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762: Reclaiming Your Day to Achieve More while Working Less with Donna McGeorge

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Donna McGeorge shares how you can take back your time and maximize your productivity—all while doing less.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why less is often more for productivity
  2. The one meeting you should always schedule
  3. How to feel more energized throughout the day 

About Donna

Donna is a passionate productivity coach with modern time management strategies designed to enhance the amount of time we spend in our workplace. 

With more than 20 years of experience working with managers and leaders throughout Australia and Asia-Pacific, Donna delivers practical skills, training, workshops, and facilitation to corporations—such as Nissan Motor Company, Jetstar, Medibank Private, and Ford Motor Company—so they learn to manage their people well and produce great performance and results. 

As a captivating, upbeat, and engaging resource on time management and productivity, Donna has been featured on The Today Show, on radio interviews across Australia, and has written for publications including The Age, Boss Magazine, Smart Company, B&T Magazine, and HRM. 

Resources Mentioned

Donna McGeorge Interview Transcript

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

Donna McGeorge
Thanks for having me, Pete. Really happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, I’m excited to talk productivity and your book The 1 Day Refund. But, first, I need to hear about your coworker, Dear Prudence.

Donna McGeorge
Oh, Dear Prudence. So, all of our dogs have been named after Beatles’ songs but I think this was the one that absolutely nailed it. She’s an eight-year-old black Labrador, and even just saying her name out loud, that chances are she’ll come here and into this room right now, and we’ll hear a clickety-clickety noise on the floor, so we should be careful. But, yes, Dear Prudence, or Prude for short. I just love her.

Pete Mockaitis
And how does having Dear Prudence in the mix enhance or detract from your productivity?

Donna McGeorge
I don’t know that she’s a particular factor for either. She’s a glorious distraction for times when I needed a bit of a break, and she’s great for company when I’ve got my head down getting stuff done. I think probably where she adds the most if I’m just going to be serious for a moment, the old serious productivity-ish provider. I would say she’s a great source of oxytocin because she always makes me feel good and I just love her. I could even get an oxytocin dose hit happening right now thinking about her. So, that’s always useful in terms of getting your brain function working well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m excited to talk productivity, and I’d like to ask if you could start us off by sharing one of the most powerful, surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about us humans and being productive from your years of researching and coaching on this stuff?

Donna McGeorge
Probably the most, I don’t know, earth-shatteringly, re-framing-ly…

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s what we want, Donna. Yeah, bring it on.

Donna McGeorge
Okay. It’s that you actually get more done by doing less. And this actually started with a bit of research I did that was based on some work by Frederick Winslow Taylor, he was the original time and motion consultant, and he was looking at a study done…now, this was physical labor but the application is the same but a bunch of blokes loading pig iron onto railway carts, and he found that those that, like a regular workday, was 9:00-to-5:00 or whatever, with a 15-minute break, lunchbreak, half an hour, 15-minute break in the afternoon, that was the regular kind of routine.

But he took a bunch of guys, and said, “How about we change it up?” and he got them working for 25 minutes really hard, and then they’d have a 35-minute break, and then another 25-minutes, and a 35-minute break. And they loaded 600% more pig iron onto the back of the trains.

Pete Mockaitis
Six hundred percent.

Donna McGeorge
According to the study. And so, look, I’m not sure that that applies directly to knowledge workers but it got me really thinking around what’s the right balance for knowledge workers, and there’s a lot of studies around there that varies from 17 minutes, to 25 minutes, to 45 minutes around focused…

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the length of the break that you’re talking about?

Donna McGeorge
No, that’s the length of doing the work and then taking breaks after that. So, definitely, the work, it’s true based on research that if we put our heads down and focus for a period of time, and then take a decent break, anything from five minutes to 35 minutes, we just get more done.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And it’s sort of wild how, I don’t remember where the research came from, but a number of sources. And one was, I think, software and/or video game developers, like there’s a threshold at which you spend more hours doing stuff and it’s actually counterproductive. It’s like negative because you’re making mistakes that cause trouble for other people, and then you’re just sort of actually worse off doing the extra hour. It’s like, not that you make a little bit of a gain but you make actually a negative gain, which is pretty wild.

Donna McGeorge
Yeah, that supports everything I’ve read about it, and we even know it in ourselves. Just your average non-video gaming person, so if you’re just literally sitting at your desk doing your job, you’ll know that if you’re trying to do stuff towards the end of the day, when you’re tired and your smarts aren’t as switched on, you’ll make mistakes and actually make problems for yourself. You mean it’s like, “Step away from the keyboard. Do not send that email until you’ve re-read it the following morning,” because we’re just not in our best when we’ve been doing too much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now let’s zoom into your book The 1 Day Refund. That’s a great title. What’s the scoop here? How can we take back time?

Donna McGeorge
Well, this all started it out… Thank you for starting around the title because I like it, too, but it started with thinking about the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and I don’t know whether you and your listeners would know, but in Australia we had some pretty strict lockdowns, and I was, at the time, living in Victoria that had the absolutely strictest lockdowns in the world, blah, blah, blah, and so many people ended up working from home, and this idea that we didn’t have to commute each day. And so, the average commute is around an hour each way, and so five days…

Pete Mockaitis
You’re really selling Australia, Donna.

Donna McGeorge
Oh, we’re pretty spread out like we’re a pretty large country so we can spread out a little bit here. But idea was that we, in effect, got 10 hours back, and I kept asking people, “What are you doing with that extra time?” You got, in effect, more than a day of refund back. And when I asked people, “What would you do if you had a whole extra day in your week?” they’ll usually say things like, I don’t know, their hobbies, the things that bring them joy, spending time with their kids, exercising maybe, some say sleep, but no one says extra email, working on projects, getting 10,000 more reports in. That’s what they did.

And so, the inspiration for this book came from we’ve got to find ways to just work a bit better to give ourselves more thinking, breathing, living, and working space so we can operate better.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really telling. You’re right in terms of, I think, we often can tell ourselves, “Ooh, I just don’t have time for that.” And, yet, here we had a global experiment in which a large population was granted a bunch of extra time, and so…well, now, of course, yeah, you can make the argument how some people lost time because now they got the childcare situation going on. But for some now, it’s like, “Hey, before, I had to commute, now I don’t.” But it didn’t find its way into their important priorities. That’s intriguing.

Donna McGeorge
Well, there was one story I heard that a woman, who had a really interesting take on it. So, prior to the pandemic, she had a small child, she’d take him to school, or would take him to pre-school each morning, and every morning it was an uproar. Every morning, she’d get to the kindergarten to drop him off and he’d be clinging to the legs and crying, and it’d be all very dramatic.

And then when the pandemic hit, she’s this someone who did use her time better, she realized she could walk to kindy, and so, literally, from day one, she’d walked in morning, and from day one, no drama. And she realized, he’s the one who flipped it, and said, “No, I’m going to take advantage of this. I’m going to do it really well.” she says she’ll never go back to the other way but what she realized was that they were taking his small child pretty much from waking to strangers in a really short amount of time, whereas the walk eases them in, eases the little one there. So, I also hear stories like that where people did use that time wisely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, okay, so let’s say that we don’t have a situation where commutes just disappear on us, but rather we’ve got to be a bit more proactive in recovering, reclaiming that time for ourselves. What are some of your favorite ways we can go about doing that?

Donna McGeorge
So, the thing that most people talk to me about is that they’re overwhelmed, out of control, and at risk of failing at the important things, and that’s because they’re not managing their time or energy efficiently. And so, one of the first things I say is, “Which is the one that’s impacting you the most?” And most people will say, “Thinking space. I just can’t think. I feel like I’m being compressed or whatever.”

And so, I’ll say, “Well, the way I start each day is I do a wipe the mind, where I write down everything that’s on my mind, not just tasks, not to-do’s; just anything I’m thinking about.” So, my mother has, no drama, but she’s had a recent health issue, so she’s on my mind. So, I’d write down, “Mom’s health. Is Dad okay? Better call my sister,” and I’d write down a whole bunch of stuff. And what that does, and I keep going, until literally, I check inside, and go, “Anything else?” And it’d start with a quiet voice in the background goes, “No, I think you’re good.”

And so, there’s nothing left in my head, and that, straight up, creates thinking space. As far back as Einstein, we know that he used to make, not this exact phrase, but words to this effect, that the human mind is for having ideas, not storing them. And yet, we store so much information in there which makes us feel overwhelmed. So, step one is clear out your head, and check out in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
I thought that was David Allen but maybe it was Albert Einstein.

Donna McGeorge
No, no, David Allen probably said that one. You’re absolutely right. Einstein said…someone asked him a gotcha question in a lecture one day, that said, “What’s the formula for blah, blah, blah?” and he said, “I don’t know.” And the student was like, “Huh, you’re supposed to be a genius.” And he said, “Why would I hold things in my head that I can easily look up in a book?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

Donna McGeorge
So, there you go. So, you’re absolutely right, David Allen did say that.

Pete Mockaitis
And Sherlock Holmes, he’s a fictional character but that was his philosophy, too. He’s like, “I’m not going to crowd out my brain with knowledge that’s not super useful to what I’m about.”

