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KF #38. Optimizes Work Processes Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

725: How to Master Your Attention, To-Do List and Inbox with Maura Thomas

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Maura Thomas says: "Every email does not deserve your attention."

Productivity expert Maura Thomas reveals strategies for increasing your productivity and truly making an impact.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to regain control of your work day 
  2. The wrong places you’re putting your task list 
  3. How to really get to inbox zero 

About Maura

Maura Thomas is an award-winning productivity and time management speaker, author of two books, founder of Regain Your Time, and nationally recognized expert delivering her unique message that the key to productivity and effectiveness is attention management. She is a TEDx Speaker, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, and was invited by one of the largest publishers in the world to literally “write the book” on productivity (Personal Productivity Secrets was her first book.) Her work has appeared in hundreds of national media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Inc. and The Huffington Post, to name a few. 

 

Resources Mentioned

Maura Thomas Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Maura, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Maura Thomas
Pete, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat through your wisdom about productivity but it sounds like you might also have some wisdom about friendship. You have a group of eight friends that have been tight since elementary school. How did this come to be and what’s the trick?

Maura Thomas
Elementary school, yeah. I grew up in just north of Boston, and for people who are from Boston, they know it was a thing that just like the neighborhood. We spent all of our time out playing with all the other kids in the neighborhood, playing kickball and relievio and all these fun games. Yeah, so there was a core group of us, and then that got a little bit bigger as we went into elementary school from nursery school.

And then that got a little…one more person joined in junior high, one more person in high school, and so now there’s, yeah, eight women but actually two of the spouses of the eight women also grew up with us and went to school with us, so it’s pretty great. And then there’s sort of the extended circles still from high school. So, it’s really a blessing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful. So, how do you stay in touch? Is it like a GroupMe, or a text chain, or just sort of like you bump into each other? How does that go?

Maura Thomas
No, it’s so many ways. We typically travel together, all of us, at least every couple few years.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, fun.

Maura Thomas
Sometimes we’ll do weekend getaways. We have many, many, many, many group text chains for sure and we have an annual party at Christmas.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Maura Thomas
All of us, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s lovely. Well, it sounds like I think a lot of people would say, “Wow, I don’t know how I would possibly find the time for that,” but you have, in fact, written not just the book on productivity but the three books. Last time we talked about attention management. Could you maybe zoom out and orient us to the full empowered productivity system in your three books here?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, for sure. I teach what I call a workflow management system but, really, you could think of it as a life-flow management system. What a lot of people don’t recognize is that the way we operate can be systematized. Most people show up at work, or pat down the office wherever their laptop is, and just sort of do what happens to them. They log into their Slack, they log into their email, they turn their phone on, and just everything hits us and we do whatever happens to us.

But the way that we operate can be systematized. And when you can systematize that so that you have a process for managing everything, then everything gets easier and less stressful. So, my system that I teach is called the empowered productivity system, and that’s what the books cover. The empowered productivity system, three of the components of the system: attention management, action management, and communication management, and there’s a book on each. And so, each, individually, is certainly helpful but, together, they’re really exponentially powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. So, do what happens to us. That’s a turn of a phrase. That resonates. And so, that’s one, boy, key distinction right there in terms of we don’t have to live that way, and there’s an alternative. Can you tell us, are there any other sort of big surprises or counterintuitive discoveries or things that most of us kind of get wrong about productivity?

Maura Thomas
Yes, the biggest thing that people get wrong about productivity is that time management is how we will get more productive. So, first, we need to talk about what does productive mean, and that’s really hard to know for people who work in an office. Because what does that mean? Is it how many emails I answer in a day? Is it how much of my to-do list I check off? What does productivity mean, especially if you work in an office?

If you work, if you’re like a repair person, or a builder, you can see your progress, “I went to six houses today,” or, “I built this much of the house today.” But if you work in an office, it’s so much harder to tell. So, the definition of productivity that I help people sort of recognize is it really comes from the dictionary, it’s achieving a significant result. That’s it. How productive you are is how much progress you have made on the result that are significant to you, personally or professionally, whatever is important to you that day, sometimes the most important thing. Also, the significance changes with the time horizon.

So, what’s significant this minute, this hour, this day, this week, this year, this decade, this lifetime? And so, when I talk about helping people be productive, I mean that I help people achieve more of their most significant results, whether it’s today’s results or whether it’s the legacy that you will leave behind at the end of your life, because that legacy is made in those moments, “Did I have an impact? Did I make people feel loved? Was I kind?” Those moments are when those things happen. So, that’s the definition of productivity that I use.

And your question was, “What’s the thing that people get wrong?” We say that, “If I can only manage my time better, I would be more productive,” but we’ve all had those days, Pete, where you say to yourself at the end of the day, “Oh, my gosh, I got so much done. That was such a good day.” Now, those days are few and far between for many of us but we do say that. We know what that feels like. Most of the time though we have those days where we say, “Oh, my gosh, I was busy all day and I got nothing done.”

But in those two days, we have the same 24 hours. Same 24 hours. We didn’t have more time one day and less time another day. Our problem today in the 21st century is not that we don’t have enough time. Our problem, the reason we aren’t achieving more of our significant results, is that we have too many distractions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Amen.

Maura Thomas
And you can’t solve a distraction problem with a time solution. So, the antidote to distraction is attention. And so, I think the first thing that we need to do is stop framing our productivity in terms of how we manage our time and, instead, frame it in terms of how we manage our attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I would recommend listeners check out our previous interview about attention management. But just for a little teaser, could you share sort of like your top takeaway about attention management?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. We often make unconscious calculations. So, for example, most people sort of have come to this conclusion in their brain that, “My days are loud and distracting, and everybody’s interrupting me, and the office is loud, and I work in an open space, and everybody’s always dropping in on me, and all this technology, and that’s the reality. And so, I just have to figure out how to get my work done in spite of that.” But the truth is we can exert more control over that than we do.

We can control our environment. We can control our technology so that we can get that important work done during our workday because then the calculation is, “I have to figure out how to get my work done in spite of that.” And so, the conclusion that we come to is, “Well, the only time I can really get my work done is when all of that isn’t happening.” And the only time all of that isn’t happening is 11:00 o’clock at night, 4:00 o’clock in the morning, Saturdays, Sundays.

And so, isn’t it any wonder that we have a burnout epidemic right now in the business world because we’re all working around the clock trying to get our work done when people aren’t interrupting us? but we can control whether or not people interrupt us, and we just relinquish that control.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a powerful reframe and reclaiming of the attention or the power and the environment. That makes a boatload of difference. So, good stuff. I’d recommend folks listen to our previous conversation there. I’d like to chat about some of the insights from From To-Do to Done and The Happy Inbox. But maybe, first, could you give us a little bit of inspiration, some cool examples of folks who have put this empowered productivity system to work and achieved some significant results to them? Like, if folks are feeling burnt out or overwhelmed or hopeless, give them some inspiration. Like, what could be possible?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, absolutely. I hear from people every day who tell me that this process has really changed things for them. But the thing that comes to mind right now is a guy, we’ve agreed to call him David because he was in trouble at work and he was uncomfortable using his real name because, at his job, they had that sort of mentality that, “We have to do more with less.” And so, one of David’s coworkers left and so the company said, “Well, we’re not going to hire somebody else. We think you can do this,” and so he just had to keep taking on more and more work.

And as a result, he just falling farther and farther behind because, like most people, he was managing his work with a combination of Sticky Notes, flagged emails, legal pads, Excel spreadsheets, dry erase boards, where he had all of the stuff that he was trying to keep track of. But if that’s the way you manage your life, that’s like trying to do a puzzle when all the pieces are scattered all over the house. It’s just not an easy way. You might still be able to do the puzzle but it’s way harder and it takes way more time.

And so, he learned my empowered productivity system, he learned all the components because he got put on a performance improvement plan. His boss told him, “Look, you’re falling behind. You’re not meeting your deadlines. You need to turn this around. And if you don’t, then we’re going to have to let you go.”

And so, he got my books, and he read them, and he implemented what he’d learned, and not only did he catch up, but he found that he was going home early because he was getting all his work done, and he was able to go home instead of 6:00, 6:30, 7:00 o’clock. It was more like 4:00, 4:30, 5:00 o’clock, and stay on top of things.

He was meeting his deadlines. He was able to manage up a little bit better. So, when his boss came and said, “Hey, we want you to do this, too,” he was able to say, “That’s excellent and I’m happy to do that. And did you know that you’ve already assigned me these 14 things? And so, can you help me prioritize where I should put this new thing?”

And that often made his boss go, “Oh, I forgot you were doing…Oh, right. Oh, you’ve got that too. Oh, right. Well, maybe this isn’t that important. Maybe we should put this on the backburner.” So, he was really able to manage the work that got thrown at him in addition to being able to manage the work he already had. So, it was a huge success story.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Okay, cool. Well, let’s hear, what are some of the key things that can make that happen? Why don’t we start with the action management since we’ve talked about attention management? How do we go about managing those actions?

Maura Thomas
Yes. So, the first step in managing your actions is recognizing that puzzle analogy. The reason that we don’t do a puzzle with all the pieces scattered all over the house is because it takes more time, it takes more effort, it’s more frustrating, pieces would get lost, you don’t have any contexts, you can’t see the big picture.

And for all those same reasons that it’s not useful to do a puzzle with all the pieces scattered all over the house, it’s not useful to manage your responsibilities, your actions, your tasks, when some are in your head, and some are on a Sticky Note, and some are on a dry erase board, and some are on a legal pad, and some are appointments with yourself in your calendar.

So, the first thing that we need to do is we need to get a handle on all of these responsibilities. And, basically, they fall into two categories; things that have a strong relationship to time and things that have a weak relationship to time. So, things that have a strong relationship to time, it means it’s happening on a certain day, like somebody’s birthday, or it’s happening on a certain day and at a certain time, like a meeting or an appointment. Those things have a strong relationship to time. It makes perfect sense to put those things on a calendar because that’s a time-based tool.

But we all have many, many, many, many, many things that we need to do, both personally and professionally, that have what I call weak relationship to time, meaning, “You know, I got to do it soon. I told that client I would call him back a week or so. And I have to get that report in any time between now and the end of the month.” Either it has no due date, “I have to make a dentist appointment,” either it has no due date or it has a due date but that due date is at some point in the future.

So, for example, if it’s due on Friday, nobody cares and it doesn’t matter if you do it on Tuesday at 1:00, or Wednesday at 3:00, or Thursday at 7:00. It doesn’t matter. That has a weak relationship to time. As long as you get it in by the due date, you get to decide when it gets done. And so, those things that have a weak relationship to time, it’s better to manage those things on a task list. And I recommend that that task list be electronic because so a task manager, and there are millions, there’s Microsoft To-Do, and there’s Todoist, and there’s…

Pete Mockaitis
OmniFocus is my favorite.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, there’s OmniFocus and there’s Basecamp and there’s Asana. There are project management task tools and there’s personal task tools and there’s all these task tools. So, using a tool is important and keeping everything in that tool is really important. But, also, a lot of people have put all their stuff in a tool and then just sort of never looked at it again. And there’s a variety of reasons why that might be. Either they weren’t in the tool in a way that made it useful to you, or it just wasn’t your habit to look at the tool.

And so, people say to me, “Oh, I’m just not used to seeing it in a tool and I forgot to look at it so I had to go back to my piece of paper because I could put my piece of paper right there in front of me and always see it.” Well, I think that’s the wrong solution. You’re right, it’s a problem that you put everything in your task manager and then you’re not looking at your task manager. That is a problem, but the solution isn’t, “Therefore, I should stop using my task manager and go back to the way I used to do it.”

The solution is, “How can I remember? How can I create the habit of looking at my task tool and using my task tool?” And there’s a variety of ways. You could set a reminder, “Open your task list.” Some people use Outlook. You could set Outlook to open to your task list instead of to your email, which a lot of people don’t realize that. You could put a Sticky Note on your calendar that says, “Open task list,” or on your laptop screen that says, “Open my task list.” So, those are a couple of reasons why having a tool is important, but then using a tool the right way is a place where people stumble.

Pete Mockaitis
And then I think what’s great here is you’re focusing not so much on…I think it’d be quite tempting to, maybe it’s our attempt to alleviate our own dissonance to say, “Oh, I must not be using the right tool. That’s the thing. I need to use spreadsheet.” It’s like, “Oh, Pete is on OmniFocus. That’s the thing. I got to get on OmniFocus instead of Todoist is just garbage. That’s why I’m struggling.” And so, my hunch, I’ll give you a read on this, is that most often the answer is probably not you got to change your task tool in terms of like the core issue. Is that fair to say?

Maura Thomas
Absolutely. We could think about task tools like golf clubs. If your favorite PGA pro gave you her golf clubs, and said, “Here are my clubs. Now you should be able to win the LPGA tour or the PGA tour.” It’s not the clubs that makes the difference. It’s the way the pro uses the clubs that makes the difference. And so, we say, “Oh, I have this tool but it didn’t change my life, so it must be a bad tool,” like you said.

Well, we wouldn’t say that about golf clubs. What we do is we need to learn how to play golf. And then once we know how to play golf, then any tool will do. A good set of golf clubs is a good set of golf clubs. You’re probably not going to play that differently if you used this brand or that brand.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. So, one key failure point with any number of task tools, I guess, one is just not using it in the first place. Like, you’ve got, I think, a lot of folks don’t use one, and they think, “Oh, I got my email inbox. That sort of has the stuff I need to do, Maura.” What do you think about that?

Maura Thomas
Well, the problem with the email inbox is that, well, there are so many problems. Number one, your list of emails doesn’t really tell you, “What do I need to about this?” So, you put a flag on it, and then you can view all of your flagged emails but, basically, what you have is a list of email subject lines that doesn’t tell you, “Well, what do I need to do? And how important is it? And how long is it going to take me? And who asked me to do it?” And so then, you have to still read every email.

How many times, Pete, do you flag an email? And people tell me this all the time, “I flag an email and then I go to look for it, and I read the flag. And, oh, what’s this flagged email? Oh, right, it’s that thing. Oh, yeah, I’m still not going to do that now.” And so, we read the same email over and over and over again, and we can’t prioritize it, we can’t recognize it quickly, what the task is, we can’t put in in any sort of context in our email, and we all get lots of tasks that come to us in a form other than email.

And so then, people say, “Well, yeah, I just email myself.” Well, awesome because all of us just need more emails. That’s what everybody sits around wishing is that they got more emails, and that is just not a scalable solution.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, first, use a task manager. Secondly, remember to look at it. And I’m thinking about my interview with BJ Fogg, who wrote the book Tiny Habits which is awesome. So, it sounds like you’re saying a lot of people are just missing a trigger or a prompt.

Maura Thomas
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you can make up your own with an alarm, or try to get sort of a habit established, like, “As soon as I sit in the chair and touch my house, I open up the task manager,” or, “Whenever I open Outlook, the task manager is the default.” Any other key, like triggers, or rituals, or times emplacements, that seem to work well for people?

Maura Thomas
Yes. I think the most important thing, I’m so glad you brought up habits, is to recognize that it is the habits. We do habits without thinking, and so that leads us to these calculations that aren’t really conscious. People say to me, for example, “Oh, yeah, I was using the Outlook task list for a while but I realized it was too small. Those little lines on the screen were too small and I couldn’t really read them very well so I stopped using Outlook.”

But they didn’t really, in the moment, they didn’t say, “Hmm, this isn’t serving me because the font is too small. What’s the best solution for that?” They just sort of, “I don’t like that so I’m not going to use it. I need to stop using that,” because you can change the font size, for example. But we make these unconscious calculations because they’re so closely tied to our habits, and we do habits without thinking.

And so, we need to make the unconscious conscious. Like you said, there are a variety of ways, and BJ might have talked about the habitual cues. Habits are related to five different habitual cues, and probably I shouldn’t go down that rabbit hole. But recognizing, becoming more aware of our habits is the first step to changing them.

Pete Mockaitis
Five cues? Tell me more, Maura.

Maura Thomas
Yes. The five habitual cues, the five things that sort of cause us to engage in habits, one is the immediately preceding action, “So, whenever I do this, then I will do that.” Another of the habitual cues is the time of day that it is. So, some people really, myself personally, I crave coffee first thing in the morning but I feel disgusted by the thought of coffee at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon, “Bleh, coffee. No.” So, the time of day can be related to something.

Your emotional state. So, for example, some people eat when they’re stressed, some people don’t eat when they’re stressed. So, your emotional state, there are habits around that. Another of the habitual cues is other people. So, for example, some people behave differently when they are around childhood friends or college friends. Personally, I smoked for a bit in college, and so when I was around my college roommates, I had the urge to smoke. But if they weren’t around, then I didn’t think about cigarettes. So, those are the habitual cues.

The more cues that are involved in a habit, the stronger the habit tends to be. And so, if you can analyze, “Okay, what time of day when I do this, what’s the immediately preceding action? Who else is here? What’s my emotional state?”

Maura Thomas
And the location is the fifth one, so where are you when you engaged in a habit? So, for example, some people smoke only when they go to a bar, since we’re talking about smoking. So, the more of the habitual cues that you can identify around a habit, then you have more chance of disrupting the habit. So, you can, for example, if you always check your email at your desk first thing in the morning, maybe you should work, try working in a different chair first thing in the morning, and then maybe you won’t have the urge to check your email if you think that is interfering with your productivity, for example.

And here’s a hint – it does. Checking your email first thing in the morning is often a challenge to our productivity because it sets us on that rabbit trail. It sets us up to do whatever happens to us, “I have these things that I wanted to do but now there’s this email and somebody wants me to do that, and somebody else wants me to do that. Now this is all happening, and so now my plans go out the window.”

But the more habitual cues that are involved in a habit, the more opportunity you have to disrupt the habit and change it into something that’s more productive for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so right up front, with action management, get out of the email inbox, get into a tool of sorts. There’s a ton. Probably doesn’t need to stress too much exactly which one that you settle in on. Put the stuff in there and remember to look at it via some sort of a cue, prompt, trigger of sorts. Any other kind of quick pro tips, top do’s and don’ts when it comes to action management?

