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Productivity

442: How to Spend Less Time Doing Email with Dianna Booher

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Dianna Booher shares invaluable advice on how to minimize your email inbox and write more effective and efficient emails.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Just how much time you can save through email optimization
  2. How to reduce useless emails and optimize your inbox
  3. How to compose better emails in less time using the M-A-D-E structure

About Dianna

Dianna Booher’s lifework has centered around communication. As author of 48 books, translated into 60 foreign language editions, she has traveled the globe, talking with clients and organizations on six continents about communication challenges they face at work and at home.

Her firm works with organizations to help them communicate clearly. During her more than three decades at BooherResearch Institute and earlier at Booher Consultants, she and her team have provided communication training programs, coaching, and consulting to governmental agencies and more than one third of the Fortune 500 organizations.

The national media frequently interview Booher for opinions on communication issues, and she blogs regularly for Microsoft, Forbes, and The CEO Magazine.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dianna Booher Interview Transcript

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

Dianna Booher
Thank you, Pete. It’s great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat once again. I think we’re going to get into some really important stuff. Your book is just a bullseye, I think, and for many professionals that they need to hear. But, first, I want to hear a little bit about you. You say you’re afraid of heights, yet you have 4 million frequent flyer miles in American Airlines. What’s the story here?

Dianna Booher
I don’t know. I’m going to blame it on my mom. You know, we blame everything on our parents. She used to tell me, when I was growing up, I was going to catch my shoelaces in the escalator, you know, “Jump off quickly. Quickly.” And I guess that’s where it came from, I don’t know, but I had been known to even walk over and ask total strangers if I could hold onto their shoulder or their elbow going down an escalator. I just step…

Pete Mockaitis
What do they tell you?

Dianna Booher
“Yes, yes.” At a trade show, would you believe, it was a competitor. She was standing at the top of an escalator about to go down, and I humbled myself to go over and say, “I am totally afraid to get on an escalator. Could I hold onto your arm?” And she just burst out to a hysterical laughter, and said, “Of course.” And it broke the ice, actually, it improved the relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. Was this a training competitor?

Dianna Booher
Yes, it was, a competitor of my training company. But I’ve even tried to get over it by going on tours, or climbing a mountain, doing something to go to this big lookout, and probably every country that I’ve visited, about 60 of them, and I would start off with my husband, you know, and this group and we’re going to go, and I would get to the first or second little stop, and just cling to the side of the mountain till I came back down. I just can’t do it. I just freeze.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, maybe someday.

Dianna Booher
Someday.

Pete Mockaitis
But, nonetheless, it hasn’t stopped you from flying, and building, and selling a training business, so congratulations on that as well. That’s cool. But you’re still in the game somewhat because you wrote a new book, Faster, Fewer, Better Emails. Very on topic, I think, for a lot of us. So, tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Dianna Booher
Well, basically, it’s about productivity and, of course, the writing skill because you want to be on message. But it increases productivity three ways. It gives strategies to reduce the volume that’s about to engulf everyone, it helps you write the necessary emails better so you get the action you want, and, really, the third way it increases your productivity is it helps you write faster because you’re thinking more clearly, and you say the right thing the first time and not have to do it over and over and over.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, that sounds great.

Dianna Booher
So, basically, that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so maybe let’s talk about the why for a second. So, I know I don’t like having a ton of emails hanging out of my inbox. It feels kind of uncomfortable, just a low-level anxiety exists in my psyche when I’ve got it. And I know, listeners, I owe you some messages but you’re not forgotten. It will happen. That’s like two babies.

Dianna Booher
I think most people feel stressed about their email, or at least that’s what a report, you know, when we did our major survey, which is sort of the basis of all the strategies that we give in the book. Well, we surveyed people for more than 30 different organizations across all industries. And we found people are really, really stressed out by their email and not only at work but when they go home, they’re logging back in afterhours and on the weekends to just keep up with it, to start off even again the next Monday.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Well, so could you maybe give us the lay of the land then? You got the survey, some research, some study. Can we get some numbers on kind of what sort of time are we talking about and what kind of time could be saved if we were doing it faster, fewer, better?

Dianna Booher
Well, two to three hours a day, and that’s conservative, according to the research, and we found that 42% of the respondents spend three or more hours a day doing email.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Dianna Booher
And that’s just astounding to me because for many people that’s not their core job. We’re not talking about people whose job it is to sit there like customer service agent maybe whose job it is all day to sit there and respond to email. But maybe their core job is doing an engineering project, or arriving a feasibility study, or doing an engineering report. But that’s just on top of their regular job.

In fact, a story that one CEO was talking about, he was talking to a reporter, actually this story was passed on to me, but the reporter was asking about the volume of email. And he said, “Well, I have a project here that would probably take me an hour and a half to finish, but because I get so much email in here, it’s probably going to take me the rest of the afternoon to do it.” And that was at 1:30 in the afternoon.

So, Pete, the idea is that people just can’t get to their real work because of keeping their email up, staying through the inbox, going through it all the time. And we just found out a lot of things with the email that I was really surprised to know, and that comment from that CEO. It reminds me 55% of our respondents said that they check their email at least every hour.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Dianna Booher
In other words, they just leave it open, and they’re continually checking their email rather than focusing on their core work, and checking it two or three times a day, which is what I recommend in the book. You check it when you come in the morning, maybe check it after lunch and before you go home so you can respond to things that people are waiting on. And it’s either waiting for them before they go home or the next morning. But some people just, as things pop into their box, they handle it so they’re continually disrupted and distracted from what they’re doing.

Another thing that was surprising to me, since you’re asking about surprising things, 31%, in other words, one out of three people said that they spent more than 20 minutes every day just searching for information because they’re disorganized. And so, when they need to send an email or type something, they don’t file documents, they don’t title them consistently so they’re looking for things. They just kind of haphazardly put this here, put that there. So, when somebody says, “Can you send me the numbers on this? Or, can you send me data for that?” they’re searching. And some people said they spend up to an hour a day just searching for things. That’s where the disorganization really cost them a lot of time.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if I guess some would say, “Well, hey, email is sort of part of life.” Just how much savings of time are you seeing when you implement some of these best practices?

Dianna Booher
Well, we have not asked per se different organizations to give us savings. Now, we have on our writing programs. So, when we’re teaching writing programs, before I sold my training organization last year, we surveyed every three years, and we ask organizations to report how much time they saved in writing time. And the average participant, or in the average organization came back to us and said they saved upward of 35% on their writing time, and also, we had to measure reading time.

Now, this was self-report, and we would say, “All right,” when they started, before they went through our program, we would say, “How much time do you spend writing normally? And then how much time have you reduced it?” Not just the next day, well, they remembered all the techniques we gave them. But we would ask organizations, not us, but the organization, their HR department, their training department, go back and ask them three months later, “How much would you say you’ve estimated reducing your writing time?” And the average would be upward of 35%. So, that’s a tremendous savings in just their thinking process.

And then also in reading time, we asked them to do the same thing for their executives’ perspective, you know, all the documents that are coming to them, and basically their job is reading, you know, decide, approve, buy this, consider, have a meeting on that. But all of that is coming to them in written form before they take those actions. And if they can cut the length of documents going to them, then obviously, and particularly if they’re copying six people or 42 people, then they’re saving a lot of reading time. So, it’s another way to measure.

But we’ve also had a client who actually literally, literally measured paperwork, because a lot of people don’t want to keep their screen time so they’ll print out, believe it or not in this day and age, they’ll print out a lot of emails and take it with them on the airplane to read, or take it with them in a briefcase, take it with them on the road while somebody else is driving, if they have a lot of commute time on the train, etc.

And so, this one client literally measured paperwork, how much paperwork did they have before they started this program, and then how much six months later less trash. And that’s an engineering company as you can imagine that would do that. And so, that’s another metric, so reading time and just thinking time and preparation time. So, there’s a lot of ways to measure that we let organizations themselves measure the effect.

And, of course, the results and if their salespeople are measuring the closing rate. If they can’t close a proposal, but after they learned to write better and they have a better closing rate on their emails and proposals where they’re dealing with their clients, that’s a measure as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so much good stuff. All right. Well, I’m sold. Hey, 35% on two to three hours a day, one HR a day, that’s huge. What could you do with that? Wow. So, let’s get into each of it. So, when it comes to, say, first of all, I just got a boatload of emails. How do we tackle that?

Dianna Booher
Well, there are several strategies to cut paperwork and just to reduce the volume. Let me give you one of the pieces before you understand how these strategies play out. When we ask people, “What are the kinds of emails that you get that are just totally unnecessary?” They said, let me check here, “Thirty-two percent of the emails that we get are totally either redundant or irrelevant.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Dianna Booher
And when they defined what they meant, it either doesn’t apply to them. In other words, they’re on somebody’s distribution list and it’s long outlived its usefulness, they don’t need to be on that list anymore. So, people, they put together a list for this project or this certain kind of monthly report, and then they no longer need to get it, but people, rather than cleaning their distribution list, they’re just still sending it over and over so that just clutters their box.

Or, they have no interest in it. They never were interested in getting this information. So, every morning when you come in, and you look at your email, a third of it you don’t need or it’s redundant. Six people have sent you the same thing. So, just cleaning your distribution list and deleting and unsubscribing, rather than just deleting. If for all eternity you don’t need this, then unsubscribe, don’t just delete it. Of course, it takes a little bit longer to take three steps to un-delete, and the safe unsubscribe always asks you, “Why do you want to un-delete? Is this the right email? Why do not want it? Did you not sign up, etc.?” That’ll take you three clicks rather than delete which takes you one click, but then you’re out of it for good. You don’t keep getting it every Tuesday morning, etc.

But here are the kind of strategies that I’m talking about in the book. In fact, the first chapter gives 12 of these. But, throughout, you’ll come up with about 30 or 40, throughout the whole book. But let me talk about some of those that are the most troublesome that clogs up your email. And that is using your email box for a to-do list.

A lot of people open up their email, and they think, “Oh, I need to do something, but I can’t do it right now. I need to finish so and so,” or, “I need to collect this information but I don’t have it.” And rather than schedule that task, pull that over, put it on a calendar, or make a physical note of it if they need to do that, they just leave it open in their email box, and then they open the next thing, “Oh, I need to call so and so. Well, I don’t want to forget that,” and they just leave it in their email box.

And so, pretty soon they’ve got 15 open emails and they keep having to read through those. Then the next day, they don’t remember, “What was that? What was that detail? When was that due?” And they have to read through those. Oh, every time they come across it, they have to keep reading through it and reading through it to remember. So, it clutters up their box, it creates re-reading. So, when they come across something like that, they need to act on it. They need to either move it, file it, make another note of when they’re going to do it, move it over on their calendar, and just get it out of the inbox. It is not your to-do list.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, if there’s a to-do item, it doesn’t belong in the inbox but it should be not forgotten and placed elsewhere. So, do you just have like a separate folder or a label called To-Do or what is it called?

Dianna Booher
Yes, yes, you can have it separate. There are several ways to handle it. If you’re using Microsoft Office 365, you literally could pull that email over on a date to handle it. Let’s say you’re waiting for information to go in that email. Before you can respond, you’re going to get some data next Wednesday on it, then you can literally pull it over to next Thursday because you’re getting the information on Wednesday, and now you can respond on Thursday. You just literally drag it over on that pane.

Or you can make a note. Let’s say you have a paper calendar where you have a list of to-dos. You just make a note, “Respond to Jack about so and so,” and then file that document with that client if it’s merged with your CRM system, your customer management system. Just file it. Or, if you want to, you can have a folder that says “To-Dos” and just pull it in that folder, and then check that folder every morning for what you’re going to do, or schedule it on a certain day. Any number of ways. The point is don’t leave it in your inbox because you just keep having to re-read it and think, “What was this supposed to do? What were the details of that? What was the deadline of that, etc.?”
Pete Mockaitis
I dig it.

Dianna Booher
Yeah. And another thing that clutters up and disrupts people and distracts them from their core work that I was talking about is what I call piling on or hanging on. And what I mean by piling on, let’s say a manager, or just anybody, is working on a project, and they’ve written a document, and they want some feedback, or they’re just sending it out for input. And they send it out, and say, “I’m getting ready to forward this up to chain to such and such. Is everybody okay with it? Or do you have anything to add?”

Well, if you read it, instead of everybody hitting Reply All, and saying, “It’s fine. It looks fine to me. Okay. I don’t have anything to add,” and cluttering up 27 boxes with meaningless comments that all say the same thing, don’t do that, don’t use that Reply All. And not only are you at fault if you’re doing that kind of reply, but also the person who sent that out is creating the clutter too. What you really should do is if you want input, you want feedback, is to say something like, “I’ve put together such and such report that I’m getting ready to mail to Joe Schmo on this date. After you review it, if you have any comments or changes, please reply to me individually. Otherwise, no actions taken. If you see no changes, please no action is necessary.”

And then that takes care of it. You don’t expect any reaction. You don’t need 27 people to hit your inbox with meaningless comments, basically, all saying, “It’s okay. I don’t have any changes.” So, you see how people, they create sometimes their own clutter. You should just ask for an exception, “If you have an exception, email me back. If you have a change, email me back. But if you’re fine with this, no action is necessary.” So, it’s not only the person who’s doing the cluttering by hitting Reply All, but it’s the person who’s asking for the feedback, they’re not asking sometimes in the best way possible.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. It’s nice and clear. So, you put that out there. Lovely. How else do we slim that inbox?

Dianna Booher
Well, I think what I call piling on is similar to that but a little different. And I think people do it for relationship building but after a while it’s just clutter. Somebody is out sick, say, for example, and they send an email, and say, “I’m not coming in today. I’ve got the flu,” and all of a sudden they get 14 emails back, “Oh, sorry, you’re sick. Sorry, you’re sick. See you tomorrow, buddy. Take it easy. No problem. We don’t want the germs,” you know. All of a sudden you got 17 emails again that interrupt everybody else’s work.

Occasionally, if some over-the-top odd, unusual circumstance, then, okay, that might be necessary. And, occasionally, you do that kind of thing to build camaraderie. But when you do that routinely with just meaningless responses, it’s distraction, distraction, distraction, distraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And you could show your support with an individual reply, you know, without involving everybody.

Dianna Booher
Yes, right. Right. Another issue that’s a problem or a thing that people need to think about is just using email for things that email was never designed for. When we first got into big email in a big way back in the ‘90s, people used email for everything because basically that was our only communication connection system, and so we used it to schedule things, we used it to invite people places, we used it for project management, we used it to collaborate with teams. It was just the all-purpose tool.

But that’s not the case anymore. There are all kinds of more appropriate software packages for specific tools. For example, Pete, when you schedule interviews, you use, what is it? Calendly that you use.

Pete Mockaitis
Calendly, yeah.

Dianna Booher
If you’re doing project management, there’s Basecamp, there’s Asana, there’s Workzone, there’s Slack, there’s all kind of project management tools and communication tools so that all of your comments as a group working on a project can move over to that area and be together without cluttering up your email. Whatever tool that’s more appropriate, take it off your email so that it’s done efficiently.

If you’re using Microsoft 365, and you’re trying to setup a meeting with three people, I mean, you’ve seen people go back and forth on their email, like, “But we really need to get together to discuss this. Are you up at the end of the week?” And somebody else replies back, “I can’t do it at the end of the week. I’m going to be out for a couple of days. We’re closing our new house. How about early next week?” Of course, he emails back, “Well, I’m going to be traveling Tuesday. How about Wednesday after 4:00?” “No, I can’t.” And they get six emails going back and forth trying to set a time when, on Microsoft, they could just say, “Cortana, find an open place on our calendars and schedule the meeting,” and it’s done.

So, my principle here, use appropriate software to do tasks that email was never appropriate, it’s just not the appropriate tool now. Maybe in the ‘90s it was. It’s no longer the appropriate tool. So, email is used only for correspondence.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Well, so, now I want to dig into a little bit of the composition side of things. You’ve got a framework, which I want to hit in a moment. But, first, I’d love to get just, you mentioned that you saw some cool results with regard to sales folks having better close rates, or I imagine also opening things up with a cold email and starting a conversation. What are some of your tips for just, generally speaking, writing emails that get responses maybe when you’re reaching out to someone for the first time?

Dianna Booher
Well, several things here. You always want to be specific. The reason a lot of people don’t get action on their emails is they’re just not specific about the action. They write to inform but they don’t persuade. Now, I’m not talking about hard sales. I’m just talking about that need to ask for an action. It’s amazing how many people who are in sales who don’t really ask for the next step, “So, can we meet with you to give you a trial run through this? Can we setup a tour? Can we do such and such?” They have to be very specific about time and date, a task.

The greeting needs to be tailored. You get a lot of emails that you know have gone to the whirls, so to speak. They send it to their entire database because it doesn’t use your name and there’s nothing in there that is specific to you, and there’s no indication that they know anything about you or remember anything about you from a previous conversation. So, there needs to be some tie to what you said previously.

I think it’s also important, in the subject line, that that subject line is not mysterious. I know if you are writing ads on TV, if you’re doing something for the Super Bowl, okay, you’ve got to be clever and cute and whatever, but that’s not email. Email, I call them sublines, S-U-B, and that stands for they need to be specific, they need to be useful, and they need to be brief. So, if you can take the S-U-B, specific, useful, and brief because…

Pete Mockaitis
Otherwise, you’re an S-O-B. I couldn’t resist it. You probably heard that dozens of times.

Dianna Booher
No, no. Quit pranking there, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you bet.

Dianna Booher
But people prioritize by their subject lines. When they’re busy and they’re on their phone, and they’re sitting at the gym waiting on their…sitting at the soccer field waiting on their child to finish the sports workout or whatever, and they’re going through 42 emails, and they’re trying to decide, “Read now, read later, or wait till I get home. Wait till I get back to the office in the morning,” etc. They’ve got to decide and prioritize.

And so, you’ve got to tell them immediately, and some of them actually just read the subject line and decide to delete and make the decision whether, “I’m going to open or send it to somebody else.” So, they need to be able to tell exactly what it is and see what’s in it for them. So, if you could put the action that you want in the subject line, that’s much better.

A lot of times, people just use a topic in their subject line. And what’s far better is to use a headline. Can you imagine reading the newspaper tonight and seeing something like, “Congress. Veto. Terrorist Attack. Weather?” You don’t. You see something like, “Terrorist attack kills 52 people in Malaysia,” or Sri Lanka, or whatever. Or you see, “Trump vetoes X, Y, Z legislation.” Or, “Congress passes X, Y, Z bill.” You see a message, and that’s what you’re…

Pete Mockaitis
this weekend.

Dianna Booher
Yeah, your subject line needs to say something not just introduce a topic. And that’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
You can say this with slide headlines too as opposed to just like report, data, survey. It’s like, “Well, tell me what I’m supposed to take away from this survey, otherwise we might all just draw our own interpretations,” which, if that was what you were going for, that’s okay. But usually it’s not. Usually, you’re trying to tell a story.

Dianna Booher
Right. I was coaching, I coached six executives last week, I was coaching them on executive…they’re already executives but I was coaching them to polish their executive presence and when they actually do a presentation to the board of directors. And we went through the entire slide decks. And, by far, most of them just had a topic as their slide. And I was saying, “Well, what’s the walkaway here? You’re talking about your revenue. But what about your revenue? Are you talking about your goals or are you saying you’re not going to meet your goals, you are going to meet your goals, your goals are falling short of what your budget, or your revenue, or your profitability? Is it that you’re not going to meet your profitability goals for the next quarter? What is the point about that?”

And they, finally, got it. And then once they understood, “We’re going for a headline here, if they could just read this and didn’t see anything on that slide, or they didn’t read anything in that email, could they walk away with a point?” And then they got it. And that’s key in email.

Another thing, too, that keeps people from even seeing your email is the habit, and it’s kind of a recent trend, of putting favorite quotes in the signature block, and putting images in the signature block. It wasn’t a big deal until about five years ago, or maybe it was about eight or 10 years ago, people started putting an image for their signature. Instead of typing it, they started writing, actually doing cursive, so to speak, and scanned it in, and they scan in their like, “Joan Smith,” and then they put that image there, and they’ll put their favorite quote, or they might put a banner, or their company logo.

Those are the kind of things that spam filters catch and keep things from being delivered. So, in the last three or four years, people have learned that, and they stopped doing that. But it’s really the spam filters are getting much more savvy about stripping those out and saying, “This is spam.” Being careful to not send those through from the outside. So, be careful about doing that, and use fewer images that will get clogged or get screened out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. All right. So, that’s some handy stuff in terms of getting the response. And so, now, let’s talk about the process you utilize to craft emails quickly and effectively.

Dianna Booher
Okay. Well, the book which talks about writing faster, fewer and better, there’s two parts to that. I don’t mean faster in the sense that you’re really going to type faster, or that you’re going to zap it all faster, there’s a faster way to get your email through technologically. What I mean by that is faster thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Dianna Booher
If you do it better, and you think better, you will do it in a more complete fashion from the very beginning, and that will result in getting the action done the first time. Instead of having to write seven emails to correct the problem or to handle a situation, you’ll write one email that takes care of the whole situation.