Donna McGeorge
But that’s actually…whoever said it got it right because it is. So, often we’re overwhelm, it’s not necessarily because we don’t have time, physical time for stuff. It’s that we mentally feel like we’re just in a state of overwhelm. And so, clearing that up straight away can sometimes create the space so people would focus on what’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, sounds like a great approach. Any others leaping to mind here, Donna?

Donna McGeorge
Oh, I’ve got a whole book-full. So, the next one would be, I’m going to, again, this could come from exposure to a bit of a manufacturing world, but I do love Kanban as a way of sorting. You would’ve easily had people talk about Kanban, I would’ve thought before, where we organize our tasks. So, after you’ve done your brain dump, you might go, “How am I going to organize this?” And some of it might form part of your to-do.

So, I love the idea of having a to-do, in progress, and done. Now, true Kanban may have more columns in that but we literally do our work in columns. Your to-do list will have most of them in there, but it’s the currently doing is the one that I think is where you get the real difference because if you look at your to-do list, and there’s a hundred things on it, that’s overwhelming straight up. Just looking at it I feel overwhelmed. Whereas, if I go, “Yeah, I know I’ve got a lot to do but right now I’m just working on these three to five things,” that reduces, again, a little bit of that emotional or mental overwhelm.

And then we want to keep the done, like moving things across so that we know that they’re done because another mate of mine, Dr. Jason Fox, wrote a book called The Game Changer, and it was around motivation. And he said, in his research, the two things that keep people motivated are purpose and progress. And so, making progress visible is a really important part of feeling like we’re achieving things. So, that’s two.

The third one I’d say, which, again, to people who work in offices, they’ll know exactly what this is like. If I’m to cancel a meeting, how would you feel? And a lot of people, when someone cancels a meeting, feel absolutely relieved, they go, “Ahh, I now have a whole hour in my diary that I can just use for myself.”

And so, I would say, rather than be at the mercy of someone else canceling, I’d be booking a meeting with yourself every day, pick a time, it doesn’t matter. But pick a time every day, book a meeting with yourself so that it’s, on busy days, you could be looking forward to that time because you know you’re going to get a break, and you can use that time to just get ahead of the curve, to do the work that you think is the most important so you can try a bit of catchups.

So, that would be my three. So, wipe the mind, use a Kanban or some kind of system to manage what you need to do with your work, and protect some time in your day that’s your time, just for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. Well, you have some perspectives on setting some limits that protect us from overcommitting and in the form of five Ws. Can you lay this out for us?

Donna McGeorge
Sure. The five Ws is the old journalistic model for writing a good story but I think it’s a really good way of also thinking about “Where am I spending my energy? And who am I spending it with and on what and why? And what’s going to be the right outcome for me?” So, it’s kind of using it to create boundaries. And so, the questions aren’t always I got to literally use exactly the questions but I think it’s just going down those, like, “Why am I spending time with this person? Where am I getting the energy from this? What is the return on this for me? When is the best time to spend time with other people?”

It’s just really thinking about, I think, we spend a lot of time and energy sometimes with people that don’t give us a great return that, again, end up taking energy away from us. And so, just asking some of those simple questions will help us determine, “Are they the right person for right now for where I’m at?”

Pete Mockaitis
And then I’m also curious to get your…when we talked about the when part of these Ws, you are a fan of the morning, or the first two hours of the day. Sort of what’s the story here? And can you walk us through how we can make the most of that time?

Donna McGeorge
Sure. So, the human body has a clock or a rhythm, circadian rhythm or a body clock bit that it operates by. And in simplest terms, we are designed as an organism to wake up when the sun comes up, and go to sleep when the sun goes down. That’s how melatonin is produced, which is what makes us sleepy, and then when it stops being produced, it’s what helps us wake up, so that’s at a very simplistic level.

But there’s more aspects to the clock. There are certain things that switch on and off throughout the day physiologically. And the thing that was most interesting to me was that we are most mentally alert in the morning up to, say, midday, and we more physically get stressed in the afternoon. And so, what that meant to me from a working perspective was we really should be protecting our morning for the work that requires our smarts, our mental intensity. And then, for the afternoon, we do the more routine work that doesn’t require much smarts and merely do without thinking.

And so, if you think about something like email, it’s a really great example, where I think we waste our smarts in the morning by doing something that is largely fairly routine. So, I know it might make your listeners kind of get, like, “Ooh, I could never do that.” But I would say leave your email till after lunch. Scan it if you need to just to make sure there’s nothing super urgent or whatever from someone will send you, but for the most part, leave it after lunch, and use your morning to do your creative work, your problem-solving work, the work that you’re probably hired for, your genius. You do that in the morning and do routine in the afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, is this sort of universal to all persons? Now, when you talk about melatonin, I’m thinking chronotypes and all that stuff. How does that factor into things?

Donna McGeorge
So, about 80% of this are what we would call moderate or early birds, so we are kind geared that way, and there’s about 20% of us who identify as night owls, a percentage of which are natural night owls for whatever reason – their physiology, their body, their chronotype, their body clock is slightly skewed – or they’re self-created just through bad habits, they stay up too late, they use technology till the middle of the night, they still live and lead their nightlife like they’re a college student as opposed to getting back into some kind of regular rhythm, so it could be a combination of both.

But from my perspective, the first two hours isn’t from waking; it’s from when you sit down to do your work. And so, if you’re a night owl, and you don’t get out of bed till, I don’t know, 9:00 or 10:00 o’clock in the morning, and that might not even be in that morning, it’d be too early, and then you probably sit to start your work at, say, about 11:00, maybe 10:00 or 11:00, it’s then that’s usually you’re most alert from that point after waking.

And so, I would say it doesn’t matter, but here’s the interesting thing. We’re all gloriously unique individuals. So, I’m going to say, rather than worry about whether I’m an early bird, or a night owl, or the first hours, or whatever two hours, I’d say begin to pay attention to when do you feel like you do your best work.

So, my daughter reckons she’s an early bird, she gets up early but she reckons from 10:00 to 12:00 is her sweet spot. I’ve got another mate who also gets up early, she says 2:00 till 4:00 is her sweet spot for doing work. So, you just figure out what works for you as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then I’m curious, when you talked about the Frederick Taylor studies, as well as the video game creation, and just the notion of resting and how that’s super handy, we talked about the timing and how it’s maybe a little bit fluid in terms of precisely how long the work interval is, whether it’s 25 minutes or 80 minutes or whatever. But I’m curious to hear, when it comes to the refreshing part of things, when you’re looking to get that rest and energy boost, what are some of the top things you find are super effective for folks?

Donna McGeorge
We’ve got to start by disconnecting from information. So, if we go back to David Allen’s, quote around the human mind is for having ideas, not storing them, one of the biggest mistakes we make is we go from one information-producing device, say, a computer, our work, whatever, and then we go to another one, which is our phone as we start scrolling social media, and then we may even sit down in front of the television and it can put more stuff into our heads.

And so, I’m going to say, if you really need to take a break, is remove yourself from information-input devices, for want of a better phrase. So, I’m going to suggest get out for walks in nature. The Japanese have a phrase called tree bathing. I can’t remember the actual Japanese phrase but its translation is tree bathing, so get out in trees. Someone actually said that to me yesterday in Australia, “I went out for a tree bath today.” I’m like, “Oh, good for you.” So, go and just sit amongst nature.

The other thing I’d say, particularly in a work day and if you happen to be working from home, it might seem like it’s procrastination but I’m not sure that it is. I think it’s actually taking a break. Go and do a couple of household chores. So, putting a lot of washing on, sweeping the floor, vacuuming, loading up the dishwasher, unloading the dishwasher, whatever it is. Just go do some kind of household chore that is a direct almost opposite to being information input. You can do that stuff without thinking.

And then, again, the third thing around that would be you know yourself better than anyone. What’s the thing that has you feel relaxed? The biggest risk that we have around downtime is our perception of what that means. So, some people say, “It’s a waste of time. Any downtime is a waste of time. Successful people work in the gaps, constantly on.” I’m going to say, no, actual successful people, in fact, rocket scientists…

I just read Ozan Varol’s book Think Like a Rocket Scientist. Yup, turns out that rocket scientists are not always up at blackboards writing complex formulas. They spend most of their time solving problems leaning back in the chair with their hands behind their heads, contemplating the stars, and solving problems. So, you don’t have to be on 100% of the time. So, I would say it’s overcoming this addiction to activity. It’s overcoming boredom. It’s overcoming this notion that it’s a waste. Actually, downtime is exactly what you need.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that’s well-said. The addiction to activity, the boredom, it’s…I guess addiction is a great word because just like if you’re addicted to anything, it’s like you have a desire to do something. You’re drawn to it. Maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s tobacco, maybe it’s any number of things. You are drawn to it and, yet, it impoverishes you and you’re worse off having indulged the thing.

And, yet, with information, it seems much more hidden, I would say, in terms of the effects. It’s not like, “Ooh, I can’t get up a flight of stairs because I’m winded,” due to maybe a food addiction or a smoking addiction. Versus, when we go from information, information, information, we kind of feel like we’re productive, and yet the truth of the matter is we are not.

So, I’m just processing this real time, Donna. If addiction is the word, how do we break it? I mean, I guess we can’t quite go cold turkey. We got to have some activity and some information in most of our days. Any pro tips on strengthening those mental muscles and bits of resilience to resist that addiction?