Maura Thomas
Yes. The way that we write things on our list makes a huge difference in whether or not we will actually do it. So, we need to recognize that the hardest part of anything is getting started. And so, if we know that, then we know that if we can make things easier to start, then we are more likely to keep going. So, what I recommend in the book From To-Do to Done is start every task on your list with an action verb but make sure that it’s really actionable. Make sure that it’s really clear. Not only is it an action verb, because there’s actionable action verbs and then there’s vague action verbs. There’s like, “Implement” is an action verb.

Pete Mockaitis
Synergize.

Maura Thomas
Right, exactly. Exactly. It makes you go, “Ahh, what now?” But if you say “Email,” or if you say, “Call,” or if you say, “Enter the data into the spreadsheet.” Like, for example, I tell people, “Don’t say ‘Research competitors.’ Instead, ‘Google marketing agencies in Texas,’” for example. Because “Research competitors” makes you go, “Ahh, am I going to the library? I guess the Dewey Decimal System is involved here. What’s going on right now?” Probably a lot of your listeners don’t even know what the Dewey Decimal System is. That’s how old I am, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, 158.1 is my favorite Dewey Decimal number. I’m with you.

Maura Thomas
That is how old I am. But the more specific you can be, the more likely you are to take an action because, the truth is, we all gravitate toward the fast and easy things on our task list and we leave the big hard-sounding stuff until later. So, if we can make everything sound fast and easy, then we are more likely to get it done.

And the truth is, to be awesome at your job, you know you want to get more done, more of the important stuff done. So, if you can take that big important stuff, break it down, write it down in a way that is very specific and very easy. For example, instead of saying, “Write the article,” say, “Identify the three major points of the article.” That feels easier. But once I’ve identified those three major points, then that’s going to get me rolling, and then I’m more likely to keep going.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. Well, so let’s hear a little bit about email. For one thing, you recommend not checking at the very beginning of the day. It gets you in a groove of doing what is happening to you as oppose to rocking and rolling your vision and priorities. So, what else? If folks are overwhelmed by email, there’s just too much, what do we do?

Maura Thomas
Yes, many things. So, first thing is treat your email inbox as a place to receive messages and process messages not as a place to store messages.

Pete Mockaitis
The inbox is not for storing.

Maura Thomas
The inbox is not for storing.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s for receiving and processing something, okay.

Maura Thomas
That’s right. Because once you just read it and leave it there, then it just becomes clutter. And people say, “Oh, but if it’s already read, I know that I’ve handled it.” But are you sure you’ve handled it? And then even if you have, there’s still all of this stuff that is in there, kind of clogging up and feeling overwhelming. People don’t recognize how much stress they’re under until they’re not under it anymore.

So, I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “I don’t care that there’s 8,752 messages in my email inbox. The only ones I care about are the 10 at the top that are unread.” And I say, “Okay, but just try it my way. Just set up your filter. If you’re using Gmail through your browser, then set it up so you only see unread. Or, if you’re using any other client, once you’ve read it, just move it. Just pick another folder, call it like saved emails or something, read emails, call it whatever you want. Call it old emails, call it archive, call it whatever you want. And once you read it and dealt with it, move it over there.

And I cannot tell you how many of those people who start out by saying, “Oh, it doesn’t matter that I have 8,000 messages,” and I tell them, “Just try it,” and then they like tweet me pictures of their empty inbox with balloons and confetti because they’re so excited that they were actually able to get their inbox to zero. Now, I do think that processing your email is important but I don’t want people to translate that that I believe that every email deserves your attention. It doesn’t. Every email does not deserve your attention.

So, first tip is, use your inbox for receiving and processing only, not for storing. Second tip is that filtering is really important. Creating rules, and unsubscribing, and marking things as junk that you don’t want, and potentially using another tool that you can get those random emails that maybe you want, maybe you don’t, but they don’t clutter up your primary inbox.

So, a tool that I really like is called Prattle. There’s another similar one called Bulc Club, but both of these give you a browser plugin where you can create kind of a throwaway email address. So, if you have to sign up for something or whatever, and so any message that goes to that address goes over here that you can go review that, and you can get a daily digest once a day that says, “Here’s everything that went into that inbox.” You could forward things to your inbox if you want to, but the point is it gets all of that stuff that, “I’m not really sure if I want this. Maybe it’s probably not urgent, it’s not work-related, but maybe I want it.” You can get all of that out by using another tool like one of those.

Another thing is to consider creating a rule that says, “Any message where I’m in the CC line instead of in the To line goes over here into this folder.” Because if you’re in the CC line, it’s probably just FYI. You can probably just sort of peruse those, skim them at your convenience. If you’re in the To line, it’s probably to you and it’s important, and you need to read it.

So, if you filter, if you unsubscribe, if you use one of those services and get a daily digest, then the volume of email that you receive goes way down. And so then, the time that you have to take to keep your email box, to stay on top of your email box, also goes way down.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. So, after reducing the volume in these ways, any way that we can actually go about doing the processing faster? We’ve heard a few times to do so at specific scheduled times as opposed to in the background all day long is one big thing that’s been a theme on the show. How else do you recommend we process emails optimally?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. So, when it’s time to deal with your email, I think the most important tip, so I think that advice to batch process certain times of the day instead of all day long, leaving your email open and reading every one as it arrives, I think that advice doesn’t quite go far enough. I think that the next step you have to take is when you decide, “Now it’s time to deal with my email for the next 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour,” whatever it is, you have to stop all of the new messages from arriving.

So, inbox pause, work offline, fetch manual, this is all sort of email tech terminology that says, “Stop sending me messages,” because every time you read a message, by the time you finish reading it, now you got a new one. So, then you read that one, and by the time you finished reading it, now you get a new one. And so, you can never get to the other messages that came in 15 minutes ago because you’re only reading the one that came in this minute, and the next minute, and the next minute.

So, when it’s time to process your messages, stop. Stop the new messages from arriving, deal with what’s there, and then you should get to zero if you’ve those old messages out, like I advised first, then you download your messages, stop anymore from coming in, deal with what’s there, and then move onto something else. Leave your inbox, pause, move onto something else, close it even, do your task, and then the next hour or two hours or whenever you decide it’s time again, un-pause, get all the messages, pause, deal with what’s there, move onto something else.

So, when I tell people, “Check your email as often as you feel like you need to. Just do it in between other things, not during other things.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. That’s lovely. You don’t even have the option to have an email pop in, and say, “Oh, let’s see what this is about.” That’s cool.

Maura Thomas
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. All right. Well, so tell me, before we shift gears and hear about your favorite things, any other sort of critical practices you recommend? I’m thinking about Chris Bailey here who talks about the ROI of different productivity advice in terms of minutes saved over minutes required to do the thing. Have you discovered that there are a couple practices that are just massively profitable in terms of the time or attention ROI they yield for you?

Maura Thomas
Yes. Now there are certainly a few exceptions to this rule but, in general, not checking your email inbox first thing in the morning can often provide massive returns. Because if you just worked uninterrupted for the first 60, 90 minutes of your day, and tackle those important things on your task list, then even if the whole rest of the day is lost to the rabbit trail of meetings, and emails, and communications, and back and forth, and dah, dah, dah, dah, then at least, at the end of the day, you’ll still be able to say, “But I got that stuff done. It was still a good day.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay, cool. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about your favorite things?

Maura Thomas
I think most of my favorite things are related to productivity so hopefully they’ll be useful too.

Pete Mockaitis
Good. How about a favorite quote?

Maura Thomas
“It’s not the moments in your life that matter. It’s the life in your moments that matter.” And I wish I could find who said that first but I have been unsuccessful so maybe I said it first. I’m not sure.

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

Maura Thomas
Gloria Mark’s research out of UC Irvine that shows that, on average, we switch what we’re doing about every three minutes in five seconds. Oh, my gosh, you can’t even toast bread in three minutes in five seconds. How can we get any meaningful work done in three-minute increments?

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Maura Thomas
My favorite book is called Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman. It’s a really powerful book about our brains.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Maura Thomas
Two tools, tied for first, but they’re both from the same company. The company is called Doist, and they make Todoist, my favorite task manager. They also make a group communication tool called Twist that I use with my team, and love it. And I think it’s better than the ones that are more commonly used.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued. What makes Twist better than Slack?

Maura Thomas
Twist is built for asynchronous communication. And I think the problem with Slack isn’t necessarily the tool. I think it’s the way that it’s primarily used, which is as asynchronous device. Everybody just chats everybody all day long, and everybody is allowing those notifications all day long, and so we end up just constantly distracted. But Twist was built on the idea that asynchronous is more efficient and that very few things really need to be addressed right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Maura Thomas
Single-tasking, for sure. Doing one thing at a time and being present in the thing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that people really connect with and quote back to you often?

Maura Thomas
There are two, if I can squeeze them in really quick. One is when I teach people to shut off their email notifications, which seems pretty obvious but you’d be amazed at how many people still aren’t doing it. Because here’s the thing, do you really need a notification to tell you that you have new email? Let me end the suspense for you right now – you have new email.

In any minute of any day, it is safe to assume you have new mail, so those constant notifications are so damaging, so just shut them off. That’s the first thing that people quote back to me, “You made me realize, I don’t need a notification to tell me I have new email.”

And the other thing is to block out 10 minutes per hour of meeting in your calendar so that you can collect your thoughts, and capture your action items, and reflect on what happened, and just make a conscious shift into your next thing. It makes your days much less hectic and it makes you more awesome at your job.

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

Maura Thomas
MauraThomas.com, where you can find articles on my blog. Right on the homepage, you can sort of get to whatever suits your need, whether it’s my books, or free articles on my blogs, or individual training or corporate training, it’s all right there – MauraThomas.com.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes. You have a choice. You can live a life of reaction and distraction, or you can live a life of intention and choice. And the decision is up to you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Maura, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success and productivity in all your adventures.

Maura Thomas
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s nice to see you.

713: Accomplishing More with Fewer Hours: Insights on Productivity, Rest, and the 40-Hour Work Week with Joe Sanok

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Joe Sanok shares compelling research on how we can achieve more by working fewer hours.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What Iceland learned from a four-day work week
  2. The 1-minute trick for dramatically improving productivity
  3. Quick focus hacks for achieving flow faster

About Joe

Joe Sanok is the author of Thursday is the New Friday: How to work fewer hours, make more money, and spend time doing what you want. It examines how the four-day workweek boosts creativity and productivity. Joe has been featured in Forbes, GOOD Magazine, and the Smart Passive Income Podcast. He is the host of the popular The Practice of the Practice Podcast, which is recognized as one of the Top 50 Podcasts worldwide with over 100,000 downloads each month. Bestselling authors, experts, scholars, and business leaders and innovators are featured and interviewed in the 550 plus podcasts he has done over the last six years.

Resources Mentioned

 

Thank you Sponsors!

  • University of California Irvine. Chart your course to career success at ce.uci.edu/learnnow

Joe Sanok Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Joe, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Joe Sanok
Oh, Pete, I am so excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, it’s been over four years and 500 episodes since we last recorded our conversation. So, I’m just going to put you on the spot, Joe, and say, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve discovered in that time that can help folks be awesome at their jobs?

Joe Sanok
The most exciting and awesome at their jobs, I would say that our biggest creativity comes when we slow down. I took my daughters on a nine-month road trip.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Joe Sanok
And did that during COVID. And through that process, I think it made me awesome at my job because I had so much creativity while working on the road and being remote, that it just was this epic trip that also lit me up in a very positive way that actually helped my job be better.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that message, and you share some of those themes in your latest book Thursday is the New Friday: How to Work Fewer Hours, Make More Money, and Spend Time Doing What You Want. What is the main message here?

Joe Sanok
Yeah, I would say the main message of Thursday is the New Friday is that the four-day workweek is better for society, creativity, and productivity, and that the research and case studies we’re seeing emerge actually show that large- and medium-sized companies that switched to the four-day workweek actually are doing better and having their profits go up rather than go down like most few people would expect.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, and before listeners tune out and say, “Yeah, that’s great, Joe, but I have no power to make that happen,” can you share with us what do we have to learn from these principles if we are in a five-day workweek and there’s nothing we can do about it?

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, for me, whenever I think about when I’m going to approach, “Let’s reconstruct something. Let’s tear down the old way,” I always go to, “Historically, how much of what we believe right now is actually the truth and how much of it might just be things that we think are solid and unmovable?” Because if the way that we work right now is maybe not as solid as we think, then it actually gives us some hope that we can recreate things.

And so, to do that, I think we have to go back a little bit to about 4,000 years ago. The Babylonians, they made up the seven-day week. They looked up, they saw the sun, and the moon, the Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter, and said, “Let’s have a seven-day week.” Egyptians had an eight-day week, and the Romans had a 10-day week. So, even the week is completely made up. There’s nothing in nature that points to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, geez, I think that’s worth a pause right there because, wow, you know, because the Earth really does take 365 days for the Earth to go around the sun. That’s a real thing. And a day, from like a sunrise to the next-day sunrise really is approximately 24 hours. That really is a thing. But the week, huh, we just made that up.

Joe Sanok
Totally made up. We could just as easily have had a five-day week and had 73 of them in a year. And so, it’s completely arbitrary. And so, if we fast-forward to the late 1800s and early 1900s, the average person was working 10 to 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week, so they had a farmer’s schedule but they weren’t all farmers. They were just working all the time.

And so, if we understand that historically context, where, in 1926, Henry Ford switched over to the 40-hour workweek, specifically with the goal of selling more cars to his own employees. His belief was that people weren’t going to buy a car to just get to work faster, but if they had a weekend to go see friends and family, to go recreate, that they would buy a car from the company they worked for. And it worked. And things started to take off.

And so, we see that this thing, that to us, this 40-hour workweek, we got to work five days, that’s less than a hundred years old. And so, well, this thing that we thought was so solid is actually kind of shaky. And then we entered the pandemic of 2020 and 2021, and, globally, we have an experiment to see if we have to keep working the way we’ve been working.

And that’s why right now we’re seeing this great resignation where people are recognizing, “I work for these industrialists who the thing they care the most about is a 40-hour week of me sitting in a chair, and that’s just not what I want out of life anymore.” And so, we see all these people resigning, but the best companies are the ones that are adapting and changing.

So, I would actually argue that, as a post-pandemic generation right now, that we have a window of opportunity to say, “How are we going to reshape society in the way that we think is healthier and can approach the challenges of this century with more creativity?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s intriguing just in terms of expanding our thinking associated with both a five-day 40-hour workweek and kind of everything, like, “Hi, is this sort of built into nature or is this something we made up and when?” That’s just a good little frame to put on all kinds of critical thinking issues in life and work, so thanks for that.

Okay, so then lay it on us some of the research whether folks, indeed, make a shift to a four-day workweek or they just take some nuggets associated with rest and strategic use of hours and some of the other takeaways. Well, either way, I think everyone can be enriched by what we’re saying here. So, let’s hear it, some of the research in terms of companies that made the shift, what happened?

Joe Sanok
Yes. So, the Iceland study that actually just came out a couple of months ago is one of the largest studies of the four-day workweek. And what it did is they had 2500 people that worked a 32-hour week. So, it wasn’t 40 crammed into four, it was an actual 32-hour workweek.
So, the really interesting thing about the Iceland study was that even though it was 32 hours, not 40 hours, we saw a boost in productivity, a boost in creativity, better health outcomes, better happiness. And so, if we think about that and just step back and say, “Okay, at 40 hours, we’re less productive, that means those last eight hours with this study, actually, are detrimental to productivity, meaning that they’re going against productivity, that it peaked at 32 hours.”

And so, we also see, in other ways, the idea of going where we have the macro of the three-day weekend, to then going to the neuroscience around the micro of how we actually do breaks within our regular workday. And so, we start with the internal because so many of the productivity books start with, “Here’s the actual steps you take,” which is very industrialist-minded. That’s the way that the industrialists wanted. They want it to be, “Here’s the blueprint, here’s the exact formula,” but, instead, the new way of writing is giving a menu to help people grow and try things and have their own experiments.

So, we start internally, then we move into slowing down, and then we move into absolutely killing it. So, the problem, typically, that we see is that most people work stressed out and maxed out throughout the week, and then the weekend is a reaction to that stress. So, they overdrink, they oversleep, they aren’t productive, or they’re stressed out even more with their kids. But the researchers point to that when we flip that and actually slow down first and optimize the brain, then we can do better work within our jobs on the other side of that.

And so, for example, there’s a study out of the University of Illinois.

Pete Mockaitis
ILL.

Joe Sanok
ILL, whoo-whoo, there we go.
So, University of Illinois did this study on vigilance decrement. So, vigilance, how well we pay attention to something; decrement, meaning that it goes down over time. And so, the leading idea at the time of this study was that we have a certain amount of energy in a day, and we pour it out, and over time, we just are out of energy and we can’t focus anymore, and the test after that, we just have to pause and not come back to.

Well, they wanted to see if that was actually true. And so, they had this study where they brought in college students, they gave them a random four-digit number, say, it was four-three-one-two. So, the student has four-three-one-two. Over an hour, this four-digit number is going to pop up on the screen, and whenever your four-digit number pops up, you hit a button. There’s going to be loads of other numbers that come up that you have to ignore. Super boring task for this period of time.

They saw that there was vigilance decrement at the end of the study. So, the amount they paid attention at the end was worse than how they had at the beginning. Totally what we would expect. But then, with the second group, at the one-third mark, what they did is they gave them just a one-minute break. They said something like, “We put you on the wrong computer. Just hang out in the lobby.” These students didn’t have their phone, and they just had a one-minute break. Came back, had another third of the study, had one more one-minute break, and then finished up the study.

They found that there was no vigilance decrement at the end of the study, meaning they paid attention just as well at the end as they had at the beginning. And so, evolution in our brain has not caught up to the technology we have, where when we take that one-minute break, it moves us out of our environment, and then it retriggers us to re-engage, and our brains are fearful. It’s paying attention. It’s able to then engage in a way that’s different than if we just work, work, work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. So, powerful breaks, that’s huge. Tell us more about the internal inclination.

Joe Sanok
Yes. So, the internal inclinations are the three inclinations that top performers have based on the research. So, if you want to be amazing at your job, one might say awesome at your job, then you want to really focus on where you’re at with these three internal inclinations. So, the first one is curiosity. The second one is an outsider perspective. And the third one is an ability to move on it.

