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

810: How to Get Stuff Done inside Bureaucracies with Marina Nitze

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Marina Nitze reveals what makes bureaucracies tick and how you can work your way through them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why bureaucracies can actually be great
  2. Six favorite bureaucracy hacks
  3. What not to do when trying to challenge a bureaucracy

About Marina

Marina Nitze, co-author of the new book Hack Your Bureaucracy, is a partner at Layer Aleph, a crisis response firm specializing in restoring complex software systems to service. Marina is also a fellow at New America’s New Practice Lab, where she improves America’s foster care system through the Resource Family Working Group and Child Welfare Playbook. Marina was the CTO of the VA after serving as a Senior Advisor on technology in the Obama White House. She lives in Seattle.

Resources Mentioned

Marina Nitze Interview Transcript

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

Marina Nitze
Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear about your wisdom but, first, I think we need to hear a little bit about your job as a 12-year-old making fan sites for General Hospital.

Marina Nitze
Well, it was the best way to learn HTML back then. It was the days of AOL keywords, and I loved my General Hospital soap opera couples, and it was a great way to learn technology, and that was absolutely the start of my tech career.

Pete Mockaitis
So, at 12 years old, you’re loving General Hospital?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it was our neighbor’s grandma watched it, and I got to sit and watched it with her. And then you get hooked, right? Friday cliffhanger, you got to see what happened Monday, and then you’re running home from the school bus every night.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun. That’s fun. I have a feeling that in your childhood you probably had a lot of fun conversations with “grownups.” Is that fair to say?

Marina Nitze
I was really bad at being with kids, so, yeah, I mostly just talk to grownups and tried to have my own businesses. Yeah, being an adult is more fun.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m intrigued to hear you’ve got a cool specialty. We’re talking about your book Hack Your Bureaucracy. You’ve worked in some in your career in your days. Could you share with us, any particularly surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about bureaucracies in general? Is there something most of us have wrong about bureaucracies?

Marina Nitze
I think so. I think bureaucracy is often a four-letter word. We think of them as things that you need to blow up, you need to move around, you need to get rid of. And, for me, the most surprising thing as a Libertarian joining the Federal Government, believing that the whole thing should be blown up, and it totally did not work, was that bureaucracies actually work quite effectively and you can do a lot of effective things to get them to change for the better. And so, learning those techniques was really the impetus behind writing the new book and sharing those with others.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so tell us more about that. Bureaucracies, in fact, do work effectively. Can you give us some data or evidence or examples there?

Marina Nitze
Well, we kept seeing, when I was in the Federal Government, we had a program called the US Digital Service, which recruited top-tier technologists to come into government for tours of duty. And, repeatedly, kind of the pattern was always the same. They wanted to come in and the first thing they thought was the path to success was getting a waiver or an exception to the rules, or going around the rules, and that worked zero percent of the time.

But what did really work was learning what the rules were, and then not only using them to your advantage, but sometimes changing the rules of the game themselves so that the next thing the bureaucracy was doing was the right thing and the thing that you wanted them to be doing consistently even after you left.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, they were able to accomplish what they were hoping to accomplish by doing things the way that they say are to be done, and that was fine.

Marina Nitze
Yeah. I had a great story there around trying the normal way first, which was one of our bureaucracy hacks. When we wanted to use cloud computing because, at the time, all the websites for veterans were literally operating on computers that were like under people’s desks or, in one case, in a mop closet. And even if you don’t know a lot about technology, computers and mop closets and water should never the twain shall meet.

But one of the big objections that we got to doing this was from the inspector general, who said, “Well, wait a minute. You can’t use cloud computing because you can’t put the cloud in an evidence bag.” And so, by actually going through this process and working with them and understanding how they conducted their investigations, which was they would walk into your office, they would pick up the computer, and they would put it in an evidence bag. They didn’t know how they could do that in a world where cloud computing, and you can’t actually touch the computers anymore.

So, we had to work with them to help them see how they could actually conduct their investigations more effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, you don’t have to truck it over to the mop closet.

Marina Nitze
Exactly. You don’t have to lift anything, you don’t have to put it into bags, your back won’t be strained anymore. And then, in the course of following up with that, we ended up hitting the IT approval paperwork had questions, like, “Marina, do you pinky-swear that you jiggled the doorknob to make sure that it was locked on the cloud?”

And you can’t jiggle the doorknob of the cloud either, so you had to actually change the paperwork itself. But in the course of changing the paperwork, now you can say, like, “Hey, is this server in a mop closet?” And if it is, then it doesn’t get approved, “Does this server have backups?” And if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t get approved. “Does this website have business hours?” And if it does, then it doesn’t get approved. And that’s how you can make a really systemic change in a bureaucracy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I just need to follow up. So, there was actually an official form somewhere that had the phraseology pinky-swear and jiggle the handle on it? Is that accurate?

Marina Nitze
The pinky-swear is my color, admittedly, but the jiggling the handle was actually literally a security control. We had to promise. I had to swear and sign on a piece of paper that I had jiggled the doorknob to make sure it was locked.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, this is fun. This is the way I love it, it’s the detailed insight scoop. All right. So, maybe let’s zoom out a bit. What’s the big idea behind the book Hack Your Bureaucracy?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, it’s really the Frank Sinatra test. So, in Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way,” he says, “Hey, if I made it here in New York, I can make it anywhere.” And so, the bureaucracy hacking tactics we learned in the White House, when I was at the VA as the chief technology officer in Department of Defense, when they worked there, we then found, my co-author Nick and I, that when we left, now he’s in venture capital and at Harvard University, I now do IT crises consulting for Fortune 500 companies and I work in state and local governments on foster care, and the bureaucracy hacking tactics still keep working.

And then we tried them in PTAs and Homeowners Associations, and they still keep working. So, the idea is, “Here are some hacks that work in some of the toughest bureaucracies, and they’ll also work in your everyday bureaucracies.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you share with us an inspiring story of someone who, indeed, successfully hacked their bureaucracy and got something cool done which others may have said is impossible?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. So, at the VA in 2013, there was a horrible backlog of healthcare applications from veterans that were trying to access VA healthcare, 800,000 of them waiting, pieces of paper waiting in a warehouse. And it was in the news that the inspector general had determined that 100,000 of those veterans had died waiting for the VA to process that paperwork.

And so, the VA was going to do what the VA always did, which was, “We’re going to do more mandatory overtime and more data entry.” But my team believed that there was a different way to go about that, “What if we could bypass the paper and get digital instant enrolment for veterans?” And what unlocked that was actually sitting down with a real veteran whose name was Dominic and, with his permission, we recorded him trying and failing to apply for VA healthcare 12 times.

He called; we hung up on him. He tried to open the website; it wouldn’t load. He tried to open another website; it wouldn’t open. And up until that point, the VA’s belief had been that veterans don’t use the internet because the numbers of veterans that apply online were so small. When, in fact, it was that the websites didn’t work.

And so, when we had this video of Dominic trying and failing so many times, and then it turned out he was actually absolutely eligible, and we were able to enroll him the next morning. We gave him our new mobile form, which is not rocket science, it’s not machine learning. It’s literally a form that was under on your mobile phone. He was able to enroll instantly, and we’ve since enrolled 2 million veterans instantly in VA healthcare through that mobile form.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Okay. So, taking a step back and parsing some insights from that story, it seems that the leadership has a mistaken view of what things are really like on the ground, it seems to be my takeaway there.