Donna McGeorge
It’s interesting. You talked about the mental muscle and flexing because it’s a different kind…not a different kind of addiction. It’s still an addiction because it’s a dopamine hit, which is what we’re seeking. It’s no different to I’m sitting here, I’m talking to you, and my phone is in sight, and I see the flash come up. And now there’s an agitation around, “Oh, I better check that phone,” and it’s not till I checked it, that I go, “Ahh,” I get that little dopamine hit, that goes, “Ahh, good, I did that.”

And activity is the same. That’s why if you ever watched someone who’s feeling bored, they sit in a chair, they fidget, they move around, they kind of roll their eyes, they’re like twiddling themselves, and their leg will be going up and down, knees banging up and down because they’re feeling agitated. And that’s all because they’re literally waiting for a dopamine hit, and that’s why we use addiction because they’re activity junkies, in effect. They’re trying desperately to get this hit that has them feel better.

And so, the pro tip is exactly as you say. We’ve got to just go a little bit longer. And so, in the great wise words of James Clear, I’d be saying begin to time yourself on your downtime. How long can you sit in stillness? And you might be you can only get three minutes before you think, “Oh, I’ve just got to go do something.” Well, yay, next day go for four, five. Just continue to grow your tolerance for nothing. And trust me, your future self will thank you for that because you’re creating a pattern of recovery for your brain. It’s like a muscle like no other. It does need time to recover. And you’ll function better as a result.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, so we’ve covered a variety of approaches, of tools. I’d love to hear a story of someone who put a number of things together and saw a really cool transformation as a result?

Donna McGeorge
Sure. Look, my favorite is one of my clients, a lovely lady came to me and she was agitated. It wasn’t smoking on our call but she told me smoked, she drinks alcohol to self-medicate. So, busy day, gets to the end of the day, bang, goes down a glass of wine, and half a pack of cigarettes. And when she would talk to me, she’d talk to me really, really quickly, like I feel she’s a bit barely even taking a breath, and sometimes she wouldn’t even finish it because she really had another idea coming on. This was how she operated.

And so, the first thing I did with her, I said, “The first step is you got to stop, take stock, and make some decisions.” And just those three things, we slowed her down, I said, “Your calendar, you’re going to halve the amount of appointments,” and it was a whole bunch of things we had to do here. She kept telling me what a great team she had but then didn’t trust them. So, we worked at multiple levels.

We got her leveling up her team members so that that created some space for her in her diary. So, that gave her some…took away some decision fatigue. I’m sure you’d be familiar with that. Get the team to make some decisions. She offloaded some decisions to her family so she wasn’t constantly thinking like she was the one that had to do it.

So, that gave her some space and willpower to manage some of her habits that weren’t so great for her. And this one was a bit of a fairytale ending with a really great team. She managed to get herself a pay raise, not a promotion, but her job was recognized for the way that she was bringing in. And that all started with a conversation that said, “You just need to stop. You just got to stop and take some breaths because you’re out of control, lady.”

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

Donna McGeorge
Well, look, I’d probably say a lot of people who might be listening now might sound like my client that I just had, that I’ve just talked about, and I’d say it never starts at the beginning of the day. So, anytime we’re trying to make changes, take back control, deal with overwhelm, get our lot back into some level of measured frictionless living, it all start the night before.

So, my best bit of advice for anyone who’s trying to kind of improve aspects of their productivity or their world, generally, is, at the end of the day, stop for about 30 minutes to 60 minutes, I call it an hour of power at the end of the day, and I do a bunch of things that are going to make tomorrow morning that much better.

So, it could be choosing wardrobe, it could be making kids’ lunches, it could be traveling somewhere, checking the routes so I know where I’m going. I’ll even look ahead, where is the parking? Where can I park in relation to where I need to go? Just a little bit of that stuff the night before, and that makes the next morning that much better. And that’s where you get a real bang for your buck, is that, “What do you do in the evenings?” so that would be my number one tip to leave you with for the moment.

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

Donna McGeorge
Well, David Allen’s “The human mind is for having ideas, not storing them.” I’ll go back as far as Benjamin Franklin, and I do like “A place for everything and everything in its place,” because I’m a big believer in frictionless living. And so, most of the time, our friction comes from not being able to find stuff. So, if we have a space for stuff, we’re more likely to be successful. So, that’d be a couple of mine.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study?

Donna McGeorge
The work of Francesco Cirillo who did all the work around Pomodoro. He did a bunch of work around trying to figure out what is that optimal time. And he discovered 25 minutes on, five-minute break, so I love Francesco Cirillo’s stuff too.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Donna McGeorge
Well, I’m going to have to go with Stephen King. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King for a number of reasons. Probably, The Stand is my favorite of his books but I also love his nonfiction piece called “On Writing” because I also quite like, as a writer, I aspire to his ethic around how he does his work.

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

Donna McGeorge
I love my new reMarkable notepad. It’s the electronic notebook. It literally sits right here. I love it. I love notebooks. I’m a stationery junkie so I always had notebooks and things. But I just find my information was spread out all over the place, and now it’s all in one place, and it syncs. So, if I lose it, I’m still good. So, yeah, I have to say my reMarkable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. A favorite habit?

Donna McGeorge
I think the wipe the mind every morning. Get up, just empty out the head of what’s happening so that I’m clear-headed for whatever I need to do heading into the day.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you empty out your head, what was it emptied into? Notecards? Tablet?

Donna McGeorge
Just a piece of paper.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Donna McGeorge
Well, I do a pen and paper for that because I don’t need to keep that. That’s not for anything other than just emptying it out. So, I’ll go through it and check and put it into a to-do list, etc. but, no, it doesn’t need to be in anything fancy for that. Just get it out of your head.

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

Donna McGeorge
I think the your future self will thank you stuff. It’s around what are the things I’m doing now that just make my life easier a little bit down the track. So, that’s probably one.

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

Donna McGeorge
www.DonnaMcGeorge.com or www.TheProductivityCoach.com.au.

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

Donna McGeorge
Yeah, I would just say stop and get out of default mode. So, too often, we get onto a cycle of we just do things out of habit. I’d love you just stop and think and make conscious decisions about actions you’re taking, meetings you’re accepting, activity that you’re doing, and is that right thing for you to be doing in that moment?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Donna, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you all the best with your one-day refund.

Donna McGeorge
Thanks so much, Pete. Thanks for having me.

749: How to Break Free from Perfectionism with Dr. Thomas Curran

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Behavioral psychologist Thomas Curran reveals the science behind perfectionism and why it’s perfectly OK to be imperfect.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why perfectionism is not correlated with performance 
  2. The self-limiting beliefs underlying perfectionism
  3. The tools to combat perfectionism 

 

About Thomas

Thomas Curran is a British Psychological Society chartered social psychologist. His primary area of expertise is the personality characteristic of perfectionism, how it develops, and how it impacts on mental health. He is the author of over 30 published papers and book chapters on related topics and has received numerous awards for his scholarship and research. 

Informed by his research and expertise in data analysis, he has previously lectured to undergraduates in the UK and Australia. He now teaches research methods and statistics units in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science. 

Resources Mentioned

 

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Thomas Curran Interview Transcript

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

Thomas Curran
Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom about perfectionism. And I think, maybe, if you could kick us off with what’s one of perhaps the most surprising or counterintuitive or extra-fascinating discoveries you’ve made about perfectionism over the years that you’ve been researching it?

Thomas Curran
That’s a really good question to kick us off. I think the most surprising finding that has come out of the work that we’ve done is that perfectionism has very little correlation with performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Neither good nor bad.

Thomas Curran
No, nothing. Zero percent. what we do is we give people questionnaires about their levels of perfectionism and then we asked them to report various types of performance indicators. It might be, I don’t know, if we’re looking at education, it’s PPA, or different work, it can be manager ratings, or their own bottom line, or whatever it might be, that we can gather.

And when you put all the data together and you look to see if there’s an association, what we typically find is that there isn’t one. And that was really surprising to me, and that’s a consistent finding, by the way, I’ve seen across many, many studies. Not just one study, but many. Because when you think about how much perfectionism energizes behavior, it keeps us moving forward, I suppose, and it’s really surprising that you don’t get the performance benefits from that energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a head-scratcher. I cannot begin to guess as to why that is. Can you?

Thomas Curran
So, there’s a couple of theories. It’s a really startling study because we do research in perfectionism and we kind of have these ideas or preconceptions of what we might find when we do the research. Nevertheless, sometimes these sorts of findings come pretty consistently. They really kind of draw your attention to ask why, “What on earth is going on here?”

So, we think two things are going on. The first thing is perfectionists put so much effort in that they go above and beyond. And what I mean by that is they kind of reach a zone of diminishing and then inverse returns. So, you have this kind of what looks like an inverted U relationship to perfectionism and effort work. The initial amounts of effort work that you put in get parallel returns, so the more you put in, the more you get out.

But there comes a point where you kind of start to sacrifice things in your life because you put too much effort in, you tinker, you iterate a bit too much, so you kind of water down or contaminate the quality of your work, and then reach a point where you’re sacrificing so much that actually now, any additional effort you put in is actually impacting your performance. You might be tired. You might lack social and replenishment might be poor diet, poor exercise, habits, or whatever it might be. These things have an actual negative impact on you.