So, the first one, curiosity. When I was writing this chapter, I was like, “What comes to mind if I was just to start with a blank slate here?” And the idea of curiosity killed the cat, like that’s a terrible thing that we say in our society. “If you’re curious, you’re going to die”? That’s terrible. Where did that come from? There’s actually a cat that got stuck in a chimney in the early 1900s. It was national news for five days. It was like a ridiculous news week. And so, this cat, the world is like following this cat. And then, at the end of the week, there was a frontpage headline in The Washington Post that said, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

And so, this has become something that we think, that when you’re an adult, you stop being curious. But effective leaders maintain that curiosity, so when they enter into something, whether it’s a pass or a fail, they see it as data. And so, if they do a big Facebook ads campaign, or they do a marketing campaign, or whatever it is, even when it “fails” they view it as data about their clients, about their money, about “We’ve learned something here.” So, we want to retain that.

The second thing in the internal inclinations is an outsider perspective. So, there was a research study that looked at this small group of six to eight people at a time. They would show them the color blue or the color green, and say, “Is this blue or is this green?” There were colors that were very blue and very green, and there were ones that were sort of in the middle. For the most part, the group agreed.

Now, in the second version of the study, two of the participants were actually working with the researchers, and there were particular colors that were very blue that they would say it was green, or green that was blue. And they were able to statistically sway the group towards their color that was incorrect. And over and over, we’ve seen studies show that an outsider actually has more perspective and sway over a group than an insider.

Anytime you’ve had a new job and you’re doing the onboarding, and you see things, you have that outsider’s perspective, and oftentimes, you have more sway than you should. So, I remember when I joined a community college, this was in like 2010, so computers were around but they were still handwriting their progress notes for counselling. They were filing them by day in a binder rather than by a person’s last name.

And so, if I wanted to know if somebody came in for counselling before, they had to go back to a calendar, look through it, find it. Outsiders, when you come into a new job, have these eyes to say, “That’s crazy. Why do you do it that way?” And so, effective leaders actually retain that as they move up to have that outsider perspective.

And then the third one is an ability to move on it. And so, we typically have a spectrum where on one side we have speed, and on the other side we have accuracy. And there are tons of times within your job or other things that you want accuracy. So, if I go under the knife, if I have surgery, I want my doctor, I want her to do as good a job as she can, be as accurate as she can. I don’t need speed when I’m in a hospital setting.

But most of business and life and jobs, speed is going to trump accuracy almost every time. And you know when we have jobs and we have supportive supervisors that understand this, that makes it a lot easier because you get more done and you’re able to get that feedback loop quicker as you move forward. But ineffective leaders are the ones that get paralyzed by perfection, they get worried about messing up, getting worried about getting fired over just little mistakes, so then they overthink it, and they’re accurate but they’re slow.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, ability to move then isn’t just about power but speed. And I’ve heard, I don’t remember if it was Korn Ferry or one of our guests talked about a key variable for people being successful in their careers is their decision-making. And by decision-making, they didn’t mean perfect decisions. They meant fast decisions, which I find intriguing. And I think it’s Ramit Sethi, I think he says it very well, something like, “We spend way too much time on most decisions, and way too little time on a couple really critical ones.” And so, most of our decisions, we can just crank and rock and roll, and there’s no need to sweat it, and there’s really just a few that you truly need to nail and take your time on.

Joe Sanok
Yeah, that idea of how much we spend time on making decisions, when you think about rising leaders, they’re usually people that make decisions, they can back up those decisions, they can think on-the-fly oftentimes, and practice thinking on-the-fly. So, these are skills that it’s not pass/fail with the internal inclinations. It’s more we just want to know, “Where are you at with these three?”

If you aren’t boosting your curiosity on a regular basis, or putting yourself in situations where you can build an outsider perspective, or feel uncomfortable, or have the ability to just move on it, you need to be putting yourself in those situations to build that muscle over time so it becomes more natural for you to think critically, outside of the box, as we often hear, or to be able to move on things, or to be more curious.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so I’m all for the breaks and those principles. That’s awesome. I want to hear, so for the skeptics in the crowd, so 32 hours versus 40 hours. I’m thinking there’s probably some distinctions here. Like, if someone is truly in a crank widget factory situation, I think less time is going to yield less output. Is that fair?

Joe Sanok
That’s definitely fair. And I think there are certain industries that are going to shift differently. This isn’t going to be in the same way that the industrialists just gave us a one-size-fits-all 40 hours. That’s why going through some experiments that I talk through in the book, and we can walk through it here as well, are important for teams to say, “How do we apply these principles specifically to our team?”

So, imagine an IT team that helps with passwords in a bank, you can’t just say to your banking clients, “Sorry, you’re locked out. There’s nobody here to help you. It’s Friday. Peace out.” You’re going to have to have somebody that’s on call. So, that’s going to look different for that team versus other teams. But there’s a lot of traditional industries that have an enacted this.

So, I love the story of Kalamazoo Valley Community College in southwest Michigan. This guy Ted Forester was an HVAC instructor. So, he’s a professor of HVAC, teaching about big-building heating and cooling, so a regular blue-collar guy.

Pete Mockaitis
This is like John Goodman in the Community TV show, who is awesome. He nailed that role so good.

Joe Sanok
I know. Right. That’s Ted Forester except Ted Forester is thinner and better-looking. So, Ted, he realizes on Fridays in the summer, there’s like no students on campus. So, he goes up to the roof, and every Friday, takes a picture of the parking lot, just Friday after Friday taking pictures. And then he does it in the fall to show how many people are there.

He then presents to the board of the directors, this HVAC guy goes to the board, and says, “This is what our Fridays look like in the summertime. This is how much we’re spending on air-conditioning costs to cool empty buildings in the summer. This is how much savings that we would have just from turning off the air-conditioning on a Thursday night and turning it on a few hours before Monday morning classes.”

So, they end up switching, five years ago, to a four-day workweek in the summertime, and they did save the millions of dollars in air-conditioning, but, on top of it, their staff satisfaction has gone up, their staff retention has gone up. So, you just think about how long it takes when someone leaves to replace that person in that role, to get them back up to the same productivity of the prior person. Their health outcomes are better and also the student success has gone up because students then can come in earlier in the day, Monday through Thursday, or later in the day, because people are flexing their schedules in really unique ways.

And so, they’re working 36-hour weeks and HR “donates” four hours. And so, they’re working a little bit longer days, but then there’s flexible scheduling where they can work through their lunch, they can come in early, they can keep the office open later. And so, Michigan is winter, like, nine months of the year, and so for people to have a summer where they have a four-day workweek, they’re going to stay in that job longer and be happier in it because of that. And then they’re still saving them millions of dollars in AC costs.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay. Well, so tell us, I’d love to hear, are there any other pro tips for in a world, I guess, fundamentally, whether organizations switch full-scale to a four-day workweek, or we just switch internally to a four-day workweek because we have that own flexibility, or we just decide, “Hey, I’m going to give you more output in less time, and then just kind of chill out a little bit that you won’t notice”? Either way…

Joe Sanok
And I think that’s already happening. I think when we look at Friday productivity, it’s not exactly through the roof, or like a Monday morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. So, fundamentally, what are the key practices that let us generate more output in less time? So, we talked about one-minute breaks making a world of difference for not having that vigilance decrement. That’s cool. What are some other magical things we can do so that we do more with less?

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, one thing that we want to do is we really want to think about the environment in which you’re working, and to give different environments to different tasks. And this can be harder or easier depending on how much control you have over your office space. But even, as I was writing the book, I was using the very principles I was learning to write the book faster than what I thought I could.

And so, even being able to on the day of writing, to protect my brain in the morning. So, I wasn’t checking texts, I wasn’t checking email, I was blocking out the time to work on an important task. And even when I had a full-time job, I would do this. I would say to my boss, “Hey, I’m going to be batching and working through all of these items. I’m going to be in my office if you need me, but I’m going to try to just have my head down for three hours and just go crazy.” And she would respect that, and she would know ahead of time. And then I got so much output done, it was like, “When Joe is in monk mode, just like don’t even pay attention to him.”

And so, what I would do is I would then get together the food that I needed, so I had my green smoothie, I had my coffee, I had my green tea, so all the drinks I need for the morning, and then I set up my environment in a way based on the task. So, this is one of those quick hacks you can do in your office environment to have different lighting and different things for particular tasks.

So, I changed the lighting in my office while I was writing. I moved the chair that I was working at to a different part of the office. I had specific headphones that I only used for when I was writing, with a playlist I only listened to while I was writing. So, that then dropped me into flow state significantly faster than if I had just looked at a white screen, and said, “What am I going to write today?” I came in prepped. I had prepped my brain. I had thought through, “What is this chapter going to look like?” And so, in a typical work world, we can enact these environmental changes to drop into flow state faster.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I imagine with that environment, those beverages part of it was being set up right next to a bathroom.

Joe Sanok
Yes. Yes. And understanding when are you most productive. For me, from about 9:30 to 11:30 is like my peak performance time for a day. Like, the food, the caffeine, the wakefulness, all has me in a point that that’s when I get my best work done. And so, that’s what we want to do, the work that’s most important is when our bodies feel most amped up and most ready to go.

The other thing that I would recommend is for people to really understand their sprint type. And so, a sprint type is similar to a personality type. When we think about sprinting or batching parts of our job, oftentimes we think, “Well, that didn’t really work for me,” and it’s because we don’t know our sprint type. So, some people, their brains are naturally wired to be able to have breaks every 20 minutes while you’re working on the same task. So, spending one to three hours just working on the same task over and over and over.

And so, you break it into 20-minute sprints, you’re just going crazy on that one task. Whereas, other people, what we call task-switchers, are people that they need to have variety. And so, they sketch out what their sprints are going to be, but they’re going to change every single sprint. The other side of it is knowing, “Am I the type of sprinter that needs to have this automated, so an automated sprinter, so every Thursday, in the morning, I’m going to be working on a particular task? Or, am I an intensive sprinter that needs to take time away from the office to really dive deep into particular tasks?”

And so, some people will rent an Airbnb to just dive deep, to get out of the office, they’ll schedule with their boss to work from home or to go away so that they can dive deep into a particular task. And so, when we understand our sprint type, we actually get more done during that period of time than if we just were kind of going along with our regular schedule.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what I really like about this…maybe a theme that’s coming to mind in terms of the things that you’re putting together here is that we’re serious here. There’s a time on the calendar and there’s an environment. There’s a set of conditions: food, beverage, peak energy. There’s a mission, and it’s like, effectively, you’ve turned not messing around into a series of practices that has a date and time and mission and supportive elements around it, and then some rituals, like, “These are the headphones, this is the music, this is the beverage,” that then get associated over time. So, all that’s really cool.

And part of me, I don’t know, my hunch is, and I want to pore over all this research that you’re sharing, with that 40 hours versus 32 hours, I guess part of me thinks that we’ve got over 20% of our workweeks that we’re just sort of frittering away by not being serious.

Joe Sanok
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I guess my question is, if someone is already a kick-butt high-performer, would they still see those gains even though the “average” knowledge workplace, it seems like has no problem?

Joe Sanok
So, I would actually ask the question of this high-performer, “Do they think they are trying new things? Are they stressed out and maxed out? Or, do they have time and space for creativity and daydreaming?” Because, if we are stressed out and maxed out, the research shows that we are not going to try new things. We are going to go with what we know. And for a period of time, that can work, to just go with what you know.

But if you’re really looking to get to the next level in your career, you have to be innovative, you have to be creative, you have to make connections outside of the lane that you’re in. And that almost always comes when we slow down, when we’re taking a shower, or going for a hike, or on a long drive. We start to make these neural connections that we wouldn’t have made if we’re just stressed out and maxed out. So, for the high-performers, I would actually say that they’re going to do even better and more creative work to help themselves stand out within their careers if they slow down.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Joe, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few of your favorite things?

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, the final thing I would leave you with, because sometimes we hear this four-day workweek, or three-day weekend, and it’s just, “Where do I even start?” And I would actually start looking forward to this future weekend, even if it’s just two days, and I want you to add something and remove something. So, what do I mean?

So, I want you to add something that you know is going to help you rejuvenate in a way that is just expansive beyond what you’ve done. So, it might be that there’s a book on your nightstand that you’ve been meaning to read, and if you gave yourself two hours of permission to read that book, you know it would light you up. Or maybe it’s connecting with a friend that every time you see them, you say, “We should get together sometime,” and you just keep putting it off. Find that thing that’s going to add something to your weekend.

And then I would say remove something. So, you may have coffee scheduled with a friend on Saturday morning, and every time you leave that meeting, you feel like trash, “That person is toxic.” Like, I give you permission to cancel that. Maybe you’re sick of working on your lawn and you want to pay the neighbor kid for one weekend to work on it. Or, maybe you’re sick of going and getting groceries, waiting in line, bringing them home, and losing half a day of your weekend. Maybe this weekend, you give yourself permission to take that off of your plate.

And when you do this over time, where you add something and remove something, you learn what’s best for you. It may be that the grocery thing doesn’t really like amp you up as much as you thought it would. It may be that the lawn care actually does. And so, over time, you’re adding one thing and removing something for you to best know how to optimize your brain for the next week, whether or not if you’ve jumped into a three-day workweek or not, or three-day weekend or not.

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

Joe Sanok
Yeah, the quote that I, for a long time, have tried to live and heard so early in my career is “When you say no to one thing, you say yes to all sorts of other things.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a favorite study or experiment or a piece of research?

Joe Sanok
To me, the one I go back to is the vigilance decrement one because it just shows how just that small little bit can make such a difference. And I’m sure there are so many other things like that, that research, that has yet to uncover.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Joe Sanok
I would say there’s two. I’m going to cheat here. The ONE Thing is, by far, my favorite book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Joe Sanok
In regards to just business and focus, but The Untethered Soul, to me, is equal in regards to just allowing myself to realize that at my deepest core, I’m awareness, I’m not my emotions, past feelings, my physical body, and to allow those heavy feelings to just move through my body, has just been a game changer for me.

Pete Mockaitis
You tell me a book can do that for me, huh?

Joe Sanok
It’s a good one. Michael Singer rocks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Just to have total enlightenment over emotion. Okay, that’s worth a read. Thank you.

Joe Sanok
Yeah, little things that I like to pay attention to, like, global enlightenment.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Joe Sanok
I would say that I still…I probably said this last time. Trello, to me, I use so frequently with my teams and my personal life to just stay organized overall.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Joe Sanok
I would say my favorite habit is slowing down, that to genuinely turn my brain off and to go have fun with people, to me, that makes life worth living.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key thing you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Joe Sanok
I would say that they’re shocked at how slowing down really was the thing that helped them completely kill it and grow their businesses. Most people, when they try that, are just absolutely shocked at how well it works.

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

Joe Sanok
Yeah. So, wherever they want to buy Thursday is the New Friday, it’s available wherever you buy your books. I‘m sure your local bookstore would appreciate that. We’re also doing a mastermind group starting the first Thursday in November. And so, when you buy 10 copies of Thursday is the New Friday, you get access to that by just submitting your receipt over at ThursdayIsTheNewFriday.com.

We’re going to be having some top-level podcasters in there. We’re going to be talking about how do you actually implement the book, doing some hotseats. But, most importantly, you’re going to be able to meet new people that are thinking in the same way so that we can have a genuine community of friends that are enacting this together.

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

Joe Sanok
I would say that we are the post-pandemic generation, and we have a short window of time here before people try to go back to what was “normal” before the pandemic. Now is the time when you have the most power to push back. And, especially, with the great resignation, there are so many employers that are looking for creative ways to attract new talent. And if you can be one of those leaders around the four-day workweek, I know it’s going to help you continue to level up in your career. Be a leader, and to live a life that’s more in line with what maybe nature intended.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Joe, thank you. this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in your four-day workweek adventures.

Joe Sanok
Thank you so much, Pete.

710: How to Regain Control of Your Time, Energy, and Priorities with Carey Nieuwhof

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Carey Nieuwhof says: "Start focusing your best work in your best hours."

Author and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof talks about how we’re all living at an unsustainable pace and how to combat burnout through better energy management.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to tell if you’re experiencing low-grade burnout
  2. The best hours to do your best work
  3. The key to saying no well

About Carey

Carey Nieuwhof is a bestselling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, and former attorney. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts. His podcast, blog and online content are accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times each month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change and personal growth. Carey and his wife, Toni, live north of Toronto. 

Resources Mentioned

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Carey Nieuwhof Interview Transcript

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

Carey Nieuwhof
Well, it is great to be with you, Pete. Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to talk about your book, At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities Working in Your Favor. Can you tell us, as you’ve kind of thought through this, talked to people, worked with people, researched, what’s one of the most surprising and maybe counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about people and trying to be at your best?

Carey Nieuwhof
We’re all in the same boat, we can start there. Almost everybody I know, including myself for a long season, felt overwhelmed over work and overcommitted. It just seems to be almost an endemic in our culture these days, so I think that’s a big surprise. The other thing that really led to the writing of the book, for me, Pete, and really the reorganization of my life, and helping thousands of other people do the same, was everybody talks about time management. But the problem with time management is you’re managing a fixed commodity. Like, nobody is giving you a 25th hour in the day. Nobody’s floating you an 8th day a week.

So, I was pretty good at time management, and I burned out. So, the big surprise for me on the other side of burnout 15 years ago, as I reconstructed my life, was I started to focus on energy management, not just time management, and that’s where I started to find exponential returns is when I thought about how my energy level, and it’s a human condition, everybody’s energy level goes up and down over the course of the day. And when I started to manage that, that’s when I started to see exponential returns in productivity, and started to regain a lot of margin in my life. So, I think that’s probably the most surprising thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, I definitely want to talk about energy management. So, maybe could you give us, first, a broad picture perspective on what’s sort of like the big idea or core thesis behind the book At Your Best?

Carey Nieuwhof
Yeah. So, most of us are living in an unsustainable pace, and the big idea of the book is to learn, and I’ve got a system that we can unpack in as much detail as you want. I developed a system to help you live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow. And for my first decade of leadership, I was in law then I moved to church world. I’m a person of faith.

I was leading a rapidly growing church, and after a decade in leadership, I burned out, and it was real struggle for me. And I was living in a way most days that made me struggle tomorrow, made me barely survive tomorrow. And if you talked to most people today, whether they’re stay-at-home parents, whether they’re working part-time, whether they’re full-time, whether they’re in the C suite, or whether they’re entry level, almost everybody goes home feeling overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted, and I was just exhausted. I would get home. I’d flop onto the couch.