Marina Nitze
Yeah, and so our tactic here is you got to talk to real people. No matter where you are, if you’re a brand-new hire, if you’ve been in your role for 30 years, if you’re the leader or if you’re like an entry-level employee, going out and talking to the real people that are really experiencing your service, whatever your company may offer, is the way that you’re going to find those disconnects that you’re not going to find if you never leave the office.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a grand story. Well, so you’ve got 56 such approaches for hacking. I don’t imagine we’d cover all 56 in the time we have here today. But could you maybe give us some of your greatest hits in terms of, and here’s my criteria, how I define greatest hits, that’s widely applicable in terms of it covers many kinds of bureaucracies; it is widely effective in terms of, “By golly, there’s a high percentage of the time this thing gets it done; and it has a good return on effort, if you will, like a little bit of time here can give big returns?” So, I’m putting you on the spot, Marina, if you could give us a few of your favorite bureaucracy hacks that meet these three criteria, what leaps to mind?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. It would definitely be the space between the silos. So, the bigger your bureaucracy is, the more specialized it gets, the more that there’s different departments, it may even be that your company interacts with other companies through the course of a process. And while there’s tons of defensive antibodies that don’t want to change inside a silo, there’s often absolutely nobody paying attention at the handoffs between the silos. So, it’s a really awesome opportunity to make a really big change.

And I’ll tell you a quick story around this. I was helping a state trying to shorten its foster parent application processing time. And this is really important because, while grandparents, or aunts, or uncles have kiddos in foster care in their home, they’re not getting paid, they’re not getting any financial support until they complete this really byzantine paperwork process. So, it’s really important to get it down.

So, I’m following the claim in this case from start to finish, and this is the advice that anybody can use. If it’s a claim, if it’s a case, if it’s a customer, whatever it may be, follow up from start to finish. When it goes through the fax machine, you go to the other end of the fax machine. When it goes to the mailroom, you go to the mailroom.

And so, I was following this one foster parent application through the office, and I get to this woman, and she says, “Well, now I have to request the applicant’s driving record from the DMV,” and she pulls out the carbon copy triplicate paper, you know the kind you have to like press really hard and it’s different colors, and she says, “Oh, I hate this step so much. The DMV lives in the 19th century. I don’t even have stamps. Like, it takes forever. This sucks.”

And I walked over to the DMV because I’m following the real application, and I say, “Hey, can you show me how you’re processing the driving record request?” And the woman there says, “Oh, yes. We use this electronic system, and the request come in, and we process them same day.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute. I saw a carbon copy paper. Where does that come in?” And she said, “Oh, you were at child welfare. Those people are in the 19th century. They keep sending this carbon copy paper. Why the heck won’t they use my electronic system like everybody else?”

And so, I was able to connect those two individuals and, overnight, shaved 32 days off a process, removed a cumbersome step that nobody wanted to do, and make everybody’s lives easier simply because, in most bureaucracies, nobody ever sees or owns the end-to-end process. And so, if you can just crawl through it, follow your person, you will be shocked at the amount of insights and improvements that you can make.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Marina, this is the first time someone has made government work sound exciting to me. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, what a huge value-add,” sorry, consulting language stuck with me. That’s like a huge amount of value for what sounded somewhat easy. Marina, maybe you did a lot of work over many days to pull this off, but that didn’t sound too hard. And, yet, that’s a huge improvement in people’s lives that’s quite touching. And those opportunities exist when you’re inside big bureaucracies.

Call me optimistic, but that almost sounds like a positive, “Oh, I’m in a huge bureaucracy.” “Oh, lucky you. There are so many improvement opportunities you can probably just grab that make a huge impact for not a lot of effort. That’s kind of a cool place to be.”

Marina Nitze
I would agree with you. I’d agree with that. The bigger the fire, the more interested I am. But even if you’re at a smaller bureaucracy, there might be handoffs you do with other outside partners, or maybe you’re interacting with the government as a nonprofit or something. Go follow that application process through and see if there are inefficiencies to be had.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Okay. So, we talked about the space between the silos, and following from start to finish. What are some of the other approaches?

Marina Nitze
Picking up the pen. So, I first learned this one, at the VA, for a while, we were missing one of our senior leader roles. We hadn’t hired for it yet and so we were kind of distributing that role’s tasks among the staff. And one of them involved having to go to the White House for a meeting, which sounds really exciting, like everybody would want to do it, but that means waiting in the security line for two hours in the hot sun.

So, I, as the new person on the team, got tagged in to take on this meeting, and I was supposed to write the President’s management agenda, which is a pretty big deal in Federal Government, and one of the tasks of that meeting was, “Hey, can someone write a technology goal on a slide?” And so, I’m looking around figuring other people showed up with their ideas, but, no, here was the blank slide, and so I said, “Oh, I’ll do it. I’m going to write down that the VA should have the first agency digital service to this team, and it should have 75 employees reporting to the CTO,” which was me.

And I assumed someone would come along and edit my slide or delete it or modify it, but, nope, it kept moseying along through the process, and then, lo and behold, the President is announcing the President’s management agenda that includes the goal of having 75 technologists assigned to this CTO of the VA, which is me.

So, then I got to take that slide that I had written because I had picked up a pen and take it and justified hiring these 75 teammates that I really, really needed. And that was a great way in the Federal Government but I since used it all the time to include…we have a story in the book of someone using that to change their condo’s pool policy because there was a lot of bickering around, like, “Is the Homeowners Association going to let us have the pool opened during COVID?”

And I said, “Well, why don’t you write the policy that says it’s open, because then the person that wants to keep the pool closed, they’re going to have to also write a policy and shows up and like get counter votes, so you’re actually raising the bar and effort for them, and making it easier for everybody to do what you want.” And this worked pretty consistently among everybody that I knew that was having this pool problem.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. And what’s funny, because there was a bit of resistance there, so it’s like, “Ugh, writing a pool policy, that sounds kind of boring and lame. And what do I know about pool policies? I’ve never written anything like this.” But, at the end of the day, everybody just makes it up. Someone just makes it up. You just made it up and you got 75 employees. That’s pretty cool.

And someone else is just making up a pool policy. It’s unlikely that they’re consulting with someone with a tremendous deep expertise in pool matters from an insurance company or law firm, but that’s conceivably possible. But the most parts are like, “Oh, I guess this makes some sense when it comes to having a pool, so it’s the policy. Any input, feedback? Okay, here we go. This is the policy.”

Marina Nitze
Yeah, if you look around, no offense to your particular Homeowners Association, but if you’re looking around it, it’s just made of other regular humans that are just like you and me so there’s no reason why you can’t write a pool policy. And, yeah, maybe somebody will have an edit to it, but if you want the pool open, pick up the pen, draft the policy, see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. Marina, this is awesome. Keep going.

Marina Nitze
All right. I’d love to share a Harry Potter analogy here because I think this is a really, really effective one if you’re ever working with technology. So, there’s a concept called strangling the mainframe, and it’s the idea, like, say you’ve got an old, old system. Everybody’s got one in their company if it’s around long enough, and everybody thinks that the goal is to shut off the old system.

But the old system ends up powering a little bit of everything. It’s going to power HR, IT, something maybe, and everybody’s trying to have this magic huge perfect plan to turn off the old thing and one day magically turn on the new thing. And I’ve never, in the history of time, seen that worked. Like, in all of Western civilization is actually powered by these mainframes.

