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467: Finding Internal Clarity and Purpose with Paul Durham

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Paul Durham shares strategies to develop and execute your personal vision with great clarity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The wonders of guided journaling
  2. How to get your days to lead to your desired future
  3. Why you need to involve others to get to your vision

About Paul 

Paul Durham’s passion for studying models of human development expresses itself in his mentoring and executive coaching. After earning a degree in Philosophy from Oberlin College and teaching in the Oakland public schools, he embarked on a career as a successful musician in Los Angeles, releasing albums on major labels, receiving widespread radio play, appearing on film and TV soundtracks, and developing a fan base that persists to this day. Always entrepreneurial, he parlayed his industry experiences into a variety of businesses including commercial music production, song licensing, and ringtones. Now 50 and the father of a teenage son, he has blended his comprehensive experiences into executive coaching and programs designed to help people find their paths and take flight.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Paul Durham Interview Transcript

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

Paul Durham
You’re welcome, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we have so much fun stuff to dig into. But I want to go to a moment in which you said your band was playing and you had 70,000 people throwing mud at you. What is this?

Paul Durham
Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was more like only the thousand people in front were throwing mud at us, so 2,000 it seemed.

Pete Mockaitis
Were they pleased or angry? Why were they throwing the mud?

Paul Durham
We were in Florida. It was a little bit of a mystery. It was 1998, my band was on tour. We had a song on MTV, and a song in the Top 40, I think top 5. Like, rock and alternative track, so we were playing all these big radio festivals. We’re opening for Foo Fighters and Green Day, and all this kind of classic ‘90s band. And when we hit the stage in Florida, they seemed like they liked us but I think it had rained. And I think throwing a little bit of mud at the band was just kind of part of the fun, which is not so great when you’re playing like a $4,000 vintage electric guitar, which we were young, we didn’t know better at the time. You take your crappy guitars out on tour with you.

But, anyway, my bass player got very irritated and then, finally, at some point, threw the whole audience the finger, and waved his arms in the universal signal for bring it on. And a black cloud of mud descended on us from there. And, yeah, we were basically covered in mud, and we just played all the louder and harder at that point.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, was any of the equipment destroyed?

Paul Durham
No, but our poor crew guy was up all night pulling mud out of like the hollow body and the drums.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the glamor of rock and roll, huh?

Paul Durham
Well, I had our manager kick him an extra couple of hundred bucks because he was really above and beyond. We were idiots.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we all have kind of fun points of intersection. Now, you use my podcast microphone, the Shure Beta 87A when you’re singing on stage.

Paul Durham
I do. On stage, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Which is cool. And so that makes me feel all the more validated. Thank you for that. And I became aware of you from my father-in law, he said you do some really cool stuff with YearOne education which is for younger people, but I think there’s so many parallels and valuable takeaways. So, could you orient us to what do you do there and what kind of results do you see there?

Paul Durham
Well, I’ve been in the music business for 25 years, I’ve relied on mentors. And so, when the sons and daughters of my friends get interested in the music business, and their parents don’t know what to do, they ask me if I can mentor them, which I’m always really happy to do, and have been doing for years.

And then, several years ago, a friend of mine said, “Can I hire you to coach my son? He wants to drop out of college and go become a professional musician?” And I had been meeting with this kid and I recognized that some of my advice may have influenced his decision, which I then went into a moral panic, and I was like, “Yes, I will coach your son.” And he was like, “Well, how much should I pay you?” I said, “I have no idea.” So, he said, “How about $40,000? That’s what I’m spending on his private school.” And I was like, “Well, that seems like a bit much but how about half that?”

So, then I went home and realized, “Oh, I need to create a curriculum to justify charging money for this thing that I’ve been doing for years.” And, in creating that curriculum, I got really excited about the idea of creating a framework for young people who are smart and ambitious and interested in things, but maybe not the best fit for going to college, not ready to go work at 7-Eleven either, but something in between.

And then I really started realizing that pretty much kids who are going to college as well should probably take a year. They’ve been in school for 13 years, like three quarters of their life, maybe they just want to take a year, figure a few things out, get some experience under their belt, grow up a little bit, get some skills so that when they do head to college, and they face the culture shock of being totally responsible for themselves, their eating, their bedtimes, their homework. They’re not in school eight hours a day, and studying two hours a night. They’re in school for two hours a day and need to be studying a lot of the rest of that time. That’s a big shock.

That maybe if they went to a program and got some preparation, that they would be much more likely to be successful in college, which is good, given how incredibly expensive college has become. Three times more expensive than when you and I were in school and adjust the dollars. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I understand that as you engaged these folks, you see some real transformation. So, could you maybe tell us a tale or two that illustrates this?

Paul Durham
Well, it’s such a great age, 18, 19, 20, where people, especially the way we raise kids these days. They’ve really been under our thumb. That’s how I raised my son too. It’s sad but true. We’re really kind of overmanaging our children in such a way that when they hit 18, a lot of them don’t know very much about the real world.

And so, for example, Kaito, this friend’s son of mine, he was really unclear about paying rent, about getting a checking account, about how often the oil needed to be changed in his car, etc. And when we sat down and we started to work some of those out and started to help him get clear about his vision, to show him, plug him into a really effective powerful time management system, and getting responsible for his money and that kind of thing, he really just started to blossom in a way.

And we might think, “Oh, well, that’s something that parents should handle.” But I think we underestimate the fact that the degree to which teenagers don’t listen to their parents, you know. And as a culture, we have disconnected young people from mentors. And we’re hyper social species like bees and ants. We need more than just our parents to get ourselves raised into full adulthood. We need mentorship.

And so, I sort of recognized the power of having someone that a kid could rely on, that could hold them accountable. And, in Kaito’s case, he went from mastering a lot of kind of basic life skills into getting clear about what kind of music he wanted to record, and then going through a transition of connecting with him with a mentor in the music business who was a string player like himself. And he started doing publishing chores and kind of administration for that guy, and soon discovered, “Oh, my gosh, this is what I want to do. I don’t want to play music. I want to be in the business of music,” which was a big remarkable shift for him that he went through.

And then he just really got lit up. He just started reading music business books like crazy. This was a kid, we couldn’t even get him to read a novel. And now he’s reading music business books, he’s reading personal development books because he found that fire that I think most of us have experienced at different points in our life, that pointed him in a direction, and he just really went crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, to what extent do you see a similarity carry over in terms of professionals who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and the teenagers?

Paul Durham
I think it’s really more similar than we would think. I do executive coaching with real estate developers and corporate guys in Silicon Valley. And I think we have this idea that we’re going to figure out what we’re really good at, and that once we figure out what we’re good at, we’re just going to keep doing that. It’s kind of this old industrial model where you go work at a job, and then get a gold watch at the end, you know.

And I just don’t think that’s how people actually are. I think passion is a moving target. And as we work, and as we master things, those passions shift and we become more interested in other things. And so, really getting clear about vision, everybody talks about this, but spending the time, going deep, going deep over time and continuing to develop that clarity of vision is so important and people staying connected to their work, staying connected to their job, staying connected to that business that they started, that they love, and now they’re tired of, staying connected to that role in their corporation that they were so excited to get, and it was so interesting for a few years and now it’s just not. It’s not that interesting.

It’s like we blame ourselves because we’re not being good cogs. But the fact is that our vision and interest have evolved but we have not kept up in terms of our awareness of that evolution. So, for me, when I work with an adult, it really begins with the clarity, the excavation, and the definition of vision. So, we can start from there.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, so let’s hear just that. So, how did you go about getting that clarity and excavating a vision?

Paul Durham
Well, I do a lot of guided journaling. I think writing is very powerful. I think when a client is talking to me, or they’re talking to their wife or husband, or they’re talking with their therapist or their boss, people bend themselves depending on who it is that they’re speaking to. But when you’re writing on pages that no one else is ever going to see, you don’t have to bend yourself. It’s the one safe space in which you can receive feedback from the person who knows you best, which is you.

I don’t like to tell people what to do a lot. It’s tempting as a coach because it’s fun to exercise power. But what I really try to do is to create frameworks in which people, in which I draw out of people what they know, the wisdom that they have, and the clarity that they have, which we just don’t take time in our cellphone, Netflix, driving to work kind of world. We just don’t take time. We got kids. We got jobs. It’s stressful. And if we don’t take that time, we don’t get the level of clarity that we really need to connect to our hearts and then to connect our hearts to our work.

So, yeah, I would say guided journaling, conversation, inquiry, really asking why, asking, “Okay, so you created this situation. Where is the benefit in it for you? Or maybe there isn’t a benefit. Okay, so what else would you want? What else would you imagine?” You give yourself permission to really, “What if failure wasn’t an option? What would your life look like? What would you try?” Just really kind of get people to expand beyond their survival emotional status that is arising for all of us week by week, and get into more of a visionary space where something else is possible, something different is possible.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, with the guided journaling, is it your view that pen and paper is superior than digital media?

Paul Durham
Absolutely. Maybe because I’ve been scribbling songs in notebooks for 30 years, but I have a huge prejudice against typing when it comes to really connecting to the deepest part of ourselves. I think this culture is like brains on a stick, and we’re not brains on a stick. We are bodies and the brain is a part of the body. So, for me, writing is really a great way that I find that I can connect to the wisdom of the body by moving my body, by moving my hand across the page, and having to navigate the whole physicality of it. I think that that actually evokes a lot of, yeah, just the body’s deeper wisdom.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you sort of mentioned a number of those questions pretty quickly. But could you highlight one or two or three that just seem to open up the floodgates of self-awareness and insight quite frequently?

Paul Durham
Yeah, it’s a lot of different things. I have people do a five-year exercise where you describe the life that you’re living five years from now. What kind of sheets are you sleeping in? What kind of house do you live in? Who’s beside you? What do you do for a living? What do you do with your days? What’s your physical exercise like? What’s your diet like? What is your life like in detail? So that people can really get a sense of, “There is a desire in my heart for a life that I have not yet achieved.”

And not that it’s all about more, better, different because a lot of times it’s just about settling into who you are and what you have. But that life that we can imagine often has important elements of what we’re not being true to in terms of who we are. Because maybe you’re not living on mansion on a beach. Maybe you’re living in South America and you’re providing healthcare to a village. Or maybe there’s some vision in you that you’re afraid to express because of the pressure of modern life that needs to come out and walk around a little bit, breathe.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. So, you do some of these journaling. And, let’s say, once you zero in on something like, “Yes, that is a desire,” what then?

Paul Durham
Well, then we start testing it. Then we start testing it over time. Write some letters to your parents that you don’t mail to them. Write a letter to your spouse that you don’t give to them. Write a letter to yourself as a young person. Walk around in the world and feel what it’s like with that vision in you. It’s, all of a sudden, your job lit up because you recognize that there’s a way in which you can express that vision at work with your coworkers. Like, maybe there’s an element of service that emerges in your vision that you’re not actually expressing at work.

