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483: How to Take Control of Your Attention with Nir Eyal

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Nir Eyal says: "It's not good enough to know what we should do... It's also about knowing what we should not do."

Nir Eyal identifies the surprising reason why we get distracted and how you can overcome it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why mainstream productivity advice doesn’t work
  2. The four steps to becoming indistractable
  3. The real motivation for all human behavior

About Nir

Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming ProductsIn addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The Harvard Business ReviewTechCrunch, and Psychology TodayNir is also an active investor in habit-forming technologies. Some of his past investments include: Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), EventbriteAnchor.fm, and many others. Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Nir Eyal Interview Transcript

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

Nir Eyal
It is so good to be back. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’ll have a lot of fun talking here. It’s funny, your book wasn’t even close to out but we were already talking about it last time. So, I’m excited to dig into greater detail here.

Nir Eyal
Yeah, me, too. Well, what can I tell you? We got a lot to talk about since last time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we do. But, first, I need to at least touch upon your habit of running barefoot in New York City. What is this? Isn’t that gross and dangerous?

Nir Eyal
Oh, yeah. This is weird, right? Let’s see, so a few years ago. First of all, I want you to know, I have, for almost my entire life, hated physical activity of any sort, shape, or form.

And then I read this book called Born to Run which is this book that explores or has this hypothesis that. The way we actually kill the animals wasn’t by arrows and spears at first. It was that we evolved the ability to run after our prey. And, in fact, our people in Africa still, to this day, who do what’s called subsistence hunting, they run down animals, and that’s their dinner.

A long way of saying, I just thought that was super cool, and I thought, “Well, if that’s how we were born to run, right, to borrow from the title of this book, well, maybe I’ll give it a shot.” And part of the reason I always hated running was that I constantly had knee pain and joint pain and shin splints, and I decided to, first, use minimalist shoes, very, very soft, very, very small-soled shoes. And then I actually moved to barefoot-barefoot, like nothing on my feet, and this is the first time that I have run without pain. I still get winded, right? I run for a long time, or I run fast, but I don’t have anymore muscular pain or joint pain.

And so, I’ve been doing it for about four years now. And I moved to New York City a few years ago, and I kept it up around here, believe it not. I get a lot of funny stares and funny looks but, thankfully, haven’t had any injuries.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. I guess I’m just imagining, no offense to New York, coming from Chicago, like a broken 40 bottles on the sidewalk, and “Argh.”

Nir Eyal
You know, what we’ve done here. You know, Indistractable, my new book, has so many pearls of wisdom. Now that people have heard this crazy thing I just told you, they’re not going to listen to anything else I say.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, credibility shot.

Nir Eyal
Exactly. This is not what the book is about at all. But I think if there’s one thread that does run through a lot of different things I do, is that I love to challenge convention, right? I love to overturn apple carts. And in an age where, you know, the entire time I’ve grown up, I’ve always been told that we need lots of cushion beneath our feet in order to protect us and help us run faster. And Airs and Reeboks, they all tell us that that’s what’s needed.

And so, I just really love this way that actually turns out that these thick-soled shoes may actually be part of the problem for a lot of runners, not for everyone, right? If you like to run and you like a lot of cushion and you’re not having any pain or discomfort, well, then good on you. Keep doing it. But, for me, it wasn’t working and I tried something else. And, in my case, it was running shoeless.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Nir Eyal
And, by the way, I don’t run everywhere in New York. Like, there are paths that you can run on where it’s relatively clean and relatively safe.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, you’ve never had a nasty shard of anything get wedged into your foot and cause it to bleed?

Nir Eyal
Don’t jinx me, bro. But so far so good. No, I’ve never had anything. Because what’s interesting about the way we run is that if you run correctly, you should land very softly on the ground.

When you run without shoes, you actually can’t run incorrectly. It hurts. You feel it immediately. You get this feedback right away. And so, I don’t land very hard on the ground. It’s amazing how our feet have evolved to prevent injury.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m satisfied.

Nir Eyal
Take my word for it. You don’t have to do it. It’s okay.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so you’ve been putting a lot of time in research into this notion of becoming indistractable. Can you share with us kind of why did this become a passion point for you and you’ve chosen to invest your energies here?

Nir Eyal
Yeah, so I wrote Hooked about five years ago, this book which was subtitled “How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” And that book is really about this question that I had at the time of, “How do we get people to use our products and services?” So many products and services out there are wonderful, they’re great, they improve people’s lives, if they would only use them.

And so, I wanted to understand the psychology behind how some of the world’s most habit-forming products do what they do, right? How do companies like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and WhatsApp and Snapchat and Slack, how are they designed to get us to keep coming back? And wouldn’t it be great if we could take that same secret sauce and apply it to all sorts of products and services, right, to build healthy habits?

And so, that’s what Hooked was all about. I’ve looked for this book, I couldn’t find it, so I decided to write it myself. I taught for many years at Stanford at the Graduate School of Business, and at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, and that was the subject of my first book.

Now, shortly after that book was written, about a year and a half, two years after that book was written, I found that my behavior was changing in ways I didn’t always like, to be honest with you. I remember this one occasion, I was sitting with my daughter, and we had this afternoon together. And we had this book of activities that daddies and daughters could do together. And one of the activities was to ask each other this question, and I’ll never forget the question. The question was, “If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you want?”

And I remember the question but I don’t remember her answer because when she was telling me the answer to this question, I was busy on my phone. I was checking some bit of internet nonsense. And so, that’s when I realized, “Wait a minute, I wrote the book on how to build habit-forming technology, I understand the guts of how these companies do what they do, I teach companies how to build healthy habits, and yet, here I am, getting unhealthfully hooked myself.”

And so, I thought, “Wow, if I’m struggling with this, then I bet a lot of other people are struggling with this as well.” And this was several years ago. But, now, we definitely see that. At the time when I wrote Hooked I had to convince people that Facebook and Slack and WhatsApp and Instagram and all these products didn’t just get lucky, that, in fact, they were designed with consumer psychology in mind, that consumer psychology really matters, that these people understand what makes you click and what makes you tick better than you understand yourself.

Today, I don’t have to sell that anymore. People know this is true and, if anything, the problem is we overuse these technologies. So, that’s when I decided, as I do in the case of every time I have an idea for a book, I read everything I could possibly find on the topic of distraction, of psychology, of addiction. And what every other book said, the conventional wisdom, what we all hear today is that technology is the problem, that these companies are addicting us, that it’s melting our brain, that it’s hijacking us.

And the more I dove into that psychology, I realized it wasn’t actually true. Not only that, not only was it not true, it didn’t work, right? They all basically say the same thing. They say, like, basically the problem is technology, right? Cut it out of your life, do a digital detox, go on a 30-day whatever retreat, just get it out of your life, and that’ll solve the problem.

So, I did that. I followed the advice. I did what they told me, I went on a digital detox, I bought a feature phone that didn’t have any apps on it, I bought a word processor on eBay from the 1990s, they don’t even make them anymore, but has no internet connection, and that’s what I used to do my writing, and it didn’t work because I still got distracted.

I would start to write, and writing is really hard for me, it doesn’t come naturally, and I would say, “Ah, this is really hard. Maybe I’ll just read this book on the bookcase for a few minutes because that’s kind of related to my work,” or, “My desk needs organizing,” or, “I should probably take out the trash.” And I found myself constantly getting distracted, and that’s a big problem because, the fact is, if you want to do creative, in my field it’s writing, but no matter what creative endeavor you want to do, without focus, without doing what it is you decide you’re going to do, nothing gets done, right? All of your amazing genius ideas stays stuck in your head. You have to produce.

And this idea that the technology was the problem, one, it didn’t work, two, it’s super impractical because my audience and I live online, right? I need these tools to reach people who might be interested and who could be helped by the work I’m doing. So, all in all, I just was really disappointed with the current solutions so I started diving to the psychology of, “Why do we get distracted in the first place?’ I mean, to me, that’s such a fascinating question.

Aristotle and Socrates had this question 2500 years ago, this question of akrasia, they called it, this tendency to do things against our better interest. So, the question is, “Why is it that despite the fact that we know what to do, we don’t do the right thing?” We all know there’s tons of self-help books in the nutrition space, and they all basically say the same thing, right? Like, we know how to get healthy. Workplace productivity, we know how to be productive, just do the work, right? We know how to have better relationships. Be fully present with those you love. Why don’t we do it?

And so, that’s really the question I seek to answer in Indistractable, “Why don’t we do we say we’re going to do? And what would life be like if we were indistractable?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s really juicy there. So, this is an ancient problem, the human being becoming distracted and pursuing things that are not in our best interest. So, the devices, I guess, Nir, you’re somewhat off the hook for addicting us all the more and destroying our lives. They are not 100% to blame and you’re sharing that is also, I guess, reduced as well. So, let’s hear it. What can be done with regard to this human tendency to defeat distractions, be they digital or otherwise?

Nir Eyal
Yeah. Well, I will tell you that in this day and age the technologies have gotten so good and so pervasive, as they have become more persuasive, that the world, if you don’t know these techniques, if you don’t become indistractable, they’ll get you. Not only that, they’ll get your work colleagues, they’ll get your kids. Like, the cost of living in an age where there is so many good things to explore, whether it’s online, whether it’s in social media, on YouTube, there’s so many interesting things to explore.

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad per se. it’s just that if you don’t have these techniques, it is easier than ever to succumb to distractions. So, it’s not your fault that these things exist. But here’s the sad reality. It is our responsibility. This stuff is not going away. And if you wait for legislators to do something about it, if you hold your breath waiting for the geniuses in Washington to fix the problem, you’re going to suffocate.

So, what I learned in this process is actually a very empowering and hopeful message, that we have more power than we know. That, in fact, by calling these things addictive, by thinking that they’re hijacking our brain, we are actually, ironically, making it so. It’s called learned helplessness. That when we say, “Oh, those algorithms are hijacking my brain and it’s addictive.” Especially when people talk about their kids, by the way, it’s fascinating, right? They’re absolutely convinced that there’s nothing they can do about it, that these kids are just addicted to these video games.

And, in fact, there’s been many studies done on people who are actually pathologically addicted to various substances like alcohol, like the various drugs, and it turns out, the number one determinant of whether someone recovers after rehab is not the level of physical dependency, it’s actually their belief in their own power to change.

And so, that’s really the message. If there’s one message of this book, it’s to look at the root causes of distraction and then do something about those root causes, not the proximate causes, starting with, and this is kind of, I’ll just name the four parts of the indistractable model, then we can dive deeper into the parts that interest you.

So, the indistractable model has these four parts. So, I want you to kind of picture in your mind here a number line, right? So, it extends left to right, it extends out from and into infinity, let’s say, so you have this horizontal line on one side, and on the right side, we have traction. Traction is any action that you take that draws you towards what you want in life, okay? The word traction actually comes from the Latin trahere which means to draw towards. So, things that you do, actions you take that move you towards what you want in life.

What’s the opposite of traction? Distraction. Right, the opposite of traction is distraction. Distraction is anything you do that moves you away from what you want in life, right? So, it’s anything you do unintentionally. So, the idea here is I’m not going to be the moral police and tell you video games are bad, but watching a sports match is somehow good, right? If it’s something that you want to do, whether it’s check YouTube, look at Reddit, watch sports games on TV, whatever it is you want to do, if you plan to do that activity, that quote “the time you plan to waste is not wasted time.” As long as you plan to do that, it’s traction.

If it takes you off track, right, if you’re with your daughter like I was, and I plan to spend time with her, and then I get distracted with my phone, well, that took me off track, it made me do something I didn’t want to do, so that’s distraction. Okay, so that’s traction and distraction.

Now, you’ve got this horizontal number line. Now, imagine two arrows pointing to the center of that number line, and these two arrows represent the things that either lead us to traction or distraction. They are two types of triggers. We have external triggers and we have internal triggers. External triggers are the things that prompt us to action in our environment that move us towards traction or distraction. So, the pings, the dings, the rings, anything that moves you to traction or distraction.

What also moves us to traction or distraction is the internal triggers which aren’t around us, they’re not in our environment. These are cues to action that start from within us. And what’s probably the biggest revelation that I had writing this book in the past five years was that distraction starts from within because all human behavior, everything we do is not motivated for the reason most people think. Most people think that motivation is about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This is called Freud’s Pleasure Principle. Not true. It turns out we are not motivated by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Neurologically speaking, it’s pain all the way down.

All human motivation is prompted by a desire to escape discomfort. It’s called the homeostatic response. So, physically, if you think about, okay, you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you’re hot again, you go indoors, you feel hot, you take it off. If you’re hungry, you feel hunger pangs, you eat. When you’re stuffed, okay, that doesn’t feel good, you stop eating. So, those are physiological sensations, this is called the homeostatic response.

The same is true to psychological sensations, right? So, when you feel lonely, what do you do? You check Facebook or maybe Tinder. If you feel uncertain about something, before you scan your brain, what do you do? You check Google. If you are bored, what do you do? You check Reddit or news or YouTube or all these different products to satiate that uncomfortable emotional state. Even the pursuit of pleasure, in fact. Desire is uncomfortable, right? There’s a reason we say love hurts, right, because even wanting something is psychologically uncomfortable.

So, this means, if we believe that all behaviors is prompted by the desire to escape discomfort, that means that time management is pain management. And if we want to do the things we say we’re going to do, in business, in life, in our creative endeavors, we have to understand how to master these internal triggers. So, that’s the first step. Master the internal triggers. The second step is make time for traction. The third step is to hack back the external triggers. And the fourth step is to prevent distraction with pacts. So, that’s basically the outline of this book. Lots of tactics, that’s the overall strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m fascinated by this principle here that it’s all pain avoidance and, I guess, you’re putting desire in the category of pain because I’m thinking, “Well, we certainly do things just for the fun of it.” Like, going on a honeymoon, I’m thinking.

When I went to Hawaii with my wife, it’s like there wasn’t something we were trying to escape. I mean, yeah, it was cold in Chicago but we were primarily thinking, “Oh, Hawaii. It’s going to be sunny and fun and enjoyable, and we’ll just get to be together.” So, I guess I’m just wrapping my brain around this notion that it is, in fact, all pain avoidance as opposed to pleasure seeking.

Nir Eyal
Yeah, so it’s a perfect example. So, why does the brain make us feel good, right? If the idea is that we have this pleasure response, we definitely have this response to pleasure. But, in fact, it turns out that we don’t do things because they feel good, we do things because they felt good in the past. We have a memory, an association that creates a desire, a longing, an uncomfortable itch that we seek to scratch because we have this memory of how it felt in the past. And that’s the driver. Even the pursuit of pleasure is itself an escape from discomfort.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing because I’ve had previous experiences of going on vacation or taking a break from responsibility and just hanging out with people and enjoy. Because I’m recalling that, I’m experiencing a desire, a form of discomfort, it’s like that is the thing I want, and I’m trying to escape that desire by doing it.

Nir Eyal
Right. Exactly. So, that longing, that wanting, that craving, is, in fact, what’s driving your behavior, driving your action.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued now, I’ve heard in the realm of marketing, for example, that it seems like it’s almost always a better pathway in terms of effectiveness to deal in pain as opposed to pleasure. So, I’ve read that before, I don’t know. You do a lot of research. Can you lay it on me some studies that point to this truth?

Nir Eyal
Yes, so it’s not that we create pain, that’s sadistic, right? We would never want to create pain in our customers. It’s that the role of all products and services is to scratch some kind of itch, right? If the customer doesn’t have any kind of discomfort, there’s nothing for us to do. They don’t need anything. So, if you’re cool, if you’re chill, you don’t need anything.

So, for example, I was on a flight, this is a terrific example of the point. I was on a transcon flight and there was a guy in the aisle seat across from me, and he was clearly passed out, he had the pillow under his neck, he had a blanket on, he was sound asleep. And the flight attendant comes by, and she says to him, “Sir?” He’s sleeping, he can’t hear, so she says it again, she says it a little louder, she says, “Sir?” He doesn’t wake up. Finally, she says it even louder, she said, “Sir!” He wakes up, he’s like, “Whoa, whoa, what is it?” She says, “What would you like to drink, sir?”

And this is a perfect example of, “Would he want a drink?” “Yes, when he’s thirsty, not when he’s asleep.” And so, this is a terrific example of how, yes, we want things, right, he would want that water but only if he felt the internal trigger, only if he had that thirst, and that drove his desire to ask for the drink. When he’s sleeping, he didn’t feel the internal trigger. He didn’t feel that pain point, and so he didn’t need anything to help him out in that circumstance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I’d love to talk about some of these internal triggers and pain management things on the inside because I think the external stuff, you’re right, I think we’ve hard a lot about, like put the technology away, avoid the temptations or distractions, lock it in another room or leave it in your bag or your car or whatnot. And I think I’m noticing more and more in my own life, it’s sort of like, “You know, if there is a bowl of chips in the kitchen, I will probably eat a chip. If there’s a bowl of grapes in the kitchen, I’ll probably eat a grape.”

And there you have it. It’s just that simple. It’s sort of like the environment itself is extending an invitation, “Would you care for a grape? Would you care for a chip?” It’s like, “Well, as a matter of fact, yes, I would. Thank you.”

Nir Eyal
If it’s right there, absolutely. So, this is called Lewin’s Equation, and we’ve known this for decades and decades now that our behavior is shaped by the person and their environment. So, the easier something is to do, the more likely people are to do it. So, if the external trigger is right there in front of you, it’s more likely that you will do that behavior. It doesn’t mean you’re powerless. And so, this is a super, super important point.

It is true that the world today is more potentially distracting than ever, and, by the way, it’s only going to get worse. If you think things are distracting now, wait a few years until we have virtual reality and God knows what else technologies we’re going to have. However, the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.

So, as powerful as these technologies are, as powerful as these algorithms and these things that we’re carrying around with us everyday in our pockets, these minicomputers, as powerful as they are, we are more powerful if we plan ahead. If we don’t plan ahead, they’re going to get you, right? Just like that bowl of M&Ms, it’s going to be sitting there waiting for you. But we can plan ahead. We can take actions today that prevent us from getting distracted in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what are some of these most highly-leveraged actions we can take today to help ourselves in the future?

Nir Eyal
Yeah, so the first step has to be mastering these internal triggers that we talked about, that very first step. There’s only two ways to do that. We either fix the problem, we fix the source of the discomfort, or we learn methods to cope with the discomfort.
I give people lots of techniques that they can use that actually come from acceptance and commitment therapy, that come from a few other techniques. It really comes down to three things to master these internal triggers, to cope with these uncomfortable emotional states. It’s either reimagining the internal trigger, reimagining the task, or reimagining our temperament. And there’s all kinds of tools and techniques that we can use to do those three things.

One of the things we need to do, one of my favorite things that we need to remember, is not to believe these myths around our temperament. This is probably one of the most common self-defeating behaviors we see. You might’ve heard of this concept of ego depletion, this idea that your willpower is depleted, it’s kind of like a gas tank. This got me all the time. I used to come home from work, I’ve had a long day, I deserve to relax, so I switched on Netflix, and I’ve got no more willpower left, it’s been depleted so I’ll open up that pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

And it turns out, this idea that willpower is a depletable resource got a lot of credibility at some point, that there was some studies done a while ago now, more than a decade ago, but it turns out it’s not true, that these studies did not replicate. This idea of ego depletion is simply not true except in one case. That one case is when you believe it is true. So, if you were the kind of person who believe that they were spent, that their willpower is a limited resource, you behaved accordingly.

