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517: Doubling Your Productivity with Tim Campos

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Tim Campos says: "Give yourself that time."
Tim Campos discusses how he doubled Facebook’s productivity—and how to double your own.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to how Tim doubled Facebook’s productivity
  2. The biggest mistake people make with their calendars
  3. The two kinds of time professionals have

About Tim

Tim Campos doubled productivity for Facebook while he was Chief Information Officer between 2010 and 2016. Now, Tim runs Woven. Woven is a digital calendar that helps people get the most out of their time while studying the analytics behind how we’re using our time.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Tim Campos Interview Transcript

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

Tim Campos
I am glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and hear some of your tales of increasing productivity at Facebook. And, for starters, I understand that just a couple of weeks into your job, you’re called into a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg himself. What’s the story here?

Tim Campos
Well, actually, it was from Mark Zuckerberg’s EA. She sent me an urgent note, two weeks into the company, she said, “You’ve got to show up at Zuck’s desk first thing tomorrow morning, and there’s something really important that we need to discuss.” And I was really excited, I was happy that Zuck was interested in getting strategic with IT from the get-go. This is a really good sign when a CEO is that interested, and so I showed up.

The first learning was Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t actually show up until 10:00 in the morning so an 8:00 a.m. meeting is a sign. The second was I was ambushed by Anikka and Camille, this is Mark and Sheryl’s executive assistants, and they basically sat me down and said, “Look, this calendar thing does not work for us. Here’s a long list of problems that we’re having. These are not only strategic issues for us. They’re becoming embarrassments for Mark and Sheryl. And you got a week to fix them.” And it was a rude awakening to the challenges of calendaring at a next-generation company like Facebook’s.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting because, so, weren’t they just using the same stuff everybody else uses? But what are they using and what was wrong?

Tim Campos
Yeah, they were using Microsoft Exchange which is what everybody else uses. But a couple things that were different. One is Facebook, at the time, was using a much higher density of Mac and Apple devices than anybody else, so 80% of the workforce is on Macintosh, and most of the workforce used iPhones at the time. And the second thing was just the nature of how Mark and Sheryl’s schedules are very dynamic, a lot of changes to the calendar events and this was really aggravating many of the problems that already exist with calendars.

So, they were experiencing problems where a conference room would forget about the meeting, or it could get double-booked, or Mark was supposed to be in one place and the calendar said he was supposed to be in someplace else, and these were hugely embarrassing for everybody involved. And to fix it required me to do something I’m actually quite good at, which is getting into the details of how this thing was built, why is it behaving the way that it is because it wasn’t just a simple problem of this button hadn’t been pressed or something like that. And it gave me insight to why calendars are so bad.

And throughout my tenure at Facebook, I had a love-hate relationship with the technology. And, with time, I got so motivated to do something about it. I actually decided to quit my job at Facebook and start a company to help the calendar be a lot more intelligent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool, yeah. Well, so what a nice prompt and bit of inspiration. And I guess I can understand how that would be embarrassing, it’s like, “Well, you’re one of the most advanced tech companies in the world and you’re telling me that your calendar is wrong? Okay. What else is broken over at your organization?”

Tim Campos
Yes, exactly. And, for Mark and Sheryl, part of why I was hired was, and this was 2010, and Facebook had no specific plans to go public but they knew that was going to happen, and they were concerned if something like this doesn’t work, what does it mean for the financial system? What does it mean for the things that really matter for the company? And so that’s why it was such an important issue for them and why they hired me.

But, like I said, as I got into the nuts and bolts of this, my job at Facebook was the productivity of the workforce, make everybody more productive including myself, and that starts with time. Time is the most valuable asset that we have. And one of the things that I found that was just incredibly frustrating is it was so difficult to understand how I was spending time, in fact. I wanted to know from my EA, like, “How much time am I spending at 101s? Or, how much am I spending on sales versus finance versus recruiting?” It took my EA hours a week to just do the math on it. And why wasn’t that a simple button that you press on the calendar to get that question answered? I just never understood that.

And things like we want to have effective meetings, or at least do an effective meeting, have a purpose for it, have a reason for this meeting to occur, whether it’s a staff meeting, or an interview, or a 101, and those meetings require agendas and some of that purpose to be communicated ahead of time. Sign on a calendar, in the description field maybe there’s some information about how to log into the meeting if it’s a BlueJeans meeting or a Zoom meeting or something like that, but everything else is nowhere to be found. If that stuff exists, it’s hidden in email someplace. Another system that is just absolutely built to drain our time. And none of us have time to go search email for why we’re supposed to be in an event, so you end up spending the first 10 minutes of every meeting setting the stage what the purpose is as oppose to doing what you really need to be doing, which is meeting, getting something done, making a decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, there’s so much I really want to dig into here, so let’s see. Okay. So, that is one of your big claims to fame there, is doubling the productivity of the Facebook employees. And so, I want to give you a hard time for just a moment. So, when you say productivity, you’re specifically referring to the metric revenue per employee moving from 900K to 1.8 million per employee. And I guess doubling productivity, on the one hand, makes you think, like, “Wow, everyone is getting twice as much stuff done. That’s awesome.”

And so, I guess there’s certainly some of that, which we’ll talk about, although, for the skeptics listening who are saying, “Well, yeah, but, I mean, Facebook makes a lot of their money through ads, and that platform doesn’t really require any humans to do anything. So, isn’t that more just a function of more people buying ads and having a similar number of people in the workforce?” So, I’ll let you make your case, Tim.

Tim Campos
Oh, it’s absolute a fair criticism, and I’ll be the last to say that 100% of Facebook’s productivity gains were solely due to things that my organization was responsible for. Quite the opposite. There’s a lot of things that Facebook would do for itself in terms of how we built the product. You point out some industry aspects that contribute to productivity. But it’s worth looking at revenue per employee because it’s a useful benchmark. It’s easy to calculate across different companies, and you can look across an industry to see what’s the standard here.

For technology, for example, most companies are between 300,000 and 400,000 in revenue per employee. For a company like Google, at the time they were closer to 1.1—1.2 million per employee. But the other thing is how is it trending. As we’re growing as a company, what do we have to grow and what don’t we have to grow? Most companies, for example, they want to grow revenue but they don’t want to grow costs. That’s how you grow profit and that’s how a company is valued.

And you can achieve a lot of that through economies of scale, that if you’ve got a manufacturing facility, or, in Facebook’s case, a data center, you can drive more revenue out of that data center without having to build another one, then you’d get more profit. Well, for knowledge-based companies, the human capital is the thing that you’re looking for economies of scale with, “Can we do more without having to hire more? Can we support more customers without more salespeople? Can we recruit more engineers without having to hire more recruiters?” And these were the challenges that my team was given.

And we accomplished that, in large part, through technology innovations. So, we think things like, “How do you do CRM? How do you manage customer information? How do we source for candidates? What’s the way to make predictions about who would be the best candidates? We can surface those resumes to the recruiters first.” And by doing enough of that, we were able to offset the need to grow as much proportional to the company.

Actually, oftentimes, a lot of companies get less efficient as they get bigger because you need middle management, you need people inside the company just to coordinate with other people, and that’s tax, that’s an overhead. And it can become just a significant driver of cost and bureaucracy. And this is something Facebook was deathly afraid of as they got bigger and why we placed so much emphasis on productivity.

So, I completely agree with the criticism, but at the end of the day, I think it survives review when you take a look at what we did that a lot of the growth in productivity ultimately comes down to, not just the culture of the company or the space that it’s in but tooling. And Facebook has absolutely grown its productivity much more than even companies like Google and Microsoft which are already very productive on their own.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Tim, thank you. I am convinced. You checked that box. I think I can do the due diligence here. So, let’s talk about, then, what are some of the interventions that made the biggest impact and are the most transferable? Because I imagine most listeners are probably not going to say, “Hey, let’s build out a new system that helps predictively surface resumes of candidates,” although some might, so that’s not off the table. But I’d love to know which ones have the most impact and are the most transferable?

