several thousand. 

Chris, and his wife Constance, are the proud parents of five daughters and two sons. His love of family is combined with his passion for boating, water sports, coaching, and trying to keep up with his children. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Chris McChesney Transcript

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

Chris McChesney
Thanks, Peter. Glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to hear your story about how you did not get a job at FranklinCovey but you faked an internship. How did this go down?

Chris McChesney
I think desperation is probably the best explanation for that. They were not interviewing. I mean, they would not interview anyone, and I just had an idea. Wow, this is almost 30 years ago. This was Stephen Covey’s company, the guy that wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and I was kind of a groupie and I really wanted to work for this organization. And I decided if they wouldn’t interview me, I‘d interview them, so I pretended to work for the newspaper and told them that I was doing an article on up and coming companies in the area. And I submitted the paper to the newspaper, they published it, so they kept me from being a liar, right?

I didn’t get to the man, I didn’t get to Stephen Covey but I got to his VP, and while in there, I said, “I needed an internship,” which that was a stretch. I didn’t really need an internship, there was no internship, and then I just stowed away. So, four months later, The 7 Habits, hits number one in the New York Times bestseller list, they had fired their publicist, and they looked at me, and said, “Hey, that kid is from New York. Let’s have him call Good Morning America.” So, here I am, unpaid something intern. Actually, there’s an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer actually goes to work for a company he doesn’t actually work for, but that was done after I did it. I want first billing on that.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Chris McChesney
And that’s how I got started.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s so good. So, well, I was going to ask, you know, Stephen Covey, boy, what a legacy, and really, integrity is one of the first words that comes to mind.

Chris McChesney
I know.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, to start with…well, what I like is that you’re working for the newspaper kind of on spec.

Chris McChesney
That’s one way to say it. That’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to just a complete fabrication. Boy, that’s beautiful. Also, then can you tell me of any stories about Stephen that really stick with you in his memory?

Chris McChesney
Well, it’s interesting that we’re having this experience because one of my jobs early on was to set him up for interviews like yours. And so, just like my guy gave me a list of some of the questions you like to ask people and things like that, he never wanted to see the list of questions, and he really liked to be authentic and sort of shoot from the hip, and much more of a character than people realize. He’s a bit of a clown when he wasn’t on stage, and he would either be super serious or a complete goofball. And sometimes you needed him to be series, and he wouldn’t be serious. It surprises people to hear that because he comes off so serious in his books and his tapes but, yeah, he’s a character.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, can you give me a goofball anecdote?

Chris McChesney
Oh, I can and it’s almost unbelievable, but there’s a thing that he did with his sons. One of his sons felt really ignored by his father, David Covey felt very ignored by Stephen, and Stephen was on a phone call and so David got out, this is bizarre, but he got out peanut butter and jelly and started to spread peanut butter on his dad’s head, and then he put jelly on his dad’s head, then he slapped a piece of bread over it, and left.

And so then, they were two command performances of this, and, in your brain, you couldn’t get, you know, here’s one of the world’s leading thought leaders, having his son make a mess out of his head, and they just thought that was so funny. That was great. So, this family had its own brand of humor. But, yeah, that’s all real, believable or not.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun. That’s good. Well, hey, sometimes some humor or peanut butter-jelly head sandwich can aid in execution, and that’s my forced segue, Chris, because that’s your claim to fame and your area of expertise is execution, and your book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. So, could you maybe start by maybe giving us a quick definition? What do we mean by execution?

Chris McChesney
That’s a really good question.

Pete Mockaitis
And then give us the lay of the land, like, how well are organizations and professionals executing today? Like, what are the measures? What’s the state of the union here when it comes to execution?

Chris McChesney
All right, so let’s do this. Because execution is one of those words that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, right? It could just mean getting everything I got to get done, done, but that’s not what we mean by it. What we mean by it is getting that thing done that’s not going to happen anyways. Most of us have a routine, organizations have an SOP, they have their day job, their existing processes, and it gets stuff done. We get stuff done. And then every once in a while, you’ve got a goal and it’s not going to happen unless it gets special treatment.

And, typically, the nature of these things, Pete, is that they don’t have an inherent in-the-moment urgency associated with them. They’re really important. And if you made me fill out a quiz on the most important thing to me, like it’d be right at the top of the page, but it’s not getting any attention, and weeks are going by and we’re not getting any traction.

Usually, when you say that, people identify with something, and that’s really the execution conundrum right there. What is that thing that is not inherently urgent? Because people are good at working on the urgent, and, “I have to get it done and it’s not happening.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, give us just a few examples of things that tend to fall into this bucket again and again.

Chris McChesney
Yeah. I had one the other day, there was an organization, they needed to get these jobs to find, and they needed to get work aides for their physical therapy group. They had about 50 physical therapy practices. And every year, they would put money in the line item, budget item, for this, and every year it didn’t matter that there was money there, it didn’t happen. And they could see so many things but never at one time, that might be an example, they actually pushed through and got a hundred of these things made.

An organization that wants to focus on customer satisfaction, and they know that’s so critical but there’s 20 things that happen over the course of a day, and everybody’s busy and we’re not getting to that thing, maybe it’s an improvement in quality. The Georgia Department of Human Services, 10 years ago, reduced repeat cases of child abuse by 60% by attacking some things that weren’t unknown, they were known things but they were the type of things that weren’t getting attention. And if you can put energy against certain activities, sometimes it can have shockingly powerful effects.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that really resonates, certainly rings true. And I think you’re right in terms of there are, boy, I tell you, there are systems and there are processes and things that just happen, and then there’s those that it’s like they fall through the cracks, or it’s not a recurring thing, and, thusly, it’s like you don’t get the scale for it maybe.

Chris McChesney
Yeah. And I tell you where it shows up, Pete, is leaders sometimes will have an agenda. And it’s a big deal when you get a leadership position, you get your first management role. It’s a big deal to you, it’s not a big deal to anybody else, right? And you really know where you want to make your mark. And what gets so many leaders so frustrated is there are so many people giving them the thumbs up and they’ll agree with you, and they’ll say, “I love this, boss. It’s key to our future.” And I just get people laughing when I’m saying this, and then nothing happens.

And it’s not that people are being deceitful or duplicitous, they bought everything that you said. They heard it. And then 45 seconds later, six crises hit their desk and they’ve been responsive. And so, for leaders to start to understand, “Geez, what does it take to get deliberate energy against activities that don’t act on people?” And, basically, let me sum it up this way. Executing strategies that require change in human behavior is kind of the whole topic or problem we’ve been in love with for 20 years.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. Well, so let’s dig into how that’s done. So, you’ve got a chapter called “The Real Problem with Execution.” Lay it on us. What’s the real problem?

Chris McChesney
We’ve kind of been talking about it. It is that there’s like one side of our brain that deals with importance, and there’s another side of our brain that determines how we actually spend time and energy, and they’re not talking to each other. In the moment, urgency is king. And if I’m busy all day long, and I’m active, and I just can’t work any harder than I already have, I’ll tell you, here’s how you could feel this.