A lot of times people’s jobs are dead and dry because they are there for themselves and their families. And it’s not that we don’t serve our families by going off to work every day. But I find that without a service attitude, an attitude towards service, anything can get dry. You can be a singer or songwriter in a rock band, and it can get very dry if, for me, if I’m not thinking about the people who have sent me. Facebook messages in the middle of the night, saying, “You saved my life,” you know. It means a lot to me. And if I don’t think about those people in my work, the service I’m doing, then my work gets very much about logistics and technical craft and money, stuff like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And this is a theme that’s come up a few times and it’s amazing how easy it is to slip out of the service orientation and forget who you’re enriching, and then go focus on like what’s right in front of you, like, “There’s 83 emails. I need to answer them all.”

Paul Durham
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, boy, when you’re in that moment, what are some of your favorite ways to reconnect to the purpose and the service that’s going on there?

Paul Durham
Well, I mean, me, probably like a lot of other guests that you have, I really believe in structures, I believe in automating your finances, I believe in spending a lot of time leveraging time management tools. I think the FranklinCovey paper planners are unbelievably powerful. I think trying to organize, prioritize your life on a computer screen is, on some level, hopeless. That’s just my opinion. I think you need a separate device. It’s the same reason why I wear a watch so I don’t have to look at my phone to tell what time it is.

And I think it’s important to organize your email. Use smart folders so that you’re not staring at 10 emails. You’re staring at the two important emails. So, I think those things are really important. But I also just find that if you are looking at your phone first thing in the morning, and you’re prioritizing the world’s, it’s basically you’re putting the priorities of the world ahead of the priorities of yourself and your heart, whether it’s your boss or coworkers emailing you, or nonsense on Facebook, the fantasies that people put up on Instagram, just all the crap we poison ourselves with first thing in the morning.

Maybe we have 20, 30, 40 minutes before our kids wake up to actually be a person and figure out who we are. And I find that the most important thing is to take that time and to meditate, or to journal, or to exercise if you need to. But to do something that settles you into who you are into yourself and what’s important to you because, otherwise, the day, and we’re off to the races and the rest of the day doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to your email box.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s intense. And so, we got some journaling, we got some smart practices associated with time management. Well, let’s say we just get one or two of these practices in terms of like that’s the most transformational and gets you the most kind of realigned to your desires and priorities. What would you say are some of the biggies there?

Paul Durham
In terms of the morning practices?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I guess the morning practices as well as it sounds like I don’t yet want to resign that the rest of the day is not mine.

Paul Durham
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
How can I get a little more for me?

Paul Durham
Okay. Well, I think weekly time management is critical. I love the FranklinCovey system where you figure out your roles and your goals so that you know what the absolute most important thing you need to do or the two most important things you need to do today as a father, or as a boss, or as a spouse, or as a person with a body who needs to exercise and eat a certain way.

I think defining those big rocks, as they call them, that whole metaphor of the guy comes in, he’s got a jar of big rocks and gravel and sand and water, and he’s like, “How am I going to get all this stuff in the jar?” And he’s like, “No, you can’t.” He’s like, “Well, I can.” But the way he does it, he puts the big rocks in first, then he puts the gravel, then he puts the sand, then he puts the water. And if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you can’t get all of the little rocks in the jar. So, it’s really starting with those big rocks.

And I find the weekly is vastly superior to daily.

Daily is just really kind of keeping your head above water. It’s weekly time management that we define, that we can sit back on a Sunday afternoon, and define the big priorities in our lives, and make sure that we’re taking one step forward in each one of those. And, yeah, it’s only one step, but you take one step forward in each of the main priorities, the main roles in your life, one year is going to go and you’re going to be a different person in one year.

Honestly, a lot of what I do in my coaching is just saying, “Look, we spend all this time getting clarity about these deep long-term goals that you’ve been putting off for a decade and that you really want to do. Okay, let’s take the steps because we’ve got to take the steps this week. Send me a picture of your weekly plan, and I’ll be holding you accountable a week from now.” I think that accountability is really powerful.

It’s easy for me to sit here and say all this stuff into the microphone, but in my own life, when I want to make a shift, I hire a coach because if I could’ve done it by myself, I would’ve done it. I have all the tools. I know what the tools are. If I haven’t made the shift, it’s because I need help. We need help as people. So, weekly time management, and if I had to point to one other thing other than really taking the time to get clarity of vision, doing a course.

I just saw there’s life book course where they guide you through all this stuff. I’m like, “Oh, I’ve been doing that.” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s important. It’s important to get clarity about your vision and what you really want, who you want to become. Who do you want to be? What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” A lot of us are no on track to hit that target of who we want to be on our deathbed. And we think, “Well, I got the house paid for.” It’s like, “Man, none of that stuff matters.” Who you are and who you’re becoming, that’s what matters. That’s what’s going to matter to your kids. Not some Swiss watch you left them.

So, yeah, it’s the vision, it’s the weekly planning, and then it is connecting to your soul. And some people do that through meditation. I practice Zen meditation for years, and I love meditating, but I find that, nowadays, I wake up and I really want to get my day started, so I need something more active than meditation so I really turn to the journaling. And I find that you can get the artist way. That’s, really, I’ve been doing those daily morning pages for years, just sit down and write through pages. No matter what it is, or even if it’s like writing and writing, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, over and over. Pretty soon you will know what to write and you’ll connect to a source of wisdom about yourself that you didn’t know was there.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess I’m curious to hear, if you think about some of your clients, the most dramatic transformations that you’ve witnessed, kind of what’s core to the human nature or condition when it comes to making change? And it’s kind of difficult for us. How do we succeed when we’re kind of in the thick of it?

Paul Durham
Well, I think it’s different for different people. I think it’s different at different age. I think we really have to honor our part in the lifecycle. When I was in my 30s, I was working 60 hours a week. I was just killing myself to build a number of different businesses, and that’s what I was interested in. And now, at 50, if I say, “Man, I just don’t have a 60-hour week in me anymore. I just don’t have it.” There’s a reason for that.

I think working with people at 18, 19 and 20, working with people in their late 30s, and then working with people kind of around 50 has helped me see that honoring lifecycle plays. A lot of guys who hit 42, 45, they’ve had some success, and the color just goes out of the world for them, and they’re like, “What’s wrong with me? I got a nice relationship, or I got a nice house, or I got nice kids, or I got a great job, or whatever. But, man, what is it? What is it that I have been neglecting all these years that now has finally caught up to me?”

And the solution for that is not to take testosterone and go to the gym five days a week and just try to bust your ass back down to 30 years old. The solution to that is to listen to what your lifecycle is pointing you towards. And, in doing that, that’s where I feel like I’ve had a lot of success for these young people. I’m like, “Get hungry. Get passionate. Make mistakes. Go make mistakes so you can learn how to fail, and you can build your resilience, and you cannot be afraid.”

But for someone, just get out there and do it. Just take people out to lunch, like interrupt people in the lobby, make a fool of yourself. Do whatever it takes. But for a man or a woman in their 50s, it might be very much more like, “Hey, maybe have you thought about working less? Have you thought about finding a way to stop trying to grow your career and start trying to grow your being?”

So, I don’t know, I would say the specific success stories, I don’t know, it’s also individual. Sometimes guys just need to be told what incredible jerks they are. Seriously. Like, sometimes they hire me to tell them what jerks they are because they’re just jerks, and no one will tell them because if anybody tells them that, everyone around them pays too high of a price. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I really am a jerk.” I’m like, “Yeah, maybe you should look into that.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Paul Durham
But, you know, we live in these isolated boxes and we insulate ourselves with money from the perspective and wisdom that others have of us and it’s too bad.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to get your take then in terms of how do we have less of that insulation and to get more valuable input from other people so we can see things more accurately?

Paul Durham
Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I would say that another way in which 18-year-olds are the same as 45-year-olds is that 45-year-olds don’t take risks either. We just don’t take risks, man. We just stay in our comfort zone. We don’t go talk to people we don’t know at a party unless we absolutely have to. We don’t necessarily go take some online education course and take it really seriously or have a goal and really hire a coach and just say, “Look, I’m just going to take this money and I’m going to make this shift. I’m going to make this shift.”

And I think that there are opportunities all around us that many of those opportunities lie in the service realm, in the realm of volunteers, it’s like, “Oh, I need to spend time with my kids.” Okay, well, take your kids. Take your kids and go volunteer. Take your kids with you and go out for a day and do something that really helps other people in a direct fashion, not just write a cheque kind of fashion.

So, that’s what I would really say is that we don’t take risks. We are afraid to fail, “I’m afraid of signing up for that online education course that seems like really legit and like it would be speaking to exactly what I’m suffering with right now because what if I don’t take the time and I waste the money?” It’s like, “Okay, so you don’t take the time and waste the money. But if you did follow through, you know you would get 50 times the value back from that course.”

Or, “Oh, I’m stuck in my job. I don’t know what to do about it.” Well, there’s all kinds of nonsense that shows up in my Facebook feed every single day about starting your own business. Have you tried one of those? Because, yeah, maybe it will be nonsense and a scam, but maybe it would be real. You actually could like be able to quit your job, or at least learn more about business which you might be able to then bring back into your job and create more value and success there.

So, that’s what I would say. It’s just, I don’t know, it’s like the richer we get as Americans, the more afraid we get and the more risk-averse we get.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, boy, I don’t remember the quote. I think it was St. Augustine of Hippo said something about when we don’t have wealth, we just worry about how we’re going to survive and acquire it. And when we do have it, we worry about how we might lose it.

Paul Durham
I know. I know. Well, it’s like the Buddha saying, “Suffering comes from losing things and from having things,” because when we lose things, it’s painful. And then when we have things, we’re afraid of losing them, and that’s painful. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I also want to get your take in terms of when you’re in the moment and you know a certain thing needs to be done, it’s on your weekly plan, by golly, and you’re just not feeling it, how do you power through?

Paul Durham
Yeah, I don’t power through.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Paul Durham
That’s what I don’t do. When I was 30, I just power through, man. I could just eat a big, giant wheelbarrow full of crap from morning to night, all day long.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s quite an image.

Paul Durham
I just pile up those tasks and just motor through them. And, partly, I work a lot smarter now than I used to. But I would say go for a walk. Go walk around the block. Find out who you are. Just reconnect with who you are. You’ll get it done faster I promise you. You might, “Oh, I don’t have time.” Yeah, you have time. You have time to look at Instagram. You have time to waste your time. You’re returning emails that if you actually like were a little bit more centered you would recognize should be ignored.

So, that’s what I try to do more and more and more. Try to settle into who I am rather than what I have to do, what I’m trying to get. If I can settle into who I am, so much stuff falls away, so much stuff that doesn’t need to be dealt with, and certainly doesn’t need to be dealt with in a kind of unskillful fire-setting ways that happen when I just jump on it, “I’m just going to crank through this stuff.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m thinking certainly there’s many things that we’d be better off not doing, that don’t fit us and need to go, so I’m right with you there. But I guess I’m thinking like if you’ve been through all the process associated with the journaling and the pondering and the identifying of a desire and, “Yes, that is very important, and then, yes, this is the key step I need to take in order to do that.” And then it’s the moment that you’ve calendared for yourself to do that, and you’re like, “Hey, I’m not really feeling it.” Then what?

Paul Durham
Totally. Yeah, it’s funny. I’m building a new business right now over the last few years, so this new education business for young people. And it’s a whole new world. I talk to people and they’re like, “Oh, you’re kind of making a new thing.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m making a new thing. There’s nothing I can go out and just rip off.” It’s very disheartening in moments.