Tim Campos
Well, I think it does very much depend on what kind of business you’re in. So, if you’re a lawyer and you’re trying to make yourself more productive, optimizing recruiting is not going to help, or even optimizing your ability to predict what a customer might need. So, you really have to adapt your productivity strategy for the business and even for the role that you are in. But a few things that I think are general strategies that we employed. One is really understanding what are the long poles and getting things done.

So, for Facebook, the biggest function in the company is the product organization. The second largest function is the sales organization. The product organization, their productivity is driven by how much code can they write and is that code impactful. And, to be quite frank, that really wasn’t a problem that my organization could fix for them.

But sales is a different story. Salespeople, you know, they got to meet with customers, they need to understand which customers to spend time with, and there were a lot of things that we could do to help them be better prepared for those conversations. And, especially, because Facebook’s customer base was growing so much, having a much richer and better understanding of, “Who’s an advertiser of the company? What is their advertising objective? What problems are they trying to address with Facebook advertising? Where are they in their journey? Are they being successful and, therefore, they need some more advanced advice? Are they just starting and they don’t really know how to use the different advertising products?” would affect how the sales organization would approach customers.

And so, a lot of what we did was just centralizing information to make it clear at what stage a customer was in, and that helped to give the sales organization the right tools, the right conversations to have with companies, conversations that were specifically designed to help them alleviate problems with the advertising products, and help them be more successful with accomplishing their objectives, and, therefore, spend more with the company. And we became very, very good at this.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. But, you know, I’ll tell you what, that resonates in terms of you’re centralizing information. And, in a way, that doesn’t seem like such a revolutionary move but, in practice, it makes a world of difference. So, just even putting on a podcast, you know, and sort of like, I’ve got to pull a lot of different pieces of information in terms of after this interview is concluded and before it’s published to the world.

And I’m pulling information like, “Okay, what’s the date of the release? And who’s the guest? And who are the advertisers? And what’s the copy for that advertisement? And is that copy new or is it similar as to last time? And who’s the next guest that we’re going to tease at the end? Is there anything cool happening that we’re going to mention? What are the parts of the interview that we’re going to cut versus sort of try to tease?”

And so, it’s actually pretty cognitively intense and it requires me to kind of open up, like, five or six different windows. But, sure enough, with my awesome team (Thanks, guys) has put more and more of that into one place and so I can do less work in terms of, “Yup, I like that teaser. Yup, I like that quote. Hmm, yeah, I agree. We should cut that part. Yup, that’s the sponsor. Let me change a few of the key words or segues,” and then away it goes. As opposed to, in a way, this is going to make a big deal if I spend 8 minutes pulling information from different places. But multiply that by hundreds of episodes, or occasions of an activity, and you’re really impacting productivity simply by centralizing information.

Tim Campos
And making it easier for people to access.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Tim Campos
Another example of this was, “What do we do for recruiting?” It’s the same thing, same objective, where this information about a candidate, their resume, their LinkedIn profile, who they’ve met with, if they’ve given us permission to answer this question, who are they friends with, Facebook friends with, in the company, who might know them, have they interviewed in a previous stage. Like, maybe they declined to accept our offer but a couple of years later, now we’re interviewing them again. What was the outcome of those interviews? What did people have to say?

By just centralizing all this information, it streamlines a recruiter’s ability to put the right candidate in front of the right manager quickly. And so, you can follow the same methodology in almost every role. I do this today for a little bit for my customers. When we onboard users, some of our users request personalized onboarding where we literally get on the phone with them, talk with them about what they’re trying to do with their calendars, and teach them how to use the product.

And we start with all the information that we know about them going into the discussion so that we don’t have to ask them things that we should already know, like, “What platform are they using? And do they have a lot of calendar data or just a little bit of calendar data? Are they busy? Are they not so busy?” And, by having understandings of these questions, we can more effectively tailor our conversation to our customers in a way that’s going to give them a better outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in practice, this streamlining, I guess, at times that requires you and your crew to create some custom applications and coding and such. But what are some of the things that the every-person can do to realize some of these gains associated with centralizing information?

Tim Campos
Well, I’ll actually start by saying some of what I did, actually everybody can do.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent.

Tim Campos
For example, with sales at Facebook, we changed the onboarding process for a salesperson. Most salespeople are not technical, right? However, they can be taught some aspects of technology, so we would send them to data camp.

Data camp was a way of understanding how to answer a customer information at Facebook, so how to access the data, and how to write queries, how to use SQL, and we would teach them how to fish on their own so they wouldn’t have to come to us to get us to build some special custom report for them. They could do it on their own. And that empowered people.

So, there is a bit of self-learning that can be employed, even for the individual, of, “Learn to use the technology yourself so that you can solve some of these problems.” It very much does help to have an advanced, very business-oriented technology function to partner with who can help solve some of the more complicated things that you can’t do.

So, if you’re a manager at a company, and you have some control over this, that can make a gigantic difference, and, therefore, IT professionals still have a job if the rest of the world becomes coders and able to do this. But I think then there’s even simpler things, “How do you organize your time? How do you spend your time? What are the things that you spend your time on?” This has huge impact on most people’s lives because most of us, in today’s day and age, we’re knowledge workers, where it’s our thoughts and ideas that result in the value that we create. It’s not our ability to pick up a brick and move it to another side of a room and put it down. For those people, there’s a different way to drive productivity. But for knowledge workers, time management, and time allocation, has a huge impact on what people do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to talk about that in just a moment. I’m thinking, with regard to using the tech yourself, you could even have some of the tech do some of the centralizing for you. I’m thinking about Zapier, for example, right now.

Tim Campos
Great product.

Pete Mockaitis
I have Zapier yank the stuff from my Calendly scheduler onto my Google Sheets media sheet, and I think that’s pretty awesome. And so, sure, so maybe you could have someone make a quick app, or maybe Zapier or a tool like it can do some of the automation for you. But, moving past the tech, yes, let’s discuss organizing your time. What are some best practices and worst practices that are really high impact?

Tim Campos
I think one of the best practices around time management is to be deliberate and proactive about your time, deciding upfront, “This is how I want to spend my time in the next week or the next month,” and blocking it, giving yourself that time by saying, “Okay, I’ve got to write this presentation. I’m going to schedule time on my calendar to make that happen. I’ve got to do this investor or customer outreach. I’m going to schedule time for those things.”

And even though they may not involve other people, just by taking the time to block it. Now, when somebody else makes a request of my time, either I know I might not want to do take that request at that particular time, or I can, again, be proactive, “All right, that means I won’t be able to do that presentation on Thursday morning but I can still get it done Friday afternoon, so I’ll just move that time block from Thursday morning to Friday afternoon.”

Conversely, I think one of the worst things that people can do is be reactive. If we’re responding to the request of others, we are responding to their definition of what we want to get done, of, yes, what we want to get done, not our definition of what we want to get done. And it is best to own that and not give that up. And we see with Woven, as an example, that most people don’t schedule that far in advance. Most people schedule the events that they have two or three days in advance. Why is that important?

Well, imagine, I’m really busy and I got all these things going on, and somebody says, “Hey, can you go and meet with me for this lunch meeting sometime in mid-December?” If I don’t have a proactive view of what my calendar should be and how much time I should be spending on networking or personal relationships, it’s easy to say yes to that when it’s actually not as important for me, and I just gave away some time that’s going to prevent me to do something that I need to do when that week comes.

On the other hand, if I am very proactive about my time and I’m using these time blocks to forecast my availability, I might know that I can only spend three hours a week on these kinds of personal discussions. And if I already have three hours that week scheduled, well, maybe I’d push it up to the following week in that way I can just preserve it and not put myself in a position where my time is being dictated to me, I’m a slave to my calendar, instead of what it could be where I’m the master of my time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, this is really expanding my brain and I love it. The phrase you said that’s sticking with me the most is give yourself that time. And, for me, it’s such a flip because ever since I was a kid, it’s been very important to me to have “free time,” and I think that just means time that I don’t feel obligated to something or someone so that my brain can just percolate or I can decompress or whatever. And so, when you talked about scheduling the time, sometimes I’ve done some of that but I’ve also had some resistance in terms of, “Oh, boy. Well, then if all these hours are spoken for, then when is the ‘free time’?”

