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831: How to Manage Multiple Projects without the Overwhelm with Elizabeth Harrin

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Elizabeth Harrin lays out the five critical steps to making the management of multiple projects more manageable.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The easiest way to make managing multiple projects manageable
  2. How to ensure follow through when you’re not the manager
  3. How to strike the right balance between time, cost, and quality

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Harrin teaches people how to juggle multiple projects so they can meet stakeholders’ expectations without working extra hours. She is a project management practitioner, trainer, mentor and founder of RebelsGuideToPM.com. 

An author of seven project management books, Elizabeth prides herself on her straight-talking, real-world advice for project managers. She uses her twenty years’ experience doing the job to help people deliver better quality results whilst ditching the burnout through her community membership programme, Project Management Rebels.

Resources Mentioned

Elizabeth Harrin Interview Transcript

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

Elizabeth Harrin
Hello. Thank you for having me on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I think we need to hear a little bit about your ritual involving the song “Firework.” What’s the story here? 

Elizabeth Harrin
Well, when I go live on a video or something like that, I feel like I need to get into the zone. And having that break between just doing my emails or whatever I was doing before, and focusing on showing up and being present in the moment, I do that with music. So, I play a song and I just got stuck on Katy Perry’s, so I play that to get into the right frame of mind before going live and talking to people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, “Firework” is actually a really fun tune, and I love the metaphor at the beginning, like, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”

Elizabeth Harrin
Absolutely. Drifting around, isn’t that what every project manager feels like at the beginning of a new piece of work, and you have got no idea what you’re supposed to be doing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Elizabeth, you’re a master of the segue and tying it together. All right. Well, I want to hear a little bit about Managing Multiple Projects. You’ve written the book on it. Could you kick us off with a particularly surprising or counterintuitive or extra-fascinating discovery you’ve made when it comes to managing multiple projects?

Elizabeth Harrin
I think one of the things that surprised me was I did a survey to get some numbers, a bit of research for the book, and most people are managing between two and five projects, and that doesn’t sound like very many, but having to constantly switch between work does create that overhead, and workload is the biggest cause of burnout. So, if you can’t manage that workload effectively and switch between all things you’re juggling, it can be really quite difficult.

And the most surprising thing for me about that survey, and the results I got back when I was interviewing people for the book, was how sad it is that people are feeling so unhappy about the work that they do. And the verbatim comments were, just shocked me that people show up to work, they want to do the best that they can, and they’re not in environments where they can do that.

And I felt that that was something that we need to change in the world because we all need to be happy at work. We spend so much time there, it’s not worth doing things that we don’t enjoy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Elizabeth, that is powerful, and thank you for sharing that. That really does connect emotionally in terms of overwhelm, burnout, sadness. When you say verbatim comments, are there a couple that have lodged into your brain and haunt you, that you could share to tee up just what we might be able to escape here?

Elizabeth Harrin
There was a comment from a woman called Kimberly, and she wrote, “I work in a fast-food project management environment that expects a sit-down service.” And I thought, “Don’t we all?” So many people must feel that they’re in environments where you want to do the best quality work you can, and actually it’s got to be a quick turnaround. There has to be speed and shortcuts, and we have to apply all these hacks just to get through the day because we don’t have the time to focus on the people that matter and the work that matters.

And so, that analogy about feeling like you’re in a fast-food environment but all your customers and the work that you want to be able to deliver, you won’t be able to provide this five-star dining service. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s really funny, and I have felt both of those work desires. Sometimes it is a blast to just shred through a lot of stuff at medium quality and high speed, and just enjoy the thrill ride, like, “Woohoo! Look at all these things checked off and out the door. That’s really cool.” And other times, you really do want to be, I don’t know, sort of like an artisanal, craftsmanship, bespoke, excellence, maximum beauty, maximum quality, and what’s challenging is often you don’t get to choose.

Elizabeth Harrin
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“That might be your mood but what’s required is this.” And if they require both speed and excellence at the same time, yeah, that’s a tricky one.

