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496: How to Break The Habit of Distraction with Maura Nevel Thomas

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Maura Nevel Thomas says: "Attention management allows you to unleash your genius on the world."

Maura Nevel Thomas discusses how to take back control of your attention for more productive work days.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How we sabotage our performance every 3 minutes
  2. The simple trick to stopping most office distractions
  3. How to get more satisfaction out of wor

About Maura:

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker in Inc. Magazine. Maura is a contributing expert to major business outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and the Harvard Business Review.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Maura Nevel Thomas Interview Transcript

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, one of the first things I wanted to hear a little bit about was you do some martial arts stuff. Can you tell us about that and maybe any personal safety tips we should know from your learnings?

Maura Thomas
Sure. Yeah, I trained in martial arts and a variety of other self-defense courses for many years. And I think that the most useful tip that I can pass along is don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation. And what I think a lot of people don’t recognize is that if you are in a place that is perhaps not so safe, like out on the street at night by yourself in the dark, or like in a deserted stairwell, or just any place where your personal safety could potentially be at risk, being distracted in that moment is really dangerous, like being on your phone, having headphones in your ear, ear pods in your ear where you can’t hear anything. The smartest thing you can do when you are out and about, especially at night, when you’re alone, in secluded places is be present and aware.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, one time I was actually punched in the face right near a Chipotle and not a bad neighborhood, at around twilight. And you know what? I was looking at my phone and the guy just yelled at me, “Get the F out of the way!” and he might’ve had some mental illness or something going on because he just kept walking after that. In all fairness, I was in his way, and I was distracted, but he could’ve just said, “Excuse me,” and I would’ve gladly stepped to the side. So, I did not heed your wisdom.

Maura Thomas
Well, it’s easy to forget but I think it’s super important.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, lessons learned and I’m fine, if anyone was worried. And I learned a good lesson about compassion because a lot of people, it was spooky, it’s like they don’t want to look at the guy who just got punched.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, anyway, I didn’t think we were going to go there. But, now, we’re doing some disclosing and you’re talking about managing your attention, you’re a real pro at this, you’ve done a lot of research, and there’s a lesson right there. If you don’t manage your attention, there could be personal injury but more likely career and productivity injury. Tell us, what’s a fascinating discovery you’ve made about how we manage our attention and we can do it better?

Maura Thomas
I think the most interesting thing that I have learned is that distraction is a habit, and it is a habit that has been cultivated in us on purpose by our technology. But the idea is that the more distracted we are, the more distracted we will be. And there was a study by Gloria Mark out of the University of Irvine, and she discovered that we switch our attention on average about every three minutes. Three minutes and five seconds to be precise is what her study concluded.

And so, when you do something every three minutes all day long, it becomes a habit. And it is a habit that our technology only cultivates in us because our technology is designed to steal our attention basically, and to keep our attention. The job of the internet is to keep you on the internet. Not only are you distracted by your technology but you’re distracted by other people.

And every few minutes all day long you get a distraction, that becomes a habit that gets really reinforced which means it becomes a really strong habit, which means you can’t just leave it behind when you walk out the door of the office, and you can’t just decide, like, “I’m not going to have that habit right now because I’m on my personal time,” or “Because it’s the weekend,” or, “Because I’m on vacation.” That habit follows you and it sticks with you and it really undermines us.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s so much that you got me thinking about here. So, three minutes, five seconds, and so in a way I find that a little bit encouraging that if I’m focusing on something for longer than that then I’m kind of making progress.

Maura Thomas
You are making some progress, but think about this, we try to do important things, not only tasks at work that require our brain power, which we were, by the way, hired for, not only tasks, but also interactions, conversations, experiences. And we think that we can fully experience something, fully be present in something, fully apply ourselves in about as long as it takes to toast bread.

And you know what’s really sad about that is that because this habit of distraction has eroded our patience so much, I bet there are many people listening right now saying, “It takes kind of a long time to toast bread.”

Pete Mockaitis
I could check several emails in the time I’m spending toasting the bread.

Maura Thomas
Exactly. And it feels like a minute, two minutes, three minutes is like, “Oh, I got this.” But here’s the thing, your brain requires momentum. It takes you a few minutes, depending on the complexity of the task, or the complexity of whatever it is that is happening to you right at that moment, the experience you’re in. It takes you a minute, or two minutes, or three minutes, or five minutes to get your head into something, right, to build up that brain power momentum so you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’m in it. I’m totally with you. I hear what you’re saying. I know where we need to go with this project. I have this idea now and I’m going to expand on it,” right?

And when we do our most challenging things, or have our most richest experiences, or our most meaningful interactions, a couple of minutes isn’t enough. It takes more than that to build up that momentum to be there, to apply ourselves, and we almost never get that. And, yet, most of us probably, I’m imagining most of the people listening to this podcast are knowledge workers, which means our job outputs are intangible brain activities, right?

There are things like ideas and creativity, and relationships, and innovation, and analysis, and research, and those things that we use our brain for, and those things that require brain power momentum. That’s what we were hired for.
And so, then we hire those people because we think they have this brain power and these qualities that we want in an employee, and then we put them in a situation where they can’t express those qualities and that brain power in any meaningful way pretty much ever.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re talking about situations in terms of we have a context full of distractions. Or what do you mean by situations?

Maura Thomas
The work environment where they are distracted all day long, and they are distracted all day long as a result of the culture. So, for example, when I’m speaking to an audience, I ask people, “How many of you have two computer monitors?” And some people raise their hand, or I say two or more computer monitors, and pretty much everyone raises their hand, right?

And then I ask, “What is on those monitors?” And people essentially tell me, “Work is on one and email and other communication devices, instant message, whatever, is on the other.” And so how often, when you are at work, are you going to get an instant message or text message or an email? Pretty much all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Maura Thomas
Right? And the company, like imagine you are going into a new job, and you’re walking around and you’re shaking everybody’s hands and you’re meeting people, and everyone has two monitors on their desk. And on each monitor, for everyone, they have some sort of spreadsheet or document or something open on one, and their email and other communication devices open on the other. So, aren’t you going to get the impressions like, “Okay, this is how we do things. Sign me up for my two monitors so that I can leave my email open all the time”? And the average person gets an email every two to four minutes.

And so, it’s sort of by design that these people that we bring in because of their brain power are unable to apply their brain power. And that’s just one of the many ways that the culture sabotages performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess we also have sort of the open-office plans that are in vogue and then folks are sort of dropping by all the time and then plenty of other things, whether it’s if you have Slack, the instant messaging there. Okay. So, I’m with you there, there’s plenty of things that disrupt our attention and pull us all over the place. So, I want to dig into the how. But maybe, first, could you maybe inspire us with a case study or research or an example of what’s really possible in terms of the leap a professional can make with their attention management in the current state versus an ideal state?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I think the most recent example I have actually is in someone’s personal life. So, I was at a client this morning, in fact, and I was talking to one of the women, Kristine. And I had just finished the attention management portion of the training that I was delivering at this company and so Kristine and I were talking after that, and she’s like, “You know, this whole idea of distraction as a habit is so true.” She said, “I recently went out on maternity leave, and when my son was born, I would be holding him, and the urge to hold my phone in the other hand was overwhelming.”

She was like, “Here I have this perfect life, and my baby is only going to be this age once, and I’m looking into his beautiful face, and there was still part of my brain going, ‘You know, just pick up your phone. Maybe you have some messages.’” And she said, “I was so dismayed by that that it was so hard for me to be present in these first moments of my son’s life because I was so distracted by my phone, which wasn’t even around, I was just thinking about it and feeling like I should have it, feeling like I was missing, not even missing out, but missing something. Like there’s something missing. Like, ‘Oh, my phone is not in my hand. That’s the problem.’”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Maura Thomas
And she told me that it took her a few weeks on maternity leave and she had to work really hard to overcome that urge to not multitask while she was interacting with her baby, right? And she was upset by it. She was like, “I cannot believe that my newborn infant didn’t seem like enough for me in that moment.” But she was out on maternity leave for a couple of months, and she really kicked that habit of distraction, and she found that time with her child so much more rewarding.

And there are new studies out. I just saw sort of the headline of one that talked about the impact that when parents have the TV on, their interactions with their children go down. When they have some sort of technology distraction around them, the number and quality of interactions with their children go down.