So, we think something like that might be going on. But there’s another and, I think, more convincing theory, which is, essentially, that perfectionists actually hold back effort. They don’t put it forward. And that’s going to sound counterintuitive, but when you think about perfectionism and how they’re so wrapped up in this notion that they must succeed and they can’t possibly fail, then it’s the consequences of failure, the shame, the embarrassment, the guilt that they feel that means that the next time they put themselves in that situation, they’re going to feel those same emotions.

So, what you typically see is perfectionists will try really hard in the first attempt but if they fail, then they hold it back on the second attempt and the third and fourth attempt because they don’t want to put themselves in a position where they’re feeling those negative emotions. So, paradoxically, what we think is going on, and we’ve done some research to actually show this is, indeed, the case, is when they’re put in situations or challenged, they tend to withdraw.

And so, this idea of perfectionism actually creates lesser, if not more, is something that we think is probably the high enough finding but it’s a really interesting find.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, indeed. Well, I think your theories, not that my opinion matters to you about your theories, but, “Yeah, that made some sense,” says Pete the podcaster, so you got that going for you, I guess. Well, maybe then, before we get too deep in here, we should probably have an operational definition that we’re using here for perfectionism, perfectionists. How do you define it? How do we know if we are one?

Thomas Curran
So, perfectionism is, at root, a sense and a belief that we’re imperfect. And I think that’s probably the best place to start with perfectionism. So, how much can you tolerate showing imperfections to the world? Some people could tolerate a lot of that, they don’t really mind. Some people find that really tough and they don’t have much tolerance for that.

So, the first thing to say is that if you think about perfectionism from that kind of deficit mindset, that idea that, “I’m flawed and, therefore, I don’t want to reveal those flaws to the world,” then there’s a certain spectrum to that kind of belief, and you can have a lot of it, or you can have a little of it, or you can be more or less in the middle. Most of us have some of it, like we don’t totally want to or completely reveal all of our flaws, defects, and imperfections to the world.

But, as I say, some people are much more…much less tolerant of that and some people are a little bit more tolerant, and some people are more in the middle. So, that’s the first thing to say about perfectionism. It really kind of starts with this deficit belief and then it reveals itself in many different ways.

So, you have a self-perfectionism, so this is kind of “I need to be perfect. I need to be perfect. And I need to shoot for excessively high goals,” but it’s not just personal characteristic. It’s also a sense that “Other people expect me to be perfect.” There’s a social element, so, “Other people and the environment, more broadly, expects me to be perfect, and if I’m not perfect, they’re judgmental.”

And the third part of perfectionism tendency is kind of perfection directed out to others. So, from this deficit mindset, we project our own imperfections, our own need to be perfect onto other people, “So, I need you to be perfect. And if you’re not, I’m harsh and judgmental.” So, from that deficit standpoint, you see a number of different characteristics. We can call them self, social, and other, and, together, those are what we believe are our kind of, I guess, encompassing perfectionist as a characteristic.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess what I find intriguing is, I guess, when it comes to perfectionism, I have it in very specific domains or arenas as opposed to universally. For example, I guess, if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to the utmost. So, if I’m looking at heart rate variability biofeedback training, Tom, by golly, I’m going to get all the gadgets and find the most imperfect resonance frequency for my breathing to check it out.

Or, if we’re going to publish a podcast episode, then, by golly, I would like the audio to be, hey, in a way, there’s no such thing as perfect audio, but I would like any puffs of breath, like I want that totally eliminated, and not just like mostly eliminated. It’s like if you eliminated it any more, it would be naturally weird and freakish.

So, I guess I’ve got some of those in particular domains. What kind of language would you put to that in social psychology land?

Thomas Curran
What you’re saying there is absolutely correct and it’s what most people feel. It’s like to say, we know that people are perfectionistic about at least or two things in their lives. Not everything. Everybody has things that they’re passionate about. Everyone has a kind of idealized image of themselves. We’re not all the same. Some people want to be the perfect teacher. Some people want to be the perfect boss. Some people want to be the perfect parents. Some people want to be the perfect professor; myself. I failed miserably but I tried.

In our mind, in our mind’s eye, we have these kinds of ideals that we hold dear of the person that we feel that we should be in those domains, and I think that’s very common, very consistent. So, perfectionism kind of is a broad perfectionistic tendency but then, within that, there are different domains in which perfectionism reveals itself, and those domains depend, I guess, on our own identity and the things that we each hold dear.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you say just about all of us have at least a dose of perfectionism going on. Is that fair to say? Or, do we have a rough statistical breakdown of how many people qualify as perfectionists?

Thomas Curran
We don’t have a statistical breakdown but it’s fair to say that this is a spectrum. And I don’t like to think about it in terms of the dichotomy, i.e., “You’re a perfectionist and you’re not a perfectionist.” I think, like anything, and this includes all sorts of psychological characteristics and disorders, there’s no kind of hard and fast cutoff. I think some people have a little, some people have a lot, most people are more or less in the middle, and we all kind of vary around that mean.

And so, perfectionism in that sense is something that most of us, if not all of us, have at least a little bit of. And we know that from large research projects where we find that most people don’t score the very lowest on a scale. There’s a little bit in there even if it’s not much, and that can spread all the way up to the very top in the scale, and it can also fall somewhere in the middle. So, I like to think about perfectionism as a spectrum, and so from some level, we can all identify with. And depending on where you are on the spectrum, depends how much of an impact it has in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
And for this deficit belief about ourselves, can you give us some example verbiage to that in terms of like, “I believe that I…” like fill in the blank there? Like, what does that deficit belief kind of sound like in words?

Thomas Curran
“I believe I’m not enough.”

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m not enough.” Like broadly?

Thomas Curran
But how many times do you hear that? I see that in my job as a tutor and mentor to many young people. A sense that no matter what I do, it’s not enough. There’s still something that can be improved. There’s more growth to have, there’s more improvement to make, there’s more development to undergo, and that at some level, I am flawed and I am defective, or I’m not good enough at calculus, or I can’t give presentations particularly well, or I’m not very good socially in social situations.

There’s also sorts of areas of our lives where we introspect on and we tell ourselves that we’re just simply not enough. And so, when I say that perfectionism really begins there, that’s what I mean, it’s rooted in that sense that I’m not enough. It’s rooted in that sense that, broadly, really what we’re talking about here is relational needs, “I’m not enough to be accepted. I’m not enough to matter. I’m not enough to be loved or approved of,” and that’s really…whereas if you really want to the root, that’s where you start.

All of these issues around our different presentations are really issues of “Everyone is going to think that was a terrible presentation, and everybody is going to have a negative view of me as a result of that presentation.” So, we’re talking about issues around “I’m not a good presenter.” What we’re really talking about is worries about how other people will see you and whether they have…will they have free shade, so to speak, over those performances? So, that’s what I mean by deficit thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s very clear and powerful. Thank you. And so, well, that doesn’t feel great being in that zone of belief and imagining negative consequences and ramifications of showing what I can do to a group of people and then finding it to be inadequate. That’s a bummer. And, at the same time though, if we think about sort of people who do want to learn and grow and improve and get better, like is there a…what is the happy articulation of one’s belief about one’s self that, “Yeah, I think I’m pretty swell, fundamentally, but, boy, I sure do have a lot to learn and want to develop in these key skill areas”? That’s a lot of words. Is there a more succinct term or articulation of that kind of belief, that is, it’s enough but it’s also striving?

Thomas Curran
Here’s a thing, we got to make a distinction. That’s the first thing to say. So, perfectionism is rooted in the deficit thinking that, “I’m not enough.” And so, everything from that point onwards is personal. So, if we make a mistake, it’s personal. If we slip up on a presentation, it’s personal. It’s an indictment on me. Life is one big court of appeal for my flaws. And everything that I do is almost apologetic, apologizing for these things I know I’m not good enough of. That’s perfectionism.

Now, the distinction we need to make between that form or that characteristic, that way of living, that way of existing, and other more very positive ways of existing, ways of living, ways of going for the world, striving, so to speak, things like conscientiousness, things like diligence, meticulousness, exactitude, these are all fantastic things. And often it’s the case that people tell me, “Well, do you not want people to strive? Do you not want excellence?” It’s not about that. It’s not about that at all. Of course, I want people to strive. Of course, I want people to be excellent.

But the difference is those who are able to remove the personal from the outcome and see the task as the most important thing…what has happened, what’s wrong with something I did, is not something I am. I did something wrong. I didn’t say a phrase or I coded a piece of code incorrectly. That isn’t an indictment on me as a person. That is just an indictment on a mistake I made. And there’s a very subtle distinction but those are who are able to strive in that way have far greater levels of performance and satisfaction and contentment than those who have high levels of perfectionism for the reason, really, everything is personal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. So, a commitment to healthy excellence is associated with great, good outcomes, and perfectionism has no correlation whatsoever, we’ve learned, associated with performance metrics, and it sure sounds like it feels bad, too, in terms of not being pleasant. Can you paint a picture of some of the other ways that perfectionism is potentially harmful for us in terms of our health, our relationships, or career? Any particularly spooky bits of research or numbers that could startle us?

Thomas Curran
Well, there’s a lot of research to suggest…I mean, we’ve done so much research, and, certainly, I wouldn’t take the large credit for a lot of heavy lifting done by others, but across the piece, perfectionism is a very strong and consistent predictor of low self-esteem and cognitive difficulties like rumination and brooding. They tend to self-handicap a lot and procrastinate a lot. It comes to mind relationships with this like depressed mood and low levels of anxiety and clinical more pathological verbiage, but this is sort of more extreme.

