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813: How to Make Time for the Things that Matter with Laura Vanderkam

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Laura Vanderkam reveals the secret to carving out time for what’s truly important.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The right way to do leisure time 
  2. The perfect day to do your planning
  3. How to make your schedule more flexible 

About Laura

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including The New Corner Office, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune. She is the host of the podcast Before Breakfast and the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds.   

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Laura Vanderkam Interview Transcript

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

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you for having me back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so good to be chatting again, and I’m excited to dig into some of the wisdom of your latest, Tranquility by Tuesday. But, first, could you share with us maybe your most favorite-st discovery over the last year or two?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I’ve had a lot of discoveries in the last year or two. Among other things, we moved into a very old home, which is new to us but we did a lot of renovations to it. So, I’ve discovered new things about, like, slate shingles. Who knew that what anyone says to you? I’m sure I’m supposed to come up with some great job tip or productivity-type thing, and I’m about to say slate shingles. You know? There’s a whole artform to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is there any particular benefit to them being made of slate?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, it’s just that that’s how many used to be in very old houses. So, if you have a historic commission who is monitoring your renovation moves, then you need to replicate what is there. But it turns out that when you see a grey roof, that’s like a slate roof, often it’s a mix of different colors. So, it’s like a mix of purple and green and darker grey and lighter grey. It’s really kind of cool how they create the effect. But, anyway, I’ve learned a lot of other things but that was just on my mind because we’ve been doing a lot of renovations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s fun. Well, also fun is your book Tranquility by Tuesday. What’s the story here?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes, so with Tranquility by Tuesday, I realized, I’ve given a lot of time management advice over the years. Thousands of people, at this point, who sent me their schedules, and I’d weigh in. And, at some point, I realized I was giving a lot of the same advice, that many of the things I was telling people to do were very similar, even though people’s lives look very different.

So, I honed this down into nine of my favorite time management rules, and then decided to test them out. So, I had 150 people learn each of these nine rules, one week at a time. They would answer questions about how they planned to implement it in their lives. They would then answer questions a week later about how it went. I could measure them on various dimensions over the course of the project. And I’m happy to report that when people followed these nine time-management rules, they did, in fact, feel more satisfied with their time.

So, much of Tranquility by Tuesday is out-there observations, what they saw as they were trying to use these rules in their lives and the successes they had, the challenges they faced, and how they overcame these.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Laura, I love that so much. Getting real in terms of, okay, real people doing real stuff on a real program, measuring some things before and after, as opposed to simply pontificating, “So, this is what I think is cool about time management.”

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I read self-help for busy people, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so tell us, what were the dimensions you measured and what are some of the results? So, if listeners, I’m hoping, are already salivating, like, “Okay, Laura, what’s the size of this prize? And I’ll be all ears for the nine rules once I know just how much more awesome my life and job will be.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, I had this whole time-satisfaction scale which is 13 questions, and in order to turn a qualitative measurement, subjective measurements into some sort of data, I had these 13 statements, and people would say how much they disagreed or agreed with them. So, as an example, one statement might be, “I regularly have time just for me,” or, “Yesterday, I didn’t waste time on things that weren’t important to me,” “Generally, I get enough sleep to feel well-rested,” “Yesterday, I made progress on my professional goals,” things like that.

And you could strongly disagree, in which case you’d put one, or you could strongly agree, that was a seven, or various dimensions in between, sort of disagree, sort of agree, that sort of thing. And so, I could measure how people’s answers to these questions and several others change over the course of the nine weeks.

And on the full scale, so combining all 13 questions, people’s time satisfaction scores rose by 16% over the course of the nine weeks. So, 16% looking at 150 people, that’s a very statistically significant result. Maybe 16% doesn’t sound huge to some people, who are like, “No, no, I want to be twice as satisfied.” But it’s like if you’re getting 16% returns on anything in nine weeks, I think that’s pretty good.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And if it sticks, I’m thinking, “Well, if you’re 16% more satisfied with your time,” and your time is basically your life. Was it Benjamin Franklin? It’s not what your live is made up of days and hours and minutes and seconds. They all come together, and that’s a life. So, if people are 16% more satisfied, that’s like a sixth of them, life or death. You know what I’m saying?