But when you say it that way, “Give yourself that time,” it really does shine a light on it in terms of saying, “Well, if you don’t schedule that time for that important thing for you, it’s at risk and it will likely just not occur, so you have to give yourself that time.” And that language feels as though you’re giving yourself a gift, or a treat, or some sort of luxury spa time or something.

Tim Campos
That’s exactly what events are, they are gifts of time. And you could give yourself time to do nothing.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah.

Tim Campos
I mean, maybe some people need that sort of free unencumbered time just to think and take a breath, experience what’s going on around them, and that itself can be the objective. But you won’t have it if you don’t reserve it.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, when you say that, that’s also connecting to I was watching this Netflix documentary about Bill Gates, like Inside Bill Gates’ Brain, and he schedules think weeks, which I think is awesome. Like, “This is what this week is about. It’s me reading a lot of books and thinking about them,” and it sure seems to be effective for the guy. So, he gave himself that time with good effect.

So, I’m also intrigued by that notion that most people only schedule items three or four days in advance. That kind of gives you a little bit of a clue that you’ll have better luck getting on people’s calendar if you schedule it with a greater amount of lead time, so there’s a little tactical takeaway right there.

Tim Campos
Yes and no. So, it’s easy for people to say yes, but what happens?

Pete Mockaitis
They change up on you.

Tim Campos
Yeah, if things get really busy, and then all of a sudden now somebody needs to reschedule, and they need to reschedule because they didn’t properly plan. And that’s a burden on them and it’s a burden on you. So, reschedules are probably 20% to 25% of events that something changes after they are put on the calendar. And they’re hugely impactful in terms of being a time drain because imagine all the prep that you had for that event. If I rescheduled this podcast for you, you both weren’t able to do a podcast with somebody else, and any preparation that you did for this podcast would have been not necessarily wasted because, hopefully, we would reschedule for a different time, but done at the wrong time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I’d have to refresh my brain on who you are and your background and what I want to ask you, so there would definitely be something lost.

Tim Campos
And that holds true for one-on-ones, for staff meetings, for interviews, for any kind of event that there’s a drain on both parties when the time has to change. So, it’s much better if people can be proactive and effectively forecast their time. Now, obviously, things happen, right? So, maybe you get sick or there’s an emergency thing that you could not have planned for. Those things are obviously going to be disruptive but even there, the more proactive you are about managing your time, when those emergencies happen, sometimes you can anticipate you’re going to have an emergency, therefore don’t book 100% of your time. Have some time left over for emergencies. Or other times, because you weren’t able to in this particular case but you are elsewhere, when you reschedule, you’re only going to have to reschedule once, or you only have to reschedule one other thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, Tim, you really piqued my curiosity. You dropped a couple of fun stats that I did not know before, and you are uniquely positioned to know working over at Woven there. So, most people only schedule items three to four days in advance, rescheduling occurs to 20% to 25% of events. Any other intriguing benchmark data points that have real relevance for professionals?

Tim Campos
Here’s a very interesting fact. We looked at, “When does the workday start?” And we had a debate within my team on we put default work hours in the product. Should those default work hours be at 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m.? And when do they stop? Do they stop at 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m.? And it’s fascinating to see that it’s not a simple Bell curve when you look at, “When do most meetings start?” There is a very strong bias against early morning meetings. Most people don’t schedule before 9:00 or 8:00 o’clock. There’s a significant drop off there.

And there’s a strong bias for later evening meetings. Some of those makes sense, right? We’d like to have a dinner meeting than a breakfast meeting. But it does get to, “Where does one have the most control over their time?” And it’s when there aren’t things that are being scheduled in the universe, and that’s the morning.

And this very much fits into my own personal experience. I find that if I’m going to have my most productive time of the day, or if I’m going to have the time to work out, it’s usually in the morning. It’s not in the evening. If I try to do things in the evening, inevitably something gets in the way that I didn’t plan for. And so, that bias turns out not to be just slanted to me and the people that I meet with, but it actually seems to be somewhat universal.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that is a great takeaway. People say, “Hey, wake up early and do your stuff. It’s magical and powerful,” and it seems like that’s largely just because it so happens that your odds are better if you’re having less interruption by third parties if you take that strategy.

Tim Campos
Yeah, absolutely. What we found that’s really interesting is there’s something magical about 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. meetings. It’s the highest frequency of events that occur in our system is the 10:00 a.m. or the 11:00 a.m. meeting that seems to be when people would want to go begin their day. So, it’s also, conversely, the worst time to try to schedule something. It’s not an easy time to get access to a meeting. More people than any other time are busy there. But there’s a lot more richness and depth into this.

I mean, what’s really interesting is that a lot of what is different about time allocation for people is very contextually dependent, “What company do I work for? How big of a company is it?” And so, certain predictions I could make are different depending on the context. If I were to say, “What’s different about a smaller company than a bigger company?” I can tell you one defining difference between those two. Small companies tend to spend most of their time meeting outside of their company. They schedule with people who are not inside of their corporation. Whereas, large companies tend to spend most of their time meeting internally. And the difference is striking.

I mean, you go from a 10-person company to a 10,000-person company, you go from 80% to 90% of the small person’s time is externally focused, whereas, 90% to 95% of the large company’s focused is internal. And imagine all of the people who don’t have an outside view, a company like Facebook where 90% to 95% of the time that the workforce is spending is with itself, then you don’t have the same sources of information and insight that you would have if everybody spent more of an equal portion of their time internally and externally. It can very much lead to different kinds of biases and perspectives.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s very thought-provoking. Thank you. I would schedule some time to think about that later, and while I’m with you, dig more into the notion of…so let’s talk about optimal calendar management. You’re a human being, you’re a professional, you’ve got a number of goals you want to achieve inside work and outside work. You mentioned that one of the keys is to really proactively give yourself that time on the calendar specifically during this time and doing that even if it’s just with myself. What are some of the other pro tips in terms of really maximizing our use of the calendar to get great results?

Tim Campos
So, the most valuable events on your calendar are going to be recurring. Now, they could be recurring but you haven’t been strategic about how they got there. I used to have this problem at Facebook where I would setup one-on-ones, those one-on-ones would go on into perpetuity, and they might’ve been important in the early days but, as time went on, the one-on-ones were less important yet people were still having them. So, they were taking up time on my calendar.

But when you get into things like time blocking, where you have, for me, I like to reserve the time in the morning for maker time, short time, time to work on the things that require uninterrupted intervals. I make those recurring meetings so that they’re always there and I look very strategically at the recurring events that I have. And I also try to minimize them so that I don’t have recurring events just because somebody said, “Oh, we should always have this particular meeting at this time.” It may be important for me to have that meeting on a regular interval but not necessarily at that specific time. So, recurring events are very important.

I think another thing that is really notable is the difference between – I wish I could properly attribute the thought here. It didn’t come from me, for sure, but this idea that there is two kinds of time that people have – maker time and manager time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I think that came from someone in The Lean Startup movement.

Tim Campos
I wish I could attribute this. In fact, you’re making me…

Pete Mockaitis
But I love the idea. It hasn’t come up before. Lay it on us, Tim. Lay it on us.

Tim Campos
It’s an incredible idea. There are certain tasks that we have to do, like email or making coordination, quick calls. They don’t take a lot. The context switched to start, perform, and complete them is very low. And then there are certain things that take a while to get your brain going to do and then complete. You think of like a software engineer, for them to code, they have to really sort of get in the mood, get going. If they have to write 10,000 lines of code, they can’t just split that up into 5 minutes here, or 5 minutes there, or 5 minutes someplace, because the whole thing ties together, and they have an idea in their mind that has to be front and center. Or if I’m writing a document, or a presentation, for me, I need a lack of interruption in order to complete that. And so, that happens during maker time for me.

Manager time is time that I reserve for all the stuff that can be interrupted. It is not challenging at all for me to be interrupted from going through my email, because each email only takes a few seconds or maybe a few minutes to complete, and I don’t need to go through my email all at once. I could do that in 10 minutes here, and 10 minutes there, or 10 minutes there. Slack, dealing with Slack, or dealing with customer service, customer response, just small inquiries that are easy to respond to and deal with.