And so, that’s what I mean about, overall, faster. Overall, the whole situation will be taken care of faster. And so, the thinking process, really, is to analyze your audience right up front. Do you have one reader or do you have multiple readers? Who should you really copy? A lot of people, if you think about this, Pete, a lot of people, they have a situation that they need to communicate about, they write the email, and then they think, “Okay, who should get a copy here?” That’s a totally wrong approach, because your email should be tailored according to, just like that slideshow we were talking about a minute ago. The email should be tailored according to who you’re writing to.

So, the first step is, “Who am I writing to? And then, what is their bottom-line message of interest?” If they could just read one sentence, what would that one sentence be? And why do they want to know this? What’s their interest about this situation? And then you ask yourself, “How are they going to use this information? I mean, are they going to actually do the action or are they just going to approve something? Are they just going to forward this email to somebody else, and somebody else is actually going to implement it? And if so, then I need to copy so and so because they need to actually implement it. Or maybe I should put the bulk of this information in an attachment for a reference so somebody can just print it off because they’re the doer, but the person I’m writing to is just the decision-maker on it. They’re just going to approve it, and then they can forward it to somebody else to actually implement this a month later.”

So, you see all those questions matter even in the format of what you’re sending. And then you ask yourself, “Okay, what do they already know about it?” Don’t tell people what they already know. And think about this, Pete, how many times do you get an email that starts off, “As you already know,” or, “As we discussed a couple of weeks ago,” and they spend a paragraph telling you what you already know.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Dianna Booher
Or, “As we discussed in the meeting last week, blah, blah, blah.” And you think, “Yeah, I was in the meeting. Why are you wasting my time rehashing what we decided last week?” That’s a waste of time. So, think about that and then think the last question, and maybe the most important, is you ask yourself, “Okay, how are they going to react when I tell them this? When I give this one sentence overview message, are they going to be skeptical?” If so, that means you’ve got to add the why details to build credibility. “Are they going to be angry? Is somebody going to lose face? Are you creating extra work for them? Is this going to cost a lot more than they thought?”

There’s some typical negative reactions they might have. And that thinking dictates the details you’re going to put in. if you think there’s no negative reactions here, you may not include some of those details. So, that thinking, the answer those questions right up front, immediately tells you what details to include, and what you should omit, what’s just going to clutter it up. And then once you do that thinking, you’re home free, basically. You just arrange it in the MADE format.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the MADE format is the message, the action, the details, and the evidence.

Dianna Booher
Yes. And that’s what I spend a whole chapter on because that is what will revolutionize 95% of what you write. Literally, I’ve been stuck for three decades, I’ve been teaching writing, so I’ve literally read thousands and thousands, and probably hundreds of thousands of emails so I can say it with confidence. In all different industries, all different types of documents, 95% of what we write in the business world can be structured that way. And that is an overview message of one or two sentences, maybe three if it’s a really long document.

And then, so what action next? Based on that message, what do you want the reader to do? It could be a recommendation, big picture recommendation, or it could be a follow-up action. You might be saying, “So, based on that message, here’s the action I’m taking, or here’s the action I want from you, the reader.” And once you get that message and action, then you circle back and then you elaborate on the details.

Now, if they’re just brief details, like a word or a phrase or who or when or what, those brief little details, it could be answered in a word or phrase, or probably already going to be part of your message and part of your action. But if you need to elaborate, that’s the key phrase. If you need to elaborate on the details, then that elaboration comes in this details section. Generally, it’s the how and they why. Most often you can make this, and elaborate, “And here’s why I’m saying what I’m saying. And here’s how to take the action.”

And then the E, evidence, if you have any kind of attachment you want to send along, like, “Here’s a copy of the spreadsheet that I’m referring to, where I’ve done a calculation,” or, “Here’s the copy of the contract that I’m saying I don’t agree with this clause that we’re going to dispute in court,” or whatever, or, “Here’s a map of the layout of this building that I’m saying we need to renovate this particular wing,” or something like that, then you attach it.

But if you use that structure, you just start thinking like that. And then emails are so easy to write when you just think, “Okay, what’s my message, what’s my action? Okay, now, what needs to be elaborated on?” And you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you send out an email.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. And I think so often, it’s like I start writing an email, it’s like, “Wait a minute. What am I really going for here?” And then I like to rewrite it, and then maybe rewrite it again. Whereas, you could just sort of take a moment. So, it sounds like you might even sort of jot some notes on a tablet or some scratch pad somewhere as you’re doing this. Or how do you think about that?

Dianna Booher
Yeah, a lot of times people can. Once they start thinking like this, and they practice this, they can do the M-A-D-E in their head, you know, while they’re getting dressed in the morning, while they’re driving down the freeway, while they’re sitting on the subway, while they’re eating breakfast, and think, “Okay, in a sense, what’s my message? If I just picked up the phone and thought for a minute, and it’s about to cut off, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I got to get on the point of…’ It’s like turn off your cellphone, turn off your cellphone, I’ve got 30 seconds, what would I say?’” And you can figure out that part in your head.

If you’ve got a scratch pad, write it down. You don’t have to even write out complete sentences. Just say, “Here’s the phrase for the message. Action. I want them to setup a meeting. Detail. I need to explain why this fine is going to happen, how much it’s going to cost, and how to setup the three steps to do so and so.” And that’s a scratch sheet of paper, that’s your outline. And then when you get to the computer, you’re ready to just turn it into sentences, and it goes very, very quickly. But you can do that thinking anywhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, I’m wondering, so how do you think about the headline, the subject versus the message?

Dianna Booher
The subject is last. See, a lot of times people fill in the subject line first, but you can’t summarize if you don’t know what your message is. So, always write it first, and then go back and put in your subject line. Your subject line is like the Reader’s Digest condensed version of your message.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that is an even shorter version of the one- to three-sentence message.

Dianna Booher
Right. It’s a summary version of your message and your action.

Pete Mockaitis
House on fire. Insurance payment $5,000.

Dianna Booher
Yeah. Or, “Just hired new VPs; starts next Monday.” That becomes a summary of the longer message of your first sentence which would be, “Our executive senior vice president just hired a junior vice president Mr. So-and-so who’s coming to us from XYZ Corporation. He’ll be starting next Monday, and his key responsibilities will be blah, blah, blah.” That would be the full message, but your subject line might be, “Just hired a new executive vice president; starts next Monday.”

Pete Mockaitis
And the action is, “You need to invite him to the luau. Make the necessary welcome here and acquire a Hawaiian shirt.”

Dianna Booher
Right. And be sure to shake his hands and ask for a raise right up front.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Cool. Well, any other thoughts? So, you do your thinking up front, and then you put that out there with the MADE format, and then you do the subject last. Any thoughts for doing some of the editing in terms of, “Okay, I’ve written a bunch of words on my screen.”

Dianna Booher
Just do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Just do the editing.

Dianna Booher
Do the editing. A lot of people just, when they get through the thinking, they do the one draft and they hit “send”, and send it out, and that’s not a good idea because you’re going to have missing words, you’re going to have an awkward sentence, you’re going to have a grammatical error. So, take the minute to go back and re-read it.

It’s best, if it’s a really important email, to let it cool off, particularly if it happens to be bad news or a sensitive topic. Let it cool off overnight if you can. If you can’t, a couple of hours helps. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back just after a couple of hours, just go to lunch and come back and read it, and think, “Oh, no, I’m so glad I let that sit here. I see two missing words here.” You just can’t see things. You read what you think you wrote. The message is still in your mind. So, always let it cool off if at all possible.

Now, if it’s just a two-sentence email to the guy next door, and you don’t care about a missing word, or an awkward sentence, then, okay, sometimes you just have to do something immediately. But if it’s important, yes, cool off is really important. Now, if you can’t do that optimally, you could read it aloud if the tone is important. Read something aloud to yourself and you can catch errors. If you think, “People are going to think I’m crazy, I’m talking to myself,” pick up the phone and hold it like you’re talking to somebody, or you’ve got your Bluetooth plugged in and you’re just talking out loud, and people won’t think you’re crazy. They’ll think you’re talking to your spouse on the phone. And it’ll sound funny to your ear. If it sounds awkward, it’s stilted or something, your ear will catch it, and you can improve it.

If the sentence sounds too long when you start to read it, it will feel awkward to you, and you’ll think, “Whoa, I lost my breath. I couldn’t get to the end of the sentence.” It’ll help you go back and think, “I need to cut that sentence in two, it’s too long. I ran out of breath, ran out of steam, ran out of energy.” If that, still, you think, “Well, you know, I think I’ve got some hot words in here, and I’m not sure. It could be offensive. It could be a little blunt,” then have a colleague read it.

Don’t read it to them because you add the inflection, and you can change. It could be really blunt on page, but you’re softening it with your tone. So, just hand it to them and say, “Read that and tell me what you think about the tone.” And so, when they pick it up, they can be a more objective reader for you on sensitive matters.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Thank you. Well, tell me, any sort of key software, plugins, add-on, services, tools that make this better, or help with the email struggle?

Dianna Booher
Well, I mentioned things for software to do other things other than email, like Calendly, Slack, Workzone, Smartsheets. Those are the kind of things that you want to look into, just think, “Do I have other things that are not correspondence-related?” Those are what’s helpful to you. ShortKeys. If you find yourself writing the same messages over and over, maybe like a bio, like when I respond to reporters frequently, they want your credentials or your bio, so you have that on ShortKeys, you can just hit two keys or a code, and the whole paragraph goes in.

If you have a certain product or a certain service that you provide, then you hit ShortKeys and the whole paragraph goes in. What you don’t want to do is to write those over and over, because even if you know with your brain what you’re saying, it’s too easy to incorporate an error, to leave out a word just because of familiarity to create a typo, so it’s good to make sure it’s error-free to begin with, and just plug it in with ShortKeys.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about email before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Dianna Booher
I think that you just don’t want to create distractions for yourself. Many people create their own distractions with email because they keep it open and they use it for to-dos, and don’t ask things in the right way. And so, they write six or seven emails to accomplish what the first one should’ve accomplished.

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

Dianna Booher
I like the quote by Martin Luther who said, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Now, for me, of course, that’s been inspiring because I’ve been a writer all my life, but for others I think you’d do the same thing for your own reputation when you write a good email because that has staying power. It establishes your credibility on any subject.

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

Dianna Booher
I always like to read the major studies that IBM does, that McKinsey does, PricewaterhouseCoopers, all of the Gallup. I like surveys because I like to keep my finger on the pulse. And, of course, they’re very revealing, our study, with the University of Northern Colorado, their social research lab when we did this major study for Faster, Fewer, Better Emails. That was very revealing. So, whatever study that you put faith in, look at the trends from that.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, over time.

Dianna Booher
Pardon me?

Pete Mockaitis
You mean like over time.

Dianna Booher
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it came out this year, then next year, then the following year.

Dianna Booher
Yes, yes, and how they change.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Dianna Booher
Traveling Mercies. I like Anne Lamott. Basically, anything she writes. I really like her. A lot of people haven’t discovered her writing, but she’s an excellent writer. She has a book called Bird by Bird which is on writing. But Traveling Mercies is more my favorite.

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

Dianna Booher
I like snipping tool. It’s just so easy, I keep it right at the bottom of my taskbar. I find I use that all of the time. It’s just so useful for adding something, screen capture, to send in an email, to show people exactly what you’re talking about. So simple and yet so useful for so many tasks.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s called snipping?

Dianna Booher
It’s called snipping tool, that’s the name of it. Snipping tools. The icon is like a pair of scissors and, literally, you can cut anything on your screen, and then attach it to an email and send it. You can email it, you can paste it into an email, you can capture the screen and send it as an attachment. It’s like the simplest miracle you can imagine.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite habit, something that you do that makes you awesome at your job?

Dianna Booher
This is weird, I know, because most people like to procrastinate. But I like to move all of my deadlines for any kind of task, I move them forward in case of emergency. Somebody tells me I have to have something done by May 31st. I will move it up at least two weeks because I don’t want to be caught in case of an emergency. If there’s a major illness, if there’s a death in the family, I just don’t want to be stressed out, and I don’t want to miss a deadline. So, whatever deadline somebody gives me, if it’s just a few hours or days or weeks, I’m going to move it forward. That’s just a habit I’ve had all my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with listeners and audience members?

Dianna Booher
Yes, this sentence. I have quoted and collected the most quote collections online more than any other. It’s been out there for a while, and people just keep repeating it and quoting it. It’s, “If you can’t write your message in a sentence, you can’t say it in an hour.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Well, Dianna, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you tons of luck with “Faster, Fewer, Better Emails,” and your other adventures. And just keep doing the good work.

Dianna Booher
Thank you, Pete. It’s been great to be with you.

440: Accomplishing More in Less Time by Building Microskills with Stever Robbins

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Stever Robbins shares how to break down skills into microskills…and shares which ones are worth building.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A productivity power tool to help you accomplish almost everything
  2. Why to break down learning into microskills
  3. Essential microskills that will save you years of time

About Stever

Stever Robbins is a serial entrepreneur, top podcaster, and productivity expert. He co-founded the early internet success story FTP Software, served as COO of Building Blocks Interactive, CEO of JobTacToe.com, and has been an initial team member of ten start-ups, including four IPOs and three acquisitions. He currently runs Get-it-Done Groups™, which help people make extreme progress on important projects and habits.

He was project manager at Intuit. He serves as business plan judge for the Harvard Business School business plan competition, the MIT $100K competition, and several other competitions. His Get-It-Done-Guy podcast has been downloaded more than 36 million times.

He’s been interviewed in numerous publications and is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude…to Build a Stellar Organization and Get-it-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.

Stever holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Stever Robbins Interview Transcript

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

Stever Robbins
Thank you very much for having me. I’m hoping to learn how to be awesome at my job.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m thinking that we’re both going to do some great learning. I’ve learned a lot from you with your Get-It-Done Guy podcast. I remember listening to it in Brent’s car. Shout out to Brent.

Stever Robbins
Hey, Brent.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think it’s going to be a really fun one. And we were already talking about a lot of cool stuff. If we had to push record before we run out of time, but one fun tidbit about you I got to hear about is you grew up in a New Age commune. What’s this about?

Stever Robbins
I did. My parents were hippies, but they came to the scene late, and they didn’t have the hippie movement to join up to. So, my father got involved in some various New Age philosophies and we sold our worldly possessions, bought a 23-foot trailer, and went bouncing around the country starting psychic growth centers.

Pete Mockaitis
Psychic growth centers.

Stever Robbins
Yeah. Don’t get me started. Let me simply say that it turns out that most of America isn’t really very open to having you start psychic growth centers. Remember the kids on the other side of the tracks that your parents warned you not to play with?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right, it’s Stever and company.

Stever Robbins
That was us. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, just real quick. Psychic growth centers, does that help me grow in my psychic abilities, or what happens in a psychic growth center? Okay.

Stever Robbins
Yup. Also, the children of the people who start the psychic growth center become atheists. So, that’s the other thing that happens in a psychic growth center. It makes a real impression on you when you grow up. Actually, we switch religions every couple of years. My father was into lots of different things. And, as a result, by the time I was 18, I had been through four or five different belief systems, and once you’re through a certain number of belief systems you start to say, “You know, all of these are just belief systems.”

The more interesting part of your question, though, isn’t, “What’s it like growing up in a psychic growth center?” It’s, “What’s it like having grown up in a psychic growth center?” Because what it does when you’re the kid on the other side of the tracks is, you don’t take the same things for granted that everyone else does.

So, for me, the most interesting part about having a non-standard background is that I question things that everyone else simply take for granted. And, on one hand, this is very powerful. It means that there’s a lot of problems that I can solve that other people can’t because I ask different questions than they do, and sometimes the questions I ask are the ones that will lead to the solution. On the other hand, there are some real problems with this because there are plenty of places in life where you really need to understand how the standard people think, and you really need to understand what would be societally acceptable and what will not.

Let me give you a hint. You do not want to discover behaviorally that wearing a loincloth to school is a bad idea. Some people know that instinctively. Others of us had to learn it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s maybe the pulled quote that we’re going to feature from this interview, Stever, is that tidbit right there. Well, yeah, I think we’re two peas in a pod in that way. Not the loincloth specifically, but the asking questions that others don’t seem to ask because I do. And what I find to be the downside is folks are just not prepared or equipped for it, and so it just slows everything down. It’s like, “Wait a minute. What do you want? I don’t even know how to address that for you. Maybe talk to someone else.” Because it’s sort of like customer service systems, or businesses. They’re setup to do a few things well and efficiently and by the millions at scale. So, when you throw these little monkey wrenches in there, it just slows everything down, and it gets inconvenient for everybody it seems.

Stever Robbins
Oh, yeah. And, in fact, one of the things I was thinking about before this call, because I knew you were going to ask me that question, one of the things I was thinking about was, “What are the perspectives that I have despite the fact that I have a fairly mainstream life in many regards?” But I’m always amazed at the fact that we live in the most materially-rich society in all of human history, by wide, wide measure the most productive in terms of labor hours needed to produce a particular result. And, yet, we have such an extraordinarily narrow range of activities and things that we do, and lifestyles that we have.

And it boggles my mind that we have the resources to give ourselves as a race lots of leisure time, lots of ability to pursue meaning, the resources to try out and experiment with different governmental types, with different ways of being, with different work weeks. And, yet, we create very narrow boxes, live inside them, and then forget that we’re the ones who created the boxes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a big question.

Stever Robbins
Yes, they may be bigger than we’re supposed to be talking about today. I think we were talking about getting things done or something similar.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess my first thought in there is, I guess, it has to do with like the fear of the unknown, or risk, or uncertainty, and how maybe relatively few people want to go down that pathway. But, yeah, I’m going to be chewing on that one as well. Thank you, Stever. I want to hear, yes, I do want to hear about getting things done. And maybe, so, you’ve got an interesting sort of start in terms of that New Age commune and travelling. But then you did get some credentials that folks tend to kind of think are more normal and desirable, you know, MIT in Computer Science Bachelors, MBA from Harvard Business School, good stuff. So, how did you become branded and adopt the moniker of the “Get-It-Done Guy”?

Stever Robbins
Oh, that was never supposed to be the case. I started the Get-It-Done Guy in 2007 because I was working doing one-on-one executive coaching and strategy consulting, which is the main thing that I’ve done through most of my career. And I was really yearning for a creative outlet because, frankly, one of the fascinating things about the business world, is the business world is really very anti-creative. It uses the principles of uniformity to grow organizations, and the uniformity exists in terms of people and behavior.

Do you ever notice when someone says that you should dress professionally or act professionally? What they mean is you should restrict your behavior to the narrowest possible window of things, right? Those are not expansive. When someone says, “Act professional,” what they do not mean is “be creative, be wild, be innovative, think outside the box.” What they mean is, “Oh, my gosh, you’re wearing a three-button vest instead of a two-button vest? I can’t be seen in public with you.”

So, I wanted a creative outlet, and I had started a little podcast called Business Explained, and I had produced about 10 episodes for it. And then I experienced Grammar Girl. And Grammar Girl talked grammar, but it was fun and it was interesting to listen to, and she had an attitude. She had character. And, oh, my gosh, Grammar Girl was, and is, awesome.

So, I wrote her a fan letter, and I said, “If you would ever like a business podcaster, I would love to be your business podcaster,” because she had a little network called the Quick and Dirty Tips network. And just out of sheer coincidence, my letter got to her right after she had sold the network to Macmillan Publishing, and they were having a meeting to decide who should the next podcaster be.

And my letter came in at the right time. I auditioned for the part. I got it. And they let me choose the topic. I chose personal productivity mainly because I thought it would be fun. I thought I could do a lot more with that in terms of humor than with corporate strategy. And I was right, as it turns out. Became the Get-It-Done Guy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, actually, not quite. What happened is for years I didn’t do anything with it professionally. And my branding in the marketplace was very much around strategy, and entrepreneurship, and high-growth companies, and how to be a good leader, and all that stuff. And then, about a year ago, I decided I had this podcast and I had a following, and why not start doing things that were more productivity-oriented, and just see if it flies?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, one thing I’m quite intrigued by are the Get-It-Done Groups. I’m a huge fan of accountability, and I’m intrigued as to what exactly is this.

Stever Robbins
Well, so Get-It-Done Groups are they’re accountability groups. And when I looked at the offerings out there, first of all, I’ve been an executive coach for about many, many years by the time I’ve developed this. And one of the things that I had noticed is that at the end of the day, coaches are trained to help people develop their innate capabilities, help people get that strength and motivation, that proactiveness. And, boy, is that a lot of work.

And, one day, I had a CEO client, because I mainly work with executives, I had a CEO client who had had a homework assignment, I don’t even remember what it was at this point. It was something simple, like write a letter firing someone. It was something. It was emotionally difficult but it was technically very easy. And three weeks in a row he hadn’t done it.

And so, this time we started our coaching session, and I said, “How’d the letter go?” And he said, “I haven’t sent it yet.” And instead of trying to get to the root of his blocks, and instead of trying to deeply trigger his motivation by connecting it to his highest values and his purpose and his why, I said, “Dude, I happen to know for a fact that you have one hour currently available on your calendar because that was the hour that we were supposed to be talking. So, guess what? We now have 57 minutes left. We’re going to hang up the phone. I will talk to you in 23 minutes, at half past the hour, and we will review the first draft of the letter. Bye.”