And when I run up against that, if I have the presence of mind to think of my clients, to think about their lives, to think about the struggles that they have, to think about some of my clients that are a year or two out of the program and the lives that they’re living and the messages that I get from them and where they were when they started, and I think about, man, if I hadn’t kind of done this weird thing and put a bunch of time into developing something that I had no idea whether it would work, that kid would still be in her parents’ basement, in conflict with her parents about wanting to do something that she didn’t really know what it was, or she might be still using drugs or whatever.

It’s like I just get so stuck when I’m in myself and for myself. And I even extend that, even thinking about my son or my family, it’s like my son is kind of, in certain ways, an extension of myself. I’m doing this for my family. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re doing it for your family but there’s a way in which your family is an extension of yourself.”

And if I can take myself and de-center my perspective a little bit so that I’m thinking about my clients, I’m thinking about my collaborators, I think about my mentors, how much they’ve invested in me, so on the one hand I’m contradicting myself if I’m saying, “Yeah, this all should really come from your deepest internal vision.”

But I tell you, if your deepest internal vision doesn’t have a service portion, if it doesn’t encapsulate something, especially if you’re getting up there in years, if you’re not giving back on some level, it’s not going to do it for you. And the day-to-day process of executing that vision is also not going to do it for you if you lose sight of the people that you’re here to serve. So, that’s what I try to do.

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

Paul Durham
No, I think I’ve been running my mouth a lot.

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

Paul Durham
Something that I find inspiring.

Pete Mockaitis
As a quote, yeah.

Paul Durham
Well, I think I mentioned it earlier, which is a quote from the coach that I worked with and who kind of trained me to be a coach. He always used to say, “If you were going to do it, you would’ve done it. If you could’ve done it by yourself, you would’ve done it by yourself.”

And so, really, we need help. We need help. We need help from our friends, man. We need help from our enemies. We need help from people who have the hard truth to tell us, our nemesis at work, or the spouse that we’re in conflict. We need help from them. We need help from allies, from coaches, from mentors. And if we can bring ourselves to reach out, I’ve got to tell you, it’s like pulling teeth to get these kids to ask even just family and friends out for lunch, let alone potential mentors. It’s one of the biggest things I have to get them over.

And then I say to myself, “Yeah, but you’re the same way. You’re the same way. There’s people you know that could help you that you’re reticent to reach out to and ask for help.” So, I really try to. And when they have big breakthroughs, I really try to take that as a model for myself of reaching out. If you could’ve done it by yourself, you would’ve done it by yourself.

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

Paul Durham
A favorite book. Well, I got to say I still really love “The War of Art.” I’m sure a lot of people say that on here. But it’s kind of a masculine book. There’s a lot of push to it. But in the spirit of reaching out and getting help, like that book is a resource where you can reach out and you can get help and you can be reminded that the thing you are resisting, you are resisting for a reason, and that that reason may very well be because it’s the thing you need to do, and we’re just scared of failing. In a way, we’re scared of being committed.

Everything I’ve been talking about is just about commitment basically. And when you commit to something, it’s scary because now you’re all in. So, that book can really help support that process of getting all in and rushing forward.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Paul Durham
A favorite habit. Well, if I had to mention the habit that I like the most I would have to say Bulletproof Coffee. I really don’t like to eat in the morning, and having a cup of coffee with a bunch of fat in it allows me to get from when I wake up to when I actually want to eat, which is not usually until 11:00 or 12:00, so that is a good habit. It’s probably not a habit. It’s more of an addiction. So, here, I’ll try do better.

My favorite habit is to wake up in the morning and do something that provides a framework for me in which I can feel what I feel. Because I wake up and all kinds of things, you know, a weird dream, financial, relationship, parenting, business concerns. And if I can just, either through journaling or by meditation, or by kind of guided internal process, I can come to a place in which I feel what I actually feel, then that’s really valuable.

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

Paul Durham
So, my website is PaulDurham.com and from there you can go to YearOne, which is my program for 18 to 24-year-olds who want to take a gap year from college or who know they don’t want to go to college and are interested in forging a creative career through an apprenticeship model. Or you can connect to my coaching page, which I think I only have up because my GoDaddy client said I needed to have a website. All my clients come through word of mouth. So, yes, so I have a small website there as well, and then you can also connect to my band Black Lab.

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

Paul Durham
Yes, if you’re seeking to be awesome at your job, your coworkers are your number one resource. And the obstacle to accessing that resource is your pride and your fear. Like, your coworkers know who you are, they know what your strengths are, they know what your weaknesses are, and they can help you grow and develop. They can tell you strengths that you don’t even know that you have that you could really be capitalizing on. And they know the weaknesses that are crippling you and that are the reason why you didn’t get that promotion.

And so, if we can stop treating our coworkers as those neurotic annoyances in our life, and instead start looking them as valuable mentors, and even if they’re 20 years younger and dumber and more arrogant than you are, if we can just take them out to lunch, or take them out to a nice lunch, and say, “I want to take you out to lunch and pick your brain because I want to know what you think I could do better at work.” You make yourself vulnerable in that way, you will be awesome at work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Paul, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in your adventures and music and all you’re up to.

Paul Durham
Thank you so much, Pete. I really enjoyed it.

466: How to Get Home Earlier by Automating (Some of) Your Work with Wade Foster

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Wade Foster says: "Automation is a mindset; it's not a skill."

Wade Foster shares super-simple mindsets, tools and tricks to automate repetitive work  tasks and liberate extra time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Just how much time you can save through automation
  2. Where automation works, and where it doesn’t
  3. The latest low-cost software tools to optimize your workflow

About Wade 

Wade Foster is the co-founder and CEO of San-Francisco-based Zapier, a company offering a service that makes it easy to move data among web apps to automate tedious tasks. He, along with co-founder Mike Knoop, was featured on Forbes’ 30 under 30: for Enterprise Tech.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Wade Foster Interview Transcript

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

Wade Foster
Yeah, thanks for having me, Pete. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into this conversation. I have used your tool Zapier before but, first, I want to hear the tale of you playing the saxophone—I, too, was a sax player in high school and marching band—at The Missouri Governor’s Mansion.

Wade Foster
Oh, goodness. So, I played saxophone for a long time. I started playing in 5th grade. And my instructor had a quartet that played at The Governor’s Mansion in Jeff City regularly at the time. And they had a member of the quartet who moved out of the state and so they needed a fourth member on pretty short notice. And, for whatever reason, in their infinite wisdom, they thought, “Let’s invite this 9th-grader to come play with us at The Governor’s Mansion.”

And so, they say, “Hey, Wade, come to our rehearsal, come to a trial run.” And I walked in and I’m probably, I don’t know, 4’7” and don’t even weigh 100 pounds, like sopping wet or anything like that, and they gave me a go, and they say, “Hey, try this out.” And, for whatever reason, I must not have done too bad because they said, “Why don’t you come play at The Governor’s Mansion.

I ended up getting to play over at The Governor’s Mansion quite a few times over the course of the next year. And then, eventually, a new governor came around, and he had different entertainment, I guess.

Pete Mockaitis
“No saxophones for me.”

Wade Foster
Yeah, and so we weren’t invited back after that. But it was a ton of fun as a 9th-grader. I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Did that shape your political views?

Wade Foster
You know what, it didn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Liked one administration and not the other.

Wade Foster
Yeah, as 9th-grader, my views on, I guess, the political landscape were pretty rudimentary at the time. I was just like, “Let’s play saxophone. That sounds fun.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, sax is fun, and I would take a crack at a terrible segue of just as the saxophone has many buttons to push down so, too, can automation have a lot of different layers and buttons and approaches. So, that’s the topic du jour. And before we get into the nitty gritty of what to automate and how to automate, I’d love to get your overall kind of philosophy on automation. Like, why is it helpful? When is it not? Lay it on us.

Wade Foster
Yeah, I think automation is going to be one of the, sort of defining topics of the next decade or so. I think the way the mainstream press talks about it, it’s often pretty scary. They’re talking about how robots, especially in manufacturing—it’s a scary topic. But the way we see automation at Zapier, we see this across, we have, I don’t know, something around four million users now.

And most of the people doing automation tend to be knowledge workers. It tends to be white collar folks in professional jobs, they’re business owners, or maybe they’re entrepreneurs themselves, or many times they’re just a person in a job, whether it’s in marketing, or in sales, or a data analyst, or an engineer or a real estate agent, or a lawyer, or whatever, who’s sort of is using a suite of tools, maybe it’s some marketing software, or maybe it’s some sales software, or some customer support software.

And, oftentimes, they’re doing pretty manual stuff on a day-to-day basis. Maybe they’re downloading a list of leads out of Facebook or LinkedIn, and then uploading those into a CRM. Or maybe they’ve got a bunch of files that they’re pulling out and collecting from forms, and they’re making sure those get sent to the specific parties. But all of us kind of have stuff like that that we do on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

Maybe you’re a podcaster and you get transcripts manually delivered to you, and you’re trying to find ways to not do that stuff. And so, I think automation is a way that you can really take some of this mundane stuff that you’re doing every day, that you’re doing every week, and find a better way to do it, for really just not have to do that stuff anymore, and allow you to focus on the creative parts of your job, focus on the things that really deliver value, and leave the stuff that computers are good for to the computers.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Or just get home earlier.

Wade Foster
Yeah, that too.

Pete Mockaitis
“I don’t have to do that. Just get home now.”

Wade Foster
Yeah, see you tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
The work is done. Okay, so that’s cool. So, a real time-saver there. And so then, now automation sounds, in some ways, kind of big and spooky, not just because the robots are going to destroy and enslave the human race like Terminator, but also just because, “Oh, boy, do I need to know like scripts and APIs and codes and get developers involved,” like that just seems like too much for many of us.

And that’s one thing that’s nifty about Zapier, I’ve used it a little bit myself. So, why don’t you orient those who are not familiar? What does it do? How does it go?

Wade Foster
Yeah, so it used to be you did have to do that, you need developers and scripts and APIs, but with Zapier you don’t. We use a sort of simple metaphor called triggers and actions to help you set up automations. And so, a trigger is an event that might happen in any sort of software that you use. So, maybe it’s someone fills out a form that’s on your website; maybe you have a contact form, or a lead form, or any sort of form; maybe you’re collecting data for an RSVP for an event. When someone does that thing, that’s called a trigger, and then the action is, “What do you want Zapier to do for you when that happens?”

So, if you say like, contact form on a website, “Well, when someone fills out this contact form on the website, the action, I want them to log that person’s detail in my CRM so that I can make sure to follow up with them and communicate with them later.” So, at Zapier, we follow that simple trigger action logic, and it has a really simple UI to set some of this stuff up. And, in fact, a lot of the use cases are out-of-the-box where you don’t even have to understand what a trigger and action is. You can just turn that stuff on. And it helps you automate all sorts of different things that you might want to do around your job.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. I was just thinking recently about Zapier. It’s very fortuitous, the timing, just because, in my huge listener survey—thank you so much, listeners, for spending that time there. Something came up associated with community, and that’s something I’m trying to figure out and build and, “How do I do that? Boy, is it even manageable with so many thousands of people and probably need to be paid to have fewer folks?”