So, one of these lessons around reimagining your temperament is to stop believing these myths that you have an addictive personality, or you have a short attention span, or that your willpower is depleted, unless of course you actually do have a pathology, which is the case for some people but of course not the majority of people. But these traits, these beliefs that we have, that our temperament is somehow making us do these things are really self-defeating. We have to reimagine our temperament. That’s just one technique among many, many, many others in the book around mastering these internal triggers.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you give me, perhaps, the most compelling study or evidence bit about willpower being depletable is a myth and, in fact, you can go on and on and on?

Nir Eyal
Right. So, the right way to look at it, so this is an idea that was proposed around it. If that’s the case, if willpower is not a depletable resource, then what is it? It turns out that willpower, and this was proposed by Michael Inzlicht. He said that willpower is simply an emotion. We wouldn’t say, “Oh, I was having a great time until I ran out of happy,” right? That’s ridiculous. So, we don’t run out of an emotion.

And so, similarly, that the antidote then is to not to give ourselves this excuse that we deserve a break, that we’ve run out of willpower, but rather that this is a passing feeling. And so, I give techniques in the book around how we can deal with these uncomfortable emotional states. Just like any internal trigger, we can use these techniques from acceptance and commitment therapy such as the 10-minute rule, which I use probably every single day.

The 10-minute rule says that when you’re about to give into something, right before whether it’s that piece of chocolate cake, or, “I’m just going to check out something on YouTube, or look at my email even though I’ve planned something else to do,” we give ourselves 10 minutes. Ten minutes to let ourselves feel that uncomfortable emotional state, try and get to the bottom of what’s creating that emotional state, boredom, loneliness, fatigue, uncertainty, whatever it might be. And then, in 10 minutes, if we still want that thing, we can give into it. So, that’s just one tactic among many.

In fact, I have people kind of track their distractions throughout the day so that they can figure out the three categories of, “Is it an external trigger that caused the distraction, an internal trigger that caused the distraction, or was it a planning problem?” The planning problems are the things that we didn’t properly plan for on our day. That’s probably one of the most common problems that I see these days, is that, in this day and age, if you don’t plan your time, someone else will.

And so, you cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from, right? Think about that for a minute. How can we call something a distraction if we didn’t plan something else to do with that time, if we didn’t plan the traction in our day? So, I actually have an online tool that I built specially for this, anybody can access it, it’s free, where you can go and actually plan a template for your ideal week.

Now, it doesn’t mean you’re going to follow it rigidly, and if you go off track, you’re going to beat yourself up. No, no, no, that’s not the answer. The idea is that you have a template that you can look at and say, “Okay, what did I plan to do with my time, even if it is going on YouTube or Reddit or whatever, what did I plan to do with my time? And if I did anything that’s not that, that’s a distraction.” But you can’t do that unless you make time for traction, unless you do what I call turning your values into time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the reimagining there with the willpower consideration. And how do we do the reimagining of trigger attacks?

Nir Eyal
Right. So, reimagining the trigger is all about changing our perception of that uncomfortable emotional state. And this comes back to self-talk. A lot of people, when they feel these uncomfortable emotional states, they’ve been conditioned, because of many of these distractions all around us, to impulsively jump to it. And the idea, instead, is to reimagine how we think about those internal triggers so that when we feel the uncomfortable state, we tell ourselves a different narrative. And people tend to fit into two different kinds of narratives. I call it the blamers or the shamers.

The blamers say, “Ah, it’s the distraction doing it to me. It’s the technology’s fault. It’s doing it to me.” The shamers say, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me. There’s something wrong about my temperament,” as we talked about earlier. And the answer is neither of those things. The answer is that it’s not about blaming or shaming. These are actions that we take and our actions can take, or can change, that is.

So, if we respond differently to these internal triggers, if we see them as, “Okay, this is difficult, this is boring, this is hard. I’m stressed right now, but that’s how we get better.” That’s my path to improving this skill, for example. It’s a much healthier way to look at it. And then reimagining the task, I draw from the work of Ian Bogost who’s done this amazing research around how we can make anything fun. And he actually hates, you know, we probably remember as a kid, the Mary Poppin’s method of putting a spoonful of sugar on stuff, and he says, “That’s actually terrible advice,” that we don’t want to layer…

Pete Mockaitis
Sugar is unhealthy.

Nir Eyal
Sugar is terrible enough. Right. Exactly. And it’s a purely extrinsic reward. And we know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. When something is extrinsically pleasurable, we don’t stick with it for that long. We do it just for the reward. That’s the only reason we do it. So, when you pay people, for example, to draw a picture, if you pay them, they actually draw less creative art than if you say, “Hey, just do your best at drawing something creative,” because if they’re doing it for the extrinsic reward as opposed to the pleasure of doing something creative.

So, what Bogost suggests is to focus more intently on the task, add constraints to the task, so that is, in fact, the element of fun. And fun, ironically enough, doesn’t have to be enjoyable. Now that sounds weird, right? Isn’t fun supposed to be enjoyable? Well, not necessarily. We can use this idea of fun, focusing more intently on something, looking for the variability, what changes in the task. We can look for those elements to help us focus. And if we can focus on something, we can stick with it longer, we become better at it, and we do our best work.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us an example of how you would add some constraints or find the variability to make it more enjoyable?

Nir Eyal
Sure. So, for example, in my work, so as a writer, writing is really, really hard. I constantly feel this internal trigger of boredom, of stress, “Is what I’m doing good enough?” And so, the idea here is that I want to focus on the task more intently. So, what I do, whenever I feel myself feeling stressed about my work, I, instead, look for the variability. And this comes straight out of the techniques that many of these tech companies are using to keep us engaged, right? It’s called the variable reward. What makes a slot machine engaging, what makes television something that we can’t stop watching, is the variability, the uncertainty.

So, in my work, for example, when I find myself getting bored or stressed about the work I’m doing, I try and reassess, “What is the mystery here?” I try and look for the uncertainty, and I add in my own variable reward, my own intermittent reinforcement. So, what drives me to do my writing, in my case, but, of course, it can be different for anyone’s case, is the uncertainty, the mystery. So, you have to add some kind of challenge that you can put into the experience that makes it variable. The variability is what keeps us engaged.

Actually, this is interesting. It comes back full circle to where we started the conversation around my crazy barefoot running habit. So, it turns out that our brains are built to look for these variable rewards. If you can imagine, what kept our primal ancestors hunting, what kept them running and running and seeking was, in fact, the variability, right? Where was the animal going to go? How fast was it moving? That was all these variable elements that are core to our DNA that keeps us hunting, that keeps us searching. So, we can harness that primal instinct by looking for the variability where it may not, on the surface, exist.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, your running example, when you’re trying to add variable rewards for yourself, what are you choosing? You’re just looking for the mystery and so what else are you doing?

Nir Eyal
So, I’m looking for the mystery and focusing more intently on the task. So, it becomes about, “How can I answer this question? Where will this lead me?” You can also add various constraints. Bogost calls this a sandbox, so to speak, that, in fact, the worst thing a writer can look at, the worst thing an artist can see is a blank canvass, or a blank page. And so, what you want to do is to try and add constraints, a time constraint, for example, some kind of constraint around how you’re working to add that sandbox element to reimagine the task.

Pete Mockaitis
So, time is one. What would be some other constraints?

Nir Eyal
Yes, so output can be a constraint as well that you add, “How quickly can I do this task based on how much output is created?” All sorts of ways. So, Bogost talks about how cutting his grass is a great example that I talked to him about. Cutting your grass is not something that you would expect to be very entertaining, right? That’s something that typically people find it a chore. Well, he got super into cutting his grass. He learned about which type of seed grows best in his particular climate, and the different mechanisms of cutting the grass. It seems totally ridiculous at first, until you realize that people can focus intently on all kinds of crazy stuff. Right?

Think about that car buff that can’t stop obsessing and thinking about his cars, right? They’re totally into it, right, because they focus more intently on it. Think about the barista who’s crazy about coffee, and he wants to know every little detail. Think about the person who’s a knitter and loves and is totally engaged with all the variability and the intricacies of creating something. Now, for most of us, these specific tasks are work, but for these people, they’ve harnessed the power of reimagining the task so that it becomes play, it becomes fun.

Now, by the way, everything I’ve just told you is only one of four parts. We didn’t get to how to make time for traction, how to hack back the external triggers, and how to prevent distraction with pacts. So, there’s lots more in this book, there’s a lot that we didn’t get to yet.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s intriguing to think that you can become fascinated by something that you previously were not fascinated by, and I guess you do so by focusing more intently and finding the mystery.

Nir Eyal
And it’s such a superpower. I mean, think about it, right? What if you could do that? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Like, what if you could make all sorts of tasks that are currently drudgery to you into something that actually holds your attention? To me, that’s just such a superpower as is becoming indistractable itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess it might help if you could maybe do a little bit of modeling of other people in terms of why is it you’re fascinated by knitting, and then they point out some things that you never noticed or thought of, and you go, “Oh, okay.” So, almost like you get a head start if you’re just really clueless about where to get going there.

Well, in our final minutes, I think there’s a couple things I need to cover. One, did you ever get the answer on your daughter’s preferred superpower?

Nir Eyal
Yeah. So, interestingly enough, I went back to her, as I was writing the book, and I actually was giving my first talk. The book wasn’t finished yet but I was asked to give a talk on what I’m working on these days so I decided to share some of the early findings from Indistractable. And I know my answer, my answer was, of course, I would want the superpower to become indistractable. I would want the power to always do what I say I’m going to do, to strive to have personal integrity. It doesn’t mean I’ll never get distracted. Being indistractable does not mean you never get distracted. It means you strive to do what you say you’re going to do.

But then I asked her, I sat down with her, and I said, “You know, I’m really sorry. I didn’t listen to what you said last time. I apologize. Can you tell me what your superpower would be because I’m going to give this talk and I’m really curious to hear what your answer would be?” And, honest to God, this is what she said, she said she would want the power to always be kind. That’s what she said. And, of course, I wiped my eyes, and I gave her a big hug because I was expecting her to say fly or be invisible, I don’t know, but she said to always be kind.

And I just thought that was so perfect because the fact is that being kind is not really a superpower, right? We all can be kind, can’t we, right? You don’t need to be born on some alien planet to have this power. Anybody can be kind. And the same goes for being indistractable. And that’s the message I really want people to hear with this book, is that when you understand the root causes of distraction, and you understand the techniques and strategies to manage distraction, anyone can have this superpower, anyone can become indistractable.

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

Nir Eyal
Here’s one of my favorite quotes, by William James, it’s, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” And I think that’s a really fantastic quote because what I found in my years of researching the psychology of distraction is that understanding distraction is an underutilized trait, it’s an underutilized skill because it’s not good enough to just know what we should do, right? That’s not good enough, is to know what to do. It’s also about knowing what we should not do.

How do we keep ourselves from getting distracted? Because, at the end of the day, we all know, big picture, what we should do in our day, how to get fit, how to have a better relationship. Big picture, we know the answers. And, yet, we don’t do them. Why don’t we do these things? So, I think this is a great quote, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook,” what we shouldn’t do, what we should not get distracted from.

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

Nir Eyal
Yes, so I think the challenge that I would ask people to consider is, “What is taking you off track?” Maybe I can actually give your listeners a tool, a distraction tracker, that I would challenge them to simply keep track, without judging, without beating yourself up, with being kind to yourself the way you would be kind to a friend. What is it that is taking you off track in your day? When you plan to do one thing, what are those things that distract you?

And just keeping that log, just keeping that record, and understanding that there are only three types of things that can take you off track, either it was an external trigger, an internal trigger, or a planning problem can help you start to categorize, and then effectively manage these distractions in your life so that you can make sure that you can use these technologies to empower you as opposed to being a slave to them, for example.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Nir, thank you. This is fun and I wish you all the luck in the world as you pursue your superpower here of perfect integrity.

Nir Eyal
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure.

482: David Allen Returns with the 10 Moves to Stress-Free Productivity

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David Allen provides an approachable overview of his legendary Getting Things Done (GTD) system.

You’ll Learn:

  1. GTD in a nutshell
  2. The saving power of an external brain
  3. Two power questions for prioritizing

About David

David Allen is an international best-selling author who is widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on personal and organizational productivity. He wrote the international best-seller Getting Things Done, which has been published in over 28 languages. TIME magazine heralded it as “the defining self-help business book of its time.” He and his wife Kathryn run the David Allen Company, which oversees the certification academy and quality standards for Global Partners offering Getting Things Done courses and coaching around the world.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank You, Sponsors!

David Allen Interview Transcript

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

David Allen
Pete, thanks for inviting me again. Yay, glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I am too. And I’ll tell you, boy, it’s been quite a ride since we had you in Episode 15. That’s over three years ago. And so, I’d love to get a quick little update in terms of how is Amsterdam living and then what’s been sort of your new learnings over the last three years?

David Allen
Wow! Let’s see, you got a couple of years and I can fill you in but, look, I can probably tell you a freeze-dried version of all that. We loved Amsterdam from the beginning. We’ve been here a couple of times. We moved here five years ago. We didn’t know how long we’d stay but we kept falling in love with the city and haven’t fallen out of love with it and absolutely love the lifestyle here, love just lots of things about it. Kind of the perfect storm for us in terms of what matches our interests and our lifestyle and our age. So, we intend to stay. So, it’s wonderful, yay.

Pete Mockaitis
And you have a new puppy, Anouk? How is that going?

David Allen
Anouk is fabulous. She’s four months old and we found a good breeder. Catherine was sort of, “Well, we could rescue a dog, maybe,” but I so love the Cavalier King Charles kind of breed that was our last dog that we had to put down, and so I said, “I’ve got to get another one of those,” so we got another one.

She’s very shy. She grew up in the country. We found a good breeder but they were in Germany. But she had grown up for 14 weeks on a farm, sort of the noisiest, busiest thing was a goat farm next door, so we had to integrate her into the city. I mean, you don’t realize how many noises and things and moving things, and whatever there are in the city that a puppy has to deal with.

Anyway, long story short. But she’s great. She’s learning day by day, getting more comfortable with all kinds of stuff. So, we’re in the process of socializing. Today I sat out for half an hour on a bridge right on the canal that we live on, and sat there for half an hour, letting people greet her and treating her if she didn’t run away from them, and sort of helping socialize and train her. So, that’s a whole job in itself.

Anybody listening to this who’s ever been to the dog world, you know what’s involved in all that. So, that was a bit of my day today and other things. We’re cleaning up some old stuff. I kind of ran into an abrupt… Suddenly my life became very quiet. We did the GDT Global Summit about six weeks ago here in Amsterdam and that was like a two-year project and I’m still kind of decompressing from what a huge event and huge investment and huge interest and sort of engagement that I had with what that was about and why.

So, I had a couple of other gigs that I had to do after that but, otherwise, life just kind of quieted out for a while so it was nice. So, I’m in a bit of a decompression mode and I keep going back and cleaning up a whole lot of my old “someday maybe stuff” off my list and a bunch of things just kind of old. When things quiet down, it’s time to go back and clean the drawer and curate a bunch of old stuff that’s accumulated that you haven’t had time to do or interest in doing, so I’ve been doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And sometimes it’s just very cathartic in terms of, “At last, this drawer is getting handled.”

David Allen
It’s like cleaning the boot or the trunk of your car, it drives better once you do that. Or that weird electronics drawer we all have that’s just collected all the weird strange things that you couldn’t throw away that you might need at some point.

Pete Mockaitis
Like all those cords and adapters.

David Allen
Yeah, all the cords and chargers and all that stuff. Yeah, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, did anything sort of groundbreaking occur at the World Summit with regard to the future of GTD or announcements?

David Allen
Yeah. You know, Pete, I think the major ground thing, and the reason I did it–I didn’t plan to do another one, we did one 10 years ago in San Francisco, and really didn’t plan. That’s not the business I’m in, just doing those kinds of conferences. But 10 years on, and now we’re officially represented by licensees and master trainers in 70 countries around the world so we’ve kind of grown to that level but nobody’s really raised a flag yet to kind of, “Hey, guys, we’re all in this game together. The train has left the station. GDT is a global event, so whether I fall over tomorrow or not, this will keep going.”

And so, I think the milestone was making that kind of global statement and having the incredible raft of 45 presenters that we had on their own time and dime that came that are friends of mine and all champions of my stuff, people like Marshall Goldsmith and Charles Duhigg and just all kinds of folks that are serious heavyweights in their own fields and in their own right. So, I think that really helped give the world the idea that, “Come on, the train, as I say, has left the station. So, GDT and a world where there are no problems, only projects, that’s a consciousness and it’s a cognitive sort of algorithm, if you will, and is now onto the planet. At least, I feel like I’ve done my job in doing that. And so, this is sort of a capstone event. Come on, I’m 73 now, Pete, so I figure I’m not going to do another one, but this was a nice way to sort of just put the, I don’t know if it’s icing. I don’t know what the term is would be but kind of icing on the cake or to make sure that it’s solid in the ground now as a global movement.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s just got to be very rewarding to look back on sort of the imprint you’re leaving on the world. What’s that like?

David Allen
Bemusing, really. It’s like, “Really? Did I do that? Wow! Who would’ve thought?” It was not a big strategic plan. I just kept holding the course in terms of my own interest and what I wanted to do and just staying as authentic as I could about what it was I was uncovering and discovering, and then finding, “Can I find people who are interested in doing this and understanding what it is, and better ways to do that?” And then discovering at some point, 10 or 15 years ago, that it was possible to potentially to scale this as a best practice methodology for people around the world. And so, that’s been a lot of what our job has been, our work has been over the last 10 or 15 years, to figure out ways to do that. optimize

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you got back on my radar in terms of this interview for the upcoming GTD Workbook, and so I want to talk about that. But, first, I think maybe I need to zoom out for those listeners who didn’t catch Episode 15 over three years ago or haven’t heard of “Getting Things Done,” GTD. Could you provide the, somewhere between 20 second, 2-minute overview for, “This is what we’re talking about here”?

David Allen
Sure. Well, basically, it was I uncovered, discovered, recognized the best practices of how do you keep your head clear, so you can stay focused on whatever you want to stay focused on. That’s the most productive state to operate from, it’s when your head is clear and you’re not distracted. But where do your distractions come from? For the most part, it comes from commitments you’ve made that are not complete yet.

And so, most people are trying to use their head as their office to try to manage reminders and things they need to keep track of, and relationships between things and prioritize, and your head is a really crappy office. So, a whole lot of what GTD is about is being able to externalize all those things that have your attention, building an external brain system so that, much like your calendar, your head doesn’t have to keep remembering where you need to be two weeks from Wednesday at 2:00 o’clock. You trust you have a system that does that and has the right content. But if that works for your calendar, why shouldn’t it work for the rest of your life?