Think about working on a critical job. Maybe it’s the most important project of the year, and you know it, and you’re like tying yourself to your desk. And the whole time you’re working, you want to get up and do seven different things during that period of time, and you think, “I must be out of my mind. And it can’t be 4:00 o’clock already. Where did that go?” That is the first. There’s a couple of real problems of execution. The first one is that urgency and importance don’t line up.

Number two is complexity. A lot of times execution does not like complexity too. Best friends of execution are simplicity and transparency. And our ability to sort of put so many things down that we want to accomplish. So, not only is it all the stuff that we’re responding to on a day-to-day basis, but then when we do go proactive, we try and bite off more than we can chew, and that is a whole conundrum in and of itself.

And then I’d say the third one is futility. And it’s the frustration that might be a byproduct of the first two. But when people start giving up, that’s when you see burnout kick in. It’s rarely a byproduct of actually the amount of work. It’s the feeling that I’m working and it doesn’t matter. So, urgency, complexity, and futility really do a lot of damage. And there’s ways to get around this but I think it starts with the question that you asked, like, “What’s the problem?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s really good, a really good synopsis of just kind of what makes stuff hard, in general, in terms of if it’s not urgent, it’s not sort of screaming to be at the top of your list, and, thusly, it can just keep getting pushed off and just doesn’t happen. If it’s complex, you’re just sort of like, “Well, I don’t even know how to start,” and it just sort of seems intimidating to approach it. And then, if there’s a sense of futility, likewise, that adds all the more psychological resistance to it.

It’s so funny, I’m thinking about we had a heck of a long hard time executing a shift in this podcast, which was we were mostly replying to incoming pitches. And we’ve been selective such that I thought we’re making great choices. But the consequence of that was the stuff we got wasn’t exactly what our listeners needed, and in the time they needed it. And so, we thought, “We really got a beautiful survey of all the stuff people say they need. Like, we just should be letting this dictate our agenda and our calendar.”

And we get emails just about every day from folks joining the email list, and they share their concerns. But it was hard to make that shift because it was not so urgent, it was sort of like, “Ah, okay. Hey, we say we have episodes two times a week, and so we got to get this calendar going.” And it’s a lot harder to…

Chris McChesney
The calendar was urgent. The needs and the specific requests, you had to go after that stuff. The calendar went after you.

Pete Mockaitis
And it was complex in that it’s like, “Well, geez, how do we reverse-engineer it such that we start with the request and then pursue the guest.” And then it wasn’t quite futile but it was, hey, I mean, someone’s got a book coming out says yes immediately. Someone who’s been like an expert on something for decades and he has all the press they ever needed is not as gung-ho to immediately reply to an invitation of the podcast, although most of the time they still say yes in their own time.

And also, some futility associated with, “Boy, how do we even do this? This is really tricky.” And I guess that’s ultimately how we just sort of got through it was we said, “All right. Well, we’re going to reduce urgency by getting ahead of the game a little bit. We’re going to reduce the complexity by trying to come up with a process, an acronym, or a framework.” And I guess we tried to reduce the futility by just acknowledging, “Hey, we don’t know what we’re doing yet, okay? We’re going to have to iterate a few times, and that’s fine.”

Chris McChesney
I really like what you just said. I want to press pause on what you just said. Sometimes, particularly in the area of new goals that you haven’t achieved before, you have to give yourself a little bit of slack because the real engine for innovation is trial and error. And there are certain aspects of your job where error is not acceptable. And because error is not acceptable in certain parts of your job, it’s sort of programs you think that error is always bad, and you have to give yourself a little bit of leeway around an area that requires innovation, otherwise you will not innovate. I’m convinced of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And so, I think, in a way, that was kind of a turning point because we got comfortable with this, like, “Okay, we’re going to make a process that’s going to be bad. We’re going to try it out and see why it took 12 hours to find some names, and then identify the learnings so that we can accelerate a bit and loop it through again and again and again.” And now I’m feeling pretty darn good about it.

Chris McChesney
Can I give you a podcast on this topic?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m listening.

Chris McChesney
You just, a matter of fact, the last three sentences would be a brochure for this podcast. The guy’s name is Tim Harford, he’s a British economist. And the name of the podcast, if you just Google, “Trial and Error.” Not podcast. Ted Talk.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chris McChesney
TED Talk. Trial and error. Tim Harford. And, really, take 15 minutes and watch this. If you’re in a role that requires innovation and some breakthroughs, I think he struck a beautiful chord, very consistent with what we found in our work, and you just described it quite nicely.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Chris McChesney
Unintentionally.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, you just described some things nicely in terms of you’ve identified four specific disciplines for execution. Can you give us the overview, and then let’s dig deeper into some of these?

Chris McChesney
Yeah, all right. So, the first one is, let’s do this. I’ll give each one a word. So, the first word is focus, and I’ll come back to this so you’ll get them. I’ll just give a list right now. So, the first one is focus, the second one is leverage, the third one is engagement, and the fourth one is accountability. And you think of these four words as sort of a mechanism for breaking through the urgency trap. Like, you want to fly an airplane, there’s four words, it’s lift, thrust, weight, and drag. Like, you get those concepts down, you can put something in the air and keep it there. In execution, we’re about focus, leverage, engagement, and accountability.

So, the first one, focus, is getting, really, first of all, narrowing your focus between the one thing that this team that I run is going to deliver, and everything that’s day job, everything that operationally has to get done. And I’m going to tell you that your operational reality, arguably, is more important, like that cannot slip. But if that’s all you’re doing, you’re not going anywhere in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re sort of on a treadmill. It’s like we’re continuing to do the things that we’ve done, and we’ll probably continue to get the results that we’ve got, and if you’re a big company, the results you’ve gotten are great. But, of course, over time, if you don’t innovate, you’ll kind of wither.

Chris McChesney
So, I’ve got a good one for you. So, the number two guy at Marriott, he’s retiring this year, his name is Dave Grissen. Marriott used this methodology for 12 years and they’ve improved their guest sat. every year for 12 years. The champion of this is now the number two guy at Marriott. When he was launching this 12 years ago, he told a group of leaders that were launching this process, he said, it was a two-part statement, he said, “First of all, if you want to keep your jobs at Marriott, just take care of the operation, just take care of the day job. We’ll never fire you because if we let you go, the next person might not take care of the day job. Like, you’ll always have a job here if you just take care of the day job.”

And then he gets this smirk, and he said, “But if you want to get promoted, give me one, give me your result, give me an improvement in arrival experience, give me an improvement in food and beverage quality, give me an improvement in everything in working order or event satisfaction. Call your shot and bring me something.” And it was his way of sort of communicating, I thought it was a great way to set, “Yeah, all right. If I just want to take care of the day job, okay, I’ll always have a job here. But if I’m serious about my career…” and then they backed it up. So, when a hotel manager applied for a general manager position, or vice versa, the first thing they would say is, “All right, tell me about your results. What did you target? How did you do it? Like, I want to know…” I think this is a universal principle for career movement, like, “I got to do those two things. I have to maintain the operation. That is job one. But if that’s all I’m doing, I’m treadmilling it. And then what is the one thing, what is the one result that I can deliver?”