But, anyway, as I’m going through the ins and outs, one thing that came up was listeners would love the opportunity to be able to chime in and share their questions associated with a guest as soon as they learn that a guest is going to be interviewed. And I thought Zapier is pretty cool in that I could say, “Hey, Calendly is what I use for booking,”—which is a really easy way to set appointments.

I could say, “Yo, Zapier, when I get a new booking for a podcast interview, I want you to share that information over in a Slack channel for the listener community to announce, like, ‘Hey, Wade Foster is being interviewed on this day. Here’s what he submitted.’” And then they could just have at it without me having to remember, “Ooh, shucks, I need to kind of find, and copy, and paste the booking info inside the community Slack channel so folks have the opportunity to chime in and say things.” So, what’s cool is that once you’re just aware that tools like this exist, you sort of start to see opportunities, and I think that’s pretty exciting.

Wade Foster
Totally. And I think that example you just shared is a great one because you sort of stumbled across a use case that helps you solve a very specific problem. And now, once you have that skill in your skillset, you can start to refine these things. You might say, “Hey, I’m glad that I’m getting all this feedback in Slack. But now when I go interview Wade, I have to go find that Slack channel or that Slack thread, and it’s buried because it was a couple weeks old. So, maybe I don’t want them to put it in a Slack thread, so maybe I’ll have the Zap setup when a Calendly then gets booked, I’ll have Zapier generate a form, and then I’ll post a link to the form in Slack so that, then, when I got to talk to Wade, I just pull up a spreadsheet that’s got a bunch of questions in it, and I have them all right in front of me, and it’s a little easier to find that stuff.”

Like, once you sort of get the hang of automation, you can start to go, “Well, I like this basic thing, but I could tweak it a little bit and get a little bit more out of it and customize it to the needs that I have.” And so, I think that’s when automation becomes really fun because you have that ability to let your creativity go wild on the problems that are unique to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I guess that’s sort of the thing, it’s like everyone is going to have their own unique things and it’s sort of hard to say, “This is the top thing you must automate.” But, nonetheless, someone will take a crack at it. Could you maybe share with us a story of someone who used Zapier or some other automation tools out there to receive just like tremendous time savings and career and life benefits in action?

Wade Foster
Yeah, I think one of the ones that I really loved is there was this company that started in Australia, and they run an on-demand lawnmowing service. And the way it worked…

Pete Mockaitis
I’d would like that.

Wade Foster
Yeah, right? So, it’s kind of like Uber, right, you’ll hail a car to come pick you up. Well, this is you hail a person with a lawnmower to come mow your yard. And so, if you start to think about like, “What are the problems that you have to do to run a mowing service like that?” It’s like, well, you need a website, you need an order form, or a mobile app where people can say, “Hey, I want to book this thing.” And when they get booked, you need to be able to send an alert out to the people who have lawnmowers to say, “Hey, who wants to come do this thing?” And then you need to let the person who booked it know that you’ve got someone available.

Or you can just have a person just paying attention to the form and then doing all the matchmaking manually. Well, what this person did was said, “You know what, here’s how I’m going to set this up. When people request a lawnmower to come in, I’m going to have that get published automatically through Zapier into a spreadsheet. And in the spreadsheet, I’m going to have that trigger out a message via Twilio that goes out to our people who are currently marked as available to come mow the lawn. And then the first person that replies…”

Pete Mockaitis
Like a text message then?

Wade Foster
Yeah, a text message.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. That’s so smart.

Wade Foster
That says, “Hey, someone wants their lawn mowed,” right? And then the first person to reply to it then gets assigned to it so it gets marked back into the spreadsheet to say, “Bob is going to come mow the lawn.” And then via another text message, it publishes back to the customer that says, “Hey, Bob is coming to mow your lawn.”

So, this thing that would’ve been like a pretty manual matchmaking service is now run by like a couple zaps behind the scenes. And so, as a result, the business spends most of its time just trying to find more people, more customers, and find more lawnmowers. They don’t have to worry about the matchmaking process themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
And what was so cool about that is if someone would say, I imagine—we recently had a chat about side hustles with Nick Loper—but if someone were starting out as like a side hustle, and to think, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to be so hard. I’ve got build a mobile app that has all of this connectivity with all this people.” And then, no, they just sort of hacked together like with Google Sheets and some other stuff and Zapier a means of getting the job done without the huge investment, Uber or Lyft or some stuff, just made into that.

Wade Foster
Totally, right? Those folks made hundreds of millions of dollars to build their stuff, and this person did it with a handful of apps, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. Well, so I’d love to hear then – so that’s a pretty cool use case – so let’s talk about those professionals you mentioned, the lawyer, the real estate agents, the knowledge worker, the engineer, some stuff that is super popular and effective and helpful to automate, like it shows up again and again and again, and the time savings can be substantial.

Wade Foster
Yeah, the thing that I see happen and over and over again is sort of managing requests and interactions and relationships with other people. So, you’re often seeing this in the form of customer relationships. A customer, or a lead, or a prospect fills out a form on a website, “And let’s make sure that they get logged in our CRM, or logged in our mailing list, or the sales rep gets a text message to say, ‘Hey, you should call this lead,’ or something like that.”

But, oftentimes, it can be internal employees. Think about like an HR function, they have a form setup that says, “Hey, who’s going to come to the holiday party? Like, fill out this form real quick so we know how much food to order and like what your dietary restrictions are and whatnot.” And then get logged in a spreadsheet and then text the person a response back or sends them an email to say, “Hey, we got your order and we’ve got you booked to get the chicken at the holiday party,” or whatever. And that all sort of happens automatically.

But there’s a lot of use cases around just managing and communicating with people, whether it’s customers, or employees, or fans, or your community, or things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And, I guess, the next stuff I was thinking about what you should not automate. And I guess what I’m thinking about, I think it was Ryan Deiss. And he was talking about when you automate outbound marketing messages too much, you have a real risk of embarrassing yourself and looking dumb. And I think that I’ve seen that with PR people reaching out to me, “Hey, Pete, we think so and so would be great for your podcast.” Like, “Yeah, I’ve already had them on my podcast.”

This happens to me multiple times a week. And that’s a whole conversation, like, “Isn’t that the first thing you did was figure out what shows this guy is getting booked on so you can have great recommendations for applicable shows?” But, whatever. We’re not here to throw publicists under the bus. I was talking about some of the risks or where is it unwise. I think that’s one zone is I think if you let automation run amok on sort of outbound messages.

Wade Foster
Yeah, non opt-in channels, like things like that. You obviously don’t want to go and buy an email list and then upload in this system and then bulk spam a bunch of people. That doesn’t feel good. But when you have a form that a customer filled out, and you’re sending them a confirmation email to say, “Hey, we got your request,” like people expect that. That feels normal.

So, I think those are pretty safe when you’re talking about direct customer communication. And then I think things around just making sure that that information gets logged in the right system so that you can track that stuff. Did you get a project spun up in your project management tool? Did you get them logged in Airtable or a spreadsheet so that you have that and know to follow up on those things? Kind of the back-office paperwork type stuff rather than the direct customer interaction but how to make sure that you’re properly managing the relationship. That kind of stuff is like a sweet spot for automation, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so there’s one sweet spot we’re talking about, the customer request and getting them processed and connected and moving to where they need to go. Any other kind of broad categories that show up a lot?

Wade Foster
The other big one we see a lot is things like, “How do you just collect all of the inputs for like a project?” Think of project management at work, or you’ve got a program that’s running, and you’re getting feedback in this plate, in something like Jira, you’re getting requests that come in from a customer via email, you’re getting a feature request that comes from your boss. You’re getting all these inputs from all these different directions.

And Zapier can help you consolidate a lot of that into one centralized system, whether it’s a spreadsheet, or Airtable, or CRM, or a project management tool that basically says, “All this information that’s coming at me from 10 different places, all of which is important, and I don’t want to go check 10 different places. I want to just see it in one list.” That’s a place where Zapier is just super helpful, Pete, for people who do project management and things like of this nature.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. Well, so now I want to get even more precise. When it comes to Zapier, like what are the kind of absolute kind of most used zaps in terms of, “When I get an email about this, I want you to put it in Google Sheets like that”? So, in terms of when this program does this, trigger action, what combos are you seeing like have bazillions of, sort of installations or usages?

Wade Foster
Yeah, I think any sort of things like, “A customer paid me,” or, “Someone filled out my form on my website,” or, “Someone sent me an email,” that post a message into Slack sends you an alert, says, “Hey, this thing happened,” that’s really, really popular. Also, things like, “I got a lead through Facebook, a lead came in through Facebook, or LinkedIn, or Google, and I want to make sure a sales rep follows up on it instantly, so automatically route that into Salesforce or some other CRM,” things like that are really popular on Zapier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I wanted this before, because I clicked around Zapier. So, now if you don’t have the thing that I want, can I find a developer to go make that for me?

Wade Foster
Yeah, so there’s a couple things you can do if we don’t have what you want. So, we have things like our inbound email action. So, if the app you have or working with that isn’t supported by Zapier, but it sends out email alerts, you can use that to have emails forwarded into Zapier. You can use things like RSS which, if it generates an RSS feed, we accept RSS.

If the service provides webhooks, which is kind of a more technical thing, but usually not that hard to learn even if you’re not a developer, you just point the webhook at Zapier, and say, “Zapier, accept this.” And if the service you’re working doesn’t have any of those things, you can go track down a developer or a Zapier expert. At zapier.com/experts, we have a whole list of experts that help with more complicated workflows, and say, “Hey, can you help me get Zapier to work with this tool, where I might need a developer to dig under the hood and play around with some codes and some APIs a little bit?” So, there’s a lot. So, that’s kind of the way that most folks approach it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool to hear because I have, at times, I visit Upwork.com and found some people to code some things for me.
Okay, so if folks are digging this and they say, “I want to get started,” I imagine you’d say, “Well, go to Zapier.com.” But what are some other tips or strategies you’d recommend for folks who want to start automating and offloading some of the stuff they’re doing all the time?

Wade Foster
That’s a great question. I was talking to one of our experts, and he made this comment that automation is a mindset, it’s not a skill, which I thought was interesting. And the reason he said that was most people don’t even think about automation when they think about their to-do list on a given day. And so, he said, “One of the ways that I train people to get better at this is to start writing down what do you do every day, just write it down on a piece of paper. Or, when you write down your to-do list, don’t think, ‘How am I going to do this?’ Instead think, ‘How does this get done?’”

And shifting the way you think about your to-do list to not, “I have to do this,” to, “How does this get done?” starts to open your mind up to, “Well, perhaps I can delegate that thing to Zapier,” or, “Maybe I delegate something like this to an EA,” or, “Maybe I delegate this to a person that’s on my team.” But there’s other ways to get stuff done that don’t always involve you specifically, directly doing the task.

And I thought that such a smart way to help folks get into that automation mindset to step back and really understand where you’re spending time on stuff on a day-to-day basis, that maybe you don’t need to be spending that time on those things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that is a cool mindset shift. Any other tools you’d recommend in terms of getting the job done? So, Zapier is handy and flexible and can do a lot. But things that either make automation happen or just keep work processes from being too boring or cumbersome.