Hung up the phone. When we met at half past, he had the first draft done. And in that moment, I started to realize, “Wait a minute. Human beings are social creatures. We are hardwired to take our commitments to other people more seriously than we take our commitments to ourselves. And, if that’s the case, why are we bothering with all of this deep psychology bull pucky and all of this, “Oh, we must find your deep inner why”? Look, just, you need to get your taxes done. Great. Get them out. I’ll watch. Fabulous. Now, that you have them out, 10 more minutes, you start working and I’ll call back in 10 minutes to check up on how it’s going.

And then, real time, of course, if someone is getting stalled, you can, at that moment, diagnose why they’re getting stalled and work with it as opposed to checking back a week later, and saying, “Oh, why didn’t do your thing?” And having them try to remember what was going through their head at the time and so on.

So, what I recognize is that there are a couple of things. Number one, the hammer that seems to work for almost everything is accountability. Number two, people get lost in different ways. They get lost sometimes in their moment-to-moment ability to focus, which technology is making far, far worse. They get lost in their ability to concentrate on one project out of a portfolio of projects long enough to make progress.

And so, I said, there are three timeframes we can operate on. Let’s operate on the level of a quarter, 12 weeks, the level of the day, and the level of the hour. And what Get-It-Done Groups do is they provide accountability on all three levels. We have a couple days a week where we meet hourly, and every hour we actually commit to doing things. Those are the days when you do that stuff that otherwise would procrastinate the heck out of and that you just don’t want to do, and we all just get together and do it together. And it works really well.

The daily accountabilibuddies is what we call them. The daily accountabilibuddy is a thing where people divide up into groups of two or three and they meet every day. A very short meeting, like five to 10 minutes, and they go through, and make sure that they’re making progress on all of the things that they need to be accountable for, which will add up to where they want to go in the 12-week period. And then, over the course of 12 weeks, if we’ve designed the daily check-ins right, they will get most of the way, or all of the way, or well past their 12-week goal.

And people have used Get-It-Done Groups to write a book. In fact, she finished the last word of it this last Sunday, and several members of the group were on a Zoom call with her as she was writing those last two sentences. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about it until about 20 minutes later, but I would’ve been there too.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just imagining, like, one who has a violin, and it’s like a very orchestral celebratory moment.

Stever Robbins
Oh, goodness, yeah. We had been there with her for almost the whole thing. I mean, it was amazing. There was another person who qualified for professional degrees. He had been trying for many, many years, and just hadn’t sat down to do all the work. Sat down and did all the work. We had somebody else who had multiple businesses that she had developed over the years, and she wanted to merge them all, and create unified branding, and put them all under one website. She did that. We have just a whole variety of things.

So, Get-It-Done Groups are groups where you get it done. And one of the people that are especially good for is people who are self-employed because when you’re self-employed you don’t have any external person who can stop and say, “Now wait a minute. You said that doing your marketing was important to you but for the last four days you haven’t done any. What’s up? Do you want to give up on that? Or do you want to do it but now we have to make some tweaks to how you’re doing your day because empirically you need some sort of tweaks in order to be making the progress you want to be making.” And they work amazingly well.

I’ve actually been quite surprised. I wasn’t thinking that they were going to work. I mean, I thought they would be effective but, in fact, the effect that they’ve had, I think, is almost out of proportion with how simple, well, it’s way out of proportion how simple they are. But it’s way out of proportion with what I thought. I thought they’d be useful and they’ve been life-changing for some people. Like, seriously life-changing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. Now, how big is a group?

Stever Robbins
We do it as a cohort introduced every month or every couple of months, and then everyone who is currently an active member all works together.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it could be dozens.

Stever Robbins
It could be. At the moment, we’ve never had more than 15 people involved in any given moment, which is a whole another story, having to do with customer acquisition versus customer retention. Well, what we found is that, really, I’ve already figured out how to scale it to whatever point is needed. But for like the hourly do-it days, we usually have between four and seven or eight people show up for that. That’s when we check in every single hour. We have a community call once a week, and every week we’ll get anywhere from five to 12 people on that. So, it depends.

All of the elements of it are optional except for the daily check-ins because part of the whole idea is we’re all busy people, and any productivity system that takes enough time that it impacts the way that you work is not a productivity system. You need productivity systems that mesh with what you’re doing so you don’t have to feel like you must do every single thing. You do just enough and just the pieces that will give you the results that you want.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Awesome. Well, I’m a huge fan of accountability. It’s come up before. I wrote a book about accountability groups back in the day, and it had a big impact on me, so that’s huge. Well, specifically for we’d be talking today about microskills for sharpening focus and working smarter, that’s one of your key areas of expertise, and something that we dig here. It sounds like, one, a key skill is just trusting others and sharing and having some accountability. Could you maybe define for us the term microskill, first of all?

Stever Robbins
Yes. Just as people think of different timeframes, as I mentioned a moment ago, people think at different levels when they think of skills. I’ll call it a chunk size. Sometimes someone will say things like, “You need to learn to focus,” as if focus is itself a single skill. Well, it’s not. Focus is comprised of a lot of little skills. Focus is the ability to identify what you’re working on. If you don’t identify what you’re working on, you won’t do it because you don’t know what to be focusing on.

It’s the ability to block out or eliminate, in advance, external distractions. It’s the ability to either eliminate or notice when you have an internal distraction and pull yourself back on task. It’s the ability to know when you’re done, etc. So, there are actually tiny chunks of skills that make up this word that we use as a larger level skill.

And, to me, a microskill is one of the component skills that makes up what we would normally call a skill but, which in fact, is really the accumulation of lots and lots of things. And I will give you a slight spoiler, this is going to relate to our conversation about neuro-linguistic programming later in this because this is my NLP in the form of the brain that has resulted in the paying a lot of attention to microskills.

For example, we have two people in the current Get-It-Done Group who really, really, really aren’t doing enough prospecting, and they were like, “Okay, I keep falling down on my prospecting progress so let’s do a day that’s just prospecting.” And I talked to the two of them individually, and I said, “So, tell me about your prospecting process.” Now, what I’m actually listening for here is, “Are they both getting screwed up the same way? Or is there a difference?” Because if I’m going to be designing a day to work with them, I want to make sure that whatever I do during that day actually hits the causes of where they’re getting stalled.

It turns out they were getting stalled in different places. With one person it was identifying where to find prospects. For the other person it was actually picking up the phone and writing an email to reach out to the prospect, and then there’s a bunch of other skills, too, like follow up, etc. We can get into it a different time.

But, essentially, there are microskills that make up the skill of prospecting, and one of them is identifying prospect sources. The next one is identifying prospects from those sources. It’s not enough to identify the source. You actually have to go to the source and get the prospects. Then you have to craft a message, then you have to get that message out to them, which may involve doing research as to how each prospect likes to receive information, or it may involve sending out an email blast, or it may involve doing a bunch of phone calls, but whatever. You actually have to then take the action to get the prospect deal.

And, generally, when people say, “Oh, you need to do more prospecting,” they largely just mean this big chunk thing. And, to me, a microskill is one of the smaller chunk things that people don’t pay as much attention to but which often are where people get really tripped up.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really dig that because these words, I’m right with you, prospecting, focusing really are huge. Like, I’m just thinking about my wife. We got stuck for a little while because she’s like, “We need to baby-proof this home.” I was like, “Well, I don’t know what all that means. I’m sure there are many steps, and components, and devices, and thingies that are built up when it comes to baby-proofing, and I don’t really quite know where to start.” So, we got stuck for a good while actually until I just Googled and I found a professional baby-proofer who made a lot of things happen for us. So, that was nice because it was a one-time thing as opposed to baby-proofing as a lifestyle.

Stever Robbins
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, installing new stuff every week is a skill I need.

Stever Robbins
And you know there are people who do that.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sure, yeah, you could find a new way a kid could hurt himself, a day without trouble. But I dig it because often that sort of, I don’t know, deflates the energy or makes it less actionable when it’s big and vague as opposed to, “Now, what I’m talking about is getting on the phone again and again and again,” or, “What I’m talking about is figuring out where the heck I can get a bunch of names.” Those are different problems that have different actions and solutions.

Stever Robbins
Correct. And so, that’s what a microskill is. A microskill is understanding the skills that make up the thing you’re trying to do and then, to some degree, even more importantly, is to identify which skills are missing, and then figure out how to intervene because it’s not the case that all interventions are created equal or that all problems are the same problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, then, when we’re talking about those goals of sharpening focus and working smarter, what are some of the most potent microskills that give you a good return on your investment, a big bang for the buck in investing to develop them?

Stever Robbins
Well, I’ll tell you my favorites because they’re not super popular – speed reading and touch typing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go. Now, touch typing, I’m right with you. I am sold and, okay, go ahead. You can sell a little bit more but I’m already with you. Now, the speed-reading though, yeah, I’ve heard folks who are like, “Oh, speed-reading, it’s a scam. You really can’t blah, blah, blah.” So, lay it on us with some evidence. What’s real and possible speed-reading versus what’s hype and fluff?

Stever Robbins
Okay, do you want me to address the touch typing or the speed-reading first?

Pete Mockaitis
Do speed-reading first.

Stever Robbins
All right, speed-reading. I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. All that I know is that I push myself to read faster and faster but I never could go so fast that I don’t have comprehension. I know that some speed-reading systems say push yourself so fast that you can barely comprehend. And then when you slow down, you’ll be able to go much faster. And I’ve actually done that particular exercise a few times.

I’m not a fan of things like photo-reading where you supposedly can digest an entire book by flipping the pages quickly. Apparently, there are people who can do that. I’m not convinced that that is the level of useful skill because the context for most people do reading these days is on a screen. So, what you need to be able to do is scan a screen and really get the meat of the information. The problem is most people skim, and skimming is not the same as reading. With skimming you get a superficial understanding, maybe, if it’s a well-written article or well-written post. Of course, in this day of pay per clicks, not pay for quality content, there’s an awful lot of stuff out there that’s extremely poorly written.

[24:27]

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, don’t get me started on the sloppy junk out there, and the agencies that enable it, which I’ll leave right there.

Stever Robbins
What happens is, for a well-written piece of writing, for example, you can scan the headlines, the headers, and the subheads, you can scan the topic sentences and things, and you really will get an idea of what the article is about, what the argument is, and then you can go back to the pieces you want more information about and read up more deeply.

That just doesn’t apply to an awful lot of things on the web because most people don’t know how to write, or they don’t take the time, or they can’t afford to take the time because they’re being paid so little that they have to grind out 10 articles in the space you would have to do one.

Pete Mockaitis
I signed up for one of those just for funzies to take a look around, and it’s like, “Holy crap, I’d have to be cranking almost as fast as I can type for like a third of that hour to eke out minimum wage here. And you’re hiring US labor? What?” So, okay, that’s a whole rant we could go on.

Stever Robbins
We have an awful lot of rants that we can go on.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, we got to get our own, you and me, the Stever and Pete podcast we’re going to rant all day long. Okay, so speed-reading, you push yourself to read faster, and then that yield some results. So, how might we go about learning how to read faster? What’s sort of the practices of developing that microskill?

Stever Robbins
You know, the thing that I would do for that, and I literally just took a speed-reading course, but the exercise that I thought was the most useful with the speed-reading course was the one that I mentioned a minute ago. Take a book or something that you want to read, give yourself, first, read a paragraph, not read a paragraph, read a chapter at normal speed, time how long that takes you.

And then read the next chapter giving yourself half that time. And then the chapter after that, half that time, and just push yourself to get successively faster and faster and faster until you’re going so fast that it’s very clear you’re not absorbing very much. But, then, when you downshift, you will downshift to a much faster rate than you started with.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, now, I’ve heard the term, because I’m dabbling reading about speed-reading before, and I’ve heard the term subvocalize which I understand to mean inside my mind, inside my brain, I’m saying each word to myself. So, if I’m looking at your bio, I might say inside my brain, but not out loud with my lips, I’d say, “Stever holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and a BS in Computer Sciences.” So, are you pushing past the subvocalization speed or not?

Stever Robbins
I don’t think that I am personally. What I’ve heard is the maximum speed you could get to, while you still subvocalize, is about, I think, 1500 words a minute or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s still lovely. That’s 55X normal, right?

Stever Robbins
Right. And I can get up to that, I think, when I’m really going. I can get up, assuming that it’s not something that requires lots and lots that I have to stop every sentence to digest it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a ton. That’s reassuring.

Stever Robbins
But I don’t think I ever really quite break the subvocalization barrier. I think that for the most part, well, you know what, now that I’m saying that, that isn’t true. When I took the speed-reading course, I always subvocalized. Now that I think about it, this is a conversation I’ve had with friends before, I’m at the point where I see a sentence and I know what the sentence means. And there’s a sense that somewhere I might be subvocalizing a little bit, but it happens faster than I could possible talk it. So, if it’s subvocalizing, it’s subvocalizing it two or three or four times what my external talking speed is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, that’s reassuring then that I always thought of that as some kind of crazy transcendental, the Matrix, Neo-type experience. It’s like, “Whoa, I’ve entered a new plane of information processing which is unfelt ever before.” So, okay, cool. So, that’s just all you got to do is push yourself to read about twice as fast as before, and then twice as fast as that, and then maybe twice as fast again, and then once you’ve reached the “clearly I’m not absorbing anything” level, you back it off a little bit. And then, holy smokes, you find that you are able to maybe read two, three, four, five times as quickly with just as much retention. Is that accurate?

Stever Robbins
Yeah. I tell you, it works in both directions too. It also works in the direction of output. When you’re doing public speaking. I was just helping a friend of mine prepare for an important presentation he has to give. And I would love to say that invented this exercise, I did not. This was taught to me by my very first business mentor years and years ago, back right after I had graduated, you know, at least six or seven years ago.

And he had me give a presentation at my normal speed. The presentation took about 40 minutes, and said, “Great. Now you can do 20 minutes. Give me the presentation again. You’ll have to decide what to leave out. And then do it in 10 minutes. And then do it in 5 minutes. And then do it in 2 minutes. And then do it in one minute.”

And when you push it down to one minute, and especially when you do it in that order, because each time has to learn how to filter through and decide what’s important and what isn’t. When you get it down to one minute or 30 seconds, the only thing you can say is the main points. You can’t give examples. You can’t give supporting evidence. You can say…

Pete Mockaitis
Prop down. We’re scared.

Stever Robbins
Right. And that’s it. But then what happens is when you then expand that back out to 40 minutes, your brain has gone through the process of compacting everything down and putting into the chunks that makes sense with you. So, on the fly, you can dynamically expand and contract portions of it to be able to adjust to any length.

And if you make it too short then you say, “Now, we have room for Q&A.” And if anyone asks about the pieces that you left out because you misjudged the time, well, they’re in your brain because you’ve already been through this presentation this many times and packaged all the information up nicely for yourself. So, then, all of that preparation simply serves to make you look like a genius and uber-prepared during the Q&A portions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. We had a guest who wrote the book Brief and that was good stuff and he recommended a similar exercise which is so handy. So, okay, that’s how speed-reading can go down, also applies to presentations. His name is Joe McCormack, for the record, the author of “Brief.”

So, now, let’s talk a little bit about the touch typing. I understand that the average typing speed in the United States is 41 words per minute. I just research these dorky things of my own volition. So, you’re saying that we got a lot more room to grow in that front.

Stever Robbins
When I was in 7th grade, I took a touch-typing course, and I took it on a manual typewriter, not an electric, a manual. And at the age of – what’s 7th grade, 12 years old? At the age of 12 years old on a manual typewriter, I could consistently test out at 70 words per minute.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Stever Robbins
If I can do 70 words per minute as a 12-year old on a manual typewriter, anyone can get at least that fast if not faster.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s huge. How do we get those skills?

Stever Robbins
You take a touch-typing course or you go online and I’m sure there are websites because I learned to type the DVORAK layout I learned from a website and from some apps. And you know what? It’s not sexy. It really isn’t. If what you want is some magical thing that will teach you to, suddenly, boom, get the touch-typing skill overnight, that doesn’t happen.

What you have to do is you have to train all of the common letter combinations. You have to get your fingers used to moving in those combinations. You have to practice it over and over and over, punctuated with appropriate sleep periods so that your brain can consolidate the information. And it may take weeks or months. Actually, I don’t know if I’m as fast on DVORAK even now after I’ve been doing it for about 10 years as I was on QWERTY at the time.

I find the big advantage to DVORAK is far less finger strain and finger movement which is, and I’m still pretty darn fast typing DVORAK. But I practiced DVORAK for months before I got up to a reasonable typing speed but it was completely worth it because, in the 10 years, or actually it was more because I was already typing DVORAK when I started the Get-It-Done Guy. I have written roughly 750,000 words of paid content, which I guess makes me a professional writer now that I think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Bling. Bling.

Stever Robbins
But part of why I was able to do that is I could type fast enough because it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are, it doesn’t matter how great you are at composing sentences, if you can only type 20 words a minute, you’re not going to be able to write 700,000 words of text because you just don’t have the time to move your fingers that much.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s true and I played around with all kinds of speech-to-text and dictation tools and software, and it’s not there yet. Maybe in five years, maybe 10 years, but we’re not there yet. And so, when it comes to keyboarding and typing faster, one of my favorite resources, I’m going to drop this in the show notes, is keybr.com. They’ve got some cool case studies of folks doubling their typing speed in like five hours of practice over the course of a couple weeks. And part of their brilliance, I think, is that it starts you, it kind of drills each key in order based upon its frequency versus difficulty to type so that they’ve really kind of leveraged it for you as much as possible, and it’s free. So, keybr.com is a handy one, and I’m digging it.

So, okay. Well, let’s move. Time is flying here.

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Stever, I want to make sure we get a chance to touch base on, so you are a smart dude and you’ve got impressive credentials from impressive places, and you think clearly about stuff. And I’m so intrigued that you are also a certified master trainer elite of NLP, neuro-linguistic programming. Now, NLP has got an interesting reputation. Maybe, could you give us a feel for, first of all, what is it, for those who are less familiar? And then, can you kind of like with the speed-reading, tell us what’s real, what’s exaggerated, and what benefits can we really expect to glean from NLP?

Stever Robbins
Sure. So, NLP is a set of models for understanding how humans think and how the way they think can be inferred from their language, and ways to change the way you think, or someone else thinks once you know what that is. I learned about it first because I wanted to learn things, and NLP was originally introduced to me as a technology for being able to sit down and talk with someone who had expertise and understand at a cognitive level, which basically means, “How are they thinking about the task involved to be able to produce whatever results they produce that constitutes expertise? And how can that be expressed in such a way that I can learn it or you can learn or someone else can learn it?”

Because, for example, if you’re talking to Mozart, and you say to Mozart, “Gee, how do you compose that passage?” And Mozart says, “Well, the way you compose it is you just play it over and over, and you listen really carefully until it sounds right.” That’s not a useful description. If you don’t happen to be Mozart and have Mozart’s definition of “sounding right” then you’re not going to produce the kind of music that Mozart can produce.

However, if what Mozart says to you is, “Well, what I do is I make colored pictures in my mind, and every color corresponds to a note. And I notice that when the pictures have a particular type of symmetry when played as notes they sound good.” Every step of that is something you could teach someone. Again, maybe not easily. This phenomenon of matching visual things with sounds is called synesthesia. If you want to create a synesthesia such that your colored pictures can be translated into notes, I’m guessing that doing that itself is a skill, and if you don’t happen to develop it as a child, or you’re not born with it, that itself is going to take you a while.

But assuming that that really is the way Mozart creates music, then if you have those skills, and this is where the microskills come in. And, in this case, the microskills are being able to make these colored pictures, being able to judge if they’re symmetric, being able to make them symmetric if they’re not, and being able to translate it back and forth into sound. If you have those skills, then you can produce probably not the identical results to Mozart because he has his own personal history that he’s filtering all of this through, but you’ll be able to produce things that are in the realm of musical expertise.

Now, I made that example up, by the way. But the idea there is NLP helps you listen to how somebody does what they are talking about that they do, and figure out what are the mental steps they’re doing to get there. And, as I mentioned before, that’s really at the heart of so much of what I do, because NLP says, “Given a big chunk skill, like composing musical piece, what are the tiny chunks that make it up?” And the tiny chunks may well be different for different composes, in which case, there are many different ways you can learn to compose music.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, now, I like when you said that because I think sometimes as I’ve seen NLP, neuro-linguistic programming presented, it’s talking about, “This is some mind control hypnosis stunt that’s going to make you crazy persuasive if you anchor touching your tie when you say something really compelling.” You know, I was like, “I don’t know about that.” Or, “You can tell if anyone is lying based upon where their eyeballs move.” It’s like, “I don’t know if that is accurate or being validated by any of peer-reviewed research.” What do you think about these kinds of claims?

Stever Robbins
Depends on a specific claim. The NLP will make you an amazingly unbelievably persuasive. NLP does make a set of distinctions which teach you how to understand how someone is thinking and how to package information in such a way that it fits with the way they think about something.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like a persuasive booster.

Stever Robbins
Right, it could be a persuasive boost. But the information, even if you packaged the information so somebody will use it the way that they want to receive it. So, let me give you an example. Let’s say that I’m someone who is a visual thinker, and I understand long-term trends by visualizing a graph and noting if the graph goes up or down. So, if someone says to me, “Oh, unemployment is falling,” I actually picture a graph that has a line that goes from the upper left down to the lower right, and that’s my mental representation of what the sentence means “unemployment is falling.”