Elizabeth Harrin
It’s a tricky one, and people end up working longer hours. That was certainly my experience when I went back to work after maternity leave and was in this situation where I was managing multiple projects myself. My choices were do things less good, to a less quality standard, or work longer hours. And neither of them really appealed to me in terms of wanting to be the best professional that I could be and do good things in my career. So, I had to start rethinking what work meant and how I could work more productively because the tools I had only gave me those two choices, and that wasn’t good enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful and it sounds like some of your thoughts made it into your book, Managing Multiple Projects: How Project Managers Can Balance Priorities, Manage Expectations and Increase Productivity. If you could give us the key thesis or big idea behind the book, what is it?

Elizabeth Harrin
I’ve put together a five-part model that helps people break down their work, structure it differently, and then keep all their balls in the air. Although, the thing I would say is that no book will ever tell you there’s a one-size solution that will fit every need, so it’s written very much from a perspective of, “Here’s a ton of different tools and techniques that you could try. Test them out in your work environment. Find what fits your working style,” because everyone is different, aren’t they? And everyone’s work environment is different. But, broadly, with a few tweaks, hopefully, you can make the work a little bit more manageable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds exciting. Could you share with us a case study or a particularly inspiring story example of someone who was able to upgrade their managing multiple projects game to see great results?

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, I can. I do a lot of mentoring as well, so a lot of the people I talk to will pick and choose a couple of different things to apply. I can give you my own example and then I can share some examples from other people. The thing that made the biggest difference for me is the first of those five steps, which is working out what’s in your personal portfolio. So, what was the totality of my workload? Because I had three or four projects that I was managing, but also, I was mentoring my colleagues, I was organizing events at work, I was having to turn up and deputize for my manager at different meetings.

And all the other things, they never really make it into your mental to-do list because they’re the stuff you jot down on a Post It note and you never find the time, really, to put those on a project schedule or anything. They’re just expectations. So, when I had a complete picture of all the things I was responsible for, I then got a big shock about how many hours that actually equated to within a week, and being able to then have an intelligent conversation with my manager, and also to plan my own time, it became a lot easier because I had full visibility.

And I think that’s something that I know from teaching about managing multiple projects, that other people have take away as well, just that realization of all the extra things that we’re expected to do, whether it’s time sheets, or finance reporting, or organizing a party for the end of the year celebrations, whatever it is, all of those things take time away from us being able to deliver the main part of our job, the projects that we’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I’m thinking about mandatory trainings, I’m thinking about the sort of meetings, I’m thinking about email. Email is tricky because, on the one hand, are these emails about your projects. Well, then I guess, in a way, that time might get counted. Or, are the emails about everything else from the CFO and the CEO and this and that cross-functional group here and there.

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, team meetings, briefing your colleagues, all that kind of stuff. So, that personal portfolio step was really helpful for me. And one of the other things that I talk about in the book is dependency management. So, how do you work out how your work interacts with other people’s work, and how each of your projects interact with each other?

And I can tell you about Robert, who told me that once he’d planned out those different dependencies between his workload, he felt that he already knew that in his head. But having plotted it out and writing it down in a matrix, he could then use that as a communication tool to help other people in the department understand how their work impacted other people.

And that was valuable then because he could use that to help people talk about, “When does their work need to be done? What’s going to happen if it’s late? This is the implications for these people or this team or that project.” And they could talk about how they could help each other, make sure all of those expectations were met.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, lovely. That is handy. And so, just like a snazzy chart graph, flowchart, bit of graphical loveliness?

Elizabeth Harrin
You could do it that way. I just wrote it in a spreadsheet. I’m very good at simple things. So, the spreadsheet is a list of all my projects, a list of all my other responsibilities, a list of the way that my work interacts with other people’s work. The way that we did the dependency matrix was we had a list of projects down the side, and then a list of the same projects across the top.

And where they met, we could say, “Well, does this project have anything to do with that? Does this piece of work have anything to do with that team?” And you could sort of write in the box, “Yes, we need to be aware of this,” or, “Yes, we have to do that before this one.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, those are handy right off the bat. And could you share, when it comes to managing multiple projects, there are many books and works and tools and trainings on project management, and your corner of the project management universe, managing multiple projects, is distinctive. Can you share with us, what are some of the key differences, distinctions about the game when you’re managing multiple projects versus one super project?