So, this was a way to sort of build, “What’s the formula? What are the best practices and the steps to build an appropriate external brain to keep all of your commitments, all of your would, could, should, etc. out of your head so that your head is freed up to do what it was designed to do, which is make good, intuitive, intelligent choices, offer options, not to try to remember what your options are.”

So, that’s a lot of what GTD is about as I uncovered over all these years, it was a way to be able to build a system, how to keep your head empty, even though you have unfinished stuff, they don’t have to be on your mind as long as you’re appropriately engaged with them. So, I discovered, essentially, an algorithm of, “How do I create appropriate engagements with all these things that have my attention, whether it’s cat food I need, or a life I need, or a vice president of marketing I need, or the next vacation we need to plan and organize?”

Whatever it is that you can’t finish the moment you think of it but you have attention on it, you need to do something about it. I just figured out the best, the most efficient, effective way to make sure that you manage those things appropriately.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve got a great turn of a phrase, and I think it’s something like, “Your brain is for having ideas, not for remembering them.” Am I quoting you correctly?

David Allen
Yeah, it’s not for holding them.

Pete Mockaitis
For having, holding. Like marriage, to have and hold.

David Allen
Yeah. Well, come on, now, the cognitive sciences have validated the last 10 years what I uncovered 35 years ago, which is your head just does not do that very well. And they’ve now discovered if you’re trying to keep track of, just in your head, things you want to be reminded about, things you need to manage relationships between, and so forth, if it’s more than four, you’re going to sub-optimize your cognitive functions. You will not be able to function as well as if you have all that out of your head because your head is going to be distracted by it.

That part of your head that’s trying to hang on to that stuff seems to have no sense of past or future, so you’d wake up in the morning, at 3:00 o’clock in the morning by, “I need to buy cat food,” or, “I need an extended credit line,” and both of them take about the same space and show up at the weirdest random times when you can’t do anything about them. They just add stress to your life. So, just really, in a sense, it’s kind of a mechanical process. It’s pretty subtle but it’s just mechanical.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. When you talk about an external brain, that could be anything from a paper calendar and a set a list or some fancy technological stuff.

David Allen
Oh, Pete, it could be as simple as putting stuff in front of your door in the morning so you don’t forget it, taking it to the office.

Pete Mockaitis
Yep, sure. Absolutely. There it is. You can’t not see it, it’s in your path.

David Allen
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so I want to get your take on, so I believe “Getting Things Done” came out, originally, the book, in 2001. Is that true?

David Allen
Mm-hmm.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, 18 years have passed. Have you changed your mind on anything?

David Allen
A few things. I felt that the first edition was going to start to seem a little out of date for people given some of the notations I made, some of the references I did especially to technology, as well as over 18 years, I sort of got a little more subtle and understanding the power of what this methodology was and its implications and applications. Over the years, the legions of testimonials of how transformative this has been for so many of the smartest, brightest, sharpest people you could ever meet once they ran across this. Then it’s sort of understanding a more subtle level of how powerful it was and why. So, what probably changed most, Pete, was the range of audience.

In 2001, the first edition, was really targeted to the fast-track professional. They were the ones who were getting hit with a tsunami of email and sort of the flood of corporate changes and things like that going on, and that was the world I came from or came out of for 25 doing a whole lot of corporate training and executive coaching with this material, so it’s really targeted that audience. But I knew even back then that this works for students, it worked for the clergy, it worked for physicians, it worked for stay-at-home dads, it worked for anybody, anybody who had a busy life. This was just a cataloguing of what are those practices that they want to stay clear and more stress-free about that, what to do.

So, the new edition, I literally sat down and rewrote the whole book, and saying, “Is that the way I would say it now?” And probably 50%, 70% of it, yeah, I just retyped what the first edition was because I wouldn’t say anything. I said it as good as it could be said. But there was a few nuances and subtleties and kind of change of language that I used to express a bit more of the subtleties of what GTD is and was and so forth. And I also included some of the information and the cognitive science that validates all this and some other things.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then with the Workbook coming out, what was the impetus for that?

David Allen
I’m not a great trainer. I’m a pretty good presenter but I don’t have the patience to sit and hold people’s hand and actually walk them into how to do this. I gave them the model. Basically, I wrote “Getting Things Done” basically as a manual of 25 years of my 30 years of my work and my awareness that if you really wanted to have an absolutely clear head and stay that way for the rest of your life, here are the best practices about how to do that.

And that can get pretty subtle, it depends on how complex your life is, but I handled all of that and put all that in the manual. But for a whole lot of people that is just too daunting. They can pick it up and go, “Oh, my God, there’s too much to do.” And so, I can be a good presenter and people walk out and say, “Wow, that was really great,” but they don’t do much about it because I’m not really a good trainer or instructional designer about how to get people to — there’s a big difference between presenting and training. Training says, “Okay, how do I get people actually have a different behavior?” And then presenting is, “Ta-dah,” I just want to make people get it.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re inspired now.”

David Allen
Yeah, and get that and they’re inspired, at least, see the model and they see there is a model out there but it doesn’t help them implement it. So, for the last 10 years, we’ve been working with a lot of instructional designers and I’ve had to kind of swallow hard and go, “Okay, they want to simplify this. I’ve got to simplify. I have to get it down to lower the barrier of entry for people to be able to get into this instead of having them sort of go out and get the whole thing and how do you start, how do you get going.” And I just don’t have the patience or awareness or education to be able to know how to do that.

So, what we’ve done is engage people in various forms to help us take our educational formats and make them much more easily available for people to actually play. So, the workbook was pretty much the model of many business books out there who have created a workbook after the fact for people to help them implement what they read, and so that’s why we did this.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then I’m intrigued, so it’s more approachable and a lower-barrier entry. You can sort of rock and roll. So, if a current “Getting Things Done” practitioner is looking through it, how do you think they’ll be enriched, or really just be like, “You already know all this”?

David Allen
Well, it depends on, when people say they’re GTDers, I can give you about 6,000 levels of that, that people are and say they are but they actually aren’t. So, it kind of depends on where they are in that level of game. But, generally speaking, I’d say if you’re a really practiced GTDer, you probably don’t need it but I just got interviewed by a guy who’s been a serious GTDer, who’s read all my books, he’s implemented my stuff for 10 or 15 years, and he said, “Oh, my God, this is so cool. I now have a way to coach my wife into this.”

So, at least there’s a manual. So, it’s not something that was going to replace anything. We’re just giving them perhaps another model especially if they’ve got people around them, whether that’s kids or spouse or staff or whatever, to help people kind of get started with this, in the process. Because many people who are big GTDers are wondering why nobody around them gets it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well-said because, in a way, I think it’s sort of like you just have to taste and see with regard to, “You know that sort of low-level anxiety that’s always around you in your head? That can be gone.” It’s like, “What?”

David Allen
Yeah, and most people don’t realize that they have that or even if they do, they don’t realize they could actually get rid of it, and so that’s kind of the marketing problem we have.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m curious then, you lay out 10 moves to stress-free productivity, what are those 10 moves?

David Allen
Well, they’re actually, you know, I talk about them in the book. If you really wanted to implement this, in part two of “Getting Things Done” it actually walks people through the very specific 101 coaching process that I spent thousands of hours working with senior executives actually walking through that process. So, this is just kind of a starting version of what we would do with that, so there’s nothing different here other than what the real implementation is.

But, for instance, the first move is just go, “Okay, make sure you have an entry, some place to do it. Look around your desk, in and around your desk and whatever is around you, if stuff doesn’t belong wherever it is apparently, throw it in your IN-basket. Post-Its, the papers sitting on your desk, the things that are hung up on the first flat surface inside your door in your house, any of that stuff, just gather it together.” So, that’s move one.

And then move two has to do with, “Well, wait a minute, a whole lot of other stuff is in your head so you better have some sort of tool to capture stuff that internally shows up, so you need to make sure you get your capture tool.” That’s move 2.

And then you do move 3, is to empty your head into those capture tools or into that capture tool, do a mind sweep, right?

Then once you’ve done all that, then you need start to get that stuff to empty. You don’t just pile it up and leave it there. You then need to move to the, “Okay, how do I clarify what are all the notes that I took, all the stuff I gathered around that’s sitting on my desk?” Making those decisions. And then how do you do that to your email, because email is the bugaboo for a lot of people out there. If there’s some stuff they’ve captured, it’s been captured for them but they haven’t clarified or organized it yet.

And then how do you create some list, once you make the decisions and clarification of what are the actions needed, what are the projects embedded in any of this, then you need to create some list.

Moves 6 and 7 and 8 are about, “How do I organize now all the results of that?”

And then move 9 and 10 are about, “Okay, how do I kind of keep this going and make sure this stays alive and well system?”

So, nothing new, it’s just we tried to reduce it or freeze-dry it, if you will, to the basic moves about how to get started. So, you don’t need a huge investment to do what I just said but you do need to do something with it and we need to walk you through the process of how to do that pretty easily.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I do want to touch on email for a moment here because, well, I guess, over the course of my life, I have emailed you on three separate occasions, and every time you’ve picked it up and ran with it and we made something happen, so you walk the talk. You are, in fact, getting things done.

David Allen
Believe me, I’m a fellow student. Trust me, I have to do this as well as anybody just to keep their head clear.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then I’m curious, like what is the — so we talked about the benefit, sort of the outcome. It’s like, okay, there’s a sense of peace, of maximum cognitive function, the stress and malaise of constantly remembering stuff is gone, and your mind like water, I believe is a phrase you like to use there. So, that’s a real good outcome when you’re on the wagon executing it. But could you share with us, what’s sort of the cost, if you will, in terms of the investment? What does it take for you to rock your email and more so well in terms of maybe, say, hours a day or hours a week of processing and reviewing time? How do you think about that?

David Allen
Pete, this is not extra work. I would have to do this no matter how I did it. You would too. Did you want to let it pile up until it explodes and then decide what to do with it?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

David Allen
People get mad at me for their list, and like, “Excuse me, dude, that’s not my list. That’s yours.” Right? I don’t tell people to do anything extra other than what they need to do themselves. They know that. They know they need to decide what to do about mom’s birthday. They know they need to decide what to do. They know that they need to do something about that. All I’m getting them to do is become conscious about it.

So, this is not extra work. How much time does it take to stay conscious in your life? Maybe that’s the best question.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. So, you’re saying you’re going to address that email at some point.

David Allen
Yes. Or you can do email bankruptcy, CTRL-A CTRL-X and pray.

Pete Mockaitis
It’ll all go away. You’re right. I think maybe what they don’t like is that you’re showing them reality. It’s like you’re putting a mirror right up to their faces.

David Allen
I know. I know. Come on, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
“This is what you’re committed to. How about that?”

David Allen
Right. What are you going to do about it? And what does it mean to you? Is that trash? Why are you keeping stuff you ought to throw away, dude? You know, come on. So, it’s really about just becoming conscious about things you’ve let come into your ecosystem that own a piece of your consciousness until you appropriately engage with them. And that’s really the secret of what I found out about how do you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think, as we talk about the aggravation reaction there, I think there’s some richness to that. It’s sort of like you shine a mirror, it’s like, “Okay, this is all the stuff that you’re committed to.” And then I think it’s almost like the reality becomes all the more clear that, “Oh, wait, no. I can’t do all of those things because my time, energy, attention, sanity would be maxed out and overwhelmed to do so.” So, then once you’re in a good spot of, “All right, I got the lay of the land. All the stuff is captured,” how do you think about prioritizing well with regard to, “I can let that go now knowing what I know about the whole lay of the land”?

David Allen
Well, how many things are you not doing right now, Pete, while you’re talking to me?

Pete Mockaitis
I suppose everything else in the universe other than talk.

David Allen
Well, if you haven’t looked at what you’re not doing, there’s a part of you that has a trouble staying present with me. So, I don’t have any trouble being present with you because not long ago I looked at every single thing else I might ought to do, and I said, “You’re it.” But you can only see what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing. So most people don’t have a clue.

So, a lot of what GTD is about, “Why don’t you get a clue about all the things you’ve committed to, and then look at them and go, ‘No,’ or, ‘Not right now,’ or ‘Whatever.’ And then renegotiate those agreements with yourself moment to moment so that some part of you can feel, ‘No, it’s not time to run my errands. The stores are closed.’ Or, ‘No, I can’t talk to my wife/partner right now because he or she is out on a seminar right now,’ ‘No, I can’t do XYZ because my server is down and so I can’t even get into the internet.’”

So, just looking around, and go, “What’s my environment? What are my possible options?” But if you’re trying to use your brain to try to remember what your options are given the complexity of those contexts, good luck.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. Certainly. So, context alone makes it real easy in terms of, “Those are possible right now so no need to give that a further bit of thought.”

David Allen
True.

Pete Mockaitis
But then when you find yourself in a world where there are many things you could choose from, you mentioned, “Hey, what’s your energy level or how wasted are you?” is another useful prioritizing guideline. But what are some others? Have you found, working with clients, are there any sort of like power questions that sort of separate true top priorities from the rest?

David Allen
Well, sure. One version of that is, “Why are you on the planet, Pete? What are you here to do?” And so, which email do you think is most important for you to write first tonight? So, there’s the power question, “What’s your purpose?” Like, what’s really core to you in terms of who you’re about, what you’re about, why you’re here, any of that stuff.

On a more practical level in terms of how I manage that, it’s like, “What’s got most my attention right now? And so, therefore, what do I need to do to get back to clear again?” And the answer to, “What’s got my attention right now?” maybe, “What is my life purpose?” And I need to sit down or go offsite and spend two days in silence and figure that out. Or, what’s most got my attention right now is my dog, in which case I need to go handle that so that I’m free back up so when I cook spaghetti tonight, I’ve got a clear head.

Any one of those could be the priority. Well, how many different things do you think you’re doing tonight, Pete? How many different activities or things you put your attention on do you think you will have in a 24-hour period? Because every one of those is a priority decision at that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that’s good. And now I’m chewing on, say, what’s most got your attention. Is it awesome prioritizing bit because it’s like, “Oh, that might take 5, 10 minutes, dog is handled, and now you’re back and clear and ready to go.” I’m curious about what about some of those ruminating type things? Like, “What’s most got my attention?” “Well, it’s how am I going to, I don’t know, grow a business such that it is sufficiently profitable to provide for a growing family?”

David Allen
Well, as a coach, I’d give you a very simple question, “What’s your next action, Pete?”

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

David Allen
“What would you need to do to get clear about that? Do you need to draft ideas? Do you need to surf the web? Do you need to set a meeting? What would you do to move forward on that as opposed to sit there and spin because you’re so bright and conscious and intelligent and sensitive, you just figure stuff out by all the things you think you might have to do in order to be able to do that, so you procrastinate?”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And so, and I have found this, and that’s your experience with clients is that just by having identified the next action, there is a sense of peace there because it’s like, “Now there’s no wondering what’s the thing. It’s just there for you to pick up if you’re ready to pick it up.”

David Allen
Well, you finish your thinking. So, if there’s anything you’re committed to change or to do anything about that’s not done currently, or to have different in any way and you have any commitment about that, if you haven’t decided the next physical visible action, you haven’t finished your thinking and decision-making about it. So, that’s why it’s such a powerful thing to do is figure that. Is that a phone call? Is that a surf the web? Is that, “Talk to my wife/partner”? What’s the very next thing I need to do?

Once you made that decision, it may not be the right one, there may be a better decision, but at least you can move on that one, and you can change your mind. But at least your mind goes, “Oh, okay, I’m now appropriately engaged with it.” Assuming also that you’ve also captured the outcome you’re committed to about this, so outcome and action-thinking are the zeroes and ones of productivity. What are we trying to do and how do we allocate resources to make that happen? That’s why that’s such a key element of “Getting Things Done.”

Or, “Gee, that email, what’s the next action on it? By the way, will that one action finish whatever this commitment is that’s about that’s embedded in that?” “No, not yet.” “Okay, great. What’s your project?” “Oh, I guess I need to research whether we should hire a consultant for our financial yadda, yadda, yadda,” right?

So, outcome and action, once you decide the next step, well, great. Will that finish whatever this is about? And if not, you better keep track of whatever the outcome or the project is until it’s done. So, that’s part of the clarification step, where you’d say, “Okay, how do I get my inbox get empty?” And you do it by actually having to think. You actually have to use your mind and decide, “What the hell am I going to do about mom’s birthday?” or extend the credit line.

Pete Mockaitis
And I love it how you suggest that when you’re writing out these action lists, you don’t just write “Mom,” rather it’s a verb and it’s a clear view of sort of, “Hey, decide what to do for mom’s birthday, or call my brother to see what he’s making for mom’s birthday,” and reduces a lot of the friction and resistance there.

David Allen
Right. Well, there’s magic in the mundane. So, the kind of paradoxical thing is that I figured out, “How do you manage the mundane most elegantly and efficiently?” And in turns out that there’s a lot of elegance that happens to that and to yourself when you do that. It get you to think from a much more grounded place. It opens up a lot more of your creative thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m going to go back to the email for a bit here. So, there’s some prioritizing questions in terms of like your life’s purpose and then what’s the next action, what’s most got my attention now. And so, then when you’ve got those things clear and you’re cranking through an inbox, I mean, are you doing anything special or is that just it, you just sort of know what’s important and you just go to town with them?

David Allen
Yes. And, basically, I do, I just have a sense of what’s important, go to town with whatever I feel like doing at the moment. But the key to that is the weekly review. Once a week I step back and look across the horizon of all of these things. Because, see, Pete, you and I don’t have time to think. We need to have already thought.

So, when you get off this call with me, you don’t have time to think. You need to have already thought, meaning it’s going to come at you, you’re going to have emails that have been piling up on you while you and I have been talking. Me too. I don’t know what the dogs do and I’m going to have to figure out what the dog is doing right now.

So, I don’t have time to think. I just need to act and respond appropriately but I can only do that if I sort of hardwired my intuitive intelligence by doing some sort of a regular recursion of stepping back and looking across all my projects, all my actions, all my calendared stuff. And that’s the weekly review, and that’s what we’ve uncovered, as you probably know. That’s a whole lot of what one of the more profound habits and difficult habits to train yourself to do is once a week, take one to two hours, and pull up the rear guard, and sort of lift up and manage the forest instead of hugging the trees.

And that’s a challenging thing to do, but if you actually can do that, if you can build in that habit, and you’ve got a reasonably good system that has enough of the content for you to review and feel comfortable, you’ve seen the whole result or the whole inventory. Then that makes it much easier to then not have to think priorities on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis. You need to have already done that and then trust in your intuitive responses will be appropriate.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I find that the weekly review habit has been a tricky one in that sometimes I’m with it, sometimes I fall off, and then I’m back with it. What have you seen to be sort of the difference-makers with regard to those who consistently do their weekly review and those who do not?

David Allen
I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to that. It’s like, “Who knows?” But I think the people who really get how powerful it is, there are a few of them, have built it in very soon as just an invaluable habit where they just do not let anything get in the way of them doing that. I let it slip sometimes a week or two or three if I’m on a real roll. Yeah, I’d check in to make sure there are no burning barns that I’m going to miss.