And so, my best analogy here of how to actually fix this problem, if it’s something you’re facing in your workplace, is a Harry Potter one. And this is a spoiler alert, so if you don’t know how Harry Potter ends, you should skip ahead 60 seconds. That is Voldemort is the mainframe and Harry and his family and the whole wizarding world are trying to destroy the mainframe head on, and it doesn’t work. The mainframe gets more powerful than ever. And after six and a half books, Harry’s lost most of his family, there’s billions of pounds of Muggle property damaged, and Voldemort is stronger than ever.

But what does work are finding the Horcruxes and slowly peeling off bits of the mainframe’s power one bit at a time. So, if you think about it in your organization, maybe you could pull off a little bit of case management, maybe a little bit of claims status tracking, maybe a little bit of HR, such that, at the end, you have a small enough of a puzzle that you can actually replace it in, say, six months or one year.

And so, this is a technique that we use all the time. Even if your company is working, frankly, off of like a really advanced spreadsheet, you still often can’t turn it off overnight. You got to peel off piece by piece. And this can be a really amazing bureaucracy hack and tactic if you’re trying to make change because there may be some new innovation that you want to have seen.

One example here would be around the unemployment claim backlog. In a lot of states, they had a strangle a mainframe tactic of helping stand up a claim status tracker because that’s what everybody wanted to know, “Did you get my claim? When is it going to get paid?” And the mainframes couldn’t support that, but many states stood up and, literally a week, a claim status tracker where everybody checked their status just from their mobile phone by building this little piece off to the side that just syncs to the mainframe once a night.

So, just want to encourage folks to think creatively about how they might strangle their mainframe and what their first Horcrux might be.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. That’s really cool. What comes to mind is I was in a Facebook group all about professional speakers, and this was only like four years ago, and someone took a photo of a dot matrix printer at a rental car location, and said, “Dot matrix printer is still holding town at the rental car agency.” It’s like, “Yes, that is so weird that those still exists there.” And then that’s intriguing, if you think about it, in terms of…and I don’t know the rationale for why those are still there.

Marina Nitze
They’re all in airports, too. Airport manifests are printed on dot matrix printers.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and maybe that is or is not relevant but if we’re genuinely waiting, I don’t know, an extra 30 seconds per person in line for the dot matrix thing to go through that, then it sounds like it needs to be replaced. But if it’s plugged into a mainframe, or a bigger computer sort, then I guess it’s quite possible that you have an alternative means by which the information is sent to a different printing thing.

As I zoom into these conversations, how I imagine they would go, it’s like, “Oh, well, we can’t change that because it’s connected to the thing. And that thing runs everything, so just don’t even touch it, don’t even think about it. Just forget about it and move on.” And then most of us are not so persistent, shall we say, or stubborn, however you’d like to phrase it, as to dig in a little deeper and further. But if you were to do so, peeling off a little bit at a time is likely to get us a lot farther.

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. That’s the message.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Let’s hear another.

Marina Nitze
So, if you’re kind of a staff-level person, a recommendation that we have here is really think about tailoring your pitch to who you need to persuade to your way of thinking. And one of my favorite bureaucracy hacks here was done by a colleague. We needed a bunch of IT executives to approve an API policy. An API is an application programming interface. It’s something that lets two computers talk to each other.

But if you don’t know what an API is, that just sounds like a huge security blackhole, like, “Wait a minute. I’m going to let another computer connect to my computer and take data out of it? Like, that sounds like everybody’s going to hack it and take all the private data out of it. That doesn’t sound safe.” And so, people were pretty opposed to it.

But because they were senior leaders, they had no safe place to ask basic questions about what an API was. They were too senior to ask the basic questions. So, we had to set up a space for them to learn, so we had a session called APIs for Executives, and we held it in a fancy room and had some fancy speakers and fancy invites, and invited them to come.

And at the beginning of the presentation, it said, “You know, hey, we know everybody here knows what APIs are, but just in case,” and then gave a basic 101 review of APIs so that it gave those executives a safe place to learn so they could actually engage in the conversation. And if we hadn’t done that, they would’ve just blocked our policy from day one from a place of fear.

Pete Mockaitis
It feels really brilliant in terms of so you knew exactly what your roadblock was. It’s like, “These folks don’t understand what an API is and they’re afraid to ask. And I can’t just say, ‘Listen, bud, I know you don’t know what you’re talking about, so let me lay it down for you.’” You knew that wasn’t going to fly in this environment.

And so, I’m curious about how you presented that, it’s like, “Oh, wouldn’t you know it? Like, crazy coincidence, this event is happening,” because you had agency in creating the event. So, how did you play that game?

Marina Nitze
Well, it was just about framing it in a totally respectful way. So, like, yeah, it does sound a little bit manipulative. I fully acknowledge that but we had to find a safe place to get them to learn. And having an event called API 101 wasn’t going to do it because they were going to be afraid of, like, being seen in front of their direct reports, potentially, as not knowing. So, we had to create a place that they would feel safe.

And we had a little bit of an advantage. We could also invite them to a fancy White House office room for the event, but you probably have an equivalent wherever your organization may be of creating some sort of safe space for people to learn without making them feel dumb. Because if people feel dumb or threatened, they’re not going to engage with you in a constructive way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. All right. Marina, you can just keep going all day. More hacks. Lay it on us.

Marina Nitze
Something that I think is really overlooked that we really encourage is when you’re understanding how process works or when you find a change that you want to make, you have to understand the internal employee impacts of that process the same as you understand how you may want to change it for that end-user or for your customer.

So, often your internal employees have particular risks or incentive frameworks, like their position description said they have to do this or that. Their practice manual says they have to do this or that. They have more steps to do in a day than they can possibly do. So, if you show up with your, like, bright, fancy, new idea for outside customers, that you’re going to have a new customer support model or you’re going to have a new product that makes the internal people have to do seven more steps on their already-over full plate, they are going to resist you, and they are going to fight you.

But if you can understand kind of like my story earlier about the DMV, like neither of those women, they were both busy. They didn’t want to fill out carbon copy paper and mail it to one another. Like, they were happy to take that step off their plate, but you had to acknowledge that it existed in the first place to understand how you could kind of trade, and say, “Okay, I’ll get you two more internal efficiency gains and, in exchange, I need you to do this one extra step that’s going to help my actual project goal.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, now, could you tell us a little bit about what not to do when it comes to hacking a bureaucracy? If we want to make something happen, we’re inside a bureaucracy, we’ve got some really cool things that we should do, what are some things that we absolutely should not do?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, this is a mistake I see people make all the time, and I made it myself a lot in the beginning, which is you can’t try to make the bureaucracy care. Bureaucracies do not have feelings. They have decision criteria. And something I see a lot, and I see this especially in IT, where you want a new IT application approved, or you want to be able to use a spreadsheet software because it’s going to make you more efficient.

But the argument that, like, “Hey, if we don’t get this, there’ll be foster children that are homeless, or there’ll be veterans that don’t get healthcare.” Those are not approval criteria on the approval form. They’re not part of the decision matrix. So, you can beg and plead and make the emotional arguments to the end of time, but if you don’t actually fill out the approval form and meet what it needs, you’re not ever going to get to the goal that you actually want.

So, a big mistake I see people make is trying to make the bureaucracy care. And what, instead, you should do is understand what the bureaucracy cares about and meet those needs even if it may be frustrating and not feel particularly emotionally fulfilling in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what’s interesting here is we’re talking about the bureaucracy, it’s like an entity because I’m thinking of it like The Borg. It’s like an entity, a person, a corporate thing unto itself and that doesn’t have feelings. I get you. Like, if we defined bureaucracy as a series of steps or processes, then maybe, first, we should get your definition of bureaucracy. I guess individual humans within the bureaucracy might care, and that could maybe motivate them.