If you know that that is how I represent things, and you want to communicate the information that consumer happiness is rising, or maybe that consumer happiness is all over the map, then if you simply show me a picture that has this line going up and down, and left and right, and all over the place, and say, “This is consumer confidence,” I don’t have to do any work to understand that because that matches with the way that I understand things.

However, if you show that exact same map to somebody who understands things by visualizing a column of numbers, not a graph, they’re going to look at that graph, and go, “I don’t know what the heck that is. I can’t make any sense out of it,” because their mental representation is not making graphs with lines in it.

So, what that means is for a given person, if you understand how they take in and process and understand information, you can package whatever case you’re trying to make so that it fits their type of information so they don’t have to work to understand it. However, just because they don’t have to work to understand it, it doesn’t mean they’ll immediately take it in. It just means that they won’t reject it because it doesn’t make sense to them. If they make sense to them, but then they may reject it because it doesn’t make good sense.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Fair enough. And how about these eyeball directions indicating if someone is lying?

Stever Robbins
So, that’s interesting. The actual NLP model does not say that eyeball directions indicate if someone is lying. In fact, if you read the book, they explicitly say that’s not what they do because that’s one of the common ways people misinterpret them.

What the eyeball directions are claimed to do, and this is something that drives me nuts because of the way this is phrased, it’s one of the easiest things to “test.” And I put that in quotes because, so far, I have yet to see any test that actually does a good job of genuinely testing the claim.

The observation is that people systematically move their eyes while they’re talking. Sometimes they move them up, sometimes they move them to the sides, sometimes they move them down. And in the NLP model, we pretend that what goes on inside people’s brains is they make pictures, they talk to themselves, they hear sounds, they basically have an inner sensory life in the five senses that corresponds to the same five senses that you use on the outside.

And, in fact, since NLP was developed in the 1970s, there’s been a lot of research that shows that’s probably even accurate in terms of what’s really going on because they found that if you have somebody visualize moving a muscle, all of the same neurons fire in their brain except for the very final neurons that actually activate your limb moving or whatever.

So, what the eye movement model in NLP says, it says when you’re constructing visual images, your eyes move one direction. When you’re remembering visual images, your eyes move another direction. When you are imagining sounds you’ve never heard before, your eyes move in a third direction. When you are remembering sounds you’ve heard before, your eyes move in a fourth direction. When you are talking to yourself and engaging in internal dialogue, your eyes move in a fifth direction. And when you are experiencing your feelings very strongly, your eyes move in a sixth direction. So, there’s three directions on each side, there’s three to your left, and three to the right.

And they may be different for different people. On some people, especially left-handed people, one or more of them might be swapped left to right. But the NLP model says that when somebody is retrieving information, when they’re really involved in information processing, their eyes will move in a particular direction that corresponds to the type of processing they’re doing.

You can then use that to help choose an intervention to decide what to do with them to help them change their thinking if what you’re doing is trying to help someone change their thinking, because NLP, the first place it was really used extensively, and the fact where it was developed, was in the realm of therapy. So, people would come in and they would say, “I have this horrible phobia.” And by watching their eyes, one of the things that you could find out is every time they talk about the thing that was a phobic trigger, they would always move their eyes to visual memory, or to the direction that corresponded to visual memory.

If that’s what happened, there is a particular technique that was developed in NLP that says, “When somebody is having a phobic reaction, and it is instantaneous, and it involves a remembered visual image, use this technique and it will help get rid of the phobia.” And you then could use that technique and it would help you rid of the phobia.

And, like all things, there’s plenty of margin for errors. Some things don’t work all the time. Some things sometimes you misdiagnose, etc. That’s the NLP eye movement I’m on. The way that people have misinterpreted this is to mean, “Gee, if you ask someone a question, and their eyes move to the creating a visual image area, that means they’re lying.” Well, maybe. It may mean that they’re remembering something and they’re creating an image that they’ve never made before that’s based upon the thing they’re remembering. It may mean they’re not paying any attention to your question. Instead, they’re making an image of…

Pete Mockaitis
Daydreaming. That sounds more interesting.

Stever Robbins
They’re making an image of the delicious casserole they plan on making just as soon as they can get out of the job interview or whatever. And this is the problem with a lot of NLP. Number one, the term is not copyrighted or trademarked so anyone can claim they’re teaching it, and anyone can claim they’re good at it. And, number two, an awful lot of people do, and they have no idea what it really is or how it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, if we want to read a book or two or three to get some useful understanding that is applicable, what would be your top recommendations on that?

Stever Robbins
Oh, that’s so difficult because I don’t think there are very many good NLP books out there. My favorite one is called Using Your Brain for a Change by a man named Richard Bandler who is one of the co-developers of NLP. The impression I get is he was really, really the principle key to the whole thing. And it is a book about how different changes in your mental imagery affect the reactions that you have to those mental images. And the reason this matter is that a lot of our behavior is driven off from mental imagery.

So, let’s say that somebody says, “Hey, we’re going to raise your tax rates,” and you’ll get super upset at that. Well, you’re not actually getting upset at the words, “We will raise your tax rates.” You’re getting upset of what that means to you. And it may be that what happens is you make a mental image of yourself lying in a gutter surrounded by really bad liquor with people stepping over your body because you think that if your tax rates get raised, that’s what’s going to end up happening to you. And what you’re going to reacting to is that image that you’re making.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s helpful.

Stever Robbins
So, Using Your Brain for a Change teaches you to identify the images that are actually driving your behavior and gives some specific techniques for how to manipulate those images and change them so that they drive your behavior differently. Because if you took that exact same image of yourself lying in the gutter with the cheap liquor, and you put circus music behind it, “toot, toot, root, toot, pop, para, pop” it wouldn’t produce the same emotional reaction. It may not make you want to be there, but it’s not going to be this horrible tragedy.

But, on the other hand, if you put these strings and violins, just doing the slow mournful thing, well, that makes it worse, you know, etc.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood.

Stever Robbins
Now, people go, “Ugh, that’s just a funny little mental trick.” And I’m like, “Yes, it’s a funny little mental trick that completely changes the way that you feel about something. Isn’t that useful? Like, if you can just do a funny little mental trick and, suddenly, this thing that has been causing you incredible stress and high blood pressure and anger, suddenly becomes funny, that sounds like a mental trick worth learning and doing more of.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said.

Stever Robbins
So, the thing about NLP, to me, number one, very few people who claim to understand it really understand it very well. Number two, they often misrepresent it as a thing that accomplishes a certain result, like being a lie detector, or persuading people of things. And it’s less about getting a specific result, and it’s more about when you’re dealing with people, how do you understand the way they communicate? How do you understand the way they think? And how can you communicate to them so that you could be most understood by them?

And if they want to change, and if they want you to tell them how to change their behavior so they get better results in their life, how can you package the communication about how they can change such that, number one, they can hear and understand it; number two, they can then turn that understanding into different behavior; and then, number three, how can you make sure that the behavior you’re telling them to do, like in this case the circus music, is actually the thing that will make a difference for them? Because, for some people, circus music may not make something silly. For some people, circus music may make it ominous because maybe they saw too many clown films as a kid or whatever.

But once you know for a given person how they think, which things are meaningful for them, what their language is, you can help them reach the results that they want by using NLP to understand all of those things. Has this been clear?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Thank you.

Stever Robbins
Sure.

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

Stever Robbins
With me you mean?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Stever Robbins
With me, I’m at SteverRobbins.com, GetItDoneGroups.com, and if you are interested in the podcast, which is the Get-It-Done Guy’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More, which is way too long. It should just be called the Get-It-Done Guy, or it should be called Work Less and Do More, go to itunes.com/getitdoneguy. Or, essentially, Get-It-Done Guy on any place that you listen to podcasts.

437: Building the Resources for Resilience with Dr. Michael Ungar

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Dr. Michael Ungar shares insights from his decades-long research into resilience to reveal that it’s not about your ruggedness, but rather your resources.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The true key to resilience
  2. A master checklist for upgrading your resilience
  3. How to change your mood by changing your environment

About Michael

Dr. Ungar is a Family Therapist and Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University where he holds a national Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. Dr. Ungar has published over 180 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on the subject of resilience and is the author of 15 books for mental health professionals, researchers, employers and parents. These include Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, a book for adults experiencing stress at work and at home.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Michael Ungar Interview Transcript

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

Michael Ungar
My real pleasure, Pete. Nice to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I learned that you have built three houses and raised five children, but you said that building the houses was easier. Can you talk about that?

Michael Ungar
Yeah, for sure. Let’s just say that houses are kind of like children, they change your life, they improve the quality of your life, and your experience in the world, and they make you calmer, they make you happy, and all these kinds of other things. But they also stay put, right? They don’t sort of like change, or at least they’re not supposed to unless there’s a flood or something.

And kids are a little different. Having raised five, they don’t always sort of, for some reason, they aren’t always inspired by my advice. I can’t understand why that would be, but at least when you put a wall up and you actually hammer a nail in, or you get a stud wall up, it kind of stays there. And there is something pretty satisfying about building whatever, any kind of arts or craft or whatever.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, so when you built these three houses, that means like you did everything. That’s impressive because you’re also a mental health powerhouse, these are very different skills.

Michael Ungar
Yeah, the houses were different ones. Some of them were just like seriously 90% reno kind of things. One of them, literally, we chopped, we cut the wood down off of a wood lot that my father-in law had, and milled the wood, and literally skited it out of the forest, and built the house with it. And I had a master carpenter, I don’t have all the skills. But I hired a master carpenter, and was kind of funny. Some days I was his boss in terms of making decisions, and the next day I was just basically the laborer on the job site and he was literally telling me, “Nail that board, and lift that log, and do exactly as I tell you.” So, it was really fun. It’s great.

I always find, too, that the more I sort of vary my activities, even my writing, I write fiction, I’ve written a novel, I’ve written for different audiences, and I find it’s the variety that actually keeps me sort of shocks my mind, awake, if you will. There’s something really wonderful about these different experiences.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And it seems like much of the research about creativity is just that. You’ve got deep expertise in one thing but you dabble in many things, and suddenly associations and ideas pop up, like, “Oh, this is a lot like nailing a board together.”

Michael Ungar
You do see patterns actually, and that’s what the richer your environment around you, the more people you sort of surround, even if you’re not an extrovert, there’s lots of ways sort of bringing those experiences to you if you’re just sitting on a park bench.

I travel the globe, and one of the most wonderful things I get a chance to do is actually just to walk around cities. I do take in some of the cultural events and all that, but often it’s just that sense of watching how architecture goes together or how people pattern their lives that remind you that there are so many different ways that people find pathways to success or put their lives together in ways that actually make sense.

And you begin to, like, if you’re in Japan. I mean, Japan looks a lot like where I live in North America, but the assumptions underlying those things are just so, so different, where leaving a tip at a restaurant can be an insult. Or when you get on a subway, taking your backpack off and putting it up on the tray sort of above the seat without any fear of it being stolen, it kind of shocks you into new ways of thinking about the world and many of your own sort of, well, certainly for me, things that I would just take for granted.

And I do find that, ultimately, especially when I write books, I think of ideas like resilience. I’m always sort of trying to sort of get my head out of standard thinking, and really see what really is happening. And that’s maybe the scientist in me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Well, so, could you orient us to a particular area of your expertise, which is resilience?

Michael Ungar
Yeah. Well, it’s been something, a big part of my research and my clinical work for the last, I’d say, two decades. It kind of has become just kind of boiling down to this idea that in the field of resilience, if you say to the typical person, “What do you think is resilience?” They tend to offer you that kind of idea of bouncing back, the personal transformation, that personal grit.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel like Rocky.

Michael Ungar
Yeah, like Rocky, which I love the movie, but it’s actually not what the science is actually saying. And most of the scientists in the area, the real people really looking at this, are actually telling us now that it’s not just about being a rugged individual. It’s also about being a resource individual. And that, in fact, most of what changes us, most of what gets us through a crisis, is actually not inside of us at all. The missing piece here is that what mostly gets us through is the resources around us.

If you look at even like the great superstars. You look at like a Ronaldo, a soccer star, you look at whatever. If you can kind of get close to them, what you’ll often discover is less about just how they keep their mindset perfect. But there’s always those wonderful stories of people who believed in them. Like, I always say this, if I’m going to talk to someone like Ronaldo, I’m going to want to ask him who gave him his first soccer ball. Like, who saw in him the potential to keep growing? All these aspects of our lives, and yet somehow are this conversation we often have about resilience.

In a very strange way always puts it right back on our own shoulders, that somehow if we just think, you know, have the right thoughts, show enough grit, have the right mindset, that we will succeed. And I hate to burst the bubble, but actually, as I sort of talk about in this book Change Your World, I’m sorry, the evidence is against you on that one. That is actually not the whole story. And so, that’s kind of what I’ve been looking at, what resilience comes from and all the different places around the world, including in North America, but what are the factors that make us resilient on the job, in our family lives, etc. like that.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s intriguing as you’re talking about it. It’s less about sort of what’s inside your brain and more about your resources and your support group. I don’t know why, I’ve got this silliest line is coming to my head. It’s from an Andy Samberg movie, which is basically spoofing, I think, Justin Bieber’s life. And so, he’s a rock star, and he has all these people around him doing all these things. And he says, “It takes a village to make me look dope.” And it sounds like, in crass, silly terms, that’s kind of what you say.

Michael Ungar
But what’s even more fascinating is that it’s not just the relationships, which I think sometimes, again, people will, “Yeah, relationships matter a lot.” But it’s what the relationships, in a sense, bring us and all the other things. Well, people sometimes, I find sometimes when I’m working clinically that people are doing research in this area. People will come back to that, “It’s always got to be people,” and then if they don’t have people, if you’re kind of isolated, right, socially isolated, and you think, “I can’t be resilient.”

But, actually, I’ll give you an example. I was working clinically with a young woman who was a paralegal, came to my office on her lunch hour dressed to the nines, just completely put together. And by way of a social worker, a family therapist, I’m not sitting in the office with a suit and tie sort of thing. So, she always impressed me that way. But she was in an abusive, this really abusive relationship, and I could never quite reconcile, how this very put together confident young woman, who came into my office with that energy, could go home and just so let herself, in a sense, not let herself, but, I mean, be put in a very abusive situation.

And I know the psychology of this. I’m in the field. I’ve worked for many years. But what would change that? And we tried to get her to change her mindset, to change her thinking about her relationships, etc., but she’s still sort of had that sense that, “No, no, no, I’d be worse off with leaving the guy.” Anyways, very small, little change.

I, one day, asked her to go home, and, instead of changing her clothes as she came in the house, which is what she used to do, putting on the track pants and looking kind of just frumpy and normal and calmed or whatever, and then letting herself be abused by this guy verbally, she just didn’t change her clothes. She stayed in this office power suit, and it gave her that cue and, in a sense, it had enveloped her in an environment that cued her to say, “You are worth more than this guy.” And it dramatically changed the work that we did together.

That really started her on a path to changing really things that she got rid of the apartment, she left the guy in the apartment, he’s kind of moved in on her. She found the support from her friends to get her stuff out of the apartment. She talked to the police about how to do this safely, etc. And I was really impressed by what I’ve learned from her, which was that we can create around us these external cues that remind us how to be rugged. In a sense, the resources trigger the ruggedness.

And, in fact, this is what the science of resilience teaches us, that it’s the external world that literally changes how we think, how we attribute cause, what we believe we can do, and whether or not we’re actually going to realize our talents, whether or not it’s in the work world or in our family at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating and a really inspiring story, and fun in terms of the implications that that can have in any number of context and lives. And we had Todd Herman on the show earlier talk about enclothed cognition, and sort of how indeed what you wear send signals and changes sort of your emotional state, and your capacity to even be effective in different contexts. So, what I’m digging about that is it’s just so darn actionable in terms of the clothes you choose to put on is a part of your environment that’s literally right on you.

Michael Ungar
Oh, absolutely. I mean, if it’s okay I can even take it a little bit further because people think, “Okay, I’ve got the clothing down.” But, of course, we know that, I mean, if you really want to know how to make yourself resilient, you’re also going to have to think even further afield. Like, housing, right? People often say, “Oh, you know, you need relationships. I want to be loved. I want to be mattered.” All these kinds of things.

And I get that, but then they put themselves into, say, small mini mansions, like very large houses where they might have a couple of kids, but the house is so large they can’t even find the kids much less call them for dinner.

It’s kind of interesting that our houses can actually change our mood, whether or not there’s green, green spaces outside that home, whether or not we connect to our neighbors, the way we lay out our streets, whether or not we push that big garage to the front of the yard and hide the house sort of back on the yard.

All of these decisions that we make that in and of themselves seem rather, well, mild, accumulate to stress us or tear apart the very patterns of relationships, the impromptu context that we have with our neighbors, the sense of community—coming back to me with Justin Bieber and the village. But when people begin to think about a whole list of things, and I do talk about that list. It is that how we setup our houses, how we have relationships. Whether or not people around us give us a powerful identity, whether or not the relationships that we want, we’ve actually setup environments to give those to us.

I’ll give a small example. I don’t know if you have a morning routine for a cup of coffee or whatever it is that you drink in the morning. But a lot of people often say to people, “If you’re feeling disconnected and alone, go back to the same coffee shop for three weeks at the same time, and you’ll suddenly get known.” A little bit like the chairs idea, right? You’ll walk in and you’ll be the double soy latte extra hot with foam sort of thing.

And bit by bit you’ll become connected into a pattern, a community. And, again, we can either tell you to go on a yoga retreat and get your mind together, or pay a high-priced guru, or something like that, but, in a sense, that’s not going to create a sustainable change, not unless you already have all these other relationships in place. And if you do, then you’re good. If you’re not, then the individual flipping the switch in your head is not going to be a sustainable change.

And that’s not just an opinion. That’s, unfortunately, what the research actually shows in terms of all those wonderful practices, where all that sort of self-help movement stuff that were preaching at people, it ain’t working.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, I’d love to hear, could you point to one or two or three of the most striking smoking gun studies that really support this paradigm?

Michael Ungar
Well, sure. Even if you just want to stick with Center for Disease Control sort of statistics, if you prefer, we know that overweight and obesity rates are rising in North America, both countries, in Canada and the United States, Mexico, etc. That’s the truth and then we’re going to actually see a decrease in people’s longevity as a consequence of that.

And that’s, at the same time, that we have this massive diet industry, and everyone has access to the internet to get good advice, and there’s more advertising, and more self-help movements, and more opportunities to sort of reflect and fix yourself. What about if, I don’t know, we can take different maybe medications for depression?

Again, you’d think with all the self-help out there that, in fact, depression rates would be going down and that medication use would be going down. And, in fact, it’s going in the opposite direction entirely. The same with anxiety disorders and who’s appearing at our emergency rooms, especially amongst our children.

All these statistics are pointing to the fact that despite this mammoth cornucopia, this smorgasbord of available self-help stuff, the problem is we’re so focused on the rugged individual that we’ve missed that, in fact, without understanding that we also have to be resource individuals, we are not going to get better. We are actually, potentially, going to make the situation worse.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s tricky, certainly if you have ample information at our disposals, so to do some of that self-help stuff. And so, obesity, overweight is way up now as compared to before, and depression, anxiety also way up. So, I guess, then, that would follow that our environments have also become worse in terms of supporting a healthy weight, or a calm, tranquil, happy mental state. Could you sort of speak to some of those environmental factors at work there?

Michael Ungar
Well, some of the big ones that we know about are relationship breakdown. The irony, by the way, one good stat, if you’d like, divorce rates are going down, but that’s only because fewer and fewer people are actually marrying. That’s right. So, I hate to tell you this but it’s a good news/bad news story there.

So, if you think about those kinds of statistics, etc., you’re not necessarily seeing a great deal of change. Loneliness, for instance, would probably be the other big problem that we’re seeing. A huge number, something like one-quarter of US households have people living alone in them. And we’re not actually designed for that kind of lifestyle.

Now, the other side of that is that people, our kids are staying at home with us. And, culturally, there are some cultures that are probably, “That’s a good thing,” right? You don’t move out until you go and get married or something like that, and that’s just the family norm. Thankfully, for my own five children, that is not the family norm. They’re launching, so I can say that.

But you begin to look at loneliness, an inability to launch, in some cases, living in isolation. These are sort of structural things going on around us which are breaking down and, I think, not just I think, are actually showing up in our emergency rooms in our hospitals and, indeed, in our doctors’ offices where you’re seeing a spike in medications.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, loneliness in and of itself is an indicator of a depleted environment or less resource now as it used to be. And what are some other ways that our environments are more bad?

Michael Ungar
Toxic?

Pete Mockaitis
Our environments are worse or toxic. They’re depleted more so now than before in the realms of supporting a healthy way, to a healthy emotional state.

Michael Ungar
Well, the thing is, of course, the evidence is now mounting about cellphone use, screen times, and the social isolation, and accumulative stress that that causes in our lives when we’re online and how we relate to other people when we’re online. We’re not in those relationships really are satisfying to us. In and of itself, using your cellphone, being online a bit is not going to be the problem. Having a rich Facebook community that you’re swapping photos with your neighbors and friends and family. This is not the problem.

The problem becomes when it’s just your only outlet or you’re really caught up in that sort of neurological ping of having more and more likes or that sort of social desirability that you’re looking for. It drives me nuts when I see people taking those selfies. You know, they’re sitting there in the coffee shop and they’re just kind of having a ho-hum day and their facial expression is kind of neutral. And then, suddenly, they want to pop a selfie, and they do this really weird little smirk off to the side, like somehow that social presentation has to be, “I can’t just be normal. I have to be upbeat.”