And I’m thinking more if we just sort of just plot the trend higher in the perfectionism spectrum is that to see some of these negative views come in. So, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that there’s a lot of baggage with perfectionism and it’s not a particularly enjoyable way.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Okay. Well, then what do we do? If listeners are hearing themselves in this conversation, like, “Oh, shoot, yeah, I totally do that and think that and operate that way, and I kind of like to stop,” Tom, what’s our pathway?

Thomas Curran
It’s like anything. Like, changing mindset is like this, varying trends because it’s not easy, I think that’s the first thing to say. And so, self-compassion at the outset is really important because breaking down some of these tendencies, and I know this because I’m a perfectionist and I research perfectionism and I teach perfectionism and I mentor people, young people who have perfectionism, even I still find it difficult to shake some of the tendencies. Some of this isn’t easy but that’s not to say that it’s impossible, and that’s not to say that you can’t manage the symptoms and alleviate them.

So, one of the things I would say is, first of all, like a radical redefinition of failure and what it means. So, failure is not the bogeyman we’ve mistaken it for and I think that’s the first important thing to say. I know this is very cliché right now and everybody is talking about how failure should define you, they should be teachable moments, they should be areas of improvement, growth and development.

When I talk about a radical redefinition, I mean a radical redefinition. But, basically, does it completely force us to turn failure always into success, or turn failure always into growth and development? We’re going to fail all the time. Failure is just part and parcel of life, it’s odds on, it’s regression into the mean. We’re going to fail way more times than we’re going to succeed. And I think sometimes we just need to be comfortable sitting with that failure, sitting with anxiety with that failure and the feelings that it engenders, and then it wash over us as a reminder that we are human and we’re fallible.

And so, I think, first and foremost, really, it’s a shift in perspective, and failure is a big one, and just allowing ourselves to sit next to it is such an important thing. And I know it’s difficult, we always want to turn it into something else but just letting it sit there is really important. And I’d also say we have to remember that the environment around us is structured to promote perfectionistic thinking. And a lot of this isn’t necessarily our fault.

So, work structures are organized to prioritize outcomes. Education systems are there to encourage and engender competition and work ethic. Parenting these days is a lot more expectant, there’s a lot more pressure on young people to perform and achieve. So, as well it’d been a personal characteristic, it’s also a cultural characteristic. And a lot of the time, it’s important to recognize that it’s not your fault. There’s a cultural context to the way you feel. So, also, I think that’s important. This is all bound up in this kind of self-compassionate element that taking the personal, really, off yourself and recognizing that it’s a bigger picture is also crucial.

And so, I’d say, for me, those are the kind of key messages that I normally give to young people and I try to focus them in on what they can do, what’s in their control, so things like not looking at grades, not looking at performance metrics, just focus in on feedback, focus in on the task, “Where did you go wrong in the task?” not “Where did you go wrong as a person?” and “How can it be fixed? And what can we do to improve?”

And seeing these things not necessarily as things that should be catastrophic but actually things that are really important; feedback and information to help us learn and develop, irrespective of what the grade is at the end of the day. So, I think that those, for me, anyway, those are the main things that I would say.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, could you share with us perhaps a story of someone who was able to make a turnaround, and what they did, and their before, and their journey, and their after?

Thomas Curran
There’s many, many students and young people who have come, began university journey, unable to even open…you mark their work and they’re unable to open it. You’ll meet them and say, “How did you get on?” and they’ll say, “Well, I haven’t opened it yet. I can’t do it.” So, that kind of paralysis, the crippling fear of what’s behind the curtain, and how they can interpret that, again, it’s all about the person. Like, there wouldn’t be these concerns if it was just about the task itself because it’s so personal and that’s why people are so reluctant and scared.

And I think breaking those things down is really, really important. So, particularly in first year, when you’re focused on development, I’ll often say, “This mark doesn’t really mar you in the grand scheme of things. It’s much more important about the feedback and it’s really important you get feedback now because then you get it so you can implement change, and if you don’t, you can’t move forward.” So, there’s a lot of mentoring around rationalizing how those feelings are holding, are ultimately bad enough, they’re not helping us to move forward.

And I see many students over the years through a process of just slight counseling have improved their perfectionism and they’re able to embrace mistakes and find the open feedback and you’d be better for it. So, there’s a lot of sort of I guess broad success stories in that sense. My own story is one of high level of perfectionism leading to burnout early in my career, slowing down, focusing on things I can control, and had had more success with that approach, being able to let things go than before. So, it can be done and there’s definitely hope but it is hard.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, are there any particular tools, mantras, or mottos, beliefs, words of hope we cling to? What are some of the top resources that can help us out when either, both acutely when we’re directly in the grips of it as well as long term in terms of building our mindsets associated with this stuff?

Thomas Curran
I think the first one is very practical is getting things done and worrying about the output later, so this kind of idea of “done is better than perfect.” One of the things I see a lot, and particularly when it’s figuring tasks that are very complicated, and there’s a lot of creativity that’s required, and a lot of deep thought. And students are reluctant, or not reluctant, they find it difficult to start, starting is the hardest part. So, just getting things written down is really tough.

So, I’ll often tell them, and I’m sure this is also an exercise that people can do in the workplace too, but I’ll often say, like, “In order to get started, the first thing to do, you need to just get writing. And it doesn’t matter what it is you write about. Write a letter to your mom, write a letter to your boyfriend or girlfriend, write a letter to your dog. It doesn’t matter. Just get some written stuff down. There’s a benefit, there’s a lovely message to your mom because you can send it to her after, but do something. Get started and it doesn’t have to necessarily be the thing that you’re doing in that moment. But the important thing is to build momentum, and momentum is really crucial in improving work.

So, often, I say if you’re struggling to get started with perfectionism or the time, then done is better than perfect. Get something done and then use that momentum to push forward with the task, but it’s all about getting your head and the mind space and perfectionists find that especially difficult. The other thing I’d say is that perfectionists have a lot of irrational types of thoughts so there’s a lot of must, have to, should, so, “I must do this, I must do that, I must be this, I must…” and they don’t leave any gray area of ambiguity for any kind of deviation from that path. It has to be a certain way.

And so, I would say that, when those forces start to intrude, it’s quite important to write them down. So, if that thing is something irrational, I’m thinking something irrational, I’ll write it down and then I actually grade it on a scale of one to ten, “How achievable is this thing actually?” So, it’s a kind of self-reflection exercise that allows you to reflect on the irrationality of the things that you’re thinking. And then from that, “Okay, so what is a much more adaptive way to think about this particular task? Is there a certain message that I want to get across?”

And it doesn’t matter how it gets across. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just matters that  it needs to get across. Is that a much better goal for me rather than to kind of “I must ace it,” which leaves no room after all for any of these? So, those are self-reflective things as well is what sometimes I recommend to people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Tom, tell us, any final do’s or don’ts you want to share about perfectionism before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Thomas Curran
Yeah. So, do embrace failure crucially, do be kind to yourself, that’s also really important, particularly if things do go wrong. Things will go wrong a lot and sometimes things will go wrong for no reason. But for no good reason, you just failed. Don’t feel we need enough room in our mind for this idea that sometimes we’re just unlucky or sometimes something happened to us, it just derailed us, that wasn’t our fault. It just so happens that we’re unlucky on that particular occasion. First and foremost, just being aware that the failure is going to happen and being prepared and ready for it, not letting it derail us is also quite important.

A couple of don’ts. Don’t get too bogged down in the details. Sometimes it’s important to be meticulous, absolutely, and there are certain tasks and jobs where that’s crucial, and I wouldn’t want to diminish it. But, also, sometimes it’s the case that you have to have lens, you need to get things in because there’s a next thing coming. And so, making sure that it’s good enough and being happy with good enough is important. Try not to, on those particular tasks, get bogged down in the detail, iterate thinking, because you’re only going to contaminate and you’re only going to get yourself behind. So, I think, for me, that would be a big one is to focus on the bigger picture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. Now, can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Thomas Curran
for me, that there’s many researchers and famous persons, psychoanalysts whose work has impacted me quite significantly, but the big one, I think, is psychoanalyst Karen Horney. And Karen Horney told us, very vividly, about perfectionism and how it’s really about kind of shooting for an idealized version of ourselves.
one of the things she talks about is how we take on a pseudo self, an idealized self, and we toss aside our real selves to chase this idealized version who we feel we should be. So, I’d probably say Karen Horney is where I coined that out, moving away from who you really are and trying to chase an idea, is something that’s inspired me.

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

Thomas Curran
My favorite study is a really nice study showing how perfectionism makes us highly vulnerable to stress. Yeah, that’s the other thing about perfectionism. When we run into, encounter stressful situations, perfectionists tend to be really, really reactive in those situations. So, one experiment this brings to mind is a study that basically it’s just puzzle task and they had people come into the lab, complete a puzzle task, and they measured their levels of perfectionism. And after the first go at this task, they told them they failed, that basically they hadn’t done very well, that they did fail.

Pete Mockaitis
I imagine they’d be funny, those researchers, “Hey, man, you really blew it. What can I say?”