Elizabeth Harrin
I think the biggest challenge for me is having different stakeholders, more stakeholders. If you’re managing a big gigantic project and it’s taking up all of your workload, then you’ve probably got quite good relationships with the people that you work with because you’re with them every day, working with them every day. The team might be large, and I’m not saying there’s not a lot of people and relationships to manage, but there’s one common goal that you’re all working towards, which is delivering the project, and you’ve probably got experience of working with them on a regular basis.

Now, let’s say you’re managing four projects. That’s four potentially quite separate, different teams, each of who want a piece of you at some point in the week, and you’ve got to switch between managing their expectations about how important their work is because not all projects are the same level of importance. Someone has to work on the stuff that’s low importance. And it might be that someone wants more of your time than you can actually give because you’ve got other things to do in your week as well.

So, I think those relationships are probably the hardest thing and the most different thing about managing multiple strands of work rather than just managing one. And that could be managing four different clients. If you’re in a client-facing role, maybe you’ve got four different clients, maybe you’ve got four different internal projects but, ultimately, the more people you have to work with, the harder, I think, the job becomes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then, now could you share with us, you mentioned at the very beginning that burnout, sadness, overwhelm stuff, do you have any strategies, specifically, that are targeted toward the internal game, our emotional landscape?

Elizabeth Harrin
I would say having boundaries is probably the most important thing because often, when people give us work to do, there is the expectation that we have the time to do it. And because we are good employees, and we don’t want to rock the boat, we say, “Yes, of course, I can take on that extra piece of work. When would you like it done by?”

And I think having mental boundaries around, “How do you accept new pieces of work when it’s within your gift to be able to do that?” Are you going to make the point about saying, “Well, I can do this but it will mean I’ll have to stop doing something else. I can do this but not by tomorrow because I’m working on something else. I can get it to you by Friday. Is that okay?”

And having that kind of sense of protecting your own time and your own mental health so that you’re not saying, “Yes, I can do everything, of course. Just lay it on me, and I’m just going to stay up till midnight and be at my keyboard all night.” By being aware of what your own limitations are and how many hours you’ve got available, what else you’ve got going on, planning out the next couple of weeks, you can start to think about, “If I say yes to this, and I have to because my boss is asking,” let’s be honest, you haven’t really got a lot of choice, “How can I make this fit? Whatever help do I need? How can I have that conversation?” And I tend to default to the, “I can do this, and this is when I can get it to you.”

There’s another tool that I can share, if you like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please do.

Elizabeth Harrin
One of the things that has helped me has been the two-week look ahead. So, I will take a point in the week where I’ll look at what’s coming up in the next fortnight with the team, to say, “Okay, what do we know about the next two weeks? Who’s got holiday? When have we got big meetings that we need to prepare for? What deadlines do we have?” and then nothing really surprises you, or you’ve built in a little bit of time to be aware of the things that are coming up, so if you do get a surprise, it doesn’t throw your whole schedule off because you’ve already built in some resilience for what you know is coming up.

That’s been really helpful for me because it also means that I can look ahead in terms of just how busy I’m going to be. So, you talked about protecting yourself and being mentally ready to be busy and juggle all these things. If I know I’ve got another week coming up in the future and it’s very busy, lots of big meetings, high stress, I can prepare for that because I can make sure that I’ve got things for the children’s lunchboxes in the freezer, I can make sure I’ve got childcare organized, I can make sure I’m not booking any late-night social events for me that week.

Or, if I am, I’m planning the next morning so that that’s easy. And so, I’m trying to holistically look at work is coming up and what that affects me, how that affects me personally so that I can be more prepared to show up ready to work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Okay. Well, let’s dig into your five key concepts. They each start with P, which is handy to remember: portfolio, plan, people, productivity, positioning. We’ve already gotten a couple tidbits for each. Could you perhaps give us a quick definition or articulation of the concepts, and then perhaps a top do and don’t within each of the five?

Elizabeth Harrin
Okay. With portfolio, I talk about having full visibility of the work that you’ve got on the go at the moment and the things that you’re responsible for. So, my top tip for that is just to take an hour, perhaps even less, and just look through whatever notetaking tool you use or your notebook or the notes you’ve got on your phone, and try and write down everything that you are currently working on, looking at how much time does that need to take per week.