So, she was able to kick the habit and she had a much better time with her child while she was out for those two months, because most people don’t get that opportunity to spend all of this precious time with their newborn. You get maybe a week, six weeks, or eight weeks or something, and then you’re not with them. If you have to go back to work, whether it’s a mother or a father, right, or whatever parent, you are not with them after that because you have to go back to work for most of the day.

If Kristine hadn’t been aware and had just sort of felt like her phone is fine in her hand, how much of those first, that early life of her child would she have missed because she was distracted?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful, and I’m glad to hear there’s a happy ending there. And this reminds me of my favorite tweet of all time, which just sort of made me chuckle, and it went like this, I think you’ll get the joke. I don’t think the tweeter was trying to make a joke, but the tweet read, “Holding my child and just so present in this moment.”

Maura Thomas
Uh-huh. Me thinks you are not as present as you think you are, right?

Pete Mockaitis
All right then. So, it’s a habit, it can creep into all aspects of our life even during very privilege times. So, what do you recommend is the means of building a new habit that will serve us better?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, the first thing is that we need to become aware of how often we are distracted because I think a lot of people think that this isn’t a challenge for them. Kristine herself said, “I didn’t notice until I was home with my child on maternity leave.” Apple came out with a study, I think it was in 2015, so I’m sure the number has changed quite a lot now, but even in 2015 it showed that we unlock our phones 80 somewhat times a day. Eighty times a day, 80+ times a day that we unlock our phones.

And so, what else is going on in that moment that you are unlocking your phone and doing something on it? Are you driving? Probably often. Is there somebody else in your presence? Often probably. Are you having an experience? Capturing an experience so that we can have the memory is really important. So, taking pictures, for example, on vacation is really important. But posting those pictures on Facebook and Instagram, probably not that important in that moment, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
So, becoming aware of how distracted we are, because you can’t change a habit that you don’t know you have, right? Wayne Dyer said, “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” And so, that’s really important, is becoming aware. And becoming aware of how technology lures us into that habit, right? I mean, you know all of the persuasive technology and all of the ways that technology developers are studying neuroscience and cognitive psychology and behavioral science to figure out what are our human tendencies and how can they exploit those to keep us using our technology longer.

So, one simple example is that human beings look for natural stopping points when we’re doing something, right? Like, if you’re reading a book, you might be like, “Well, when I finish this chapter then I’ll stop.” And have you noticed? So, that’s a thing that we do. Human beings, we look for natural stopping points, and so technology developers have recognized this, and so they have taken away the stopping points. I mean, have you noticed that on Facebook or on LinkedIn or on YouTube, when you are scrolling, there’s no bottom of the page? It just keeps reloading.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it just keeps loading more.

Maura Thomas
More and more and more. So, they said, “Well, they’ll stop if there’s a stopping point so we need to make sure that there are no stopping points, right?” It’s the same reason why casinos don’t have windows, right?

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, hey, it’s nighttime, I need to go home.“

Maura Thomas
Exactly. Exactly. There’s no clocks and there’s no windows in casinos because those are sort of stopping points that we would say, “Oh, maybe I should leave now.” “So, let’s take those away.” So, recognizing how we are being manipulated, and I don’t say this to make technology companies be the bad guy. I love it by any stretch of the imagination. I love my technology as much as anybody else. On the other hand, we need to control our technology, and that’s another step.

Our technology will control us if we allow it to. And so, one of the ways to overcome this habit of distraction is to exert some control over our technology, whether it’s off or silent, not vibrate, or airplane mode, or “Do Not Disturb,” or shutting off the notifications, shutting off all those little red numbers that those notifications in the little red circle that just calling your attention.

All of those things, if we don’t exert any control over our technology, our technology controls us, and then that habit just becomes stronger and stronger and stronger, and chips away at our attention span, and chips away at our patience, and chips away at our ability to apply ourselves in any meaningful way, not just our wisdom and our knowledge and our experience, but also our empathy and our compassion and our humor and our kindness.

Pete Mockaitis
Maura, I completely agree. I don’t know if it’s angry but I react strongly when an app requests, it’s like, “Such and such would like to send you notifications.” It’s like, “Well, you are denied. You may not send me a notification.”

Maura Thomas
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m okay with that I hope my friends and family are too that I’m not made aware of their text message until maybe hours later because I don’t allow the badge or the buzz to let me know if there’s a new text message for me because I think that drives me insane in terms of, “I’m trying to have a great conversation with Maura right now, so those text messages will have to wait for a moment.” And I think I’m better for it, and I hope that everyone else is okay waiting a little while.

And, very rarely, have I been prompted in terms of, “Hey, what’s going on? You’re rude.” So, I think whatever fears that folks have are, some maybe real in terms of particular stakeholders, you know, you can have some conversations, but I think for the most part I think people are kind of chill, and they say, “You know what, I wish I could do that too. That’s great.”

Maura Thomas
Well, you know, let’s face it, it’s not like you’re going off the grid for days at a time. It’s like an hour here and there, 30 minutes, right? We’re not going to forget to check in with our messages. You know, what I say to my clients is, “Check your messages, check your phone as often as you feel like you need to, but just do it in between other things, not during other things.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we talked about, all right, becoming aware, we’re controlling our technology. What else should we do?

Maura Thomas
So, the next thing is that we need to control our environment because we have, even in an open office, we have more control over our environment than we exert. So, for example, people think, “Well, the office is loud, and it’s busy, and there are people walking by me, and interrupting me, and distracting me all the time, and that’s just the way it is, and I have to just adapt.”

But the truth is if you gave your colleagues some signal, a sign, right, maybe with some people it would need to be a more overt signal than with other people. But if you had a sign on the back of your chair that said, “Deep work in progress,” or something, “Important work in progress,” “Working on my flow. Please do not disturb,” whatever it says, let your personality shine through, but whatever it says, if your coworker saw that, they would be less likely to interrupt you anyway. Unless if you can’t make a sign and put it up and just leave it there all the time because now a sign doesn’t mean anything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. “Then you’re not flowing 100% of the time, nobody is, we don’t buy it.”

Maura Thomas
That’s right. So, you have to be judicious about it and say, “No, really, when I’m going to do important work, and I need to build up that brain power momentum, that’s when the sign goes up. And when I’m done with that, that’s when the sign comes down.” And if you do that, and so I tell my clients, “I don’t know if it should be 20 minutes every hour, or an hour a few times a day, or the frequency and the duration is completely up to you, and it also depends on the nature of your job.”

Some people’s jobs are more collaborative than other people’s jobs. If you are the office manager, you probably have more interactive work than if you are a programmer, and you probably need more focused time. So, it’s up to you to say, but if you have anything that requires any amount of your brain power in any meaningful way, then there has to be sometimes when you can be undistracted.

And so, whether that means a sign, or headphones, or if you’re lucky enough to have an office with a door and you’d close it, or you’re going into a conference room that nobody is using, or whatever it is, but you have to exert some control, and then you have to honor. You have to create those boundaries and then you have to honor those boundaries, right?

So, if you have your sign up, and somebody interrupts you anyway, then you have to say to them, “Did you see the sign? I’m sorry. Unless this is an emergency,” then your sign should say something about emergencies, “But unless this is a true emergency, please don’t interrupt me.” And then if they do anyway, you have to say, “Could you come back when the sign comes down because I can’t help you right now?” In whatever language, whatever way you feel is appropriate to do that, but you have to because if you put the sign up and people interrupt you anyway, and then you say, “Okay, what do you need?” Well, you’ve just taught them that the sign doesn’t mean anything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. So, we become aware, we control our technology, we control our environment, and what else?

Maura Thomas
I like to think of controlling your attention as a practice. It’s a little bit like healthy living, right? There are so many things that can fall under the heading of healthy living, and when you do some of them, then you start to do other ones of them. And then you discover things that maybe you didn’t even know about before.

So, I think sort of getting on the path to attention management by when you start to control your technology, and you start to control your environment, those two things then allow you to start recognizing your habits and to start resetting your habits and changing, interrupting those distraction habits and substituting instead. Instead of chipping away your attention span, you start to build it back up. Instead of chipping away at your patience, you start to build it back up.