And if you do it once, that’s not a problem. But if that’s your whole lifestyle, you are going to be more stressed. It’s also not necessarily building the real substance of what we need, which is genuine, well, not just genuine relationships, but a sense of your culture, a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself.

I think part of this that also worries me, because I study resilience so you’re looking for patterns, and this could be on the job site or elsewhere, but you want people to feel like they’re making a really genuine contribution, a real contribution to some product, or some end goal, or mission statement. We are driven by that, whether it’s in our families. And, certainly, when I’m working with people in business settings and stuff, and you often say, “Well, if you’re not getting that from your work world…” then often what you want to ask people, “…are you finding these connections, this sense of meaningful participation in your community outside of your work world?”

And, yes, an audience will raise their hands and I’m sure listeners, too. People would say, “Do you volunteer? Are you a member of a religious organization?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I do, yes.

Michael Ungar
But it’s not just the relationship that you’re going to enrich. You’re also going to get access to more advice, resources. I live in a part of the world, I’d like to joke, where I live, it’s a town of about 400,000 people and we’re casserole people, we’re Maritimers, we’re East Coasters. And if someone down the road breaks a hip, they get a casserole or two or three. And, obviously, if someone’s child is sick, they get a whole freezer-load of casseroles.

But that kind of stuff brings our communities together. And I’m going to argue that even if your job is not meaningful at work, if you’re coming home and cooking in casserole for the neighbor down the street, and your housing is setup, and you’ve been stable enough in your housing for long enough that you actually know that neighbor, then you’ve got a lot of advantages, a lot of environmental advantages that is actually going to carry you through.

Well, not only are you avoiding depression, which we know, but it’s also going to carry you through in terms of being safer, less opportunities to be exposed to violence, you might be even more active in a community like that. I even just saw, I recently read a study that said your mortgage rate might be lower as well because, of course, you’re swapping information with your neighbors, right? So, there’s massive financial, social, emotional advantages when we do things and feel connected to others. But also, in culturally meaningful ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I can tell you, having recently our family given birth to two kids, under two, we appreciate getting a casserole.

Michael Ungar
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s the equation of the household chaos, but much appreciated. So, that’s cool. Well, let’s really get into some of the actionable tidbits with regard to elements of your environment, and how to upgrade and build up those resources. We talked about clothing, we talked about housing, we talked about relationships. Could you maybe kind of lay out the kind of the master checklist and some of the best practices for upgrading those resources so we’ll upgrade our resilience?

Michael Ungar
Yeah, for sure. And I kind of list out 12 in Change Your World but I’m not going to go through all 12 because some of them are hitting here. But, essentially, obviously you need some structure, you want routine in your life, it carries you through periods of crisis. You want accountability. Put yourself in situations where people rely on you even if you’re just accountable to your dog to take them out for a walk. It’s that routine, it’s that sense of purpose in life that’s given to us by our environments.

You’re going to want, of course, relationships. But I always say, you don’t have to be loved, even though it sounds odd, but you do have to matter to somebody, and that’s often the tipping point that you see in studies of resilience. You have to have a powerful identity. There’s got to be something special about you. And, by the way, identity, let’s face it, it’s given to us, it’s not just homegrown in front of the mirror. It’s something that’s reinforced and given to us by others who say, “You are special at this.”

Power and control experiences. You really need that sense of efficacy, that sense that you can make a difference and make decisions that count in your life. What about fair treatment? It’s another that we often overlook. You know, if you’re not being treated fairly, if you hit the glass ceiling, or you’re feeling racially pushed aside, or your ethnicity is being disparaged, all these things accumulate in people’s lives and make it much more difficult to succeed especially when times get tough.

You need your basic needs met, all those kinds of things. You need a sense of your belonging somewhere in your community or your extended family. And, of course, you need things like, finally, yes, you need positive thinking. It does carry you through a tough period as well, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when you see all the other elements of that. And just basic financial. You need enough money and enough physical health to do the things that, frankly, matter to you.

But could I make that a little more concrete? That’s a heck of a list for people to digest, but let me give an example. I was doing some work with one of the worker’s compensation boards, and they were hearing a great story of a fellow who had injured himself on an oil rig. He was right down at the well head, doing really heavy hard labor, you know, paid well, very proud of that identity, a real rough and tumble sort of individual.

And he injured himself and he can never go back into that kind of heavy work. And too often, what we do with workers like that is we direct them into IT jobs, or some sort of a sales job, or something like that. But, very wisely, his case worker got him a job back in the oil patch, but not down in the heavy lifting area. Where he was, he was at the front gate, checking in and out the trucks as the supply trucks and as people came in and out of the yard.

Now, if you think about it, the fellow, he’s changed his identity from the sort of rough and tumble guy at the well head, but he’s still in the same industry. And what’s more is he’s still wearing a hard hat, he has a vest on with the flashy colors and everything else, he’s holding a checklist so he’s in control of things, he’s able to direct people. And when he goes to lunch, he’s still with the same people that he was hanging around with before. And when he’s at the bar, or wherever he goes on Saturday nights, and someone turns and says, “What do you do?” He says, “I’m in the oil industry. I’m in the oil and gas industry,” right?

Now, like, for me, that was an interesting lesson learned, that when you create continuity and you give someone back access to their, in a sense, almost their culture, a sense of purpose, you give them the same uniform, coming back to what we talked about in terms of dress codes and that type of thing, giving him decision-making power, there’s a real sense of power in his job as well, that’s a perfect transition for someone.

And you know what? They’re not going to leave that. They’re not going to experience that injury and then fall into depression and, God forbid, suicide or other kinds of things that sometimes follow when you see people who have gone through these really traumatic injuries on the job. So, when you begin to have this kind of it’s almost like a checklist or a code book, on how to make people more resilient, and as you go through it, we begin to see it. The more of those that you check, as I just did with the sort of the fellow in this hard hat, the more you check, the more likely you are to have success, especially when you hit a really difficult, almost like a time in your life you’re going to stumble.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes some really good sense there with regard to keeping a lot of those things right there, identity is still there, relationship still there, a sense of belonging still there, and the relationships, they’re mattering, so accountability into some of the same kinds of folks, so the same structure routine, that’s pretty cool.

So, then, I’d love to get your take then, because that is a good size list, what’s your impression then, maybe specifically the context of professionals who hit some hard times maybe just because, “Oh, dear, I have to work 12 to 15 hours a week, for a few weeks in a row.” That’s exhausting. Or, “Oh, dear, now I’ve got the demands of job plus a sick child,” or, plus a sick parent. So, there’s some sort of plenty of work responsibility and then, suddenly, a whole lot more land. What are some of your top pro tips to get a really good bang for your buck in upgrading a key resource?

Michael Ungar
Well, that’s a great question. Indeed, you do see that problem of the sandwich generation, that’s probably a great example of that. So, if I learned anything from like literally interviewing hundreds of people, all the complex studies that we carry on, on these topics, I keep seeing a pattern of, well, maybe four simple steps that people go through in trying to figure out how to cope with a tough situation.

And, by the way, to be fair, it’s going to change depending on your risk exposure. So, that is probably the one kernel that we often forget. So, if you’ve got all of those supports, all the education, job stability, and a Visa card that’s not maxed out or a credit card that’s not maxed out, right? If you’ve got all that in place, then you can probably get through that situation you just described, right, because you’re going to have the resources, you can hire a nurse for your mother who’s ill, you can get your kid extra tutoring, you can hire a nanny to look after the house when you’re gone.

Like, you’ve got the infrastructure. So, the only thing you have to do, the first thing, I always encourage people, look at your risk exposure. Before you run to the next motivational guru, just ask yourself first, “How many real risks, how many real dangers, how many real threats am I experiencing in my life?” And then don’t expect that things are going to change if you’re under a lot of external stressors.

So, if you’re not under a lot of external stressors, then, frankly, change your mind, change your mindset, encourage more grit. I just listened to Brene Brown talk on her sort of being daring and courageous and these kinds of things. These are all great advice for us—when we have stability in our lives and that we also have some of, basically, we have healthcare, we have resources that allow us to be daring and all those kinds of other stuff.

So, one, get your mindset on. Change your heads. Absolutely, that’s your first strategy. Second strategy is, heck, if that’s still not quite enough, re-exploit the heck out of all the resources around you, right? Ask for help from your spouse, if that person is willing to step up. Demand that they step up. Ask your kids for a little bit of support, right, getting out of the house, or whatever, or helping with granny if she’s ill. Look to the professionals that you can tap in your community. Maybe tap into your savings if you have some. Do whatever you’re going to need. If you need timeout, pay for a vacation at that time. Do whatever it is that’s going to carry you through. Exploit the heck out of all those resources.

But I often find that the people I’m working with often are more stressed than that, that’s why they’re seeing a therapist often, or whatever. So, the third phase is, of course, you’ve got to create new resources, and that gets a little bit more tough. That means you go to work and maybe your boss is a real, whatever words you want to complete that with, that sentence.

Pete Mockaitis
Jerk face.

Michael Ungar
Jerk face, there you go. And maybe you’re going to need new resources. If that’s not a place you can have it, true enough, I often see people, “You don’t have to quit your job,” which I hate. Well, I actually hate when I hear people tell people to quit their job and start over. I hate that advice because I live in an economy that were often quite depressed, and people don’t quit jobs. You’ve got a good job, and you’ve got your mortgage covered, you do not quit that job.

What you do is, if you’re really stressed by your boss in a really toxic emotional environment, you make a lateral move. You say to them, “Is there a special project that I can get reassigned to? Is there a change of hours or shifts that I can do?” to get on to a different shift or a different boss. “Can I do an extra workshop or something to train up on a separate skill? It won’t increase my pay but at least it gets me into a different part of the office building, or something like that.”

So, often it’s about changing the resources around us. People often say, “I don’t have time to exercise.” I say, “Well, actually, change your parking spot. Park farther from your office door, right? Decide where you’re going to park. Take a parking spot, if you’re going to have to pay for a spot, pay for one that’s three blocks away instead of one block away.” Remarkably small efforts like those can actually exploit the environment around you much better.

Find a friend, find a new person, find a new activity that you’re interested in and exploit that activity to network with a new group of people. Each of these, is basically saying, “I can expand my resources.” So, one, change your head, try to get your head on straight, exploit the resources around you. The second strategy, or the third strategy is build more resources if at all possible.

And, unfortunately, the fourth strategy I see with people, and this has to be said, you know, sometimes we’re in such tough situations that we cannot find more resources. In that case, the only thing we can do is change our expectations. And maybe we don’t need suc   h a big house. Maybe we don’t need the second car. Maybe we aren’t going to go in that vacation that we’ve always dreamed of this year. And maybe our child is, frankly, still going to be sick tomorrow, and it’s still going to be a really, really crappy, burdensome life that we’re going to be living for the next foreseeable future. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy with high expectations.

And, in a sense, that brings you back to maybe changing your mindset, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the story. What that often says is that time is often on our side, that new resources, just through the serendipity of life, just the randomness of where we are and where we could move to, and as our child develops, or our parent passes away, if that’s where you’re at in life, what I’ve seen people do is suddenly new doors open and there are, in a sense, new resources that they can, if they’re able to, to pull those resources to them. Because if you have those resources outside of you, Pete, they will change you. And as we are a better resourced, we actually become also, in a sense, more rugged as individuals as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, that’s so powerful to think through whatever your situation, and then to be able to go through each of those elements. And I’m thinking real-time about how even working with the challenge and have, you know, two kids that are two years old in the home all of a sudden, then we’re asking for some help for whether someone’s bringing in some food or grandparents are helping out, we’re spending some money, like someone is coming in from time to time to do a little bit of helping with the tidying and the food and the laundry, all the stuff, you know, the bottles upon bottles upon bottles.

And that really has made a cool difference, and then as well as changing the expectations. Like, “Hey, it’s not going to be tidy all the time. It’s a different game we’re in right now. And we’re okay with that.” So, but I’d love to hear, we’ve talked about changing your head. How in practice is that done?

Michael Ungar
Well, it’s often by putting ourselves in environments that compel the change. It’s funny, we often think right there it starts from inside, but actually it can actually start a lot from outside. I’ll give you a couple of funny little examples. A colleague of mine works on what’s called physical literacy, and he tries to get kids to move more, which is, “Oh, my gosh, we’re worried about that all the time as parents.” Two-year-olds move a lot. You’re not there yet, are you? But eventually they slow down, and then you want them to move more.

And this fellow, what he does is he went into an elementary school, and he put accelerometers on kids to see how much they’re moving and how fast they were moving. And then what he did was he went back on the weekend after he had his baseline measurements, and he painted hop scotches in the hallways of the elementary school.

Next week, he measured the kids again. Guess what? They were moving more and they were moving faster accumulatively. Now, it’s a silly little experiment perhaps, but if you see this as a pattern, we know that certain environments induce us or nudge us, if you like that word as well, towards different sets of behaviors to change. And they, in a sense, change our thinking about exercise, about movement. So, that’s why people get a dog. I mean, it’s a great external change. It not only makes us feel like we matter, it not only introduces structure and routine and accountability, it also involves us by compulsion. We must take the dog out for a walk. We’re literally outdoors more, hopefully, and in a sense moving.

So, these external elements can actually change our experience. And I have another sort of a funny example. Recently, we were in our neighborhood, we have a fairly good set of neighbors, but partly that’s because we’ve owned a house in the same space for a little while. And the other day, we were having a lot of family over for a turkey dinner, and the turkey didn’t de-thaw. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived this kind of weirdness, and it was just a too big a bird and it didn’t do what it was supposed to do in the fridge and it just wasn’t ready to be cooked when it was supposed to be ready to be cooked.

So, my partner goes scrambles all around the town and finds a couple of other turkeys that are fresh ones that we can cook up and feed everybody. But, meanwhile, we have this turkey that’s now half de-thawed that you can’t do anything with. So, what we do is we put our call out. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story of the stone soup. You know, the guy shows up in a city, town, and says, “I can make a soup from a stone.” He just gets every single person in the town to contribute one little ingredient to the pot of water and, suddenly, he has a beautiful soup.

So, we put out a call to our neighbors, we said, “You know, we have a turkey but we don’t have a turkey dinner. And we need potatoes, we need vegetables, we need stuffing, we need gravy, we need this and that.” And, suddenly, basically, two days later we held a massive party, impromptu, in our kitchen that brought in 30 people, well, 30 of our neighbors.

And the reason I’m sort of saying that is there’s a part of me floating above that whole experience going, “You know, if you want to talk about combatting loneliness, if you want to talk about feeling connected and knowing that you have people in your corner, it’s not always about deep heart-to-heart thoughts, or great emotional moments.” It’s sometimes about simply saying, “Join me in a turkey dinner because I have a big bird that I can’t eat and, frankly, I need a little bit of help doing something like this.”

So, I’m always kind of amazed that we can change our emotional moods, we can change our physical behaviors through external environments. And I think we do this in the workplace all the time as well, right? I don’t know if you’ve ever met somebody like this but one of the best examples that I’ve ever encountered, and it’s so mundane it’s silly, but I’ve met people who don’t necessarily find much meaning in their workplace, but they’re the birthday person on the job.

And I’m not sure if you’ve ever worked in a place where there’s the birthday person. You know, the person who remembers everyone else’s birthday to make sure that there’s a cake, cakes and the cards and stuff? And if you actually sort of look at what’s going on, they have found an identity, a role, a way of building community, a sense of purpose and place. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they’re processing claims for whatever, right? It’s a completely, in a sense, an action that reminds them, that changes their mood. It’s a small act that, evidently, they have to be motivated to do, but it kind of reflects back to them and changes who they are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. I really like the turkey story and it reminds me of a time when we had too much beer in the keg.

Michael Ungar
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I was like 23 years old, and it’s like, “What are you going to do with all this extra beer?” So, we like made little flyers and slipped them under everyone’s door in the apartment building, and we did. We had a bundle of random folk from across the apartment building finishing up the keg. And it was fun, we got to know these neighbors, like folks we never met before, like, “Well, I’ll show up for some free beer. Sure.”

Michael Ungar
I love it. And, yeah, the difference between being maybe 23 and 43, or maybe not. Somehow, I tried to play that actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Right in the middle now it’s like, “What was going to be my thing? Is it a turkey? Is it a keg?” I’m sure we’ll figure it out, but this is good food for thought saying podcaster pun. Well, tell me, Michael, any final thoughts about boosting resilience before we shift gears to talk about some of your favorite things?

Michael Ungar
Well, probably the best part of this is really, if I could, just the research is really clear, right? It’s the external things that make us a mess, that causes the trauma. It would make sense that it’s also the external things that are going to heal us. I just don’t understand why when we talk about the external things, there’s these wonderful studies out of the US called the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies where they’ve identified 10 things that are really going to mess you up as an adult. If you have those things happen as a kid, like abuse, and a parent goes to jail, and a parent with a mental illness or an addiction, or even a divorce or separation of parents, all these things have long-term health implications for you when you’re an adult. And that’s what the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies show.

But they’re all preventable, right? These are all preventable things through good social policy, through good healthcare, good access to resources. We can prevent families and children from experiencing these awful things, which kind of, if you flip the coin here, it would make sense that if you also gave children, well, beneficial childhood experiences, you would also decrease heart disease and depression in adulthood. You decrease all the illnesses that are now associated with those negative things as kids.

So, for me, as much as I’m both a clinician and a scientist and a father and a neighbor, there’s such a robust evidence that says to me, “Be resourced, not just rugged, and you’ll stop blaming yourself for these problems.”

Pete Mockaitis
Now, Michael, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Ungar
Well, I would still say something along the lines of it’s easier to change the world around you than yourself. I mean, that’s sort of the mantra that I just keep going with over and over again. Or, maybe even better, Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” which is sort of a rift on the same idea, right? Once you have it, you don’t kind of acknowledge it, you don’t sort of see it, but, boy, once it’s gone, you know it.

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

Michael Ungar
Probably the Adverse Childhood Experience Studies which I just talked about, or there’s been some wonderful stuff, sort of the neighborhood studies out of Chicago that were done decades ago. Certainly, it showed up much the same, you know, people’s need for stable housing. Or, a recent study up in Alaska by Shauna BurnSilver. Her colleagues had showed, you know, people’s nutrition and health has very little to do with the food supply, and a whole lot to do with, say, she’s talking about like a hunting in a more sort of hunting societies.

A lot of it has to do with how bountiful the game is, and much more about how the communities share what they have, which kind of speaks again to we’re a lot stronger together and through cultural practices and how we see ourselves as contributing to the welfare of others.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Michael Ungar
That’s tough. I love fiction but I also like sort of the non-fiction realm. If readers haven’t come across Chris Hadfield’s Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth definitely a great read. He was the commander of the Space Station and the guy who did all the musical performances up there and some great photography as well. And he just kind of basically brings it home. He says there was a lot he learned as an astronaut, but there’s a lot of great lessons about how to cooperate in a team, and how to work together with others. And I think Chris definitely has a great perspective on life.

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

Michael Ungar
I’d have to say, I know it’s going to, maybe it’s funny, but actually the tool is part of my family. It’s actually what happens in the prep to get to the job. On the job site, it’s probably just finding a common mission. There’s something, a principle called collective impact. If people ever tripped to cross that idea of that you get people on the same agenda, you feel like you’re all collaborating.

I work a lot in international teams where we’re spending a lot of time communicating over the web. And I find that when you have a common mission statement, that’s really great, but it’s even better when your family is interested in what you’re doing, and it kind of reinforces it.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Michael Ungar
Oh, definitely coffee shop hanging out watching people. Whenever I’m too burnt out or just tired and whatever, especially, I travel a great deal, I find it’s the coffee shop, it’s that hunt of a local, not a chain, but sort of a local kind of hip place to hang out and just watch people, and just that centering space of the routine, of doing the same thing, or having the same kind of drink anywhere in the world. It almost transports you home. It almost just reminds you sort of what life is about, I guess, for that particular moment.

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

Michael Ungar
Well, they can check out my website, it’s michaelungar.com. Of course, it has all the links, and the books, and stuff if you want to read a bit more. “Change Your World” is coming out. Hopefully, it’ll inspire some ideas as well. And if they’re really into more research side, the website is resilienceresearch.org and that’s our big research center that we run.

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

Michael Ungar
Oh, man. Just, yeah, focus a little bit less on blaming yourself and trying to be rugged, and just think about putting around yourself, enveloping yourself with the resources that are going to bring out your best. And just let it follow, just let your mindset be changed by the environment around you so that people will notice you. Situations will make you feel good about yourself. Your success will sort of elevate your identity and your sense of power and control. These things can all be done through the external cues to you as opposed to, you know, I know it’s so much work.

Frankly, it’s exhausting, exhausting to try and get the world, to try and just change ourselves and then go, day after day, back into a toxic environment. And I think that is such a formula for depression and other diseases or mental health problems, versus just shifting ourselves a little bit into environments that reward us. And, frankly, if work ain’t cutting it, then find that elsewhere. Volunteer. There’s a jazz festival that comes to where I live every summer. I see people volunteering at that. I also see people volunteering as coaches in the little league. You know, there’s endless opportunities to give back and feel like, frankly, you have meaning to others. And, frankly, that’s what resilience is all about. I see it over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Michael, thanks for sharing the good word, and good luck with your book “Change Your World” and all your adventures.