And I know working out hours is very difficult, so what you might want to do is just think, “It’s a big thing, a medium thing, a small thing. That’s good enough for this exercise.” And then that’s the portfolio piece done. It gives you a good sense of what’s going on. The thing not to do is to keep that information to yourself. Use that as a talking point tool with your manager and with your team to say, “Look at all these things I’ve got on the go. Can you help me prioritize so that I’m focusing more of my time on the things that really matter to the organization?”

The plan step is about scheduling, working out when you’re available to do things, and the tip I have for that is to look at all the different projects you’re working on, and then look at where they’ve got their big milestones, when are they going live, or when do you have a big meeting about them, and then plot those on – again, I did it on a spreadsheet – because then you can start to see, “Oh, project number one and project number four have very similar schedules.”

“Maybe we could work on them together and maybe there are some benefits in looking at how we can streamline and combine the work, if it makes sense to do so, so that we’re not doing everything twice.” With that you’re going to need help from other people. So, again, the tip not to do is to try and do that alone. Other people will have a different insight about what’s important and what’s coming up on a project schedule, so it’s worth involving the rest of the team in your planning.

The people element of the model is all around working with others, as you guess from the name, and that is to do with thinking through how you use other people’s time. So, my suggestion there, if I have to give you one thing, would be to look at where you can combine meetings. And I can tell you about a time I did not do this.

I went along to a meeting with my project sponsor, my main manager I was working with on that piece of work, and I was all ready to talk about one project, but he was also involved in another project, and he asked me questions about that one and I wasn’t ready to talk about that, I didn’t have any of my notes, so I baffled, made episode, went along, and got through it. But it made me think, actually, other people are working on multiple things, too.

And to them, they might have multiple things they want to ask you about, so let’s try and combine the communication so that we’re only contacting people once rather than contacting them multiple time about each different thing that you’re involved with because you then help them manage their time as well.

With productivity, which is the fourth P, it’s really around managing your own time, thinking through what works for you, what productivity tools and techniques you want to use, and how you can help other people in your team be productive as well. The thing not to do with that is to get sucked into the latest shiny tool or what’s working for your colleagues because, in my experience, everybody has quite different ways of working to the best of their ability.

For me, I’m very much a pen-and-paper person. I do use electronic tools for project scheduling and task management and all that, but I always have pen and paper as well. Whereas, I know people who would never write anything down. So, you need to find out what works best for you and then use that in the way that you work.

Positioning is the last P. It’s also the one that’s the most convoluted because I kind of have to find the P that fit it, but it’s more around, “How do you set yourself up for success? So, what does the environment look like?” So, this is all around checklists and templates and processes, and what can you change in your environment to make life easier for future you.

So, one very simple thing to do would be to think through, “What do I do on a regular basis? How much time do I spend thinking about that? Would it be easier if I just had a checklist or a work construction or something like that? Then, if I’m not here, someone else can do it, but, equally, when I need to do it, I can make sure I just wheeze through it. I don’t have to worry about any of those steps.”

And I wonder if this is part of me getting older, but I used to be able to hold a list of things in my head. Now, I struggle more to think about the different steps involved in every process and making sure that nothing gets forgotten. So, anything that can be written down and templated just saves you time in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to the holding in the head, I’ve really noticed that. It’s a little bit of a stressor in terms of, I guess, maybe the psychologists would call it our working memory capacity. That might not be right construct but something like that in terms of there are so many things we can put there, and then when we try to push it for more, I actually feel sort of stress signals popping up.

And so, what I find interesting is if there is a task that is already somewhat stressful, or I’d be prone to procrastinate on because I’m worried I might screw something up or overlook something, make a mistake, or it’s just unpleasant for any number of reasons, having that checklist in place is very satisfying because it’s like I can free up all the potential stress associated with thinking and remembering the steps because they’re just there, and I can feel a little bit of fun momentum associated with, “Okay, I checked this piece of a checklist. It only took 30 seconds but I did it, and it’s checked. And now momentum is there visibly on the page before my eyes.”

Elizabeth Harrin
Exactly. Who doesn’t love ticking a box on a spreadsheet, right, to say it’s done, cross off that task on your to-do list? Project managers love that kind of stuff. And it’s exactly true, and it gives you a better-quality result because you’re not going to forget things. You’re going to go through a set of steps. And, honestly, the first time I did it, my checklist was a bit rubbish, and as I went through the actual task, I went, “All right, I have to do that as well. Oh, I’ve forgotten to involve that person.” So, you just add it on and it becomes checklist version 2.0, and you keep improving and iterating as you go. But the next time you have to do that, you don’t have to think so hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, now just a couple follow-up questions across some of these five Ps. I’ve had the experience, and apparently there are some psychological truths or principles that suggest that we humans have a real hard time, in fact, estimating how long something is going to take. Is that your experience? And what can be done about this challenge?