And, by the way, that day job will take up 100% of my energy if I let it. I have to steal energy from that, and we say about 20%, to apply towards a breakthrough. So, figuring out what that is, defining it, giving it a starting line, a finish line, and a deadline, all of those things are part of discipline one and focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, Chris, I love that so much in terms of it’s just a clear framework and it’s just true. It rings true in terms of, yeah, doing your day job, keeping the operations going, will consume you, and it is important, and it needs to be done, and yet, just as you said, you’ve got to have that result. I’m thinking here about I’ve coached a lot of people on their resumes and career strategy development, and that’s kind of how that’s always my interpretation as I’m reviewing resumes for like hiring someone or for helping them to make their resume better.

Chris McChesney
There you go. You’re looking for it.

Pete Mockaitis
If you just show me, it’s like, “Okay. Well, yeah, you know what, I think it’s accountants. Poor guys. They’ve got such great skills and some of them I don’t have. I love my accountant so much. He’s so valuable.” And then when I read some bullets from accountants’ resumes, it’s like, “Hey, did invoicing, or controls, or books, or reporting,” and it’s like, “Yeah, absolutely, that’s got to happen. It’s hard. I wouldn’t be good at it. I’m glad that you’re on top of that.” But to make me go, “Hmm, impressive resume,” I got to see results and improvement on something, like you revised a process, you reduced costs, you improved revenue, you made something that took a long time, now take a little bit of time. I got to see a result and, ideally, there’s a number on it from like a resume judging perspective.

Chris McChesney
Yup, there is a number on it. That’s right. And think about this, so the great management guru, like the guy that kicked all this off was Peter Drucker. Drucker has got this one statement that is money. Drucker says, “The hardest thing to get people to do is think about their jobs in terms of results instead of activities.” And you just described that really well, “I do this, and then I do this, and then I do this, and then I do that.” If that sits on a resume, yeah, that’s fine if I need one of those, but that’s a certain type of job. But if you start thinking in the currency of results, what did I bring?

So, I’ve got right now, I have seven children, my wife and I do. My oldest is married and my third oldest is married, and so I’ve got, right now, I’ve got half a dozen little people in my life that are in their 20s that are looking at careers, and I’ve been just really hitting this note that get very comfortable with the currency of results. Somewhere, your boss, let’s say you’re in front-line management or event middle management, start thinking, and I’m going to steal from Stephen Covey who we were talking about earlier.

Think about what’s outside your job description but within your circle of influence. The opportunity rarely lives inside your job description, but it is something that you could influence. It’s like, what is the one thing that your boss wishes we had fixed? What is the one thing that the organization needs? And can you bring that? Maybe it is within your job description. But thinking in terms of the currency of results when it’s not being asked of you is a mindset shift for most people but it’s incredibly enabling.

And here’s the other thing. No one is going to have a parade for you when you deliver results. It’s funny, you’ll actually be…I think you’ll be discouraged. Like, you’ll get this done, and you’ll get that done, the whole time you’re doing this. If you’re not careful, what you’re thinking is, “Geez, Mary doesn’t do this. Mark doesn’t do this. I’m doing all this extra work. I’m not getting paid.” That’s the other thing. You’ll always feel like you’re adding more value than you’re getting paid, and that’s exactly where you want to be. And you just keep doing these things, and nobody cared about them, like you get a pat on the head, and a week later, they forgot. You keep doing it, and then one day they’re thinking, “Hey, we need somebody. Do you know who’d be great for that?” And, all of a sudden, you’ve changed your brand as you’re a real hunter. You seek and you get results.

And it doesn’t take very long because not everybody is doing it. Like, I promise you. Everybody applies for the position. Everybody. I’ve gotten 14 jobs. I’ve never gotten one of them from an interview. It’s always been, “Hey, Chris, we’re thinking of something.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. That’s focus. All right. So, you’re focusing and then maybe say a little bit more. It’s often outside your job description but within your area of control. It’s about results. And any other little telltale signs, like, “This may be the thing to focus in on”?

Chris McChesney
So, let’s say be careful of going too big. We don’t emphasize this enough in The 4 Disciplines of Execution, and the second version is getting launched this spring, and we really hit this point. Like, I’m in sales so we’ve got to grow revenue. Now I know what the thing is, the thing is the revenue. Well, be careful. Revenue is the title of the book, whatever the macro objective is, think of that like the title of the book, and that’s not where I want you to go. I want you to look at the chapters that make up the book, and I want you to pick the one chapter where you go, “Oh, if we could only do this. This is one product we sell. If we could grow that one product, boy, the margins are better, those people stay with us, they buy our other products.” Like, where are you going to put disproportionate energy? Against which chapter are you going to double down?

And if you could come down to sort of one level of abstraction from the big goal down to the chapter, come down off the title of the book, look at chapters and say, “Oh, yeah. You know what, if we get our first-year salespeople to pay for themselves, we could grow this thing forever.” Like, there’s always that one sort of small target that if we could just get that, wow, we could do X, Y, and Z. like, those are the really good, what we call WIGs, or wildly important goals. They’re not always these macro huge things.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s beautiful. So, it’s like a domino that sets it off, or the key that unlocks a whole lot more.

Chris McChesney
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. All right. So, we got the focus. What’s next?

Chris McChesney
So, the next one is the leverage one, what we call act on the lead measures. Think weight loss. If the scale is the lag measure or the goal, those two things are synonymous, the wildly important goal, or the lagging measure, the outcome metric is the weight, then if you want to lose weight, there’s two lead measures. Everybody listening knows what they are. It’s diet and exercise.

And you say, “Well, what’s unique about a lead measure from a lag measure?” Well, lead measures have two characteristics. I can influence the lead directly. You can’t directly affect weight loss but I can cut my calorie and I can burn calories daily. That distinction right there, folks, that’s the whole thing. A metric that can be directly affected. And then its other characteristic is predictive. Like, if I do that, I get the other. So, think of how a lever works. Rocks are too heavy to move but, you know what, I can move the lever, and the lever moves the rock. That is the idea.