Laura Vanderkam
We didn’t do that math. Well, I did check in with people a month later and three months later. And, in fact, the scores were still elevated, so they were maintaining their increased satisfaction with their time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, 16%, I think that’s a huge lift. Nine rules, that sounds pretty manageable and sensible. Lay it on us. What are these nine rules?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I can go straight through them if you would like.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Laura Vanderkam
The first one, rule one, give yourself a bedtime. Rule two, plan on Fridays. Rule three, move by 3:00 p.m. Rule four, three times a week is a habit. Rule five, create a backup slot. Rule six, one big adventure, one little adventure. Rule seven, take one night for you. Rule eight, batch the little things. And rule nine, effortful before effortless. Let me know which ones you want explanations for.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so give yourself a bedtime, I think I’m a believer. I’ve had a couple of sleep doctors, and so, yeah, that’s huge. I think do it, I’m on board. I think there’s a clear why. Are there any tips, tricks, tactics that make that easier or more effective?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, the reason I chose that as rule number one is because, yes, it is obvious, and also, it’s amazing how many people don’t do it, right? I saw a funny social media post today that somebody said, “I would do anything to get eight hours of sleep, except go to bed eight hours before I need to get up.” Right? And it’s so true.

People have all sorts of reasons of why they don’t get to bed on time. But it just a math problem. You need to figure out what time you wake up in the morning. Many adults, this is a set number, right? You have to get up for work, you have to get up for your family responsibilities. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of give there.

So, if that is set, the only variable that can move is the time you go to bed the night before. So, figure out how much sleep you need, count back from when you wake up, you’ve got your bedtime. Like, really, it’s just a math problem. But in order to make it stick a little bit better, there’s a couple things you can do.

One, most practically, set some sort of alarm for 30 to 45 minutes before your bedtime. So, you remind yourself to wind down. You need to brush your teeth, you need to lock your doors, so whatever it is you need to do so that you’re not remembering all those things right at your bedtime, and then having to push forward when you go to sleep by quite a bit.

But I think the key thing, one of the reasons people don’t go to bed on time is because that’s the time we have for ourselves, right? Like, that’s when your kids are in bed, or you’ve done your chores, or you’ve finished your work, you’re like, “Ah, now I can relax. Now, the world is mine. I can do whatever I want.” And who wants to cut that short and go to bed?

And so, what you need to do is make sure that you are having adequate leisure time, adequate me-time at other points in your life. And a lot of the Tranquility by Tuesday rules are aimed at doing just that, making sure that you have other cool stuff going on in your life, that you have other spots where you are doing things that you’re looking forward to so that you’re not getting to 11:00 p.m., or whatever your bedtime is, and thinking, “Oh, but I haven’t really had any time to relax. I haven’t had any time to do fun stuff. Let me just stay up a little bit later.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, I think that’s so dead-on. You’ve nailed it. And I’m thinking about when my wife had COVID, and I had full-time kid duty as well as trying to keep the business, at least, limping along a little bit, like, “Team, do everything. I’ll try to answer a few questions on email” kind of a situation. I remember it was jampacked.

And when those kids went to bed, it was like, “Man, I should go to bed now,” and yet I had, in that time of like zero me-time, I had the most overwhelming desire to play video games at 10:00 p.m. of my whole life, which was odd for me. I was like, “What is going on?” And that is what’s going on, Laura. Thank you for that.

Laura Vanderkam
You needed that time for yourself. You needed the me-time, I know. And so, and maybe that made sense and it could work for a week while she was recuperating, but if you find yourself doing that long term, well, it’s time to find some time for the video games at some other point in your life so that you feel like you get some fun.