Elizabeth Harrin
Yes, that’s very much my experience. It’s really hard to estimate. And a lot of what we do is knowledge work where we’re thinking of things or changing something, and we probably haven’t done that before, so you don’t even have past projects where you can go back and say, “When we did it the last time, it took us this long, so, therefore, we can just use those estimates.”

Sometimes that’s because organizations don’t really capture the data in a format we can go back and use again but, also, it’s because people suffer from optimism bias. And when we think, “Oh, yeah, we can do that in four hours,” meanwhile forgetting about the fact that we all need toilet breaks in the day, and to take calls, and to check our emails, and to turn up and do other things.

So, my suggestion for people who are struggling with estimating is to think about how many hours you’ve got in the day, and then to schedule yourself and other people in your team, or have conversations with other people about what’s realistic for them to do, but only think of yourself as available 80% of your time because that then gives you time for those team meetings, the mandatory training we talked about earlier, and taking phone calls on things that are completely unrelated but still relevant to your job, and then you’ve got a bit of a buffer in your day.

The other big challenge with estimating is that people often approach estimating, thinking that they’re only doing this one thing, whereas, in real life, we’re probably juggling multiple different strands of activity or many projects, and switching between projects also cause us some time. So, time blocking has helped me.

Blocking out some time, a few hours to work on a particular thing, or an afternoon to do a particular type of task, and talking to our colleagues about best ways to get things done, what productivity techniques work for them, how do they organize their time, when have they got holidays coming up that they might need to do more things beforehand to hand over, and that might make them less available for your project because they’re supporting something else is just a lot about talking.

And I think contingency as well. Do you think that would be useful?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Elizabeth Harrin
Yeah, contingency is a buffer time. People often ask me, “But how much contingency should I add to this estimate?” or, “I think this task is going to take five days, but what’s reasonable contingency?” And I tend to, “Contingency should be something that’s based on uncertainty.” So, if you’re not really sure and you’re just guessing, you want to slack on a bit of extra time. Quite a lot probably if you just don’t have the information to make an accurate guess at the moment. But if you’ve done the work before, or you’re quite confident in how long things are going to take, you could probably get away without adding a lot less extra time.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. That makes sense in terms of the variable driving whether you want to add more or less contingency is uncertainty because we just don’t know, so let’s play it safe by having some more in a high-uncertainty zone. So, let’s say that the uncertainty is small, you’ve done it before, but it’s a little different. Do you have a go-to percentage that you utilize?

Elizabeth Harrin
I like 10%, I would add 10% extra on. There are lots of estimating models, so if your organization is quite mature in the way that they approach time tracking and estimating, then there’s a lot better ways to do it than just to add on 10%. But if you are just working on something yourself without an awful lot of other guidance from a project management office or anything like that, then give yourself a bit of a buffer, and 10% seems to cover most scenarios.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when it comes to the people side of things, when you’re in the tricky position of having to lead without the authority, like you own the project but you don’t own the employees, you have to do the stuff to make that proceed, it could be a tricky spot to be in. Do you have any top tips beyond being considerate in leveraging their time, of being extra influential, persuasive, to have people to say yes, and, in fact, follow through with their stuff?

Elizabeth Harrin
In my experience, I think it helps to tell people…well, to not tell people, to invite people to participate and explain the reasons behind why their participation is valuable. People like to do things because there’s a reason behind, not just because they’d been asked. So, the great thing about projects is that often there’s a change or a benefit that’s coming at the end of the work. Projects sometimes have bad outcomes, like, “We’re closing down an office, so we’re making your department redundant,” or something like that.

But, often, we’re trying to do something that will be beneficial for the organization and bring about something that’s good. So, if you can tie their contribution into the vision, or the bigger picture of why we’re doing the work in the first place, they can draw those lines and make the connection between how their contribution matters. That can be quite a powerful way of helping people to feel motivated about doing the work in the first place.