And so, I think beginning there is sort of the first step. And then there’s, you know, you can experiment with mindfulness or meditation. There are some kind of advanced strategies, thinking about flow and how best to engage your flow. But I feel like that’s sort of Attention Management 201, and if people just got started with Attention Management 101, those are some sort of baby steps.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to hear some of the specific practices that you think make a huge impact in terms of, “Okay, these are some of your first baby steps, they’re going to do a whole lot for you.” What would you put in those categories?

Maura Thomas
Well, certainly the technology and environment control steps. So, figuring out what is your signaling going to be? Because if we talk about building up your brain power momentum, it doesn’t matter how much momentum you have. Once somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey, Pete, you got a minute?” Poof! Poof! It doesn’t matter how much momentum you had, it’s all gone now.

So, you need to prevent the tap on the shoulder, that, “Do you got a minute?” so that you can maintain that focus. So, one simple thing you can do is figure out what is your “Controlling my environment signal going to be.” And then you need to, depending on how subtle it is, right, if you decide it’s going to be headphones, then you might need to inform your coworkers, at least the people in your immediate vicinity, like, “Look, if the headphones are on means ‘Could you not interrupt me?’”

If you use a sign that says “Do not disturb,” I think it’s going to be pretty clear. Somebody approaches you and your sign is up, it’s like, “Oh, I guess she’s busy. I’ll come back.” So, one easy step that you can do right now is to decide what is your “Do not disturb. Flow in progress sign” going to be, and then start using it right now.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, so another thing is to shut off all of your notifications on all of your devices. Start using silent, not vibrate, more often. Like you said, right, so just you get your messages when you decide it’s time to get your messages instead of when the entire world decides that they want to send you a message, right? I think that we have forgotten that our technology exists for our convenience.

You didn’t go to the store, to the electronic store, and buy your smartphone so that everyone in the world could interrupt you all the time, right? That was not your intention, and yet that’s how most of us behave, “I have this device that anyone in the world can reach me on probably 17 different ways at once, and I let those things all just wash over me constantly.”

So, shutting off all of those notifications and all of those things that tempt you, all of those types of persuasive technology, like the little red circle, the number, that tells you you’ve got notifications because we have this compulsion, like, “I got to clear all the notifications, right? You’ve got to clear them all.” You see what they all are so they can all be cleared. And then just as soon as you cleared all the little circles off your Facebook app and your LinkedIn app, and your Twitter app, and your email app, and your text app, and your phone app, now you got to start all over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
So, just get rid of all the little circles and shut off all the notifications and start remembering that you have your smartphone for your convenience not for the convenience of the rest of the world. Because, again, you’re not going to forget. You’ll still probably going to check it multiple times in an hour. It’ll be okay. But in the meantime, you will get lots of stuff done and you will be more present.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And so, when you talk about getting more stuff done, I want to hear your view on having a proactive workday. How do we achieve that, and what’s the alternative, and sort of can you paint a picture there?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. I talk to so many people who say to me, “I know I was busy all day and I’m exhausted, but I feel like I didn’t get anything done.” And it’s because they spend their days doing whatever happens to them, right? You go into work and people probably approach you as soon as you walk through the door, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. And do you have a minute to talk about this thing?” and your work then gets set.

And even if that doesn’t happen, you probably sit down at your desk, and the first thing you do is check your email, check your messages, check what came in overnight. And all of those things just set the tone for a day of reaction, which means a day of doing everybody else’s stuff and none of yours. And the problem with that, even if you are the person whose job it is to help everyone in the office, or to help all the customers, if you also have anything else to do at all, then you need some time when you are away from the intaking, away from the reacting so that you can be proactive, right?

I tell the leaders that I work with, “If you have a customer service team, even if it’s just two people, and their job is to answer the phone and take in the emails from the customers, if it’s also their job to solve the problems that the customers bring to them, then they need some time away from the intaking to do the solving in a useful way.

We have become a society where I think we believe that faster, like fast customer service equals good customer service. The faster it is the better we are. The better our service is the faster we are. And I think that that is the new race to the bottom. I think price used to be the race to the bottom, and now fast is the race to the bottom because no one can respond immediately. So, employees take away this idea that if faster is better then immediate must be best.

And so, if I have to respond immediately to everything then I always have to have my communication tools open, and if my communication tools are always open, then I’m guaranteed to be distracted every couple of minutes. And if I’m distracted every couple of minutes then I can’t apply the brain power that you hired me for.

And so, again, the practice of attention management allows you to have some time where you are proactive in the day. And when you have spent part of your day being proactive then you leave feeling more satisfied. You leave feeling like you accomplished something. There is a book called The Progress Principle and it’s based on the idea that, of all the things that can boost emotions, motivations, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

And so, we talk a lot about engagement and work satisfaction, and one of the biggest things that is taking away from that engagement and that satisfaction is the feeling of actually accomplishing things during our day. And we feel like we’re not accomplishing anything during our day because we spend all of our day being reactive. But we only feel accomplishment when we can be proactive, and you can’t be both simultaneously proactive and reactive at the same time.

You can only be productive, productive which I define as achieving your significant results. Well, that’s what the dictionary says — achieving or producing a significant amount or results, that’s the definition of productive. And so, if we look at the personal productivity side of that, achieving a significant result. You can only be productive, achieve your significant results when you can be proactive. And you can only be proactive when you’re not being reactive.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, yeah, this all adds up for me certainly. I guess I’m curious to think about, so how might you measure progress on this so you can feel more satisfaction in a day, you might see sort of what the screen time stats tell you on your phone? Are there any other kind of measures? If we talk about progress being satisfying, if we want to make progress on our attention management and sort of measure and behold and appreciate that progress, what might you point us to?

Maura Thomas
Yes, for knowledge workers, because knowledge work is hard to quantify, when your work output are things like ideas and relationships and analysis, it’s hard to quantify that, “Was I more productive today than I was yesterday?” Attention management is a piece of what I call workflow management, what it’s commonly called in the productivity industry – workflow management. For me, the workflow management system that I teach, in other words, “How do I get stuff done? How do I organize and manage and track and move forward on all the things that I have to do in all parts of my life?”

Well, my answer is you use a workflow management system for that. So, you systematize the way that you operate so that you can get stuff done. And, for me, the foundational component of workflow management is attention management. And so, when you are using a workflow management system, you have all of your work sort of in front of you. And so, a workflow management system not only helps you identify and track and organize and not forget the things that you haven’t done yet. But then a byproduct of that is that you are tracking also the things that you have done.

And so, it’s easy to tell if you are making more progress in a day when you are marking things, not just things off your to-do list but important things, right? Making progress in meaningful work. It feels much better to write an article for most people than it does to answer 10 emails because you have accomplished something, you have something to show for your brain power at the end. But it’s hard to write an article when you are interrupted every two minutes or three minutes.

And so, most of the stuff that we do in a day it never makes it onto our to-do list. It’s that stuff that happens to us. And so, that’s why most people leave work feeling like, “My list got longer, not shorter. I feel like I didn’t get anything done.” But when you can control your attention, when you can be more productive, you are making progress not just on stuff but on the stuff that’s on your list, the stuff that you determined was important to your job, the stuff that means something to you if it gets done, and to your sort of performance, and the ultimate goal that you are hired for.

And so, that’s one way, is that when you are achieving more of the stuff that you put on your list, that you decided you needed to get done, then you’re going to feel more satisfied at the end of the day. Then your job is going to feel more rewarding.

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

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I’ve been talking about this idea of brain power momentum, and the shorthand phrase that I use for this idea is that I call it unleashing your genius. When you are distracted every few minutes, you are sabotaging your ability to build up that brain power momentum, and not only brain power but it’s difficult to bring your humor in two-minute increments, and your empathy in two-minute increments, and your compassion and your kindness and your thoughtfulness, and all of the things that make you uniquely you. It’s hard to apply those things in the time that it takes to toast bread.

And so, when you can control your attention, attention management allows you to unleash your genius on the world, to bring the full range of yourself, your wisdom, and your knowledge, your experience, but all of your unique gifts that are uniquely you, that are packaged in the way that is uniquely you. You can only do that when you can be present, when you can stay focused from more than a few minutes at a time, when you are not constantly distracted in trying to do multiple things at once.