And so, my manager time, I try to reserve for the times in the day that I will most likely have conference calls, or coordination with others, because what that leaves me with is these little holes, so 30-minute holes here and there, that I could not put my presentation-authoring time in, but I could easily put my manager time in.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it makes great sense. And so, your personal approach is to have more maker time in the morning and more manager time in the afternoon. And so, do you think that that is a, dare I say, universal best practice given the human condition and energy levels? Or do you think it’s more a person-by-person condition?

Tim Campos
Oh, I absolutely believe it’s the person-by-person. I know many people who are quite the antithesis of me and they’re most energized and engaged in the evenings. Mornings, it takes them a while to wake up, and so they need to do lightweight tasks. My co-founder is this way, for example. So, I do think that each individual has to find what works for them and then optimize it, but the concept holds true. The concept that there are different activities that you’ll perform that require lack of interruption, and others, activities which are interruption-friendly.

Pete Mockaitis
Interruption-friendly. That’s well-said.

Tim Campos
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Most of my life is in maker mode these days with some manager here and there with my team.

Tim Campos
I’m envious.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it is fun. It is fun to chat with you, interruption-free, or think hard about what the future, the next cool product, or whatever to make. And so, you’re right. I don’t feel as friendly when I’m interrupted in those moments as opposed to when I’m doing emails, like, “Oh, sure. Hey, what’s up? Interrupt me away.” Interruption-friendly, nice turn of a phrase. Boy, we’ve got so much good stuff I want to jump in. So, at the risk of being a little bit scattered, let’s hear a smidge about you’ve got a cool phrase. You say that lazy people are often the most productive. What’s this about?

Tim Campos
Well, it’s a learning that I’ve had over the years. It started when I was at Silicon Graphics, my second company, and we had a build engineer who was a self-professed, he would just say, “I’m super lazy.” If you ask him to do something, “I don’t really want to do that.” “Why don’t you want to do it?” “Because it sounds like work and I’m lazy.”

But he was also one of the most productive people because he was so lazy at what he was doing, he valued free time. And so, part of how he would allocate his time is finding ways to eliminate the repetitive recurring activities that were a drain on his time. And so, he built tons and tons of automation.

And this, I think, in part was endearing to me because my first job as an intern is the same thing. I found a job to be working at a company called Sybase, and the job was really boring. It needed to be done but it’s really boring. And I was grateful that they were paying me but I didn’t really want to do it so I wrote a bunch of automation to figure out how to do my job in less than 45 minutes of the day, and then I had all these other time to do other stuff, and, eventually, more interesting work found my way.

And so, I started to see that there’s this pattern. And when I got to Facebook and had an opportunity to work with some of the best engineers in the world, I saw that this pattern was strongest in those engineers, that they would find ways to just eliminate the work from work, to cut the work out of work, in large part by just identifying where the redundancies are, and whether that manifest itself as an architecture in terms of how they would design something so they wouldn’t have to reimplement things over and over again, or a process for, “How should we assess candidates who are being considered for hire? Or, how should we do our performance reviews?”

That these engineers were really good at identifying ways to simplify the work. And if you ever them, “Why?” it’s because they didn’t like it. They were lazy. They didn’t want to do the work so they found ways to eliminate it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a cool perspective in terms of lazy we might define as highly motivated to not do work. And then, as a result, they have an extra dose of creativity and persistence to do what’s necessary to do the automation or the simplification or the elimination such that that work doesn’t have to be done because they don’t want to do it.

Tim Campos
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I’m reminded of David Allen we’ve had on the show a couple times, of Getting Things Done fame, and he says that he’s so lazy he doesn’t want to have the same thought twice, which is why he’s got this whole system of organize your mind so that you don’t have to have your brain continually remember things. It’s done for you.

Tim Campos
I think it’s brilliant. It’s brilliant. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg is famous for wearing the same clothes every day because he didn’t want to allocate thought-time to what he’s going to wear.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

Tim Campos
So, he didn’t actually wear the same pair of jeans and the same T-shirt, but he had hundreds of the same T-shirts so he didn’t have to think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup. I’ve heard that Einstein and some others similarly, and Steve Jobs certainly had recurring motif in his apparel. Maybe last one before we hit the fast faves. How do you think about burnout? And what should we do to prevent it?

Tim Campos
That’s a great, great question. Yeah, for myself, what I have learned is that the hardest part about burnout is detecting when I’m in it because it’s a vicious cycle, “I am busy and so I’m not being as…I’m working really hard so I’m not getting as much rest. I’m not taking a break. I’m not thinking creatively, and so things are taking longer, which means I have to work even harder, and then I’m busier,” and it just builds upon itself.

One of my leaders at Facebook that I worked for was, his name is Jonathan Heiliger who said this. He pointed out, the analog was cycling, that one of the things he loved about cycling is that you’d climb a hill and it’d be lots and lots of work, and then when you get to the other side of hill, you coast, and you coast down. And you actually really needed those pauses and effort in order to be able to complete a century, without going on to be able to complete the century, that you would sprint and you would pause, you’d sprint and you’d pause.

And he brought that same idea into work, he’s like, “Look, there’s going to be times when we’re all going to be working really, really hard together, and we’re going to be really busy. And after those times, it’s really important we all, in our way, find a way to pause, take a break.” And I think that one of the reasons why his organization was very effective and productive was because of this notion of sprinting and pausing. And this is an idea that you can bring into your own life, that if you haven’t taken a vacation, or you haven’t…one of my favorite ways to pause is to take a class, to learn something new and different. Then, yeah, maybe you should, maybe it’s time to do that.

And I always find for myself, when I make that time, when I give myself that time, I’m rewarded in either a brilliant idea that comes out, or just that renewed energy that I have to bring to my job. And I know it’s hard. I’ve certainly suffered from this where you just get to a point where you feel like you can’t do it, you can’t take a break, and sometimes that’s exactly what you should.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, tell me, Tim, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Tim Campos
Well, I love these questions, they really prompted a bunch of great ideas that I love to talk about, so, no, I think we’ve gotten through all of that, and there’s nothing that comes to mind that I really wanted to get out there that we haven’t had a chance to talk about yet.

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

Tim Campos
A good friend of mine says, “There’s no time like the present.” It’s very much get-things-done kind of mindset of if you can do it now, just do it. And one of the things I love about my product is scheduling. We’ve come up with a way where you can create that event and schedule it without having to have everything figured out. Put together a schedule and then send it off to somebody. It’s got times that they can have on their calendar and they decide which of those times work for them and, lo and behold, we’ve eventually scheduled. But just getting it done now, whatever it is, when you can saves you having to put it on your to-do list and manage it later.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I’m super intrigued about how Woven does the tabulation of the categories of time usage, like that’s cool. So, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Tim Campos
The one that comes to mind is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Not to get too political on this but in today’s time where it seems like we don’t all agree on things. This book really studies some of the motivations and the reasoning behind it, and it’s surprisingly applicable even outside of the context of politics. When you are working in a work environment and you have a difficult coworker or a difficult boss, it provides a different perspective on how their mind might be organized to better understand the rationale. And I found that that book, in many respects, has changed my life.

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

Tim Campos
Going for a walk with my wife. It’s probably one of the best things that we can do is just take that break, take that step away from the noise of life, my children, company, housecleaning, everything, kids’ college applications, taking a step back and going for a walk, enjoying each other’s presence, and enjoying the gorgeous outside, taking a breath, enjoying life.

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

Tim Campos
Well, both my team at Facebook and my team at Woven know that I’m a firm believer in using data to make decisions. “Data wins arguments,” is what we used to say at Facebook. And so, when you don’t have the data, the question is, “Why? What is the measure that you should have?” And whether you’re talking about retirement, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for blah, blah, blah.” “Well, why don’t you have time? Is it because it’s not important? Or is it because you haven’t properly allocated your time to allow those things that is important to get done? And then, well, how do you allocate your time? Where is the data on that?” So, I definitely find that data wins arguments.

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

Tim Campos
Well, if they want to learn more about Woven, our website is Woven.com, very easy to find. If they want to just keep in touch with me, I’m easy to find on Twitter @tcampos is my Twitter handle. And between those two, I would love to hear from people.