Thomas Curran
Yeah, and also they told them before they went in there it was a really task to do so it compounded this. Basically, what they’re trying to do is invoke a sense of acute stress and keep a sense of “I failed. I’ve done something wrong.” And then after that, they took various different measures of how they felt in that moment, anxiety, guilt, shame. And they found that people who scored higher in perfectionism have especially elevated levels of shame, guilt, and diminished levels of pride after that stressful situation.

And then they asked them to do it again. And what’s really interesting is once you ask people to do it again, the people that are higher at perfectionism just don’t try because you can’t try at something you didn’t fail, so you’d see the effort just fall off a cliff. Whereas, people who were not perfectionistic, they actually maintained their effort on the second go. So, that’s showing you really, that study is showing both sides, like how much negative emotion there is in perfectionism, but also the impact it has on performance.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Thomas Curran
My favorite book. Again, that’s Karen Horney. Our Inner Conflicts is a really important book, so is The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. Both crucial texts in terms of understanding why culture creates in us a need to be perfect, a need to shoot for our socially-accepted ideal. So, I’d say that those two are probably my favorite books, but that does change a lot the more I read.

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

Thomas Curran
A favorite tool would be my pen. One of the things that I really don’t like is typing or reading things from screens, and so I still use a lot of printout and I still use the humble pen to highlight and spot important pieces of information whether that be research paper or piece of data. So, definitely, my pen because it helps me identify things that I needed.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Thomas Curran
I try to suck at things quite a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Thomas Curran
Actually, I play the guitar which I really enjoy. That’s kind of my creative outlet. But one of the things I can’t do is sing, and I got really hung up on that because, as you master things, you get quite skilled, and I feel like I’m a relatively good guitarist but it’s so frustrating that I can’t sing, like I can’t actually put that skill into some practical use.

And so, that used to really frustrate me, until I realized, actually, like just sitting there and embracing the fact that I suck at singing, and sitting with anxiety is an emotion at sucking at singing, it’s actually quite healthy. So, a habit for me is doing things that you suck at because it really does help your perfection.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you amp up the therapeutic benefit by doing them publicly or is that counterproductive?

Thomas Curran
Yeah, I do it in front of my friends and family, that’s often very frustrating and annoying for them, but it’s helping me. That’s what I try to tell them, “This is therapy for me.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s kind of them. And is there a key nugget you share that folks remember; they quote back to you, like, “Oh, Professor Tom, you said this”?

Thomas Curran
I think a lot of the feedback that I get is around my perspective on failure and my perspective on radical acceptance of failure. I think a lot of people remember that because, essentially, it’s kind of hard these days. It’s kind of hard these days to not continually think that we need to recycle failure. So, a lot of my lectures and a lot of things I teach young people is actually “We don’t need to recycle failure all the time. Sometimes you can just let it sit with you. Sometimes it’s much healthier just to let it sit with you.” So, I think that would be the thing.

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

Thomas Curran
I’ve got a book coming out next spring. You can go to my Twitter page. We’ve got all sorts of resources on my website ThomasCurran.co.uk. Animation, we just did some animations on perfection, too, so there’s all sorts of stuff you can find on my website or my Twitter account.

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

Thomas Curran
My challenge would be to be bold, be courageous, don’t be afraid, and push yourself, push the boundaries of what you think is possible. Push yourself into uncomfortable situations where there’s a chance that perhaps you might slip up, or there’s a chance that you might have to be criticized, but just try and be brave enough to sit and let those anxieties and emotions wash through because the more you do it, the easier it will become, because the more you push yourself into uncomfortable difficult but necessary great positions, and the more you develop, the more you grow, and the better you do. So, that will be it.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Tom, this has been such a treat. I wish you all the best.

Thomas Curran
Thank you so much, Pete. Appreciate that.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Maura

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

 

Resources Mentioned

Maura Thomas Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, fun.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Maura Thomas
All of us, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
OmniFocus is my favorite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maura Thomas
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Five cues? Tell me more, Maura.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Synergize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
The inbox is not for storing.

Maura Thomas
The inbox is not for storing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maura Thomas
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Good. How about a favorite quote?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

721: How to Balance Caregiving with Your Career with Liz O’Donnell

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Liz O'Donnell says: "Sometimes the most important work we do is not in the cube or an office; it is at home."

Liz O’Donnell shares her tips on how to deal with the stresses of taking care of your aging parents while managing your career.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset that eases the burden of caregiving 
  2. The most important thing you can do when things get overwhelming
  3. The motto to remember when times get tough 

About Liz

Liz O’Donnell is the founder of Working Daughter, a community for women balancing eldercare, career, and more. An award-winning writer, her book, Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Earning A Living, was named one of the Best Books of 2019 by Library Journal. 

Liz is a recognized expert on working while caregiving and has written on the topic for many outlets including The AtlanticHarvard Business Review, Fast CompanyForbesTIME, WBUR and PBS’ Next Avenue, and has been featured in Health and Ozy Media. She also works with companies to create programs in support of working caregivers.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Liz O'Donnell Interview Transcript

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

Liz O’Donnell
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. It is a tricky topic that a few listeners have requested and you are one of the top experts in the field, so maybe you can orient us a bit. What’s the backstory behind the book Working Daughter?

Liz O’Donnell
The backstory is that both of my parents were diagnosed with terminal illnesses on the exact same day. So, I went from one hospital where the team told me my father had Alzheimer’s and could never go home. And before I even left the parking lot after that meeting, I got a call from another hospital where my mother had been brought a couple of days before, it was stomach pains, and they told me she had ovarian cancer and probably three months to live, and could I come right away and we could tell her together the news.

And I was working full time at a marketing agency, I had two kids in elementary school, I had my first book that had just come out, and I already thought I was as busy as could be, and I felt completely alone and completely unprepared, and working through elder care was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. So, I vowed no one else should feel this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s powerful. And thank you for sharing your story and your journey with us here, and the book to enrich folks. Boy, what a day. So, tell us maybe a little bit of the story in terms of a little bit of the ups and downs and key best practices and discoveries you made that somehow make it possible to make things kind of still somehow work?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. Well, I’ll start backwards, I’ll start at the end. And the end was realizing that sometimes the most important work we do is not in the cube or an office; it is at home. And so, we have to forgive ourselves when we’re not on our career paths because I was the breadwinner in my family. My husband and I had an agreement that he would be home with the kids and I would go to work. And I laugh now thinking, “What was I thinking?” But at one point, I was all in on my career so I couldn’t not show up for work. And I worked for a small company, and I was really lucky that I had paid time off and I had flexibility because so many caregivers don’t.

And so, I had all of these things going for me as far as trying to make this work but, again, probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. I lost a lot of influence at work. I lost key clients. I still had a seat at the table but I could tell that my voice didn’t carry as much weight. And so, like I said, if I start at the end, I just had to really forgive myself and realize that, one, you should never feel guilty for showing up for your family, and, two, you should never feel guilty for having to go to work and earn a living. And in between, do the best you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we definitely want to hear a little bit about sort of the how one forgives one’s self because that’s so much easier said than done. But, first, can we hear a little bit about sort of, in practice, in terms of like at the ground level, how is it that you lost influence at work and key clients? Like, how did that translation unfold?

Liz O’Donnell
The next six months of my life after those two diagnoses, I can only describe them as completely wild. I had an Excel spreadsheet, I had at the time 196 items on it. I would wake up every morning and highlight the ones that had to happen that day. So, it’s things like I had to find a memory care facility for my dad. My mom was an hour away but, now that she had a terminal diagnosis, I wanted to move her closer to me but I wasn’t moving her in with me, “So, was I moving them to the same facility?” They had different care needs. I was digesting these two diagnoses and what they meant and trying to learn about them.

I end up moving my parents four times. So, if you can imagine four phone calls to the phone company for a hookup and four calls for a change, so that alone, I think, could kill a person, waiting on line on hold for the phone company, and medications, and hiring nurses, and looking for wills, and I had no sense of their financial package, so literally digging through Rubbermaid bins where my parents, who were Depression-era, which meant they kept everything. So, digging through trying to figure out what their financial picture was, what they could afford, if they had burial plots, like all of that stuff had to happen every day.

And so, I don’t know how else to describe it but I was kind of a mess. And in the middle of all of this, or on top of all of this, I still had to show up at this very demanding job. And so, as I said, I was really lucky in that I had flexibility. So, I went to my boss and asked if I could extend my flex time and my paid time off, basically, so that I didn’t take any one chunk of time off but every week I would set a new schedule, and that was such a God-send.

But that’s one thing, I know I’m kind of jumping ahead, but one thing that when people think about elder care in the workplace, they think, “Well, it’s like child care.” But assuming you have a healthy child, child care is much more predictable. You know when your kid will start preschool, and when they’ll start kindergarten, and when they’ll start first grade, and when their vacations will be, and when their well-checks at the doctor will be, and you can put all that on a calendar.

With elder care, I didn’t know, “Was my mother going to live three months? Was my dad going to live ten years? When were these moments that I needed to drop everything and show up? When were they going to happen?” And so, I was flaky.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, flaky as in you ended up making additional errors and not following through on some commitments at work due the sheer overwhelm and stress of all this stuff happening unpredictably day after day.