So, unleashing your genius is really the most powerful, I think, and the most satisfying outcome of attention management.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, tell us, then, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Maura Thomas
Yes, I have been looking. I think I’m going to have to call a librarian because I’ve been researching to find out who said this first, and I have not had any luck. The quote goes, “It’s not the moments in your life that matter, it’s the life in your moments that matter.” Right? And the life in your moment is the experience you are having in a moment. Are you present? Are you engaged? Are you participating fully in that moment? That is the life in your moments. And I think it’s really true and it’s really powerful. If we live a long life, it doesn’t mean much. I’m not sure it would be as valuable as a shorter life that was full and rich and loving and compassionate and joyful and present.

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

Maura Thomas
This study recently came out of the University of Texas at Austin, and it found that when we have our phone in our presence, even if it’s off, it absorbs some of our cognitive capacity, which essentially means it makes us dumber in that moment.

And so the study had three groups of people, one group had their phone off but visible, one group had it off but out of sight but still in the room, and the other  people had it completely in another place, and the people whose phone was completely in another room far outperformed the people whose phone was anywhere in their presence. And the people who had it even out of their sight, only slightly overperformed the people who had it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And how about a favorite book?

Maura Thomas
I am a big fan of Cal Newport. So, Deep Work and his latest Digital Minimalism, so thought-provoking and so important and I’m loving Cal’s work right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and people quote it back to you, like you’re known for?

Maura Thomas
A lot of people remind me that they heard that idea of moments in your life not mattering as much as life in your moments matter. You know they tell me stories about like Kristine’s story with her son and how they change up experiences. I guess the idea of attention management is what people tell me they remember most from when they see me speak or when they interact with me.

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

Maura Thomas
I would say the challenge that I would pose… the question would be, “How much richer is your life without distraction?” I think the only way you can know is when you can find a way to live without distraction. So that’s the challenge.

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

Maura Thomas
MauraThomas.com has all the information. My latest book is called Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day, and being aligned with the title, it is from a line called The Impact Reads, which means it is designed to spark the impact in just one hour.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Maura Thomas
I’m sorry, it’s Ignite Reads.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. Well, Maura thanks so much for sharing the good word, and good luck in having many rich moments in your life and full attention.

Maura Thomas
Thanks so much for having me on, Pete. I really enjoyed the conversation.

488: Finding The Productivity System That Works for You with Asian Efficiency’s Thanh Pham

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 Thanh Pham from Asian Efficiency shares his expert tips and favorite resources for optimal productivity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest productivity myth
  2. How to be more productive while doing less
  3. A simple productivity tip to exponentially improve your focus

About Thanh

Thanh is the Founder and Managing Director of Asian Efficiency. He is considered one of the top thought leaders in the productivity industry and he has been featured in Fast CompanyInc.com,ForbesHuffington Post, and The Globe & Mail. On a day-to-day basis, he is responsible for executing the company’s mission and helping people become more Asian Efficient.

When he’s not sharing his newest productivity wisdom, he likes to drink lots of green tea, eat eggs benedict at hotels, make video blogs, and read non-fiction books.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Thanh Pham Interview Transcript

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

Thanh Pham
Thank you, Pete, for having me. I’m excited to be here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s always fun to chat with a podcaster that I’ve listened to numerous times. So, it’s sort of like, “Hey, you sound just like you.” And I’m surprised each time somehow.

Thanh Pham
Well, thank you for listening to my productivity show and I’m excited to kind of share what I know about productivity and help people become more productive here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, I want to dig a touch into your backstory for a moment and then talk a lot about productivity. So, I understand that you never graduated high school. And I’m curious, is there sort of a productivity transformation story at the root of this or is it just like, “Yeah, I don’t like high school”?

Thanh Pham
It is a combination of both. So, I read this book called Rich Dad Poor Dad, which I’m sure a lot of people have heard of, and I was 13 at the time. So, I read this book and it really changed my life in the sense that it gave me this whole new perspective on what I need to do with my life. And I came from a first-generation immigrant family, and my whole belief was, “Hey, you need to go to school, get trained up, and then get a traditional job.” And I was like, “Okay, let’s do that.”

And then I read this book and I had a completely 180-look on life, and I started my first business when I was 14. So, I remember my mom had to sign off on some paperwork because obviously she had to be liable for anything that would go wrong, me being underage. So, I started a web design agency at that time and I taught myself how to program, how to build websites, and became really successful. I started hiring my high school friends, and they started working with me.

And so, the way the education system works in the Netherlands, where I grew up, if you don’t pass the last year of your high school, you basically don’t graduate and you’d have to do the last year all over again. So, I didn’t pass the test because I didn’t study. I was overly-confident because my business was flourishing, and so I didn’t study and failed the test, and that’s why I ended up dropping out of high school, and just continued to focus on my business.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you were being productive in other domains as oppose to, “My life was a mess until I discovered these strategies.”

Thanh Pham
Exactly, yeah. So, I’ve always loved learning, I still love learning, whether it is reading on the side or I go to workshops and seminars. So, the learning aspect has actually never stopped, this is a lifelong thing for me but the formal education side of things just stopped when I was 18.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, understood. Thanks for sharing. And, well, you certainly landed on your feet in terms of making things happen in a big way. Your brand is rocking and with Asian Efficiency you’ve got the Productivity Show podcast. And it’s fun, at the beginning of your show, you ask about your guests’ or co-host’s top three productivity resources. I ask about a lot of favorite things at the end of the show, so we’ll do that too. But I’d love to treat you in kind, you’ve seen a lot of resources and mentioned a lot. If you had to pick three for sort of the Lifetime Achievement Awards for you, what would they be?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, that’s a tough question. I’ve seen so many recommendations, part of my job is always testing new things, reading new books, and trying all sorts of stuff, so if I had to just boil it down to three recommendations and three resources, I would say one book I would recommend is called 30 Lessons for Living. So, the basic premise of the book is the author interviewed people who were about to die, and he asked them, “What’s one life lesson you would like to pass on to the next generation?” And this got compiled into 30 lessons.

And so, it gives you kind of an insight of what you really should be doing with your life based on the experiences of people way ahead of you. This is a great book. It really changed my life so I highly recommend that. Another one is a pair of headphones by Bose called the Bose QC35. If you’ve ever flown a plane, you’ve probably seen these headphones.

Everybody tends to wear them nowadays for good reason because it’s the best noise-cancellation headphones on the market, in my opinion. And if you’re somebody who has trouble focusing, if you put on these headphones and play some productivity music, you’ll just be able to focus instantly and tune out all the noise. So, that’s something I personally use every day, also when I’m traveling.

And then the third one is an app called TextExpander. So, TextExpander, as you just said, it is one of my favorite apps. If you use Mac, Windows, it doesn’t matter, it’s also available on iOS, it basically allows you to type things really quickly and have templates that you can use with just a few keystrokes. So, think of it as like keyboard shortcuts on steroids. And once you’ve seen a demo of it, you’ll just go, “Okay, why have I not used this earlier? This is going to change everything for me.”

Pete Mockaitis
I sent you an email today using TextExpander.

Thanh Pham
I have a suspicion.

Pete Mockaitis
I used customized elements.

Thanh Pham
Yeah, we have to send the same scripts and emails out to people, and why type the same thing when you can just type in three or four keystrokes and get the same thing out there?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Well, that was fun so I wanted to see how that felt, you know, being in your shoes, hitting some three resources at the beginning. So, thank you for those. And I’m also wearing some Bose QuietComfort Noise-Cancelling Headphones right now as we speak. Sometimes I will put earplugs in first, then put on the noise-cancelling headphones, and then play a favorite white noise such as perhaps the engine idling-noise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I got that from my guest Rahaf Harfoush. But you mentioned productivity tunes, or music, or sounds. What were those that you’re listening to?

Thanh Pham
So, there’s lots of ways to go about this. There’s stuff like Brain.fm that you can use, which is kind of like a service that you can subscribe to and get music from. FocusAtWill is another one that I personally use too. But then if you have, for example, Spotify or Apple Music, you can listen to a lot of albums that don’t have any lyrics because if you start listening to music that have lyrics, it’s really easy to get distracted.

But if you have music that doesn’t have lyrics whatsoever, for example, soundtracks of movies are some of my favorite music to listen to and to work to. For example, The Social Network, the movie that was based on Facebook is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, not because, necessarily, I like the movie so much, which I thought was entertaining, but the soundtrack is just so good and so mellow. Once I put it on, I kind of get into this flow state immediately just because it’s so well-orchestrated. So, soundtrack is a great resource for productivity music, in my opinion.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. My buddy, Brad, likes listening to cinematic soundtracks because he says it feels like when you’re doing work at your laptop, you’re leading an army into battle.