So, on the other side of burnout, I started to ask the question, “What does it take to not do that anymore, like, when you’re not feeling well?” And I spent the summer of 2006 really probably clinically depressed because of burnout, and now, 70% of people every year identify with symptoms of burnout, going, “Yeah, I’m kind of burned out or I’m very burned out,” so it’s a real problem. But when I was in that space, I thought, “I don’t want to go back to normal. I want my life out of burnout,” but, like, normal got me burned out. So, how do I create a new normal?

And that’s when I started to really think, “Okay, I want to live in a way today that will help me thrive tomorrow.” And it comes around how to manage your three principal assets. So, if you think about every single person, whether you’re retired, or in preschool, or in a C-suite level job, you have you’re managing time, you’re managing your energy every day, because we all know there are certain parts of the day where we’re kind of dragging and other parts where we feel better, and you’re managing priorities.

And technology has really made it complicated because, suddenly, it’s super easy for everyone else to get their priorities onto your agenda. So, I started to rethink how I approached those three assets. So, when you’re in what I call the stress bio, when you’re overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted, basically, your time is unfocused, you’re not thinking about how to use your time, your energy goes unleveraged, you treat every hour as though it was exactly the same, you don’t really think about your energy levels, and you will allow other people to hijack your priorities.

And so, it took me about three to five years but I built something that I now call the thrive cycle. And on the other side of burnout, I started to think, “Okay, what if I focused my time, what if I started leveraging my energy, and what do I need to do to realize my priorities?” And when I started doing that, that’s when I saw 10X returns in terms of my productivity at work, my level of joy in life, and also the amount of margin I had, like just the free space, the freedom to do what I really felt called to do.

Case in point, in my 30s, everyone said, “Carey, you should write a book. You should write a book.” And I always wanted to write a book but, before I burned out, I just always said I didn’t have the time. So, that was 15 years ago. In the last decade, I’ve written five books. This is book number five. Actually, I wrote six because one I never published. I found it the other day, I’m like, “Oh, I forgot about that one.” It might see daylight some other time. But I’ve written five books, and it greatly expanded my capacity.

So, that’s the overview, that’s the nutshell, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s inspiring. So, there’s a beautiful sort of after state in terms of five books and joy and margin and freedom. Can we visit briefly the before state in terms of burnt out, didn’t want to get off the couch? What was life like just before you’re like, “Whoa, I’m burnt out” and in the midst of the burnout?

Carey Nieuwhof
Well, it was strange, and I don’t want to paint an idyllic picture. I still have days where I’m stressed. I still have days where it’s like, “Whoa, that was too much.” Last week, I had a really busy week. But I think the key that a lot of people lacked is the ability to recalibrate quickly. Going to bed on time, getting up the next morning, you’re like, “Oh, battery back up to 100%.” And so, that’s what I’ve been able to navigate for over a decade now on the other side of burnout.

Prior to burnout, it was getting to the point where I had a terrible formula. So, I started our church, and I’ll use that as the case study because that’s what I was doing full time, started with a half dozen people. Well, I started with three little churches, three little baby churches. Half dozen attended one of the churches, the average attendance was 14 at the second, and the mega church had 23 people.

Pete Mockaitis
Mega. All right.

Carey Nieuwhof
So, very manageable. It’s like running opening day on a business, you have five customers. It’s like, okay, you can handle that. It wasn’t that bad. I remember getting bored the first week I went to work. By Wednesday, I had my sermon written and I thought, because I trained as a lawyer, I’m like, “I don’t even know what you’re supposed to do.” So, I called the chair of our elder board, and he goes, “Well, go visit people.” I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I got lots of time.

But then, almost instantly, the churches started to grow, and at first it was sustainable. Till we got up to about 200, I just put 200 people. I put my pedal to the floor, and I’m a pretty energetic Enneagram 8, if you follow that stuff. Like, I got a lot of energy and it was fine. But the problem with that is it doesn’t scale. And so, I started to get more and more tired, and my bad broken formula was more growth equals more hours. Well, that just doesn’t scale.

So, our church grows from a handful of people to a hundred people, to 200 people, to 500 people, to 750 people, 800 people. At this point, I can’t remember people’s names, I’m up five nights a week, but I think, in my 30s, “I’m superhuman. I can handle this. I can do this.” On the inside, I should’ve seen the warning signs. I didn’t. People kept telling me, “Carey, you’re going to burn out,” and I thought, “Burnout is for weaklings. I’m not weak. The rules don’t apply to me.” So, there was that, and that’s definitely looking back on it. That was arrogance on my part.

I also ignored warning signs like I was starting to feel numb. Life is emotional. People go through good times and bad times. And when someone said they were getting married or having a baby, which should be really joyful, I had a lot of muscle memory, and I could kind of like smile and nod.

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s great.”

Carey Nieuwhof
Yeah, “That’s great.” But on the inside, I’m like, “I don’t feel a thing.” And, conversely, if somebody came up to me on the weekend, even someone I knew, unless they were really close, and said, “I got a terrible diagnosis this week. I have cancer,” I knew what to say but I couldn’t feel it anymore. And that was really, really alarming to me, but I hadn’t been in that state, and I’m like, “Well, someday this will work out.”

So, ironically, you asked what was it like before I burned out. To some extent, I was on top of the world. Church was the largest it had ever been, I had started speaking outside of the church because we’re growing quickly, and people would ask me questions. So, I remember I flew down to Atlanta, and I spoke in front of 2500 people gathered from around the world at a conference, worked really hard for months on that talk, it was the biggest audience of my life to date. And by all accounts of everyone in the room, I crushed it, like knocked it out of the park. I’m, like, amazing. My wife and my boys were with me. And when I flew back to Toronto from Atlanta, when I got off the plane, it’s like I fell off a cliff and it’s like my body went on strike.

So, that numbness that had been building for a couple of years, the turmoil in our marriage, we were fine on the outside but there was struggle on the inside, the lack of sleep, all of that caught up with me, and it’s like my body said, “Well, that’s it. We sent you all kinds of warning signs, but now we’re strike.” The body was on strike. And I didn’t declare a finish line so my body did. And I went into what probably, had I gone for a diagnosis, and I went to a counselor, I didn’t see my doctor about it, I should have, he probably would’ve said, “Carey, you’re depressed.” And I lost all my passion. And I’m a very passionate person. I became very cynical. I kind of thought life was over, and it was painful.

And I got up most days, you hear these stories of the guy who can’t get out of bed. I got up pretty much every day, maybe a little bit later, and I’d go to work and go through the motions, but there was nothing on the inside. And you can get away with that for four months but you can’t do that for four years. And by the grace of God, the first flickers of passion started to return in the fall of that year. That happened in May of 2006, where my energy just tanked.

By the fall, I felt the first flicker of hope, and it’s like my heart beat for a millisecond again, and I’m like, “Oh, emotion. This is good.” And then it was gradually, but it took years, like three to five years to really find my new footing to say, “Okay, I think this is the new normal,” and for my heart to fully function again. And I’m so grateful it did, but, man, anybody who’s ever burned out, like it is awful.

And now, I read a Deloitte study, summer of 2021, if I get this right, it was in the 80s. I think it was 82% of senior executives leave work every day emotionally exhausted and physically drained. And according to a study done before the pandemic in 2019, 70% of adults in their 20s and 30s say that they experienced some of the symptoms of burnout in the last year. So, I think we’re just living at this pace where it’s kind of like, “I was feeling like me 15 years ago.” Now, it’s like, “Whoa, there’s a lot of people, like millions of people are in that state every day.”

The other thing I would say is I’m not a doctor, I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’ve created this category I call low-grade burnout, having taught thousands of people about this. And low-grade burnout, the working definitions are the functions of life continue but the joy of life is gone. In other words, yeah, you’re getting up, you’re shipping podcast episodes, you’re taking the kids to soccer, to dance, you’re socializing with friends, you’re going to work every day, maybe you’re even setting records, but there’s no joy in it. You’ve built a life you want to escape from. And I think that’s a kind of burnout that’s just in the water supply these days.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. Well, thank you for sharing. That’s powerful stuff and a wakeup call for many in terms of like numbness or joy, whether it’s all the way gone or like halfway gone. It’s like, hmm, to note that as an indicator, like, “Something is amiss here. Adjustments need to be made.”

Carey Nieuwhof
Pete, it’s almost a human condition now but my point is it doesn’t have to be. Like a lot of us, you get into your late 20s or 30s and you grow a little bit cynical, and you think, “Oh, I guess this is life.” There’s that old movie with Jack Nicholson, I think it’s Helen Hunt, this is, “As Good as It Gets.” And a lot of us to that point, and that’s the whole point, right? We’ve built these lives and we’re like, on the outside, I had it all. Like, I had a beautiful wife, great sons. We were the church everybody would travel to, to see, because it’s where it was going on. But on the inside, I was dying.

And I think there are so many people now who are in that place where it’s like, “Got the house, got the car, got the job, got the family, got the girlfriend,” whatever your life situation is, “…but how come I’m so flat on the inside?” Now, I think, as a person of faith, some of that is spiritual. And you’re not even going to be able to figure out what that is until you get a level playing field, and you can say, “Okay, let’s get time, energy, and priorities working for me, and then I can actually see, ‘Is this the right job for me? Is this the right relationship for me? Is this the right life circumstance for me?’” Because if you can’t feel anything, you can’t assess anything, but that is now what passes for life for so many people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, all right. So, joy, that’s a huge a motivator, a huge why to try out some of your goods, Carey. And if that wasn’t enough, your approach also liberated for you a thousand productive hours a year. Can you share with us sort of that math and how it results in such a staggering result?

Carey Nieuwhof
It’s a little crazy, and when I wrote it down, I remember the first time I quantified it, I thought, “I feel like that infomercial guy.” But it’s actually what happened to me, and it’s got a bit of street cred because, before I wrote the book, I taught this to leaders around the world and also offered a course that we ran, I think, 3500 leaders through. And the results are three hours a day to three hours a week.

Pete Mockaitis
Somewhere in that ballpark you’d expected that level of result.

Carey Nieuwhof
Somewhere in that ballpark. So, three hours a week, it’s like, yeah, I became somewhat more productive and I freed up three hours a week. You know what that boils down to? That’s about 160 hours a year, which you think, “Well, that’s not that much.” That’s like getting a month of vacation, like your next four weeks are free because you’ve eliminated so much of the clutter in your life. If it did for me, and it’s done this for hundreds of other people, maybe thousands now, three hours a day, it is not hard to waste three hours a day. It’s the same with your time as well. Like, it doesn’t take that long.

And the biggest section of the book is on priorities. The first part tells you, “Here are some tips on how to use your time. Here’s how to leverage your energy,” which seems to be the big gamechanger. But the bulk of the book is actually on priorities because, otherwise, you have a good theory. And what happens every day is you start in reactive mode. First thing you do is you look at your phone, then you dig around in your inbox, then you’re on social media. And, suddenly, what you’ve allowed is other people’s priorities to determine how you spend your day.

And then you’ve got that really important thing to do at work, the project you’ve got to turn out, the report you’ve got to give in to your boss, the client you’ve got to meet with, the deal you’ve got to land, but you didn’t get to it. And the reason you didn’t get to it is because, “This guy called and then I got called into a surprise meeting, and then I’ve got 17 texts I haven’t responded to yet. And, oh my gosh, I looked at my inbox, it’s a disaster. It’s on fire.” And then you got pulled into another meeting, and someone knocked on your door, and said, “Hey, can I just have five minutes of your time?” but it wasn’t five minutes.

Or, you’re in a cubicle and everyone is distracting you every three minutes. The next thing you know, it’s 4:30 in the afternoon. In my law days, you’re still not ready for court tomorrow, you’re still not ready for whatever that big project is, and now what do you do? You take that home with you. And so, what the “At Your Best” system does, the thrive cycle does, is it makes sure that you get your most important stuff done. And then, all of a sudden, you’re like, “Oh, okay, I am now in a place where I got the big stuff done. Yeah, there were some flashfires and, yes, I had that impromptu meeting at 2:00 o’clock.”

But you can walk out of the office at 4:00 or 6:00, or close your laptop if you’re working from home, at whatever your normal signoff time is, and you’re like, “I’m done. I’m going to go for a bike ride. I’m going to go out for dinner with friends,” and you’re not thinking all the time about that giant project you have to get done. So, that’s what really where the claim comes from. And if you do that, if you reclaim three peak productive hours in a day, that’s 1,095 hours in a year.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. So, then three hours that have been frittered away in a meeting that didn’t need to happen, or an email checking, or social media frittering that didn’t need to occur, by liberating three a day, we get over a thousand a year. Understood. Well, so then, let’s get into it. What are some of the like top practices that are so transformative for folks?

Carey Nieuwhof
There’s a million time-management books out there, a lot of which I’m huge fans of, and some of the authors of whom endorsed this book, like Greg McKeown, Cal Newport, David Allen, I’ve interviewed him for my podcast. Probably the breakthrough for a lot of people when you’re looking at “At Your Best,” is I call my own language out. And the language I hear a lot of people use, it’s simply this idea that, “I don’t have enough time.” The whole idea of time famine.

So, when it comes to managing your time, it’s pretty easy to say to yourself, like I did all through my 30s, “Pete, I don’t have time to write a book. You don’t understand how busy I am. These things grow like crazy. Like, I haven’t got time to write a book.” And then, one day, I had this realization, and I don’t know why, everybody knows this, but it just hit me like a ton of bricks one day, it’s like, “Carey, you have the same amount of time as any other human being on the planet. If you’re running a Fortune 50 company, nobody gives you a 25th hour in the day. Like, it just doesn’t happen. You have the same amount of time as everyone else.”

And then I started to think about how productive some of my heroes were, and made me go, “What gives?” And so, what I made myself do, and this is what I would encourage every listener to do, is start admitting, or stop saying, I should say, stop saying you don’t have the time. Start admitting you didn’t make it. So, just stop saying you don’t have the time. You actually have the time. What do you want to do? And I’ve asked lots of leaders about that, like, “What do you want to do?” and people are like, “I want to launch my own podcast,” “I want to write a book.”

Or, I remember one person said, “You know what I want? I want a weed-free garden. Like, my garden used to give me so much joy, and I just never have time to weed it.” I’m like, “Well, you actually have the time, and you can do that.” Other people want to paint, and they want to do different things with their life, “I want to learn how to cook,” “I want to learn how to ski,” or whatever it is. You actually have the time, “I want to crush out the next quarter’s goals before midnight on the day before they’re due.” Okay, great. Well, you can do that. And so, stop saying you don’t have the time, start admitting you didn’t make it. So, that’s time.

And then energy. So, you have 24 equal hours in a day, but, as you know, not all hours feel equal. People like Daniel Pink and Cal Newport have identified, using brain research and science, that most people seem to have about three to five peak productive hours in a day. If you really think about it as a writer, having written books, all my author friends would tell you they cannot write for 17 hours a day. It’s just not true. Well, you could but by hour seven, you’re spewing garbage at that point.

And if you’re up against a deadline, “Yeah, sure. Okay, I can work till midnight if I have to because I have to get this chapter in,” but you’re not producing your best work. Most writers would say success is a thousand good words a day, which doesn’t sound like much but that may take you three to five hours. So, you’ve got three to five hours in a day where, I’d argue, you’re at your best. So, we usually think about this as like morning people, night owls, or people who hit their peak midday. What would you say, Pete, I’m curious, are you a morning person, a night owl? I call that your green zone, your best. What are your best hours in the day typically?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, it’s funny, and, I don’t know, I don’t think this is always the case, but over the last, I don’t know, six years, it really seemed like it is the morning…and we had a couple sleep doctors on. And so, in the earliest of mornings, we’ve got what one called groggy greatness in terms of, “I might not be super alert, but, wow, I’m getting a lot of good ideas. I don’t know if they’re good yet, but I’m getting a lot of ideas which I’m parking to later evaluate to see if they’re good.” And then maybe an hour into the day, it’s like, “Okay, let’s get after some stuff.”

Carey Nieuwhof
Yeah. Could you put it on a clock? When people think about this, they usually find they can. So, is it like 5:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m. for you, 8:00 a.m.? When does your green zone start?

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, if I wake up at 6:30, I feel really raring to go at 7:30.

Carey Nieuwhof
Yeah, great, 7:30. And then when do you start to fade? A little bit mental clarity, a little bit of brain fog, like when does that hit?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in some ways, after maybe around 90 minutes of doing something, it sure is time for a break, but then it’s not over. I would say, well, I’ll put it this way. At 1:30 p.m., I sure don’t want to schedule something important. It’s, like, I am sleepy and I will be, hopefully, lying down for a power nap, if possible, around then.

Carey Nieuwhof
Thanks for being so honest about that because I think, in the ‘90s, when I came into the workplace in law, there was this idea that we were robots, we were superhuman, and sleepy was for wimpy people. And what you just admitted, along with every single person listening to this podcast, that you’re human, and that’s the way humans operate. So, my hours are 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. That seems, these days, to be my best. If I’m lucky, after a power nap at lunch, I’ll get another incredible hour, and that would be my green zone.

Cal Newport says we have four of those hours a day where you can really do deep work. Daniel Pink would agree that it’s a very limited window. And even if you’re a night owl, I was talking to my wife, she was talking to someone who says her best hours are between 8:00 and midnight. It’s like, “Wow, more power to you.” But at that point, if I’m on a sofa, I’m probably falling asleep in the next 20 minutes. Like, that’s just me.

So, you have green zones, those are your best hours. And I’d encourage you, even if you can’t say exactly where they are, like pick a zone. Is it morning, afternoon, evening for you as a person listening to this show? Then you also have, on the other side, red zones. It sounds like 1:30 in the afternoon could be a red zone for you. 4:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon is getting into my red zone.

So, we’re having this interview later in the afternoon, so I had a little quick nap at lunch, and then I went for a 30-minute bike ride before I jumped on because I wanted to be mentally clear, kind put some paddles on the heart to get me going and make sure that I was going to deliver for you and your audience. But, normally, 4:00 to 6:00, it’s either I need a nap or I need to get my body moving.