So, it’s something to bring yourself back to because it’s one of those things you just never feel like you have the time to do. So, it’s one of those paradoxes, it’s kind of like when you feel like you don’t have time, that’s when you have to take the time to do that. It’s kind of like when you most feel like you don’t have time to plan is when you most need to sit down and plan. So, it’s one of those things where you have to sort of train yourself to say, “Wait a minute.”

A reference point inside of me, is, “When does my ambient anxiety out-pass my comfort zone?” And that’s when I need to sit down and do a weekly review.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. Well, David, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear a couple of your favorite things?

David Allen
Oh, no, just that people who are more interested in any of this, and wherever you’re listening to this from around the world, we now have master trainers and coaches and folks that we’ve certified to deliver this methodology in training programs and coaching, 101 coaching programs around the world. So, you go to GettingThingsDone.com, our website, look under Training & Coaching, and you’ll see 70 countries. And kind of wherever you are, you’ll see public seminars, you can see whoever our folks are in those areas. So, that’s a way to get in touch with this. If you haven’t read “Getting Things Done,” the book, it is the manual, so I highlight recommend it.

And, again, I’m not sure when this is going to air, Pete, but September, Getting Things Done Workbook will be out and available, at least in the US and I think in the UK as well. And so, those are ways to kind of stay in touch and what to do. So, that’s what I’d let people know. If this rung their bell about anything, yay.

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

David Allen
Oh, my God, a favorite quote. Dang it. I have 14,000 that I’ve collected in a quotes database.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

David Allen
How do I find a favorite one of those? I don’t know. Anything that Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain has said is favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

David Allen
I love Mark Twain’s, “My life has been full of all kinds of troubles, most of which never happened.” I guess that’s a pretty favorite one of mine.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I can think about all the arguments I’ve had with only myself. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

David Allen
One I read recently I highly recommend, it’s called “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman. He’s a Brit. The subtitle is great, it’s “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.” It’s a lot about, and actually the book is much more sophisticated than the subtitle may represent. He goes into a lot of what was the essence of the stoics and stoicism. The whole idea that, he’s kind of railing. He’s got a little bit of a rant against all the rah-rahs,
“Don’t have any negative thoughts, everything is going to be cool. Just think positive things. Whatever in life will be cool.” And yet those churches that are preaching that went bankrupt.
And so, a whole lot of it is about acceptance, kind of what you resist you’re stuck with. So, don’t try to pretend that you don’t have troubles and anxieties and stuff you got to deal with in your life. You need to accept them so you can actually move past them, move beyond them, because what you resist, you’re stuck with. So, in a way, it just validates why a lot of people resist “Getting Things Done” simply because, if we started this conversation about, a lot of it is about accepting all of your commitments and who you are, what you’ve committed to. And a lot of people don’t like that.

But, anyway, it’s a great book. It’s fun. My wife burst out laughing while she was reading. She does that very seldom with any book. And it’s well-written, fun, interesting stuff. So, Oliver Burkeman, “The Antidote.” Highly recommend it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

David Allen
I’ve got a bunch. Favorite tool. I don’t know. There’s my labeler, there’s my iPad, there’s my iPhone, my Mac, my stapler, right? God, I’ve got all kinds of favorite tools around here.

Pete Mockaitis
Can I hear, is the stapler special? What makes it amazing?

David Allen
I could bang it. It’s one of those, it’s an ACE that has the little sort of where you can use your fist and bang down on it and staple it. I so much like that as oppose to those where you have to squeeze it to staple it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, gosh, yeah, I hear you.

David Allen
I love it. I love to bang and staple. That’s really cool. And my DYMO Plug and Play labeler is fabulous. I couldn’t live without it.

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

David Allen
Yeah, your head is for having ideas not for holding them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. David, thank you. This has been lots of fun. Keep on doing the great things you’re doing.

David Allen
Thanks, Pete. Been fun. Yeah, indeed.

475: Achieving 50% More with 1% Effort Using the 80/20 Rule with Perry Marshall

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Perry Marshall says "In every career... there are these tiny little levers... tiny little hinges that swing big, big doors."

Perry Marshall explains how the 80/20 rule can help you exponentially leverage your time to achieve massive results.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What the 80/20 rule is—and how it’s misunderstood
  2. How you can achieve way more in just 5 minutes
  3. Why “procrastination demons” reveal your priorities

About Perry:

Perry Marshall is endorsed in FORBES and INC Magazine and is one of the most expensive business consultants in the world.

His reinvention of the Pareto Principle is published in Harvard Business Review. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs at the California Institute of Technology uses his 80/20 Curve as a productivity tool. 80/20 Sales & Marketing is mandatory in many growing companies.

Marketing maverick Dan Kennedy says, “If you don’t know who Perry Marshall is — unforgivable. Perry’s an honest man in a field rife with charlatans.”

He’s consulted in over 300 industries and served as an expert witness for marketing and Google AdWords litigation. Perry has a degree in Electrical Engineering and lives in Chicago.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, Sponsors!

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Perry Marshall Interview Transcript

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

Perry Marshall
Peter, thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here. We’re going to have a fun conversation. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I definitely think we will. The 80/20 Rule is a point of passion for me. And I also discovered a point of passion for you. What’s the story behind your Evolution 2.0 prize? You put millions of your own dollars on the line here?

Perry Marshall
Well, I put a million of my dollars on the line and $9 million of other people’s money on the line is what I did. But I have a prize called the Evolution 2.0 prize. It’s one of the biggest technology prizes in the world, and it’s a $10 million prize. It asks a very specific question but it’s also a general question. The specific question is, “Where did the genetic code come from?” which sounds like, “Well, okay, I supposed that’s probably important but what does it have to do with me now?”

Well, if we figured this out, it will completely revolutionize all AI and technology and medicine because nobody really knows what is the spark that makes life life, right? We all know the difference between a live puppy dog and a dead puppy dog, right, but nobody really knows what makes those cells tick.

And so, I came to the conclusion that this is one of the most fundamental questions in science that can be precisely defined and so I went and raised money for it. And, in fact, a month and a half ago, we doubled the prize from 5 million to 10 million and made the announcement at the Royal Society of Great Britain. And the story was published in the Financial Times two days later and the video, by the time people get this podcast, the video will be out on the Voices from Oxford website which is a spinoff of Oxford University. So, yeah, I felt like this is so important, and if we solve it, if it solvable, it’s worth billions of dollars.

If somebody wants to understand that project, which is totally different than 80/20, you can go to Evo2.org and you can find out all about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s cool, it’s exciting, and I’m intrigued to see, yeah, what happens there. Yeah, that’s all I have to say about that. Good luck.

Perry Marshall
Yeah, I’m glad you asked. It’s a very exciting, interesting rabbit hole and I’m sure there’s a few people that’ll be very geeked out about it. so, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, yeah, let’s talk about the 80/20 Rule now. So, you mentioned in one of your videos about your book that other, I don’t know, books or speakers or experts, haven’t quite explained the 80/20 Rule properly. Could you offer for us your explanation and tell us where are the people falling short here?

Perry Marshall
Well, in fact, I think most of the world has gotten it quite wrong. So, the 80/20 principle says that 20% of what you do produces 80% of what you get, and the other 80% of what you do only produces 20% of what you get. So, it could be how you invest money, how you invest time, how you use people. It could be the volunteers at a church. It could be the production of salespeople in the sales department. It’s almost always 80/20.

And people have been writing about this for a century but almost all of them have missed something really important. So, first, let me just say, a lot of people have heard of it, and maybe they’ve heard the story of the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who figured out that in all the different countries he studied that 20% of the people had 80% of the wealth, and that’s true.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s true in sales, it’s true in business, it’s true if you’re advertising, 20% of your advertising money gets you 80% of the responses. And it’s true in like 20% of the carpet in your house gets 80% of the dirt and wear. And 20% of the rooms in your house is where people spend 80% of their time.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like the kitchen.

Perry Marshall
That’s right. And then there’s the refrigerator, so the refrigerator is the 20% of the 20%. So, this is the part that almost everybody missed, which is inside every 80/20 is another 80/20, and then there’s another one, and then there’s another one, and there’s another one. So, let’s say you got a church and it’s got a thousand members. Eighty percent of the volunteer work gets done by 20% of them which is 200, okay?

But then we can break it down again and it’s still true that 80% of the 80% is from 20% of the 20%. So, what that means is 64% of what gets done, gets done by 40 people, which is 20% of 200. But then it’s true again that 80% of the 80% of the 80% gets done by 20 of the 20 of the 20. Well, that means that half of everything that gets done in a church of a thousand people gets done by eight people.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it’s that powerful.

Perry Marshall
Well, it’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
Appreciate the eight people.

Perry Marshall
It’s also true of the giving, okay? Eight people give half the money. So, it’s true of salespeople. If you hire 10 salespeople, two of them will outproduce the other eight, and you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just the law of nature. And so, it’s the clothes that you wear in your closet, and it’s the traffic on the roads in your town, and it’s the size of cheques that you write, and the size of charges on your credit card statement, and it’s income sources in your family or in your, let’s say you got a bunch of customers. It’s true almost everywhere.

It’s like gravity. And it’s probably the most useful generalization about life that I know. It’s incredibly powerful. Most people have never heard it explained the way that I’m explaining it.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of powers or the squaring or the cubing effect?

Perry Marshall
Right. So, okay, not only is it 80/20 but it’s also true that 4% produces 64%, 1% produces 50%. And so, in every career, in every budget, in every organization, there are these tiny little levers, there are these tiny little hinges that swing big, big doors.

Pete Mockaitis
And we’re not talking about big doors on tiny houses. We’re talking about full-blown door, tiny hinge. Yeah, I’m with you.

Perry Marshall
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And so, it’s government, and taxes, and healthcare, and social problems, and politics. It applies to all of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew! Boy, I’m just taking it all in and that’s a whole lot. Maybe just to clarify a little bit. So, these numbers, they’re approximations, right? They’re not exactly 80% of sales come from exactly 20% of salespeople.

Perry Marshall
No, no, so it can be 70/30, it can be 90/10, it can 95/5. But the interesting thing is there’s always the symmetry, okay? So, if it’s 90/10, which especially with things online. On the internet, almost any of the numbers tend to even be more extreme. So, if 10% of your webpages get 90% of the traffic, therefore, 90% of your webpages get 10% of the traffic. And that’s almost guaranteed to be true.

And so, there’s this symmetrical disproportion between cause and effect and it’s everywhere. And when you become aware of it, you suddenly realize, “Oh, okay. Well, before I even start, I can expect this to happen.” So, if you start a business next week, and a year later you’re hiring 10 salespeople, you already know a year in advance how those 10 salespeople are going to turn out.

And it’s not because there’s anything wrong with the world, this is the IS version of the world as opposed to the SHOULD BE version of the world. If you thought they were all going to be equal, you are living in the SHOULD BE version of the world, which is wrong.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s lay it out there. So, let’s say, okay, you got it, 80/20 is real, it’s all over the place. As a professional, what should we do differently?

Perry Marshall
So, let’s start with your time. I wrote a book called 80/20 Sales and Marketing. But if I may be so bold, I got an Amazon review where a guy said, “Basically, this book for anybody who works.” And let me remind you that all of us, in some sense, all of us sell, and all of us market, and all of us persuade.

So, there’s a chapter in the book about time management. So, what 80/20 says is that if you have eight hours in a day, which is 480 minutes, you can be sure that 20% of those minutes produce 80% of the value, and 1% of those minutes produce half the value. All right. So, let’s say that you work eight hours a day, you get paid $25 an hour, right, which is, so that’s $200 a day. Well, you actually earned half of that money in five minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, assuming that you’re being paid proportionate to the value that you’re creating.

Perry Marshall
Well, what I’m seeing is even if you get paid hourly, the value that your employer got from you, half of what you did that was good yesterday, you did it in five minutes, okay? Now, most people, they’re not used to thinking about it. All the people listening, I want you to actually stop and think about what you did yesterday. What did you do yesterday? I’ll guarantee there was a phone call that was three minutes long or one minute long.” It got more accomplished than two hours of you banging around on a Word document, or running a bunch of errands, or sitting in a meeting somewhere.

But once you become aware of it, you start to see some patterns. You’re like, “Wow! I just realized that if I spent five minutes a week talking to my 10 biggest clients, I get more done than all the other committee meetings and getting on airplanes combined.” Or, let’s say you’re a manager and you have 10 people working for you, it’s almost certain that you could fire seven of them and the company could actually survive on the other three, if you picked the right three to keep.

And that’s really important to know. If you suddenly had a recession or a customer cancels all their orders and you’re suddenly in big trouble, well, this is how you keep the company alive. It’s also almost certain that your very best people are not getting paid what they’re worth and everybody else is getting paid more than what they’re worth. That’s also true. And so, this will affect every corner of your life if you completely understand it.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting, you talked about sort of the cubing or the squaring effects with like 4% of inputs impacting 64% of outcomes. It’s kind of like even if you’re hiring like really, really, really well, like you maybe already have like the top 20% in like the, whatever, global workforce. But within that, you’ll still see that the super-superstars are delivering more than the other folks even within that population. So, that makes sense to me that it would just keep going up and up and up or else you wouldn’t see that. It’s like, “We’ve already hired the best 20%, so nothing to see here.”

Perry Marshall
Well, Steve Jobs said if you compare the very best taxi driver to an average taxi driver, at best, maybe the best taxi driver is three times better than the average.

But if you’re hiring software developers, the best ones are a thousand times better. They’re a hundred to a thousand times better. In other words, they’ll write code that is more easily used and problem-free if you think in terms of how popular and easy to use the software is.

Like, if you’re trying to start the next Instagram or the next Snapchat or something like that, you take an average software team compared to a really good one, how much better is the product in terms of how many people download it, how many people use it, how much the company gets sold for when it gets bought by Facebook, or something like that. It’s huge multiples.

So, when you go to time, for example, if you go, “Well, I make $200, $8.25 an hour. But I actually made half of the money in five minutes.” Okay, so you made a $100 in five minutes. That’s $1200 an hour. And I’m completely serious when I say this. So, there’s $10 an hour work, there’s $100 an hour work, and there’s $1000 an hour. And if you’re in a highly-responsible position, there absolutely is $10,000 an hour work.

So, notice that the $25 an hour receptionist, or day laborer, or plumber is actually worth $1200 an hour for five minutes a day, so what about a CEO? Or what about a principal of a school? Or what about any other person? Well, there are routine parts of their day where one or two or three minutes is worth $10,000 an hour. A key decision got made, a key negotiation happened, a disaster was averted. You crashed your car you do $10,000 of damage in 0.3 seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally. And I guess you can argue a little bit, like, “Well, the decision or the negotiation was a culmination of the many hours in preparation, duh, duh, duh, so it can be really…”

Perry Marshall
Which is true.

Pete Mockaitis
“…attributed to all of the value that moment.” It’s kind of like speaking. I love it when speakers say, “Find out how I make $10,000 an hour.” It’s like, “Okay, maybe you got $10,000 for a one-hour keynote.”

Perry Marshall
But you got on a plane, and you built a reputation, yeah, yeah, right. Well, so we have to notice, well, so there’s sowing and there’s harvesting, but even the sowing has these pivot points, it has these levers. So, he’s been building his reputation for years, but actually half of the value of his reputation comes from one keynote speech he made, or one article that showed up in the New York Times, or one podcast or radio program that he got on, right?

Like, I had a client years ago who, she had an ad on Google that crushed every other ad she ever wrote, and the ad was as seen on Oprah, okay? And what had happened was their product had been featured on the Oprah.com website. And that one thing made their entire company. And I can track it down to dollars and cents because we ran ad campaigns and we tried all these other ads, and the one that said Oprah was at least twice as good. So, every single customer they acquired with the Oprah ad costs half as much as all the other kinds of ads that they wrote. So, you could pin this huge amount of value just to the fact that their product was on Oprah’s site, and they could brag about it. And this is how the world works.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I’m thinking about that in terms of once you start talking about sort of thresholds in terms of, “Hey, there’s a threshold amount you can afford to spend to acquire a customer given the value of what that customer purchases.” And so, if the difference between a profitable advertising investment and an unprofitable one falls within that chasm between half the price and full price for a customer acquired, well, then, it takes on this tremendous momentum, as like, “Well, boom, we’re going to reinvest,” and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s like we have the ability to either kind of create an avalanche of gathering momentum downhill or we don’t, based upon whether we cross the threshold.

Perry Marshall
That’s right. And, usually, the success of your company is that sensitive. Usually, these things are much more sensitive than people realize. And the difference between success and failure isn’t orders of magnitude. It’s small percentages. And so, you really need to pay attention to the tiny hinges that swing the big doors.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s talk about these tiny hinges then. It seems like, in retrospect, you can see, “Hey, getting on Oprah.com was amazing for us,” or, “That one keynote speech did the trick,” or, “Hey, you know what, that five minutes I spent writing that email really opened up a huge door.” So, it seems like a lot of this is kind of looking backwards. But how do we get proactive in the driver seat to identify what could those five-minute things be and pack our day with more and more of them?

Perry Marshall
Well, so it starts with saying, “Okay, so if it’s really true,” it’s almost like you have to have faith, like, “Just trust me that 1% of your time produce 50% of the value. And so, now what we’re going to do is we’re going to go look for that pattern and we’re going to validate that until you can clearly recognize, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s really true.’”

So, that means, for example, that if you’re a sales guy who works on commission, half of your income came from something you did in three days last year. So, what did you do in the space of three days? Well, it was almost inevitably some really important client meeting that you were at where a major decision was made, and then they decided to cut you a purchase order.

Now, you may have invested hundreds of hours in that, but then you break down, and you go, “Okay, but 20% of the people in that meeting made 80% of that decision. Who was it?” Well, there were five people in that meeting, and the one person in the meeting who made the final decision was the engineering manager. It really came down to him. How many other companies have I sold to where, yeah, there was a software guy, and, yeah, there was a purchasing person, and, yeah, there was a contracts person, but it actually did come down to the engineering manager, or it did come down to the president of the company?”

So, like a lot of times we go make our case, whether we’re salespeople or even any other kind of people for any other reason, we make our case to people who can say no but they can’t say yes. Like, we go talk to the secretary or the receptionist or the junior purchasing person, but if they could stop us and they could tell us, “No, we’re not interested,” and then we have nowhere to go, but they can’t actually improve the purchase of anything, so many times you might as well start with the person who actually can say yes.

Now, I have found that, at some gut level, I usually know who the person is because it’s the person I don’t want to go talk to.

Pete Mockaitis
Your resistance because you can be resisted.

Perry Marshall
Yes, my procrastination demons kick in. Well, I’ll give you an example from the Evolution Prize, one of the people on my list for a long time to talk to about being a judge. I’m an electrical engineer who’s a business consultant and I’m trying to put together a very hardcore science and technology prize. How am I going to get the scientists to take me seriously? Well, my attorney suggested that I should get judges, and they would also serve the purpose of, well, when there is a discovery, they can adjudicate if there’s any controversy about whether they passed of failed.