Thanh Pham
That’s really what it feels like, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Well, cool. Well, we got really deep into the tactical tidbits. I want to zoom out a little bit. So, your website and brand is called Asian Efficiency, which is fun. What’s the story behind that name?

Thanh Pham
Now, obviously I can say that because…

Pete Mockaitis
I was going to say I don’t know.

Thanh Pham
…I am Asian and I look Asian so I can kind of play the part. And having lived in the Western countries, there’s this positive stereotype about Asian people that they tend to be really productive. So, I remember a few years ago when me and my friends, we were vacationing in Florida, and we were committed to working during the daytime and then have dinner at night and just have a good time going out.

And then the next morning after a night out with our friends, I was up early. I was up early doing some work, being really focused, getting stuff done. And by the time it was noon, I was done with everything that I needed to do. And then my friends would come down and they would see me relaxing, doing absolutely nothing, just reading a book, and having a relaxing time, and they go, “Thanh, what is going on? Are you already done?” And I was like, “Yup, I’m already done. I did everything I needed to do. I’m just going to relax for the rest of the day.” And they go, “Wow! How did you do that? That is Asian efficiency right there.” And I said, “Oh, that’s a great catch name. I should register that domain name.”

And so, I registered the domain name and didn’t really think of it at that time of doing anything with it. It wasn’t until a few years later when I started just blogging about productivity and time management and efficiency that I said, “Hey, maybe I should just start blogging about this once a week and share some of the things that I’ve learned over the years with my friends and family.” And that just accidentally turned into a business one year later.

So, it really started off as a passion thing because I just wanted to share with my friends and family what I’ve learned from reading books about productivity and some of the workshops I’ve been to, and just putting it in one place. It was just something I was really passionate about at that time and I never thought it would be a business that it is today. So, it’s just super fortunate that I’m able to do something that I’m really passionate about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s cool. I think the first time I caught the name, I was like, “Is this about the Toyota LEAN manufacturing system?” I was like, “Oh, no, no, it’s about personal productivity. Okay, yeah, I’m with you.”

Thanh Pham
Yeah, that’s another thing I get quite often too. So, if somebody says that they’re already into productivity, because that’s usually one step further, and then I usually have the inclination just to start geeking out with that person right away because I’m very into that sort of thing as well, especially if you run a business or manage a big team, you’re always looking for interesting philosophies and different ways of doing things, whether it’s with your own self or with people that you work with. And so, there’s so many ways to be productive as a person and be productive as a team. And I love just geeking out about that sort of stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I want to talk about the geeking out dimension first, if I could. So, I think I’ve seen this go a couple ways when it comes to talking about productivity efficiency stuff. You can get lost in sort of this realm of, “Hey, I’m just rearranging my file folders and trying out a new app,” and just kind of like you’re not actually achieving anything. You’re just sort of reshuffling your stuff around in different ways.

And I’ve also seen implementing certain systems and approaches and tools in which you just see sort of like lifechanging benefits. So, could you maybe make the case, if you could, for what are the kinds of gains or benefits we can achieve by implementing some of these efficiency productivity stuff or is it all just a way for nerds to play with new toys?

Thanh Pham
There’s definitely a case for all sorts of situations. And based on the last eight years of me teaching this through the blog, through the coaching programs and other programs that we have, I’ve noticed that there’s a couple things that people can get out of this. One is you tend to create more structure and routine in your life that might be missing. So, a lot of people oftentimes come to us because life is chaotic, there’s a lot of stuff going on, they can’t keep up. And having some sort of structure or routine in place allows people to be more creative, allows people to get more stuff done, and actually achieve the goals that they set out for themselves. So, there’s one big part of that.

Another big part is just having the freedom to choose how you want to spend your time. Oftentimes when we are bombarded with so many things to do or to-do lists, it’s like from here to Tokyo, it’s just endlessly long, and anytime you finish something off in your to-do list, something new pops up on there, and it kind of feels like a battle that you can’t really win.

And so, once we kind of get that under control, then we give ourselves the option to really choose how we want to spend our time. Do we want to do more things on our to-do list or do we want to spend more time doing things like spending time with our family, or starting new business on the side, or just having the option to choose how you want to spend your time and what you want to do with that? And most people would pick one of those two options I would say.

And then there’s this third camp, usually, of people that just love to nerd out, they just love to play with new toys and feel like they’re making progress in their life, and trying new different things. That’s definitely how I    started with everything. But I also had to learn that, you know, at some point there are diminishing returns. There’s only so many task managers that I can try to find the perfect one, or there’s only so many settings that I can change, or there’s so many workflows that I should use before I really start to just spend more time “being or trying to be productive” versus actually getting results, getting stuff done that needs to be done, and then having the time “luxury” to choose how I want to spend my time going forward.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s well-said in terms of those benefits there in terms of we take a life in chaos and then by bringing some calm to it, you enhance your creativity, ability to focus and do the things, and boost your odds of success. And you also experience some freedom as oppose to enslavement to the urgent next thing that comes up. So, those sound like some cool benefits. Do you have any sense for, I don’t know, the magnitude, or quantifiable results, or a cool case study in terms of a life transformed that can really sort of paint a picture for what’s at stake here?

Thanh Pham
Yeah, so a recent example was a client that I worked with. Her name is Lisa and she is an executive at a Fortune 100 company. And so, her role was to report to 23 different executives and helping them make better decisions around payroll. That’s literally her job, is just enforcing certain guidelines, making sure that the executives get the right information that they need to make sound decisions around payroll in this huge company.

And so, on a day-to-day basis, she’s in her email client all day long because she felt like she had to respond to every single email that came in within five minutes. And when you’re reporting to 23 different executives and you have email open all day long, as you can probably imagine, you spend a lot of time doing research, replying to emails, multitasking, doing all these different things, and oftentimes getting lost in the shuffle.

And so, I said to Lisa, “Okay, you spend about seven to eight hours a day in your email inbox. Where do you find the time to actually do stuff?” And she said, “Well, I don’t so I have to take work home with me. I’m staying longer at the office. I don’t have any time for my husband, I don’t have any time to cook, I don’t have any time for myself to practice yoga or to do any form of reading. I basically get up really early, show up for work, stay really late, don’t see my kids and husband that much, and take home work with me, and then stay up late to get stuff done.”

And I said, “Well, do you want to live like this for the rest of your life?” And I’m guessing you probably already know the answer. And she said, “No, of course not. That’s why I came to you.” I said, “Okay, let’s change your approach to how we do things here. So, instead of trying to multitask and trying to do all these different things for all these 23 executives that you have to report to, what if we just do one task at a time and just one executive at a time? So, instead of trying to appease five executives at once with their email requests and the things that you have to do for them, let’s just focus on one executive at a time on certain days and just put some structure in place so you can focus doing just one thing at a time.”

And even though she was doing the exact same work, just changing the practice of, “Hey, I’m just going to focus on this one executive, doing one task at a time, making sure that gets done, gets completely finished, sends it out. And then once that is ‘done’ then I can move onto the next executive.” By just changing that approach and then closing her email clients, because that was the biggest troublemaker in this whole process, is if you have email open all day long, it’s kind of like a to-do list that other people can write on.

And so, it makes it really easy for your to-do list to become endless and then sometimes for certain people very difficult to enforce certain boundaries. And so, she had to close her email client, just focus on one task at a time, one executive at a time, and just changing that approach allowed her to go from eight hours a day in her email inbox to just 45 minutes a day in her email inbox.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Thanh Pham
Such a simple change but it made a huge difference in her life.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! So, it’s just sort of like, “Okay, I’m going to check what’s in that email inbox and then I’m going to grab the stuff associated with what I have determined, like this project, this executive, and then go for it.” Well, that’s so striking. And I’m wondering, is the savings here due to just the notion that you’re just continuously interrupted and, thusly, it takes you way longer to get any given thing done because you sort of move your attention from that thing to the next email?