Wade Foster
I think the other up-and-comer alongside Zapier that I see a lot is Airtable. So, Airtable is kind of like a souped-up spreadsheet database-type tool, and it’s kind hard to like describe it in a way that sounds really fun and interesting but, boy, do people love it. They start to get their hands on it, and they just find all sorts of interesting ways to do automation with Zapier and Airtable, and better manage a lot of projects and work that they’ve got coming in.

So, Airtable, similar to Zapier, we have a list of zaps all over the site that you can check out and use. Airtable also has their universe and a gallery that shows all the different ways you can use Airtable, which I think is a pretty fun place to go exploring.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, now, I’ll tell you this, I have heard Airtable mentioned here and there, but I don’t actually have any conception of what it is. I’m on Airtable.com right now.

Wade Foster
It’s like a spreadsheet but it’s like better. It’s hard to say because it’s one of those things that you just have to play with it. And as soon as you play with it for a little bit, you’re like, “Oh, I see why this is better.” But until you do, it’s one of those things that people will go, “Yeah, I guess, I use spreadsheets and I think spreadsheets are good.” So, I don’t know. You should have Howie come on your podcast and he can tell you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s intriguing. As I’m seeing right now, like there’s an Airtable, it looks like a spreadsheet, but they also have photos in there and notes in there. And those are kind of hard to do to stick a photo in an Excel or a Google Sheet.

Wade Foster
Totally. And you can put files in them. So, you can just like stuff more things in them, more like a database, like what you do with a database. But then you can visualize it in all sorts of ways. So, you can turn your spreadsheet into like a Kanban board, kind of like Trello would be, or you can do a bunch of pivot tables but in a way that you don’t have to know what a pivot table is. So, stuff like that.

Pete Mockaitis
I know deeply about pivot tables as a former strategy consultant.

Wade Foster
Oh, yes. Yes. But like most people don’t know what pivot tables are, and Airtable makes it easy to do it, and you wouldn’t even know you’re doing a pivot table. You’d just be like, “Oh, that’s a handy little thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Wade, I hope you have not incepted me with this new desire which is going to result in 10 or 20 bucks a month departing my wallet continually. I’m a sucker. I love tools that help me do more, and I very easily justify their expenditure, like, “Well, this saves me just six minutes a month. It’s a bargain,” and maybe it is.

Wade Foster
Well, hopefully, with things like Zapier and Airtable, we’re doing more than six minutes a month. Hopefully, we’re digging into the hours and days a month buck territory.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That’s just how I persuade myself, “Well, surely, more than six minutes, and that’s all we need to be based on these parameters.”

Wade Foster
Totally, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, Airtable is handy. Any other tools leap to mind?

Wade Foster
You know, Airtable is great. I think tools like Typeform or Wufoo are really popular these days for putting in forms.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a new level of form.

Wade Foster
Yeah, Typeform is really slick. There’s another up-and-comer coming up called Coda that’s been pretty interesting. I’ve seen a lot of our people playing around with.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you spell Coda, C-O-D-A?

Wade Foster
Yes, C-O-D-A. So, it’s a document software. So, the cool thing about Coda is if you spell it backwards, it’s a doc.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh. Coda.io.

Wade Foster
Yeah, Coda.io. So, it’s like a Google Doc but similar to like how Airtable is like a spreadsheet, it’s so much more under the hood. And you can do all these like cool little macros, and like nifty things that make your doc more living and breathing, and auto updates based on other project software that you work with. So, it’s one of those ones that if you fashion yourself to be kind of on the cutting edge of new things. I’m seeing a lot of folks play around with Coda these days.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, while we’re talking about project management and stuff, do you have a point of view on monday.com versus Asana versus the others?

Wade Foster
You know, I don’t have a strong point of view. You see monday, you see Asana, you see Trello, then you see stuff more on the personal side like Todoist or maybe…

Pete Mockaitis
OmniFocus.

Wade Foster
Yeah, OmniFocus, there you go. Yeah, so stuff like that. Honestly, I think people work in different ways, so whatever works for you. Like, each of these tools have their own little design paradigms and ways that you approach this stuff. I think what’s more important is that you find habits that you can stick to. And if the software helps you stick to that habit, that’s probably the one you should do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, and if the software gets in the way because you’re always tinkering and fiddling and formatting and customizing because your dorky little productivity sensibilities are firing off, and in a way that’s fun.

Wade Foster
Yeah, that’s a good time.

Pete Mockaitis
And if that makes work more thankfully enjoyable but I have, at times, saying, “Wait a minute. This is actually counterproductive work.”

Wade Foster
Yeah, it’s a bit of a form of procrastination, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly. “I’ve got my formatting just perfect now. Oh, anybody know…?”

Wade Foster
Yeah, “What else can I do before I actually do the thing on my to-do list?”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, hey, there’s one mistake not to make. Any other things you would flag in terms of a warning, or a common mistake, or failure when folks are trying to optimize and automate stuff?

Wade Foster
You know, I think one thing that’s really easy to get caught up with is the sort of hamster wheel of just working through your to-do list, like constantly just adding things to your to-do list, and continuing to trudge through them. I think the most sort of successful folks that I’ve worked with do this exercise. It’s not really an exercise, some of them don’t even know that they’re doing it. But they really have a clear grasp on what it is that they want to do, like what it is that they want to achieve over a longer period of time.

So, they might say, “In the next year, I want X,” or, “In the next five years, I want Y,” or, “In the next 10 years, I want to have Z.” And then they start to work backwards from that. And then when they look at their to-do list on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, yeah, there’s some stuff that you just kind of got to do to make sure that the bills get paid and whatnot. But they continually remember, “What is it that I’m trying to achieve over the long haul?” And they make sure that every day, they’ve got some things on their to-do list that kind of pushes them forward on that rung.

And so that way, they’re not getting stuck in this hamster wheel where, after five years, they look up and go, “I’ve done a lot of work, I’ve checked a lot of to-do’s off over the last five years. I haven’t really done anything. I haven’t really achieved what mattered to me.” And so, I think doing that just mental exercise of, “What is it that I want? What do I want for myself? What do I want to contribute to humanity over the next year?” And really understand that is a very important step for optimizing your work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Wade, tell me, any final thoughts before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Wade Foster
Let’s do some favorite things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite quote?

Wade Foster
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study?

Wade Foster
Favorite study? I did a lot of math and science in school but, lately, I’ve been studying a bunch of like writing rhetoric tricks.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Tell me examples, please.

Wade Foster
So, I picked up this book, and every week I write a Friday update for the team, and it’s like it’s usually some stuff that’s on my mind to help them just better see the bigger picture. And the book has like, I don’t know, 50 different rhetoric tricks in it. And so, every week I write the update, and then I’ll go read one of the rhetoric tricks. And then I’ll go back through my update and find a way to use it as part of it.

So, this week, syllepsis was the thing that I was using as part my Friday update. So, I dropped a couple of syllepses, I don’t even know, like, some of these things I don’t even know the plural of it, into the update. And then I use it as a way just to teach the team some little writing tips and tricks throughout the week.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I always get it mixed up. Is syllepsis the one like, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?

Wade Foster
Syllepsis is kind of like where you would use a single word to sort of…it’s used with two other parts of a sentence, but then that same word is understood differently in relationship to each other. So, for example, “They covered themselves with dust and glory,” That’s a quote from Mark Twain. Well, covered with dust and covered with glory, like that’s two different ways to be covered. You’re still using the same word covered, but dust is like a physical thing, and glory is like more abstract.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and it feels awesome. It has a name and it’s used frequently in some of the word. Well, now, we’re all wondering what the name of this book.

Wade Foster
Oh, shoot, I have to find it. Let’s see, let me pull it up on my Kindle. So, the name of this book, I’m pulling it up here real quick, is The Elements of Eloquence is the name of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Wade Foster
It’s got a fancy title and everything.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s probably a name for that literary device right there.

Wade Foster
I’m sure there is. It’s “Elements of Eloquence,” it has some literation in there, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And who’s the author?

Wade Foster
So, the author for this book is Mark Forsyth.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right on.

Wade Foster
Just some of my writing friends said, “You’ve got to check this out. It’ll help you be more persuasive. It’ll help you write cooler things.” And I was like, “I’d like to sound more persuasive. I’d like to write cooler things.” So, I picked it up and I’m having fun with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. So, let’s see, there’s a book. How about a favorite tool?

Wade Foster
Can I say Zapier?

Pete Mockaitis
You can but give me another one as well.

Wade Foster
I’ll give you another one. So, one of the ones I’m really loving right now is this tool called Workona, which is a Chrome extension, that helps you manage all your tabs. So, if you’re like me, you might be a tab order, where you’ll have tens, maybe dozens of tabs open at the same time, but they’re all disorganized, and you can’t find the tab that you want.

Well, Workona helps you organize your tabs based on projects. So, for example, if you’re trying to plan a wedding, and you had a set of tabs for weddings, you could put that in one workspace. You had another set of tabs that was for meal planning. Maybe you’d put those in a different workspace. Then if you’ve got a set of tabs for this project you’re doing at work, that would go in a different workspace. So, as you switch back and forth between contexts, you can pop open those set of tabs all at once, rather than keeping all the tabs for all of those projects open at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa! So, it’s kind of like I can bookmark a site, but that’ll take me to one site, but with Workona I can sort of save a collection of tabs.

Wade Foster
You’ve got it.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like when I need to get down to business and decide what goes in the podcast episode, get open up my Google Drive on my podcast files, and then open up my media schedule in a Google Sheet on another tab, and then open up my email with Superhuman on a third tab, and it could just save that for me.

Wade Foster
Totally, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s pretty cool.

Wade Foster
Yeah, and when you think about how you do work, at least how I do work, it’s often thematically the same. So, it’s like when I sit down to do this set of things, I always have these windows open up. But if I’m doing a different task, it’s a different set of windows. And so, I can save those workspaces and come back to them really quick, which is nice.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, cool. Workona, W-O-R-K-O-N-A.

Wade Foster
You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Wade Foster
My favorite habit, honestly, this is my cornerstone habit, it’s my exercise habit. So, at 5:30, I’m usually heading to the gym to play racket ball or do some weightlifting, and everything feeds off of this habit. I exhaust myself at the end of the day, it takes my mind off of work. I come home and I’m able to eat dinner and get a good night’s sleep because I’m exhausted from working out hard. Then I wake up early in the morning, fresh and resilient for the next day’s things that I have to do. So, that exercise habit is really important for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share with your teams and those you collaborate with that really seems to connect and resonate with them?

Wade Foster
Our set of values that we have as a company are probably the things that resonate deeply. So, we have things like default to action, default to transparency, empathy no ego, growth through feedback, and, “Don’t be a robot, build a robot,” are a set of core values. These are things that we use in part of our hiring process. We use it as part of our performance reviews. And we even have like Reacji emojis inside of Slack to sort of illustrate when people are operating with the values in mind. And these things, it’s just become a part of our DNA, and it resonates with everyone that works at Zapier.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, “Don’t be a robot, build a robot,” is a great mantra even if you’re not building automation software. But, no, seriously, don’t do the same process hundreds of times over, find a means by which that could be automated. I heard someone say, “Hey, if your definition of automation can include other people who are not you, you know?” So, for example, if there is a job could be done by someone in a lower-cost nation, for example.