And you want to prove this point, just ask people to think about someone in their life, and most people have someone, who’s lost 50 pounds. Like, there’s somebody they know, it wasn’t an accident, they deliberately set out to lose 50 pounds. So, everybody thinks of somebody, and then you ask the question, “All right. Was that person who lost 50 pounds, were they aware of a diet program and an exercise program, or were they counting daily?” And you do this in a room of 500 people, there might be one or two people that will say there weren’t counting. Everybody else it’s like it’s got to be like a 98%-99% statistic.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Chris McChesney
Why is that? Because, otherwise, we lie to ourselves. So, finding the diet and exercise, in the goal. Like, it isn’t just diet and exercise, it’s any lead measures. And the most sophisticated processes on the planet, like people that are building fighter planes, and structural engineers, and people like this, can always get into this thinking of, “All right, what’s the lag measure and what are the lead measures? Where in the process of these things that we could attack?” And that’s what lead measures are, figuring out and measuring those things that I can directly influence that will move the outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny, Chris, as you were saying this because I’ve had the pleasure, misfortune, I don’t know, of gaining and losing 10 pounds about three times now in life. And so, that has been my experience in that when I really am serious, I will use the Lose It! app or whatever. So, for real tracking, “How much am I exercising and how much am I taking in?” and not just falling into frozen pizzas multiple times a week, then it’s happening. And when I’m not, it isn’t. So, that’s my own experience on the loss.

Chris McChesney
Let’s put it in a business example. We got a hardware store. They want a likelihood to recommend number, and they’ve tracked it, and they said, “Look, if people will recommend our hardware store, if they’re likely to recommend, whether they do or not, if they answer that they are, you move that number, you see profits move.” Like, they know this is a really good chapter heading for wildly important goal. So, they’re like, “What are the lead measures?” What they find is, you know, there’s three things. When I go to a hardware store, I got to find what I’m looking for. Will someone talk to me? Number one. Number two, when I get to the aisle where the part is, do they actually have the thing I was looking for? Out of stocks. Number three. Once I got it, how quickly can I get out of the store?

Now, the group that we’re working with, the stores didn’t have to pick all three. They could pick one of the three, they could pick two of three, they have different teams working on any, but they had to have, and this is discipline three, is scoreboard, they had to create a compelling scoreboard out of the game. What’s the lag and what’s the lead? It’s a two-part equation. So, like, we’re going to try and move our likelihood to recommend, and we’ve never been able to move that score but we’re going after what we think are the three things that will have the biggest impact, and we figured out how to measure out of stocks, and we figured out how to measure how quickly we engage, and we know how to measure speed at checkout, and so we’re making the bet. In our store, we’re great at speed at checkout but we are terrible at out of stocks. And we’re going to attack that metric every single week, like somebody would attack running or whatever.

And this is where the trial and error comes in. Let’s see if that does it, and let’s learn from this. But if you can get, there’s an engagement dynamic here too, that when you can get people into the game of, “What will affect what?” It’s like a little riddle they’re trying to solve. And if they’re able to move a metric they’ve never been able to move before, you can get your team very engaged in, “All right, what was our score last week? We’ve been killing on out of stocks three weeks in a row. Do we do it four weeks? What the numbers are coming at?” And you could start to engage people in the work in a way, “Well, it was surprising to us. We weren’t expecting this. It’s not why we set out to do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so good. And I think now we’ll talk about the third discipline with the engagement and the scoreboard is a tool for engagement. One of my favorite consulting projects, we saw exactly this. It was a customer service organization, they had six call centers, and we discovered that, “Well, hey, what we want is, like title of the book, lower costs associated with addressing customer needs.” And so, back it up a little bit, we see average handle time in terms of just how long they need to be on the phone with someone.

And then we’ve backed that up, we could see what influenced handle time is the experience of the customer service rep who those who know more, they’ve been around more, are able to quickly and knowledgably address the questions that come up. And then so we backed that up and we see, well, the attrition rate is horrible so that people are leaving fast and the average person is not very experienced. And so then, we backed that up and then we really kind of see, “Well, how are the supervisors treating, encouraging, motivating, supporting, the folks who work for them?” And then we see wild differences in that. So, those are some actions to take to reduce attrition.

Pete Mockaitis
And then the scoreboard is like, “The data was always suspect in terms of the attrition rates.” It’s like, “Well, you know, those were temporary. Those were college summer things,” and so no one every trusted the numbers, or could be held accountable to the numbers because they didn’t believe the numbers. And so, junior consultant here, it’s like, “That’s my job, is I’m making the real attrition numbers,” and then I get all these emails from people being asked to be added to the daily email about the attrition numbers that are the true numbers. And then it’s a game, it’s like they’re saying, “Hey, wow, this call center had their attrition go way down as compared to the previous month. Well, what the heck are you doing?” “You know, we tried this game where we offer this prize when they do such and such, and people are really getting into it.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, we should try that game too.” And it’s a beautiful thing.

Chris McChesney
All right. I got to dissect what you just said.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Chris McChesney
Because you hit a couple of really important themes right there. First of all, you had to get good data before this thing worked. So, think of any, I tell, athletics, I know people think that sports analogies are tired, and usually they are, but it’s really applicable here. Nobody is going to follow a game if the scoreboard is suspect for any reason. And so, “It’s not a first down. It’s somewhere between nine and 11 yards.” “No, it’s 10 fricking yards. Your nine and 11 inches, you’re going the other way.” And so, good data comes from good definitions.

So, I’m guessing, as you got into the data, you had to decide, “When did it really count as attrition? When didn’t it count as attrition?” You had to get very clear on the definitions that drove the data. And so, once you had a credible scoreboard, the next thing that you were able to show before people, I’m guessing, cared about it, is you had to show correlation. You had to show that when one number moved, another number moved. And so, this isn’t just something for analysts. Every business manager has to start understanding some basic correlations because, otherwise, you’re at the mercy of your business. “What do I put energy against that’s going to give me a return?” You stayed on that until you found.

Once you found it, once you saw a correlation, everybody wanted to see it. Everybody knew, right? Sometimes it takes a little trial and error, but you hit the two things. You had clean data, and you had cause and effect, then correlation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. While we’re reliving these moments, and we talk about correlation, that’s one error I think I met is I thought of correlation as, “Oh, you run the statistics in Excel and you get your R squared and adjusted R values,” but really, no, it’s just sort of like with stock outs, there was other project, it was sort of like for service of technological things. And it’s sort of like “Did the job get done right the first time in satisfaction?” So, you can run a big regression with all your variables and it wouldn’t look that compelling. But then if you look at satisfaction score in which the job was done right the first time on one half of the slide, and versus the job was not done right the first time, it’s like then it looks like it’s night and day, and that’s a way to make a correlation pop in my view.

Chris McChesney
Wow, that’s very well-said. We’ll do these meetings where we’ll get…and we like to get the action very close the frontline so we’ll work with leadership teams that are trying to do lead and lag measures three levels, four levels, above the frontline, and we’re like, “Sorry, let’s just break the goals down, let’s get those targets as close to the frontline as possible, and then we want to see half a dozen different scoreboards on a variety of things that are key bets for making the big number move.”

And then what we’ll do about three months in, four months in, we’ll do a report out. So, we’ll have the big bosses come down and talk to the managers and the teams, these are great sessions, and the teams will teach him what they’ve learned, like, “We tried this lead measure. I know we’ve been saying it for years. Didn’t have any effect. But, look, we just measured it differently and we did this, and now look at the results. Look, we got four weeks in a row, we’re moving the lag measure.”