It’s like, “Wow, you’re right. This is a big problem and we need to do something.” So, you maybe even enrolled them and you’ve gotten them on board with some emotions, but you’re not really going to get any traction in terms of making it happen until the actual steps of the form or process or whatever are getting adjusted. Is that a fair synopsis?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. You might win them over to pay attention to you first, to take your form first, but you’re not going to win them over to allow your half-filled out form to get approved.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And then since we’re saying the word bureaucracy a lot, could you define it for us?

Marina Nitze
Yeah. In the course of writing the book, we actually tried to find something that wasn’t a bureaucracy. And this quest took us even to, like, a co-op grocery store in Brooklyn, California. It turned out it was still a bureaucracy. It’s any organization of any size that’s run by a series of processes and rules, both written and unwritten. And unwritten I think is really important, too, because, at the end of the day, like if there is a process, if you have to go through Bertha, and Bertha considers your form in a particular way, and she is the gatekeeper there, it’s important to understand that as an unwritten rule.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that. So, anyway, more don’ts. What else should we not do?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, my other one is beware of the obvious answer. I, literally, have a TextExpander keyboard shortcut on my computer, where if I typed the word just, it will delete it, so it will not let me type the word just because that word is what gets tons of people in trouble, especially if you’re new to a problem or to an organization. Do not show up and say, “Well, why don’t you just do X, Y, Z?” because the odds are that hundreds of people have had your idea before, and there are some reason why it is not been done already.

So, before you say, “Why don’t you just do this?” it’s really important to kind of, first, keep that idea to yourself, but dig in, try to find people who had that same idea, see who has tried what, where didn’t it work, because maybe that the solution is not impossible. That’s not all what I’m saying, but it’s a lot more complicated than the obvious answer that it may seem like you have.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And articulating the word just out loud can, I imagine, enrage some people, like, “Who do you think you are? Oh, I guess we’re all just idiots, Marina. Excuse us for not having just made an online form. Pardon our foolishness.”

Marina Nitze
Correct. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve often coached people, like, “Don’t say the word obviously ever. It doesn’t help you out.”

Marina Nitze
That should be a TextExpander shortcut, too. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just is in that same category in this context. So, okay, any other don’ts?

Marina Nitze
I think those are my two main ones.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And I want to talk a little bit about the emotional component here. I think some folks have a feeling that if they try to hack it through the bureaucracy, their bosses might think that you’re trying to undermine their authority, or you’re trying to circumvent them or their system, or you’re going over their head, like you’re committing some kind of a no-no. Can you tell us, to what extent are these fears real? And if we have them, what should we do about them?

Marina Nitze
Yes. So, my approach there would be to build a stakeholder map, and that’s something we recommend in the book. And a stakeholder map is usually such a valuable tool that we explicitly recommend that you never share it with anybody and that you don’t put it anywhere that somebody else can find it, because everybody’s got those different perspectives, like you were just saying.

You may have a boss that is threatened by you shining. In which case, if you really want to see your initiative take hold, the way to do it might be to give your boss credit for having done it. Or, you may have a boss that is really like a rule-follower, and so the way to get around that is to follow the rules. You may have people that are very motivated by getting a promotion and, therefore, you have to understand what is the criteria for them getting that promotion, and how do you help them achieve that in the course of helping you achieve your initiative.

So, by mapping out kind of who each person is, what their resources or power structure is relative to the decisions that you need made, and what are their risks and incentives, you can start strategically figuring out how to move forward so that you can get your initiative done, whether that means, again, giving some people credit, distracting some other people with a different shiny toy, and then maybe even changing some position descriptions themselves so that people’s motivation to do their regular work is shifted to help support what you’re trying to get done.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s so much wisdom here, Marina. Thank you.Okay, so when you’re making this map of things with the stakeholders and what they want, I’m curious, are there a few key categories of drivers, of things that people tend to really want or not want that we might tick through as we’re trying to fill out that map? Because we might say, “Huh, what does Paul want? Hmm, nothing’s leaping to mind.” Could you give us a few starter categories to help get those ideas flowing?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, absolutely. I think we have, like, two pages of bullets in the book as additional brainstorming exercise. But people think about what their recognition is. Some people, for example, actively avoid the limelight, and some people really want to be seen in it. Money, which could be tied to promotions or raises or getting more budget line item for their own program.

Some people want to be perceived as innovative, and some people want to be perceived as rule followers. And then it’s also important not to overlook the literal lines of like, “What is this person supposed to be doing? And what are the lines, whether they’re grey or bright lines, of what they’re not supposed to be doing?” And how might you need to adjust those to accommodate the kind of different kind of work that you might need them to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Marina, it seems like as you described this, you sound like such a master, and, hey, you’ve got a lot of experience in some organizations, you’ve learned some things the hard way, and you’ve codified some of it. So, beyond simply reading your book Hack Your Bureaucracy, do you have any tips on how we can, generally, become all the more savvy and hip to this skillset?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, I think this is one that anybody can learn. I don’t think you have to get a bachelor’s degree in it by any means. And so, I would start with just identifying a problem in your space of, again, whether it’s you’re annoyed by a Homeowners Association rule, or since this podcast is about being awesome at your job, something in your immediate department, or maybe at a slightly higher level on your organization that you want to change.

And then I would go about trying to change it. Talk to your peers. Enlist other people in the journey of making the change. Try the normal way. Understand and ask why, “Is it the way that it is? Is there some law or policy, or is it just that a CEO, three CEOs ago, said that it was the case, and no one has ever questioned it since?”

And then you can build up your skills there. I would definitely recommend picking problems, if at all possible, that don’t involve life or death as your first bureaucracy hack. Pick something a little bit lower stakes. And then as you build up your bureaucracy-busting muscles, you can take on harder and harder problems.

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

Marina Nitze
One last thing I’ll just say is it’s also a lot of this sounds like you’re really in the weeds, and it definitely is, but it really helps to hold a north star. And that was something that I built early on when I was at the VA. But literally, it just started with a bunch of Post-It notes, but saying like, “What could the VA be? If we get through all these bureaucracy hacks, like what is the VA at the end of the rainbow, as it were?”

And, actually, so the Federal Government has an equivalent to the Grammy’s or the Emmy’s called the Sammy’s. And the VA won the Sammy for the whole Federal Government for customer service two weeks ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Congratulations.

Marina Nitze
And that was such an incredible vision, that from ten years ago, that it wasn’t even on my vision board. So, I just encourage you, it’s nice to have a north star, and it can also motivate you through the dark times to know, like, what the big picture you’re working towards is even if you have to make a lot of concessions along the way.

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

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. It’s Lily Tomlin, and it’s, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. And then I realized, I’m somebody.”

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

Marina Nitze
I love re-reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and the research that you’re just kind of as happy as you were before no matter what bad things happen to you, or no matter what decisions that you make. That helps make some decisions feel a little lower stakes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Marina Nitze
Well, a book that I really modeled our book off of is The Success Principles by Jack Canfield because I love that you can just open to any page and get like a little mini dose of inspiration without having to commit to reading a 300-page book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Marina Nitze
Definitely the stakeholder maps or the journey maps, that it would be like when you’re mapping out a process from end to end, all the different steps, all the people working at the steps, what the error rates are, what the volume rates are, what the wait times are. I love those immensely. And maybe, as a meta toy, it would be my enormous dry erase board sticker because it takes up like my whole wall, and it’s where I draw all my maps.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so it’s a dry erase board but it’s like a Post-It, or you say sticker?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it’s from 3M. Yeah, it’s like six-by-twelve feet. You can buy them in different sizes. And mine, I’ve had it for five years now, and it’s held up perfectly, but I accept I’d have to replace them.