Wade Foster
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Or someone who has a lower cost of labor because they’re an intern or don’t have a college degree because it’s not necessary, then that could be handy too if you build a process that has a lot of sort of software automation as well as other people such that you’re bringing down the total time load and cost load to the organization and yourself to make it done. So, that follows up to that mindset shift of not, “How am I going to do this?” but rather, “How is this going to get done?”

Wade Foster
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
And by building a robot or the systems and processes.

Wade Foster
You bet.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s going to stick with me. Thank you.

Wade Foster
I know.

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

Wade Foster
Come check out Zapier.com. You can get in touch with me on Twitter, I’m pretty active there @wadefoster. And my email is not too hard to find, so if you’re really keen on getting in touch with me, email is always a good way too.

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

Wade Foster
I think just go get it. Go automate the stuff. Go find ways to work better. Why are you listening to us for? Go make it happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Wade, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you and Zapier tons of luck and keep on rocking.

Wade Foster
Yeah, thanks for having me, Pete.

461: Tactics for Boosting Productivity and Banishing Distraction with Erik Fisher

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Erik Fisher says: "You can't get everything done; not all the time, not every moment."

Erik Fisher shares tips and tricks to optimize your productivity without driving yourself crazy.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Tricks to reduce your smartphone dependency
  2. The small habits that create big results
  3. Why it’s okay to not get things done

About Erik 

Erik is a Productivity Author, Podcaster, Speaker, and Coach. He talks with real people who practically implement productivity strategies in their professional and personal lives. You’ll be refreshed and inspired after hearing how others fail and succeed at daily productivity and continue to lead successful and meaningful lives.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Erik Fisher Interview Transcript

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

Erik Fisher
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m super excited to dig back into the goods. And I want to hear, you know, it’s been a couple years. What have you learned about productivity in that time? Or is there anything new you’d picked up or anything you decided you’ve abandoned, like, “Hey, on second thought, I don’t like that idea anymore”?

Erik Fisher
Oh, my gosh. Things change and yet, at the same as things are changing, they stay the same. One of the key things for me is, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but there’s a lot of people who’ve come out with, say, like, daily or weekly analog, meaning handwriting-type planners, you know, chucking the digital system, if you will. And, for the most part, I like that idea. I like working in analog. There’s something very satisfying to that.

A friend of mine, he’s like, “Hey, I have a digital planner and I use my Apple Pencil in it,” and I’m like, “Okay, cheater.” But, for the most part, I have still stayed digital in terms of my list and my projects and things like that. But I have gone to almost completely 100% paper books.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, interesting. So, no Kindles or e-books of any sort.

Erik Fisher
Now, I have the ability to do it and I will still look at articles. Like, I do have an iPad, the latest version, the 11-inch Pro, and I really like it. I use it for content consumption and I don’t turn it and use it like a laptop or anything like that. I like that it’s not a desktop or a laptop or a phone. And by leaning into using it that way as a tablet, a digital window interface, whatever, to all my documents and things like that, whether it’s work-related or consumption-related, reading articles. I lean heavily into that and then, by doing that, I feel like that ease of use, of using it as a multipurpose tool like that, I then don’t spend as much time on my phone. You know what I mean?

Because if we constantly have that thing on us with all that stuff with us at all times, we feel like we have to use it all the time. And I’ve been trying really hard to get my time spent on phone down because the majority of the time that I’m spending on it, I found, was very unintentional passive use that was just eating into my time.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s intriguing right there. So, you’ve made a conscientious effort to reduce time on phone and you’ve seen some positive results in doing so. Could you maybe quantify that a little bit for us in terms of where were you before, and where are you now, and did you do anything else that made a real big difference in helping with that initiative?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, so a friend of mine also was noticing this and not only that, but having read Cal Newport’s most recent book that he came out with, Digital Minimalism, and talking with him for my show, we both said, “Hey, you know what, what if we went for like…?” So, the period of Lent comes up and we decided to say, “Well, what if we just…? Like, we can’t quit our phone and not have it on us, but what if we quit using our phone for every little thing, and just see what we can get away with?”

So, we sat down together and we started cataloging all the different apps. It was kind of a challenge between the two of us to see how many we could offload or delete, and what was the bare minimum of installed and active apps we could have on our phone, and how far we could get with doing that. And it was amazing because, after having done that –

I have an iPhone. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the iPhone’s ability to offload an app. It means that you can remove an app, the app will stay there and your credentials, and you’d be logged in and all that, but you have to click the download button again, and it then fills in the hollow shell of an app that is sitting there with all the content again. So, effectively, you can’t use it without re-downloading the app, which is like a safeguard or a boundary from you using the app again.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it sort of keep all the info that you’ve stored about your login and your historical data, but it’s not kind of taking up any space, and it’s a little harder to get to because you’ve got to spend that time to re-download it.

Erik Fisher
That’s exactly right. So, effectively, yes, the shell of the app is there, the inside of the app is not there except for, again, it maintains all the logins and things like that. So, we went through that and we checked in with each other about three days in, and we said, “How much time are you using it?” I was like not even carrying my phone with me at that point. I have my Apple Watch on me, and I would respond to a text through that, and phone calls, I would still do those. Are people still doing phone calls? Yes, they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Or text me first.

Erik Fisher
Yeah, exactly. And I just noticed that suddenly I wasn’t reaching for it every 5 to 10 minutes to check something or look something up, etc. And that’s not to say I wasn’t allowed to look something up somewhere, like on a desktop, or even on my iPad, but I wasn’t allowed to do it on my phone. And by breaking the phone being on me and ever-present and always able to be dove into as this dark pool of information that I could always access—you just don’t understand!

Like, when you have that on you at all times and you can always jump in, then you constantly will. And because you constantly will, then you will even when you do or don’t want to. And so, it’s really about cutting way back to the point where, then, it’s almost like, think of it as a digital diet metaphor for a physical diet. It’s like you can enjoy the stuff that is bad for you on occasion as long as you’re not eating it constantly all day every day, which is what we are doing digitally.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well-said. I like that. And what was so cool is you made it sort of like a challenge and you had some accountability there, a buddy, and you sort of reframed, I guess, what triggers your reward centers in your brain. It’s not like, “I am so powerful because I have so many apps, I can do anything.” But rather it’s like, “All right, let’s just see how disciplined I can be and how winning is now reducing apps instead of having more apps and feeling powerful as a result of having those apps.”

Erik Fisher
Yes, exactly. And then, of course, the time period was over when we could add apps back on. And, honestly, it was like, “Well, wait a second, I just never came back.” There were months later where I would suddenly be looking for an app on my phone, I’m like, “Wait. Didn’t I have that app?” And I realize I had never put it back on, and it had been months since I’d last used it, so why was it on there? “Oh, just in case.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And that slows you down too. Like, the actual, I don’t know a ton about how all this hardware devices worked. But it seems like in my experience, generally speaking, the more stuff you have installed, the slower things run. Is that fair to say for the phone as well, the number of apps?

Erik Fisher
Potentially. I think Apple would say, “No, no, there’s nothing different with it. Buy the biggest one and install as many apps as you want. There’s an app for everything.” I don’t know. I would say here’s the thing, that means you have subconsciously maybe a need to organize all those apps in different places so you’d know where they are and have the ability to use them quickly. So, in other words, it’s digital clutter on the phone that you then have to deal with, which is also taking up time, mental RAM.

So, all in all, I came out the other end and I started using my phone a whole lot less. And, even to this day, I use it more but I think I cut way back. Again, I need to do a revisit, not maybe as drastic or strategic. But, again, one of the things that I was doing was there were certain apps, like the weather app, where I realized, “You know what, I can offload it on my phone but I can literally lift my wrist on my Watch and the weather is right there.”

And so, it’s different. It’s a different feeling. In other words, it’s a different – what’s the best way to put it? It’s a different meeting of a need. In other words, that’s the thing, I think, I’m trying to get at here, is you have to be careful about how you’re meeting certain needs because, then, you start to rationalize everything as a need.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, it feels that was a big lesson that could be applied to a lot of things.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. So, you can rationalize doing your email on your phone. And some people were like, “Wait, what’s wrong with that?” And I’m like, “Dude, you have no idea how doing email on your phone can become this thing where you’re always doing email on your phone and then switching over to, “Oh you’re texting, switching over to listening to a podcast, switching over to…” Do you see what I’m saying? Like, switching over, switching over. Like, you are sitting there, hunched over with a horrible posture, and/or walking and talking, and doing something. You are basically tricking yourself with that phone into thinking you can multitask. And, again, you can. You’re just task-switching and you’re bifurcating and fragmenting your attention.

And, actually, that was the biggest thing right there was just this calm sense of, “I don’t have to reach for anything on that phone because there’s nothing there I am missing out on at this moment,” unless a rant, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful in terms of describing that feeling and transformation and how that unfolds, so that’s cool. Well, hey, that’s what you’ve learned recently, and I appreciate you sharing it. Last time, we talked a lot about energy management being key to productivity, and so I want to cover some other pieces of productivity goodies from you this time.

I did a big listener survey, and a lot of folks were bringing up distractions, whether that’s internally from you’re tempted to go do email, or check your phone, or whatever, or externally, in terms of folks dropping by your desk, saying, “Hey, Erik, you got a minute?” or whatever. So, I’d love to get your take in terms of what have you found, in your own experience and from interviewing so many people, are really the best practices for maintaining clarity and focus?

Erik Fisher
So, I’ll refer you back to what we just talked as being a huge factor in that, first and foremost.

Pete Mockaitis
Just managing that phone, yeah.

Erik Fisher
Managing the phone and as well as what the phone is doing to you. Because if you feel like you need to reach for your phone when you’re sitting at your desk constantly, then you are effectively training yourself that it is okay to pick it up over and over and over and interrupt yourself, let alone weaken your ability to deal with any of the other stuff that are thrown at you from external.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. So, you’re actually harming yourself, you’re weakening your capacity to resist distraction because you are continually giving in.

Erik Fisher
That’s exactly right. Like, if at any moment you ever feel slightly bored—like my kids are saying—or hungry, or whatever, and you decide to go do something mindless, or go walk into the kitchen and open the refrigerator, it’s like opening the refrigerator door. Like, if you train yourself that that’s okay versus having something prepared that you know is your “snack for the day,” then there you go, then you’re going to go pull out, I don’t know, fill in blank here, of what you should not be having as a snack, you know?

So, the more you train yourself to go the opposite direction or the way you should go in terms of your habits, you just find it easy to get distracted. So, first and foremost, that’s number one, with the phone, because it’s tied in to that. Then, number two, in terms of distractions, gosh, there’s a couple of different things that I have found that really, really helped. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned the system, the audio system that I use, last time, that helps with eliminating distractions.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it Focus At Will?

Erik Fisher
It is Focus At Will. Well, I have changed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. There we go.

Erik Fisher
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a lifetime membership to Focus At Will but I’m not using it. I found one that I like better and it’s because it does multiple things. It’s not just focusing yourself. It has to do with brainwaves and the sound of the “music” or the—

Pete Mockaitis
You quote music. Strong praise, right?