And so, for a couple of years I had this name on my list, George Church from Harvard. He’s a leading geneticist at Harvard and he’s a rock star, and everybody in genetics know who he is. And he was on my list for two years, and I was intimidated. It’s like, “Well, why would this guy talk to me?” Well, when I emailed him, I got an email back from him like 30 minutes later, “Yeah, I’m really interested.” And I thought, “I could’ve gone and talk to this guy two years ago.”

And anybody who has ever gone and tried to get investment money, or had any kind of major decision, has been intimidated by this. Or, here’s another example. When my daughter went to college, we told her, “You know, we’re only paying for like a third of this, okay? We don’t believe in paying for all of college. We think you need to have some skin in the game.” She’s like, “What?” Like, “Yeah.”

And so, as a result of this, at the end of her senior year, she drives up to Appleton, Wisconsin, which is where the school was, and she marches up to the president of this university at some seniors and high school gathering thing that they were having, right? And she walks up to this guy, and she says, “Hey, I applied for scholarship and you didn’t give me one, and I think you guys made a mistake.” And he’s like, “Oh, well, here. So, here’s what you need to do.” And he gave her some, “Well, here, email me or email my secretary,” or something like that. She got $12,000, okay? And it’s just for having the chutzpah to tell the president of the university that his faculty made a mistake when they were doling out the scholarship money.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I did that once in college when I did not get an interview, and I really believed it. It was with Walgreens. They rejected me after the interview. But, still, I thought, “I deserve this interview. You gave it to these guys and no me? Come on, man.”

Perry Marshall
Yeah, yeah. And we have the ability to do stuff like this. All of these people are human beings. And I actually think that the resistance to doing this actually tells us where the opportunities are. If my procrastination demon suddenly starts going into overdrive, I go, “Hey, them guys are telling me something.” Like, the fact that they don’t want me to do this, means it’s exactly what I should do. I find it to be a fairly reliable beacon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. And what’s interesting is I think sometimes that procrastination comes from, I don’t know, embarrassment in terms of, “Oh, who am I to go up to that person? I’m so lowly and they’re so majestic.” And I think other times it comes from, “Boy, this is just a hard piece of work,” and it’s like, “I got to figure out how to systematize and outsource and automate this thing. Boy, if I did, it would save me just tons of time, but that’s hard to do because I’ve got to take all this knowledge I have and turn it into a repeatable system and train other folks to do it. But, boy, once I do it, I can slash multiple hours out of every work week.”

So, I find that procrastination demons can be an indicator of, one, because these 80/20 types of activities often involve putting yourself out there to a big decision-maker that you’re scared of being rejected by. And, two, the procrastination tends to come when you’re just like, “Ugh, that sounds hard and exhausting and like a whole lot right now.”

Perry Marshall
Yeah, there’s another side to this coin, which is the temptation to go bleed off some of your energy doing something really trivial. So, when I am working on a project that is going to move the needle, so, here’s an example. One time, a long time ago, I had a friend come up to me in a seminar, and he goes, “Perry, I have a million-dollar idea for you.” And he goes, “I’m completely serious. I am so serious about this that if you sell a million dollars from doing this, I want you to give $10,000 to my favorite charity, which is an inner-city school in Philadelphia.” And I’m like, “You’re serious?” And he goes, “Dead serious.” And I go, “Okay.”

And he sits down and he mouths off this whole thing, he goes, “Hey, I think you could do this program, and I think this is the sort of people that would want to buy it.” I knew he was right, and I put it together, okay? Well, the most important part of putting that together was I had to sit down and write a sales pitch for thing. And every time I would sit down and start, like I was putting it off and putting it off.

And one afternoon, I sit down, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” And I get this extremely loud voice in my head said, “Perry, you need to go get a haircut.” And I was like, “A haircut? I don’t even like getting haircuts. I don’t like chatty barbers. Why do I want to get a haircut?” “Because this is so important. If you do this, it’s going to change your career. And your lizard brain knows this and so the procrastination demons are going crazy.” And I said, “Okay, that means this is going to work.” And I did it, and it did.

Now, it wasn’t immediate. It was probably two or three years later, there was this whole part of my business that I started that hadn’t existed before, and it did accumulate a million dollars revenue, and I wrote the $10,000 cheque to his inner-city school. And so, I really believe in the power of the procrastination demons to tell you what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. And if you’re overwhelmingly tempted to go on Twitter right now, it’s probably because you’ve got important work to do that you’re avoiding.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, this reminded me of the book by Steven Pressfield, The War of Art.

Perry Marshall
Yes. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
In which he talks a lot about resistance, in very like aggressive militaristic terms, it’s like, “Man, this guy is intense.”

Perry Marshall
Yes. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
But, yeah, I think that was the idea I captured from that in a nutshell, and you just articulated that all the more succinctly. He’s very poetic about it. He’s a great writer. Well, that’s awesome. So, we look for resistance, we look kind of historically at what do see happening there. And I think I find that it’s almost like these things, they’re almost kind of like, “No, duh.” In a way, for me, they’re boring. It’s like, “This is not like a super exciting innovative thing.” It’s just like, “Duh, do this.”

For example, I don’t know for how long, someone has got a great podcast and we could overlap, and said, “Oh, hey, Pete, just let me know when you want to be on my show.” I was like, “Okay, cool. Thanks.” And so, he’s already said yes, that’s the hard part. The invitation is extended. And then I’ve been sort of dragging my feet because it’s like, “Well, I don’t know. I want to find a really good time.” And it’s like, “But when? When is there a better time? The podcast could shut down. A lot of them do. If you wait a year or two, the person might not even be there anymore.”

Perry Marshall
That’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s just kind of like that’s not a really innovative idea, like say, “Hey, guy, I want to go ahead and do that thing now.” And, yet, there are many kinds of the things that fall into that zone, and I’ve just sort of even, in my task management system, I use OmniFocus, have a little tag called “Duh” like it’s just blindingly obvious that this is so worth doing and is highly-leveraged. And sometimes I avoid it just because it’s not cool and innovative and new and hip and fresh and fun. It’s just kind of boring, like, “Oh, I guess I got to sit down and write this email.” But I was like, “We already knew that was coming and so it’s not a dopamine hit to execute it.”

Perry Marshall
So, yeah, and a lot of times these levers, you have to drill down into them and you have to build some kind of a structure that wasn’t there before. So, if you look back and you figure out that, “Oh, yeah, the deciding factor on all these projects has been the architect. And if we could get spec’d in by the architect for all these building jobs, then everything else is easier.”

Well, then why is that? It’s because you would have these huge projects and these huge meetings and hours and hours of all this stuff, but then a 10-minute conversation with an architect was what sealed the deal. Well, now that means that you have to go proactively go find the architects, which means you have to get a list of them, and you have to maybe you have to go and contact them, and maybe there’s certain information that you have to have ready to go. And it’s probably this whole other project that wasn’t even on your radar except it saves you 500 hours of labor next year, of whatever it was you normally are going to do.

And it also usually means that you’re getting rid of stuff that used to be sacrosanct, Maybe an entire department was created for the purpose of doing something that turns out to not be necessary if you can just get these architects on board. And so, now somebody is defending their turf and they don’t want to change. These are the kind of things that keep us from living 80/20.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a good thing to highlight there, is the resistance from all sorts of things, like your own kind of subconsciousness, your own laziness, or sort of externally in terms of there are forces that have something to gain by keeping it as it is. So, that’s good to flag that, to expect it, and to be prepared for it. Perry, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Perry Marshall
Well, I want you to take this really seriously, 80/20 is everywhere. So, I’m looking at my tree in my front yard, and 20% of the branches carry 80% of the sap. And 20% of the roads carry 80% of the traffic, and 1% of the roads carry 50% of the traffic. And so, these levers are everywhere, like it is not possible to even look at a window and 80/20 not to be right in front of your face. And so, maybe the last thing I would say is most people think in terms of averages, and people should be thinking exponentially.
So, here’s an example. So, a whole bunch of kids take a history test in school and the average is 77. Well, to the teacher who’s trying to please everybody, the 77 is an important number. But the 77 doesn’t matter to almost anybody else in the whole entire world. And if you’re hiring teachers, or you’re hiring historians, there’s one kid in the class who will do more history stuff in his life than all the other 29 kids in the class combined. And that’s the one you care about, and that’s the one you want to hire.

And so, even with your talents and skills, most of your value is in two or three or four core talent areas and almost everything else is trivial, and whether you learned social studies, or whether you did P.E. class right, or whether you did all these other things, probably doesn’t matter at all, and there’s a few things that matter a lot. And so, if you can make the shift, you’ll never see the world the same way again. Once you see it, you won’t be able to un-see it.

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

Perry Marshall
Okay. So, there’s a guy named Jacque Ellul and he was a theologian in the 1960’s, and he said one of the most profound things I’ve heard in a long time. He said, “Societies used to contain technologies. Now, technologies contain entire societies.”

Now, he said this in the ‘60s. Can you just stop and think how true this is now? How many communities of people exists almost entirely on the internet or almost entirely on a Facebook group? I see this because the big internet platforms are starting to censor, they’re starting to ban people. For years and years and years, they’ve been killing businesses for various reasons.

And so, free speech is incredibly, incredibly important especially now. And all of this, there’s people we would like for them to go away and we cannot succumb to the temptation.

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

Perry Marshall
Well, this would be one from the Evolution 2.0 project. One of my favorite scientists is Barbara McClintock, and she figured out in the 1940s that corn plants could rearrange their own genetics. And this was a far more important experiment than most people realize because, so, she went to a symposium in 1951 and she presented seven years of very, very careful research, and half of them laughed at her, and the other half were angry. They were like, “Woman, genetics create plants. Plants do not recreate genetics.” And she was basically driven underground for the next 20 years, but she won the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Well, now, why is this relevant now? I’ll tell you, here’s why. It’s because there’s a technology now called CRISPR where we can edit genes as easily as a blogpost. You can buy $169 gene-editing kit on Amazon with free shipping. And there’s people all over the world that are editing genes willy-nilly and they think we’re smarter than the cells are. We’re not. The cells are smarter than us. And Barbara McClintock proved this in 1944.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Perry Marshall
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Well, why on earth would I bring up this book? It was written in 1835 and it describes Americans better than any other book that I’ve ever seen, and it’s still true now. And the book is really a book about the march of the idea of equality in civilization. And when you read this book, TV didn’t exist, radio didn’t exist, international travel didn’t exist, unless you got on a steamship for three months. I guess maybe that was international travel, but you know.

Like, most of the things that create equality, like the internet didn’t exist when he wrote that book. Nevertheless, he still got all these writing. And so, if you read Democracy in America and then you take all of these predictions and insights and you just fast forward another hundred years, you can really predict the future. So, probably not a book that very many people on a podcast like this would bother to mention, but I’ve actually read it three or four times. It’s absolutely brilliant.

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

Perry Marshall
Well, it’s a little self-serving but it’s one of the most useful tools that I’ve ever used in my profession. It’s the Marketing DNA Test. It’s at MarketingDNATest.com. And what it does is, whether you’re in sales or marketing or not, it tells you how you persuade. Some people persuade with stories. Some people persuade with numbers and graphs. Some people persuade by proving to you how reliable and approved and, well, standardized something is. Other people sell to you by showing you how new and innovative and flashy and incredible something is.

Some people persuade by just being completely in the moment. Some people persuade by meticulously crafting a letter for three weeks. And if you know how you persuade, then you know how you’re going to persuade better next time and you’re going to know what situations you should avoid because they don’t play to your strengths.

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

Perry Marshall
Best habit I’ve ever cultivated is an hour of journaling every morning before I do anything else, and I’m literally religious about it. And I think most people have way too much stimulation, way too much energy, and you cannot think your own thoughts and the thoughts of somebody else at the same time. And you need to figure out what your thoughts are before you engage with the media, and the texting, and the social media, and all of your friends, and your email boxes stacked up to the ceiling. You need time to listen, time to reflect, time to intuit, time to prioritize. That is the best habit that I’ve ever cultivated.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share in your books or speaking or working with clients that really seems to connect and resonate with them and they repeat it back to you often?

Perry Marshall
Nobody who bought a drill wanted a drill. They wanted a hole. So, instead of selling drills, you should sell information about making holes.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say information about making holes, give me an example.

Perry Marshall
Well, so I want to drill a hole. Well, maybe if you make drills, you know more about making holes than 99% of all the people in the world. So, there’s how to drill holes in plaster, how to drill holes in metal, how to drill holes in rock, how to drill holes in concrete, how to drill holes in plastic, how to drill holes in wood.

In an information-driven society, the way to develop credibility is by demonstrating your expertise. And you demonstrate your expertise by showing people how to solve very, very, very, very specific problems. And that actually engenders a lot more trust and credibility than just waving your carbon-, graphite-, diamond-tipped drill bits in the air and telling everybody how awesome they are and all of the ISO9000 quality control systems that they pass through, because people are interested in their hole, not your drill.

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

Perry Marshall
I’d go to PerryMarshall.com, and I would suggest that you click on the link that says 80/20 and buy 80/20 Sales and Marketing for a penny plus shipping. It’ll cost you $7 in the U.S. and $14 outside the U.S. And if you read that book, even if you’re not in sales or in marketing, that book will change your life.

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

Perry Marshall
In your life, 1% of what you do will determine 50% of what you get, so you don’t have to get most of it right. You need to get 1% of it right. If you nail 1%, you will be successful, and it’s not as hard as you think.

Pete Mockaitis
Perry, this has been lots of fun. I wish you tons of luck in nailing your 1% opportunities and keep up the good work.

Perry Marshall
Hey, it was great talking to you, Pete. And it’s an honor to be on your show and look forward to seeing you again.

473: How to Increase Your Productivity by Crafting your Time with Mike Vardy

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Mike Vardy says: "The app isn't going to do the work for us. It's approach first, then the application."

Mike Vardy discusses how to fine-tune your routine and make the most of your time through mode-based work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you shouldn’t obsess over productivity apps
  2. How to craft your time with the 5 categories of mode-based work
  3. How to keep yourself motivated and on-track through journaling

About Mike:

Mike Vardy is an author, speaker, and productivity and time management strategist (or ‘productivityist’) based in Victoria, BC, Canada. His company Productivityist helps people stop ‘doing’ productive and start ‘being’ productive through a variety of online and offline resources. He is the author of The Front Nine: How to Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want, published by Diversion Books, and has self-published several eBooks, the most recent of which is ”The Productivityist Playbook.” He currently hosts The Productivityist Podcast, a podcast that features insights and conversations surrounding productivity and workflow.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Mike Vardy Interview Transcript

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

Mike Vardy
Thanks for having me. This is going to be a great one. I can feel it already.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think so too. We were just dorking out and I said, “Oh, I’m going to have to put a note in my OmniFocus about David Allen’s upcoming book.” It’s like here we are as nerdy as it gets with productivity.

Mike Vardy
Yeah, that’s kind of the way it goes. Once you get two of us productivity nerds in a room, it’s hard to get us not to stop talking about that kind of stuff. It’s just crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, although I want to know, we got two nerds in a room. We’re not going to be doing any professional wrestling because we’re, I guess, in the virtual room. That wouldn’t be very fun to watch. But I understand you have a passion for watching pro wrestling. What’s the story here? Why does it grab you?

Mike Vardy
It’s like the one place I can kind of go and be like, “Okay, I’m going to watch the Royal Rumble right now, and I won’t be thinking about time or productivity or anything.” And my daughter is into it too, like my daughter will watch it with me.

So, it’s another way for us to bond as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, fun times and it’s cool that your productivity skills have enabled such feat of reflexibility to enjoy these sorts of adventures as opposed to, “Oh, no, I’m swamped. I couldn’t possibly get away.” We’re talking earlier about you’ve got all your podcast episodes recorded through three plus months in advance, so that’s pretty cool.

So, let’s just get right into it. When it comes to productivity, you’re living happens as a productivity strategist, which is a real cool title. You don’t see that very much in LinkedIn, so kudos. So, boy, you’ve seen a lot of stuff. Could you tell us, just for beginning, what’s maybe the most surprising and/or fascinating discovery you’ve made as you have explored this big world of productivity?

Mike Vardy
I think the most fascinating, and it probably shouldn’t be surprising now that I think about it, but we were talking off the top, you said you’re putting it into OmniFocus. And when I first started my productivity journey, that’s kind of where I started was with the apps, was with the technology. I spoke at the OmniFocus 2 reveal, I was doing a lot of stuff with The Next Web and Lifehack, and all that stuff, really digging into the apps. I was a math guy, right, so I was really into that.

And so, I was more of a productivity, let’s say, enthusiast who became a specialist and was kind of teaching people how to use these apps and maybe using other methods. But when I became, I kind of evolved into a strategist, I realized that the apps are secondary. We’ve seen apps come and go over the years. I’ve seen plenty of them. And the problem that I’ve seen, the funny thing is that I think the really fascinating part is it hasn’t gone away. You’d think by now we’d be like, “Okay, yeah, right. It isn’t the app. The app isn’t going to do the work for us. It’s the approach first, then the application.”

And I think that’s the thing that I’m really trying to kind of rail against, is the idea that, “Oh, man, you have to get OmniFocus because OmniFocus is the best,” or, “You have to use Evernote,” or, “You have to have the latest and greatest so you leave OmniFocus to move to things, and then you move to this other one,” or, you have to have one that works. No, no, no, you have to have your foundation, your framework, this approach setup first, then the application.

But, because we live in such a tech-heavy world where we’ve got a to-do list in our pocket that can do so many things, we tend to focus on the wrong things, and what fascinates me is not only how long it took me necessarily to realize, “Hey, wait a minute. Hold on. This is the cart before the horse here,” but that it’s still such a huge issue today.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that is well said. It’s so fun to talk to someone who’s been steeped into something for a long, long time, and then to kind of walk away, look back at yourself and say, “Huh, oh, how young and foolish I was.” I think Ray Dalio said if you look back at your decisions a year or two ago and you don’t think that you were a little dumb then, then you haven’t grown or learned much. So, that’s a fun little reframe on feeling embarrassed about your past.

And I think that’s dead on because it can get, I don’t know, it’s like shiny objects. It’s like, “Ooh, there’s a cool new thing. Let me try it out.” “Oh, no, no, that’s dumb because it doesn’t do this or that.” And then I guess I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I think there’s some real beauty. Some tools are amazing and helpful and snazzy and it’s so great that they exist.

The sheer enjoyment associated with a fine pencil or pen or notecard or beautifully-designed piece of software can be extra-enjoyable and maybe bring you to use it. But, much like the person who gets the super fancy piece of exercise equipment for the home, no matter how fancy that thing is, you got to do the work if you want to enjoy the results.

Mike Vardy
Yeah, you have to kind of decide. Hey, like I’m a big, Baron Fig pen and papers. I love my really nice pens, my really nice books. But it takes the stuff that you’re doing with those things, that’s what matters, right? And a good example would be, actually this past weekend, my family and I, we were at a…they had like a car-free day in our downtown core. And we stopped to talk to one of my wife’s friends, and out of the corner of my eye, I didn’t even see it until my son mentioned it, and then my eye gravitated to it. He’s like, “Hey, dad, look. It’s that Big Green Egg that you want.” And it was The Big Green Egg barbecue.