And these VPs are seeing insights into the business and they get very excited about talking to what these frontline teams, and it’s a huge deal for the frontline teams because they’re getting some spotlight right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Chris McChesney
Oh, I got a book recommendation for you if you want.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m listening.

Chris McChesney
A lot of people like Patrick Lencioni.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, we had him on the show. He’s great.

Chris McChesney
Okay, great. Yeah, he is great. Maybe his least-read book is my favorite, and it’s The Three Signs of a Miserable Job. He likes it too. He’s re-releasing it. He thinks the reason it doesn’t do so well because nobody wants to be carrying that title of a book around the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Get it on Kindle and hide it.

Chris McChesney
So, now he’s going to call it The Secret of Engagement, or something like that. But our 20 years on execution and his work really walked parallel paths. And the three signs of a miserable job are anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, sounds miserable to me.

Chris McChesney
It sounds miserable. Anonymity, “Nobody cares what I’m doing.” Irrelevance, “It doesn’t matter.” And immeasurement, “I don’t know if I’m winning or losing.” And so, people don’t want oppressive data that doesn’t really tell the whole picture, and they’ll resist that stuff. But really helping, when they can actually influence creating a, and we use this words, high-stakes winnable game, you can get a great deal of engagement right there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, let’s talk, finally, the fourth discipline here, creating a cadence of accountability. How do we do it?

Chris McChesney
So, this is one where it’s almost like if you think about disciplines one, two, and three as setting up the game. One is the target, two is kind of the how, three is sort of encapsulating it in a scoreboard, four is how we play the game. And now we’re going to go full circle back to the urgency thing. You can’t beat the urgency thing. You have to sort of trick your own brain. The way this works is everybody on the team makes a commitment during this little meeting, so every week at the same time, 20-minute meeting, Tuesdays at 9:00, it’s Tuesdays at 9:00, no matter what, you have to be kind of a freak about it, okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chris McChesney
We’ve got this meeting around this scoreboard, call them WIG sessions. And everybody in that meeting reports on the thing they committed to do last week that would have an impact on the scoreboard. So, I take one commitment. Like, we have a lead measure of interviewing 80% of our first-time accounts. But I could tell now that the script doesn’t look really good, so my commitment for the week is we’re going to rewrite that script, or, “The rent of Solaire office is really struggling. I’m going to meet with Marty, and we’re going to go over such.” Something I’m going to do every single week. In that meeting, everybody has to say, “Here’s what I said I was going to do last week. Here’s the impact it had on the scoreboard. And here’s my commitment for next week,” and that’s all they say.

Next person, “Here’s what I did. Here’s what my scoreboard looks like. Here’s what I’m going to do next week.” Like, brainstorming, problem-solving, something’s come up, out of this meeting. This thing, you are in and out. If you can do it in 20 minutes, great. And there’s this sort of two things about this. One, the commitments can’t come from the boss. You pull this, you don’t push it. So, the boss sometimes sits there chewing their tongues out because they know what they want to have done but, no, no, you got to ask everybody, “Give me that. What is the one thing, Pete, you’re going to do this week that’s kind of the biggest impact on one of those lead measures?” It’s like just-in-time strategic planning.

And then you know next week, we have people say all the time, “You know what, it was Thursday night and I had that week session Friday morning, and I was up till 2:00 o’clock in the morning. Like, I was not…” People don’t want to disappoint their bosses.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Chris McChesney
They won’t disappoint their peers. They don’t like to disappoint their bosses. They could get over that. But we found that when it comes to peer accountability, they take it really seriously and you get really good commitments and you get energy. And then four, five, six weeks of non-urgent activity because these commitments would never make anybody’s to-do list but they’re the most important thing you could do to drive the lead measures. And so, that’s really the secret of the whole thing, is we just start to mind-harvest, pick your metaphor, energy against that scoreboard every single week until the team realizes, “We’re doing something nobody’s been able to do before, and it’s moving,” then we get the pop in engagement. That’s our story.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s exciting and, certainly, I see what you mean about tricking your brain with the urgency, is it’s now urgent in that you don’t want to look like a fool, you don’t want to let people down, and the clock is ticking that you’re going to have to say something on Friday, so, hopefully, it’s going to be a good something.

Chris McChesney
And the day job has all that stuff built in, that’s why the day job has its own accountability system called your neck. Like, you get a phone call, like people get mad at you, you don’t want that phone call, so we do that, right? But the goals, the goals need a mechanism to create the same kind of urgency that the day job has. And if you could do it in a way where people feel like they’re part of something, and this is what we found.

So, I gave you the quote on Lencioni’s book “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.” I’ll give you another one. It’s an HBR, Harvard Business Review, article, May 2011, there’s also a book by the same name called The Power of Small Wins, and it goes back to a research that was done in the ‘60s by a guy named Frederick Herzberg. And Herzberg said, those of you that have had MBA classes recently, his name comes up. He came up with this theory, and he said, “Look, the stuff that people quit over – pay, best friend at work, job conditions, benefits – does not engage them.”

I’m going to say that again, “The stuff people quit over does not engage them.” Don’t quit over pay, whether they have a best friend at work, whether they like…they’ll over quit all that stuff. There’s only two things that engage people, really create engagement, and it’s “Am I winning? Am I progressing? Is it working? Is there some progress?” and “Does it matter? Is it a winnable high-stakes game?” And so, what we tell people is, “Look, don’t get overwhelmed by this. If you’re a leader, your team doesn’t have to feel that way about everything. The day job, 80% won’t feel that way most of the time. It’s okay. But if you can create a high-stakes winnable game around that 20%, that one thing, it affects the way they feel about everything else.” And I would even say in raising teenagers, it’s the same thing. Find one thing in that kid’s life that they’re wining at and they feel good at, it has an impact on everything else.

So, I’ll tell you, after 20 years, that’s what we’ve learned. If you can create a high-stakes winnable game for people, it has a profound effect on morale and engagement.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love it. And I think it’s true all of life in terms of, in my own experience, it’s like, “I got to feel like I’m winning something.”

Chris McChesney
Yeah, right. Give me something, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like I might feel like a lame dad or a lame husband, but if I’m winning at work, it’s like, “Okay, life has some color,” or vice versa, I might feel like, “Oh, man, COVID hits, my downloads are down. You know what, man, but I’m having a blast with my kids.” Like, you got to be winning at something.

Chris McChesney
Right. Right. Right. And so, that’s the question to leaders, right? Do the people who work for you feel like there’s some part of what you’re doing that feels like a high-stakes winnable game? And if they do, they won’t forget it. It’s a much bigger deal to people than you think.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, Chris, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?

Chris McChesney
That’s it. That’s our story.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, can you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Chris McChesney
“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose, considered by yourself to be a worthy one, instead of being a feverish little clot of grievances and ailments, complaining the world will not dedicate itself to making you happy.”