Erik Fisher
Well, that’s the thing. Yeah, because technically it’s not music. It’s a—

Pete Mockaitis
Sound.

Erik Fisher
–Composition. Right. And so that’s the thing. But, that said, it’s still you don’t get into it like, “Oh, man, I love this song,” kind of moment because of listening to it. And if you did, then it wouldn’t be working because it would be distracting you because you’d be like, “Oh, man, I love this song.” It’s called Brain.fm.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Erik Fisher
It can do all of those stuff we talked about the Focus At Will can do. It eliminates the blinders, sorry, it puts up the blinders so your flight and fight mechanism kind of gets lulled into sleep. Essentially, it’s backed by science. It gets you to a place where your brainwaves are in position to hold focus stronger and longer when you’re doing work. And not only that though, it can also be used for meditation, or calming yourself down, or even sleep, so you can listen to it, take a nap and get a better sleep/nap by using it.

And by having that extra stuff and having it, again, I’m not talking bad about Focus At Will, but Brain.fm, which is leaps and bounds ahead of them when I found them almost a year ago, that I signed up immediately. And, in fact, they gave me like codes, not a code but a link, to let people get like 20% off for their whole first year, and people have been loving jumping on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Are you allowed to, are you able to share this in a public forum?

Erik Fisher
Yes, I can.

Pete Mockaitis
You can’t do this to us, Erik.

Erik Fisher
I gave it a pretty link so that it would be easier for people. So, it’s BeyondTheToDoList.com/brainfm.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, that’s intriguing. I mean, I love…well.

Erik Fisher
And you’ve used Focus At Will before.

Pete Mockaitis
I have used it and I appreciated what they had, but I also had kind of found a focus playlist I created, and I thought, you know, in a way it was almost because my focus playlist had gotten so many kind of repetitions of, “Oh, hey, it’s time to focus.” I listen to the focus music and I focus, that it’s kind of like ritualized and accelerated the process of having sound focus me. So, that’s kind of why, in my particular instance, the Focus At Will almost had enough hill battle against an incumbent. But what you’re saying here is, “Hey, Brain.fm does more than just that.”

Well, if we’re talking about me for a second with rituals and focus, like I enjoy, because I’ve got two kids under two, and I’ve got a home office in an enclosed porch, so I upgraded it to get a real nice sound-blocking door, but sometimes it doesn’t block enough sound. So, I’d like to put in earplugs, plus Bose noise-cancelling headphone, plus either the focus playlist, or we had a previous guest who talked about, she listens to Star Trek: The Next Generation engine idling noise as white noise.

Erik Fisher
Beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I found that and I use that sometimes. And so, that’s been the groove so far. But I’m intrigued by Brain.fm for that context as well as, hey, the power napping and more.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. So, I can tell you, one thing about the napping, as well as even the overnight sleep, which that’s a little bit tricky to do but I figured that out. Basically, you put it on as an app, and then it allows you to download an evening of Brain.fm sleep alpha wave patterns. Oh, I know where I was going. I was like, “Where was I going with this?”

When I talked to the guy that’s the head of it on my show, I told him, “I go to sleep listening to music, always have, since about junior high.” And I said, “It helps me fall asleep faster. Now why is this different?” And he says, “Well, number one, you listening to music as you go to sleep is a ritual, so it’s triggering your brain as you lay down in bed that it’s time to go to bed. And so, you’re still going to find that this has that power to it because you’re still going kind of through the ritual.”

However, the difference between Brain.fm and listening to regular music is that this is going to get your brainwaves into where you want them to go, which is deeper sleep, faster, and then keep them there because of the way that, again, I’ll use the word music, the way that it plays and it works and it keeps you calm and all that.

Now, the other thing that I have found is me, putting on my Bose noise-cancelling headphones, even if no one’s home, and turning it to the meditation or the calming setting, and doing 15 minutes of even if I’m just sitting in my desk, at my desk, in my desk chair, closed eyes or not, and just kind of breathing, “it gets you there faster” in terms of calming down and taking a break, and being able to then jump back from that more refreshed.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Erik Fisher
So, there you go. So, yeah, again, that link is BeyondTheToDoList.com/brainfm. They gave me that link and said, “Hey, if your listeners ever want to listen, try it out, they can try it out for free.” And if they sign up, which it’s not expensive.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I thought it would be more but I clicked pricing, I always make a guess before I actually click pricing, and it was well below my guess.

Erik Fisher
Brain.fm is cheaper than the one that I was using that I have for lifetime anyway, which is Focus At Will. Brain.fm is cheaper, and I was just like, “Oh, gosh, this is a no-brainer.” But you can get 20% a year with them, which is great.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, very cool. All right. Boy, you’re delivering the goods. So, we’re going to talk about specific means by which you are maintaining clarity and focus. We talked about the breaking of habits with the phone and the reduction of apps and such. We got the Brain.fm. Any other biggies?

Erik Fisher
Let’s see here. So, I have one other one that’s a secret weapon.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like if you disclose.

Erik Fisher
I will. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked with Jaime Masters before.

Pete Mockaitis
I know the name and the face but we’ve never talked.

Erik Fisher
So, she was on my show again recently. She and I did not plan on talking about this, but she shared this with me. She was doing these group mastermind things where she’d get people to come to like a big, a giant Airbnb somewhere, all these different leadership people and whatever. And they’d do these surveys afterwards, and people would ask them, she would ask the people, sorry, “What were the things that stood to you the most?” And she, embarrassingly, shared with me that the thing they were talking to her about was they would say, “Jaime’s drugs.” And she was like, “What? What are you talking about?” And she says, well, because she would bring something called nootropics with her.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Erik Fisher
So, have you heard what this word is?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard of nootropics. I’ve been a little spooked to ingest them myself.

Erik Fisher
Yes. So, here’s the deal, she had no idea that I had already tried one, yeah. And what I did was, basically, it’s called Alpha BRAIN. And she was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s one of the best ones.” And she said, “Here’s the thing, on Amazon you can go to the reviews, and it’s either, ‘This was amazing. It worked amazing for me,’ or, ‘This did nothing for me,’ and it’s really based upon who you are and your brain chemistry and all that kind of stuff.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, they got even three stars out of over a thousand reviews. Lovers and haters.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. And so, she said, “Here’s the thing, the issue with that one is that it works great for some people and does nothing for others, and it’s not inexpensive to get a hold of it, to start with, and try out and everything.” I said, “Well, hold up. They actually sent me some for free to try.” And then when it worked, because it did, and I’ll explain what it felt like in a second. She said, “Oh, that’s awesome.” And I said, “Yeah, I even wrote the guy back and said, ‘Hey, could I have a little bit more?’” in true drug, you know, the first one is free, so, “Could I have some more?”

And, anyways, what it came down to they had actually realized that if they could get it in the hands of the people to try out cheap, then people would actually notice that it worked or not for them and then order more. And so, basically, I have a deal on this one too where people can get it. They can get a bottle of it with like 14 pills of it, and even just taking one a day, or even two a day, is enough to see if it’s going to affect you at all, and you pay like five bucks for the shipping and that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. And I guess what’s kind of kept me out of this is like, “Is it addictive? Is it dangerous? Is it, you know?” And it’s like, well.

Erik Fisher
No and no.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Erik Fisher
Here’s how I’ll explain it. So, I was concerned with it. Let me first say this, before they ever approached me, and before Jaime and I ever had talked about it, months ago I saw in an Instagram story Michael Hyatt holding the bottle and saying he was taking it and loving it.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s something about Michael Hyatt, he’s such a standup guy. It’s like, “If Michael Hyatt takes this, it must not be dirty.”

Erik Fisher
Exactly my take too. And I love him and so I took a screenshot of it and just forgot about it. And then months later, it kind of bubbled back up into my head, and I was like, “Yeah, I should probably check that out.” I think it was only a matter of a few weeks later, somehow. I assumed maybe they found out by searching through the photos on my phone that I had looked at it or something, I don’t know. That’s when they sent it to me.

So, my predisposition to it was Michael Hyatt, and he kind of clears the path for me on a lot of things, to be honest. And so, I took two of them. There was like 14 of them in the small bottle and I took two of them on a Thursday, or it was a Tuesday. And so, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of a very tough week, I was taking two of them in the morning, honestly, just without even thinking about it. And then I just never gave it any thought.

But then I realized come Thursday later afternoon, and then even Friday morning again, it occurred to me, “Do you realize you haven’t felt like you needed to like crash and take a nap, or have two or three extra cups of coffee these past few days? But you also don’t feel like you are wired and jittery and whatever like you would’ve had if you’d taken those cups of coffee, and it’s just not as much of an effort to like, focus?” And so, to myself, I said, “Yes, you’re right, I have seen that. I have noticed that.”

And that’s exactly what it was. It wasn’t some kind of, “Oh, my gosh, I drank five energy Red Bulls or something.” It was like—oh, this is the best way to put it. You know how if you’ve ever lost any significant amount of weight, you don’t suddenly feel, but over time, you feel like you have so much more energy. It’s kind of the equivalency of that with your brain, but after having lost like 10 or 20 pounds, your brain just feels like it’s not weighed down as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing.

Erik Fisher
That’s what it felt like. That’s what it feels like. And so, once they said, “Hey, here’s this code in case anybody is interested. They can grab a bottle for free. They just pay shipping,” I told two of my friends right away. I said, “Hey, not kidding you, I’ve tried this. Check out this page. If you’re interested, there you go.”

And one of them was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m now taking one in the morning and one in the afternoon.” And he then said—and he loves coffee, by the way so he’s still having it—but he found that he was able to get so much more done over the course of the week than he was previously up to that point. So, for him it worked. For the other one, it actually didn’t. It didn’t really do much. So, that was actually interesting to me to find out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m encouraged to hear that it hasn’t produced any dangers and it hasn’t produced any addiction.

Erik Fisher
No, because there are days I don’t take it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s nifty. Well, hey, everyone be safe and do your research, but I’m taking a gander at it. I don’t see anything terrifying on the Amazon page. So, yeah, what is this link?

Erik Fisher
Oh, yes. Sorry, I didn’t even think to give you that. so, again, I made it easy, it’s BeyondTheToDoList.com/alphabrain.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Erik Fisher
So, there you go. Yeah, you can get it or not, and it’s cheap. You just pay like five bucks. Basically, think of it this way, one cup of coffee at a Starbucks and you might get, cost-wise, and you can see if this works for you. And if it does, again, you can kind of low-key take it, try it, whatever. And if it does something, great. For me and for some other people out there, it does a lot of good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. So, we got the nootropics, and we got the phone discipline, we got Brain.fm. Any other things that have been really key for you when it comes to keeping the clarity and focus on track?

Erik Fisher
So, this is the other big thing, and this is actually huge for me. And, again, this is another thing that I kind of was a believer in, but not a stickler about to a certain extent until I talked with Michael Hyatt about it, and it’s sleep and napping.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a firm advocate of that and I think we got that point covered. We’ll just kind of add one more check mark of support from Erik Fisher on this one.