And then everything in between is just yellow. You’re not at your best, you’re not at your worst. And the way to think about it, and this is the Archimedes lever for almost everybody who’s tried this system, if you’ve got your best hours, start focusing your best work in your best hours of all the things in your job description. Let’s say your job description has ten things in it. Even if you’re a founder, you know this. It’s like you still have parts of your job that you’re not very good at and that aren’t that important. That’s like every single job, there is no dream job where it’s all 100% everything you want to do and you’re still good at it all the time.

I know for myself, right now, I write books and speak and run a digital communication company. If I write well, that’s number one, that’s what I’m best at, that’s what I’m gifted at, I’m a communicator. If I have a clear and compelling vision, if my staff are aligned, and if we have the money to do what we’re called to do, then everything is going to be okay. If I start writing poorly, if the vision is fuzzy, if my team starts to fight or bicker or gossip, or if we run out of cash, we have problems.

So, what I do in my green zone is I try to focus on the things that move the needle in those four areas. Write killer content. If I’ve got an issue with the staff or I’ve got to clarify vision or the future, I’m going to do that in my best hours in the morning, and I’m going to protect those hours. I used to be the king of breakfast meetings, and I’d go to a breakfast meeting, and you know how those worked.

You get up at 5:00, 6:00, whatever, make it to the restaurant for 7:00, you’re supposed to be done at 8:00 but it went long, it’s now 8:30. Then you stop by the coffee shop, grab a coffee to go into the office, you get into the office, five people stop to talk to you, and then you get in, and you look at your phone, you got like five texts, you’ve got a whole bunch of unread emails. Next thing you know, it’s 11:30, it’s time for lunch.

Well, if that’s my life, I’ve got like a chapter to write, or when I was a preacher, a sermon to write, or I’ve got a vision document I’m working on, now my best hours are gone. I just burned that fuel. It’s gone and it’s not coming back. And then if the afternoon is a whole bunch of like reactions and meetings and all that stuff, by 4:30 in the afternoon, I haven’t moved the needle. I’ve spent the entire day doing not what I’m best at. What is probably inconsequential and not that important, I now go home and I’m like, “I got to write that chapter.” And then I see my wife and she’s like, “What are you doing tonight?” It’s like, “Sorry, I got to work again.” When my kids were young, it’s like, “Got to work.”

So, that’s time and energy, and we can talk about priorities separately because that’s a big thing. But those are the big ideas. And so, what you do is you protect those peak three to five hours whenever they are from outside distractions, and you do what your best at when you’re at your best. That’ll move the needle.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. And what I’m thinking about is like then there are some things that, I don’t know if there’s a word for this, Carey, but I think there needs to be. Maybe there’s another language. But it’s almost like fertile-ness, or like fertility. It’s sort of like there are some activities, like writing a chapter for a book, that’s perfect. Thank you. If you do that with great energy, you get a better result versus there are other activities that it doesn’t matter what energy you bring to them, like you still check the box, regardless. Like, maybe it’s a mandatory training that…hey, you and I like training. We do training. But there are some trainings or like…

Carey Nieuwhof
Your fire drill training.

Pete Mockaitis
I think there are some sort of like compliance-y things, like you have to check the box in order for it to be checked. And it is checked, and, thusly, you can proceed. But it doesn’t need to be like masterfully checked. Like, you don’t get a better result if you bring more brilliant time, energy, attention to it, to a certain task. And other tasks, it makes all the difference in the world. Like, “Hey, I’m going to make some decisions about my priorities, and my vision, and what projects I’m going to pursue versus not pursue.” Boy, that matters a ton, if you’re doing that sort of like attentively and brilliantly, or half in the bag. Like, that’s huge, versus other things don’t.

So, is there a word, Carey, for like the condition in which something yields more the better you attend to it versus the opposite, like, “It doesn’t matter as long you get that box checked”?

Carey Nieuwhof
No, that is a really good point. I’ll bet you the Germans and the Japanese have a word for that because they always have great words. I speak neither Japanese nor German, but I would call it, you used the phrase, I think, inconsequential. There are things. So, for example, I’m not my executive assistant. I have an EA. Her job, because we get hundreds of emails a day into the inbox, her job is to do a really good job responding to all of the emails that need a response. That needs to be her green zone.

Email, for me, tends to be transactional. Pete saying, “Hey, do you want to be on my podcast?” it’s like, “Yes, I would like to be on your podcast.” I want to be polite. I want to be nice, but that is not the highest value-added work. Me showing up prepared for this interview, to have a good conversation, that’s actually important.

So, what I would say the word that I would use, there’s inconsequential things. Email is relatively inconsequential. I can do that in my yellow or red zone when my energy isn’t at its peak because I’m just saying yes or no or being kind to people, and I can do that on autopilot. Writing a chapter for a new book, that has impact. So, the word I would choose is impact. And the thing to think about, I’ve got a Venn diagram in “At Your Best,” and if you buy the book, you get all these downloads for free with it off the website. But imagine three circles, so: gifting, passion, impact.

So, gifting can be your skillset. I’m, by nature, a communicator. When I was a kid, I was like in public speaking contests. When I was in law, loved being in court. I was in court almost every day. I was only in it for a year but, man, I loved being in court. When I was a preacher, guess the part of the job I like the most? Growing a church and preaching. I loved the communication part. Guess what I’m doing now? Podcasting, writing books, writing articles, connecting with leaders. Communication is a gift for me that I think I was given, and it’s also something I really enjoy doing most days. Most days I really enjoy it.

It also happens to have the greatest impact, that when I communicate well, everything goes better. When I communicated well in law, my clients won. And when I was preaching, the church grew, when I was preaching well. When I’m writing well, I wrote a post yesterday, it’s funny you mentioned you get ideas at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for a while, and I woke up at 5:10, and I said to my wife, “The post was fully formed in my head. I went downstairs, wrote it down really quickly.”

Like, that kind of rest and margin allows your brain to be free. And, sure enough, this one did connect with leaders and tens of thousands of leaders read it in the first 24 hours. I’m like, “Awesome.” That’s a good example. So, there you have impact. So, ask yourself, “What is the biggest impact of that work?” Like, when your boss says, “Well done,” was it because you filed your expense report on time? Well, maybe, if you’re in accounting, yes. But it’s really probably for those things that move the bottom line of the company forward. What is it in your job?

If you’re a receptionist, super important to do customer service well. And, by the way, the bar is so low on that these days. All you have to do is be a kind human. If you’re a kind human on those phone calls, if you’re a kind human, and when somebody comes in, and says, “Hey, would you like a glass of water, or a cup of coffee, or that kind of thing?” man, that goes a long way. I say to our customer service people, like, “Just be kind to people. Just give them a timely response. Like, that has such an impact.”

We do online courses, and we offer a 30-day money back guarantee. The industry standard on refunds for online products is 10-30%, depending on your field. We get a lower than 1% return rate. Why? Well, first of all, we give it to anybody who wants it. No questions asked, so they know it’s there. Secondly, we try to over deliver on value. That has a super high impact. That’s important. That deserves your green zone.

So, think about, “Where is my biggest impact? Where is my gifting? Where is my passion?” You get those three things going together, that’s how you use your green zone. That’s how you use those peak three to five hours a day. And then, finally, for personal application, Saturday and Sunday maybe you’re not in the office, but I used to give my wife the leftovers. I’d mow the lawn in the morning or I’d wash the car in the morning. Well, if that’s my green zone, maybe we should go for a breakfast date, and then I can wash the car later. I can mow the lawn when it’s like, “Hmm, should I have a nap or should I mow the lawn?” You see?

So, you start to rethink that because my wife is more important than my lawn, as much as I’m like a lawn guy. Definitely more important than the lawn. So, you can start rejigging your priorities, in that way you start showing up more for the things that really matter in life.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Okay. So, right there, green, yellow, red, have those three to five peak productive hours on super high impact stuff that where the things align there. So, then let’s talk about priorities. How do we think through and establish what is top and what is middle and what is low?

Carey Nieuwhof
So, priorities can run in two directions. One is to think about, “What is of greatest impact?” so definitely do that exercise: passion, gifting, impact. And that could lead into a promotion or a new job for you one day. But, again, if you can determine that, you know your priorities. The priority section of the book is really designed to help you get this from theory to reality. Because if all you do is implement what we’ve talked to today, and you’re like, “Good. I’m starting that tomorrow,” you’ve heard it already, you know what to do, I promise you it’s going to blow up in your face.

And the reason it’s going to blow up in your face is everybody else is going to ask you to do something else. You’d probably say, “I’ve got two meetings in my green zone five days a week. What do I do with that?” We can talk about that. Or, even if you don’t have meetings, you’re like a morning person, you’re like, “Yeah, my first meeting is at 11:00 a.m. that’s ideal,” you will distract yourself. We have devices now that just buzz and chirp and distract us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including in our green zone, and then you’re sitting down, maybe you’ve turned off all notifications on your phone, but you’re sitting down, someone knocks at the door, “Hey, Carey, can I have five minutes of your time?” It’s like your green zone goes up in flames.

So, priorities is really as much about, “How do you stop the world from hijacking that green zone?” Because if you use it well, and you get those three to five hours in, some days it’ll be three, some days it’ll be five, but you get those in and you start using them consistently, you’re going to start feeling like you could go home by lunch because you’re like, “I got the report in,” “I’ve solved the problem,” “I created the new pivot table that’s going to change accounting.” Whatever you’re doing, you got it done and you’re like, “Oh, it’s just a meeting this afternoon. It’s just an inbox this afternoon,” like everything else feels easy.

But the world will conspire against you to hijack your green zone. So, first thing I would recommend is stop distracting yourself. Even when you get into that green zone, you get into a comfortable environment, a quiet environment, if you’re in a cubicle, put headphones on. Headphones are the universal, “Don’t bug me” symptom.

Nir Eyal, who also endorsed the book, he writes in his book Indistractable, you can talk about in your office, put like a little traffic cone on your desk, a mini one, and when the traffic cone is there, it’s like, “Hey, I’m in my zone. Please don’t bother me until after.” So, you’ve got to set up some signals to stop distracting yourself. So, I would suggest turn off all notifications on your phone.

By the way, if you’re wondering how to do that, and you’re listening to this in real time, iOS 15 just released some amazing features where you can now set different levels of privacy for different times in the day. Just released days ago as we record this, but I’m excited to try out these ideas with red, yellow, and green zone because a lot of people are afraid to totally protect their green zones, turn off their phones, shut off all notifications because they’re like, “Well, what if my kids need me or what if my boss needs me?”

We used to have to set up favorites to do that. Now, you could set up a green zone feature on your iPhone, if you have an iPhone, and you could say, “These three people are allowed to reach me during my green zone. That’s it.” So, if it’s your boss, your spouse, a child, that’s fine. And they’re probably not going to call you very often, but block the rest of the world out. It’ll be there later in the day.

So, you want to stop distracting yourself, and then you’ve got to stop…you’ve got to learn how to say no so you don’t overcrowd your calendar. Happy to talk about that if you want to go there and talk about mastering the art of saying no.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you, Carey. That was absolutely on my list. So, how do you say no well?

Carey Nieuwhof
Well, it’s hard. One way is to determine, Pete, what you need to say yes to and what you need to say no to. And Greg McKeown talks about this in Essentialism, I’m paraphrasing him, but imagine all the requests that come your way as being somewhere between a zero, “Definitely don’t want to do that,” and a ten, “Oh, my goodness, I can’t wait. I want to do this so bad and it’s the right thing to do.” So, zero is like “No way,” ten is “Fantastic!”

Most of us are smart enough intuitively to get rid of the zeroes to fives, it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really want to do that,” “No, that’s not a really good use of my time,” “No, thank you so much, but I’m okay.” Our lives get filled up with sixes, sevens, and eights. And what Greg McKeown says is if it’s not a nine, it’s a zero. And that was really hard for me. Even as I was developing this material, I have so many opportunities and I want to say yes, but that filter of, “If it’s not a nine, it’s a zero,” is a really, really powerful filter.

So, what I would say is start using a new filter in your decision-making. And another way to look at it, I think Seth Godin came up with this, but ask yourself the question, because six months from now, someone is asking you to do something in February, you look at your calendar, and, by the way, if you implement this system, your calendar will not be blank six months down the road. But most people’s calendar is blank, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I have time in February.” But then February comes and it’s all filled up and you don’t have any bandwidth for it.

Seth Godin says, “Would you put it on your calendar tomorrow?” If the answer is yes, then it’s probably a nine. If the answer is no, then it’s probably not a nine. It’s probably six, or seven, or eight. So, a lot of us get somewhat moderately excited about an idea, it’s a six out of ten, and we say, “Yeah, I’ll do that in January,” and then January comes around, and it’s like, “Oh, why did I let that on my calendar?” And I think there are a lot of people who are like, “Why did I let that on my calendar?” create a new filter. And then what you do is you master. Now you know what to allow on your calendar.

And then the second thing is, “How do you say no?” Well, we say no every day just because it’s the size of the audience. And I think what you say, if you can say this honestly and with a clear conscience, say, “You know, I’d love to do that. Pete, I’d love to help you with that project. Unfortunately, in light of my current commitments, I’m unable to do so. But thank you so much for asking me. I really appreciate it. I wish you well. Carey.” That’s short. Simple. It’s clear. It’s not like, “Check with me in two weeks,” because then they come in two weeks, you’re like, “Yeah, I still can’t really do it.” It’s just clear.

And Steve Jobs famously said what was best about Apple’s innovation was not what they said yes to, but what they said no to. And by having that undistracted time, by having a focus that was pretty legendary, he and the team at Apple were able to come up with products that nobody else could come up with. And that was the singular focus on saying no so that he could say yes to a phone that changed the world, or to a device that played a thousand songs in your pocket.

And if you get that kind of margin in your calendar, if you get very good at saying no, you have to overcome FOMO in everything, you will find that you probably can start to realize things in your life and at your work that will astound you and surprise you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Carey, this is awesome. Anything else you want to make sure to say before we hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Carey Nieuwhof
No, I would just say ask yourself this question, “Are you able to run at this pace forever?” And most of us would say, “I’m not able to run at my current pace forever, maybe not even another month, maybe not another week.” And the problem there is if your life, if you’re saying to yourself, “Well, Carey, it’s just a busy season,” seasons have beginnings and endings, and if your season doesn’t have an ending, it’s not a season. It’s your life. And do you really want to live that way? And if you don’t, I’d love to help.

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

Carey Nieuwhof
Okay. Winston Churchill, “Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

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

Carey Nieuwhof
I love what Daniel Pink did in his book When, when he analyzed surgeons and discovered that even they struggled with what we’ve been talking about today. Did you know that if you have your surgery at 8:00 a.m. you are far less likely to have complications? And if your surgeon operates on you at 4:00 p.m., there’s a 400% spike in challenges with surgery in the afternoon over the morning because we’re all humans.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good study.

Carey Nieuwhof
Yes, a very good study.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Carey Nieuwhof
Favorite book? I love Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times. Fantastic book.

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

Carey Nieuwhof
Oh, I use Evernote a lot. I have just thousands of notes in Evernote. Been around for a long, long time but it’s a go-to.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Carey Nieuwhof
Habit would be going to bed early. My wife says she married an 85-year-old man. But I love sleeping in on the frontside. I think it makes me better in the next day, so I try to get to sleep by 10:00 every night.

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

Carey Nieuwhof
Yeah. You know, the one that keeps coming back is “Time off won’t heal you if the problem is how you spend your time on.”

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

Carey Nieuwhof
Yeah, you can go to AtYourBestToday.com, that’s the gateway into the book. And we’ve got some special offers there for people, so just AtYourBestToday. Don’t forget the today part. And then you can find me at CareyNieuwhof.com. A very hard name to spell, but if you butcher it, Google will probably get you there.

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

Carey Nieuwhof
Yeah, I would say you can do this. Find those peak three to five hours, protect them, and you will see results starting pretty much overnight.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Carey, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck and fun and adventures at your best.

Carey Nieuwhof
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been a joy to be with you today.

682: How to Boost Your Results through Extreme Productivity with Robert Pozen

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Robert Pozen shares his key tips for effective prioritization and how you can make meetings easier.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The schedule hack for efficient prioritization
  2. The system to make your email work for you
  3. How to say “no” to a meeting 

About Robert

Robert C. Pozen teaches at MIT Sloan School of Management, where he offers courses to executives on personal productivity. He was president of Fidelity Investments and executive chair of MFS Investment Management, and served as a senior official in both federal and state government. His seven books include Extreme Productivity, a top-rated business title that has been translated into 10 languages. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, and was on the editorial board of the Yale Law Journal. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Resources Mentioned

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Robert Pozen Interview Transcript

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

Robert Pozen
Glad to be with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. So, I understand you spent some time doing some sports hall of fame work. Any cool stories there?

Robert Pozen
Yeah. Well, I was a member of the board of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts where we helped raise money to put together a new Hall of Fame, which is really great, a lot of interactive features, and really great stuff that lots of kids really like. Probably the most interesting part of that is when I was in the induction ceremony.

We have an induction ceremony every year, and there was, my wife came to the first one, and she said, “Gee, I’m the smallest person by a long shot here,” because everyone was like 6’6”, 6’7”, 6’9” so that was a lot of fun. The other thing is when we sat as a board, we sat in alphabetical order, and I happen to sit next to Oscar Robertson in a lot of meetings, and he was really fantastic.

He was one of the few players to hit a triple double. So, he was really one of my idols. In fact, I wrote a little poem about Oscar Robertson, which tried to convey what it would feel like if you’re listening to a basketball game with the Cincinnati Royals where he was playing. And one of his teammates was Bockhorn. So, would you like to hear the poem?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Robert Pozen
“Robertson, Robertson, Robertson.
Robertson, Robertson, Robertson.
Robertson, Robertson, Robertson.
Bockhorn, Robertson.”

So, that’s the poem to convey the sense of how dominant he was in the game. So, it’s a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
A poetic master at work. And you’ve also written some prose in the non-fiction world. I want to hear a little bit about Remote, Inc. and Extreme Productivity. Let’s start with Remote, Inc. Can you tell us, what would you say is one of your biggest surprise discoveries as you were researching and putting together these insights?