Michael Ungar
Well, thanks. And all the best to you and your young family. What an adventure that is.

436: How to hack your time and motivation wisely–and when not to–with Joseph Reagle

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Joseph Reagle shares handy research insights on hacking life optimally and safely.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The question you need to ask when optimizing your life
  2. Why lifehacks should be taken in moderation
  3. How to use your own money  to hack your motivation

About Joseph

Joseph writes and teaches about digital communication and online communities. He’s an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. He’s also served as a fellow and faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. His doctoral dissertation was on the history and collaborative culture of Wikipedia. Joseph has appeared in media including The Economist and The New York Times.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Joseph Reagle Interview Transcript

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

Joseph Reagle
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your stuff. And I’d love to start with you sharing a little bit of how you came to adapt a practice of Japanese techniques of T-shirt folding. What’s the scoop here?

Joseph Reagle
I came by it by way of YouTube. I’m a bit of a sponge. I watch a lot of YouTube channels, I read a lot of blogs and whatnot. And I saw that there’s this particular technique for folding T-shirts, and I can’t say it verbally. If your listeners want to check it out, you can Google Japanese T-shirt. It’s very nice. You just kind of pinch two parts of the shirt, and you do a little flick of the wrist, and then, bam, it’s folded.

And it’s a trivial sort of thing. It doesn’t really save me much time, but I think the thing I enjoy about it is I don’t really enjoy folding laundry. And so, this gives me a little practice, a little technique that I can improve upon, that I can hone as I’m folding my laundry, so that gives me something to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is nice and it sort of makes you feel like there’s some craftmanship involved. And I believe this Japanese T-shirt folding practice is different than what Marie Kondo is advocating as I looked at your reference videos. Is that fair to say?

Joseph Reagle
It is. She also has some great ideas. I don’t know if she calls it vertical folding. But, basically, if you have a lot of T-shirts, or maybe we use this with the hand towels in our kitchen. Instead of piling all the hand towels on top of one another, you arrange them side by side so you can see your whole gamut of things that you want to select from. And that’s a very handy tip as well, and we use that in our kitchen.

Pete Mockaitis
And I like, in particular, the ability to not have to make one hand into a levitating shelf to take the things that are up above it in the other hand to grab the thing that is now on the new top. And then things get a little bit disjointed along the way. So, I’m right with you. Well, it’s funny, we’re already talking about it. You’ve got a book, it’s called Hacking Life and I’m quite intrigued by your premises and your discoveries. So, maybe you can start us off by sharing what was one of the most striking and surprising discoveries you made when putting this together?

Joseph Reagle
Well, in the book, I’m looking at lifehackers and all the domains of life that they apply this hacking ethos to. So, it includes things like motivation, time management, productivity, health, material possessions. And when I got to relationships, I was looking at various types of people who use various tips and tricks for seduction, pickup artistry, for managing their marriage, the negotiation part of a relationship, as well as people just going online like OkCupid and trying to figure out how to get themselves to be able to be matched with people that they might like.

And there was a Wired article about this one hacker who hacked OkCupid and he created fake profiles, and he downloaded a bunch of information, and he kind of figured out the sort of women that he would be attracted to, and the sort of questions that they were interested in. And he ended up calling it a success, and he published a self-help book about how to hack OkCupid. And he went on 88 dates.

And when I talk about that with students, they’re like, “That doesn’t sound very successful,” but I teach in Communication Studies, and most of my students are women, and when they hack dating, they also add a filtration mechanism, interestingly enough, so they don’t have to go out with bozos and boneheads.

And then I came across someone else, another engineer who went on 150 dates in four months. And he spoke about—it was so tempting in this age, when we have all this technology and choice available to us, to try one more date, to get one more datapoint to figure out like who that perfect person would be. And that’s been leading me into some of the downsides, I think, in approaching life this way.

I’m very hackery myself. I think we can learn a lot. There’s a lot of handy tips and tricks, and they can even help us craft some meaning for our lives. But there are some excesses.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. However, I want to talk about some of your hackeriness, if that’s a word, as well as some of the pros and cons. But maybe just to make sure, from a language standpoint, we’re on the same page, what makes a lifehack a lifehack per se?

Joseph Reagle
Well, the term “hack” goes back, surprisingly, far amount of time. It emerged at MIT at their Tech Model Railroad Club. So, that was a very geeky    early electronics club at MIT in the late 1950s, and hacker culture emerged out of that. And they started accumulating a fair amount of jargon back then, and they put out a dictionary in 1959, and they said a hacker is the person who avoids the standard solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Joseph Reagle
More recently, the founder of LifeHacker.com, Gina Trapani, she wrote that as a computer engineer-type of person, she thinks about reprogramming the tasks of her life how she would a program. And her goal is to optimize them to make them a little faster and a little more efficient. So, the idea of lifehacking spans the mundane and include things like tying your shoelaces or folding your shirt, but it goes up to what I call meaning hacking, trying to find contentment in a life of uncertainty and loss. But all of these entail an appreciation of systems and employment of systems, maybe trying to figure out how to exploit those systems, to bend the rules so that you can be a little more efficient.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I mean, that sounds great to me. What are some of the downsides you’re unearthing here?

Joseph Reagle
Well, what I wanted to do in this book is not pillorize lifehacking. And people do sometimes, particularly cultural critics and academics. You know, they hold their nose when it comes to self-help, and I think lifehacking is a part of self-help. And there’s plenty of shade that people can throw at lifehacking as well.

But I didn’t want to do that because, as I just said, I’m geeky myself. But what I wanted to do was then draw some distinctions. So, let’s not throw lifehacking out altogether. Let’s figure out, are there ethical lifehacks and less ethical lifehacks? Are there different types of hacking? And I call them nominal and optimal hacking.

And I think, in this case, optimal hacking certainly has some excesses entailed. So, you might optimize a wrong thing. So, the example that I spoke of, of that hacker who went on 150 dates, I think he was optimizing for the wrong thing. He got fixated on the dates rather than the starting of a relationship. And when you approach life as a system that can be optimized, you do have the tendency to sometimes fall into this trap of what I call naïve optimization.

Pete Mockaitis
These are great distinctions I’m wrapping my brain around here. So, I got optimal hacking, where we’re seeking to optimize something. In that one case, he was optimizing such that he could get a bunch of dates. And what’s nominal hacking?

Joseph Reagle
Nominal hacking is an engineering term, and I could’ve used the word normal, but I didn’t for various reasons, because that’s loaded as well. But it’s the idea that you’re good enough. So, for example, I spoke to lots of folks in the quantified self-movement and lifehackers who might want to lose a little bit of weight, or who have migraines. And so, they’re not trying to like boost their brains like some lifehackers and biohackers take nootropics that supposedly make them smarter. That’s how Tim Ferriss actually got his start, selling a nootropic online.

They’re just trying to get back to a good enough sort of state. And I can appreciate that certainly because if people take some risks there, they’re doing it for a particular reason. But when people get too far down the line of optimizing, sometimes they’re putting themselves at risk for a very marginal gain. So, for example, one of the people I speak of is Seth Roberts, and he was very big in the Quantified Self movement when that started. And the Quantified Self movement is just like the number measurement fixated wing of lifehackers.

And he came up with, well, he discovered for himself that eating half a stick of butter everyday made him a little bit faster.

Pete Mockaitis
Faster, running? Thinking?

Joseph Reagle
Thinking. And so, he had a little program on his computer, and it would give him little math puzzles, and he would respond to them as quickly as he could, and he would chart and measure his response times and accuracy, and he would track that over the days so he could see when he was a little bit faster, or when he was a little bit slower.

And he, originally, had started eating a large amount of pig fat everyday to help with his sleep because he discovered that helped him by way of accident. But then eating pig fat everyday was difficult because you can’t really carry it around with you. But he discovered if you ate half a stick of butter, you can get butter even when you’re out at a restaurant. That helped with his sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Butter, please.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, and it improved his mathematical abilities. And when he would give talks about this, he was like, “This is really great. This really works for me. I prefer to manage my own health in this way.” He didn’t really trust the medical establishment. And he wasn’t a kook. He was a professor of psychology. He worked on rat psychology, but he was very much into his own quantification and experimentation. And a cardiologist, in one of his talks, suggest that he might give himself a heart attack.

And the big irony here was that he started a column at The New York Observer, where he would write about his lifehacking and experiments on a monthly basis, maybe it was weekly. And his first column was his last column. It was entitled “Butter Makes Me Smarter.” And a couple of days before, he had had a heart attack.

So, I can’t say that eating half a stick of butter gave him a heart attack. He’s just a single person. But I think it speaks to some of the risks. Like, why eat half a stick of butter so that you’re a couple milliseconds faster on this trivial arbitrary sort of little quiz you setup for yourself?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yes, so that’s very clear, optimizing for the wrong thing. So, you’re a little quicker but your health is suffering, and so that’s not a great trade certainly. So, given that, how has your thinking evolved in terms of establishing whether a particular practice seems like a good idea or a bad idea?

Joseph Reagle
I don’t know if I can say beforehand something is great or something is really a bad idea, but I have some heuristics. And so, again, if you’re to push yourself to that leading edge, I think you need to ask yourself, “Am I focusing on one thing beyond all others?”

So, there’s a fellow by the name of Nick Winter, and he wrote this really nice little self-published book that you can buy on Amazon called Motivation Hacker. And he read all the popular literature, the pop science literature on motivation, on habit formation, on curing procrastination. And he thought, “Well, what happens if I could amplify all this to be absurdly productive?” And he used all these psychological techniques, and apps and hacks that were available to him, and he was savvy about it.

He did end up working 120-hour work weeks as for fun almost, but he also had to create goals for himself, like to go on so many dates with his then girlfriend, now wife, go out to be social with his friends like 10 times a week, make sure he was still doing his pushups and pullups and health regime. So, that works for him. And you can go to a webpage, he dynamically, in live time, has a webpage where he charts his productivity and the hours he has spent coding. And he plots it against his running average over days, and months, and weeks. But at least he was cognizant of the fact that he had other things that he needed to keep his eye on, and he didn’t just focus on and fixate on productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, what’s interesting is, as you talk about that life and that quantification and striving to sort of beat it and have it at the top, I mean, it’s interesting because I love spreadsheets for all sorts of things. And I have quantified a number of things in my day that most people don’t bother or would find excessive or over the top.

But, as I think about and imagine that scenario, it seems to me a real risk would be just a sense that your, I don’t know, meaning, or your value, or your purpose, or all that matters is that which is you are quantifying, charting, publishing, which can kind of suck you into some, I think maybe really, depressing places. Is that kind of what some patterns that you’re seeing in your research here?

Joseph Reagle
Oh, definitely. So, I have the chapters on hacking time, hacking motivation, material possessions, and you can almost see a progression of people looking for contentment. So, people think, “If I can be super-efficient, then I will be happy. I will be content.” And it turns out that’s not necessarily the case for a lot of people. They realize, “I still am not happy. I climbed to the top of my hierarchy at my work, I make a lot of money, and I bought a house. Now, I have all this stuff, and that’s making me anxious.”

So, then, you can look at the digital minimalist, another wing of lifehacking, and they decided, “Well, why don’t I do another experiment? Why don’t I get rid of everything except a hundred things?” So, there is the hundred things challenge, and some people did 99 things, and some people did 50 things. And that worked for some people for a time, and some people still lived that very minimalist life. But one of the people I spoke to, it’s a pseudonym, but I had been following her, and she, again, had had a breakdown, had a good job but very stressful, ended up on the floor in a pool of tears, that’s how she spoke about it. And quit the job, sold everything except what she could fit in a backpack and traveled the world writing about digital minimalism.

And, after a year or so, she quit it all. And I found that out because I was checking some of my sources for the book, and all her webpages were gone, and her e-book was gone, and her Twitter account was gone. But, fortunately, I still had contact information, and I said, “Now, what happened? Where did it all go?” And she said, “Well, everyone was doing the same thing, all shouting about how happy and content they were, and how awesome this was, but it just started to ring hollow,” and she got out of it.

And so, that’s the chapter on material possessions. And then there is a chapter on health and relationships, then ultimately meaning. Like, when you realize that none of those things will necessarily guarantee you happiness and contentment, when you realize that life, even perfectly optimized, is still likely to throw you some disappointments and loss. What do you do? And that’s the next to the last chapter when people start pulling from stoicism and mindfulness and Zen Buddhism in particular among lifehackers.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. So, yeah, I can see how that really makes sense in that, just like, “Okay, if I could just do a little more, a little more, a little more of efficiency, or productivity, or production of stuff, then I’ll arrive.” And it’s like, “Oh, wait a second. It can’t get any more optimal than this and you’re still not doing it.”

Joseph Reagle
So what do you do then?

Pete Mockaitis
Bummer! A realization. And so, well, I mean, that’s a big question. Now, what do you do?

Joseph Reagle
Well, one of the parallels I draw, I found this really interesting in the meaning hacking chapter, was that people do, are very fond of the Zen minimalist sort of aesthetic, and mindfulness is really big in Silicon Valley. There’s a conference every year called Wisdom 2.0 where they bring in Google and a bunch of tech companies and all the mindfulness gurus.

And people pick and choose in various aspects of religions, and it tends to be very individualistic, and we’ll hear people talking about how like Tim Ferriss will talk about mindfulness as an efficient operating system for the brain. There’s a fellow who started at Google, he wrote a book and he has a non-profit called Search Inside Yourself because he started at Google, so he’s playing on this search thing. And he wrote about how EQ is great for your engineers’ and your techies’ and your employees’ emotional intelligence.

And the employees know the more EQ they have, the more money they’ll make, and so they’ll be happier at the companies. And that just seems very crass. And so, people get frustrated with that. And, again, the ironic parallel is Siddhartha, the original Buddha, started out living a life of extreme luxury. His father was the king, his mother the queen, he was provided with everything a young man could be provided with: money, exotic foods, courtesans.

And he woke up one morning and he just said, “I am not happy. I am not content.” He became a minimalist. He went out, traveled around, taught and learned from a lot of yogis. He became very extreme. He tried to optimize his asceticism, nearly starved himself to death, passed out, was revived by a young girl who fed him some rice milk, and realized, “Huh, maybe what I need to do is pursue the middle way, the middle path, the path of moderation.”

And so, wow, that’s the insight. Maybe being super extreme about optimizing everything is not the solution. Maybe moderation is good in all things. And that’s the neat thing about lifehacking as a type of self-help. A lot of the genuine bits of wisdom and insight that people do come to have been around for centuries, if not millennia. But what self-help does is it wraps up those bits of wisdom, those bits of insight, into a vocabulary that people in a current moment, in a current culture can understand.

So, what lifehacking really is it’s a type of self-help, for what’s been called, you know, the geek class, the engineers, the techies, the creative class, the people who aren’t on someone else’s clock but they still have a lot to do. And they have to figure out, “Well, how in this world of increased demands and expectations on your intention, but also increased distractions, how can you possibly focus?”

And so, lifehacking, as a type of self-help, says, “Here are some lessons that have been around for a while, like the middle path, the middle way, making sure you connect with your family and friends, and you don’t forget about it, making sure that when you schedule your day, you give yourself time to do meaningful long-term stuff, that you give yourself time to maybe be spiritual, or spend time with your friends and relations, and it couches it in contemporary terms.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I appreciate, Joseph, you’ve also given me a prescription for a bestseller, just to go ahead and find some ancient wisdom and package it in modern terms, and that seems to be a winning formula.

Joseph Reagle
That’s what self-help is. It’s always being done actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, all right. Well, that gets me all the more motivated to finish off Plutarch’s Lives and any other books that are on my shelf that I haven’t built in meaningful time to tackle just yet. Well, that’s really cool. So, getting acquainted then, or having covered these kinds of cautionary bits, and getting a broader perspective on what we’re really going for, I do want to touch base on a little bit of tactical stuff. What have you discovered have been, for many practitioners, some pretty excellent habits, or approaches, or hacks when it comes to time?

Joseph Reagle
One of the insights I came to in doing this work, and again this has been around for a while. There is a theorist, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, Schelling, who came up with this idea of Egonomics. And decades ago, he said that there’s a lot of things that we would like to do, but that we don’t do. And the Greeks even spoke of this as “akrasia.” We do things that we shouldn’t do, and we don’t do the things we should do.

So, one of the things that I take advantage of is called the Pomodoro technique. And “pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato, and the guy who came up with it just happened to have a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

And the idea is that when you have a long-term task that you want to do or go on, like I want to write a chapter for a book, getting started writing a chapter of a book is daunting. It’s very hard to motivate yourself. So, what you can do is you can say, “I’m just going to set this timer for 40 minutes, and I’m going to sit down, and I’m just going to look at that page in front of me, I’m not going to allow myself to get distracted. But after the 40 minutes, I can take a short break.”

And that allows you to get over that hump of, “Oh, my gosh, I could never start this big project that I’ve been worrying about and thinking about.” And so, that’s one of the techniques I love. On the cover of my book, under the title, there is a little Pomodoro tomato timer. I don’t know how many people will get that, but that’s what it is. And I also glitched it up a little bit to show there might be a dark side or some excesses.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the Pomodoro, you are a fan there. And so that is, I believe, 25 minutes is the time there.

Joseph Reagle
I think that’s how it was started. I tend to do 45 to 50 minutes for writing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so, that you found to be good and workable and helpful in your world.

Joseph Reagle
I do. And, again, the interesting thing is it’s not so much a time management. It’s really a self-management tool. Because time really is what time is. You can’t do a lot with it. The real challenge is motivating ourselves. An economist from a couple of decades ago, who won a Nobel Prize, actually called this Egonomics. He proposed a new field of study for ways that we might understand the economics of our own self-regulation, the sort of economy of our desires and wants.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fascinating. Can you share perhaps an insight or takeaway or two from that study?

Joseph Reagle
Well, he didn’t do a study. He wrote an essay where he was proposing this sort of study. And some of the examples he used back then was, he says, “Well, people do things to keep themselves from smoking cigarettes, or biting their nails.” Like, people would paint some disgusting nail polish on their nails so they would taste it. Or, if you have poison ivy, you put gloves on your fingers. And so, he said, “Just as a real economics, you see these exchanges and tensions, we grapple with these within ourselves.”

And, interestingly, if we go back even further, the Greeks spoke about this. They had a term for it called akrasia. And that was that frustration related to doing things that you shouldn’t do, and not doing things that you should do. And the classic example for that is Ulysses. He wanted to hear the sirens when he and his sailors were sailing by, but he knew that if everyone heard the sirens, they would be pulled to their death on the rocks. So, what did he do? He had himself tied to the mast, and could listen to the sirens, had the men put wax in all their ears so they couldn’t hear the sirens, and he could enjoy it but he knew he wouldn’t go crazy.

And, in economics, they call those Ulysses pacts, or—Ulysses is another name for Odysseus. And what you do is you commit yourself to something that it’s not easy to back away from. So, earlier I mentioned Nick Winter and his book, The Motivation Hacker, and he’s really fond of this app called Beeminder. Now, this would never work for me, but the app, what it does is it asks you to commit a certain amount of money to a task. And if you don’t do that task you forfeit the money.

So, you might say, “I want to work for 50 minutes to get started on my chapter today,” you set your Pomodoro timer. But what’s going to keep you from getting distracted? Well, there are some tools like Freedom that can keep you from going to Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. But you could also set a little goal on Beeminder that says you’re going to lose $10 if you fail to satisfy your Ulysses pact, your commitment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, I guess then you just have to be honest.

Joseph Reagle
You do.

Pete Mockaitis
You could go back in there and say I did or did not do that thing.

Joseph Reagle
That’s the question. Like, “Well, why would anyone not just lie and not lose the money?” But the thing that I encountered when I spoke to users of this application is that, one, they have this app very much integrated into their lives and their quantifications, so they really want good, accurate data for like how many words they wrote in a day, or how many Pomodoros they did, or whatever it is that they’re trying to do. And they don’t like to have their data distorted, and that’s helping them manage their data.

And then, two, they really appreciate the service. And so, they’re happy. Like, if you have a habit you really want to create, spending 10, and then if you fail, 20, it doubles. Spending that amount of money is worth it to you. And they very cleverly designed the app such that you end up paying the least money that’s still worth what that task is worth to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. How do you arrive at such a figure?

Joseph Reagle
They’ve done some research. The company is a joint effort of two folks, Bethany Soule, who has a graduate degree in Computer Science, and Danny Reeves who has a PhD in Economics and Incentive Systems. And they have applied that economic quantified approach to the whole of their lives. I talk about their marriage in the chapter on hacking relationships.

And they bid for things in their relationship, like who’s going to take out the trash tonight. The one person might say, “Well, I would give you $2,” and the other person will say, “Well, I’d give you $3.” And so, the person might, “Okay, I’ll take the $3.” And for them, from an economic point of view, it’s very efficient because the person who least wanted to do it didn’t have to do it, and the person who got the most value of it did it. So they have a very unusual but interesting approach to life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess, again, you need to be honest, like, “Oh, boy, I’d give you $500.” It’s like getting you trump, trump, trump, trumping them each time with a huge sum. But I guess that’s part of the marriage game is being honest and forthright and not trying to game the system there.