That’s why we stay up late. We want our fun and we don’t want to be denied our fun, and the bedtime is what keeps us from doing it. We don’t do the bedtime, but future us will be so much happier if we do get to bed on time.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And what’s funny, when it comes to leisure, it’s almost like video games are almost like a junk food version of leisure, because I don’t really crave video games much, but then I was. It’s like I want to do the most, I don’t know, pointless, self-indulgent, low effort required of me, kind of enjoyable thing there is, as opposed to, “Let’s have a singing lesson right now.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, or let’s read Tolstoy. That was the other option.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. So, okay. All right. So, that’s exactly what’s going on. Give yourself a bedtime. And in order to pull that off, make sure you’re building in quality leisure time and me-time. Tell us about that. When it comes to making that happen, any parameters in terms of how we schedule that and select what the activity is?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. So, there’s two of the rules that I think are really getting at this idea. One is rule number seven, which is to take one night for you. And this can be such a transformative rule for people who are in the busy years of having young kids at home, building a career. Take one night, or the equivalent number of hours on a weekend, whatever you want, to do something that is not work and is not caring for family members. It is enjoyable just for you.

And, ideally, you would make a commitment to something that meets at the same time, every week it gets you out of the house. Because it’s a commitment, you will do it. You will do it even if life is busy. You will do it even if you’re tired. You will do it even if somebody else would prefer you be doing something else.

And so, I’m talking about things like singing in a choir, playing in a softball league, volunteering somewhere regularly, joining a regular social group, bowling league, whatever it is, but something that you are going to go to every single week, that you genuinely enjoy. And when you have this in your life, it can honestly, it can be, like, the structure of the whole week is now around this. It’s something you wind up looking forward to the whole time.

And many people are like, “Well, I want to take one night for me but I’m going to do something flexible. I’m going to do something…like, I’ll just read, or I will take a bubble bath, or something.” But the problem with those is that they can be done whenever. And so, if your boss wants you to work late on Tuesday night, well, you’re not going to be like, “Well, I have an appointment with my bubble bath.”

Pete Mockaitis
“I have my bubble bath schedule, sorry.”

Laura Vanderkam
“The bubble bath is waiting for me.” Or, your kid wants you to drive them to the mall, or you’re tired, or you just seem too busy and too much work, like you won’t do it. Whereas, if you are playing on a softball team, they need a second baseman, like you’re going to show up. And so, because of the commitment, you do this active form of self-care and you wind up so much happier afterwards. So, that’s the first one.

The second one that really helps with this is rule number nine – effortful before effortless. And this is about leisure time. Even the busiest people have some leisure time in their life. The problem is a lot of it occurs in either short spurts, or it is unexpected, it is uncertain in duration, and it may come at low-energy time.

So, at night after the kids go to bed, or you’re waiting for a phone call to start, you could be on Twitter for two minutes or 20 minutes. You can be watching Netflix even if you haven’t planned ahead and don’t have a babysitter. Like, these screen times fits all these constraints incredibly well, and so it winds up consuming the bulk of our leisure time, which is fine. There is nothing wrong with screen time.

The problem is in the abstract, many people they would prefer other forms of leisure, things like reading or hobbies or connecting with friends, and you don’t remember a lot of your screen time, like it doesn’t register that you are getting free time, and so you don’t count it, it doesn’t become part of your narrative, and you don’t really feel rejuvenated afterwards.

So, you want to choose leisure that looks like leisure. Like, you can’t be doing a Lego set and not tell yourself it’s leisure. Whereas, if you are on social media, in your mind you’re like, “Well, I’m only one app away from my email, so, really, I’m working.” That’s the kind of thing that goes through our brains. So, effortful before effortless means when a spot of leisure appears, challenge yourself to do just a few minutes of these more effortful forms of fun before you switch over to the effortless.