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard that. I forgot who said it.

Chris McChesney
It’s on the tip of my tongue. That was the one that I was looking for.

Pete Mockaitis
It was nice. It was well-done. The clot grievances is always like, “Oh, man.”

Chris McChesney
Yeah, be a force of nature, right? Attack something. Bring something down.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Chris McChesney
You know what I’m reading right now? I’m reading the, the biography of Hamilton that Lin-Manuel Miranda based the Broadway play on. And my wife and I are just crazy for the play. And the biography is stunning, and it’s just a really inspiring story of someone who had no business having an impact on the world that he had. Chernow is the guy’s last name, the Hamilton biography. It’s fantastic.

Hey, on this topic, more to this topic, although I tell you, the book I read before that was Robert Greene on Mastery. And I actually had all my kids, we did at dinner, and you could only come to dinner if you had read at least the first chapter of Mastery. And it’s really an interesting perspective on the whole career conversation.

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

Chris McChesney
Waterskiing. I’ve got to do a lot of it because I haven’t been on the road, so this is my summer of slalom waterskiing. That’s my addiction.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really connects and resonates with folks, they quote it back to you and they highlight it in your book, etc.?

Chris McChesney
There will always be more good ideas than there’s capacity to execute them.

Pete Mockaitis
I find that very comforting because…

Chris McChesney
Good, because you don’t have to bring them all down. Right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And, in a way, it really is a blessing. It’s like it’s such abundance. We can sort of enjoy that as opposed to be stressed out by it.

Chris McChesney
Thank you. Right. Because it kind of shames us in one moment. But, you’re right, it’s just great to realize. Because there is this onus sometimes when we think, “Oh, that. Oh, I didn’t do, and we didn’t follow up on that.” Like, yeah, trust me, you and everybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s so funny, sometimes when I have lots of opportunities, and I think even in business, it’s like I find that sometimes I get more stressed, and it’s like I’m enjoying my work less, it’s like, “What’s this about? Like, this is good. This is good.” So, yeah, thank you. It puts it right in the frame, right back where it needs to be. And how about if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Chris McChesney
All right. So, you go on Amazon and look up The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which is our book that has done way better than we ever thought it would with a title like that, with the words discipline and execution. If you don’t have high hopes, would you launch that book? It continues to be a bestseller to our delight and amazement.

And then if you go to, all one word, ChrisMcChesney4dx.com that will take you to my website and kind of the work that we do. Or you can go to the FranklinCovey website, that works as well, and you can find me there.

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

Chris McChesney
I’ll just go back to the one I said a minute ago. Find something outside your job description, within your circle of influence, and get your team treating it like a high-stakes winnable game. If you can do that, you’re not a manager. You’re a leader.

Pete Mockaitis
Chris, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck.

Chris McChesney
Right back at you.

562: How to Get More Done by Working Less with Alex Pang

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Alex Pang says: "It is possible to rethink and redesign everything about how we work."

Alex Pang discusses how to significantly boost your productivity while working fewer hours.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How working fewer hours greatly increases productivity
  2. Small productivity hacks that save a massive amount of time
  3. When you should and shouldn’t multitask

About Alex:

Alex Pang is the founder of Strategy and Rest, a consultancy devoted to helping companies and individuals harness the power of rest to shorten workdays, while staying focused and productive. He is the author of 4 books and have been featured in publications such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times, and the New Yorker.

Pang is also an international speaker and has led workshops across the globe on the future of work and how deliberate rest makes creative careers more productive and sustainable. He received his B.A. and Ph.D in History of Science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Alex Pang Interview Transcript

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

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Oh, thanks very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about working less and shorter and resting effectively, and so I’ll mention right up front that I found it more difficult to rest when there’s all this chaotic pandemic news around me. How are you finding rest during this time?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
I think it’s a challenge for everybody. I do an awful lot of work from home and work remotely anyway, so for me the biggest disruption is not being able to travel, but someone who mainly writes books for a living, kind of shelters in place anyway. So, I am fortunate to be less disrupted than many people I know.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well and that’s working out. I want to hear about your latest book Shorter. You’ve written a few. So, tell me, what made you think that the world needed you to craft this one?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
So, Shorter is essentially a sequel to my previous book Rest which was about the hidden role of rest in the lives of really creative and prolific people. And when I was promoting that book, I got a lot of questions along the lines of, “Okay, this all sounds great in theory, but if you’re a single mom or a working professional, how do you make the case to your boss or your clients that you should rest more?”

And so, I started looking for organizations that had figured out how to do this, and fairly quickly stumbled on these companies that had moved to 4-day workweeks or 6-hour days that not only were recognizing the importance of rest for creative work, for doing good work, but also were changing how they worked, redesigning their work days in order to make it available to everybody without cutting salaries and without hurting their productivity or their profitability.

And so, the fact that I was seeing these companies all over the world in a variety of industries, often in industries where overwork is the norm, like software, advertising, call centers, restaurants, made me think these are actually doing something really significant that was worth sharing with the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. I’ll tell you I was a fan of all the line graphs in your book. I’m a sucker for real numbers. So, could you share with us a couple of the most striking pieces of research, whether it’s a case study or two, or more of a global kind of survey, that really makes a compelling case that, in fact, if you’re working a shorter amount of time, you can see the same or better results?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Well, in organizations that have done this, what I am seeing is that if they are thoughtful about how they redesign their work days, if they explain it well to clients, if they use technology well, they’re able, actually, to not just maintain the same levels of productivity or profitability, but often increase them. So, for example, there’s a call center in Glasgow, Scotland, and Glasgow turns out to be like the call center of Europe, there are lots of these companies up there called Pursuit Marketing.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s the Scottish accents or…

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Exactly, yeah. Oh, yeah. And a couple of years ago, they made the move to a 4-day workweek, and they found that, after they did this, their productivity went up something like 40%, dropped down a little bit, and then settled down at about 30% higher than normal. So, even though they were working 4-day weeks, they were doing more business, generating more revenue for their clients than they had been when they were working 5-day weeks.

And they, not surprisingly, were also more profitable as a result, and they saw absenteeism and turnover dropped really substantially. This is an industry where people do an awful lot of job-hopping, you’re constantly attracted to the next job by a new set of potential performance bonuses and other incentives, so people generally move quite a bit. But after they moved to a 4-day week, attrition dropped to single-digit percentages which is absolutely unheard of.

Pete Mockaitis
Annually.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Yeah, annually.

Pete Mockaitis
In call centers that is striking.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Which is unheard of in the industry. So, that’s one. And this is also an industry where you measure absolutely everything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Average Handle Time, First-Call Resolution, da, da, da.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Precisely. And so, they had really good numbers that illustrated that even in an industry where having constant contact with prospective customers, being on the phone a lot, where those kinds of things really matter, where you would not think necessarily that shortening working hours could deliver results, even in those kinds of industries, this turns out to pay off.