Thanh Pham
Yes, multitasking is I think the biggest myth in productivity because people think that multitasking is a good trait to have, it’s a good thing, that you’re more productive this way but tons of research studies have shown it’s actually the opposite. And when you think about it, anytime you get distracted or anytime you do multiple things at the same time, your brain is actually only able to focus on one thing at a time, and it’s literally designed that way.

So, when you’re, for example, checking email and talking to somebody on the phone, you can’t really do both things. And then imagine having an audiobook playing in the background, and trying to learn, and then having like a Google spreadsheet on another monitor, so if you do those four things at once, there’s just no way you can focus doing all these great and perfectly.

And people who multitask tend to also be slower because anytime you switch focus, we kind of have to just go on this on ramp. We have to kind of like warm up a little bit, kind of think about, “Okay, what was I thinking again? What did I need to do next?” Like, if you talk to your friend on the phone and then write an email at the same time, as soon as you hang up on the phone and you have to continue writing that email, you have to kind of imagine what you were thinking of, what you were doing, what you wanted to say, what you wanted to write next.

And imagine doing that a hundred times a day. So, those two, three minutes can lead to lots of hours of wasted time. And so, if you can just focus on just doing one thing at a time and avoid being distracted and interrupted this way, all these little time ramps of, “Okay, what was I doing? What did I need to do next?” can save you a lot of time over time.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting, I think sometimes we fall for the myth of multitasking just because of what it’s doing in your brain chemistry. I think Chris Bailey, who we had on the show a couple of times, was talking about how when you switch tasks, there’s a little bit of – is it dopamine or a neurochemical reward of some sort – because like, “Oh, this is new.” And because it feels a little stimulating, it’s almost as though, “Therefore, I am crushing it.” But you’re really not.

Thanh Pham
Exactly. It feels “productive” but when you think about productivity, I mean, there are several definitions that people have. But I think one of the most useful ones is to think about, “Is this getting me closer to my goal? And if it’s not, then I should say no to that or I should just not pay attention to that right now and continue to stay focused on something that actually helps me get things done to accomplish my goal.”

So, if you’re at your job, and you’re part of a team and maybe you have a team goal, getting really clear on what that goal is and making sure that whatever you’re doing every single day is in alignment with that allows you to be really productive. And then it’s not really a matter of, “Okay, did I get five tasks done, or 10 tasks, or 15, or even just one?” If you get the most important things done that are in alignment with what you’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s your personal goal or team goal, then you’re really productive, right?

So, for example, if you want to write a book and publish a book, and your to-do list says you need to write a chapter, you need to review your finances, and you need to book a trip to Las Vegas. Now, all these things could be really important, and they seem really fun things to do for some people, but there’s only one task on that list that’s really the most important one, and that is writing because that is in alignment with your goal which is writing and publishing a book.

And so, once you get really clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, then it’s really easy to find the things that are on your to-do list that are in alignment with what you’re trying to do. And so, when people have trouble setting priorities or trying to figure out what to do first, it’s oftentimes a symptom of just not really having clarity about what they’re actually trying to accomplish.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so now I’m intrigued then. In that example you gave, we had sort of very different items, and I guess depending on your goals of all that might align to certain goals, depending on what’s happening in Las Vegas, and so I guess I don’t know if any human being can answer this for another one but I’m going to go for it. So, if you got, let’s say, I’m writing now sort of my 10 grand life goals. So, if I got these, then naturally certain tasks will bring me closer to certain goals and others to other goals. So, how does one know which one is most important? I suppose it’s a deeply personal process of introspection and values, etc. But how do you tackle this one?

Thanh Pham
I think we also have to look at timelines. So, for example, if you have a goal for getting in shape or being at a certain weight, you can achieve that maybe in 90 days or you can achieve that in 10 years, right? And the strategy is going to change based on what your timeline looks like because if you want to be at a certain weight within the next seven days, your strategy is going to be significantly different than somebody who has to achieve that same goal, let’s say, five years from now, right?

And so, what I think is really important for people to know is to understand where you are right now and what the timeline is for you to accomplish this goal. So, if you have to publish a book, as an example, if you have to do this in 90 days versus one year, your strategy is going to be different. Because if you have to do this in 90 days, then you probably want to change your schedule around, you probably want to limit the things that you do, you might have to sacrifice certain things in order to accomplish this goal. Whereas, if you say to yourself, “You know what, I have five years to do this,” maybe you can get away with writing for 30 minutes a day and just making sure that you do that consistently for the next five years in order for you to accomplish your goal.

And so, I think it’s important for people to realize, “Okay, once I know what my goal is, what is the timeline for this as well?” because that allows us to determine which strategy we should use and how that fits into our day to day.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. So, you talk to a lot of different people and sort of putting all this together and your learnings. I’d love to hear, over the years, has there been anything particularly surprising and fascinating that you discovered about the most efficient productive people around?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, well, everybody is productive in their own way. I think if there’s one big takeaway I’ve learned over the years is that even though I have my own way of doing things, and I’m very stubborn in certain ways, I’ve also seen people who are completely opposite of me and achieve extraordinary things as well. And we oftentimes disagree on how we would do something and approach to do something.

So, for example, I have a friend, he has no sense of structure whatsoever in his life. He doesn’t use a calendar, he doesn’t use a task manager, all he has is just a really strong vision and a high desire to achieve something. And so, when he sets his goal to be X, Y, and Z, he will just really visualize what he’s going to do, and just make sure that he’s spending enough time and energy on this goal to get it done, and there’s no sense of like structure or theme, whatever. It’s just, “This is my goal. I’m going to go for it and I will figure out along the way as we go for it.”

And I’m like the completely opposite person. If I set a goal, and this is something I want to achieve, I like to create a plan, I like to figure out ways to get there, I like to know what kind of resources I have, I want to know what my timeline is, and I’m kind of like mapping out this whole “plan.” And once I have this plan, then I will start executing it.

And some people are in between. They like to act fast but also have a plan and mix stuff up as they go. And I’ve just learned over the years that there’s really no one way to be productive. And I think the sooner we can realize that there’s no one perfect way, that everybody is unique in their own way, the faster we can actually focus on, “Okay, let’s just do what I’m good at and make sure I spend most of my time doing that, and everything else can just go to the wayside or has a lower priority for the things that need to be done.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that there is no one best way. It seems like a generally agreeable assertion but I’m going to push you on that a little bit. So, I’m wondering, there are folks, I had David Allen again on recently, and so there are folks who would say, “Those who are not doing Getting Things Done, GTD, or externalizing all of their commitments outside their brain into a trusted system don’t even realize they have a low-level of anxiety that’s robbing them of some of the joy they could be having in life.” Is your take that they’re mistaken and some people can be rocking the polar opposite of Getting Things Done and be operating at their maximum effectiveness just fine?

Thanh Pham
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. And when I think about all the different people that, for example, I worked with as clients, people that I have in my company as employees, and how I need to motivate them and get the best out of them, just like when you have multiple kids, you have to treat everybody differently and see how they operate best and what you can do to get the best out of them.

And so, some people have to, for example, be handheld to get to the destination, some people you just have to give them a really vision and tell them, “Hey, this is what needs to be done, and let’s make sure we do this and get it done.” And some people need a plan, they kind of need a roadmap. And so, everybody is very different in that sense.

And while there are certain strategies that I think universally are good practices, like David Allen’s idea of getting everything out of your head, some people, even if they do that, they still wouldn’t stick to something like that because it’s just not how they think and operate. So, while I do think it’s a good practice, if that is something that you generally just don’t like to stick to because it’s not how you like to do things, then it’s kind of hard to actually get the results that you want because, ultimately, you want to follow something and do something that you know you can do consistently over time.

Because I think the key to productivity is, yes, there’s five million ways to get to Rome, but pick the route that works best for you. And just like if you ever take any personality test, you will see that there’s so many different variations and outcomes. And I have this strong suspicion that certain personality types work better with certain productivity workflows and productivity systems.

So, for example, if you’re somebody who’s really creative, a very strong visionary, you really don’t like lists. And so, a productivity system like GTD probably doesn’t really work well for you. Even though there are some elements of productivity systems like GTD that could be useful, but generally GTD is very list-based, whereas that doesn’t really work for people who really consider themselves like visionaries.