The other thing that works is allowing them to set their own deadlines. So, if you go to somebody, and say, “I need this by Tuesday,” their instant reaction might be, “Oh, I can’t do that. You can’t tell me what to do.” Whereas, if you can say, “We need this piece of work done, and your boss has suggested that you’re the right person to do it. How do you think…how much time do you think this might take?”

Obviously, this is not a conversation you’d have in three sentences, but you’d sit with them and explain what the requirements are and help them see the bigger picture of the project as well. And people can then say, “Well, if I need to involve this person and do this and work with that, then I think I could probably get that done by a week on Tuesday.” And that’s the date that goes in your project plan.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they’re trying to do projects is they make up all the deadlines themselves. In fact, I’ve sat in a room with senior managers, and they’ve drawn out a project plan on a whiteboard, and said, “Right, that’s what we’re going to do.” And I thought, “But none of the people who are actually doing the thing are in the room.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “You don’t know what it takes.”

Elizabeth Harrin
“You just don’t know. Why are you making this stuff up?” And then, of course, you just caused delays later because you’ve set expectations that are unmanageable. So, using other people’s expertise, and tapping into what they know, and trusting them to suggest the right timeframes can help. And I feel I’ve gone off the question now. Did I answer the question?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, it’s all juicy stuff in terms of you cast the vision for, “Okay, this is how things can be better when the project is done and how you’re contributing to that.” But the deadline-setting stuff, I think, is handy in terms of thinking like there might be a date by which it’s extra valuable to have this done, like, before the tradeshow, or the big meeting, or the big conference. So, that’s, I guess, would be nice to have it done, and executives can determine that.

However, I’m thinking about this is maybe the first project management lesson I learned I thought that was really useful – was it the triangle? You can probably describe it better, Elizabeth, than I can. What’s the time management or the project management triangle?

Elizabeth Harrin
We talk about the iron triangle, the triangle of constraints, of balancing time, cost, and quality. Although, the thought process behind that has moved on a bit now, and we don’t just use time, cost, and quality as a measure of success. But in terms of talking to your stakeholders, your colleagues, and your project sponsor, and your boss, it is really helpful because you can say, “Well, I can deliver to this level of quality, and it will cost this much and take this long.”

And then they could say, “But I want it faster. I can’t spend that much money. I want it cheaper.” And then you can adjust the corners of the triangle, and say, “Well, if we want it cheaper, it will have to be less quality, or maybe it will take longer because we’ll use cheaper resources to do it. Or, if you want it to take less time, it’ll probably cost more because we’ll throw more resources at it. We might be able to maintain quality but we might have to take a few things out of the project scope and maybe add those in as a phase two later, but then we’ll hit the deadline.”

So, it’s about balancing all these different success criteria. And that’s a really helpful point that you’ve put out there because you need to know what people feel is important, and maybe it’s the deadline, maybe it’s, “Do what you need to do but get it done by the tradeshow.” I worked in healthcare, and I was on a project once, and people didn’t really care about when it got done. Well, that’s not true. They did care when it got done, but what was most important was that when it was delivered, it was good quality.

Elizabeth Harrin
And if that took a couple of extra weeks, then a couple of extra weeks didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. They just needed it to be good. So, some people will say the date is important. Some people will say, “You’ve got a ceiling on this much money that you can spend,” or, “This quality criteria has to be met,” or it might be something like sustainability, customer satisfaction, or some other kind of measure that they think is important. And if you know that, then you can make all of your decisions based around, “How do we get to that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful to see what is the priority there. And when you say quality, I think my own synonym for quality is how much good stuff, in terms of we can have more…it’s almost two dimensions, like a scope thing in terms of how excellent is the thing and how many of the things are there. Like, if we’re doing a bunch of home renovations, it’s like, “Okay, you want 30 updates across the kitchen and the bathrooms and whatever. And so, we can sort of do fewer of those updates, or those updates could be chintzier, or we’re going to have to have more people working on it, contractors, etc. which will come with the paying for it, or we just take more time to do it.”