Robert Pozen
I think one of the biggest surprises was how much more work it takes for managers of remote teams to really manage effectively. A lot of people think, “Well, if you’re managing a remote team, there’s not as much to do because you’re not seeing these people as much,” but that’s just the opposite. You have to work a lot harder to manage your teams when they’re remote. You’ve got to work a lot harder to keep their spirits up, to give them guidance, and to give them regular feedback. So, that’s a very different result than I thought when I started to research the book.

Pete Mockaitis
And are there a couple best practices you’d point to that show folks doing that super well?

Robert Pozen
Yeah. So, one best practice is to have a weekly meeting of your team. Now, a lot of people have that but we want to see that meeting be forward-looking rather than backward-looking. And a lot of weekly meetings are just reporting on the activities that you’ve had so that doesn’t really get you that far. We want everybody to say what are they planning to do for the next week so members of the team can input their suggestions, can give them context, and really help them to be more effective for the coming weeks.

Now, the second practice is we’d like to see team managers have one-on-ones with every member of the team every week. Because when people are remote, they’re feeling somewhat isolated, they’re not that integrated into the team, they’re a little worried. Some of them might be suffering from loneliness or even depression. So, having the manager speak to them, if only for half an hour a week, makes a big difference.

The third thing is performance reviews. I’ve always been against the annual performance review where it’s a formal sit-down and there’s usually a document, which is formulated and then filed and never seen again. What we want to see is to have periodic feedback, not one big performance review. So, you want to have periodic feedback after every large project, and at least once a quarter. And that’s really important when people are working remotely. They really need that feedback, they need that guidance, and having it on a regular basis is really critical.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, how about some tips when you’re not in the position of team leader?

Bob Pozen
So when someone works remotely, they ought to have a different mindset. They ought not to think of themselves as an employee who takes instructions and detailed directions from their boss. They ought to think of themselves as a business of one. And by that we mean that they should think of themselves as if they’re a small business owner, which they own their own resources and time.

And that implies that the relationship with their boss is one of a client, and not an underling, so they ought to treat their boss as their client and agree with the boss on what their deliverables are, and the boss obviously has to set them. But then, once there’s an agreement on deliverables, it’s up to the employee when and where and how the work gets done. And so, that autonomy that really helps people be more productive and more satisfied.

And we try to operationalize this in what we call success metrics. That is when you have this discussion with your boss about what he or she wants you to do, you then try to operationalize it in success metrics, saying, “At the end of the week, or the month, or whatever the project is, how are we going to know whether we’re successful?” So, we want people to agree on those success metrics because if there’s an agreement on success metrics, three really good things happen.

First is there’s a clarification of what we mean by the objectives of the project. If you take a project, say, like improve customer service, people can have very different ideas about what that means. But when you have to take that general idea and make it into success metrics, then the team and the boss get tremendous clarity on what they mean and what they’re supposed to be doing.

Second of all, when you have success metrics, you can avoid having the boss micromanaging because the boss then has comfort that at the end of the period, there’s going to be these success metrics so we’re going to know whether they achieve something. Most bosses are a little uncomfortable with remote work because they’re worried about accountability, and success metrics provides that accountability.

And the third thing is that once you have success metrics, then you have the freedom to work when and where and how you want, because as long as you’re producing those success metrics, then you’re okay. And it’s that autonomy, as I’ve said before, that really produces, that helps people become much more productive and much more satisfied with their job.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. Well, then sort of zooming out beyond just the world of working remotely, you’ve done lots of work helping folks become more productive or even have extreme levels of productivity. Can you share with us, what are some of the most useful solutions that folks in your audiences come back again and again, and say, “Wow, this made all the difference”?

Robert Pozen
Well, one thing we ask people to do is to be very explicit about setting their priorities and then integrating them into their daily schedules. Now, people say, “How do I integrate them into…?” your daily schedule. So, we suggest a two-sided schedule. On the left-hand side, you have the typical schedule where people put their meetings, their phone appointments, their other things. But then, on the right side, we want them to put, “What do they hope to get out of this meeting? What do they hope to get out of this phone call?”

So, people have told me that this is really useful because it helps them focus on what they really should be getting out of all these appointments, otherwise they can go through a whole day, and they come home, and they say to their spouse or partner, “I’ve worked really hard but I don’t know whether I have accomplished anything.” What that really means is they’ve been passive, they’ve accepted other people’s meetings, other people’s emails, they’ve responded to them, and they really haven’t been pursuing their own priorities. So, that’s one big thing.

A second thing that people like a lot is what we call OHIO, only handle it once. We talk about how you handle messages, and we strongly urge that you filter out a large number of messages, and that you skip over a lot of messages by just looking at the subject matter and the person who sent it to you. But then we stress that if there’s an important message, one from an important person, like your boss or your spouse or the IRS, we stress that you need to answer it right then and there if you can.

And that turns out to be a very important practice because if you don’t answer an important email right then and there, you put it in sort of a holding pattern or a holding box, before you know it, you have a hundred of those. And then if you go back to find it, it may take you half an hour or even more to find the important message that you’ve sort of let slip, and worse, you’ll forget about the message altogether and you won’t answer it. So, by using OHIO, only handle it once, that forces you to answer those important messages right then and there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to dig a little deeper on each of these. So, when it comes to that two-sided agenda and, “What do you hope to gain from this meeting or phone call?” could you give us some example articulations of that? Because I imagine, it’d be quite possible to have some answers to that question that are a little bit soft or weak, and not quite as helpful, like, “Oh, we’ll just kind of see where we’re at. Touch base.”

Robert Pozen
Well, those would be good examples of almost non-goals or non-priorities. So, suppose you were a member of a team, and you’re working on a project, and you were a little up in the air as to how much budget you’re allowed to spend in the next month on this project. So, if you had a meeting with your project leader, you might write down in the two-sided schedule, “Nail down exactly how much budget we have for the next month.” So, that would be an example of something where you really were focusing on your priority.

Pete Mockaitis
And what I like about that is when you’ve determined, “This is my purpose. This is the goal. Nail down the budget,” like if that was sort of generally floating in your head, like, “Oh, yeah, that’s probably one of the things we should talk about,” one, you might not get to it, and, two, you might not be nearly aggressive enough to get it in terms of like, “Hey, so what’s our budget?” Like, “Oh, yeah. Well, we’re kind of figuring that out. We’re talking to the finance and accounting guys.”

And then if you said, “Well, no, this is the one thing I want from the meeting,” you’re more likely, I’d imagine, to ask those follow-ups, like, “Okay. So, when will you have that for me?” and/or, “Well, so I’m about to spend a hundred grand tomorrow, is that okay?” And then you’ve got something even if it’s not the entirety that you’re hoping for.

Robert Pozen
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And the other beauty of having to put down your priority, what you’re trying to accomplish in a meeting, is that you might say, “Well, now that I understand this meeting and what’s on the agenda, I shouldn’t go there because I don’t have any priority to achieve,” not, “There’s nothing important happening for me.” And that leads to a whole discussion about how you might go about treating meetings and dealing with them more productively.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really want to talk about effective meetings shortly, but before we lose it, you mentioned filtering out messages in email. Is there a piece of software, or a tool you use, or a protocol? How do you do that filtering well?

Robert Pozen
Well, I use keywords, and unsubscribe is a good example of a keyword. So, if there’s an unsubscribe in the email, then that goes into my newsletter file because those are almost all newsletters. And another keyword is if somebody’s talking about a political contribution, so that goes into a separate file, and those files, I tend to empty and not really spend any time with.

So, you can use Google, you can use any of the typical software, but the key is to figure out the right keywords that will really focus the system and will help allocate the emails to the right folders.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I guess there’s like a split inbox or like an auto-labeling or moving thing going on.

Robert Pozen
Correct. Exactly. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. Okay. Cool. Well, so, yeah, we talked about priorities, I guess that’s a big question. So, how does one arrive at priorities? And I guess this is kind of like, “What’s the meaning of life?” But maybe in terms of like a daily, weekly, monthly basis, how do you recommend guiding the difficult thinking, decision-making process by which you determine, “Aha, yes, this is the priority and this is not so much a priority?”

Robert Pozen
Well, I like to ask people to just start by setting out their annual goals and then writing them into different segments. So, you want to talk about your professional goals, those for your own professional development, and those for your team or organization, and you also want to talk about your personal goals, and you want to write them down and deal with them systematically.

But then I think those goals set a framework and you have to bring them back to your week. So, what I’d like to do is to ask people, on a Sunday night, just sit down, or sometimes during the weekend, and try to think about, “What are going to be the things that I really want to accomplish this week?” and to put a list of must-dos together, and then have other lower priorities. So, that’s the sort of methodology that I think you need to use.

You got to start with the big picture, but then you got to bring it down to your week, and distinguish carefully between the must-dos and the nice-to-dos. And then, every night, I want people to sit down and revise that list in light of what they’ve been able to do, what’s come up new, and what they’ve learned so they might revise that for the next day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very nice. And how do you recommend, when you’re communicating no to someone, either for a meeting that you realized you don’t need to be there for, or for a request? Do you have any favorite ways of saying no?

Robert Pozen
Well, I think in terms of meetings, what I like to do is to ask people, “What’s your agenda for the meeting? Please send me the agenda before I decide whether I need to go.” So, some people will never send you an agenda so that suggests there is an easy way to get out of the meeting because they never sent you the agenda.

Then other people would send you an agenda, and there would be nothing really on the agenda that was really important for them, for you, so you would say to them, “Look, I’ve looked at your agenda, and I don’t think that these are going to really be critical to my priorities, so let me skip this and I’ll be glad to look at the notes of the meeting, and see where there’s anything that’s come up.”

A third possible thing is when people send you for a meeting, to say, “I’ll be glad to go to this meeting but in order for me to be effective, I really need to have a list, for instance, of contractors if we’re going to discuss contractors.” Or, “I really need to see some numbers about this product, or the product launch, before I go to the meeting.”

And so, that’s where you just sort out whether somebody’s really going to be serious about the meeting and help you have an effective meeting, or they’re just not going to respond to you, and then, again, you can sidestep the meeting because they haven’t provided what you’ve told them is really important information.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, Bob, when you use the language, “My priorities…” I’m imagining a response along the lines of being a team player, it’s like, “Well, Bob, this might not be in alignment with your priorities but, really, all of us are altogether trying to accomplish X, Y, Z.” How do you think about that dance and that balance in terms of…?

Robert Pozen
Well, that’s a fair question, and I think you could say, in response, is, “Okay, let’s discuss what the team’s priorities are and how this meeting is going to further them. And then if I can understand how this meeting really furthers the team’s priorities in a way that I can add value, I’d be glad to attend.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good deal. And, let’s say, when we’re actually in the meeting, it is upon us, what are some of your top tips on having those meetings being engaging and meaningful?

Robert Pozen
Well, I think it’s important to distinguish between whether you’re leading the meeting or whether you’re just attending the meeting. If you’re leading the meeting, it’s incumbent upon you to realize that the key to meetings are discussion and debate, and not just droning on with lots of PowerPoint. So, you need to keep your initial remarks down to, say, 10 minutes, and use those 10 minutes to really key up, “These are the issues that we’re going to be focused on today, and this is what we hope to accomplish.” So, that’s how you begin the meeting.

Second is you ought to really promote discussion and debate by going around and asking people for their opinion. I usually suggest that people start with the more junior members at the table because if the most senior person talks, they might feel a little intimidated and not want to talk or disagree with them. So, that’s a second thing.

A third thing is that you got to have good closure in a meeting, and you’ve got to sort of say, “Well, this is what we’ve decided, and here are the next steps. Here are the people who are going to be responsible for the next steps and here are the timeframes.”

Now, if you’re attending a meeting and those things don’t happen, you could say, for instance, if somebody starts on 40 PowerPoints and they’re just taking up all the time for the meeting by going through PowerPoints, you might say politely at some point, “Well, that’s great. We’ve really learned a lot. But are there some issues that you would really like us to discuss, we have some input in?” So, that would be a way to stop somebody from going through 40 PowerPoints.

Similarly, at the end of the meeting, there are lots of meetings that end inconclusively. So, you could say toward the end of the meeting, “Well, this has been a great meeting. I think we’ve decided X, Y, Z but it seems like we still have to resolve A, B, C. Let’s talk about that. Let’s focus on that.” So, that’s how you, as a participant in a meeting, can really move it in the right direction.

Last thing that’s really important about meetings is that they not last too long. There’s a lot of evidence that people who go to back-to-back video meetings, as is true in a lot of people when they’re working remotely, they wind up with Zoom fatigue, they wind up not focusing, they become very unproductive. So, I’d like to see organizations say no video meetings will last more than 45 minutes so there’s at least a 15-minute break in there when people can get away from the screen, maybe have something to eat, go to the men’s room or ladies’ room if necessary, and really relax a little.

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

Robert Pozen
Okay. Well, I want to talk about how people are going back to work in a hybrid environment and what that means and how companies ought to deal with that because that’s really what a lot of them are going through now. So, I think that most people, when our survey say, they don’t want to go, in the future, to be all remote and they don’t want to be all in person. They want a form of a hybrid.

And so, most organizations are struggling now with how to design that for a hybrid. And in the book, Remote, Inc. we suggest a variety of factors that you need to look at, and we have a little acronym called FLOCS, to sort of summarize those factors. So, one, probably the most important is the function. What’s the nature of work that you’re doing? How much of it is collaborative? How much of it involves brainstorming? Those would suggest that you ought to do more in person in the office. Versus, “How much of the work involves extended periods of concentration?” So, that would suggest that you should spend more time at home.

A second factor is location, the obvious thing. Some companies have most of their people around one metropolitan area so it’s a lot easier for them to come back in person. But more and more companies are scattered throughout the United States, so it doesn’t really make sense to come to the office if there’s nobody else there. So, you might have satellite offices or you might have things where people come in just a few days.

A third thing is organizational structure. So, some organizations are built more on individual work and others are built more on teams. If they’re built more on teams, that suggests they ought to be in the office. A fourth factor is culture. So, a lot of the senior executives I’ve talked to are very worried that if people don’t come back in the office enough, they’ll lose their company culture, and I think that’s correct.

And that’s why I think even companies that are spread around the country ought to have several weeks in the year where people come together. And I think it’s especially important for onboarding new people because that’s the way that they learn what the culture is. They can’t just read a mission statement. Every company has a nice-sounding mission statement but they really need to figure out what’s the actual culture.

And a fifth factor is S, scheduling, making sure that the team comes in on the same days. If you have a team, you want them to come in all on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You don’t want some people coming on different days.

So, the other question that people ask me a lot in terms of designing a hybrid is, “Should the individual’s wishes be paramount or it should be organization’s issues be paramount?” And my answer is straightforward, the team is the critical variable.
So, if you look through these five factors, you might come up with a very different answer for each of the teams. So, we should try to recognize individual wants as much as we can but, ultimately, the team’s needs should predominate.

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

Robert Pozen
One of the favorite quotes that I have is, “Let’s make a new mistake.” And by that, I mean it’s okay to make a mistake, it’s okay to, in good faith, to have something go wrong. But the key is, when that happens, to set things up so that they don’t happen again, to take preventative action. So, that’s what I say, “Let’s make a new mistake,” meaning let’s not make the same mistake over and over again.

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

Robert Pozen
Well, one of my favorite books is by an economist named Amartya Sen who wrote about famines in the third world. And what he showed was that a lot of famines didn’t come about because there wasn’t enough food. They came about because of the political, social structure which didn’t allow for the best distribution. So, I found it really revealing that these terrible famines, many of them could’ve been avoided, if we had better political and social economic structure. It wasn’t just a question of not having enough food.

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

Robert Pozen
Well, one of the things that I do is I take a nap every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too.

Robert Pozen
I take a short nap, a power nap. And so, I really believe in those power naps. So, some time in the afternoon, when my body temperature goes down, I take a nap. And I find that just by, I carry a blindfold when I travel, so I just put my feet up, put my blindfold on, and before I know it, I take a 20- or 25-minute nap, and it re-energizes me for the rest of the day. So, I’m a strong believer in naps.

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

Robert Pozen
There are two websites. One is BobPozen.com that has all my articles and books. And then we have a new website for the Remote book, which is RemoteIncBook.com. So, that’s another place that they can do that.

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

Robert Pozen
Yeah, I think the real challenge for people is to stay focused on what’s most important to them. And I think a lot of people haven’t really sorted that out. They haven’t really figured out what are the biggest priorities that they have, what are the highest priorities that they have. And then, second of all, to stay focused during the day and during the week on those top priorities.

A lot of people engage in various types of behaviors that, say, procrastination is a good example where they avoid what is really important to them and so they don’t get it accomplished. And I’d say, more generally, people need to think carefully before they start to do things, and spend the time up front in really thinking through why they’re doing it and what they’re doing.

For instance, I teach a course at MIT on personal productivity, and we give people a reading, a diagnostic test, and there’s huge difference. Some people read this article in three or four minutes. Other people take 14 or 15 minutes. And it turns out, the difference is the people who read faster and effectively have thought clearly about what they’re trying to get out of this reading, and then they read for that. They don’t try to read every word. What they’re trying to do is read for their purpose whatever their purpose is.

And, similarly, I’m a speedwriter. I was asked from time to time to write an article for the Harvard Business Review. And when I wrote an article and submitted it, the editor-in-chief said to me, “You’re the only person we have who hands in his or her articles on time and within the word limit, and it seems like you have two jobs. You’re working in the investment industry and you’re teaching a full load. So, we’d like to know what your secret sauce is.”

Bob Pozen
The key is to use outlines so you can think clearly, what’s the logic of your argument. A lot of people try to write without outlines but it’s a big mistake because writing is two different processes, thinking and then translating. And outline is the way in which you think through the logic in your argument. And once you get that down, then you can translate a lot better.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool. Well, now I’m curious. If you’re a huge advocate for outlining, and you are best in class at delivering the goods in terms of on-time and within the word limit and being a hit, any extra detail you’d like to share associated with how you think about an outline really well?

Robert Pozen
Well, if we want to think about writing in an outline, the first thing you got to do is let yourself put down on a piece of paper all the ideas that you have for the article or the memo, whatever you’re going to write, and let yourself just put them all down. A lot of people get stuck because they’re not willing to put those articles, those ideas down. They get some sort of block. So, if you just put them down and you’re not worried about any particular order, that helps.