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

Tim Campos
Take control of your time. Spend time on what matters most and go find the tools and the capabilities to help you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Tim, this has been lots of fun. I wish you lots of luck and much enjoyment in all the ways you’re spending your time.

Tim Campos
Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed this interview. It’s been fantastic. You have great questions.

506: Finding the Joy of Missing Out with Tonya Dalton (Host of Productivity Paradox)

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Tonya Dalton explains how saying no to opportunities leads to more satisfying work days.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you should embrace JOMO
  2. How to determine worthwhile opportunities
  3. How to say “no” without feeling guilty

About Tonya:

Tonya Dalton is a productivity expert, author, speaker and founder of inkWELL Press Productivity Co, a company centered around productivity tools and training. She released her first book, The Joy of Missing Out, with Harper Collins this month.

Tonya’s messages about business management, productivity, and the pursuit of passion have impacted thousands and inspired her to launch her podcast, Productivity Paradox which has surpassed more than 1.5 million downloads.

Tonya has been featured on Real SimpleEntrepreneur, Inc.CheddarLauren Conrad, and Fast Company among other places. In 2019, Tonya received the Enterprising Woman of the Year Award and was named North Carolina’s Female Entrepreneur to Watch by The Ladders.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Tonya Dalton Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tonya, welcome back to the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Tonya Dalton

Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here again.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad we didn’t miss out on having you back again. We’re going to talk about your book, The Joy of Missing Out, and maybe you could orient us first and foremost. So FOMO versus JOMO, what’s the story here?

Tonya Dalton
For your listeners who are not familiar, FOMO is the fear of missing out, which I think so many people experience. They feel like opportunity knocks and, “I have to open up that door every single time. Otherwise, I’m going to miss out. And if I do, oh my gosh, I’m going to worry about it.” And it’s this terrible thing. And so, we often have this fear of missing out. And, to alleviate that fear of missing out, we try to do everything. We chase our tails being busy all day long, trying to do it all.

And I try to tell people, all right, we need to let go of the FOMO and embrace the JOMO. We need a little more joy of missing out. I truly believe that there is happiness already really nestled into our day. There’s joy just waiting to be had, but because we’re filling our days and because it’s so crammed full of tasks and errands and projects and this and that and the other, we miss out on finding that joy, even though it’s right there.

So when you think about your ideal day, there’s a lot of incredible, amazing things in it, but there’s also some things that are missing. There’s that feeling of being stretched too thin, that’s gone. That feeling of saying yes out of obligation instead of saying yes to things you want to say yes to, that’s missing. So really getting rid of a lot of that clutter and that noise in our lives, that busy-ness allows us to find the joy that’s already there waiting to be had.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I think that really resonates. My mom just recently reminded me that John Mulaney has a joke, one of his specials associated with, once you reach a certain age, when plans get canceled on you, it’s like crack, it’s so thrilling and exciting because you finally have the opportunity to do nothing.

Tonya Dalton
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Which is awesome. And so then, that just sort of raises the question, well, why not just conscientiously decide to do nothing?

Tonya Dalton
Why don’t we purposely choose to have our days with a little bit of more open space, a little more freedom in our day?

Pete Mockaitis
And so when it comes to the joy of missing out versus the fear of missing out, to what extent is it true that you might be missing out and that’s terrifying and really unfortunate that you are not taking advantage of a given opportunity versus false. And I guess that’s kind of the core of it. Is identifying what matters and, and making informed choices. But are there some reliable guides, some indicators, that, “Ah, this is all an opportunity well worth taking,” or, “I really will regret missing out on this opportunity”?

Tonya Dalton
Yes, I really think so. It really is this idea, when we’re talking about productivity, I think the reason why productivity has failed so many people is because they think there’s this magic system out there, and they think they have to work their life and shift it and change it and make it work to fit this system. When in effect, let’s put you and your priorities front and center, and then let’s custom design a system to work for you to play to your strengths and play to your weaknesses.

And when you do that, when you create a system for your life that really feels manageable, maintainable because it plays to your strengths and to your weaknesses, when you really are allowing your priorities to sit front and center, that can really act as your filter for “What do I want to say yes to,” and, “What should I really be saying no to more often?”

I think that’s the issue a lot of times, is that it’s not when it’s black or white. It’s not when it’s good and bad. It’s when it’s the good, better and best. How do you know what to say yes to and what you should really, just let that opportunity knock and move on by to the next door so to speak?

And so really that’s one of the things that we talk about a lot in the book is, this idea of it isn’t just about saying no, it’s about finding your yes. It’s finding the yeses that are meant for you. The things that are really tied to your priorities, to your purpose, to your passion.

And a lot of that is really tied to the idea of your North Star, which is what I talk about in the first section of the book, which is your mission, your vision and your core values, and really allowing that to be your filter. To act as your first filter for, there’s opportunities here, do I even want to say yes to it?

Because I think that’s the problem. Is a lot of times we think to ourselves, “Well, I’ve got 15 minutes, I’ve got the time to do this 30 minute project, so I should just say yes.” And really, the question of time, that’s not really what we should be asking ourselves. We should be asking ourselves, “Does this fit the life I’m really looking for?”

I have this whole finding your yes blueprint that we walk through in the book, that asks these questions. How does the opportunity feel? Why do you want to take it on? Does this align with your North Star? We don’t ask the question of time until like four or five questions in. And I think that’s the problem is, we don’t often times know what we want to say yes to.

So in an effort to be at all, we say yes to everything, and that’s why we end up feeling overwhelmed, because we don’t know what we want to say no to. And I truly believe we all have our own yeses that are meant for us, that are tied to our North Star. And when we can really figure that out and we can use that North Star as our filter, that makes it so much easier to let those other opportunities to pass us by, and not feel like we’re truly missing out. To feel like, okay, this feels good. That these things are not things I’ve taken on.

Pete Mockaitis:
You said overwhelming and that reminds me of our previous conversation. I thought about it again and again, and you said, you said it better than, “That it’s installed into my brain.” But you said that, “The feeling of overwhelm comes not so much from having too much to do, but rather the feeling that we’re not actually making progress on the things that are important to us.” Did I say that right or how do you say it?

Tonya Dalton
I like to say the overwhelm isn’t having too much to do, it’s not knowing where to start. So it’s tied to that whole idea of, what do I want to work on? What do I want to say yes to and where do I start? And we’re spinning in circles, driving ourselves crazy. And this is why we feel overwhelmed because we have a to-do list that is three miles too long and unachievable and unattainable in our day.

And this is what happens is we end up with this long to-do list. We’re checking a million things off of it. We’re running around busy, slipping into bed at night thinking, “Gosh, why didn’t I get more done?” Even though we were busy all day long. Even though we chased our tail. Even though we checked all those things off.

When instead we choose where we’re going to start, when we choose to focus in on what’s most important to us as the cornerstone of our day and really the center point of what we want to do. When we do that and we do fewer tasks that have more meaning, that is when we really feel like we’ve accomplished something. That’s when we finish our days feeling satisfied.

And I think that’s really the difference is, knowing where to start that you’re not going to start with the menial tasks, the things that aren’t really important and driving you forward, but knowing where you’re going to start with those big tasks that feel really good to our soul. Instead of filling our calendar, let’s work on filling our souls and feeling really good about our days.

Pete Mockaitis
I think the corollary to that that struck me is that, I’ve had days that had lots of activity to them, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed, and it’s because each of those things indeed was filling up the soul.

Tonya Dalton
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think it’s hard to feel overwhelmed say on a camping trip. Even though I’m doing a lot of things. I might be hauling a canoe over my head, cutting wood-

Tonya Dalton
Catching dinner.

Pete Mockaitis
… Boiling water. Yes. It’s like there’s a lot of activities happening here, but I don’t feel frantic. Like, oh no, it’s just sort of like, well, yes, this is exactly what I wanted it to be doing, is enjoying some outdoor time and being with great people and mission accomplished.

Tonya Dalton
Yeah. I think that’s so true and I think this is the thing. I like to tell people that productivity is like what I use to get them in the door. “Oh, come over here, look at their productivity,” and then they come in and I go, “Okay, it’s really about being intentional. It’s really about intentional living.”