Liz O’Donnell
Absolutely. The hardest thing I think was caring about work. As I said, at one point when my husband and I were planning a family, I was like, “I love my job. I’m not giving it up.” And now, here I am, and I’m literally dealing with life and death, end-of-life decisions, and the fact knowing that my parents…we all know our parents are going to die someday, we’re all going to die someday, but now it’s imminent and it’s being discussed.

And to show up at work and care about you’re on conference calls and people are like circling back, and parallel pathing, and strategic paradigm shifts, and it’s like, “People are dying. I don’t care about any of this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Wow. Well, Liz, you’ve really painted quite a picture in terms of so that’s what life…that’s what the experience of life was like in the midst of that. And so then, you learned a few things in terms of some principles and some practices and some tools in order to cope with that, whether our listeners are specifically dealing with exactly this, parent elder care, or other realms of illness or wild stress and unpredictability in the personal life.

Share with us, what are some of the key principles and practices? You mentioned forgiveness, and so just to make sure we don’t lose it because it sounds huge, tell us, how does one go about forgiving one’s self? Because I think it might be easier to know intellectually, “Hey, this is a difficult time right now, there’s some special unique demands that need my attention, they’re very important, and so I’m going to need to tend to those.” And, yet, we could still feel some guilt about the tradeoffs that we have no choice to make. So, how do you wrestle with that?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. To be perfectly transparent, I don’t think I came to this conclusion, forgave myself, until later when I was writing about the experience. And, for me, it’s through writing I realized what I was thinking. So, if people are wrestling with it right now and not figuring out how to do it, I would say you’re right on path. You’re totally normal. Don’t beat yourself up.

You asked me, well, your question has a lot of parts to it, so I’ll start with the practical stuff that I learned at work. And what I learned at work is that I needed to be prepared every day for an emergency. So, years prior, I went out on maternity leave twice. And leading up to maternity leave, which, again, is predictable. You get a date. It might not be the exact date but you kind of know when you’re going out on leave. And so, I started to keep a running list of projects and what the status was, and I made it really easy for whoever was going to fill in for me to be able to fill in for me.

When I got these two diagnoses and when this crisis first sort of erupted in my family, my house, if you will, at work, was not in order. I hadn’t filed an expense report in months. I was storing stuff on my hard drive, not on the Google Drive or the server. I wasn’t really good about cc’ing co-workers. So, one of the things I learned through the whole experience – my dad lived for, I don’t know, maybe another five years, so I was a caregiver for quite a while – was to always keep your house in order, and, like I said, keep stuff on the hard drive, I mean, on the Google Docs and Google Drive, and cc everybody in the company, and make it really easy for your co-workers to help you out.

And then just know. I was a Gen X worker with a lot of younger millennial co-workers, so they had not been through this experience yet. They also hadn’t seen all the equity I had built into my career, the years of sweat equity, to sort of earn that flexibility. They just knew that this older woman was a flake. She was leaving a lot, just taking lots of personal calls. I just had to trust in the process that we don’t always get to see what comes around but know that someday they would experience it too, and that there’s just sort of this cosmic payback in the workplace. And maybe my reputation was taking a hit with them and they didn’t understand what I was going through, but there had been people ahead of me that I had filled in for, and there are going to be people later that you need to be filled in.

So, a lot of it was mindset. So, there were those practical things I did at work to hopefully make it easier for people to cover for me, but a lot of it was just mindset, constantly telling myself, “This is okay. This is normal, and you really can’t worry about your reputation at work right now. It’s is not the most important thing.” And death has a way of kind of giving you perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And that’s beautiful as we’re talking about forgiveness. So, it’s not only forgiving yourself, but then forgiving others and the co-workers. Like, if you see them, I don’t know, gossiping or chattering about you, or maybe just a look on their face, or whatever, that a subtle or not too subtle contempt or frustration, that that is a beautiful perspective in terms of not so much like, “I hate them, they suck,” but rather, “Hey, you might not realize it yet, but there will come a day when you, too, need and will appreciate this flexibility, and right now happens to be my time. And so, that’s where we are.”

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. And that’s easier said than done, and part of that is because we all have so many jobs now. It’s not like we’re all working at the same company for 20 or 30 years and we sort of evolved together. So, I had to know that I might never see my co-workers go through this. They did not see my early stages of my career in sort of a, “So, what now?” kind of perspective. And I don’t mean to minimize this process because I think, for many of us who are career-oriented, being mediocre at work is really hard. It’s a big adjustment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know what, that reminds me of, this is under the most random of connections, but I think it was Ronda Rousey, the ultimate fighter, who was defeated and she gave an interview. She’s very vulnerable in which she just started crying, and she’s like, “If I’m not this, what am I or who am I?” in terms of her identity was so wrapped up in like winning and victory and being a champion. And that can happen amongst folks who like being awesome at their jobs when there’s a period of time in which the environment is not so conducive to awesomeness at the moment.

And so, you shared a couple mindset bits. Did you have any other kind of phrases, or mantras, or mottos, or kind of go-to things you reminded yourself of in those moments?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah so, prior to the crisis, the two diagnoses, my parents were needing more and more care, and I was finding it quite disruptive to my life and my career. I was working. I was traveling. On the weekends, I want to be with my kids. I was spending at least one day a weekend helping my parents with shopping and bills and mowing the lawn and all of that stuff, and I was really resentful of it.

And I remember after this crisis and coming home that night after being at the two hospitals, and it was really late by the time I got home, everyone was in bed, and I just sort of sat on the sofa in the dark, and I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, the only way through this is through this,” which is a bad paraphrase of the Robert Frost quote. I didn’t know that at the time but I just remember thinking, like, “You can’t get around this so you might as well just get in it and just figure it out.” So, the only way through is through kind of kept me going.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And that sounds simple but I think the alternative thoughts to that are numerous and tempting, like, “There must be some kind of a trick, or approach, or a strategy, or a tactic, or a resource, or a something that’s going to make this all better.” And we’re chatting about some things that kind of help a bit but, ultimately, the fundamental difficult circumstances are there and are not just going away.

Liz O’Donnell
Right. And I had been thinking about elder care, as I mentioned, for a couple of years prior to the crisis because my parents were needing more, I was giving it to them, I was feeling squeezed already as a busy working mother. So, I had been waking up at 2:00 in the morning, thinking, “I know they need more care but I don’t know exactly what, I don’t know exactly how I’d fit it in.” I’d been Googling and finding these websites that were all, I call them halo and angel websites back then. And this was like 2013, 2014, and it was just like, “What a blessing to be a caregiver and just sit down and chat with your family, and divide the work, and everybody will be okay.” Useless. Completely useless.

So, I’d been searching for the tools and the resources up until this point and I hadn’t been able to find them, and so that’s why I thought to myself. And so, I was just…I wasn’t getting anywhere. And so, this concept of the only way through is through was really, for me, about how you’re going to use your energy. You only have so much energy. Energy is probably boundless and all of that good stuff, but at the time I was feeling depleted.

And so, was I going to use up my energy resisting, like, “I don’t want to do this. Why is this happening?” or was I just going to use my energy to get it done?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And, let’s hear, inside your mind, what is resisting sound like, so we can readily recognize it in our own minds and curtail it sooner rather than later?

Liz O’Donnell
It sounded like, “This isn’t fair.” It sounded like, for me, the typical family caregiver of elder care is, I mean, I fit the profile. I was a woman in her late 40s, early 50s, with a parent over the age of 65, and a child under the age of 18, she’s working outside the home, and she’s busy. So, I fit the poster child for this, but the difference is it’s usually the oldest daughter, and I’m the youngest of three, so there’s a lot of, “Why me? And what about my siblings? And why don’t they step up?” And I bet if any of your listeners are going through that, because siblings come up all the time, it’s like one of the top two questions I get, “So, where are my siblings? This isn’t fair.”

And the other thing that I was feeling, and I hear from caregivers all the time, was, “This is putting my life on hold.” And so, again, I learned after the fact, after I wrote about this and processed this, that it didn’t actually put my life on hold. It’s just the turn that my life took. And I think if people can learn to live through these life crises as opposed to wait until, that’s another huge step.

And I think, whether it’s elder care or anything else, we tend to, “When I get the next promotion,” “When I find the right partner,” “When I drop 20 pounds,” this whole concept of waiting until, if we can figure out how to wake up every day, and be like, “Okay, this is my life. How am I going to make it work? It might be ugly today but…” then I think that’s just freeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, so in your book, your chapter titles are imperative verbs, which is a style we like to use in our gold nuggets actually, so it resonates. So, it sounds like you’ve done some talking about how you accept and how you absolved. And you teased a little bit about prioritizing with 196 items in Excel, and you have limited energy. How do you prioritize well in the midst of these difficulties?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, the 196 items, those were the tactics. And, for me and what I talk about in the book, the prioritizing is when something, some kind of wrench comes into your life, or your career plans, or whatever it might be, like elder care did for me, and when you realize that the path you thought you were taking and the ladder you thought you were climbing isn’t quite what can happen right now, figuring out what’s most important and what you can shed.

So, back to that concept that I hear from other working daughters all the time, which is, “Caregiving has interrupted my life, or stopped my life, or put my life on hold,” I understand that concept, I felt that concept, but not necessarily true. Your life just needs to shift right now. So, what are the top three things in your life that are non-negotiable.