Erik Fisher
I think you’re there. And, actually, I track it. Like, I wear my Apple Watch at night to track my sleep, and I just know weeks and months where I’m in a better sleep groove, I am struggling less throughout the day. And, again, to do back to the Brain.fm thing, like I, literally, was able to see like, funny, night and day difference when it came to getting more rest in my day because it tracks even those naps, my app does. So, the more sleep I was getting, the more awake I was during the day, the better off I was. So, there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. That’s great. Well, I guess I think sleeping and napping is huge and important. It takes time but it’s time well-spent. Are there any like tiny things that just have huge leverage in terms of, “Hey, this takes less than five minutes a day, but when I do it, it’s game-changing versus when I don’t”?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, I would say, I call it passing the baton to my future self. So, I’m near the end of my day today, and instead of, when you and I are done recording, jumping off and saying, “Okay, what’s for dinner?” and walking out the door, like actually sitting and cleaning up my desk and arranging my list of stuff. Now, again, I’ve already gone over what the list of stuff is for tomorrow on a weekly checklist kind of a basis, on a weekly review kind of thing.

But doing a closing, or a shutdown, or again passing the baton to my future self tomorrow morning, that shutdown, that ritual, is what’s going to make tomorrow morning, even if I feel maybe out of sorts or say something happens and I don’t get enough sleep and I’m struggling, I don’t have to struggle as hard or as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds like a nice visual metaphor in that your future self appreciates that, you’ve taken some time to hook up future Erik with a nice environment to flourish, so that’s awesome. Any other quick yet high-leverage things?

Erik Fisher
Cutting stuff off the list.

Pete Mockaitis
Amen. No, absolutely, it’s the fastest way to shrink your to-do list is to decide not to do it.

Erik Fisher
Or, better yet, better said, is decide not to do it now.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is the now mean you’re going to do it later or you’ve decided now that you’re not going to do it ever?

Erik Fisher
It can be both but I was referring more to, “When is the right time to do it so that you’re not trying to overpack your days and your weeks?”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig.

Erik Fisher
So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, maybe we’ll zoom out a little bit. So, we kind of talked about some really super precise like tools or tactical things to do. But I’d love to hear kind of big picture. Boy, you’ve been running Beyond the To-Do List for, is it seven years now?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, we’re basically at the seven-year mark.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so amazing. Well, congratulations. And you’re an inspiration for my podcast when I was thinking, “Does anybody want to listen to this kind of stuff? Let’s take a look around. Oh, hey, a good many of them do and Erik Fisher and Beyond the To-Do List is one good example.” So, thank you. Who knows if I hadn’t found a couple of inspiring examples, where would we be? So, thank you.

Erik Fisher
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, what are some themes that have come up again and again and again in terms of when people, they’re trying to be focused and productive and then take care of what’s really meaningful in their work and lives? What are kind of those foundational principles that pop up repeatedly?

Erik Fisher
Well, I kind of alluded to it a little bit just a moment ago with taking things off the list as well as kind of paring back and simplifying again the use of the phone, and I don’t want to go back into those things per se. But it’s just this idea that I think we have the wrong perspective when it comes to productivity. We think that, and I even had a conversation with, oh, I’m blanking on his name, Mike Sturm, that’s it, a couple of months ago, the idea between, “What’s the difference between the word efficiency and productivity?” And there was even another word, I forget what it was, but anyways.

Pete Mockaitis
Effectiveness?

Erik Fisher
That is it. I feel like you’ve listened to that episode.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m spying on you everywhere.

Erik Fisher
Nice. So, it was this kind of, and it was a real productivity whatever geek-out moment for me to have that conversation with him because there are different meanings to each of those three words and they’re all good in themselves and they all kind of fold in on each other. It kind of made me, I mean, it really made me think, I shouldn’t say, not kind of made me think. It really made me think. And it was just like, “You know what, in the end, it’s, ‘What are you trying to do? How much of it are you trying to get done? How much is enough even? And what’s overkill? Like, burn out and all that.’”

Again, when you go back to the whole sleep thing and whatever, but we don’t need to go there. It’s this idea that, Parkinson’s Law where work will expand to fill the time allotted. And so, if we can figure out how to more efficiently, or more fast-ly—which is not a word—get the work done to where we’re kind of breaking that law, we’re saying, “Hey, I’m going to get this work done faster than I allow for it to be done,” then suddenly you’ve freed up this time.

Then you have this question which, recently I was talking with the Get It Done guys, Stever Robbins, in one of my most recent episodes.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s so good.

Erik Fisher
And he was like, “Look, you’re sitting in a cubicle and you’re really good at getting your work done, and then they noticed you’re really good at getting your work done, and then they suddenly say, ‘Well, wait a second, we either haven’t been giving him enough work to do, or we have been underpaying him.’ They’re not going to give you the raise. Let’s put it there. They’re not going to go and give you a raise. What they’re going to do instead is say, “We aren’t giving you enough work to do because you’ve got it all done all day.”

And I’ve been in that position, by the way. I’ve been the person who hacked his cubicle and figured out how to get everything that I needed to get done, and then some, and run rings around my co-workers, and yet get paid no more than them, and have all this free time to play video games in my cubicle. More than a decade to 15 years ago now.

I’m kind of half ecstatic about how I figured out how to do that and half ashamed. But, that said, you see where I’m going with this, if you are working for yourself, you then suddenly have this quandary where if you’re getting things done faster, and you’re getting them all done, you can either start to wander into, “What else can I be doing, and add onto that, and fill my day even more?” which, again, it’s attractive to a lot of people, it’s like, “How much more stuff can I get done because I got this stuff that I was already used to getting done already done but faster?” You start to wander, though, into this place of unintentional burnout or unintentional status quo, kind of like with the phone as I was talking about earlier.

You use it originally for a few good things, and then it becomes the thing you use for all the things. And then you have booked yourself solid to where, you know, you’ve got a meeting, you’ve got five meetings a day, and 12 podcasts to record, and 29 blogposts to write, and/or videos to record, not to mention all the different Instagram stories and social media things you could be doing. It’s like, “Hold up. Which of the things that are the most…?” What was the third word? It wasn’t productivity and it wasn’t…

Pete Mockaitis
Effectiveness?

Erik Fisher
Effective. So, it’s then towards what effectiveness are you headed towards? What intentionality are you trying to get to end of the day, end of the week, end of the quarter? Actually, this is one of the biggest things since we talked, is I’ve been in a mastermind, and we’d go by the 12-week year. And, essentially, what that means is instead of 12 months in a year, there’s 12 weeks in a quarter, and we just kind of compress a year, and we say, “Okay, for this next sprint of three months, what is it that we want to accomplish? Like, for example, working on a book or something like that. And how far can we get?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and what I like about that is you call it a 12-week sprint, and there’s four 12-week periods, yields, 48 weeks, leaving four weeks for you to kind of relax a little bit between these sprints.

Erik Fisher
Yes, exactly, there’s actually more weeks in a year than the 12 times 4, so you get a little bit of breathing room in there to recalibrate, etc. But, yeah, that has been kind of the, I don’t know, the analyze everything, the, “Hold up, don’t add something new in.” There’s a lot of people out there, who’s like, “You’ve got to quit something to then start something.” That’s great and all. But also, what if we just quit something to quit something? What if we just eliminated things on the to-do list? What if we just said, “This is great to do but it’s not yielding a lot, so let’s just stop doing it altogether and not replace it with something else”?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Erik Fisher
That’s where my head’s been.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. And, I guess, my final question was going to be, you know, what have been some of the most transformational guests and ideas you’ve come across? And it sounds like you’ve already shared a few. But if anything is missing, now is your chance, let her rip.

Erik Fisher
All right. So, let’s see, so let me see if I can think back through. So, I mentioned Cal Newport, that’s in regards to the phone. My most recent episode with Michael Hyatt, we talked about killing distractions and his approach to how he did was I did with his phone, and that’s a really interesting one. Let’s see, I recently talked with Mike Sturm, and we talked about all that productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. That’s a good one. Who else did I mention? Do you remember who else I mentioned? I can’t remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Cal Newport, Michael Hyatt.

Erik Fisher
Yes. Oh, Jaime Masters, that was the one about the nootropics. And we talked about time tracking. And, oh, we talked about absolute yes in that one as well. So, how everybody is like, “You know, you’ve got to learn how to say no so you don’t fill up your calendar and things like that.” She goes at it from the opposite perspective, where she’s like, “I’d love to say yes to everything but only the things that I’m willing to say, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ am I going to say yes to.” So, that’s actually another great kind of reframing of how to say no to things and has to do with opportunity costs. So, Jaime Masters, that’s another one that was very recent.

And then, James Clear, the habits, the Atomic Habits, I should say his “Atomic Habits” book that came out late last year. I talked to him about that. And that, essentially, has to do with filling in the gaps and looking at, in a new light, the old adage of, basically, habitualizing things so that you don’t have to lean in as much on like discipline or willpower because you’ve created that activity, that pattern, that consistency, that groove, of making the right choices, or enabling yourself to make the right choices easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Erik, this has been a real nice lineup. I’d like to hear about some of your favorite things now, if you could first give us a favorite quote.

Erik Fisher
I don’t know if I told you this one last time. Did you ask for quotes last time? I don’t remember.

Pete Mockaitis
I did. And I think it’s kind of fun if you reinforced, that’s cool. If you have a new one, that’s cool too.

Erik Fisher
Right. This is so self-centered of me to say this. My favorite quote is my own quote, it’s, “Good ideas come from many ideas.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like it. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Erik Fisher
Oh, gosh. So, actually, I’ll point back to the study, the stuff that came out of, what’s his name, James Clear, the habit book. There’s a lot of science in the book that reinforces the different ways of habitualizing, so I’m going to have to claim that because he doesn’t come at it as a book writer or a business book writer. He comes at it as, “Hey, I have all this research. How do I formulate this into something that people can get something out of it because they need to know this?” So, it is really is a study in book form.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And how about a favorite tool?

Erik Fisher
So, I probably mentioned some of those but, again, one of my favorites is to go back to Brain.fm. One of the other ones is, actually, this one is called Otter.ai.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the transcription.

Erik Fisher
The transcription, yeah. I love, love, love that. So, being able to upload audio files into there and they can transcribe it, or just being able to like turn it on again on my iPad or my phone and I have it recorded and then send it to the cloud and it’ll start transcribing for me is also pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, you hear them say it back to you often?

Erik Fisher
Oh, that’s interesting. I think it comes down to me giving them permission to not get everything done.

Pete Mockaitis
They need an authority figure like yourself too.

Erik Fisher
Hey, you know, you can get it done, move it tomorrow. It’s fine. As long as you’re not dropping the ball or dropping balls. Like, it’s fine. It’s a matter of which one. Again, you can’t get everything done, not all the time, not at every moment. Like, right now, I’m talking to you. I’m not doing other things but I’m, hopefully, executing well on the thing I’m doing and choosing to do right now.

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

Erik Fisher
Yeah, perfect. It’d be BeyondTheToDoList.com.

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

Erik Fisher
I’m going to point people back to where we started and just say, “How much time can you go without your phone?” That’s my challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Erik, this has been a treat. Thanks for sharing the good word. I wish you lots of luck with your show Beyond the To-Do List, and your many other adventures.

Erik Fisher
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

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

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Dianna Booher says: "If you can't write your message in a sentence, you can't say it in an hour."

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 says: "The hammer that seems to work for almost everything is accountability."

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.