It’s choosing how you want to have lived your life and choosing how you’re going to spend your day, and really doing the things that do have meaning to you. Whether that is when you’re camping and doing a lot of things that are really important, like you said, like getting the canoe together and getting dinner and cooking the dinner and doing all those things.

You end up feeling really good because you’ve gotten something accomplished. You’ve worked towards your goal versus chasing our tails, picking up the dry cleaning, returning a shirt to Target, doing these little teeny tiny tasks that are really filling up our schedule and keeping us from doing the important work that will make us feel like we’re making big steps towards where it is we want to go.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so now I want to talk a little bit about the particular how’s of zeroing in on some of the North Star guidance. But first maybe could you inspire us by shooting a tale of a transformation? Someone that you worked with who was dealing with one set of circumstances and experiences of stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and then what that person did and the results that emerged?

Tonya Dalton
Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve worked with a lot of different people. I like to tell people that I’ve worked with men and women in all different seasons of life with all different life circumstances. I think the difference that it makes with what I teach in the book and in my courses is truly, it’s all about customizing it so it works for you.

So, I had this one woman who I was working with who was really struggling because she just felt like she was in a dead end job, but she felt like, “Well, I don’t really have any choices because this is what I trained for. This is what I’ve been doing for the past 10, 15 years, so there’s no other options for me. There’s no other place to go look because this is just how things are.”

And I think that’s oftentimes what people fool themselves into believing that there are no choices. When in fact if we look around and we change our perspective a little bit, there are options everywhere. It’s just a matter of sometimes having to go and look for them a little bit.

So she was feeling really, really stuck and those are her own words. She was like, “I just feel stuck and I feel like, I’m not really happy, but this is just how life is. I’m chasing after the kids and I’m doing all the things that they need me to do, and there’s no time left for me.”

So she and I sat down and we worked on, discovering her North Star, uncovering what her mission, her vision and her core values are, and then creating all these systems at work around that. And it was interesting, because at the start of working together through this course, she was really determined that this was just not going to work, because this was just how life was.

And then by the second week you could see that she was like, “Okay, there are some choices.” So we first opened up her eyes to the choices and really taking a lot of what she discovered about herself. And this is why I think it’s so important to start with that discovery phase. To really think about who you are in your heart of hearts.

So she took what she learned from that discovery phase, and then she started really implementing that into, how do I make it so this is the center point of my day. And so she started to feel really good about that. And then we started doing the simplifying and adding systems and making sure all the other things are running.

And then now, I just caught up with her a couple of weeks ago and she goes, “I quit my job. I’m now doing something I’m absolutely passionate about. I had conversations with my family about what their schedule look like, what did I want, what did they want?” We have a lot of these misconceptions that our kids want to do 5,000 different things. Our boss wants to give us 5,000 different projects.

And when I started having her create these conversations where she was like, “What do you really want? What are your priorities?” We began to uncover that a lot of this was stories she was telling herself. That her kids really wanted to do five different after school activities every day. When in reality, her kids were like, “No, we’d be fine just doing, piano and doing field hockey.”

And so she was like, “Oh.” So she was able to really make that manageable, not only for herself but also for her family. And now she’s starting up a job that she’s truly passionate about, that’s really tied very strongly to one of her core values of faith. And she says she’s in a completely different span of life than she was back when we started a year ago, because she really customized and made it all work for her.

And to me that is really what’s most exciting. Is when you see those light bulb moments where people are like, “Oh, I do have choices.” Or, “Oh, this is why I feel this way.” Or, “Oh, I love how now I’m spending more time on these things I really love.”

I mean that’s just one example, but I’ve had people who have gone back to school. I’ve had people who have changed careers. I’ve had people who’ve done all different kinds of things, because I think when we open our eyes and we begin to realize that we really can make life work for us, that life is meant to be enjoyed rather than just endured. And that we can create systems so the other things still happen so that the grass still gets mowed, the bills still get paid, the laundry gets done, and those types of things, that it really is achievable to have that ideal day and make that into your everyday. And that is truly what I love about what I do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s exciting stuff. And so, we talked about that mission, vision, values pieces last time. So I’d like to zoom in on saying no in terms of one, I guess being okay internally, psychologically with your own self—

Tonya Dalton
Going to say space to say no, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And secondly, how you find the ability to articulate that when you’re kind of nervous. What are your top perspectives when it comes to saying no well?

Tonya Dalton
Well I think this is one of the problems that people have is, sometimes we know we should say no and we’re like, “Ooh, I want to say no to this.” But yes, feels so good coming out of our mouth for about 10 seconds. And then it’s like, what did I just say yes to? Because a lot of times we’re either taken off guard or we feel guilty. We feel bad because we feel like we’ve let people down.

And we forget that every time we say yes, we’re actually saying no to something else. So every time we say yes to someone else’s project, we’re saying no to our own passion project. When we’re saying yes to volunteering for a project that we’re not really excited about or truly invested in, we’re saying no to our own goals and we’re saying no to time with our family.

So if you start to reframe that and realize, you know what, every time I am saying yes, I’m actually saying no, but most times I’m saying no to my own priorities and to the people and to the things that are truly important to me. I think that’s the first stepping stone to get to is to realize, “What am I saying no to every time I’m saying yes?” Because I really think that makes you stop and think for a minute when somebody asks you to do something.

But I think it’s really important too, to have a little something in your back pocket ready to go. Because we are thrown off guard, and then a lot of times if we say no, we ended up overexplaining, over apologizing and somehow, somehow getting roped into saying yes after all.

I like to teach people that there’s a really simple strategy to use called the sandwich strategy. And it’s like the little black dress of saying no. It works in all situations and it really is so simple and easy to do.

So it’s essentially this idea that if you think about a sandwich, you have two pieces of bread with some kind of filling in the middle, the meat in the middle, right? Well, with our sandwich strategy here, we have two slices of kindness, that’s our bread with that solid no right there in the middle.

And when we sandwich our know, it makes it more palatable. It’s easier to give, and it’s easier for that person to receive so there’s not a lot of guilt.

So let me give you an example. Let’s say someone asks you to volunteer for yet another project. You could say to them, “Oh, thank you so much for thinking of me. I really appreciate that you’re pulling together a group of people to really make this fundraiser happen. Unfortunately I can’t give it the time it deserves. However, I do have some ideas that I’d done for this other project, so I’d be happy to pass those along to you.”

So there, we’ve had kindness at the front, kindness in the end, but right there in that middle there was that no. There’s no question about it. I can’t give it the time it deserves.

And to be honest with you, that phrase, I can’t give it the time it deserves, is one of my favorite phrases to use when you’re saying no. Because I’m not saying I’m busy, I’m not elevating myself. I’m not saying what they’re doing is unimportant. In fact, I’m saying, “Gosh, what you’re doing is so important, it really deserves time and I am not able to give it to it.”

So that’s really the sandwich strategy in a nutshell. It’s starting with kindness, putting in you no and then finishing up with a slice of kindness.

And because it works for all situations, it’s so easy to remember. If let’s say that somebody asks you to go out for a girls night, and you’re really wanting to spend more time at home with your spouse. You could say, “Oh, thank you so much for asking me to the movies. I’ve heard some really great things about it. I’m so sorry, but right now I’m really committed to spending a little more time at home with my husband, and so I’m going to give this time to him. I really think you guys are going to enjoy the movie and I would love to go next time.”

I think so often we forget that being kind and being assertive are not mutually exclusive. We can be assertive with our time, we can be assertive with our calendars, we can be assertive with our boundaries. And that doesn’t mean we don’t have to be kind or generous or thoughtful. We can be both at the very same time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Excellent. That’s a real nice clear perspective on saying the no. And so then, you’ve got a nice section on finding clarity within the realms of focus, time and energy. How do you recommend we go about doing these things?

Tonya Dalton
Well, this is the thing is, I think we don’t realize that we have these three precious resources of time, focus and energy. Once we give those away, we cannot get them back. Once you give away time, there’s no getting it back. But we don’t think anything of handing out 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there, five minutes here.