And so, for me, it was staying employed, because I was the breadwinner. I couldn’t lose my job. And it was showing up at some level as a parent. And I don’t remember what the third thing was at this time, but what are those three things? And so, everything else was a no. I said yes to those three things every day. I was going to be there for my parents. I was going to not lose my job. And I was going to be an okay parent myself. And everything else fell off for a while.

I was very involved in local politics. I was an appointed official. I resigned from that position and I had been promoting my first book, and I decided I was going to give that a B or a C effort. I had these three things that were most important in my life, and that’s what I was going to do. So, prioritizing for me was more bigger bucket items, and realizing that there were other things, so many other things in my life. I knew I wanted my first book to do well enough that I could write a second book. And I knew that I wanted to be an okay enough mother so that my kids wouldn’t be talking about me in therapy in a few years.

So, what were the things? And I knew that I had to stay employed but I wasn’t going to keep fast-tracking at that point. So, what were the things that I wanted to have in place when caregiving was over? And what was the minimum I had to do to make sure that I could step back into those roles?

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a question that many of us haven’t asked much and don’t like asking, “What’s the minimum I can do?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Liz, so you’ve got some other great verbs here: deflect, choose, manage, disrupt, renew, plan, reflect. I’m intrigued about the renew, in particular. So, could we hear about some of the best practices there and another one or two things that you think made all the difference?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, so renew is in that chapter, I talk about, I think, it’s seven most annoying words that a caregiver hears, which is, “You should take care of yourself.” And, in my case, when I finally told my boss what was going on in my life, that’s what she said. And, luckily, I had worked for her off and on almost all of my career so I was able to take her head off and keep my job and the responses.

We know we’re supposed to take care of ourselves. What we can’t figure out is how and when with the 196 items, waking up every day, going through all of this stuff. And so, she said to me, she goes, “Well, why don’t you start with hydrating?” And it was so simple. I had been waking up every morning, starting the coffee, caffeinating all day long, drinking Diet Coke all day just trying to stay awake and go, go, go. And then at night, I would be so caffeinated that I would have a glass of wine to try to unwind, so I was definitely dehydrated through this whole experience.

And it was such a simple thing to do. Who can’t fill a CamelBak or a plastic water bottle and walk around all day? And so, I said, “Okay.” And because I had promised my boss, I committed to it, and I started just adding more water to the day. And then eventually I started keeping a pair of sneakers, or trainers, or tennies, depending on what part of the country you’re from, in the trunk of my car, and going for walks when my parents were sleeping, if I was bedside or waiting. There’s a lot of waiting in elder care. There’s hospital time. There were doctors who were late. So, I just started throwing on a pair of sneakers and walking around whenever I could. And little by little, I was adding these small things. So, in my book, I write about, I think, 50 things you can do for self-care.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, 5-0. Nice.

Liz O’Donnell
Well, they’re really small and simple, and some of them are physical and some of them are mindset. This is kind of embarrassing, but what the heck. I had certain songs that I would play at certain times in the day to just sort of shift my mind and put me in a good mood. Like, there was a song I always turned on as I was driving up to…my mom eventually moved into a hospice home, and I never knew on any given day what I was walking into, and I worked from the hospice home a lot of times. I worked remotely so I wanted to be as upbeat and positive.

So, I’d clicked on my iTunes. If it’s singing in the shower, if it’s sometimes helping other people out, it didn’t have to be hit the gym every day because that wasn’t realistic. But what are the little things we can do to feel better every day? And it really makes a difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful. You know, it’s so funny, hydration, that’s a great place to start because it’s easy to neglect, and that makes a big impact. So, suddenly, I’m looking at a pair of eye drops on my desk, which is true. Sometimes I like tough through a day with dry eyes for no reason, all day. It’s like I just don’t have to live like that, or dry lips with ChapStick.

Liz O’Donnell
Right. Exactly. Yeah, I just kept going to the soda machine for Diet Coke. I didn’t have to live like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Liz O’Donnell
You’re actually less tired when you drink water.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, water, songs, walking, sing in the shower, helping others. Any other thing that leaps to mind of the 50 that’s huge for renewal?

Liz O’Donnell
I think anything that helps you escape, that helps you sort of shift out of the stress that you’re in. So, reading, comedy, podcasts, all of those things might not sound like the traditional self-care that we talk about, but anything that can give your mind, which is on overdrive, a break is really helpful. So, are crafts as a parent. I didn’t practice this but my research shows that doing any kinds of crafts, knitting or…because they take your brain away from the stress that you’re thinking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. Well, so outside of renewing, any other top tips or best practices you want to make sure to share with listeners who are dealing with elder care and career at the same time, or other, just personal challenges with work at the same time?

Liz O’Donnell
I want to go back to that planning what happens after because I think it can be really uncomfortable. Because when you’re thinking about what happens after, you’re actually thinking about, “What happens when my parent dies?” And we have a term in the Working Daughter community that we call grelief, and it’s a combination of grief and relief, and that’s often how we feel when our parents die. And it can feel really uncomfortable to admit that there’s an element of relief there.

But the person you love is no longer suffering, you’re no longer struggling, and so I think it’s really important that we’re honest about this. And so, thinking about, “Okay, someday this is going to be over. What are my goals and how do I keep moving towards them?”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, Liz, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Liz O’Donnell
You know, the other thing I want to mention, and thank you for asking that, is just to talk about this at work. As recently as 2013, 2014, when I was first going through it, nobody was really talking about this. And more and more, we’re seeing articles about elder care, there’s a lot of conversation about workers who are parents, but there haven’t been that many about workers with parents.

And it’s not just elder care; it’s spousal care, it’s sibling care. COVID has made us all caregivers at some level, so I think being comfortable, and trailblazing a little at work, and talking about caregiving, and when your companies might be talking about parents, reminding them it’s not just parents. Because the more we talk about it, the more normal it’s going to become. And it is, there’s like 54 million of people out there who are going through some kind of caregiving and working. So, why isn’t it more discussed?

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

Liz O’Donnell
My favorite quote now is “Action is the antidote to despair,” which is attributed to Joan Baez, the folk singer. And, for me, it’s the things that have you stressed out, if you just take one small step, you’re going to feel that much better. And, specifically the elder care, part of the reason we are so unprepared when it comes to elder care is nobody wants to talk about these things. We all know we should be talking about our wills. We all know we should be talking about burial plots. And often, like, “Eww, who wants to talk about that?” But if you just take one little action and move in that direction, ooh, your stress just goes away.

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

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, I found these two professors when I was writing the book. One is at Johns Hopkins and one is at University of South Florida, and they have been studying the impact of caregiving on people. And they have found all the things that I just told you that it is stressful, it impacts your health, your relationships, etc. However, they also found something they call the caregiver’s gain.

And when they looked at non-caregivers compared to caregivers, they found that caregivers have better physical strength, cognitive ability, self-esteem, and actually longevity. So, I think the more we can talk about the caregiver’s gain, the more people will realize that caregiving, while it often feels like something that takes from you, it actually gives you something tremendous as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. You know what came to mind is, “So, those deadbeat siblings can suck on that.” That’s not the kindest.

Liz O’Donnell
That’s exactly the kind of conversation you’d hear if you joined the Working Daughter Facebook group.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m not too out of line. Okay. All right.

Liz O’Donnell
No. And that’s part of the reason I wrote the book, and I started the community, was back to that, like, it was all angel wings and halos, and people would always like they kind of tilt their head, and their voice gets sappy, and they’re like, “You’re a caregiver. It’s a blessing.” But I wanted a place where people could say things just like that. And that’s what I love about that research and what these two professors have done, is that their research doesn’t say that caregiving is all wonderful and it’s going to be better for you. They say both things can be true at once. And I think I just answered one of your upcoming questions, but I’ll wait till you get there.

Pete Mockaitis
A favorite book?

Liz O’Donnell
Oh, no, not that one. My favorite book is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Just can’t say enough good things about it.

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

Liz O’Donnell
I think it’s Spotify. I have a playlist for like every scenario. Like, if I wake up and I’m feeling stressed, I have a playlist for that. And if I’m giving a big presentation, and I’m having impostor syndrome, I have a playlist for that. And I have a Working Daughter playlist that reminds working daughters that they’re doing amazing work. So, I think Spotify is actually one of my best career tools.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Liz O’Donnell
A favorite habit? I think it’s water.

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?

Liz O’Donnell
And that’s what I was just alluding to a second ago. In the Working Daughter community, we say all the time that two things can be true at once. And it’s we can say, “This completely sucks,” and also know at the same time that we’re glad that we have the opportunity to do it. We can feel grief and relief at the same time. Not something that people always embrace but we can hold two opposing truths.

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

Liz O’Donnell
WorkingDaughter.com, that points you to the private Facebook group and the book and all kinds of stuff.

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

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. It would be to think about how we can be more compassionate at work because it was First Lady Rosalynn Carter who said, “There are four types of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregivers.” So, this is a workplace issue, and it requires that we’re compassionate with each other as we go through it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Liz, thank you. This has been powerful and helpful, I hope, to so many. I wish you the best in all of your adventures.

Liz O’Donnell
I appreciate you talking about it. Thank you.

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Joe

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

Resources Mentioned

 

Thank you Sponsors!

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

Joe Sanok Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
ILL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Sanok
Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Sanok
Thank you so much, Pete.