Joseph Reagle
Yeah, and they do exchange the money, they do have a hack on top of that, so they don’t exchange every single interaction they have. They only record and exchange money every 10 of these interactions, but then they multiply that interaction by 10. So, if it was $3 to take out the trash, it’d be worth $30. And it’s very unusual and they received some criticisms out there on the web.

But unlike some of the other excesses and unsavory hacking, at least they’re trying to be fair, at least it’s very explicit. They call it, you know, they are respecting one another’s utility curves. They’re not being exploitative. And I think you can find that in some other instances of lifehacking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, respecting each other’s utility curves sure sounds romantic.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, that’s what some of the folks said, like, “This doesn’t sound like a real relationship.” And it’s definitely unusual, but it works for them. And when I tried to apply those distinctions of this, if it’s ethical or not, it seems above board.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And I’m sort of being a little cheeky with the actual words that phonetically you don’t sound romantic, but the concept, I think, really is in terms of being thoughtful about each other’s needs, and also somehow balancing your own stuff. And it reminds me back in the day when I had three roommates, and then we had four rooms in the apartment that were all a little bit different in terms of their pros and cons, with their space, and they have their own bathroom, etc. And it’s like, “Well, okay, how are we going to divide up this rent?”

And that was the game we played. It’s like, “Okay, you’d like the big room. Gotcha. And just how much would you be willing to pay in rent for that big room?” And so, by iteratively going through this, it worked out just right. It turns out I was a bit more frugal and I had the small room with a small rent, and the lawyer and the doctor, you know, they were living larger, and it was good and fine that way.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, it can be efficient. Of course, there are some downsides and they’ve had to think about that in the context of their relationship. So, she’s the only one that could actually be pregnant and have the kids. So, what is the value? Let’s say, for example, one of them was in school while the other person was working. And so, they had to figure out, like, “What is the value of these things?“

Their first daughter’s name was Fair, and they actually bid between themselves when they name the kid, and Fair won. And it went for a couple of thousand dollars between them. And, again, it’s very unusual, but at least, for them, those things weren’t taken for granted. I think that’s preferable to a relationship where you just assume, “Oh, you’re going to get pregnant and you’re going to stay home with the kids, and I’ll be earning the money and have plenty of spending money.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Well said. Well, tell me, any final thoughts about lifehacking, great practices, how professionals might use some of this wisdom to accelerate their own ends?

Joseph Reagle
I would recommend people experiment with various things, but they need to ask themselves two questions, well, more than two questions, but let’s focus with two questions. When you go out and you buy a bit of self-help, whether about it’s productivity or minimizing and getting around the clutter, you’ll have to think about, “Well, compared to what? Is this technique going to be cost effective? Is it likely to be efficacious? And are there any side effects or harms?”

And I think if you’re attracted to something, and you can ask yourself those questions, and all that seems to bear out, I think it’s worthwhile trying while you’re also keeping yourself in check with respect to some of the excesses that fall from optimization.

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

Joseph Reagle
Sure. So, one of my favorite books on time management, and again that’s a bit of a misnomer because it’s really about managing ourselves, was Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And that was real popular back in the ‘80s, and even the ‘90s, but now other books like Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek, I think more people are probably familiar with. But he had this great quote, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

And that’s because, I think, someone was telling me like Elon Musk has a calendar where he schedules every five minutes of his day, and I think that would drive most people nuts. That would not be effective for most people. And what Covey is suggesting instead is if you do want to prioritize having time to think about the long term, the things that are of high value to you, things in your personal life that you want to make sure that there’s room for, schedule your priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said.

Joseph Reagle
Don’t fixate on your calendar and making sure that every five-minute chunk of your calendar is full.

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

Joseph Reagle
This might not be appropriate because I know you’re looking for probably a study that tells you how to be more effective. But there’s a study I really like in terms of critical thinking, and it’s a follow-up to the marshmallow study. Pete, have you ever heard of the marshmallow study?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right, Walter Mischel. It’s a fave. Did he do this one or was someone else building off that work?

Joseph Reagle
The follow-up was in 2012.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Joseph Reagle
So, the original one has been made use of a lot by people who were into like grit, and motivation, and sticking to it. And this study from decades ago was done by placing a marshmallow in front of a child, and they’d say to the kid, “You could have this marshmallow now or, if you wait, and I go look for more marshmallows and I come back in 10 minutes and you haven’t eaten the marshmallow, you can have two marshmallows.”

And so, in the study, they looked at the kids who ate the marshmallows immediately, and they looked at the kids who could persevere and hold off and be patient and wait for that second marshmallow. And then the interesting things is they tracked some of the indicators of those peoples’ lives as they move through their lives. And so, how did they do in school? Like, what was their SAT scores? Did they get a good job? Did they end up buying a house? You know, all those sort of things. Did they end up in a good relationship? And they found a very strong correlation between the people who were able to persevere and be patient, and those outcomes from later on in life, the good outcomes.
And for many decades, people then thought, “Well, if you want to raise kids, or if you want to do well in your life, you really need to learn how to persevere.” And the slight downside was that sometimes it led to the implication that if you ended up in life in a place where you didn’t really want to be, or if people fared poorly in life, it was their own fault because they didn’t have enough grit, and we just need to teach kids to have more grit.

Well, the study from 2012 added a step before the marshmallow. And the proctors of the study would do something with crayons. Before the marshmallow step, they’d bring out some dumpy crayons, half-used crayons, not a lot of shades of color, and they tell the kids, “Here are some crayons if you’d like to color in this book here. But I have a better brand-new set of crayons available if you’re willing to wait.” And they did the same thing. They said, “Would you be willing to wait and I’ll bring you back a nicer set of crayons?”

They went off and then the proctors came back and did one of two things. They said, “Oh, I forgot the really nice crayons. I’m so sorry,” or they gave them the good crayons. And so, the proctors were unreliable or reliable. Then they did the marshmallow study. And it turns out that when the kids had been exposed to an unreliable proctor, they did not get the nice new crayons, they ate that marshmallow right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and that liar is not going to come back with two marshmallows.

Joseph Reagle
Yes, exactly right. And so, this is really nice evidence that it wasn’t necessarily the kids’ grit and perseverance, maybe these kids had a lot of siblings. And if you have a lot of brothers and sisters, you know you can’t leave that marshmallow sitting there. Or maybe they grew up in an impoverished family. And maybe those with the things that correlated with later-in-life outcomes, rather than in any essentialist kind of notion of grit and internal stick-it-to-it-ness.

Pete Mockaitis
That is clever.

Joseph Reagle
Yeah, so I really like that study because I think, again, it’s great for critical thinking. I use it with my students a lot. And it also is a bit of a caution with respect to some of the self-help advice we get, which is very individualistic, pull yourself up by your boot straps kind of stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Joseph Reagle
I should’ve mentioned this earlier but there’s a great book on stoicism when you’re asking about that by William Irvine, called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. And it really is, as you suggested, an up-to-date version of the ancient stoic philosophy. And so, he talks about how it emerged, and some of the differences between the Greek and the Roman. But the important thing is he says this is practical philosophy which isn’t taught in universities anymore. Now, it’s very formal, kind of a lot of history and theory.

But philosophy was supposed to be practical. It was supposed to give you some suggestions to provide guidance on how to live a good life. And I find Irvine’s book “A Guide to the Good Life” is full of really wonderful insights that are very applicable to the current day, to our immediate lives.

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

Joseph Reagle
Well, one of the things that’s just built into my personality, though I think it can also be developed, is I document everything. I’ve been blogging forever, microblogging forever. I have a mind map called Freeplane that I really like to use, so all my reading that’s going to Freeplane. I’m really fond of this application called Zim Wiki. It’s a personal Wiki, so you can just easily create pages, and tasks, and to dates. Maybe if people are familiar with Evernote, it’s kind of like that, but I like Zim Wiki a lot more.

So, I don’t have a very good memory, so whenever I need to remind myself or something or think about. Last time, I had to submit my expenses because we use this awful software in my work. Well, with the steps that I went through to make it work, and I have it all documented there, so I really love those sort of tools.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit?

Joseph Reagle
A favorite habit? I ask myself, “Would I be happier person in the future if I did the thing that I’m waffling about doing?” So, maybe it’s brushing my teeth, or going to meditation, or whatever it might be, I try to think about my future self and whether he would be content and proud of the present self.

Pete Mockaitis
That is excellent. Thank you. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers or listeners?

Joseph Reagle
This idea that self-optimizing can be suboptimal. I wrote a piece for The Guardian. That number, like a colleague just emailed me earlier today, saying, oh, she really loved that piece, and she wants to use it in her course.

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

Joseph Reagle
You can go to my website reagale.org, and I’m also jmreagale on Twitter.

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

Joseph Reagle
That’s a little bit difficult because then I would be setting myself up as a sort of self-help guru, which I’m being a little bit critical of. But I think people should be mindful of not only what they’re doing but why they’re doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Joseph, thank you so much. This has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best with your lifehacking and optimally optimizing and falling into suboptimality. It’s been a lot of fun.

Joseph Reagle
Thank you, Pete.

423: Becoming Free to Focus with Michael Hyatt

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Michael Hyatt offers useful concepts to upgrade your productivity and focus, including the  freedom compass, the zones of desire and drudgery, and more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to do more of what you want with the “yes, no, yes” formula
  2. Three beliefs that prevent you from delegating your tasks effectively
  3. How to feel like you’re winning each day with the daily big three

About Michael

Michael Hyatt is the founder and CEO of Michael Hyatt & Company, a leadership coaching and development firm twice listed on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing US companies. A longtime publishing executive, Michael is the former chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson, now part of HarperCollins. He is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of several books, including Your Best Year Ever, Living Forward, and Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.
Michael is the creator of the Full Focus Planner, which combines quarterly goal-tracking and daily productivity in a proven system for personal and professional achievement. His blog and weekly podcast, Lead to Win, are go-to resources for hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, executives, and aspiring leaders. He has been featured by Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Fast Companyand Wall Street Journal. Michael and his wife of 40 years, Gail, have five daughters, three sons-in-law, and eight grandchildren. They live just outside of Nashville, Tenn.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael Hyatt Interview Transcript

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

Michael Hyatt
Thank you, Pete. I appreciate being on.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy. I think we’ll have a ton of fun. But first I want to hear about something fun in your life. You mention your dog, Winston, is exceptional in your About page and I want to know why.

Michael Hyatt
He’s the perfect dog. His temperament is fantastic. He’s just so easygoing. He always obeys. I don’t know. I feel like we won the lottery with him. He’s an amazing dog.

Pete Mockaitis
How did you get him?

Michael Hyatt
Well, we found out about a breeder in Indiana, who bred Australian Labradoodles. We got the dog from her. Then we sent him to a trainer in Indiana, a lady who actually is a Russian immigrant, who trains dogs for the federal government and for state agencies and therapy dogs and all that. She had him for about six weeks. I don’t know what she did, but some kind of Russian thing, but it’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh Michael, I just love that so much because it’s like you eat, sleep, breathe people, development, and now even dog development. We’re going to find the best trainer in the world. We’re going to spend some deep focus time immersed and come back a renewed dog.

Michael Hyatt
Dog hacks. What can I say?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fantastic. You’re unveiling some more wisdom in your latest book, Free to Focus. What’s the main idea or thesis behind this one?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, the main thesis behind this is you can actually achieve more by doing less if you have the right productivity system. The problem with most productivity systems today is that they’re designed to make you more productive. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, what’s wrong with that?” Here’s the problem.

People start out working a 12-hour day, they get some productivity hacks, adopt a few apps, they reduce it to eight hours and then they fill it up with more work. They try to be productive so they can be more productive.

I say productivity is a means to an end. You’ve got to be very clear about what the end is otherwise you’re just going to fill your life with work, you’re going to be overwhelmed, you’re going to be burned out, and you’re not going to get the kind of work-life balance that makes life rich and meaningful.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talk about defining the end, can you give us a couple of examples of how that gets articulated?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, absolutely. In the first part of the book I talk about stopping and kind of taking stock. Get off that hamster wheel and ask, “Where’s this hamster wheel going? Why am I running this race? What’s it all about?” I say the end game needs to be about freedom. More productivity should lead to greater freedom and specifically freedom in four areas.

I talk about the freedom to focus. Focus is a super power today in our distraction economy. If you want to move the needle in your business and in your life, if you want your business to grow, if you want to get ahead in your career, you’ve got to be able to focus and do the deep work, the creative work that really creates the breakthroughs in your business and in your personal life. The freedom to focus.

You also need the freedom to be present so that when you’re at your son’s Little League game, you’re not on your phone thinking about work or you’re out for a day with your spouse or you’re significant other, you’re not thinking about work or when you’re at work, you’re not thinking about something that’s going off the rails at home. The freedom to be present.

Then third, the freedom to be spontaneous so that your life’s not so managed and not every last second is so planned that you just can’t stop and enjoy life, smell the roses so to speak.

Then finally, the freedom – and this is really underrated, but the freedom to do nothing at all. All the brain research says that we’re the most creative, we experience the biggest breakthroughs when our minds are the most relaxed. That means we’ve got to intentionally have that white space where we do nothing.

I learned this when I was in Italy a few years ago. They have a saying in fact. They talk about a dolce far niente, which means the sweetness of doing nothing. It’s true. You think about when you have the breakthrough ideas, the most creative ideas, often it’s in the shower or out for a walk or doing something that amounts to nothing. That’s what I’m after is freedom. I think productivity should lead to that.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a lovely turn of a phrase, the sweetness of doing nothing. I’m reminded maybe when you said Italy, it brings about images. I’m just thinking about just sort of strolling, just walking with a good friend, catching up and chatting. It’s like I enjoy doing nothing in those moments so much. It’s like I don’t even want to be burdened with having to think about where we’re going and where the restaurant is, just having faith that a good eatery will appear if that’s kind of what we’re up to. It’s much more fun.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, and I don’t think they have bad food in Italy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, in Italy you’re covered. Sure.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Everything I ate there was phenomenal.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. That’s cool. That’s the process in terms of the steps as we’re stopping. We’re taking stock. We’re pointing to greater freedom and a few kind of particular forms of freedom. What comes next?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, in that same section, under Stop, talk about formulate, so formulate a clear vision for what your productivity, you want to accomplish with it. Then secondly, evaluate. This means taking stock of our workflow, our work style. I talk about a concept there called the freedom compass, which I think is really a big paradigm shift and a way to think about your work that makes it possible for you to focus on your highest and greatest work because not all work is created equal.

I talk about kind of a two-by-two matrix, where you have passion intersecting with proficiency. There’s some tasks – and imagine this rotated 45 degrees and you’ve got a compass, where true north is where your passion and your proficiency come together, the things you love, the things that you are deeply satisfying, that you enjoy, plus proficiency, the things that you’re good at.

Not just proficiency in your subjective opinion, but in an objective reality, where people are willing to pay you to do this. That I call the desire zone. That’s where you want to focus the bulk of your time and the bulk of your energy.

Directly south, directly below that is what I call the drudgery zone, things that you hate, you don’t have any passion around it and you’re not very good at. It’s going to be different for everybody, but for me it’s things that look like administrative kinds of activities, like managing my email inbox, managing my calendar, booking travel, even finding the FedEx box, just running errands. All that’s in my drudgery zone. It’s kind of a grind when I have to do that.

Then there’s also the disinterest zone, where you don’t have any passion, but you might be pretty good at it. A lot of people get trapped in this because maybe they were good at something, they lost the passion and they keep doing it because it keeps making them money, keeps bringing home the bacon.

For me, when I started out as an entrepreneur this was accounting. I did it because I didn’t want to pay somebody else to do it and I was really good at it, but I didn’t have any passion and that leads to boredom.

Then on the opposite side of the freedom compass from there, due west, would be what I call the distraction zone, where you like doing it, but you’re not very good at it and you end up escaping there and then it wasted a lot of time.

Again, the key, and it leads to the next part of the book, but the key is to eliminate everything that’s not in your desire zone, the things that you’re passionate about and proficient at, because that’s where you’re going to see the biggest growth, the biggest progress, the most results. That’s the chapter on evaluation.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a nice two-by-two matrix and a clever rotation that makes it a compass. When you talk about doing more of the good stuff and less of the drudgery, what are some of the best ways that we can accomplish that? You have some things about saying no and some things about outsourcing. How do we systematically get our proportions more and more in the desire space?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. One of the things is I think to set ourselves up for success. That’s actually that third chapter in that first section before we get to the Cut section, which is about rejuvenation. This is one of those things that’s easy to overlook because we live in the hustle economy. We’re encouraged to burn the candle at both ends, to work evenings and weekends. Elon Musk said unless you’re working 80 to 100 hours a week, you’re not going to make the progress you need to.

One of the most important things you can do is take care of yourself if you want to be more productive. Getting a good night’s sleep, something as simple as that, can make the difference between whether you’re focused or productive the next day. I talk about sleep, nutrition, exercise, relationships. Those have a lot to do with how productive we are. That’s all the rejuvenation chapter.

But then moving into that second section, the section called Cut. The first one’s Stop. The second part of the framework is Cut. How do we prune all that stuff that’s not in our desire zone? It really does start with elimination. We’ve got to eliminate the stuff that doesn’t need to be done and the best way to do that is to head it off at the beginning by getting better at saying no.

Warren Buffet once said that “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything,” but how do we do that without being a jerk? In the book, I talk about how to do that. I talk about how to give a graceful no. I talk about it using a formula called Yes No Yes. It’s the positive no that William Ury talks about in his book, The Power of a Positive No.

Let me illustrate. I spent most of my career in the book publishing industry. I still to this day get a lot of requests from aspiring authors, who would like me to review their book proposal before they send it to an agent or a publisher. Now, I don’t really have time to do that. I don’t want to be a jerk, but I don’t have time to do that. I have an email template that I use. I respond with that formula, yes, no, yes.

Here’s what it looks like. First of all, I start with an affirmation. I start off not resenting the fact that they asked me to review this proposal. But I’ll say something like, “Hey, congratulations. You’ve done what 97% of most aspiring authors will never do and that is create a written book proposal. That is a phenomenal first step. It’s a foundational step and an important one. Way to go.”

Then I move from the yes to the no. Here I want to give a very firm, unambiguous no, so there’s no misunderstanding. I’ll say something like this, “Unfortunately, in order to be faithful to my prior commitments, I have to say no.” I’ve made it very clear that I’m a person of integrity in terms of trying to be faithful to my other commitments, but I give them a firm no.

I don’t say, “Check back with me in a month. I’m a little busy right now,” because in a month it’s going to be the same story, so I might as well cut it off right now.

Then I end with a positive with a yes so that I leave a good taste in their mouth. I’ll say something like, “Best of luck with your publishing product. Let me know when it comes out. Can’t wait to pick up a copy. All the best. Thanks for honoring me with your request,” something like that.

I’ve never gotten a negative response when I follow up with an email like that. For the most part, people are just glad that they heard back from me because so often we send a request like that and we don’t hear because the person is procrastinating because they don’t know how to respond. They want to say no, but they don’t know how. I make it very clear.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. I find that when you talk about we don’t know how to respond and we procrastinate, I find that I get a lot of requests, it’s sort of like someone’s presenting me with an opportunity, but I don’t think that they’ve given me nearly enough information to even evaluate if it’s worth talking for 15 minutes about the thing.

I’m trying to craft my TextExpander, generic response, which says, “I will need to know more before I can tell you whether or not I can talk to you about this,” which feels a little bit like, “Oh well, someone’s really busy,” but that’s really how I feel. It’s like “You know your product/service/offer better than I do. What you’re saying might be cool, but I really have no idea what this is supposed to be. Where’s the value here? Could you explain that so that I could tell you if we can find 15 minutes?”

Michael Hyatt
See, that’s a perfect example of what I talk about in the next chapter on automation, where you take something like TextExpander or you could use your email apps signature capability, but come up with a list of email templates so that you can respond to the most common kinds of requests so that you don’t have to create it from scratch every time.

I’ve tried to develop sort of this template mentality, where I ask myself if this task I’m about to do if I think I’m going to have to do it again in the future, why not take a few extra minutes now, do it right, save it as a template or a TextExpander snippet so that I can reuse it in the future and not have to reinvent the wheel every time.

For that example, a great way to deal with that using the Yes, No, Yes framework would be to say, “Hey, thanks for thinking of me for your podcast. I’m honored. I would be happy to consider it, but I need just a little bit more information.” Then you’d go through the information that you need and then let it go from there.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. That is a nice sentence. “I’d be happy to consider it. I need some more information.” Tell me, what are some other top templates you find yourself using again and again?

Michael Hyatt
Well, here’s what I did, how I started this. This is probably about 15 years ago. I noticed that there was sort of a limited range of requests that I was getting. I would get requests from people who wanted me to consider a speaking engagement or wanted me to consider serving on a non-profit board or make a charitable contribution or just have coffee with me so they could pick my brain. There were about 40 or 50 of these as I catalogued them.

Then what I tried to do – I didn’t sit down and write all these templates at once – instead what I began to do is incrementally populate a template database. At the time I was using email signatures to do this. Now TextExpander makes it even cooler. But to write these one at a time until I had a library of templates.

Every time one of those requests comes in now, I look for the template where I can respond, very rare that I don’t have a template. Instead of taking 10 or 20 minutes, now it just takes a few seconds.