If we thought about our time like we do our money, we wouldn’t do that. If we had a set amount of money for the week, we would make sure that we paid our bills, that we fed ourselves and fed our families. We would make sure that we paid our mortgage before we started handing out dollar bills. But with our time, we don’t think about, first I need to invest it in the places that matter, invest it in my priorities, invest it in my goals, and then I can hand it out.

So when we shift the way that we’re looking at how we spend our time and we start looking at it as an investment, I think that really does help. So we go through in that section, that section two of the book, this whole idea of how do we clarify our day so that really we are spending most of our time on what matters most.

And this is where I get into that very controversial idea of tossing the to-do list. The to-do list is one of those things that people have talked about for decades and decades. It started back with Bethlehem Steel where they started doing a to-do list. That’s where it actually originated. And people have taken it so much further than what it was originally intended.

It was originally intended to be a list of three things when it first was brought about. And now people have these to-do lists that are 25 miles too long. So I really tell people, “The problem with a to-do list is it’s taking you everywhere, but where you want to go. It’s long, it’s unorganized, it’s jumbled, and it doesn’t tell you where to start.” And as we said earlier, overwhelm isn’t having too much to do, it’s not knowing where to start.

So if instead of making a to-do list, you spend five seconds longer—and I can promise you that’s all it takes—to make a priority list, that tells you very intentionally where you want to start. I like to say that a priority list is a to-do list with intention.

So like I said, it takes the same amount of time. It’s just really thinking through what are the tasks that are most important to you?

So it’s a little bit of a riff on the Eisenhower matrix, which I know you’re familiar with and I’m sure your listeners are familiar with, which was originated from Dwight D. Eisenhower, our most productive president, and then adopted later on by Franklin Covey and that whole system. But we, instead of having the four quadrants in the priority list, we start at the top with, there’s three levels.

So we have the top level, which is escalate, which is our tasks that are important and they’re urgent. So they’re important in that they are connected to our North Star. That mission, that vision, that core values. It’s linked to a goal. It’s something that’s essential to be done by us. It’s advantageous. It’s not tied to our perfectionism or a story that we’re telling ourselves about what we should be doing. So it’s important, but it’s also urgent.

And so we put our items at the very top because that’s really where we want to begin our day. With the things that are important, but have a deadline, because that’s why they’re urgent. And then that next level goes right underneath it. So instead of being a quadrant, it’s just almost like a vertical list. That second level is cultivate. Which are our tasks that are important but not really urgent.

So what’s amazing here is that this is truly the area where you’re going to see a lot of professional growth, a lot of personal growth, because these are things that are going to cultivate. These are investments in ourselves that will pay dividends in the future. So these are things like, creating a budget, taking a course, bettering yourself, reading articles that are in your industry, doing things like that. Working on a presentation that’s not due for another two weeks.

So things that are really important, but they’re not urgent. But because they’re not urgent, a lot of times those get pushed aside, even though that’s really where we’re going to see the most growth because they’re not screaming out at us. So that’s our second level.

And then our third level is our accommodate. And these are our tasks that are urgent. So they’re screaming out, they want to be done, but they’re not necessarily important. They’re not really tied to our goals, our vision of where we want to go. But because they’re screaming out at us, we oftentimes want to do them first. And a lot of times they’re really easy things. There the kind of ticky tack things in our day. Running to the dry cleaner, or returning a shirt to Target, Answering emails. Because 99% of what’s in your inbox right now, is not really important, but it’s urgent. It needs to be done. Those emails need to be returned.

So when we create this priority list with those three levels of escalate, cultivate, and then accommodate, and we start our day at the top and work our way down, it really does help us focus our day on what’s most important. Because we’re beginning with those important tasks and we’re making sure those get tackled first, which is why we can end up feeling like we have bigger wins in our day. And I think that’s really important, ending our day feeling successful.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s talk about email for a second here. So I agree with you that the vast majority of the emails that come in are not necessary to look at or reply. And yet, there are some that are just, change your life.

Tonya Dalton
That’s true. That is true. Not everything that’s in there is trash. There’s some jewels in there, yes, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
So how do you think about processing email?

Tonya Dalton
Well this is the thing is, you’re right. There’s lots of great nuggets in there. There’s a lot of things that we need to just kind of discard and get rid of or just quickly reply to. Email is an important communication tool, especially when used correctly.

The problem is though, is that your inbox is like digging a hole in a sand storm. That whole idea of the inbox zero is such a great idea and I’m an inbox zero type of person, but that zero, and this is what I can’t remember his name, Merlin Mann, I think it is.

Pete Mockaitis
Merlin Mann.

Tonya Dalton
Yes, Merlin Mann who came up with that term. He talks about, it’s not about the zero, it’s not really about the number, it’s about how you feel about your inbox. That it’s not really dictating your day and it’s not taking over your day. So if we’re spending all day going into our inbox, trying to empty it out, but it keeps filling itself back up, that is really an exercise in frustration. And it’s taking up so much of our time, considering most of the information in there is not truly important.

So if instead, we chose to very intentionally batch our emails and check our emails, let’s say four times in a day, that would give us bigger pockets to focus on the important work.

So for me, and I’m going to go ahead and throw this out there, and tell you that email for me, I’m like Pavlov’s dog. I hear that ping of the inbox and I’m like, “Oh, what’s in there?” I don’t know why. I don’t know what it is. It’s not the same way with texts. But, I love checking my inbox, even though I know it’s mostly junk.

So what I did for myself is, I started checking email four times a day. So I come into the office, I start off by creating my priority list. I process my day, I take care of setting my day up, and then I check my email for the first time. Then I let other people’s priorities begin to invade my calendar.

So I do a quick check and I get myself a container of time, 15 to 20 minutes to check it in the morning. And then I check it again around lunchtime, and then I check it again mid afternoon, and I check it again after closing time for work.

And I do it four times a day because that allows me to get through my inbox and really respond to the things that are important in there and allows me to clean it out and keep on top of it. But I’m not in there all day long.

So what happens is, if we’re checking email every five minutes or so, we’re continually interrupting ourselves. We’re not getting to that deep work where we can really do great things, the important tasks on our list.

If instead we batch it, we have these bigger blocks of focus time, where we can really get into our big work. And I think that this is the thing. It’s not about getting rid of email. It’s really about how can we make email effective, so it truly does work for us. So for me it’s four times a day.

Now I have worked with other people who are like I only check it twice a day. I have some people who were like, “Four times will not work with me. I need to do six or I need to do eight.” And I’m like, “That is great.” Again, it should be totally customized to what works for you, just be intentional with it. Make a decision when you’re going to be in and when you’re going to be out. And when you set that container of time, abide by it. And then use the time that you were checking email to do that big important work instead.

Pete Mockaitis
And so for you personally, four bouts of 15 to 20 minutes keeps you in control such that you are hovering near zero ish most of the time?

Tonya Dalton:
Yes. And like anything else, when you’re batching tasks, you’re able to do it a little bit faster. You’re getting kind of that zone where you’re just automatically like, “Okay, quickly checking them,” and you can tell what’s trash and what’s not. And you’re cleaning it out and you’re checking things. And because you’re in that batch zone, it’s so much more effective than if I pop in there and I check one or two emails, and then I come in 10 minutes later and I check one or two more emails, and then I come in 10 minutes later.

Anytime that we’re batching tasks and we’re doing the same repetitive action again and again over and over again, it’s very similar to that assembly line, right? It just moves quicker. So we get that task done off of our plate and then we move on to what is truly important.

Pete Mockaitis:
All right, so Tonya, when folks are on board, they say, yes, JOMO, I’m embracing it, I’m going to live it and love it, are there any common mistakes or missteps that seem to pop up a lot when folks are starting down this journey?

Tonya Dalton:
Well, I think one of the biggest mistakes we make, and this happens whether it’s with JOMO, or a goal, or a project or anything else, is we try to take it all on at once. Okay, there’s all these different things you can do, and we talk about different strategies and tactics throughout the book, but people try to take it all on at the same time.