Pete Mockaitis
But you could reposition it with the adhesive.

Marina Nitze
I had never tried that. So, yes, you could reposition it, but most of my vision was if I got it…you know how you dry erase something for a while and you’d kind of have that red hue that you can’t get rid of? I envisioned, I could just, “Oh, great. I can just unstick the board and put up a new one.” But I haven’t even had to do that yet, so.

Pete Mockaitis
Then you get it done.

Marina Nitze
Yeah, I use it all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Marina Nitze
Inbox zero. It took me many years to get to that point but now I get super anxious if I even have, like, five unprocessed emails.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Marina, maybe we need to have you for a whole another episode to discuss that.

Marina Nitze
It took a lot of work to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a quick follow-up, what have been some of the most game-changing insights, or approaches, or tools, or hacks to pulling this off?

Marina Nitze
One, definitely, the snooze feature in Gmail helped a lot because some email it’s a hotel reservation one, or something about a meeting agenda for next week. I snooze it till one minute before I need it so it gets out of my inbox but I know it’s going to appear when I need it. Another piece is really from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is I just have to make a decision about what to do in the email.

I don’t have to do the thing, so that reduces the friction of like, “Oh, my God, I don’t have time to write a 20-page report.” But I don’t have to. All I have to do is capture it in my to-do list that I have to write a 20-page report, and then I tag the email as having a task, and then I can get it out of my inbox. I’m also a pretty merciless un-subscriber, and I love apps like Matter, for example.

Anytime I get an email newsletter, something I’m supposed to read, that automatically gets forwarded to Matter and delete it from my inbox, so that when I’m in the mood to read, or David Allen, in the context to read, I can just pull up my Matter app and I get all my reading material in one place so it’s not in my inbox.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you hear people quote it back to you often?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it’s the idea of cultivating the karass. Karass is a concept from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which is that, in the book, that God has hidden other people on the planet to help you accomplish a goal. We use it in a little bit more of a secular way, which is imagine if, instead of thinking that all people in your agency or your department are out to get you or out to slow-roll you, imagine that there are people that are out to help you, and they are just hidden around as security guards or secretaries or accountants. And how can you find them and then band together to get your goal accomplished?

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

Marina Nitze
HackYourBureaucracy.com. We have a blog where we’re continuing to share more bureaucracy-hacking tactics and stories. And then you can follow me on Twitter at @MarinaNitze, N-I-T-Z-E.

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

Marina Nitze
Yes, find your karass. I mean, the best allies I had when I was in government trying to get through some of the hardest projects were literally the security guards and the executive assistants. And so, you just never know who your best allies are. So, go out there, meet as many people as you can, and hack your bureaucracy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Marina, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you many successful hacks.

Marina Nitze
Thank you so much. You, too.

795: How to Stop Being Crazy Busy and Take Back Your Time with Zena Everett

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Zena Everett reveals the time-wasters to drop in order to make time for what matters.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The top things slowing us down at work 
  2. The questions to ask for effective prioritization
  3. How to say no nicely 

 

About Zena

Leadership Coach and Speaker Zena Everett is the author of Mind FlipTake the Fear out of Your Career and the award winning Crazy Busy Cure. 

Originally a recruitment entrepreneur, Zena sold her business in 2007 then studied an MSc in Career Management and Coaching. She then took further postgraduate qualifications in psychological coaching and leadership with neuroscience (MIT Sloan Business School). She has coached on the Executive MBA Programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and is a member of the Associate Faculty at Henley Business School. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Zena Everett Interview Transcript

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

Zena Everett
Delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re talking productivity and time stuff, which is a favorite topic of mine, as well as listeners. And I love your book title so much The Crazy Busy Cure: A productivity book for people who don’t have time to read productivity books. Please lay it on us, Zena, what do you mean by crazy busy? And how is your book sort of distinctive in that it’s for those who don’t have time to read such books?

Zena Everett
Yeah. And I’m nervous about talking about productivity because that sounds like we’re trying to get people to do even more and more, and I’m not sure we are, really. I think we’re getting people to separate the meaningful from the meaningless. But I’m a coach, and my clients kept saying to me, “Oh, yeah, I’m really crazy busy. I’m crazy busy,” and it just was kind of going through our head all the time. And I thought, “This isn’t a good thing.”

You know, the type of person, they’d be late for a session, and everything would kind of be thrown across the table, and they haven’t thought, and they have no time to think, and I’d been asked to coach them because they were causing bottlenecks for everybody else in the organization. And I just thought, “Gosh, this is really interesting. Why are people so crazy busy? Is it them?” and it is to a certain extent, but it’s also a systemic thing. So, that’s what I got really interested in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, your book is for folks who don’t have time to read such books. I’m curious, is there a particular…where my mind goes in reading that is thinking about sort of like a time ROI, and Chris Bailey talks about this, in terms of like minutes spent on a thing will yield more minutes back to you for having done so. Are there some particular insights or tools or tactics that are really transformational along these lines?

Zena Everett
Even when you say things like that, it makes me get a bit stressed because that’s sort of minute ROI and all those kinds of things. What I realized is that I found some great research by Bain, actually, where I know where you were a long time ago. So, what they talked about, this whole concept of organizational drag, so I realized that crazy busyness is a thing and it’s got a name, which I call productivity drag.

And these are all the things that kind of slow down the system, that makes it really hard to get any work done. And that is excessive complexity and collaboration, so we want all organizations to be inclusive, but having too many people around the table just means you’ve got too many competing opinions and competing agendas, and often nobody there who’s strong enough to align those and ask the right questions.

So, there’s too much complexity, digitization – amazing because this is how we’re doing this, but sometimes it can layer a layer of fake work, crazy busy work on top of the real work, and I definitely put messaging and teams and social media in there. And then there’s excessive organizational complexity, where there are just far too many systems and processes.

And then overservicing, actually. That’s the fourth, which I realize sometimes I do. I overservice some clients who actually, in terms of ROI, I don’t get that much back. And that can happen when you’re in a business partnering role. So, I think you’ve got those kinds of systemic organizational factors that slow us down. And then you’ve got our own ability to not say no, possibly, or please everybody, all that stuff that gets us here in the words of Marshall Goldsmith, but don’t get us there.

So, I think you combine the two, and that’s why it’s just so hard to get anything done. And you know as well, Pete, that we are switching all the time, aren’t we? Most of our tasks just take a couple of minutes. We’re switching, switching all the time rather than actually doing deep work. And there’s umpteen things being written about deep work and flow, but that’s the holy grail of this stuff, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. So, that makes sense in terms of a cocktail for crazy busyness if you’ve got some organizational drag things going on, a bunch of complexity and collaboration, and overdoing it, and then our own difficulties internally putting together, and there you go, crazy busy, here we are. So, I’m curious, where do you recommend folks start? If they find themselves in a crazy busy situation and we want to get out in a jiffy, what do you recommend as some of the first key steps that make a world of difference?

Zena Everett
I always think our grandparents could run this kind of work because it’s so obvious. It’s first principles, isn’t it? I think it’s going back to people to say, “Actually, what am I really measured on here? What’s my job description? When I’m next in front of my boss or a promotion board or something like that, what do I want to talk about that I’ve actually achieved? And does how I run my role and spend my days reflect that?” because very often it doesn’t.