But then people like me who love making lists, who love making plans, they love lists, and a system like GTD then is really suitable for them. And so, fortunately, we all have options and there’s different productivity systems out there, and so once you kind of know what the rundown is of what every system is and what they offer, you can then make a really informed decision on what’s going to work best for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nicely-said. So, then let’s talk about you. What is your system? And I imagine we can have the multi-hour version of this, but just sort of what is being captured where and how do you go about sort of processing and reviewing your stuff?

Thanh Pham
So, my system has evolved over the years and it’s kind of a hodgepodge of different philosophies and different ideas. I’ve taken ideas from like GTD, from Agile results, from Scrum, from The 12 Week Year, and these are all things that I think are great systems, but I’ve kind of like created my own. And I think this is the destination that everybody will get to at some point. I think it’s a great starting point to follow something like GTD or The 12 Week Year. And then, over time, make it yourself, and that’s kind of what I’ve done.

And so, my system is very heavily-based on OmniFocus. OmniFocus is my favorite tool when it comes to managing tasks and projects. So, anytime I have an idea, or anytime I want to capture something, or remember, or I just want to store somewhere, it goes into my OmniFocus inbox whether I’m on my phone, on my computer, it goes on there first and foremost.

And then, I’m a big calendar user myself, so as someone who uses Mac and iOS for the most part, I’m a big fan of BusyCal. That is my favorite productivity tool.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we spell BusyCal and why is it better than the default iCal? I’m asking for a friend.

Thanh Pham
So, BusyCal is B-U-S-Y-C-A-L.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it makes sense. All right.

Thanh Pham
And I think it’s the power version of the typical calendar app that comes with Mac OS. One of my favorite features on there is you can actually change the number of days in your week view as an example. So, for most calendar apps, a week view looks like six or seven days ahead, but you can actually change that in BusyCal to be, let’s say, three days or even 10 days if you like, so you can kind of see ahead of time or based on what your preferences are. And it comes with a lot of power user features as well and it also integrates with your contact manager app called BusyContacts.

And so, I use this a lot for networking, stay in touch with people, and then I can actually see, based on certain contacts that I have and people that I’m meeting, what we did because it integrates with my calendar. So, if I’m talking to Billy, for example, tomorrow, I can just pull up his contact record and then see, “Oh, based on our calendar events, we had lunch two weeks ago, we had a phone call in this particular day, we did a podcast together on that day.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, like an auto-pull, like your texting and call history too?

Thanh Pham
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa!

Thanh Pham
Yup. So, that’s one of the many reasons I like BusyCal. And if you integrate it with BusyContacts, then I think it’s a great combination, a one-two punch to have. So, that’s kind of like my bread and butter when it comes to just the foundation of the tools and the systems that are there. And when it comes to just syncing everything, I use the Google Sync service for that. So, Google Calendar is kind of like the backbone, but then I use BusyCal as the app on top of that to kind of like manage my calendar on top of that.

And then my other secret weapon, which I’m happy to admit, is my executive assistant. I don’t know how I would be able to run my business, live my life, if she wasn’t there. So, if that’s something that you’re in a position to have as well, I would highly recommend getting an executive assistant.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, your executive assistant, did you sort of hire that person directly or through an agency or service?

Thanh Pham
I hired her through an agency called GreatAssistant.com. So, they specialize in finding high-level executive assistants based in North America based on your personality type and how you work. So, what’s really cool about their service is that you actually have to take this personality test, and then based on the results, they can find somebody who matches your personality type.

So, if you’re, for example, really high-energy or a strong visionary, you need somebody who’s super organized, they can find the right kind of match based on what your personality type is like. So, I really like their service, and I’m not affiliated with them whatsoever, but that’s the one I use.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, does your assistant do some of your email?

Thanh Pham
Yes, she handles my email on a day-to-day basis now. This is something I used to do myself for about 45 minutes or 30 minutes a day, but now I got it down to roughly 5 to 7 minutes a day, thanks to her help. So, definitely a big timesaver as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Hey, while we’re at it, what are some of the other top tasks you recommend having an assistant tackle for you?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, so we have a weekly meeting for 30 minutes, and so she handles all of my travel. So, she books every single travel, whether it’s personal or business, so that’s a really big task. Another thing is she orders my groceries and food every single week. So, I actually have no idea, every single week, what I’m eating. She orders it for me, and it’s kind of a Christmas surprise every single week of what I’m getting and what I’ll be eating.

She books like routine errands that I have to run. So, for example, going to get a haircut, going to get a massage, going to a float tank, going to a fitness center, workouts with my personal trainer. She coordinates all that sort of stuff every single week for me so that I don’t have to do it, and I just literally look at my calendar and see, “Okay, I need to be at the gym today at this time. Tomorrow I need to be there at that time.” What else? Doctor appointments, or anything else that you have to do, or run errands around town, she handles all of that.

So, when I have my weekly meeting with her, I’ll just say, “Hey, I want to do this, I want to do that,” and oftentimes she’ll bring it up too, and say, “Hey, Thanh, it seems like you haven’t had a haircut in 12 days. Yeah, it’s probably time so I booked something already for you. You should go to the barber shop tomorrow at 4:00 o’clock.” I’m like, “Okay, yeah. Thank you for running my life that makes my life so much easier.”

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Fascinating sort of imagining that world. Tell me about a float tank. I’m just going to key in on that one, also known as sensory-deprivation chambers. Do you find those valuable?

Thanh Pham
I find them really valuable. I got into them maybe three years ago and I started going just once a month. And I remember the first time I went I didn’t really get much out of it. I was just laying there floating in water and not really knowing what to expect, and I kind of had a neutral experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, experience is one can have on this earth, I guess.

Thanh Pham
Right, because when you talk to people, some people go, “Oh, man, it’s amazing and it’s so powerful.” And I was really skeptical because I was already meditating every day for 10 minutes, and I thought, “Well, I’m already meditating for 10 minutes every day, how much better can it really be understanding diminishing returns?”

So, I go in, I have a neutral experience, I’m thinking, “Oh, maybe it’s not worth it.” But I just know so many people that I respect in my personal life and online that just rave about it. So, I continued to stick with it, and I said, “Okay, let’s just commit to doing three total and just then make a decision on whether this is actually useful or not.”

And then I went the second time, and then I kind of like zoned out for 90 minutes. And I just started to notice in the next two to three weeks that anytime there was something stressful in my life, instead of just responding to it right away, I can really just pause and reflect and think before I responded to something. And as if I saw that moment, I realized, “Wow, I’ve never had that until I started floating.” And that’s when I realized how powerful that was.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Thank you. That’s handy. Okay, so we get your system, that’s cool. Boy, there’s so much good stuff to say. So, it sounds like when we had Kevin Kruse on the show, and he mentioned that the most successful people operate from calendars as oppose to to-do lists, it sounds like your assistant is establishing your calendar. But how do you think about that world because you’ve also got OmniFocus and a huge list? So, how do we reconcile this?

Thanh Pham
I think you can marry both. I don’t think it’s one way or the other. If you just operate from your calendar, I think you’re really focused in just managing your time and that is, I think, a dangerous place to be because if somebody is dictating your schedule, it can feel like you can never have time to do the things you need to do.

Whereas if you only focus on tasks and your to-do list, then you can put a lot of things to the wayside and start sacrificing your personal health as an example because I’ve been in a situation before where I just want to work, I just want to focus on my business, and do all these different things for my career, and then I will just not worry about getting a haircut, or going to the gym, or spending time with friends and family. And I was just too much focused on just, “Okay, I need to finish this, I need to do that.” And it starts to come at a certain cost.

And so, I think you can actually combine both. In my system, that’s basically how that works. And the way I approach it on a day-to-day basis is if I can get three tasks done that are really important, I have a really productive day. And it doesn’t matter if it takes one hour, or it can take three hours, or even eight hours, if I can get three really important tasks done, then I had a real productive day. And, usually, I try to build my schedule around that philosophy.

So, the way I, for example, structure my day is I try to get all of my tasks done before noon because that’s when I have the most control in my day, it’s the most quiet, I can kind of dictate my schedule for the most part in the morning so I can really focus, do deep work, and try to get the three things done. And then from there, if I need to have meetings, or calls, or run errands, my schedule kind of then builds around that.

So, my executive assistant, for example, knows that she should never arrange a phone call with somebody between 8:00 a.m. and noon because that’s usually when I try to do deep work and be ultra-focused.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Fair enough. So, that was one of my next questions is how do you have great focus and limit distractions? And part of it sounds like you’re sort of theming or batching different sections of the day, so that’s a cool approach. Anything else?