So, you’re picking up your phone, read an e-book for two minutes before you open Facebook. Kids go to bed. Do a puzzle for 10 minutes before you start watching Netflix. And one of two things happens. Either you get so into your effortful fun, you just keep going, like you just keep reading the book, and that’s great. But even if you don’t, like at least you would’ve gotten to do both. You will be more aware that you had this leisure time, and that can help you feel like you have a lot more time for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great theme associated with being in your own narrative inside your head when stresses besiege you, and it feels like you don’t have the time, the energy, the resources, the emotional presence, the wherewithal, the oomph necessary to meet the demands of life and stuff, and then you have an extra level of layer of maybe resentment or irritability, like, “I don’t have any time for myself.” You have sort of an inoculation or a thread of hope to hold on to, which is like, “Well, you know what, I did six minutes of puzzle on Thursday, and I’m going to do it again this Thursday.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, “I have some time, it may not be as much as I want.” But there’s a very big difference between none and not as much as I want, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Laura Vanderkam
None is just defeatist. Like, you can’t do anything with that. That’s when we get into those spiraling thoughts of martyrdom or despair or burnout, all those things. But if it’s “Not as much as I want,” that suggests great questions right there that inspires some problem-solving. Like, “Well, if it’s not as much as I want, how can I make it more? How can I make good choices within the limited leisure time I do have so that I’m doing things that are the most rejuvenating?”

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m also thinking about, when you talked about one night for you, it can be the night, it could also be, as you said, a certain committed hours recurring on weekends. There seems to be a lot of emotional juice associated with the ritual itself, even if it’s tiny, like, “I’m going to drink this amazing coffee and do the, I don’t know, New York Times Wordle, or the Chess.com puzzle of the day, or whatever,” I don’t know.

Like, that in and of itself seems like it we would have a lot of inoculating benefit as opposed to, I guess, what I’m trying to say is the vibe inside is more like, “Ahh, this is the thing I’m doing for me, and it’s rejuvenating,” tranquil, if you will, as opposed to, “Aargh, here’s my four minutes of Facebook. I’m binging on it while the getting is good.” Do you know what I’m saying in terms of like the mindset and the vibe?

Laura Vanderkam
It just feels more chosen, more mindful, more intentional, and that’s really what we’re always getting at here, like making time more intentional, because when it is, you’re more likely to spend it on things that are meaningful or enjoyable. Whereas, when time is not intentional, then you spend it on whatever is right in front of you.

Pete Mockaitis
And there could be, I think, a little bit of, especially for people who like being awesome at their jobs, a little bit of a guilt factor in terms of, “I’m stealing this time for social media or whatever my low-quality effortless recreation, leisure is when I should be doing other stuff,” as opposed to, “I know this is what we’ve intentionally scheduled, and this is the time for my puzzle, or whatever, and it is right and just and proper that I engage in it. And I’m winning by doing so.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. Well, I think people would be so much better off scheduling conscious breaks during the day where they do things that are truly breaks. So, let’s say you’ve got an eight-hour day, you can take a 30, 40-minute lunch, two 15-minute other breaks, go for a walk on one of them. Take the other one to do a puzzle or something. Take your lunch break to call a friend, whatever it happens to be.

But those things are things that are truly leisure, like they are, in fact, leisure. Whereas, people spend all kinds of time on stuff online that they didn’t really mean to but it’s just that it wasn’t necessarily actively chosen and it doesn’t look as much like leisure. And so, we have this thing, this hang-up about putting a flag on the ground, “I’m claiming this time for leisure” because when we’re doing things on our friends, we can even claim, like, “Oh, I have no time because it still looks like it’s something else. Like, we might be being productive,” I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s hear a few of these other things. Plan on Fridays. What’s the story here?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, planning on Fridays is really, honestly, one of my favorite rules. It’s something I’ve been doing for years. It’s really two points. The first and the most important point is to plan. I think everybody needs a designated weekly planning time. And this is a time where you look forward to the next week, ask yourself what is most important to you in three categories: career, relationships, and self. These are, hopefully, steps for your long-term goals, things you want to focus on in the next week. Ask where they can go. Figure that out.