And I went over there, and I’m like, “Oh, man, this is something that I want,” but I looked at the price, I’m like, “This is not something that my wife will necessarily let me get right now.” But that Egg will probably make, if used correctly, I think that’s the key thing, right, like no matter how great your tool is, if you’re terrible at using it, then you just got a really expensive tool that you’re not very good at using.

Pete Mockaitis
And then you feel like a tool.

Mike Vardy
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Zing!

Mike Vardy
Boom!

Pete Mockaitis
Sorry, continue.

Mike Vardy
No, the thing is, “Do I need to have that barbecue to barbecue food?” No, I can find, you know. But do I need the cheapest one? Probably not. I could find something in the middle. So, I think it’s about finding, like I think we need to start looking at things from a reasoned approach instead of going like purely emotional or purely logical. And that means like OmniFocus is a great example for your listeners out there who know what OmniFocus is. It’s like it was one of the preeminent productivity apps that largely hung its hat on the getting-things-done methodology when it first came out. It’s now become so much more than that.

But if you stuck with that throughout, you’ve had a beautiful tool to use the whole way, but there’s other software companies that have come along, like Cultured Code’s neat Things, and Todoist, and Asana, and all these other ones. You got to look at what the outcome is you’re looking for. If your outcome is to use tools consistently, like switch tools, then that’s fine. That was my job. I had to do that.

But I think that a great craftsperson can get great results by using a tool that may not be the best tool. So you should be looking at that in getting better. And then, when you can get to the point where, “Hey, you know what, I have the bandwidth to try a new tool or to look at a new app.” You’re rarely forced into something like this. Then you say, “Okay, you know what, I can do that.”

But I think the other key is to make sure that you’ve got a framework that, like let’s say OmniFocus was to stop development tomorrow and shut down. Yeah, but the thing is you know, based on your use of it, because you’ve used it for so long, you’re like, “Okay, I need something that has this functionality,” that’s one way to look at it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Mike Vardy
But if you’ve never really used it, like, “Okay, I have a framework,” and that’s how I kind of look at creating TimeCrafting was this idea of, “How can there be a framework that can work in Microsoft Excel, on paper, and OmniFocus, in Things, in Asana, in Trello, wherever?” So, that way you can go, “Okay, well, OmniFocus is gone. I guess now I’m just going to move. I can find another app but the frameworks that I use is easily transferable.” And that’s the thing that I think people need to spend more time and attention to on as opposed to, “Oh, the app will tell me what to do because garbage in, garbage out,” right?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s talk a bit about that bit. So, regardless of the tool, if we want to achieve – okay, I guess there’s a two-parter here. First, let’s establish the goal. What is it that we want to happen? If we aspire to be “productive,” what does that mean and how do we know if we’re winning?

Mike Vardy
Well, I think it’s often an understanding of what you need to do and what you want to do. I think that those are two things that we need to really get. I know we hear a lot of like, “I have to do this,” and then to have two turns to get to, that could be a big leap for some people to say, “Hey, I have to go to work because I have to pay the bills,” as opposed to, “I get to go to work and I get to pay my bills because of it,” because that’s a pretty big leap.

So, I like to go down, again, reasons, down the middle and say need to, “I need to go to work because,” or, “I need to do this task because this will offer another need.” If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m not going to go into that too deep, but that’s kind of where that comes from. I think that the key here is to understand, “Okay, all these things that are in my head, number one, are they in a place where I can evaluate it properly?” And this is nothing new. David Allen has talked about this, the idea of getting it out of your head so that you can assess it properly.

And then, instead of trying to measure your productivity by quantifiably how many things did you do, because a lot of the time we spent our energy and attention on things that we really don’t need to do or little or want to do, we just do that, and start to look at a balance between quantity of work and quality of work because we can’t just focus on quality of work necessarily either all the time because some things are going to come up, we got to bang some certain things out and urgency shows up, and there’s all these little things.

So, productivity is always going to be personal even in an organization. So, when you’re working in a large organization, you have to look at things from an objective point of view, right, like, “Our objective is to finish this project. Our objective is to make sure all these things are covered.” But then once you start to bring it down to the individual, it’s how they deal with it is very subjective.

One person may handle a task based on their energy levels. If they’re great in the morning, then they will tackle those high-energy tasks in the morning, and then maybe they’ll do their late lower-energy tasks later in the day. If they’re somebody that’s in lots of meetings, they may have to look at like the gaps of time that they have between the meetings and categorize their tasks, like, “Hey, these tasks will take me five minutes, these will take me 10, etc.”

And then other people might say, “Hey, you know what, I’ve got some block of time to do some really heavy qualitative work. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do some writing. Let me take a look at all the things that I’ve categorized as writing.” So, when it comes to being more productive, and not just doing productive, but being productive, it’s important to do like that front-end work first and say, “Okay, do I need to be doing all of these things, or am I just checking off boxes and saying, ‘Look, I checked off 43 boxes today. I must’ve been productive because look at how many boxes I checked off’?”

Versus setting themselves up in a way that they can say, “Okay, I’m approaching my to-do list now, and if I just look at it at face value, I’m going to be less productive because I’m not really assessing it and breaking it down to smaller components, so let me think about it. Oh, you know what, I am tired right now. Okay, so now this list of 43 things, I now need to start off with dealing with the 12 things that I can do when I’m tired, so let me start there.” So, it’s just about personalizing the experience. No matter whether you work for a big organization or just for yourself, and then trying to prioritizing in a way that suits your workflow as best as possible.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I dig these universal principles here then. So, we’re starting with a really clear picture of what you need to do in order to meet another core need. And then what do you want to do, I guess, think of that in terms of what is rejuvenating and fun and meaningful to you. And you want to get this stuff out of your head so you’re not just continually re-remembering it and forgetting it and stressing about what you may have forgotten, but you’ve got it somewhere else in app or a notecard or a list on paper. Any other kind of just fundamental principles like, “Hey, whatever your tools, you’ve got to make sure this stuff is happening”?

Mike Vardy
I think that the biggest thing, no matter what tools you’re using, I think I like to look at my work through the lens of the modality that I need to be in as opposed to the project I need to be working on. So, you want to have two kind of lanes that you can travel down when you’re looking at a to-do list or you’re looking at a project management software piece because their design, in the name itself, project management, so you’re almost kind of directed to look at the project in its entirety.

And the problem there is that there could be bottlenecks from other people, there could be bottlenecks from yourself such as energy levels, there could be all of these things. So, what you want to do is have the ability to do that for sure. Sometimes you need to go like, “Okay, I’m putting my nose to the grindstone working on this very specific project and, yes, I’ll be jumping all over the place while doing it, but the common thread is this project.”

But you need to look at another way to work, and that’s like, hey, and I talk like I’ve got five categories of mode-based work. So, I want to look at my tasks by resource. So, where do I need to be to do them? I need to look at them. Energy is another one. Let me look at it. I’ll look at all my projects and see, “Okay, what are all the things that I can do when I’m sick? Because I’m home sick today and I can’t do all the stuff, so let me look at that.” “Let me look at all my tasks by the type of activity because that promotes flow, right?”

If you want to do a bunch of research, it’s almost better to do the research that you need to do all at once because you get to that mindset, right? And then the other thing is just to say, instead of jumping, I’ll use the meeting example again. What often happens when people come out of a meeting and they only have, say, a half hour between that and their next meeting is they won’t go to their to-do list, they’ll go to email because email will tell them what to do but it’s somebody else telling them what to do.

Instead, they could look at their to-do list and go, “Okay, I know I have a half hour, let me look at all the tasks that I’ve decided that are going to take me five minutes or less and try to crank out six of them, or six or less,” that kind of thing. So, I think it’s important, and I believe it’s important, I know this from the work I’ve done with clients, is that you can’t just look at your to-do list at face value. You need to dig into it a bit more.

You need to almost, in some instances, break your to-do list down because, in some cases, you’ve got a to-do list segment that says, “Work on report.” Well, that’s ambiguous and that’s really a project. You need to break that project down into its smallest particles, and then segment it so that your to-do list, which may have grown from 43 visible things, or invisible things partially, to like 116 totally visible things. Then you’re going to need to look at it and go, “Okay, how do I look at this in a way that allows me to at least feel like I’m moving the needle forward?”

And that doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. But once you start doing that, then you can feel that you’re being actually productive because your mind and your direction is being kind of propelled forward based on simple questions like, “How do I feel right now? How much time do I have? What type of activity do I want to do right now? Oh, I’ve been told I need to get on the phone right now. Well, what other things can I do while I’m on the phone?”

So, you’re not thinking in terms of just going down the to-do list in sequential order, instead, you’re kind of looking at it from a vantage of, “What modality am I about to go into that I either need or want to go into? And then, how can I group these things together so that instead of me having these little periods of downtime as I switch from task to task, I can actually just keep moving the needle forward?” It’s kind of like that movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” right? You’ve seen that movie with Will Smith, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. It’s been a while, where he’s selling those things.

Mike Vardy
Right. And he said, “I need to maximize my time.” One thing he doesn’t do, which I think is he didn’t do washroom breaks, so he didn’t go get up to drink water. I would not advocate for like dehydrating yourself while you’re working. But the one thing he does do, which I think is clever, is he never hangs up the phone. He just puts his finger on the – and this is, of course, back when people were definitely using more office phones as opposed to cellphones.

And so, what he did was he was putting the phone, you know, he just clicks on it, and that way he wouldn’t lose the three seconds or whatever it was, or two seconds, that it took for him to pick up the phone every single time. And then he went a step further and said, “You know what, this is also a waste of my time. I’m not going to start at the bottom of the list, instead I’m going to go right to the top.”

So, that allowed him to do that because he was thinking about his work instead of just going through the motions as they were given to him by his superiors who seemed to know better because that’s the way it was always done. You have to challenge those biases, and that’s when you can be truly productive, and that’s when you can start to see outcomes that you never expected because you’re challenging some of those biases that are either kind of thrust upon you or that live within you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s talk about these five boats here. So, we get like the resources are available, may be the phone, may be the internet, may be a computer.

Mike Vardy
Or a person. A resource can be a person too, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Yeah. And then we got the energy, hey, we’re feeling sick, we’re feeling energized, we’re feeling creative, or we’re feeling lethargic. We got the type of activity in terms of, “Hey, is this research?” And then we’ve got the time available. What’s the fifth one?

Mike Vardy
The fifth one is actually what I teach clients, I call it theme-based. The way I structure my time is I give every day, and, again, not everyone does this when they start working with me. They give themselves one, a daily theme. So, when I wake up first thing in the morning, I don’t say, “What am I going to do today?” I ask myself, “What day is it?” And, today, as we’re recording this, it’s a Thursday, so I’m like, “Oh, it’s Thursday.” Well, Thursday, the theme is learning, “Okay, so what learning am I going to do today?”

So, I’ve already kind of whittled down my to-do list a little bit by saying, “Hey, today is learning day,” and then I can look at my much larger to-do list in a much more segmented way. So, basically, the acronym is TREAT, theme-based, resource-based, energy-based, activity-based, and time-based. So, when you work by modality, you are treating yourself and you’re working much better.

And the themes don’t have to be daily either. There are some people who they can’t do a daily theme at least at work. They certainly can at home. So, what they’ll do is they’ll do what I call a horizontal theme which is, “Oh, it’s 9:00 o’clock. And from 9:00 to 11:00, I focus on research, or I focus on communication, or I focus on administrative work. And horizontal themes are often used when I talk with clients for things that they can’t just like wait an entire week, or they need to do daily, so they block out, say, an hour or two of that time to focus on that kind of stuff.

The great thing about themes is they’re very personal. I have some clients that don’t do daily themes but they have, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., they have what’s called serving mode, so they tag their tasks as serving, and it’s the tasks that every else needs them to do. And then they go for lunch. They come back from lunch from 1:00 to 5:00, they go into self-serving mode, which is all the tasks that they need and want to do.

And because they do that, what happens is any of the tasks that end up being self-serving are often serving others anyway. So, they’ve got this flow and then, instead of looking at this massive responsibility list, they could say, “Okay, well, the mornings I’m going to take care of what other people really need and want from me, and then in the afternoon, I’m going to take care of what I know I need to be working on, which often is what other people might need as well.” So, it creates just less friction and more flow.

And so, when you work by modality, and theming is one of those great things that kind of adds to it, then you’re really crafting your time in a way that works for you.

Pete Mockaitis
And what I think is really reassuring about that is, one, you’re sort of like, “Well, I work in an hour. I don’t know. I got 90 things I could choose from.” It’s like, “Okay.” Well, by segmenting it, it just gets sort of simpler in terms of less decision-making and I think you can feel more comfortable. This is how I feel at times, it’s sort of like if there’s not a designated place for some stuff that needs to happen, there’s almost like a low-level anxiety or panic in terms of, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get to do the things that I want to do. I’m a suffering servant and a martyr at the whim and mercy of all of these requests from all these people.”

In terms of like, “Well, no, this is the time that I do my stuff,” and I dig that. So, that’s a cool way to theme that. I think it can really be handy. And I also want to get your take, when you said there are sort of a different sort of brain space or mode, like research, when I kind of cluster a number of research-type activities together because then your brain is in a research mode. I know that there’s maybe an infinite number of kinds of mental states we can catalog. But do you think of, shall I call them sub-modalities, huh, sub-modalities for activity types that tend to, you’re like, “Yeah, this is like a cluster of related brain function, and here’s another one”?

Mike Vardy
So, let’s use this as an example. Today is my learning day, right? So, that’s also an activity, right? So, it’s not only my daily theme, but it’s an activity. So, I can say that today is my learning day, and then the activity mode I want to go into is researching. Now, they could be mutually exclusive, but learning doesn’t have to be necessarily super active. It can be, “I’m going to go just discover things and notice things.” Whereas, research is a bit more deliberate, “I’m going to dig into these things.”

So, what happens with—you can get very personal with these, like you can get as narrow as you want with them, but what a lot of people will do, especially in apps, like we were talking about earlier, is they’ll use two or three modes per task. They’ll say, “I need to read Ryan Holiday’s latest book,” so that’s researching mode and it’s learning mode and it’s also, let’s say, deep work which is a type of energy level, right?

So, then they can decide, it gives them a bit more options as to say, okay, for me—I’ll use me as an example—I could do it on a Thursday, I could do it whenever I want to research something, or I could do it, and Friday is my deep work day, I could do it on Friday. So, you can kind of use the different modalities with each other to kind of create this easier way to filter or give you multiple options to filter.

What I kind of liken this to is the Goldilocks factor. I call it the Goldilocks factor which is if your modalities are too wide, then you don’t filter your list enough. So, like home might not be the best modality if you work from home because it’s not just the home, it’s your home where you live, so that might be too wide. Whereas, if you were to say third drawer in dresser, that would be what I would call too narrow, like you’re going to run out of things to do, which means then your brain goes, “Well, now what?” And then it wants to go do the random things that the brain wants to do because it doesn’t want to do hard work, right?

So, you want to find that like just right factor. And for some people, like for you, you might say, “Hey, I need a very specific kind of thinking modality that’s very specific,” and you might have enough tasks in there to fill it which means that that’s going to work for you. But, for me, deep work is just right. If I have it too wide, if I was just to say qualitative work, oh, my goodness, that could be miles long. So, it’s about just figuring that out.

And when I work with clients, and when people follow my work, and they listen to – I have a daily podcast as well called Three Minutes of TimeCrafting. I kind of try to distill that down a bit because, again, this is something, when you start to adopt TimeCrafting, which is this methodology that I teach, it feels overwhelming at first, and people go, “Oh, that’s too rigid. It seems inflexible.” But you don’t have to adopt it all at once unlike other ones that I’ve tried.

And also, I would caution against it because one thing goes wrong, and you probably encountered this too, if one thing goes wrong, you’re like, “Well, this won’t work,” and you just throw the whole thing aside, right? So, that’s the way I look at it, is you can have very specific, as specific as you need, these modes to be, or you can have them as broad as you need them to be. And they can evolve over time too.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting there is that these aren’t just arbitrary, “Hey, this is a dorky fun thing we like to do is to add categories to stuff,” but rather it is useful in the sense of, it’s funny you mentioned that Friday is your deep work day. And my internal reaction was, “That is insane. I would never make Friday my deep work day because, Friday, I’m tired from two kids under two, and sleep deprivation, and four intense work days, and I want my deep work day to be Monday when I’ve rejuvenated from a Saturday and a Sunday, and I can like go and do like the hardest, trickiest thing the world has to offer.”

And so, there you go. It’s personal. It’s like neither one of us is right. I imagine you’ve got your reasons and your personal preferences and values and environmental contexts that make that a very sensible choice for you and it would be a poor choice for me.

Mike Vardy
And the great thing about that is my deep work day wasn’t always Friday because when my kids were younger, and I was home, the person who’s working from home, I was in the same boat as you. But now my kids are older, they’re normally out and about on Fridays. I try to take care of business Mondays through Thursdays, and then on Fridays, I’m like, “I don’t want any meetings. I just want to be from 9:00 until 2:00 or 3:00, I’m just focused on the deep work.”

And I also include some deep conversations with friends. So, again, my definition of it isn’t just like, “I’m going to focus on like just sitting in my office all day doing deep work.” Sometimes it’s, “I’m going to go have coffee with a friend. While having coffee with them, we’ll have some deep conversations.” So, again, it’s all how you personally define it.

The one thing that really made me buy into the idea of theming your days is when I wanted to move my deep work day which I think was on a Tuesday before. It wasn’t a Monday because Monday was like my admin day. All I had to do was take that deep work day and move it to Friday and the tasks migrated there naturally because they were tagged as such. So, I just knew to look at the deep work tag on Friday now instead of Tuesday. So, instead of like changing the due dates and all that stuff, it was just a natural migration for me.

And, again, I know clients that have creative days, and two of those days per week rather than just one, right? So, you can make it work for you the way you want. You could theme one day. You could theme seven. You could have all horizontal themes. You could say, “You know what, Mike, I love these five categories of modes, but I’m really into time.” Great, then just use time. You don’t have to use them all. You just have to figure out what works for you.

And then, when it comes to health and nutrition and fitness, if you keep doing the same exercise over and over and over again, your body will adapt to it and won’t be as tough to do it, and you also won’t see the results. The results will start to change, right? That’s why they shake up your exercise. That’s why when you’re on a food program, they start to do that as well. They’re like, “Oh,” in fact, I’m on one right now, and my nutritionist is like, “Guess what? We’re changing some of your nutritional stuff.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Because you’ve plateaued, like there’s nowhere for you, so we have to change things up to kind of shock the system a little bit.”