You know this, we sacrifice our priorities on the altar of everybody else’s urgent demands. So, I say to my clients, “Right. Actually, what is the difference between you and an outstanding performer? What are they achieving? What’s the gap? That’s where you need to focus your time.” So, all that stuff you say yes to, well, we can spend a lot of time saying yes to discretionary activities, all the other things that come our way, all those curve balls, some of which are career-enhancing because they’re interesting, or we’re learning, or they give us access to new networks but, actually, me making you more crazy busy, because I haven’t finished my work, and I say, “Well, look, Pete, would you mind?” isn’t a good thing.

So, that’s why I say, right, just take a step back actually and slow things down to go faster, and actually work out, “What is the top level of my job description?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Zena, can you tie that together for us with an inspiring story of someone who escaped crazy busyness by following such a process?

Zena Everett
I’ve got lots of examples, actually, so maybe I should sort of kind of talk about Captain Fantastic. So, I think my typical client would be somebody who got promoted, maybe they’ve been great at their job, they’ve always been hot on execution, worked harder than everybody else, long hours, just delivered. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, all that kind of stuff.

And then they’re doing really well at the job, and somebody says, “Hey, look, here’s an intern. Take them on. They know nothing. They’re clueless. Well done,” and nobody ever says to that person, “Right. You’re already spending 120% of your hours doing your job.” Nobody ever says, “Right. This is how you need to make your job more efficient to find time for managing those people.”

Anyway, invariably, they do, and then they end up having a team around them, and that’s often my absolute definition of a crazy busy client. It’s somebody on that sweet spot who’s managing their own contribution but they’re running a team as well, and they probably got a team of mixed ability, maybe some people they’ve inherited or they’re brand new and so on.

And those are the people that I would love to coach, and I have a really robust discussion with to say, “Right. You need to go back and talk to your boss about how much time you should be spending on your own work, and how much time you should be spending on management.” And we don’t talk about time in that respect. I think it’s rare.

Our manufacturing cousins would be everything is timed on the production line, isn’t it? We’re really sure about how long it takes to do when, and everything is fairly timed. Whereas, it’s rare that somebody says, “That report should take you 45 minutes. If you just do it once, do it properly, get it done, it’s about 45 minutes, and this is what good practice looks like.”

So, we’re nervous about micromanaging people, that’s what managers say to me all the time, “Oh, I really don’t want to micromanage people” But, actually, I think we’ve got to be about old school about this, and give some people some sense about how to structure their days, how long tasks should take, and get them to put some kind of rigor and discipline in them.

Because, at the moment, what we know is that work is just cannibalizing into people’s personal time. We’re getting our tasks done but we have this low level of anxiety, hopefully, only low level, no worse than that, because we always feel anxious because there’s just so much to do and we never get to inbox zero, do we, or whatever it is, and there’s always more projects, and there’s more things we can be doing, and never mind all the liking and posting and all that kind of crazy nonsense.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s a great tip right there in terms of when it’s knowledge work, it can be super fuzzy with regard to you can do a report in 45 minutes, you could do a report in four hours, and I find those guidelines quite helpful, myself, both on the giving and the receiving end because sometimes it really is essential. I’ve spent all day on an email before, and it was absolutely the right choice. That email was mission critical and involved tens of thousands of dollars, so felt great about that.

And the other times, you can go way overboard on something that is like, “No, you just have to kind of check the box so that we know that’s checked, and then we’re fine,” or, “Well, this is going to be edited by six more people anyway down the road so no need to stress it too much because it’s going to be revised like the Dickens so just go ahead and get the rough outline and structure starter point in play and then we’re good to go.”

So, yeah, I think that is helpful as opposed to micromanage-y. And do you have an idea, or thought, or guideline for when does something become micromanagement versus is it just good wholesome quality guidance that is useful and appreciated?

Zena Everett
I like a bit of wholesome quality guidance but I think once we get people cured from crazy busyness, they’re much better managers, and then they’ve got time to say, “Pete, what can I back off and let you get on with?” I think that’s the thing is to have that continuous conversation. And when people are maybe working partly from home and partly in the office and juggling all that kind of stuff, sometimes we need more help than people expect, sometimes we need less, so you can’t overcommunicate on this kind of stuff.

But my real bug bear that really drives me mad is this whole culture of continuous synchronous working. So, this feeling the need to send you Teams Messenger, or WhatsApp, or something, and you respond to that immediately, and I think that is a thing that really slows people down because, aside those occasional days when you spend a whole day on an email, and you probably need to take a step away and come back and look at it again, and maybe sleep on it, all those things, that’s fine.

But, fundamentally, most of us, as you very well know, we’re just switching tasks all day, aren’t we, because people need us, and people need us now. So, I get my clients to have more meetings, which they aren’t that happy about, but better. I’d get them to put some real rigor into their meetings and sharpen up.

Have you ever said to somebody, “Oh, look, do that meeting for me?” and you think, “Great. I’ve saved myself a couple of hours there.” And then the person comes out of the meeting, and you say, “All right. How did it go? What happened?” and they brief you in about two sentences, don’t they, “Oh, yeah, we did this and Jim is doing this. That’s it.”

So, I’m always curious by how my clients can spend so much time in really rubbish meetings that they shouldn’t be in, but they don’t have time to say to you, “Really liked how you write that report. Actually, you can try and make it quicker now,” or whatever it is. So, there’s definitely something about communicating properly once rather than having this continuous stream of consciousness where we feel we should be connected to our teams, well, almost 24/7 in some cases. This drip, drip, drip of Teams messages.

So, I think if we can kind of eliminate that and get people to work away on their own, do some deep thinking, work in flow, all the kind of basic productivity stuff that we’ve all been reading about, and then come back, and then connect and have proper rigorous meetings, life would be so much better. But there seems to be a lot of wasted time in inefficient meetings that we could do something about.

And I think that we need to use technology better so that it’s just a kind of briefing rather than a discussion, or a celebration, or a brainstorm, or decisions to be made, obviously, then there is no reason for that to be a meeting. Our manufacturing colleagues would never get everybody to down tools at the same time because it’s such an expensive investment of time but we’re frivolous with our time. That’s a very long answer, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was agreeing with you with regard to that manufacturing analogy. It does feel kind of silly to say, “Okay, hey, everyone, stop. Stop things you’re doing, put down the chainsaw or kind of whatever is going on there, and we’re going to chat about this thing.” It’s just sort of a head scratch, like, “What? Why? What’s happening right now? And why? This doesn’t seem so critical. Is there an emergency? Like, is something catastrophic occurring?”

It’s fuzzy and yet, in professionals, that world is still plenty expensive to have whatever, six, ten people in a room all at the same time, and there is that interruption of flow factor in there as well. So, that really puts in the context that, “Yeah, those meetings are destructive.” So, I’m curious, when you mentioned people-pleasing and not saying no, do you have any pro tips on how we professionals can do that better? How does one decline a meeting politely, diplomatically, effectively in a none career-limiting fashion?

Zena Everett
Well, how do you do it, because you must do it all the time?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I sort of have the luxury of being the owner/CEO, and so there’s nobody above me to ask me things. So, then it’s like this great mass of the external world which I have license to engage or disengage as I please. So, in a way, I’m spoiled and I don’t have that much of a problem.

Zena Everett
Do you ever feel guilty if you say no to people?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, my wife, I would.

Zena Everett
You should never say no to your wife, ever. What are you saying no to your wife about? Let’s talk about that. Let’s get your wife on.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess when I was an employee, I did, it’s like, “Oh, shucks, I’m invited to this meeting. Oh, I don’t really think it’s viable for me to be there? How do I say this just right?” so I did have those consternations and worries. So, what do you recommend to folks inside organizations?