The second thing you do is you group the ideas into the natural groupings. And so, that helps you in the third thing, which is you order them logically. You take the groups and put them in a logical order. And then the fourth thing is you always want to write for good readers. So, you want to start with an introduction that tells the reader, “Why you’re going to be interested in reading this,” and then gives the reader what I call a roadmap that says what the structure of the article or the memo is going to be. And then you want to write a good conclusion.

So, that’s the key to writing outlines is start with just lots of ideas; group them, number two; put them in a logical order, three; and then, four, put them in a format that’s good for the readers.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you do an outline, kind of what kind of depth are you shooting for in terms of is it simply, “Hey, I’ve got five top-level things and then like three sort of second-level things under each of them”? Or, how do you know when you’re like, “Yup, this outline is sufficient”?

Robert Pozen
Well, it depends on what you’re writing. If you’re writing a two- or three-page memo, which is what most people write in business, then usually if you can just have five points, that will be enough to guide you through. If you’re writing a more academic piece, then you might have to have the same five points but lots of subheads so that you’ll know how to develop it.

But I actually try to write most outlines on one page because you want the line of argument to be really clear, and so you want to have it in a very succinct form on one page. So, that’s sort of the way I’d strongly urge the people do it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Bob, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you all the best in your extreme productivity and your remote adventures.

Robert Pozen
It’s great meeting you, Pete.

647: Cal Newport: How to Break Free from Your Email Inbox

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Cal Newport says: "You don't need advice for how to deal with your overflowing inbox... You need to change the structure of your business so that your inbox is not overflowing."

Cal Newport reveals how the rise of email led to a productivity disaster and what we can do to change that.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How email changed the way we work for worse 
  2. Simple strategies for cutting down the email back-and-forth 
  3. Why we feel guilty when we don’t respond—and what to do about it 

 

About Cal

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to researching cutting­ edge technology, he also writes about the impact of these innovations on our culture. Newport is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller, Digital Minimalism, which argues that we should be much more selective about the technologies we adopt in our personal lives, and Deep Work, which argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace. 

Newport’s work has been published in over 25 languages and has been featured in many major publications, including the New York TimesWall Street JournalNew YorkerWashington Post, and Economist, and his long-running blog Study Hacks, which receives over 3 million visits a year. He’s also a frequent guest on NPR. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Cal Newport Interview Transcript

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

Cal Newport
Well, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I got to hear one of the most noteworthy things about you, which is an interesting comment to make in this day and age, is that you have no social media accounts. Can you tell us why and how it’s going for you?

Cal Newport
It’s true. I think I’m the last person under the age of 65 and above the age of 12, for which that’s true. I don’t know. I’ll tell you what, this has not been that bad of a period to not be on social media, I think, if you could measure cortisol levels and graph it somehow, you would have all of American culture, all American society, and then me, probably a good 50% below it because I’m just not exposed to the up-to-the-minute fretting and doom-scrolling. So, it’s been good.

So, basically, it turns out it’s allowed. Just for idiosyncratic reasons, a long time ago, I’m talking 2004, I just decided, “I think I’m not going to use social media,” which at that point that was not a fraught decision in 2004 because there was not that much social media but I just sort of stuck with it because, why not? And it’s given me this really interesting vantage point. I’m like an anthropologist able to look around me and watch the impact the social media on everyone’s lives with a little bit of distance. I mean, I’m the last people who’s actually never had an account who can actually study it with some distance.

And here’s what I’ll say, I know what’s going on in the world, I still have friends, I still find ways to be entertained, I still manage to sell books and run a business, so it might not be as bad as people fear.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’ll take it. And have there been any downsides, any regrets, anything you miss? Maybe you can’t miss it if you’ve never had it.

Cal Newport
No, not really. I’ll tell you what happened that helped reduced regret is the big social media platforms, they had initially had this claim that, “We’re valuable because of network effects. We’re the best way to connect with friends and family and we’re the platform where all your friends and family are, so if you’re not on Facebook or if you’re not on Instagram, you can’t connect with your friends and family.”

But they basically gave that up about five or six years ago, and said, “No, no, what we’re really about is entertainment. We’re kind of leveraging your social connections to learn the type of stuff you’re interested in but what we are is a stream of things to look at,” and most of these digital interactions with friends and family began to shift from social media over to tools like text message, or Zoom calls, or other types of tools like that which I do use.

And so, I’m not missing out on the original promise, which is, “This is how you keep up with friends and family,” because that is largely moved off of social platforms. Now, they’re just a highly addictive form of entertainment and, I don’t know, I think I found other ways to entertain myself so, so far so good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s talk about your latest work, A World Without Email. Provocative. Could you kick us off maybe with one of your surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made as you’re doing your research there?

Cal Newport
Well, I was surprised to discover the extent to which how we work today, which I call a hyperactive hivemind workflow, which is, put simply, work unfolds with a constant unstructured stream of ad hoc messaging, whether that’s delivered through email or Slack or whatever tool you want to use. I was surprised by the extent to which that way of working is basically arbitrary.

So, we assume all of this emailing and Slacking, like we do this because it’s a pain but it’s more productive, or this is how work gets done. If we didn’t always communicate with each other, if we weren’t constantly, “Here’s a message,” “Here’s an email,” “Here’s a reply,” “Here’s a CC,” that we’ll somehow be less productive. And it was rationally decided by managers and consultants, and at some point, people figured out this is a better way of working. It turns out that’s not true.

It largely emerged somewhat haphazardly, more it’s just a side effect of what this new tool made available and it interacted in an unpredictable way with just human nature, and you can document this. But, basically, we stumbled into this world of sort of constant, ongoing, unstructured conversation. And then we look backwards and try to justify it and live with it.

And one of the big claims in this book is that there’s nothing fundamental about, “Let’s put an email address, associate it with every person. Let’s put everyone on a Slack channel and just rock and roll to figure things out.” There’s nothing fundamental about that being the best way to do knowledge work. And, in fact, when you really look closely at it, it’s actually a pretty terrible way of doing it for a lot of factors. There are many other ways you could approach it. So, I think that degree to which this is just, in some sense, email is decision that we work this way and not our own was definitely a liberating discovery for me as I got deeper into this topic.

Pete Mockaitis
That is intriguing. All right. So, we just kind of fell into it. And so, lay it on us, so why is it terrible? What makes email so detrimental to knowledge worker productivity?

Cal Newport
Well, the first thing I’ll further clarify, just so we have like a foundation for the discussion, is the title is sort of provocatively succinct when I say A World Without Email, but what I really mean, and this would be a less sexy title, is a world without the hyperactive hivemind workflow that email introduced. So, when I say a world without email, what I mean is a working world in which constant unstructured unscheduled conversation is not at the core of how we get things done.

The problem with that workflow, that hyperactive hivemind workflow, is that it forces us to switch cognitive context constantly. Say that four times fast. Because if you have to be maintaining dozens of these ongoing asynchronous, unstructured, unscheduled conversations, all these different threads, because that’s how everything gets figured out, from figuring out how to deal with a new client, to scheduling something, to pulling together bullet points, I mean, all this is happening on asynchronous threads, unstructured, unscheduled, just messages going back and forth, the only way for work to move forward is you have to constantly be monitoring and tending these threads.

That’s why when you look at the data, you see that people check their email inbox, on average, something once every six minutes. It’s not a rational behavior, it’s not a lack of willpower, it’s the only way you can keep up with so much ongoing concurrent communications is you have to keep checking. The problem is every time you check an inbox, you check a Slack channel, you induce a context shift within your brain. So, you’re switching your attention from the primary thing you’re working on to an inbox full of messages, most of which you can’t address right there in that moment.

And then you’re trying to bring your attention back to the main thing, that creates a huge pileup within your brain that reduces your effectiveness, that stresses you out, it makes you anxious, it makes it harder for you to think. So, we basically designed an approach to work that accidentally really reduces our ability to actually do work. We just cannot maintain these two parallel tracks of constantly monitoring communication while also trying to work on other things. We’re not wired for that, it goes against our sort of fundamental neural architecture, and I think it’s been a real big hindrance to both productivity but also people’s happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then I’m curious. We had Dave Crenshaw on the show recently talk about the myth of multitasking and talked a bit about switching costs. Can you dig into that a little bit sort of just how costly is it when we do that? Do we lose a few seconds or something much greater?

Cal Newport
I would say it’s much greater. It’s hard to exactly quantify but every time you’re doing one of those email checks, you might induce 10 to 15 minutes of notably reduced cognitive capacity, where one-half of your mind is still trying to figure out, “Well, what about this message from our boss?” And we’ve all had that experience of writing emails in our head, which is like a real indication of our mind. It sees these open loop social communications. It wants to have to deal with that.

Now, the issue is if you’re checking your inbox on average once every six minutes, that means you never escape that effect. So, the typical knowledge worker is basically spending the vast majority of their time in a significantly reduced cognitive state. It’s almost as if every 30 minutes, you walk by and gave everyone in your office a shot, “Here, take some whiskey,” right? It’s less fun but it kind of has a similar effect. So, we’re talking about not, “Oh, I’m wasting a few minutes.” We’re talking instead like maybe you’re at 50% of what you could produce.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in that ballpark of 50%, okay, that’s striking. And could you share, is there any provocative studies or experiments or bits of research that can put an exclamation point on this?

Cal Newport
Well, the idea that there are these switching costs goes is something that goes back to research from even the early 20th century. But there was a researcher named Sophie Leroy who more recently really applied this idea of switching costs to exactly the context of working in an office. And she had a really interesting background.

I tell her story in the book because I spent some time interviewing her. She had actually been in academia, she had been working on her degree, and then she went and worked in industry. And then when she came back to academia from industry, she said, “Man, there’s this thing going on out there that wasn’t like it was before with all of this messaging,” this was the early 2000s, “We have to study that.”

And so, she had this dual background where she had a business background, she was an organizational management but she’d also trained in psychology so she understood the brain, and she exactly was quantifying what happens when you do this context switching and you’re trying to do actual office work. So, she had subjects come in to do this research, and they were giving them office work style tasks like reading resumes and trying to summarize and rank candidates, like the type of stuff you would really do in knowledge work, and they would interrupt them.

So, the researcher would come in and they would interrupt them. They had various ways of doing it but it would be, “Hey, you forgot to fill out this form that we need for our research.” And they could really precisely measure the impact on their performance, so the groups that got interrupted and the groups that didn’t. And you could just see that performance, you can see it drop, and you can just watch the numbers as it drops.

They recall less information. When they’re working on puzzles, they make more mistakes. And so, Sophie Leroy’s research really makes clear the degree to which these switches, boom, you just watch performance graphs just drop.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then tell us, what is the superior alternative?

Cal Newport
So, once we understand the issue is the workflow, the good thing about that is that it takes off a lot of sort of common responses off the table. So, when you understand, like, “Oh, the hyperactive hivemind, this fundamental way that the way we organize work and identifying and assign and review tasks, the way we do this is just messaging back and forth.”

Like, when you understand that is the underlying way you do work, then you realize that superficial fixes won’t get you there. Let’s say, “Let’s talk about etiquette, let’s talk about norms, let’s talk about turning off notifications, let’s talk about checking your email in batches, let’s talk about having a rule that says don’t expect you to answer emails after 5:00 or whatever.” None of that is going to solve the underlying problem so long as the underlying way that you organize work is unstructured ad hoc messaging.

So, in the book, what I really push is forget those superficial fixes, forget the etiquette, forget the norms. You got to actually replace, you have to replace the underlying workflow, “This is how we do this type of work. This is how we identify, assign, and review tasks.” You have to replace it with something better than the hyperactive hivemind. You don’t need advice for how to deal with your overflowing inbox more efficiently. You need to change the structure of your business so that that inbox is not overflowing.

And, basically, two-thirds of the book gets into principles for how to redesign whether it’s in your own life as an employee, or if you’re an entrepreneur that runs your own company, or if you’re an executive of a big team, “How do you begin this re-engineering process? How do you begin seeing your work in terms of these different processes?” And we can actually talk about each process, “This is how we’re going to do this. This is how the information is going to flow. No, we don’t just figure this out on email. For this, we have weekly status meetings. We have a shared document. We have this…” whatever it is.

There are tons of examples that you begin to explicitly engineer how work happens in a way that minimizes all this ad hoc unscheduled messaging, stops all the context shifting, and makes work much more sequential, “This then this, then this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s really beautiful in that I personally had some experiences with that, it’s like, “It seems like I was sending a lot of emails back and forth about this. That needs to stop. How would I go about stopping that? Well, I guess we’re going to make a standard process associated with boom, boom, boom.” And it’s worked. It’s so funny, like you and I, that we have this podcast interview, like we could’ve had a lot of emails between us. We had zero which makes me feel pretty cool, I’m talking to the no-email guy.

And we pulled that off because of the systems and the processes and the automation. It’s sort of like there’s an invitation, you pick a time, and then you get all of the info. And then, on my end, me and my team are thinking about, “Okay, what do we want to ask Cal? Okay, and then you’re going to send me the draft of some things, and I’m going to edit those things, and then I’m going to study it up the day of, and away we go.”

So, lay on us these principles and some examples for, hey, before we’re emailing about this thing, and after, here’s how it gets done.

Cal Newport
Well, let’s make it really proximate to what we’re doing right now, right? So, I’m doing a book launch, so there’s a lot of podcasts to be done, and I have someone at my publisher that I work with to help sort of schedule the podcasts and keep that calendar, or this or that. We had to figure out a process. So, the very easy thing to do would be she could just email me, like, “Oh, here’s one. Does this time work? Here’s another podcast. What do you think about this?” But I said, “Okay, that’s not going to work. There’s going to be so much back and forth emailing that I’ll constantly be context shifting.”

So, we created a process where I thought about the problem. And I had tried before with a previous book. Just to be concrete, I had tried giving the publisher access to a calendar, or I had made open, like, “Okay, here’s times I’m available,” and they would schedule things directly. I didn’t quite like that because I wanted more control over when I schedule things because I have a more nuanced understanding of my calendar.

So, what we did this time is we have a shared document and it has different sections. And what happens is I check it a couple of times a week. She’ll put into the top section, like pending, “Okay, here’s a podcast,” or, “Here’s the link to schedule it,” or, “Here are some time you’re available. Which one works for you?” And I just go into that shared document and just annotate it, like, “This time works for me. Okay, I went to the link and set up this interview. Here’s a question.”

So, I basically go into this shared document twice a week, spend about 20 minutes in it, and all of this happens. Now, it might seem like, “Well, what’s the point? Is it really that hard to just have figured this all out on email?” And one of the big principles, to argue from the book, is, yes, that matters. So, to take those two checks that are 20 minutes and to spread it out over 20 emails is a huge difference in terms of the impact on your cognitive performance because those 20 emails are unfolding throughout the week. It’s a conversation you have to keep tending. To tend it means you have to keep checking your inbox, and it’s a thread that’s kind of an open loop in your mind. There’s a huge drag to having you go back and do those back-and-forth communications.

Which brings me to a larger point about this type of process engineering is that it’s annoying, it’s almost always less flexible and convenient than just emailing that’s why this hyperactive hivemind is so entrenched because it’s easy and it’s flexible and it’s really convenient. But flexible, easy, and convenient in the history of business and technology rarely is the formula for getting the best work done or getting the most work done.

And so, example after example in my book come back to the same point which is it’s like often a pain to say, “Let’s actually think about the right way to do this in a way that minimizes all these messages.” It’s a pain. It might generate some hard edges. There might be some exceptions where bad things happen. Still worth it. Still almost always worth it because, again, the way to get the most value out of your brain is almost differently going to be something different than what would be the easiest way to organize work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I dig it. So, we think through it. And do you have any particular prompts or guidelines or steps associated with how we might do some good structured thinking and collaboration about, “Hey, what is the process by which this thing gets done?”

Cal Newport
Well, one thing I talk about is when you’re trying to optimize a process, think about context switching as being something you’re trying to minimize. So, just like if you’re optimizing a manufacturing process, you might try to minimize like the time required to produce a car. In knowledge work processes, you want to minimize context switches, “So, how many times am I going to switch my attention to this thing in order to get it to completion?”

And so, if your process involves back-and-forth emails and there’s going to be a dozen back-and-forth emails to figure something out, you’re now context shifting a dozen times to complete this process. So, if you could come up with an alternative where maybe, “Okay, I spend some time in a shared document for 20 minutes twice,” you’ve now reduced the amounts of times you have to shift your attention to this and back significantly, and that makes a big deal. And then the other thing to try to optimize is the degree to which you have to keep track of things in your mind or you feel like things are somewhat unscheduled or out of control.

So, the more you can actually have a sense of comforting structure, “Oh, I know how this works. It’s in the system. It’ll come up automatically. I don’t have to keep track of it in my mind. I don’t have to hope that I’ll just wait to get an email at some point, that’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this thing?’” That you feel like, “This is controlled. It’s not just in my mind. I don’t feel overwhelmed by various things,” that’s another thing to optimize.

So, those are the two general metrics you want to push people: less context shifting, less sense that things are just up in the air, in your mind, or ad hoc, or out of control.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got it. So, those are the things that we’re optimizing for in terms of let’s minimize those bits. And so, I guess there’s probably a million different ways we can make a process to get something done. But could you maybe share a few of your favorites in terms of, “Wow, these are maybe pretty flexible. They cover a wide array of stuff, work that needs to get done, as well as they’re pretty darn time-leveraged when you do it”?

Cal Newport
Well, one thing that seemed to come up a lot was making task assignments more transparent. So, we often use email to assign tasks and to check on tasks, we keep track of tasks just because they’re messages in our inbox. That’s where we keep track of everything on our plate. When you look at companies or groups that have moved all these tasks out of just people’s individual inbox and onto shared like task boards or project management systems, there’s often huge wins to be had.

And you can go and look at a Trello board for your team, or a Flow board, or an Asana board if you’re more techie, and you can actually see, like, “Here are all the things we’re doing, and here’s their status, and here’s who’s working on what.” Once a day you get together and you all look at it, and say, “Okay, where are we? What do you need? Here’s a new thing. Who should take this on or shall we leave it over here?” That seems like a basic thing but it makes a huge difference.