So, productivity is a lifestyle. It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle, and that means that things are going to evolve. And you know what, when your kids are in school, you may say, “Monday, I need to leverage that for this, and Friday is going to be my family day.” My buddy Chris Docker does that, he takes Fridays off. He calls it family day. So, again, that theming can really help because it helps you, like you said, remove decision fatigue and it promotes flow over friction for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m just thinking about the shifting, it’s like I’m usually not very good in terms of like if I’ve been sort of deep into sort of a spreadsheet evaluating an opportunity and the implications and possibilities of an initiative, and I’m thinking hard about that for like 70 plus minutes straight, and then someone wants to chat about some emotional like stuff, it’s like I feel like I‘m really sorry I’m not effectively here for you because I’m still with the spreadsheet. But if you have a little bit of separation, you got less dramatic shifting of your whole kind of brain state whiplashing it back and forth.

Mike Vardy
And that’s the thing, if you were to say, “Hey, Mike, can you talk to me tomorrow?” which is Friday, I would say, “I’m sorry, no, I can’t,” like, immediately. Like, there’s no friction in my own head. It’s understood and the brain has created this pathway that knows that Fridays I don’t do meetings. And there have been exceptions to the rule, like that’s the thing, is that you have to be flexible enough to have exceptions to the rule, but you don’t want those exceptions to become the rule because then the theme starts to fall apart.

So, if I have a client, like let’s say I missed a meeting with a client the previous week, let’s say I’m sick, and they’re like, “Well, we can’t do any of the meeting except next day.” I’m going to do the meeting, right, because it’s not on them, it’s on me. That said, if they cancel the meeting, and they say, “Well, could we do next Friday?” they’re likely going to get a no because now I have to decide where that boundary lies, and that’s what all of this is. It’s all about creating boundaries that you are willing to live with, and then sticking to them, because if you don’t stick to your own boundaries, you can’t expect anybody else to.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I know the professionals listening here will say, “Well, that’s nice for Mike who has his own thing. I’ve got a boss and teammates to contend with.” But I think that you may have less kind of leeway to establish whichever boundaries you care to establish, but you still have some. And I think that people can often appreciate it, like, “Okay, cool, yeah. You know what, I like that you’re being so thoughtful about your day and your time and using it to maximize kind of what we’re up to. So, yeah, I understand your rationale. That works for me and thank you very much.” Now, you might also get some folks who are not as understanding, but I think it’s worth a shot especially when it’s powerful and meaningful and impactful.

Mike Vardy
And that’s why when someone says that, and believe me it’s not the first time I’ve heard that, again, don’t do all of it. You don’t have to theme every day. Start at home. I‘ve had people say to me, like, “There’s no way I could theme my days.” And I said, “Well, when do you do your grocery shopping?” “Well, Saturday or the weekend.” “Okay, when do you do your housework?” “Oh, normally on Saturday or the weekend.” “So, what about laundry?” “Well, yes, Sunday or Saturday.” I’m like, “So, what you’re saying is like Saturday or Sunday it’s kind of like the day you do household stuff?” “Like, yeah, mostly I would do it.” “So, household day would be like Sunday or Saturday?” And then, all of a sudden, it’s like, boom! They’re like, “Oh.”

Again, you’re already doing it in some instances. Just own it. Just define it. Because once you do that, then there’s no ambiguity and there’s no confusion. So, if you have a burnt out lightbulb in your home office, or you have to do something, and you’ve got this honey-do list, let’s say, if you want to call it that, you’re like, “Hey, you know what, I know this needs to get done, I’m going to get out of my head. Where do I put it? Oh, Saturday is household day. Great, I’ll put it on household day.”

So, you’ve got to get those biases out of your way because what most people will do, and I’m generalizing it, but I hear it a lot, “There’s no way I could theme my days.” I’m like, “Well, could you try with one? Could you try with a certain period of time?” Clearly, we’ve had theme times in our schooling. We know what a lunch hour is. That’s a theme to time block. It’s not like they don’t exist. It’s just you have to be able to say, “Okay, you know what, I’m willing to put a boundary here. Just here. Just in this one instance based on my situation and let’s see how it goes.” And then take it from there.

You can add more, evolve it, whatever you need to do, but don’t just dismiss it out of hand, like you said, without trying it because it’s worked not just for me, who works from home, but I’ve worked with executives who are the boss, as well as middle managers who are not the boss, and they’re managing up and down. So, it can work, it’s just you’ve got to figure out where your just right is.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, we’re having fun and we’re short on minutes, but I must ask. So, let’s talk about motivation for a moment.

Mike Vardy
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
What are your top suggestions for keeping the motivation going strong and minimizing the risks that you’re going to burn out?

Mike Vardy
Well, I think, again, when it comes to that, journaling is such a huge component. And, again, I don’t know that a lot of people talk about this. We’re hearing more about it. We’re hearing more about journaling but not when it comes to productivity as much as I’d like to see. I think that when you look at your to-do list and your calendar, it gives you kind of a broad strokes of what your day looked like but there’s no story behind it. You can look at your calendar, and say, “Oh, I had a meeting at this time,” but you’re not going to chronicle your feelings about it, or you’re not going to say, “Hey, what worked and what didn’t.” You’re generally just going to see it and then you’ll try to, again, remember what it was like.

So, I think that when you want to keep yourself motivated, and there’s two types of motivation that can happen here. Either the motivation of the negative components can motivate you or the positives, whatever. Again, there’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal or to chronicle or a daily log or whatever you want to call it.

But I think that taking five minutes at the end of your work day, or at the end of your day in total, is a good way for you to get perspective on what’s going on in your world and realizing, A, we have way more time than we think, and, B, every day is a scholar for the next day. I can’t remember who said that, a Roman scholar said that. But that’s what it is.

And the more you journal the less likely you’re going to have to do that big massive review like two weeks down the road or a week down the road because you’re kind of keeping yourself course-corrected as you go. And, again, like people have said, “Oh, well, how should I journal?” I don’t know, it’s the same reason I don’t know what app to use. Use an app, use paper. If you need prompts, there’s plenty of places to find prompts. Use your theme days as prompts, “Hey, today’s daily theme was learning. Okay, did I do learning today? Yes. Oh, great. What did I learn? No. Well, why not?”

There’s always something, the story you can tell. You don’t know what to write about? Look in your phone and see what photos you took, right? Scan through your email and see what email you responded to. There’s always something. But it’s that story that matters because it’s the story that’s going to motivate you to either make a change or keep going.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha. Thank you. Well, now, Mike, tell me, a couple of your favorite things. How about a favorite book?

Mike Vardy
Oh, boy, there are so many good ones. Getting Things Done is the book that kind of got me into productivity in the first place, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that. I like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I love Pressfield’s stuff. And I really like Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way. I like the stoicism introduction kind of was the reasoned approach to things that was. So, his book The Obstacle Is the Way, and Ego is the Enemy, as well, I’d say that those are kind of the ones that I return to quite regularly.

Pete Mockaitis
And I know that you have evolved beyond it’s all about the tools but, tell me, what are some of your top favorite tools that you personally have to be digging right now?

Mike Vardy
So, I’m really liking this app called Front because it’s kind of that bridge between email and task management that I’ve been looking for, for a long time. I can assign emails to my team members right within the app, I can comment on them, so I can kind of keep my communication silo external to my project management which is what we used Asana for, but I can integrate them if I want.

So, Frontapp.com is it, and it’s iOS and web-based. I’m really digging it right now and I’ve only really scratched the surface of what it can do, but it’s really kind of been the thing that’s allowed us to keep emails that we don’t necessarily need in our project management app, and yet keep moving the ball forward with certain things there. So, I’d say that’s probably the one that I’m digging into most right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your listeners, and readers, and clients?

Mike Vardy
Stop worrying about due dates and make every day a due date. So, theming helps with that, the idea that when you think about it, and I’ve got monthly themes, and I talk about that as well, but people tend to focus on the, like, “This is when this thing is due, so I will let that sit there and let it kind of linger and linger. And, oh, no, tomorrow it’s due,” And then they go and do it. As opposed to taking a little bit of time every single day and just doing it.

And so, I dropped that in my TEDx Talk and it was kind of one of those things where people are, “Oh,” it’s like a little bit of a hum for them. So, I’d say that that’s one. Think about your taxes, right? If you start working on your taxes at the beginning of January rather than the beginning of April, how much easier would your taxes be to do.

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

Mike Vardy
Yes. Look at your tasks or your to-do list and ask yourself, “Is this the smallest that this task can be? Is there a smaller level? Are there smaller particles to this thing?” Because when you do that, then it makes it easier for you to kind of categorize them and move the needle forward a little bit on each one, as opposed to the work on report that you leave on your to-do list and then leave it unchecked because you didn’t finish it. Whereas, if you were to write 100 words for the report, or do research for the report, or spend 30 minutes on research for the report, that’s something you could check off.

That’s the kind of thing that you can do to keep yourself moving forward because you need that encouragement, you need to see that you’re moving the needle forward daily because when you see that, then it makes the work rewarding, and it makes you feel like you’re actually being productive instead of just checking off boxes with the hope that what you’re doing is actually getting recognized and happening on a daily basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Mike, this has been a real treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun and keep on doing the good work.

Mike Vardy
Thanks so much for having me, Pete. I really do appreciate it. And I hope there was a lot of value in what I had to share today.

466: How to Get Home Earlier by Automating (Some of) Your Work with Wade Foster

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Wade Foster says: "Automation is a mindset; it's not a skill."

Wade Foster shares super-simple mindsets, tools and tricks to automate repetitive work  tasks and liberate extra time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Just how much time you can save through automation
  2. Where automation works, and where it doesn’t
  3. The latest low-cost software tools to optimize your workflow

About Wade 

Wade Foster is the co-founder and CEO of San-Francisco-based Zapier, a company offering a service that makes it easy to move data among web apps to automate tedious tasks. He, along with co-founder Mike Knoop, was featured on Forbes’ 30 under 30: for Enterprise Tech.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Wade Foster Interview Transcript

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

Wade Foster
Yeah, thanks for having me, Pete. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into this conversation. I have used your tool Zapier before but, first, I want to hear the tale of you playing the saxophone—I, too, was a sax player in high school and marching band—at The Missouri Governor’s Mansion.

Wade Foster
Oh, goodness. So, I played saxophone for a long time. I started playing in 5th grade. And my instructor had a quartet that played at The Governor’s Mansion in Jeff City regularly at the time. And they had a member of the quartet who moved out of the state and so they needed a fourth member on pretty short notice. And, for whatever reason, in their infinite wisdom, they thought, “Let’s invite this 9th-grader to come play with us at The Governor’s Mansion.”

And so, they say, “Hey, Wade, come to our rehearsal, come to a trial run.” And I walked in and I’m probably, I don’t know, 4’7” and don’t even weigh 100 pounds, like sopping wet or anything like that, and they gave me a go, and they say, “Hey, try this out.” And, for whatever reason, I must not have done too bad because they said, “Why don’t you come play at The Governor’s Mansion.

I ended up getting to play over at The Governor’s Mansion quite a few times over the course of the next year. And then, eventually, a new governor came around, and he had different entertainment, I guess.

Pete Mockaitis
“No saxophones for me.”

Wade Foster
Yeah, and so we weren’t invited back after that. But it was a ton of fun as a 9th-grader. I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Did that shape your political views?

Wade Foster
You know what, it didn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Liked one administration and not the other.

Wade Foster
Yeah, as 9th-grader, my views on, I guess, the political landscape were pretty rudimentary at the time. I was just like, “Let’s play saxophone. That sounds fun.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, sax is fun, and I would take a crack at a terrible segue of just as the saxophone has many buttons to push down so, too, can automation have a lot of different layers and buttons and approaches. So, that’s the topic du jour. And before we get into the nitty gritty of what to automate and how to automate, I’d love to get your overall kind of philosophy on automation. Like, why is it helpful? When is it not? Lay it on us.

Wade Foster
Yeah, I think automation is going to be one of the, sort of defining topics of the next decade or so. I think the way the mainstream press talks about it, it’s often pretty scary. They’re talking about how robots, especially in manufacturing—it’s a scary topic. But the way we see automation at Zapier, we see this across, we have, I don’t know, something around four million users now.

And most of the people doing automation tend to be knowledge workers. It tends to be white collar folks in professional jobs, they’re business owners, or maybe they’re entrepreneurs themselves, or many times they’re just a person in a job, whether it’s in marketing, or in sales, or a data analyst, or an engineer or a real estate agent, or a lawyer, or whatever, who’s sort of is using a suite of tools, maybe it’s some marketing software, or maybe it’s some sales software, or some customer support software.

And, oftentimes, they’re doing pretty manual stuff on a day-to-day basis. Maybe they’re downloading a list of leads out of Facebook or LinkedIn, and then uploading those into a CRM. Or maybe they’ve got a bunch of files that they’re pulling out and collecting from forms, and they’re making sure those get sent to the specific parties. But all of us kind of have stuff like that that we do on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

Maybe you’re a podcaster and you get transcripts manually delivered to you, and you’re trying to find ways to not do that stuff. And so, I think automation is a way that you can really take some of this mundane stuff that you’re doing every day, that you’re doing every week, and find a better way to do it, for really just not have to do that stuff anymore, and allow you to focus on the creative parts of your job, focus on the things that really deliver value, and leave the stuff that computers are good for to the computers.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Or just get home earlier.

Wade Foster
Yeah, that too.

Pete Mockaitis
“I don’t have to do that. Just get home now.”

Wade Foster
Yeah, see you tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
The work is done. Okay, so that’s cool. So, a real time-saver there. And so then, now automation sounds, in some ways, kind of big and spooky, not just because the robots are going to destroy and enslave the human race like Terminator, but also just because, “Oh, boy, do I need to know like scripts and APIs and codes and get developers involved,” like that just seems like too much for many of us.

And that’s one thing that’s nifty about Zapier, I’ve used it a little bit myself. So, why don’t you orient those who are not familiar? What does it do? How does it go?

Wade Foster
Yeah, so it used to be you did have to do that, you need developers and scripts and APIs, but with Zapier you don’t. We use a sort of simple metaphor called triggers and actions to help you set up automations. And so, a trigger is an event that might happen in any sort of software that you use. So, maybe it’s someone fills out a form that’s on your website; maybe you have a contact form, or a lead form, or any sort of form; maybe you’re collecting data for an RSVP for an event. When someone does that thing, that’s called a trigger, and then the action is, “What do you want Zapier to do for you when that happens?”

So, if you say like, contact form on a website, “Well, when someone fills out this contact form on the website, the action, I want them to log that person’s detail in my CRM so that I can make sure to follow up with them and communicate with them later.” So, at Zapier, we follow that simple trigger action logic, and it has a really simple UI to set some of this stuff up. And, in fact, a lot of the use cases are out-of-the-box where you don’t even have to understand what a trigger and action is. You can just turn that stuff on. And it helps you automate all sorts of different things that you might want to do around your job.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. I was just thinking recently about Zapier. It’s very fortuitous, the timing, just because, in my huge listener survey—thank you so much, listeners, for spending that time there. Something came up associated with community, and that’s something I’m trying to figure out and build and, “How do I do that? Boy, is it even manageable with so many thousands of people and probably need to be paid to have fewer folks?”

But, anyway, as I’m going through the ins and outs, one thing that came up was listeners would love the opportunity to be able to chime in and share their questions associated with a guest as soon as they learn that a guest is going to be interviewed. And I thought Zapier is pretty cool in that I could say, “Hey, Calendly is what I use for booking,”—which is a really easy way to set appointments.

I could say, “Yo, Zapier, when I get a new booking for a podcast interview, I want you to share that information over in a Slack channel for the listener community to announce, like, ‘Hey, Wade Foster is being interviewed on this day. Here’s what he submitted.’” And then they could just have at it without me having to remember, “Ooh, shucks, I need to kind of find, and copy, and paste the booking info inside the community Slack channel so folks have the opportunity to chime in and say things.” So, what’s cool is that once you’re just aware that tools like this exist, you sort of start to see opportunities, and I think that’s pretty exciting.

Wade Foster
Totally. And I think that example you just shared is a great one because you sort of stumbled across a use case that helps you solve a very specific problem. And now, once you have that skill in your skillset, you can start to refine these things. You might say, “Hey, I’m glad that I’m getting all this feedback in Slack. But now when I go interview Wade, I have to go find that Slack channel or that Slack thread, and it’s buried because it was a couple weeks old. So, maybe I don’t want them to put it in a Slack thread, so maybe I’ll have the Zap setup when a Calendly then gets booked, I’ll have Zapier generate a form, and then I’ll post a link to the form in Slack so that, then, when I got to talk to Wade, I just pull up a spreadsheet that’s got a bunch of questions in it, and I have them all right in front of me, and it’s a little easier to find that stuff.”

Like, once you sort of get the hang of automation, you can start to go, “Well, I like this basic thing, but I could tweak it a little bit and get a little bit more out of it and customize it to the needs that I have.” And so, I think that’s when automation becomes really fun because you have that ability to let your creativity go wild on the problems that are unique to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I guess that’s sort of the thing, it’s like everyone is going to have their own unique things and it’s sort of hard to say, “This is the top thing you must automate.” But, nonetheless, someone will take a crack at it. Could you maybe share with us a story of someone who used Zapier or some other automation tools out there to receive just like tremendous time savings and career and life benefits in action?

Wade Foster
Yeah, I think one of the ones that I really loved is there was this company that started in Australia, and they run an on-demand lawnmowing service. And the way it worked…

Pete Mockaitis
I’d would like that.

Wade Foster
Yeah, right? So, it’s kind of like Uber, right, you’ll hail a car to come pick you up. Well, this is you hail a person with a lawnmower to come mow your yard. And so, if you start to think about like, “What are the problems that you have to do to run a mowing service like that?” It’s like, well, you need a website, you need an order form, or a mobile app where people can say, “Hey, I want to book this thing.” And when they get booked, you need to be able to send an alert out to the people who have lawnmowers to say, “Hey, who wants to come do this thing?” And then you need to let the person who booked it know that you’ve got someone available.

Or you can just have a person just paying attention to the form and then doing all the matchmaking manually. Well, what this person did was said, “You know what, here’s how I’m going to set this up. When people request a lawnmower to come in, I’m going to have that get published automatically through Zapier into a spreadsheet. And in the spreadsheet, I’m going to have that trigger out a message via Twilio that goes out to our people who are currently marked as available to come mow the lawn. And then the first person that replies…”

Pete Mockaitis
Like a text message then?

Wade Foster
Yeah, a text message.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. That’s so smart.

Wade Foster
That says, “Hey, someone wants their lawn mowed,” right? And then the first person to reply to it then gets assigned to it so it gets marked back into the spreadsheet to say, “Bob is going to come mow the lawn.” And then via another text message, it publishes back to the customer that says, “Hey, Bob is coming to mow your lawn.”

So, this thing that would’ve been like a pretty manual matchmaking service is now run by like a couple zaps behind the scenes. And so, as a result, the business spends most of its time just trying to find more people, more customers, and find more lawnmowers. They don’t have to worry about the matchmaking process themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
And what was so cool about that is if someone would say, I imagine—we recently had a chat about side hustles with Nick Loper—but if someone were starting out as like a side hustle, and to think, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to be so hard. I’ve got build a mobile app that has all of this connectivity with all this people.” And then, no, they just sort of hacked together like with Google Sheets and some other stuff and Zapier a means of getting the job done without the huge investment, Uber or Lyft or some stuff, just made into that.