But it’s not just email. For example, I use Apple Keynote for creating slide decks. If I public speech that I’m going to give or a webinar that I have to give, I always start with a template, like with a webinar. I’ve got seven main parts to all my webinars. They always start the same way. They’ve got the same transitions and the same pivots and the same ending and all that.

It’s kind of like paint by numbers, but again, I’m starting with sort of that template mentality of if I’m going to do this again, how can I do it right the first time so I can reuse it, polish it, improve it, and get better at this and take less time as I do it.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s so much good stuff here. I want to dig in in all kinds of places, but it would be too scattered. First, let’s chat a little bit in the realm of going back to stopping for a moment. You mentioned rejuvenation. I think that we’ve heard from a few sleep doctors, a lot of good tips there and I’m a huge advocate for that. It’s so important.

But I want to get your take on when it comes to nutrition and exercise, boy, there’s a lot of advice out there. What have you found ultimately really yields good quality rejuvenation, energy, and freedoms?

Michael Hyatt
First of all, disclaimer, I’m not a physiologist or a doctor or a fitness trainer or any of that. What I do know is what works for me and I have studied a little bit.

But with regard to nutrition, I found that one of the best things to do is to really take it easy on the carbs. A high-carbohydrate diet creates a lot of problems in terms of focus and productivity. It’s why when we eat lot-quality carbs and we eat a lot of these kind of carbs like at lunch, like I’m talking about white bread, pizza, mashed potatoes, pasta, that’s why we kind of go into that funk in the afternoon and get sleepy because that turns to sugar very quickly. It burns up fast and it just doesn’t keep our blood sugar level at a level where we could be really productive.

One of the things I’ve done, and this is – I may lose some of your listeners here – but one of the things I’ve done for several months now is I’ve been on the keto diet. That’s a high fat moderate diet, a moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet. One of the things I had no idea about was how much brain fog I had until I started doing this diet.

It was actually developed back in the 1930s to help epileptic children deal with seizures. There’s a cognitive relationship between this diet, high fat, and your cognitive function. That’s been helpful to me.

I’m very careful about taking supplements, about checking my blood a couple times a week with my physical – or a couple times a week, a couple times a year with my physician, just making sure that my markers are right so that can serve as an early warning sign to head off problems before they happen.

Then I work out five to six days a week usually about an hour, three days of cardio, three days of strength training. All that just keeps my energy level up. It’s important to move in some way like that.

Pete Mockaitis
When you do the cardio or the strength training, what kind of intensity are you shooting for?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I would say moderate intensity. I’m kind of an achiever, so I’m always trying to beat my personal best. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life that I’ve ever been in. I do work with a trainer, who prescribes a program for me. We get together once a month and reevaluate the program and see where I want to go from there.

I was training for a half marathon this spring, but I injured my foot, so I’m going to back that off till this fall. But typically what I’ll do on the cardio before I had the injury is that I’ll run about 30 minutes of interval training twice a week and then I’ll do a long run and a progressively longer run on Saturdays. Yeah, it depends on what I’m training for.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Well, so now, talk about cutting again. You mentioned that there’s something that we should permanently remove from our to-do list, what is this?

Michael Hyatt
First of all, you should remove the drudgeries of stuff. That’s where you really start is with the drudgery zone activities. Those are not the best and highest use of you. They’re not going to create leverage in your business or your personal life. You’ve got to really focus on those desire zone activities.

Again, that begins with elimination and it goes to automation, and then that final chapter there is all about delegation, which one of the things I found with people that have businesses or leaders, until you can scale yourself, you can’t scale your business.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. All right, so when it comes to that delegation, any particular tips in terms of where to get started if you’re having trouble letting go of anything?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I think the first thing that we’ve got to do, Pete, is confront sort of the limiting beliefs or the way that we think about delegation. In my experience with coaching now hundreds and hundreds of entrepreneurs there’s usually three sentences that rattle around in their head. The first one is “If I want it done right, I have to do it,” what?

Pete Mockaitis
Myself.

Michael Hyatt
Right. Or here’s another sentence that they have. This would be a second sentence. “It takes longer to explain how to do it. I might as well just do it myself.” Or they say, “I can’t really afford additional help right now. I guess I’m going to have to do it myself.” As long as yourself is at the center of all this, you’re not going to be able to grow, you’re not going to develop additional capacity, you’re not going to be able to accomplish what you want to accomplish.

Let’s look at those one at a time. To the person who says “It takes longer to explain how to do it. I might as well just do it myself,” it’s true. It does take longer to explain it the first time, but once you explain it the first time and give people an opportunity to do it so that they can be trained, then you save yourself all the time because you never have to touch it again.

“In terms of if you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,” here’s the beauty of the freedom compass. What’s in your drudgery zone, might be in somebody else’s desire zone. If you hire right so that you have compatible people that offset what’s in your drudgery zone with what’s in their desire zone, then not only can they do it as well as you could do it, they can do it better than you could imagine doing it.

That’s basically how I’ve grown my entire business. I have 35 full-time people. Last year we grew 62%. I hire specifically for people that are doing their desire zone activities so that everybody’s functioning in their strengths and doing the things that they love and the things that they’re proficient at. That’s a real key.

Then the whole thing about affording, “I can’t afford somebody to do it,” you can take baby steps. I’m not advocating going out and hiring a big staff or even hiring somebody full time. You can start as a solopreneur or as a leader just with a part time virtual assistant. That’s how I started.

Back in 2011 when I left the big corporate world, where I was managing a large company where we were doing a quarter of a billion dollars a year and then I stepped into a solopreneur job, where I couldn’t even find a FedEx box. I had to start small. I hired a virtual executive assistant, who worked five hours a week. I did that for a couple of weeks. I saw the value of it. Then I upped their time to about 10 hours a week, then 15 hours, and 20 hours.

But here’s how the conversation often goes. I had a client by the name of Greg. Greg said, “Look, I’ve got a business where I have to have a web presence. I know just kind of enough about web design and web development to do it myself. It’s probably not the best use of my time, but I really don’t feel like I can afford somebody else to do it now.”

I said, “Well, let me ask you a question, Greg. How much do you bill for? What’s your hourly rate?” He said “150 dollars an hour.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “What would it cost you to get a WordPress developer, somebody that was really good that knew what they were doing? They could do a little bit of design work too.” He said, “Probably 50 dollars an hour.” I said, “Then why are you paying somebody 150 dollars an hour that you admit isn’t that good?”

The lights went on. He went, “Wow.” I said, “If you hired somebody at 50 dollars an hour, it would free you up to bill for that additional time and you’d come out ahead 100 dollars an hour.” That’s how we have to think about delegation. It requires an investment first, but boy, that’s when we begin to reap the rewards and that’s when we begin to clone ourselves in a sense because we’ve got other people that are helping us.

Pete Mockaitis
For folks who are professionals and not business owners, what are some key things you’d recommend they delegate?

Michael Hyatt
I think the same thing. Go back to the freedom compass. Start with the drudgery zone because your company is probably not paying you to do those things that you don’t love and those things that you’re not proficient at. If they are, you’re in the wrong job. Get rid of those things because it’s not the best and highest use of you.

Then go to the disinterest zone, then the distraction zone. Again, focus on those few things that really create the leverage, the things that your employer thinks the results you ought to be delivering. That’s where you’re going to see the advance in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. When it comes to cutting, how do you recommend we cut distractions?

Michael Hyatt
Well, you’ve got to have an offensive plan to begin with. I talk in the book about how to design your quarter, how to design your week and how to design your day. Once you have a good offensive plan, then you’ve got to come up with a defensive plan for the interruptions. I distinguish between interruptions and distractions, two different things.

Interruptions are the external things. It’s people dropping by to visit. It’s that text message you get. It’s people interrupting you. I often talk to leaders who say, “I can’t get my own work done because I’ve got so many people interrupting me to help them with their work.” I think one of the best strategies is to have an offense on those two.

First of all, schedule time to get your most important work done. Make it a commitment and put it on your calendar. What gets scheduled is what gets done.

Then, preempt those interruptions by going to the people who are most likely to interrupt you, and you know how they are, go to those people and say, “Hey, look, I’m about to do some really important, focused work. It’s important that I don’t get interrupted, but I want to be available to serve you, so are there any questions you have, anything I can help you with before I go into this session?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Hyatt
This is awesome because, now all of the sudden, you’ve put them on notice and you’ve also not been a jerk about it. You’ve communicated that you want to help them, but you kind of want to do it on your terms.

Then you’ve got distractions. Now distractions are all the stuff that look external, but are really a problem with ourselves with self-control. This could be jumping over to Facebook. The problem is we’ve got multi-billion dollar-social media companies, who are doing a tremendous amount of research and whose entire business model is built on high jacking our psychology and manipulating our dopamine.

They want us to spend as much time on those platforms as possible. Why? Because they’re repackaging our attention and they’re selling it to the highest bidder in the form of advertisers. We have to combat that. The best way to do it, I think, is to use technology to fight technology.

For example, my smartphone, it looks like a really cool device. It does a gazillion things. I’ve got an iPhone XS Max. It does a bazillion things, but it’s a very sophisticated distraction device if I’m not careful. On my phone, I’ve removed email. I’ve removed Slack, which is our internal communication program. And I’ve removed all social media with the exception of Instagram because I’m trying to build my Instagram following.

But even there I’ve used the technology to fight technology. I go into settings, screen time, and I limit my use of Instagram to 30 minutes a day. Even better, I gave my phone to my wife and I said “Set a passcode for that so that I can’t cheat and don’t tell me the passcode.” When my time is up on Instagram, my time is up.

There’s a great app for the desktop that works on Windows or Mac or any platform called Freedom. You can find it at Freedom.to. I don’t have any relationship with them except that I use this program and love it. But it allows you to selectively turn off apps and websites for a specific period of time, which allows you to stay focused when you do your most creative breakthrough kind of work.

The only way to defeat Freedom is to completely reboot your computer. That gives me just friction so that I can remember my intention that I’m trying to get focused work done. It enables me to avoid the distraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. What do you think about mindfulness practice when it comes to building the capacity to resist distraction?

Michael Hyatt
I think it’s really important. I meditate every morning for 15 minutes. It just gives me the opportunity to collect my thoughts, to kind of get centered, to get focused, to get re-connected with my most important priorities. Again, it kind of goes back to the freedom that I talked about before, the freedom to do nothing. It’s often underrated.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’d love to dig in for a moment now. When you say meditation, are you referring to more of a mind training exercise or more of a prayer exercise?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I actually do both. I do pray. I also do just straight up meditation. I use an app called 1 Giant Mind. Are you familiar with that?

Pete Mockaitis
I know a couple. I don’t know that one.

Michael Hyatt
It’s awesome. If you’re familiar with Headspace-

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Michael Hyatt
It’s kind of similar to that, but I actually like it better and it’s free. But 1 Giant Mind. It has 12 initial lessons and then you can go into a 30-day challenge, but the instruction is fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh lovely. Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed a little bit of all of them in terms of Calm, Simple Habit, Headspace. They all give me a little bit of a different perspective. I go, oh yeah, that’s a really good one. Thank you. Much appreciated. We’ll check out another one. Cool.

Michael Hyatt
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, so we talked about stopping. We talked about cutting. Now what?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, so now we get to that third section of the book, which is called Act. It’s a little bit counterintuitive because you’d think that Act ought to come first, but I find that you’ve got to stop, kind of reflect where you want to go, then you need to cut or prune because anything that’s healthy has to be pruned from time to time, but now it’s time to act.

Now, hopefully, you’ve gotten rid of all the stuff that’s in your drudgery zone, a lot of the stuff in your disinterest and distractions zones and now we’re going to focus on how to get more done in your desire zone, the things that you love and the things that you’re good at. That begins with a chapter called consolidate. This is all about designing your ideal week.

The idea is that you want to design a week as if you were in 100% control of your time and resources. What would that look like? If you really wanted to give it some intelligent design and not just be reactive to what came over the transom and schedule those things, but actually we’re very proactive about it.

Here’s how mine works for example. First of all, I’m going to start with on Mondays is when I have my internal team meetings. I batch all these together for one simple reason. It’s the concept of context switching.

In other words, anytime I switch a context, for example, I go from a meeting to I go to some time where I’m working on a project to maybe I’m going to record some video, anytime I go to a different context, there’s a certain amount of ramp up time, a certain amount of time to kind of get into the groove, find my equilibrium and get into flow. Well, the less you can do that, the more momentum you can build.

When I get into that space in my head of meetings and I’m in meeting mode, then I just batch them altogether. Internal meetings are all on Monday.

Tuesday, is all about what I call backstage time. This is my time for preparation on the front stage. Everybody’s front stage is going to look different, but the front stage is what your employer or your clients are paying you, that’s what you’re delivering, but there’s always some backstage work that has to be done in order to do that.

If you’re a lawyer, for example, your front stage might be arguing a case before a court or negotiating a contract on behalf of a client, but there’s a lot of research in the backstage that has to go into that preparation. For me, Tuesday is all about that preparation.

Wednesday and Thursday for me are front stage activities. For example, when I record my podcast, I do that in a day and a half once a quarter and I record 13 episodes in a row. It takes me a day and a half, but then I don’t think about it for another quarter. I get into that headspace and I stay focused and knock it out.

Then on Friday is when I try to consolidate my external meetings. If anybody wants to meet with me, they come in from out of town or a vendor or a client or whatever, I try to move those to Friday. Why? Because I don’t want those meetings interrupting my progress on my front stage days or my back stage days.

Then, of course, I have – and a lot of people don’t know about this – but there’s actually an offstage. All of life doesn’t have to be work. On the weekends, on Saturday and Sunday for me, I’m not thinking about work. I don’t talk about work. I don’t read about work. I don’t do work. Why? Because I want to get back in on Monday morning totally rejuvenated and ready to hit the ground running.

That for me is my ideal week. This could be a game changer for people to begin to get some sense of control back. I would say, Pete, probably in any given week, I’ll probably approximate that about 80%. Things are going to happen. I don’t try to be legalistic about it. But boy, going into the week with a plan is a whole lot better than just reacting to what comes over the transom. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. Yes. What do you think about in terms of total hours of work in a day and a week, energy levels and optimizing that?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I keep my work to 40 hours a week. I can tell you that the science and I quote it in the book, but once you get past about 55 hours a week, there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of time you work and the level of productivity you have. It actually goes backwards after you give 55 hours. There’s been a lot of study done on this.

But the average person is buying into what I call the hustle fallacy, where you’ve got to work 80 hours, you’ve got to work 100 hours. That’s a recipe for burnout. It’s also a recipe for screwing up your life, screwing up your health, screwing up your most important relationships.

What I’m after, personally, is what I call the double win. I want to win at work, but I want to succeed at life. I’m not willing to compromise either for the sake of the other one.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to get your take, I don’t know if you would liken yourself to this, but I think of, hey, Michael Hyatt, Elon Musk, two titans, very different perspectives. I guess, when it comes to Elon Musk it’s like I cannot deny that is one successful dude, who has made a lot of things happen and he espouses very much the hustle mentality.

Michael Hyatt
He does.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we reconcile that?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I think it depends on you define success. He’s blown through a couple marriages. He, by his own admission, doesn’t talk to his kids hardly. He’s sleeping at the factory so much so that his fans started a Kickstarter page to buy him a new couch, kind of as a joke, so he’d have something better to sleep on. He’s appeared in the media and said some crazy things, which have led even to fines from the SEC and other federal agencies.

I think it depends on how you define success. Look, I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue, but here’s the thing. Here’s what’s possible. Last year I took off 160 days, now that counts weekends, so 160 days including a one-month sabbatical, which I’ve done every year for the last eight years and my business grew 62%.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome.

Michael Hyatt
I really think this idea of achieving more by doing less – the hustle fallacy, I want to keep my health. I’d like to live a long time. I’ve been married for 40 years, almost 41 years. I have 5 grown daughters, who I adore and who like me. This doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s not because I’m lucky, but I’ve tried to focus on those things.

Again, I’m not trying to hold myself up as the paragon of virtue, but I’m just saying that there’s a different model for success than the one that Elon Musk espouses. I’m not trying to judge him, but just look at the fruit, look at the results.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well done. Thank you. Well, tell me before we sort of shift gears and do your favorite things, any sort of key mistakes folks make when they’re trying to say, “Heck yes, I want to get free to focus and do these things.” What are some roadblocks or some fumbles folks make along the way as they’re trying to enact this stuff?

Michael Hyatt
Well, I think the biggest tip I can give people is to get a plan for your day. This is where you’re going to get the biggest leap forward. I advocate something called the daily big three. Here’s how it goes for most people. They start the day – if they have a to-do list, and not everybody works with a to-do list, which is also a guarantee for being reactive, but let’s say you have a to-do list. The average person’s going to have somewhere between 20 and 25 items on that list.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. Before they begin the day, they’re already feeling overwhelmed, like there’s no way that I can accomplish what’s on my list. They get to the end of the day and even if they’ve done half of it, where do they focus? On the half they didn’t get done. They go to bed defeated. This becomes a vicious cycle. It creates a lot of dissatisfaction, a lot of frustration and ultimately leads to burnout.

But the problem is they’ve created a game, they’ve set themselves up to fail by creating a game that they can’t possibly win. What I suggest is instead of that, go ahead and identify the three highest leveraged tasks that you can do today. Not all tasks are created equal. We know from the Pareto principle that 20% of the effort drives 80% of the results.

Let’s just go ahead on the front end and say “What are the three most important things that I can do today?” Now all of the sudden that seems manageable. At the end of the day when I accomplish those three things, even if I didn’t do all the other trivial things, at least I got the most important things done.

You do three important tasks like that a day, you do it 250 days a year, which is the average number of workdays people have, that’s 750 important things per year. That, more than anything else, will give you a sense of control and give you a sense that you’re winning. When you feel like you’re winning, it builds your confidence and it builds your momentum.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I like feeling like I’m winning. Well said.

Michael Hyatt
Me too. Me too.

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

Michael Hyatt
Yeah. I think one of my most favorite quotes is one by Warren Buffet. He said that “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

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

Michael Hyatt
I would say the research that I’ve done into sleep has been probably the most rewarding, especially into naps because I sort of knew intuitively that napping was a powerful way to rejuvenate and kind of reboot in the middle of the day. I’ve faithfully practiced it for about 30 years.

I took a nap today, so between interviews I laid down for 20 minutes, fell to sleep – I trained myself to fall to sleep quickly – I wake up and I’m a little bit groggy maybe for about ten minutes or so, drink a cup of coffee, and then it’s like I’m rebooted.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to know, how do you train yourself to fall asleep quickly?

Michael Hyatt
It’s not unlike training yourself to meditate. I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to fall asleep. What I do is kind of try to focus on my breathing and focus on relaxing. If you do that and do it routinely, you’ll find yourself falling asleep. If you don’t fall asleep, it’s still rejuvenating, even if you do nothing but put your feet up and relax.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Michael Hyatt
I’m one of those guys, I read a ton. I tend to focus on the books that I’ve read most recently. The book that I love that I just finished here about two weeks ago was Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Have you read that?

Pete Mockaitis
I have perused it. Can you tell me maybe a takeaway that was particularly valuable for you?

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, the biggest one was on the value of high-quality leisure, so really being intentional about your leisure time and how it correlates to our work, it makes us more productive at work. But that was really challenging and really exciting to think about.

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

Michael Hyatt
Let me think here for a second. I would say the tool that I’m enjoying the most right now is a tool called Notion. Have you heard of it?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Michael Hyatt
Notion is kind of like a personal Wiki. It could be. A lot of people are using it as an Evernote replacement. I’m still using Evernote, but only as a digital junk drawer. Notion is where I put structured information, information I want to get back to. It’s a whole lot of fun. It’s an outstanding tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting, thank you. How about a favorite habit?

Michael Hyatt
A favorite habit without question is my morning routine, just going through my drill every morning, setting myself up for high performance. Again, I learned this from the world of athletics, where the world’s best athletes have a pre-game ritual. I think of my morning time as a pre-game ritual. That’s the time when I’m going to pray, the time I’m going to meditate, the time I’m going to exercise and get fueled for the day.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get quoted back to you frequently?

Michael Hyatt
I think it’s that one about winning at work and succeeding at life. I think that with my clients, that’s just captivated their imagination and gets them really excited because I think most people have kind of fallen into this idea that you’ve got to give up one or the other. You can’t have both. I think when people are given a model, and that’s what I try to do in the book, Free to Focus, for how that can be done, it resonates with people.

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

Michael Hyatt
Well, in terms of the book, I would go to FreeToFocusBook.com. It has links to all the places where you can buy the book, but more importantly, it also has 500 dollars’ worth of free bonus material related to the book that you can get just by turning in your receipt. That’s all you’ve got to do. Turn in your receipt, claim the free bonuses. It has some amazing stuff including the audio version of the book for free. Then for all things related to me, just MichaelHyatt – Hyatt with a Y, not an I – MichaelHyatt.com.

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

Michael Hyatt
Yeah, I would say that in this kind of distraction economy where people are so sidetracked and there’s so much sideways energy and so much fake working going on, if you can learn to focus, that could become a super power.

I would just encourage people to differentiate themselves from their competitors and from their peers by being the person that really can deliver the highly creative, deeply important work that moves their business forward, that moves their personal work forward because so many people are sidetracked and distracted. You can differentiate yourself and make a real difference in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Michael, this has been a ton of fun. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Michael Hyatt
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate it.