I profiled a guy who runs a marketing company and when they shifted. I talk about how they shifted from their inbox, just everything was kind of in there, to these Trello boards, one per project. And I actually had them show me the Trello boards, and I go through them, and I kind of go through, “Okay, here’s specifically what the columns are and here’s what’s under it.”

The relief they got when now their workflow is not about, “Open your inbox and rock and roll with messages,” but, instead, “Go to the Trello board for the project you want to work on, look at the status of things, take what’s assigned to you, make some progress on it, update the information. All the information you need to make progress is here on the Trello board attached to different cards. You don’t have to go find it in an inbox.”

Just the relief they got from that being the workflow, “Oh, I’m working on this project now. Here’s all the information on this project. Here’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Here’s everything I need to know to do this. Let me work on this. Let me update this board. All right, I’m done. Next project.” You switch over to that board. It was so much more relieving than, instead, just having this inbox open where, “Yeah, you’re hearing about that project but also other projects, and everything is coming in, and the whole thing is riled together.” So, task boards come up a lot in groups and teams that have moved away from a hivemind.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’m wondering if we zoom into the individual contributor, if they don’t feel they’ve got a whole lot of power or influence to restructure the fundamental processes of how stuff is flowing, do you have any pro tips on how to navigate those conversations or bring it up?

Cal Newport
Well, one of the things I actually talk about is running your own shadow processes individually and having basically an invisible interface to everyone else. So, let’s say you’re at a big company and your boss is a jerk, he’s like he’s not going to want to hear this. He’s like, “I don’t care. I want you to answer my emails. It makes my life easier.” You can internally have these processes. And I talk a lot about this, like personal task boards or personal communication protocols where you really work out your various processes and how information comes in and out of them, how you keep track of things to try to keep yourself out of your inbox.

And instead of actually trying to explain it to everybody and say with autoresponders, like, “Here’s how I’m doing it now and this is how it’s going to work,” you just do it internally. And they don’t even maybe realize that you have these processes, they don’t even really realize that, “Oh, I was ready to just send a bunch of messages back and forth with you to, whatever, set up this meeting or pull together this report. Andfuiltwhen you replied, it was actually there’s a list of times, you had a Calendly schedule app, it was like ‘Choose one of these times and I will have this information ready, and it’ll be in this folder. Look it up before. We’ll meet at this time.’” You’ve described some process in an email. They don’t even realize it’s a process, they go, “Okay, whatever. Great. That saves me some messages.”

But internally you have it all processed, or you have different Trello boards internally for your different roles, and you’re keeping track of who you’re waiting to hear back from, and things you need more information on, and what you’re working on this week. I talk about how I ran a stealth ticketing system for a while when I had an administrative role where I had to answer a lot of questions from students in my department at Georgetown for an administrative role I ran. I didn’t make them use a ticketing system but I was moving all their messages into a ticketing system so I could much better keep track of them with my program manager, we could see what was going on where, who we’re waiting to hear back from, we can annotate them with notes, and then we’d just email people to get back to them again.

So, that’s one of the things I talk about just how to basically structure all of the process in your own life. Even if all the people around you aren’t restructuring how they do it, even if they’re still bothering you without constraint, if all that incoming goes into internal structured processes, you can still have a massive win in terms of how much context shifting and email wrangling you have to do.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I don’t know about all the listeners, but as I think about this, I’m super excited, like, “Heck, yeah, let’s get processes up and going for everything.” How do you recommend thinking about where to start or how to zero in on your first couple wins here?

Cal Newport
Use your inbox as a guide. So, you’re in your inbox, you’re overwhelmed, that you’re annoyed at all these messages. Start asking the question as you’re answering these messages, “What is the underlying process that this is a part of and that this message is trying to help advance towards completion?” And so, you just let the messages you’re getting be a guide. Then you can start saying, “Okay, this process kind of comes up a lot. Like, a lot of these messages have to do with whatever, like pulling together the weekly client memo. Or a lot of this have to be like answering questions from clients about the status of the project.”

So, now, you’ve let your inbox be the guide, “Oh, a lot of my communication is about this.” Then you can ask the key follow-up, “What would be a better process for accomplishing the same thing?” So, then if you see a lot of your messages in your inbox or your clients asking you questions kind of ad hoc, “What’s the status here? What’s that?” you might realize, like, “Maybe what we should do…” and this is just an example from the book, “…is like schedule a weekly status call with each client, we let them know where things are, we listen to them, and we immediately send them, after the call, a record of everything we committed to during that call, and they know that we are going to be on the phone the next week.”

You do that, for example. You may reduce your back-and-forth emails from a client down to basically none. Just the same thing done. The client wants to know what’s going on, to make sure the ball is not being dropped, to make sure that you’re actually doing the things you said you’re going to do, that’s a lot of what client emailing is, it’s just that they’re not sure, like, “I don’t know. Are you really doing this? Do I need to keep bothering otherwise I don’t know what’s going on?”

That’s just a case study but now that you’ve seen that’s what a lot of your emails were, you could actually come up with a better process that has a lot less back and forth. So, let the messages in your inbox influence you, “What is this message about? Is there a better way to get that general type of work done?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. And how about some of the internal emotional guilt stuff in terms of, if folks, they have incoming messages and they feel, from habit or compulsion, the need to frequently check the inbox? You say, “Well, hey, part of it that’s kind of how it has to be done because your processes are so unstructured, what alternative do you have?” But if we’re starting to move in this direction and there are some emotional guilt or resistance or trickiness, how do you recommend folks address that?

Cal Newport
Well, that guilt is really important because it’s at the core of why email makes us so miserable so I really get into those studies where basically the way we’re wired as social beings means it is really hard for us to see an email message in our inbox from a person we know and to not answer it. And it’s a deeper part of our brain. So, if you feel guilty about these things, as a general notice to your audience, that’s not a flaw. That’s a deeply human reaction because there might be, let’s say, a prefrontal cortex part of your brain that says, “I know I don’t have to answer that email right away. We have norms, they’re not expecting an answer right away. It’s okay if I write them back next week.”

That’s fine but there’s a deeper part of your brain that says, “Someone in my tribe is tapping me on the shoulder. If I ignore them, that’s a problem. If I ignore someone in my tribe who’s tapping me on the shoulder, what’s going to happen when we come into the famine? They might not share their food and I might starve.” We have a huge genetic compulsion to take otherwise communication very seriously. So, email really contradicts that instinct because, again, our paleolithic deep brain knows nothing about email etiquette. It’s just like, “Here’s a person I know, they want something from me, I’m ignoring them. Danger! Danger! Danger!” and that’s why we feel this anxiety about our inbox and the fact that it’s always growing.

So, that’s a really real thing and it’s a problem. It’s also a problem because this guilt is not equally distributed among people. So, there’s research I talk about in the book where they could look at how you scored on the big five personality scale, and based on how you scored on various attributes of that scale, they could measure real differences in how stressed you get about batching email.

So, for some people, your personality type is naturally such that you get incredibly stressed if you say, “I’m going to wait to check my email till the end of the day because all these people need me.” Other people have personalities in which they don’t mind it that much. Now, the issue is the people who are probably more willing to ignore their inbox till the end of the day are probably going to get more important things done, which means they’re going to move ahead probably faster than other people.

And what you’ve now done is accidentally selected for in your company that people that are essentially more jerks from a personality scale, less conscientious, are going to do better in your company. And so, now you’re selecting for the executive ranks to be less conscientious and more like jerks, which is not what you actually want to happen. It’s an unintended consequence.

So, I think that is also an issue and so, I don’t know, this is probably not the most optimistic answer but this is why I’m saying until you fix the underlying processes, this is going to be a real problem and it’s going to apply unequally. As long as there’s a lot of messages that you’re not answering, you’re going to be stressed, and that stress is going to vary dependent on your personality. So, your best bet is to figure out how to reduce the number of messages that end up in that inbox. It’s just not the right tool for doing a massive amount of communication.

Pete Mockaitis
So, lay it on us, where and when is email appropriate, when it’s something sort of new, one time, different, undefined, uncharted? What are your thoughts?

Cal Newport
Well, it’s a fantastic communication protocol, so if you need to asynchronously deliver information from one person to another, from one place to another, it solves a lot of problems. Before that, we had fax machines, memos, and voice mail, and those were all pretty ineffective and pretty high-friction ways of communicating asynchronously. So, for the delivery of information, for the delivery of digital files, for the broadcasting of information, email is a fantastic tool. You would not want to get rid of it.

Where it is a problem is where it becomes the primary medium of collaboration. So, if the primary unit of you working together with people to solve things, just back and forth messages, that’s where you get into the problem. If you want to email out, whatever, “Here’s the new parking policy at our company,” that’s a great use of email. It’s better than printing it out and having to put it in people’s mailboxes.

If you need to deliver a contract to someone, or let’s say I want to send you a headshot or something, yeah, email is great. Better than putting the mail or using the fax machine. So, it’s a great medium for asynchronous delivery of information and files but it’s a terrible medium for being the primary tool by which you actually interact and collaborate with people.

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

Cal Newport
I would say, more generally, when it comes to email and when it comes to the shift, at least the way that I see it, the less that I’m trying to convince people that they should move away from this type of hyperactive hivemind, everything is just back and forth messaging, it’s more giving the message that that shift is inevitable. There is a lot of money on the line.

Just like when Henry Ford figured out the assembly line, no one made cars the same way again after that. The same thing is just beginning to happen in knowledge work. There’s no way ten years from now we’re all still just going to be plugging into email inboxes and checking every six minutes. There’s just so much productivity and value and human happiness on the line.

This transformation to a world in which we have more sophisticated ways, less convenient maybe, more annoying, more overhead, but more sophisticated ways of actually collaborating, that means we get a lot more done and we’re a lot happier in general, that’s going to happen. So, the only question is, “Are you going to be ahead of the trend or not?” And that’s the way I like to see it.

So, I’m kind of prognosticating that we’re in a very early stage of knowledge work in the digital age. The way we work today is just our very first rudimentary attempt to figure out how we should work in an age of computer networks. The history of commerce and technology tells us that transformations take a long time, but then the phase shifts can be pretty rapid. We’re going to have a rapid phase shift away from this world of constant communication. So, again, hopefully, this is a book that’s predicting the future, more so than it’s trying to convince people that we need a better future.

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

Cal Newport
A favorite quote that came up kind of in the context of this work came from Neil Postman who was a really well-known sort of philosopher and social critic and technology critic. And he had this really important quote for at least my own thinking about technology and the world where he was saying, “Technological changes are not an addition; it’s ecological.” It’s not addition, it’s ecological. I’m a little bit messing that up but the basic point is when a new technology comes along, it’s not just like, “Oh, you’re in the world you were before, plus the addition of this new technology.”

Instead, a lot of technologies tend to change the entire world, change the whole ecology. So, he famously said that when the printing press came along, it wasn’t like you had medieval Europe plus a printing press. Like, no, you had a whole different Europe. It just changed the way everything worked. I like that quote. That’s the way I see a lot of technologies.

In 2001, we didn’t just have the 1991 office plus email; we had a completely different type of office. What worked meant the ecology of work completely transformed once this tool is here. And so, that quote is important to me because it tells us we got to be pretty self-aware of the way that new technology can completely change things often in ways that no one planned or no one intended. And once you realize that, then you might say, “Maybe we should step back and push back a little bit.”

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

Cal Newport
There’s a bit of research I enjoyed in the book because it was devious where they’re trying to understand exactly what we’re talking about, how communication is something that’s really deep in us, we get really anxious when we can’t communicate, when we know someone wants our attention and we can’t give it to them.

And so, there’s this great study where they brought people in and they hooked them to heartrate monitors, and they told them it’s a study about something unrelated. And then they had a confederate come in and say, “Hey, your phone is interfering with our machines and we’re just going to move it to get the electromagnetic radiation.”

And when they moved the phone to the other side of the room, they turned off the silent mode. So, they could only do these with iPhones because iPhones have the switch on the side. And then they would call it. So, you’re in the room, you’re doing this experiment, you’re all hooked up to all these heartrate stress monitors, thinking you’re supposed to be working on this computer screen, and you hear your phone ring.

And it’s a really cool experiment because, obviously, they did not expect to be able to communicate, they didn’t need to communicate, they had turned their phone on silent so they’re completely comfortable with the ideas of, “During this experiment, I will not be communicating with people.” But, still, hearing the text message buzz on the phone, their heart, their galvanic response, all the indicators of stress jumped up because they’re all hooked up to these things and they could measure it.

So, I just love that experiment because it meant they were calm even though they knew rationally, “Oh, yeah, I turned off my phone. I’m not going to hear from anyone who calls me. It’s fine.” They knew rationally that was fine, “I’m doing this experiment. It’s fine.” Still, hearing a text message come through made the stress response go up.

That’s all day every day in the world of email. It’s like no matter how you tell yourself, “It’s okay. I don’t have to answer all these emails. We have expectations. We have norms,” there’s a deeper part of you that when it just sees or hears that person’s name and it’s in bold and you can see they want something from you and you’re not answering it to them, we get stressed. And so, I thought that was a beautifully designed experiment to try to capture that real effect.

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

Cal Newport
One I like to recommend is Amusing Ourselves to Death, also by Neil Postman who I mentioned. It’s short and it’s brilliant and it’s really original. And, basically, it gets at that ecological notion. His argument is when you change the technologies with which we communicate or send information, you can actually change the way our brains understand the world, that there’s this impact between the medium and the message being delivered.

Postman studied under Marshall McLuhan who actually said the medium is the message. Simple idea, beautifully delivered, but it completely changes the way you see technology. It moves you away from this notion of like, “Heck, it’s just tools and it can do some things well, so use it in the way that it does things well. And if you’re having a trouble with the tool, you’re just using it wrong.” It’s like the typical nerd, engineer, or like our typical response.

And Postman comes in and says, “No, no, it’s way more deeper than that.” This was before email but basically you could extrapolate from him. Like, the mere presence of email can change the very structure of what work means, and his work was about television. The presence of television changed the way we understood the world. He’s really smart, really accessible, and I recommend it, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

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

Cal Newport
I’m a big believer in time blocking where you actually schedule out what you’re going to do with your time as opposed to going down a list. And so, having a good notebook in which you’ve schedule out what you’re going to do. Give every minute of your day a job. Don’t just go from a list and say, “What’s next?” Instead, say, “From 1:00 to 2:00, I’m working on this and I have a meeting from 2:30 to 3:00.”

Having a good notebook in which you do that is a complete gamechanger. So, in the fall, I put out my own planner called a Time Block Planner that helps you make these plans. But whether or not you use my planner, I have used notebooks and I’ve built these analog plans for my day for whatever it’s been, about eight years now. So, that simple of a piece of a paper in which I see the whole plan drawn out is, by far, one of the biggest impactful things I have in my professional career.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Cal Newport
I do a shutdown ritual and I’m a big proponent of this, that when you’re done with your workday, you have a shutdown ritual where you basically close all of the open loops. So, you look at your inbox and make sure you’re not missing something, you look at your calendar, you look at your plan for the week. If you’re captured like notes or ideas on scraps of paper, you get them into your system. So, you close all the loops, “All right. There’s nothing else I need to do for work tonight. I have a plan for tomorrow. I’m not forgetting anything.”

And then you have some sort of phrase or ritual you do to indicate that you’re done with that routine. So, like I used to actually say the phrase, “Schedule shutdown complete,” which was like purposefully nerdy. I talk about this in my book Deep Work, and there’s a whole subculture of people who, when they see me now, are like, “Schedule shutdown complete.”

But it was weird on purpose because what happens is that later in the evening when you begin to feel some work anxiety, instead of going through it, instead of…

Pete Mockaitis
A schedule shutdown has been completed.

Cal Newport
You say, “Why else would I have said that stupid phrase unless I had actually gone through the whole thing?” Now, in that planner, I actually added a checkbox that says, “Shutdown complete.” So, instead of having to say that out loud and risk the mocking of everyone within earshot, you can put a checkmark next to the phrase. But the whole point is you have something really weird and clear you do to indicate you’ve done the shutdown ritual. So, if you get anxious, you just say, “I did that weird thing, which means I did a ritual, so I’m not going to get into the particular anxiety. I’m just going to trust myself that I would not have said something so dumb unless I’ve actually gotten things under control.”

I love that ritual. I’ve been doing that since 2007. I started it as a grad student and it’s incredibly effective.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you say or have written that people quote back to you frequently? It sounds like “Shutdown ritual complete” is one of them. Any others?

Cal Newport
Yeah, I get “Shutdown complete” a lot. For some reason, so I have this podcast Deep Questions where I answer questions from readers. And, for whatever reason, we went down a rabbit hole of…I don’t know how I encouraged this. It’s just like one of these cycles of superfluous references to Greek mythology. So, I do these mini episodes once a week where people kind of call in with questions, and now it’s become kind of a competition to see who could work in like the most superfluous reference to Greek mythology in trying to set up their question about workplace productivity. So, I get a lot of that from people now. I don’t know how that started, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
“How could I soar like Pegasus to new heights of productivity?”

Cal Newport
Oh, yeah, Hydras. Earlier today, I had a Bacchus reference. That’s a good one. I had a question from a classicist recently, a classicist professor, so that was intimidating because she actually knew the whole canon. So, yeah, I don’t know, but I get that a lot. I get a lot of Greek mythology.

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

Cal Newport
So, you can go to CalNewport.com if you want to find out about the books and sign up for my newsletter. I’ve been writing a weekly essay there since 2007. If you want to hear me instead of read about me, Deep Questions is my podcast. If you want to find me on social media, as we’d mentioned, you’d be out of luck.

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

Cal Newport
It is a hundred percent possible for almost anyone or any job to get to a place where your email inbox is something like it was in 1995. It’s something you check maybe once a day, “Hey, here’s this file I needed,” or, “Here’s a reminder. Let me look at it,” and that’s the only role it plays in your life. This idea that you have to constantly be checking and communicating to do your job, that might be true about your job as constructed right now, but it can be reconstructed.

So, my challenge is do not give up on this utopian dream of a world without email by which I mean not a world in which you don’t have an email address but a world in which email does not play a central role to how your work actually gets done.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cal, this has been a treat. Thank you so much and keep on rocking.

Cal Newport
Yeah, thanks. It was my pleasure, like Icarus flying close to the sun on wax wings, I think. I’m trying to make the reference work. I’m trying to make it work.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe not afterwards.