Zena Everett
I hate that word stakeholder. It’s really kind of cliché, isn’t it? But I think you have to work out who your best stakeholders are. Everybody in this kind of field of time management, we’ve got Pomodoros, or frogs, or something, and I love that antelope and field mice analogy. Do you know that one?

So, you’ve got to know who your main stakeholders are. And I love the analogy of the lions who only chase antelopes. So, they know that they can’t spend their whole day chasing after little furry critters because it’s not worth it. The calorific intake that they need, they wouldn’t get from lots of small things. It’s not worth it. They just let them go.

Whereas, we love to chase anything, don’t we? We love the dopamine hit of crossing something off our list, and our brains can’t distinguish between whether that’s a significant thing, an antelope that we can feed off or if it’s just a load of small field mice. And I am as guilty as anybody of writing small stuff down just to have the pleasure of crossing them off.

So, we’ve got to know who our antelopes are, and so that can be significant tasks, when we’ve got some big goals and we’ve broken them down, yes, sounded stuff, but, actually, we also need to know who those antelope people are as well. Apologies to any vegans who are finding this distasteful. But I think you got to know who the important people are.

And you can’t just jump and overservice people, and you’ve got to know who to say, “Yes, great. I’d really love to get involved,” and go through that thought process, “What’s good for my career? What am I trying to achieve? Where do I need to increase my visibility? If I do this, is this going to give me a new skill? Is this going to give me access to new networks?”

Does that sound calculating? I think we’ve got to be sensible about this, and some people are better than others. There’s so much about saying no, isn’t there? You just say no nicely. Don’t over-explain. Our Royal Family have got an expression of saying, “Never explain. Never complain.” And I think that’s really good. So, the more detail you go into about why you haven’t got five minutes, clearly, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. But you can just say, “Look, I can’t do it.”

But I try and get, I run these “Crazy Busy” sessions, and I teach people, just say, to sequence, “I can’t do that now but I’ll do it, don’t worry. The first available space I’ve got is 8:00 o’clock tomorrow,” or whenever, “Wednesday week and I’ll do it then,” whatever. Hopefully, they’ll disassociate themselves by then. So, I think we need to get into the habit of pushing back, and I think we just need to say, “Yes, I can, and this is when I can fit it in.”

Again, our manufacturing colleagues, if I came to you, and said, “Look, I don’t know, here’s my test tube. Test it in your testing laboratory,” you wouldn’t say, “Of course, I’ll stop the whole line, all those other test tubes will go crashing off the sides.” You just say, “Yes, of course. We start again at 3:00 o’clock, and yours will be the first on there.” So, we’ve just got to approach our work in the same way, and say, “Yeah, I can schedule it in then. How’s that?” And if that doesn’t work, then find somebody else to do it the nicest possible way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we got that great clarity associated with who the people who really matter, and what is the work, and the projects that really matter, and the things you’re being judged or graded upon. Cool. And so then, I’d love for you to elaborate on the just say no nicely. Do you have any favorite phrases, scripts, verbiage?

Zena Everett
I’ve learnt, one of my clients taught me to say, “I’ve noticed…” so that’s a very nice way of dealing with things because I think the people that cause the greatest problems, actually, are the ones we can’t say no to. We soon learn to say, “Yeah, I can’t do that now. I’ll do it later,” or, “Actually, I really can’t get involved in this. I don’t have the capacity.”

But the ones that are the real problems are the, “You sending me a message, say, at 7:30 every morning when you wake up, saying, ‘I need this for a meeting at 9:00,’ and you’re my boss, and I’m terrified of you, and so I don’t know how to deal with it, and I’m hardwired to do it straightaway.” So, “I’ve noticed…” is a really nice way to start a conversation, to say, “Pete, I’ve noticed that you’re often sending me emails at 7:30 asking for information. Oh, that’s no problem. I love doing it for you, but…” okay, maybe not quite as revolting as that.

“But how about I have sight of your diary. Once a week, you can show me what meetings you’ve got coming up and then I can make sure I schedule time to get all that information from you?” So, “I’ve noticed…” is a really nice way to talk about someone’s behavior and how you want it to change rather than making it personal.

So, I think that’s a conversation-starter to say, “How can we do this and get a bit more organized?” because crazy busy people are a real problem for everybody else, because they’re multitasking, they’re always missing deadlines, everything at the last minute, they’re perfectionists often so that slows things down because perfectionists are more likely to procrastinate. They cause problems for everybody else, so we almost need to learn how to have conversations with crazy busy people so we’re not crazy busy by default. It’s not pushed down the chain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, let’s say we’ve done all those things masterfully in terms of we’ve gotten clarity on what’s important and who’s important, and pushed back effectively on, “I’m not going to that meeting. I’ve noticed this behavior. I’m going to schedule some time to do these things.” If we’ve tamed the external world, what are some of the top things we got to focus in on with our internal world?

Zena Everett
Okay, I’ve gone on the external world. Often, when I talk to people about what sucks up their time the most, they talk about emails and messages; so emails, meetings, and messages, systems, processes, inter-team communication, networking, so I just add to your list. I would usually encourage people to have a talk about internal communication, like, “Can we stop emailing each other? Can we just talk? Can we go and have lunch and get all this dealt with rather than, again, this kind of James Joyce stream of consciousness all day?”

I think our internal world is often that people-pleasing, those messages we’ve internalized, “If you work harder than everybody else, you’ll do well,” the stuff. We look at maybe our parents, caregivers, people from our early lives that we’ve observed, they worked incredibly hard, they’ve done well. Actually, the world is slightly different now. It’s the thinking that makes the difference. It’s the creativity, it’s the innovation, it’s the space to lead, it’s time to think for us.

So, I think we’ve got to realize that, actually, the whole MO for getting us to a certain level in our careers has to shift when we want additional responsibility because we can’t run around like a headless chicken looking stressed. So, I think it’s some real self-talk about, again, like I said, Marshall Goldsmith is, “What got me there,” I love that expression, “won’t get me here,” thinking, “What does a high-performer in my organization look like? What are people saying about me? Am I giving off a vibe that I take it all in my stride, I’ve got capacity for other people? And have I got time to network?”

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I think that’s so important for career success, and I’ve heard you talk about this. I think people who got their heads down in their job and not networking, they’re not saying, “Pete, what are you working on? That sounds really interesting. Let’s have a chat about it. Let’s grab a coffee,” they’re not just reaching out. They’ve got their heads down, and, actually, in most organizations that I work in, those aren’t the people that do well.

The people that do well have got their heads up and they’re visible and they’re picking very carefully the projects that they get involved in because they want to be seen to come up with the gamechangers. But our brains fight against this, and it can be in our DNA just to do lots of busy stuff. And then there’s all the real kind of mother hen managers, I talk about in the book, that are the ones that are…they remember everyone’s birthday, they do all the emotional labor, they’re collecting the cups after the meetings.

They’re doing other people’s work for them because they don’t want to share out across the team because they’re worried that their colleagues are too busy, all that kind of stuff. And, actually, they’re the ones that crash and burn. They simply don’t get promoted.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Those are some good flags and watchouts there. Yes, I think I’ve noticed that as well as those with their heads up and around and aware, being thoughtful and selective, and networked and building relationships, do often seem to be advancing better than those who have their head down. And, I guess I’m an extrovert, but it sounds like more fun to me as well in terms of how you’re operating. So, you mentioned self-talk, are there some key mantras or I guess maybe cognitive distortions to tackle head on or how do we get our heads right?