Wade Foster
Totally, right? Those folks made hundreds of millions of dollars to build their stuff, and this person did it with a handful of apps, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. Well, so I’d love to hear then – so that’s a pretty cool use case – so let’s talk about those professionals you mentioned, the lawyer, the real estate agents, the knowledge worker, the engineer, some stuff that is super popular and effective and helpful to automate, like it shows up again and again and again, and the time savings can be substantial.

Wade Foster
Yeah, the thing that I see happen and over and over again is sort of managing requests and interactions and relationships with other people. So, you’re often seeing this in the form of customer relationships. A customer, or a lead, or a prospect fills out a form on a website, “And let’s make sure that they get logged in our CRM, or logged in our mailing list, or the sales rep gets a text message to say, ‘Hey, you should call this lead,’ or something like that.”

But, oftentimes, it can be internal employees. Think about like an HR function, they have a form setup that says, “Hey, who’s going to come to the holiday party? Like, fill out this form real quick so we know how much food to order and like what your dietary restrictions are and whatnot.” And then get logged in a spreadsheet and then text the person a response back or sends them an email to say, “Hey, we got your order and we’ve got you booked to get the chicken at the holiday party,” or whatever. And that all sort of happens automatically.

But there’s a lot of use cases around just managing and communicating with people, whether it’s customers, or employees, or fans, or your community, or things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And, I guess, the next stuff I was thinking about what you should not automate. And I guess what I’m thinking about, I think it was Ryan Deiss. And he was talking about when you automate outbound marketing messages too much, you have a real risk of embarrassing yourself and looking dumb. And I think that I’ve seen that with PR people reaching out to me, “Hey, Pete, we think so and so would be great for your podcast.” Like, “Yeah, I’ve already had them on my podcast.”

This happens to me multiple times a week. And that’s a whole conversation, like, “Isn’t that the first thing you did was figure out what shows this guy is getting booked on so you can have great recommendations for applicable shows?” But, whatever. We’re not here to throw publicists under the bus. I was talking about some of the risks or where is it unwise. I think that’s one zone is I think if you let automation run amok on sort of outbound messages.

Wade Foster
Yeah, non opt-in channels, like things like that. You obviously don’t want to go and buy an email list and then upload in this system and then bulk spam a bunch of people. That doesn’t feel good. But when you have a form that a customer filled out, and you’re sending them a confirmation email to say, “Hey, we got your request,” like people expect that. That feels normal.

So, I think those are pretty safe when you’re talking about direct customer communication. And then I think things around just making sure that that information gets logged in the right system so that you can track that stuff. Did you get a project spun up in your project management tool? Did you get them logged in Airtable or a spreadsheet so that you have that and know to follow up on those things? Kind of the back-office paperwork type stuff rather than the direct customer interaction but how to make sure that you’re properly managing the relationship. That kind of stuff is like a sweet spot for automation, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so there’s one sweet spot we’re talking about, the customer request and getting them processed and connected and moving to where they need to go. Any other kind of broad categories that show up a lot?

Wade Foster
The other big one we see a lot is things like, “How do you just collect all of the inputs for like a project?” Think of project management at work, or you’ve got a program that’s running, and you’re getting feedback in this plate, in something like Jira, you’re getting requests that come in from a customer via email, you’re getting a feature request that comes from your boss. You’re getting all these inputs from all these different directions.

And Zapier can help you consolidate a lot of that into one centralized system, whether it’s a spreadsheet, or Airtable, or CRM, or a project management tool that basically says, “All this information that’s coming at me from 10 different places, all of which is important, and I don’t want to go check 10 different places. I want to just see it in one list.” That’s a place where Zapier is just super helpful, Pete, for people who do project management and things like of this nature.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. Well, so now I want to get even more precise. When it comes to Zapier, like what are the kind of absolute kind of most used zaps in terms of, “When I get an email about this, I want you to put it in Google Sheets like that”? So, in terms of when this program does this, trigger action, what combos are you seeing like have bazillions of, sort of installations or usages?

Wade Foster
Yeah, I think any sort of things like, “A customer paid me,” or, “Someone filled out my form on my website,” or, “Someone sent me an email,” that post a message into Slack sends you an alert, says, “Hey, this thing happened,” that’s really, really popular. Also, things like, “I got a lead through Facebook, a lead came in through Facebook, or LinkedIn, or Google, and I want to make sure a sales rep follows up on it instantly, so automatically route that into Salesforce or some other CRM,” things like that are really popular on Zapier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I wanted this before, because I clicked around Zapier. So, now if you don’t have the thing that I want, can I find a developer to go make that for me?

Wade Foster
Yeah, so there’s a couple things you can do if we don’t have what you want. So, we have things like our inbound email action. So, if the app you have or working with that isn’t supported by Zapier, but it sends out email alerts, you can use that to have emails forwarded into Zapier. You can use things like RSS which, if it generates an RSS feed, we accept RSS.

If the service provides webhooks, which is kind of a more technical thing, but usually not that hard to learn even if you’re not a developer, you just point the webhook at Zapier, and say, “Zapier, accept this.” And if the service you’re working doesn’t have any of those things, you can go track down a developer or a Zapier expert. At zapier.com/experts, we have a whole list of experts that help with more complicated workflows, and say, “Hey, can you help me get Zapier to work with this tool, where I might need a developer to dig under the hood and play around with some codes and some APIs a little bit?” So, there’s a lot. So, that’s kind of the way that most folks approach it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool to hear because I have, at times, I visit Upwork.com and found some people to code some things for me.
Okay, so if folks are digging this and they say, “I want to get started,” I imagine you’d say, “Well, go to Zapier.com.” But what are some other tips or strategies you’d recommend for folks who want to start automating and offloading some of the stuff they’re doing all the time?

Wade Foster
That’s a great question. I was talking to one of our experts, and he made this comment that automation is a mindset, it’s not a skill, which I thought was interesting. And the reason he said that was most people don’t even think about automation when they think about their to-do list on a given day. And so, he said, “One of the ways that I train people to get better at this is to start writing down what do you do every day, just write it down on a piece of paper. Or, when you write down your to-do list, don’t think, ‘How am I going to do this?’ Instead think, ‘How does this get done?’”

And shifting the way you think about your to-do list to not, “I have to do this,” to, “How does this get done?” starts to open your mind up to, “Well, perhaps I can delegate that thing to Zapier,” or, “Maybe I delegate something like this to an EA,” or, “Maybe I delegate this to a person that’s on my team.” But there’s other ways to get stuff done that don’t always involve you specifically, directly doing the task.

And I thought that such a smart way to help folks get into that automation mindset to step back and really understand where you’re spending time on stuff on a day-to-day basis, that maybe you don’t need to be spending that time on those things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that is a cool mindset shift. Any other tools you’d recommend in terms of getting the job done? So, Zapier is handy and flexible and can do a lot. But things that either make automation happen or just keep work processes from being too boring or cumbersome.

Wade Foster
I think the other up-and-comer alongside Zapier that I see a lot is Airtable. So, Airtable is kind of like a souped-up spreadsheet database-type tool, and it’s kind hard to like describe it in a way that sounds really fun and interesting but, boy, do people love it. They start to get their hands on it, and they just find all sorts of interesting ways to do automation with Zapier and Airtable, and better manage a lot of projects and work that they’ve got coming in.

So, Airtable, similar to Zapier, we have a list of zaps all over the site that you can check out and use. Airtable also has their universe and a gallery that shows all the different ways you can use Airtable, which I think is a pretty fun place to go exploring.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, now, I’ll tell you this, I have heard Airtable mentioned here and there, but I don’t actually have any conception of what it is. I’m on Airtable.com right now.

Wade Foster
It’s like a spreadsheet but it’s like better. It’s hard to say because it’s one of those things that you just have to play with it. And as soon as you play with it for a little bit, you’re like, “Oh, I see why this is better.” But until you do, it’s one of those things that people will go, “Yeah, I guess, I use spreadsheets and I think spreadsheets are good.” So, I don’t know. You should have Howie come on your podcast and he can tell you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s intriguing. As I’m seeing right now, like there’s an Airtable, it looks like a spreadsheet, but they also have photos in there and notes in there. And those are kind of hard to do to stick a photo in an Excel or a Google Sheet.

Wade Foster
Totally. And you can put files in them. So, you can just like stuff more things in them, more like a database, like what you do with a database. But then you can visualize it in all sorts of ways. So, you can turn your spreadsheet into like a Kanban board, kind of like Trello would be, or you can do a bunch of pivot tables but in a way that you don’t have to know what a pivot table is. So, stuff like that.

Pete Mockaitis
I know deeply about pivot tables as a former strategy consultant.

Wade Foster
Oh, yes. Yes. But like most people don’t know what pivot tables are, and Airtable makes it easy to do it, and you wouldn’t even know you’re doing a pivot table. You’d just be like, “Oh, that’s a handy little thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Wade, I hope you have not incepted me with this new desire which is going to result in 10 or 20 bucks a month departing my wallet continually. I’m a sucker. I love tools that help me do more, and I very easily justify their expenditure, like, “Well, this saves me just six minutes a month. It’s a bargain,” and maybe it is.

Wade Foster
Well, hopefully, with things like Zapier and Airtable, we’re doing more than six minutes a month. Hopefully, we’re digging into the hours and days a month buck territory.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That’s just how I persuade myself, “Well, surely, more than six minutes, and that’s all we need to be based on these parameters.”

Wade Foster
Totally, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, Airtable is handy. Any other tools leap to mind?

Wade Foster
You know, Airtable is great. I think tools like Typeform or Wufoo are really popular these days for putting in forms.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a new level of form.

Wade Foster
Yeah, Typeform is really slick. There’s another up-and-comer coming up called Coda that’s been pretty interesting. I’ve seen a lot of our people playing around with.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you spell Coda, C-O-D-A?

Wade Foster
Yes, C-O-D-A. So, it’s a document software. So, the cool thing about Coda is if you spell it backwards, it’s a doc.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh. Coda.io.

Wade Foster
Yeah, Coda.io. So, it’s like a Google Doc but similar to like how Airtable is like a spreadsheet, it’s so much more under the hood. And you can do all these like cool little macros, and like nifty things that make your doc more living and breathing, and auto updates based on other project software that you work with. So, it’s one of those ones that if you fashion yourself to be kind of on the cutting edge of new things. I’m seeing a lot of folks play around with Coda these days.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, while we’re talking about project management and stuff, do you have a point of view on monday.com versus Asana versus the others?

Wade Foster
You know, I don’t have a strong point of view. You see monday, you see Asana, you see Trello, then you see stuff more on the personal side like Todoist or maybe…

Pete Mockaitis
OmniFocus.

Wade Foster
Yeah, OmniFocus, there you go. Yeah, so stuff like that. Honestly, I think people work in different ways, so whatever works for you. Like, each of these tools have their own little design paradigms and ways that you approach this stuff. I think what’s more important is that you find habits that you can stick to. And if the software helps you stick to that habit, that’s probably the one you should do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, and if the software gets in the way because you’re always tinkering and fiddling and formatting and customizing because your dorky little productivity sensibilities are firing off, and in a way that’s fun.

Wade Foster
Yeah, that’s a good time.

Pete Mockaitis
And if that makes work more thankfully enjoyable but I have, at times, saying, “Wait a minute. This is actually counterproductive work.”

Wade Foster
Yeah, it’s a bit of a form of procrastination, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly. “I’ve got my formatting just perfect now. Oh, anybody know…?”

Wade Foster
Yeah, “What else can I do before I actually do the thing on my to-do list?”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, hey, there’s one mistake not to make. Any other things you would flag in terms of a warning, or a common mistake, or failure when folks are trying to optimize and automate stuff?

Wade Foster
You know, I think one thing that’s really easy to get caught up with is the sort of hamster wheel of just working through your to-do list, like constantly just adding things to your to-do list, and continuing to trudge through them. I think the most sort of successful folks that I’ve worked with do this exercise. It’s not really an exercise, some of them don’t even know that they’re doing it. But they really have a clear grasp on what it is that they want to do, like what it is that they want to achieve over a longer period of time.

So, they might say, “In the next year, I want X,” or, “In the next five years, I want Y,” or, “In the next 10 years, I want to have Z.” And then they start to work backwards from that. And then when they look at their to-do list on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, yeah, there’s some stuff that you just kind of got to do to make sure that the bills get paid and whatnot. But they continually remember, “What is it that I’m trying to achieve over the long haul?” And they make sure that every day, they’ve got some things on their to-do list that kind of pushes them forward on that rung.

And so that way, they’re not getting stuck in this hamster wheel where, after five years, they look up and go, “I’ve done a lot of work, I’ve checked a lot of to-do’s off over the last five years. I haven’t really done anything. I haven’t really achieved what mattered to me.” And so, I think doing that just mental exercise of, “What is it that I want? What do I want for myself? What do I want to contribute to humanity over the next year?” And really understand that is a very important step for optimizing your work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Wade, tell me, any final thoughts before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Wade Foster
Let’s do some favorite things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite quote?

Wade Foster
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study?

Wade Foster
Favorite study? I did a lot of math and science in school but, lately, I’ve been studying a bunch of like writing rhetoric tricks.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Tell me examples, please.

Wade Foster
So, I picked up this book, and every week I write a Friday update for the team, and it’s like it’s usually some stuff that’s on my mind to help them just better see the bigger picture. And the book has like, I don’t know, 50 different rhetoric tricks in it. And so, every week I write the update, and then I’ll go read one of the rhetoric tricks. And then I’ll go back through my update and find a way to use it as part of it.

So, this week, syllepsis was the thing that I was using as part my Friday update. So, I dropped a couple of syllepses, I don’t even know, like, some of these things I don’t even know the plural of it, into the update. And then I use it as a way just to teach the team some little writing tips and tricks throughout the week.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I always get it mixed up. Is syllepsis the one like, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?

Wade Foster
Syllepsis is kind of like where you would use a single word to sort of…it’s used with two other parts of a sentence, but then that same word is understood differently in relationship to each other. So, for example, “They covered themselves with dust and glory,” That’s a quote from Mark Twain. Well, covered with dust and covered with glory, like that’s two different ways to be covered. You’re still using the same word covered, but dust is like a physical thing, and glory is like more abstract.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and it feels awesome. It has a name and it’s used frequently in some of the word. Well, now, we’re all wondering what the name of this book.

Wade Foster
Oh, shoot, I have to find it. Let’s see, let me pull it up on my Kindle. So, the name of this book, I’m pulling it up here real quick, is The Elements of Eloquence is the name of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Wade Foster
It’s got a fancy title and everything.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s probably a name for that literary device right there.

Wade Foster
I’m sure there is. It’s “Elements of Eloquence,” it has some literation in there, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And who’s the author?

Wade Foster
So, the author for this book is Mark Forsyth.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right on.

Wade Foster
Just some of my writing friends said, “You’ve got to check this out. It’ll help you be more persuasive. It’ll help you write cooler things.” And I was like, “I’d like to sound more persuasive. I’d like to write cooler things.” So, I picked it up and I’m having fun with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. So, let’s see, there’s a book. How about a favorite tool?

Wade Foster
Can I say Zapier?

Pete Mockaitis
You can but give me another one as well.

Wade Foster
I’ll give you another one. So, one of the ones I’m really loving right now is this tool called Workona, which is a Chrome extension, that helps you manage all your tabs. So, if you’re like me, you might be a tab order, where you’ll have tens, maybe dozens of tabs open at the same time, but they’re all disorganized, and you can’t find the tab that you want.

Well, Workona helps you organize your tabs based on projects. So, for example, if you’re trying to plan a wedding, and you had a set of tabs for weddings, you could put that in one workspace. You had another set of tabs that was for meal planning. Maybe you’d put those in a different workspace. Then if you’ve got a set of tabs for this project you’re doing at work, that would go in a different workspace. So, as you switch back and forth between contexts, you can pop open those set of tabs all at once, rather than keeping all the tabs for all of those projects open at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa! So, it’s kind of like I can bookmark a site, but that’ll take me to one site, but with Workona I can sort of save a collection of tabs.

Wade Foster
You’ve got it.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like when I need to get down to business and decide what goes in the podcast episode, get open up my Google Drive on my podcast files, and then open up my media schedule in a Google Sheet on another tab, and then open up my email with Superhuman on a third tab, and it could just save that for me.

Wade Foster
Totally, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s pretty cool.

Wade Foster
Yeah, and when you think about how you do work, at least how I do work, it’s often thematically the same. So, it’s like when I sit down to do this set of things, I always have these windows open up. But if I’m doing a different task, it’s a different set of windows. And so, I can save those workspaces and come back to them really quick, which is nice.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, cool. Workona, W-O-R-K-O-N-A.

Wade Foster
You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Wade Foster
My favorite habit, honestly, this is my cornerstone habit, it’s my exercise habit. So, at 5:30, I’m usually heading to the gym to play racket ball or do some weightlifting, and everything feeds off of this habit. I exhaust myself at the end of the day, it takes my mind off of work. I come home and I’m able to eat dinner and get a good night’s sleep because I’m exhausted from working out hard. Then I wake up early in the morning, fresh and resilient for the next day’s things that I have to do. So, that exercise habit is really important for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share with your teams and those you collaborate with that really seems to connect and resonate with them?

Wade Foster
Our set of values that we have as a company are probably the things that resonate deeply. So, we have things like default to action, default to transparency, empathy no ego, growth through feedback, and, “Don’t be a robot, build a robot,” are a set of core values. These are things that we use in part of our hiring process. We use it as part of our performance reviews. And we even have like Reacji emojis inside of Slack to sort of illustrate when people are operating with the values in mind. And these things, it’s just become a part of our DNA, and it resonates with everyone that works at Zapier.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, “Don’t be a robot, build a robot,” is a great mantra even if you’re not building automation software. But, no, seriously, don’t do the same process hundreds of times over, find a means by which that could be automated. I heard someone say, “Hey, if your definition of automation can include other people who are not you, you know?” So, for example, if there is a job could be done by someone in a lower-cost nation, for example.

Wade Foster
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Or someone who has a lower cost of labor because they’re an intern or don’t have a college degree because it’s not necessary, then that could be handy too if you build a process that has a lot of sort of software automation as well as other people such that you’re bringing down the total time load and cost load to the organization and yourself to make it done. So, that follows up to that mindset shift of not, “How am I going to do this?” but rather, “How is this going to get done?”

Wade Foster
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
And by building a robot or the systems and processes.

Wade Foster
You bet.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s going to stick with me. Thank you.

Wade Foster
I know.

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

Wade Foster
Come check out Zapier.com. You can get in touch with me on Twitter, I’m pretty active there @wadefoster. And my email is not too hard to find, so if you’re really keen on getting in touch with me, email is always a good way too.

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

Wade Foster
I think just go get it. Go automate the stuff. Go find ways to work better. Why are you listening to us for? Go make it happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Wade, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you and Zapier tons of luck and keep on rocking.

Wade Foster
Yeah, thanks for having me, Pete.