So, I think that has been handy for me as I think through stuff, and I get stressed out, like, “Uh-oh, how on earth….?” This feels bad to say but I guess it’s real and something has to give somewhere or else we will be those sad, burnt out, overwhelmed people, is that usually what I sacrifice is quality. It’s like, “All right, well, it’s going to be worse.” But because my quality expectations are usually so insane, we sent you a microphone, so I’m told that no one else does that, and I thought, “Oh, really? They probably should,” but whatever.

So, I’m able to back it up, it’s like, “Okay. Well, we’re just going to allow that, and it’s good enough for 98% of the people who are encountering this thing that I’m making, and I’m just going to have to take a breath and live with it, and that’s fine.”

Elizabeth Harrin
And that’s very much the case at work, isn’t it? There are some things that you absolutely have to get perfect. And if you’re a lawyer writing a contract, you can’t just go, “Oh, well, it’s 80% good enough.” Your client is not going to live with that. But if you’re drafting an internal document just for review to brief your colleagues on something, you know, I prefer not to send out things with typos, but if something did slip through, no one is going to die. It will be fine.

And if it means that you get it out the door at 5:00 o’clock, and you go home on time, and you have a life instead of sitting there stressing about every full stop, and staying at your keyboard till 7:00, because I guarantee that half the people who read that document won’t even notice whether a full stop is there or not. 

Pete Mockaitis
I really like what you said there about no one is going to die, and that is a perspective I’ve come to again and again, because it’s true. There are some things in healthcare, in transportation, in military, police, and other fields where it truly is life and death. The quality of your work will make that impact. And many other times in the land of spreadsheets and memos, it’s usually not.

And so, I find that quite comforting if I’m getting a little bit too worked up about something, is to recall that no one will die no matter how horrible an episode we produce, Elizabeth, although you’re doing great. So, that’s cool. Well, now tell me, Elizabeth, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Elizabeth Harrin
Something that you can do to start managing your multiple projects more effectively is to think about how you can group them into different buckets. So, if you do a couple of things for one client, or you’re leading on a couple of initiatives for one particular department, how can you bring those things together to streamline the communication, try and have meetings where you cover multiple things in one go instead of scheduling lots of meetings about the same thing?

So, looking for connections between the work you do can make it feel a lot less overwhelming. If you’ve got 15 things on the go, for example, that’s 15 things you have to think about. But if you can put them into buckets, and you’ve got five things in each bucket, then you’ve only got three things to think about, and it could be around the solution that you’re building, the person you’re doing it for, the type of technology that’s in use, the date it’s got to be finished by. It could be anything. But if you can group the work, I found in people I worked with have found that it relieves some of the overload because it gives you a way to think about things at the next level up.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
The quote that I have on my wall is from Francine Jay, and it says, “My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do.”

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

Elizabeth Harrin
I like the copy machine study by Ellen Langer, which is about providing a reason for why we want people to take action. When people know there’s a reason, they’re more likely to do the action that we want. 

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Elizabeth Harrin
If I was on an island, I’d be taking Les Miserables. I really love that book by Victor Hugo. If I was choosing a business book, I’d choose Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers by Anthony Mersino, which really changed the way that I look at our profession.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
I use a tool called Infinity for task management, and a Maltron keyboard to help me type more easily.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. That’s cool. And a favorite habit, something you do to be awesome at your job?

Elizabeth Harrin
I do Pilates once a week. I think I need to have that time just to be focused on me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners, and they say, “Yes, Elizabeth, you’re so right when you said this”?

Elizabeth Harrin
Maybe communicate more than you think you have to.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
You can find me on LinkedIn and on all the normal social media channels. And you can find out more about project management at my blog, RebelsGuidetoPM.com.

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

Elizabeth Harrin
I would say to remember that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. So, if you want to just organize your work in a different way, just do it. Most managers want action and results, and they don’t really mind how you get there, as long as you get there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Elizabeth, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with all your projects.

Elizabeth Harrin
Thank you for having me on the show.

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

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

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

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

 

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.

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

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

 

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Carey

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

Resources Mentioned

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Carey Nieuwhof Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Mega. All right.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s great.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carey Nieuwhof
Your fire drill training.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good study.

Carey Nieuwhof
Yes, a very good study.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Robert

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

Resources Mentioned

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Robert Pozen Interview Transcript

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

Robert Pozen
Glad to be with you, Pete.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Pozen
Correct. Exactly. Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Pozen
It’s great meeting you, Pete.