I think anytime that you’re trying to effect a change and you’re trying to, maybe live more intentionally, it’s okay, let’s take a step back and let’s figure out what’s one thing you want to do first. Let’s focus just on one small thing and let’s make these adjustments slowly. So it really feels a little more natural so we can begin to see how does this really work for you? And we can make those adjustments that I think are really important and are really necessary.

And then maybe a week later, let’s add another step. And then maybe a week later, let’s add two more steps. And build up to it instead of trying to take it all on.

It’s kind of like, have you ever tried to start getting up earlier. People think, “Oh, I want to start this morning routine so. You know what, I’m going to start getting up two hours earlier.” Well, getting up two hours earlier, getting up at eight o’clock in the morning and then six o’clock the next morning, that’s jarring to your system.

So instead back it up. Back it up 30 minutes for the first couple of days, and back it up another 30 minutes and then back it up 30 minutes again. It’s taking these baby steps and making it so we can acclimate to these changes and really start building them in as habits. Because that’s one of the other things that we talk about throughout the book is, this idea of let’s take the thinking out of it. Let’s make it so a lot of these intentional things that we’re doing, these intentional choices, become habits. So we don’t even have to think about them, they just happen automatically.

We talk about that whole idea that our brain is one 50th of our body, but it burns one fifth of our calories. And we can choose, do we want to burn our calories on the nonsense and the things that aren’t really important? Or do we want to burn our calories on the things that are really going to drive us towards that life we really want? And when we choose to allow habits to kind of step in and work on autopilot, especially when they’re good, healthy, intentional habits, that allows all that to run automatically and seamlessly, allowing our brains to really focus in on what matters most.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to these baby steps, have you found historically that there tends to be one or two or three that make a world of difference, and just get that ball rolling quite effectively, consistently?

Tonya Dalton
I love that question. I would say, just like anything else I talk about, I think it really is personal to you. I usually tell people, “Start with what you’re most excited about. Start with what you’re most passionate about. What got you most excited? Let’s start there, instead of trying to say like, you have to start here, then you go here.”

The one thing that I do really encourage people to do is really do start with that discovery phase of what is important to you, because then we can really tweak and make everything work for you. And when I say for you, I don’t just mean like what you’re really good at. I also mean what you’re not good at. Let’s make it play to your strengths and your weaknesses.

So thinking about that and then starting with what you’re truly most excited about. Let’s say that the morning routine is what you’re most excited about. Let’s start there. Maybe it’s the priority list, then I would start there. So really to me, ultimately, with everything that I teach and everything that I talk about, it really is about this idea of customizing productivity, making it mold and work to you and your life. Instead of you feeling like you have to twist and turn yourself to fit the systems, let’s twist and turn the systems so they work for you.

And that’s really what I want people to get out of the book is that, when they finish reading the book, they’re like, “Okay, I know how to make this system for myself work, and I’m ready to get started.”
Because I wanted people to feel like they had a roadmap for how am I going to really start implementing this idea into my real everyday life? It needs to really work for me.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well Tonya, I want to hear about some of your favorite things and we’ll see if any thing’s newly favorite. Last time your favorite quote was from Oprah. Are you sticking with, “Do not think you can be brave with your life and your work and never disappoint anyone. It doesn’t work that way.” Or, do you have a new favorite one?

Tonya Dalton
Good question. That’s still my favorite. It’s really hard to let go. I mean, Oprah, she knows what she’s talking about. And I think too, I think this is a thing, especially when I talk to people about, JOMO and really finding that joy of missing out, that there’s going to be times that people do push back. There’s going to be times that people are like, “Well I just think you should say yes to this because you should say yes to it,” and don’t believe you can be brave in this life and not get a little bit of flack from people. But yeah, I’m still with Oprah. She and I are still one.

Pete Mockaitis:
Okay. All right. We’re sticking with it. And last time you had a favorite study about multitasking at a Duke. Any other studies that have caught your eye?

Tonya Dalton
Well, I have this other study that’s actually about multitasking that I really like as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Tonya Dalton
Multitasking seems to be one of my favorite things. There’s been a lot of studies on it and there was a study at the University of London on multitasking, and what they found was that, when people were multitasking, they performed as well as people who had stayed up all night long. And so what they did is they had a control group that was, multitasking. They had a group that went to bed, they had a group that stayed up all night long, and they had a group that smoked marijuana.

Now, the people who are multitasking did not perform as well as the people who had stayed up all night or the people who had smoked marijuana. So I like to tell people, “When you are multitasking, not only are you increasing your cortisol, not only are you stressing yourself out, but you might as well either stay up all night or smoke drugs.” To me it’s most interesting about this study—

Pete Mockaitis
“You might as well smoke drugs,” wonderful pull quote.

Tonya Dalton
Maybe not my pull quote please, no… But I think that’s so true. When people hear that, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I keep multitasking because I think it’s increasing my productivity,” but it actually is decreasing your productivity 40%. That means you’re losing about, I think it’s like 17 hours a week when you try to multitask. That’s a significant amount of time.

So really, when we think that we’re working harder, we’re not really working smarter, we’re just wearing ourselves out.

And the other part of that study that I thought was so fascinating is there was this inverse corollary where the better someone thought they were at multitasking, the worst they actually were. Which I found interesting because they said, they would ask people like, how good are you multitasking? And the higher they rated themselves, the worse they performed.

So this is the thing. There’s very few super taskers out there who really can multitask.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s almost like I’m one of them. So, caution, caution there. The odds are not in your favor.

Tonya Dalton
Yes, the odds are not in your favor and that’s one of the things that the researcher said. He says, “People want to fool themselves into believing that they’re the super taskers, but they’re not.” I mean, that’s like his direct quote, “but they’re not. They’re just fooling themselves.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well so, last time you mentioned your favorite book is Jane Eyre. Are there any other favorites you’d like to mention?

Tonya Dalton
Well, I just read not that long ago James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and I really enjoyed that book. That was something that I really enjoyed recently. On the fiction front, I’ve been doing quite a bit. I’ve been reading some Ruth Ware, and I’ve really been enjoying her. I don’t know if your listeners are familiar with her, but she just came out with one called Turn of The Key, and then she did, The Woman in Cabin 10. Those have been my reads lately that I’ve been enjoying.

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

Tonya Dalton
I would tell them to go to joyofmissingout.com for information on the book and where you can get that, it’s available really anywhere books are sold. And then if you want to connect with me or learn about my podcast or anything that I do, my products or anything else, you can go to tonyadalton.com. So that’s Tonya with an O and a Y, tonyadalton.com.

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

Tonya Dalton
My call to action could be just go get the book. Because I really do feel so passionate and excited about the book. But really what I want people to take away from this is, we’ve talked about that idea of the small steps and starting small. I think that that’s really what I want people to walk away from this episode remembering. That that ideal day that we dream about when we’re in the shower or we’re waiting for our coffee to brew, it feels so far away from where we are.

And, so because it feels so far away, we sometimes think it’s not ever going to be possible. But, if you take one small step each and every day closer to that ideal day, if you get 1% closer each week, by the end of a year, you’re going to be 52% closer to that ideal day, to that ideal life. It really is the tiny little itty bitty steps that matter.

We often think it’s the big giant leaps. It’s the leaps of faith and the giant running starts. But oftentimes, it’s just taking that first step that builds that initial momentum, and that’s really all we need to keep us moving forward. And one tiny step each and every day really does make a gigantic difference in how we feel about our days, and how we feel about ourselves, and how we feel about getting to that ideal life that we want.

Pete Mockaitis
Tonya, this has been so much fun. Thank you. I am overjoyed that we didn’t miss out on this conversation

Tonya Dalton
Me too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, keep up the good work.

Tonya Dalton

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me again. This was great.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Maura:

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Maura Nevel Thomas Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it just keeps loading more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maura Thomas
Exactly. Exactly.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Thanh

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Thanh Pham Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
I sent you an email today using TextExpander.

Thanh Pham
I have a suspicion.

Pete Mockaitis
I used customized elements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanh Pham
Now, obviously I can say that because…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it makes sense. All right.

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

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

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

Thanh Pham
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanh Pham
Thank you so much, Pete.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Nir

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Nir Eyal Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, credibility shot.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m satisfied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Sugar is unhealthy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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