And this is a story that I saw over and over again, right? Places that whether it is very topline numbers, like just revenues and profitability, or whether it is the results of weekly surveys either internally with employees or externally with clients, or in terms of things like industry prizes and awards given. When done well, basically, all of those numbers, over time, go up into the right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s striking. And so, I think you said if we started with a 40% productivity boost, then we hit a 30%. Now, let’s clarify a couple of these. I guess if you’re reducing hours by 20%, five to four days, and you’re getting a productivity boost of 30%, you’re actually producing more in four days than you are in five.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you see folks take like five 8-hour days and turn it into four 10-hour days, or is it just, no, four 8-hour days?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Sure. There certainly are companies that convert to four 10-hour days including some fairly big ones now offer that option, especially in Japan. So, 7-Eleven does this and a number of other large companies. But what I was particularly interested in were companies that were shortening the total number of hours that people were working.

Generally, this means going from 40 hours to 32 or 30. So, doing four 8-hour days or five 6-hours. In the restaurant industry, because people are often working 12- or 13-hour days, to go to a 4-day week means you’re going to 48 hours, but still, even there, you’re going from like 60 or 70 hours down to something substantially lower.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
So, really, what I was interested in for this book was absolute change in working hours as opposed to just taking 40 hours and moving them around differently on the calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
And this is intriguing. Well, I’ve got my own theories but I want to hear yours, you’re the expert. What’s your hot take there on the mechanisms by which less time yields greater results? Is it they’re more rejuvenated so they have more creative ideas to solve the customer caller’s problem? Is it fewer silly mistakes that cause…? Like, what are the sources of productivity gains from working less?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Very broadly speaking, having more time for recovery means that you have more energy on the job, and that matters whether you’re in a creative industry, or you’re a maître d’, or you’re working in a call center. The second thing is that, in knowledge work, in office work, there are estimates that through multitasking, poorly-run meetings, interruptions, we lose an average of about two hours a day of productive time.

And so, if you can eliminate that stuff and get that time back, you go a long way to being able to do five days’ worth of work in four days. And what the companies that I’ve seen do, essentially, is figure out ways to get those two hours back. So, the second part, the redesigning your work day to use your time more effectively, gives you the fundamental ability to fit five days’ worth of work into four. And then, I think, having the extra time to cultivate other hobbies, to rest and relax, to deal with life admin, that gives you an additional boost that accounts for that increase in productivity or creativity on top of the 20% that you need to make up for working fewer hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then, I’d love to dig into some of the how-to here even for individuals or teams. Like, I’m running all these, we’ll have the ability to persuade the top decision-maker at the organization that this is what we want to do. But I’m sure there are some leeway to be done here and there, particularly when more people are working from home right now. So, how do we go make it happen?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
So, the first thing that almost everybody does is dramatically shorten meetings, eliminate the standing Monday morning hour-long meeting, take the traditional meetings and make them half as long or less. Our calendar programs kind of default to running meetings for an hour which means that people tend to drift in, things start a little bit late, you check your email, you chat a little bit, then you do some business, and then maybe you pad out the time at the end by talking about what you did on the weekend, etc. By making meetings much sharper, more pointed, often smaller, having agendas and decisions that need to be made, and then focusing on those and then getting out of there, you can save an organization an amazing amount of time.

The next thing is getting technology distractions under control. So, implementing norms where you have email checks at particular times a day, you’re more thoughtful about how you use tools like Slack and other messaging programs, can go a long way to eliminating the kind of everyday state of what Microsoft executive, Linda Stone, called continuous partial attention, that state where you’re kind of focused on one thing but you’ve also got an eye on your inbox and you kind of toggle between different activities or different things that capture your attention. That feels like a very productive way to work but every study indicates that, actually, it’s not.

Pete Mockaitis
I might just sort of linger there for a moment. I think that’s critical. It feels productive so we do it and it feels good to do it but, in fact, if you actually took a look at your output, your outcomes generated, it’s lower. And I think that’s fascinating stuff. Do you have some insight into, like, the biochemistry? I’ve heard that we get a little bit of a dopamine hit in terms of, “Hey, there was an email, and now it’s gone. That’s done. I’ve done something. It might be tiny but it’s done. Ooh, and I did a lot of tiny things, therefore, I did a lot, or I feel I did a lot,” but, really, it’s like, “Hey, those 20 inconsequential emails versus that one meaty piece of thought that will generate thousands of dollars, they’re not at all equal in terms of their value.”

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
No, they’re not. Definitely not. And it is certainly the case that, as creatures who often seek novelty, and especially those of us who are in creative industries, tend to…we are a little more likely to like new stuff, to like stimulation, than sometimes people who are happy in other kinds of businesses. We have something of a bias toward this. But it’s also the case that there’s a real difference between the kind, in productive terms, between the kind of sort of multitasking where you’re juggling several different things that all aim at the same endpoint.

So, when you’re giving a talk, for example, you’re managing your slides, you’ve got the points you’re trying to make, you’re reading the room, you’re interacting with people, there’s actually an awful lot of different cognitive strains that are happening at once. But because all of them go to making a good performance, helping an audience understand some new thing, helping them solve a problem, it doesn’t feel like the kind of cognitive overload that trying to simultaneously be on a conference call and look at a spreadsheet about an unrelated thing incurs.

The problem is that, through a combination of organizational habit, through the fact that for most of human history, we haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do that second sort of multitasking, to look at multiple screens at once, we’re not yet very well-tuned to recognizing the difference between that really  productive, engaging kind of multitasking that involves multiple channels that all build to the same goal, and this other kind that feels productive, but which is actually a lot harder for us to manage and gives us the feeling of engagement and the feeling of productivity without very much productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is just a heck of a distinction because I’m thinking about times in which I’ve sort of been in charge of an event, like I’m pulled in very many directions kind of all at once, like, “Oh, the food is here, the volunteers are there, and the attendees are there, and, ooh, here’s an unexpected issue.” And so, for me, it’s when I’m properly prepared, it’s exhilarating as opposed to anxiety-provoking. But it’s all geared toward making a great event, great experience for the people who are present, and that works.

Versus, it might give a similar sensation if I’m doing five completely different things but rapidly switching between them, but they don’t, actually, synergistically helping each other. It’s just sort of like, “Oh, I’m cleaning my Mac files in one place, and my emails in another place, and my voicemails in another place, and maybe I’m switching between all three because that can happen, but they’re not actually helping each other at all. I’m not learning one from one source. So, that’s a really powerful distinction, I think. Thank you.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
And, actually, companies that move to 4-day weeks are pretty explicit about recognizing that distinction. And one of the most important ways in which they express it is by redesigning their work day so that they carve and set aside times for what Cal Newport calls deep work, right? It’s a couple hours of the day, usually in the late morning, when you can be…you have permission to be a little antisocial, to not answer the phone, you’re expected not to ask people those one quick question that turns into a 10-minute conversation, but rather everyone has permission to focus on their most important or most challenging, tasks.