Zena Everett
Well, I’m a bit of a “Just don’t do it” person. I think people really have to learn to say no to stuff, and that’s a big…like, we’ve just talked about. But, actually, even if they’re not saying no to somebody else, just think, “It’s really tempting for me to read that, get involved in that, but, actually, that’s not a priority. My time is finite,” so I think that’s important.

The voice that I want my clients to hear from me, “Why am I doing that? What’s my highest and best use here?” And the way that we manage our money, that idea of best use of treasury, is the same thing, “What is the highest and best use of my time? What is it that only I can do?” It’s a great question if you’re a manager, “Out of everything I can do, what should I be doing? What is it that only I can do on my team? And that’s where I should be adding the most value because that’s my greatest contribution to the business.”

So, I think those are the kind of reflective questions that we need to go through, “And why am I doing this? If this is my hourly rate, why am I doing this? Shouldn’t somebody be doing it?” We know when people are supposed to be more strategic and not get involved in the weeds. Sometimes that’s a bit scary because they think, again, I’m talking about guilt a lot.

But that can almost feel indulgent, couldn’t it? I’m really thinking about this kind of stuff where it’s actually, “Should I just be on the phone or getting involved in this kind of bring stuff to show that I’m willing,” but, actually, businesses want people they develop to spend more time being strategic and more time thinking. So, that can be something that people really need to talk themselves into to think, “Look, this is okay. I might be right at the top of my comfort zone and really enjoying it, and it feels good.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, we’ve got some good tidbits here. I guess I’m curious, having worked with so many different coaching clients, can you share a couple of the approaches, tips, tools, interventions that have been just the most transformational and yet also easy?

Zena Everett
Okay, I’m thinking about this. I love the whole towering strengths exercise which, again, is from Marshall. I’m doing PR for Marshall Goldsmith, it seems like.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we had him on the show recently. He’ll appreciate the reverberation there. So, let’s talk about that.

Zena Everett
So, he has a great exercise where you work out what your towering strengths are. So, that could be, “I’m a really hard worker,” and then what happens when that goes into overdrive, “Right. Well, actually, I’m a complete control freak. I really don’t like to leave anything not done exactly right. I don’t want any loose ends.”

So, when my towering strengths have been super hardworking, when it goes into overdrive, means that I just throw myself at everything in. I don’t stop and think, “I think hard work is going to get me through.” So, the towering strength versus overdrive exercise is really helpful because our towering strength is often what creates a kind of glass ceiling for us later on in organizations because that becomes the problem.

So, maybe, I mean, you and I work for ourselves. I know my towering strength is that I’m pretty strong, I’m very independent. When, actually, that towering strength goes into overdrive, it means that I can be a little bit slow in saying, in asking for help and getting support because I always think I can figure everything out on my own. So, that’s an exercise that I think can be really interesting for people.

And then I do love all those magic questions. If you went back into work tomorrow and everything was fantastic, what would be different? I think that tends to shift people because they say, “I’m stuck and I don’t know,” but you just kind of take them to the sunny opens and get them to look back, then they come up with ideas.

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

Zena Everett
Yeah. So, any kind of Productivity 101 is about scheduling. If it’s not scheduled, it doesn’t happen. So, I get people to pimp their calendars because our calendars are full of meetings, and full of calls but they don’t have tasks in there. So, I get them to understand their priorities, which is the P, to insert into their schedules, it’s got to be meaningful, the M in PIMP, because otherwise they’ll let somebody bump up their tasks and take priority.

And then the final P in PIMP is for prompts, which we know that people have got to have a prompt so that they don’t have…to remove the element of choice, “So, I finish doing this meeting. I’m going to put the kettle on, make a coffee, and then I’m going to go straight in and do that, write that bit of report, or whatever it is, for an hour. I’m going to set myself a timer and do it,” to remove as many options as possible.

So, I make people pimp their schedules, and actually schedule tasks in so that we feel that we have some greater sense of control because what I’ve noticed with people is they’ve got no time for actual work. They’ve just got so many meetings, so many different demands that they’re doing. They don’t have time to actually stop and think and do some deep work, so that’s going to be scheduled. So, your antelopes have got to be scheduled and also your field mice.

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

Zena Everett
Well, I have to say I like, “Just don’t do it.” That really works for me. And I tend to think about that first, “Why am I doing this?” Yeah, so just don’t do it. That’s the opposite of “Just do it” that we attempted to do. I think a lot of brain, just doing it, causes organizational drag, “Why are we actually doing this?”

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

Zena Everett
I love Dunning-Kruger. Shall we talk about Dunning-Kruger?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Zena Everett
I love the Dunning-Kruger Effect which is a cognitive bias. So, a hapless criminal, I think in the ‘90s, went and robbed two banks with just lemon juice on his face. And he robbed one bank and then another one thinking that he’d never get caught because lemon juice is an invisible ink. And, of course, he was arrested swiftly.

So, Messrs. Dunning and Mr. Krueger, psychologists, thought, “How can somebody so hapless have so much confidence?” So, they discovered this thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, they did various research on students and realized that the people with the least ability had the most confidence, and vice versa. So, they call it Dunning-Kruger effect, so the less you know, the more confident you are.

And, of course, the opposite of Dunning-Kruger is that when somebody becomes an expert in something, sometimes they can have a bit of a confidence wobble because then they’re worried that, actually, they realize all the stuff that they don’t know because they’re benchmarking themselves against their peers who are other experts.

So, I see in mid-life that sometimes people have confidence wobbles, or they call it impostor syndrome, “All of a sudden, I was great at my job. And now I’m feeling a little bit hesitant and losing confidence.” So, I love telling them about Dunning-Kruger, “Actually, that’s really good because you just realized you know what you don’t know.” So, I’m a bit anti all this stuff, particularly, thanks to all kinds of stereotypes, but there’s lots of coaching for women around the impostor syndrome, “Oh, just relax about that. Don’t put yourself in those situations.”

I say to my clients, “That’s great if you’re feeling like an impostor. That shows that you’re really pushing something, you’re doing something new, but it’s also that you’re just realizing that maybe you need a little bit more preparation time to really feel confident. You need to put some more hours in but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep on going.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And a favorite book?

Zena Everett
Okay. So, I’m a big fan of Alan Weiss. I love his Million Dollar Consulting book, I love his Money Talks, I love his kind of raw ambition and confidence and aspiration. I think it’s great. I recommend his books frequently. So, he’s talking about this whole idea about charging for what you’re worth.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool?

Zena Everett
I don’t think I have a favorite tool. In fact, I’m quite nervous about people who like a software for everything because I think a whiteboard, where you map your projects with some really good Sharpies and some great Post-It notes so you’ve got visual management is a fantastic tool. So, there you go, an old-fashioned whiteboard where I can actually see it. That really works for me. I’m neurotypical. I’m much more visual than I am, so give me a whiteboard and a spreadsheet any day, though I think that works.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Zena Everett
I’d like to come up with some great productivity habit. I’m very motivated by a great cup of coffee, so that’s my favorite reward. Rewarding myself with a good cup of coffee.

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

Zena Everett
“Why am I doing this?”

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

Zena Everett
My website is ZenaEverett.com, and I send out a monthly article on productivity and career success. So, if people want that, they can either sign up for my website or just drop me an email and we’ll add them to our system.

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

Zena Everett
Work out what your antelopes are and make sure that your diary reflects your priorities, not other people’s.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Zena, it’s been a pleasure. I wish much luck and very little crazy busyness.

Zena Everett
Thank you. You, too.

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.