Thanh Pham
I think a lot of productivity advice out there addresses the symptom but they don’t really address the root cause of this. And this is something I’ve seen a lot of last few years when I started working with clients. And people are always amazed when I tell people, when I first start an engagement with them, that, “One of the first things we’re going to do is have you sleep more.” And people go, “Thanh, I want to be more productive. I actually want to get more things done. I need to get more things done. I’m behind on work. Sleeping is probably the last thing I need right now.”

And I always get this look, and I say, “Trust me. We’re going to get you to sleep more and it’s going to result into more energy, more focus, you’re going to get stuff done faster, and you’re going to have this super human feeling of, ‘Okay, I can do anything that is coming onto my plate.’” And when people start to sleep more, and actually not sacrifice their sleep anymore, you start to feel good, you start to have more energy, you start to have better focus.

Instead of focusing for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, you can now focus for 30 minutes, for 45 minutes, or even 60 minutes. And imagine what you can do in 60 minutes of just intense focus versus 6 minutes here, 5 minutes there, 10 minutes here, 15 minutes here, 3 minutes there. When you have uninterrupted time to focus, and you have the energy to focus as well, you can accomplish amazing things. And it really starts with a really good night of sleep.

And so, I recommend to everybody to have an evening routine and making sure that you sleep more than you’re currently sleeping. So, I always recommend that you probably want to add another hour or an hour and a half of sleep, which usually also means that you have to go to bed a little earlier too, oftentimes by an hour or an hour and a half.

And the best way to do that is by introducing, not a morning routine, but an evening routine, which is kind of the opposite of a morning routine, right? A morning routine, or a morning ritual as I like to call, is kind of getting you ready for the day and making sure you feel confident, you’re feeling energized and focused, and you’ve lots of clarity. The evening routine, or evening ritual as I like to say, is the opposite. It kind of allows you to wind down and get ready for a really good night of sleep.

And so, one of the things I always recommend people do is that they journal at the end of the day because it allows you to clear your thoughts. And the worst feeling in the world is when you go to bed and you’re having all these lingering thoughts in your head, “Oh, did I schedule this call with this person? Oh, I need to do that tomorrow. I want to make sure that I paid my credit card bill.” And when you have all these lingering thoughts in your head, it’s just so difficult to sleep and fall asleep, which is kind of the bedrock for productivity. So, one of the things that I think is just so underrated is addressing the root cause which, for most people, is just not enough sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. The root cause of distraction or the inability to resist distraction is you haven’t slept enough.

Thanh Pham
Yes. For a lot of people, and this sounds so counterintuitive, and I always get that reaction. But if you have more energy, it’s so much easier to kind of like address distractions if they come your way because now you have the energy to focus. And you don’t feel like you have to distract yourself from something that maybe looks a little bit more exciting because you can now focus on something that’s actually in front of you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, I’m a huge believer in sleep as well. So, other than just making the time and following the basic sleep hygiene practices associated with winding down and dark and quiet and cool temperature, anything else you recommend to just the make the most of your sleep time?

Thanh Pham
If you want to take it up a notch, I would say it’s a safe practice to have magnesium as a supplement to add to your day-to-day supplement list if you have that. Magnesium is a natural relaxer for our body. It’s a natural compound mineral that we have in our foods that we can ingest. So, there’s a calm supplement out there that people really like.

I recently started using, myself, upgraded formulas which has a more effective dose of magnesium that you can intake. And if you just take like 5 mg of that before you go to bed, you’ll just sleep so much more soundly. So, that’s an easy way to do that. The other thing is no electronics, or no phone, no iPad, no TV about an hour, an hour and a half before you go to sleep.

The other thing I would recommend is blue-blocking glasses. You’ve probably seen them. If you have a friend who’s a biohacker, you’ve probably seen them. They sometimes look kind of funny and weird because they have orange tints. But if you just wear them at home for your own comfort, they’re really helpful. I oftentimes go to movies at night wearing them, and by the time I come home, I’m not wired at all. I feel really relaxed and then I can just go to bed right away. So, those are three things I would recommend.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. I also want to get your quick take on email. Your one tip you shared previously was don’t be in your email client all day, it’ll distract you and sub-optimize your time. Any other thoughts on how do we manage that effectively?

Thanh Pham
One of my favorite tips for email is the two-minute rule. So, it’s kind of borrowed from the idea of GTD. When you have a task in front of you, you have to decide within two minutes what you’re going to do with that. And same thing with email. I find that if you applied the two-minute rule to every email that you process, you’ll go through email a lot quicker.

So, the basic question is, “Okay, can I address this in two minutes or less?” If the answer is yes, just reply to the email right away and deal with it. If not, it takes more than two minutes, then add it to your to-do list. And from there you can go through your inbox very quickly. And then also, because you’re building your to-do list based on your email that way, now you can prioritize which email or which tasks you want to address based on whatever priorities you have set for yourself and what your goals are.

Because if you start using email as your to-do list, it’s so easy to get lost, it’s so easy to get distracted, and that’s why I always tell people, like, “Hey, move that stuff over from your email inbox to a to-do list, and then close your email client because from there you can then prioritize what you need to do.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Thanh, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Thanh Pham
Oh, when it comes to email, there’s a couple of tools that I always recommend. One of the best things you can also do is learn keyboard shortcuts. So, for example, if you use Gmail, one of my favorite keyboard shortcuts is E, which is archiving. Another one, a really simple one is C which is composing an email. Then we have another one R, which is replying to an email. If you just learn these three keyboard shortcuts, you’ll just be able to navigate so much quicker through your inbox as well. If you use Outlook, learn the keyboard shortcuts for Outlook. And you just need to know two or three, and you’ll see how fast you can go through your inbox.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, I have a lot of favorite quotes. I tend to write a lot of them in my journal, but the one that has been most recent for me is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That’s, I believe, an African proverb. Especially when it comes to teamwork, I think this is really important because oftentimes, as individuals, yes, we can do things ourselves and do stuff, but if we actually want to accomplish big things in life, we often want to do that with other people, whether it’s your significant other, whether it’s a coworker, or within a team. Whenever you try to do things together, one plus one just becomes three in my experience. And so, that’s one quote that has really stood out to me recently.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your audience; they sort of quote it back to you often?

Thanh Pham
I always tell people, “Do the hardest things first in the morning.” So, whenever you start your day, we call that eating your frog. It comes from the idea of whenever you eat a live frog in the morning, you can go on with the rest of your day knowing that that’s probably the worst thing that happened that day, right? So, it’s a Brian Tracy thing, and I want to give full credit to him for not only writing the book titled Eat Your Frog, or, Eat That Frog. But it’s just the idea of just, “Hey, if you have so many things to do, just do the hardest thing first thing in the morning because once you get that out of the way, you have a sense of confidence, you have this momentum on your side, and everything else on your to-do list is really not that scary. It’s actually relatively easy to do.”

So, most of us, when we start implementing this, we just get the sense of like, “Oh, man, I can do anything now.” And this is something that people just keep repeating back to me because I always talk about this strategy, and it’s just a way of living, and I love that you mentioned that as well for yourself because it’s just so effective.

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

Thanh Pham
Just go to AsianEfficiency.com, this is the blog. You can subscribe to our newsletter there. And we also have a podcast called The Productivity Show, so just find us in iTunes. And we have a weekly episode coming up where we just share productivity tips.

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

Thanh Pham
Just continue to listen to Pete and his guests. I think this is amazing podcast. And if you want more productivity tips, then you’ll know where to find us as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Thanh, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in all the ways you’re rocking Asian Efficiency.

Thanh Pham
Thank you so much, Pete.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Nir

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Nir Eyal Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, credibility shot.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m satisfied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Sugar is unhealthy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About David

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Allen Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Like all those cords and adapters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Allen
Right.

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

David Allen
Mm-hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re inspired now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Allen
True.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Perry:

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

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

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Perry Marshall Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like the kitchen.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it’s that powerful.

Perry Marshall
Well, it’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
Appreciate the eight people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry Marshall
Which is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Your resistance because you can be resisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry Marshall
Yes. Yes.

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

Perry Marshall
Yes. Yes.

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

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

Perry Marshall
That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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