And so, by creating that time, and creating it for everybody, you make it easier for people to get into that state of concentration, that flow state, and to get substantial stuff done. So, I think that’s another really important thing that I see these companies doing. And then the fourth and final one is using technology to augment people’s abilities, right? You, essentially…

Pete Mockaitis
I’m a cyborg, if you will.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Yeah, you automate kind of ordinary stuff, or of less significant, less value-added tasks, but you use technology to augment people’s ability to do really significant creative tasks.

Pete Mockaitis
We have an example of that. So, I can think of all sorts of ways to automate. We had Wade Foster from Zapier on the show earlier, which is cool. I’m a big fan of outsourcing whether it’s through a personal assistant service or to some folks in developing countries where there are some…the dollar can go farther and provide a good living wage with fewer total dollars. But tell me about using technology to do the big hard stuff.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Sure. And there are plenty of these companies who do have relationships with virtual assistants in the Philippines or Malaysia or such, but a good example is an accounting company called Farnell Clarke based in the UK. Farnell Clarke does cloud-based accounting. An awful lot of the accounting industry is still working on pen and paper or on personal computers using software loaded up onto people’s machines.

What Farnell Clarke’s specialty for years had been using cloud-based services like, I think Xero is one of them, there are a couple others that own most of this market, and moving clients onto those systems to make basic things like quarterly reporting, tax filling, that sort of stuff easier. What they have also realized once they moved to a 4-day week was that automating all that stuff freed up a whole bunch of time for the accountants that they could now spend on stuff like financial consulting or providing financial services, keeping in touch with clients often through Skype, and Zoom, and other tools, with which we have all become intimately familiar in the last few weeks.

And between those two things and then also becoming familiar with other kinds of financial planning tools or research tools, making it possible for the company to go from just mainly doing tax preparation kinds of stuff, ordinary bookkeeping, to more labor-intensive or more creatively-intensive kinds of financial advisory work. And then there are other versions of this that you see with, let’s say, restaurants or garages where people are using fairly ordinary tools, sometimes in far more labor-intensive kinds of ways. But I think that the Farnell Clarke example is a nice illustration of how cloud-based tools can be used in this manner.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool to see sort of like the virtuous cycle effect there in terms of, “Hey, now that we’ve freed up some time, we could put some time into something that yields even more cool benefits.” So, that’s really cool. I’m curious, when folks are saying, “Alex, this is awesome. Yes, we’re going to go forth and do this,” what are some common mistakes or hiccups that folks run into that you can give a watch-out, a heads up, to?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Right. I think that the first thing is that I’ve never encountered a company that said, “We spent too much time planning this. We spent too much time thinking about what could go wrong,” or thinking through contingencies, doing scenarios. I think that the more you’re able to plan in advance the better, partly because you do actually come up with problems that you might not foresee, but also because giving everybody an opportunity to think this through is really important in building confidence that they can actually make it work.

I think another thing that has killed off experiments in a couple places was letting everybody choose their own day versus deciding, “Everybody is going to take these days off. So, the office is going to be closed on Fridays,” or, “Half the workforce is on from Monday to Thursday, the other half is Tuesday to Friday if the office needs to stay open five days a week.”

So, I think that recognizing that you have to design with your own culture in mind, and you want to make sure that you don’t disrupt that. And then, finally the other thing is that it’s really important to make the transition something that the employees themselves drive, right?

Every company has a leader at the top who, for various reasons, decides, “This is an experiment worth trying and a risk worth taking.” But the actual implementation is done by employees themselves. And they have to be able to conduct, to experiment with different ways of working, to try things out, to prototype, to rapidly iterate, and to also be sure that if this works out, that they’re going to keep the kind of benefits of the time saved by learning how to be more productive and how to use technology better.

The only other places where this experiment falls apart is where there’s a sense that, “We’re going to do all this stuff but, ultimately, and the company is going to get 20% more work out of us, but we’re going to go back to a traditional schedule.” So, I think that being very clear that everybody is going to benefit from these changes, is a really important thing to establish and to honor from the outset.

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

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Yeah, I think that the other critical thing is that everybody worries about how clients will react. And I was amazed to hear exactly one story of a prospective client who had objected to a company moving to a 4-day week. Clients, it turns out, are incredibly supportive of this partly because they have the same kinds of problems that companies moving into 4-day weeks do with work-life balance, with burnout, with recruitment and retention and sustainability.

So, I think that involving clients early on, making clear to them that this is what you’re trying to do, that you’re still available under emergencies, all of that is important, but you’ll also find kind of sometimes contrary to your initial expectations or worries that clients can be some of your biggest allies.

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

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
I often remember a line from Bertrand Russell from his essay about the uses of idleness, where he talks about how we could, by now, have a 4-hour work day. And he says that modern technology offers the prospect of convenience and ease for all, or a future that offers overwork for a few and idleness for many. And it feels to me like that he was really onto something there, that in a sense we have, for various reasons, chosen the second future, but it’s not too late to choose the first one.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Probably the book that has affected or changed my life more than any other in the last ten years has been Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, which is the classic study of flow states, what they are, why they’re important, and why they not only make us happy but are essential for living a good life. And I think that for those of us who really enjoy our work, who love nothing more than getting lost in an interesting problem, Csikszentmihalyi offers a great key for understanding what it is that is so rewarding about really interesting problems, about really good work, and a foundation for thinking about how we can build on that to make our lives better, not just to be more productive, not just to be more successful, but to become better people, and to have better, more sustainable lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. And I like that you pronounced his name perfectly.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Hey.

Pete Mockaitis
I had to look that up and practice it a few times because I name-drop his as well. It’s an excellent book. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Scrivener. It’s a kind of supercharged word processor that also has a bunch of organizational kind of outlining tools. I’ve written three books using Scrivener, and without it, I probably would’ve written like one and a half. It is for writers, what something like Lightroom is for photographers. It’s not simple and it’s got, definitely, a learning curve. But once you figure it out, you can’t live without it.

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

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
So, if you want to learn more, my company website is www.Strategy.rest. Rest is now a top-level domain, very happily for me. And then on Instagram, on Twitter, and pretty much everything else, I am @askpang. So, those are the best places to find me. And, of course, the books are available in fine bookstores, virtual and, one day, one hopes again, physical everywhere.

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

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
It is possible to rethink and redesign everything about how we work. And that even starting with small things, like changing how you run meetings, can have very big impacts over the long run. It can start teaching you how to improve things that you’ve kind of put up with for years, that everyone complains about but no one has figured out how to change. These things actually turn out to be changeable. They turn out to be fixable. And when we take a kind of more experimental, more skeptical approach to how we work, and we ask the question, “Why is it this way? Can it be different? And what can we do to figure out how to improve it?” it turns out you can do dramatic things that pay off both for your company and for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Alex, thank you. This has been a ton of fun. I wish you lots of luck in all the ways that you’re working shorter.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Oh, thanks very much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.