Look at what else you have to do over the course of the week. Figure out any logistics that need to happen. Figure out any tough spots. See if there’s anything that you are genuinely looking forward to in the next week. But we do that, and look at the week as a whole so we can make broader, more holistic choices as we figure out how to use time mindfully. And doing this week after week, you can really make a complex life go fairly smoothly.

Why Fridays? So, a lot of people plan on Mondays, they plan on Sundays. These are all very popular time for planning. Friday has a couple things going for it. One, Friday afternoon is just often wasted time. Many people who work Monday through Friday jobs are kind of sliding into the weekend by Friday afternoon. It’s really hard to start anything new but you might be willing to think about what future you should be doing.

And by taking a few minutes to plan the upcoming week, you can choose what might be wasted, turn what might be wasted time into some of your most productive minutes. It’s also business hours. So, unlike planning on the weekend, for instance, if you need to make an appointment, if you need to set up a meeting, people are more likely to respond to you on Friday than they are on Sunday, most of the time. If you are managing people, they will probably respond to you on Sunday but you should ask yourself if you really want them doing that.

And then, it’s also, I think, the biggest reason though, some people plan their weeks on Sunday nights or Monday mornings, but even people who like their jobs can wind up with a little bit of trepidation on Sunday afternoon as they think about the upcoming week. And a lot of that trepidation is this anxiety over knowing there’s so much waiting for you but you don’t know how you’re going to deal with it. Like, you haven’t formulated a plan for getting done what you need to do. You don’t have a good grasp on what you do have to do.

If you end Friday with a plan for Monday, you can actually enjoy your days off quite a bit more because you’re not leaving yourself hanging, saying, “Oh, I have to figure that out in the future now.” No. You know. And so, you can relax.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And talk about batching.

Laura Vanderkam
Batching. Yeah, so I think a lot of us feel like we are sometimes drowning in small details of our lives. And, certainly, you can have these at work. There are those random forms from HR, responding to all those invitations, sending a few emails that aren’t urgent, aren’t that important but still have to be done, paying bills, things like that.

We can also wind up with tons of these in our personal lives, and the more people you have in your family that you’re responsible for, the more of these that wind up beating you: filling out that permission slip, signing the kids up for X, Y, or Z, or texting a babysitter for something two weeks from now, all these things we have to do. And it can feel like it will take over your life. Like, you’re never doing anything important but you’re always busy.

And the solution to this is to learn to recognize these not terribly important, not terribly urgent matters and to batch them into small chunks of time so that you can leave the rest of your schedule open for deeper work or for relaxation. So, at work, for instance, maybe you designate a small window in the afternoon when you don’t have a ton of energy to plow through all these tasks. Maybe on the home front, you can look at chores and things like that this way. Give yourself a two-hour window on Saturday where you’re going to get through all those tasks that you’re assigning yourself for the weekend.

And the upside of doing this is that, one, you get some efficiencies. Like, if you’ve got 30 minutes to deal with all these not terribly important, not terribly urgent little things on a workday, you’re not going to belabor that response to somebody, that you’ve only got 30 minutes for all of it. You’re not going to sit there and perseverate over it, like it’s going to get done, so you’re going to be more efficient.

But it also allows you, if you start thinking at some other point on the weekend, like, “Oh, I’ve got to clean my floors. I’ve got to clean my floors.” Like, no, no, there is a time for that. Saturday morning, we’ve got our chore window. That’s when we do it. The rest of the time is not that time. So, you can actually relax and have guilt-free leisure time, which I think is very elusive for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. And then, I’m curious about the backup time.

Laura Vanderkam
So, the backup slot, the best way to think of this is if people had been invited to any sort of outdoor event, like summer weddings, or maybe not weddings, or graduation ceremonies, or picnics, often on the invitation, they will have one of the most brilliant scheduling concepts ever invented. And I’m talking about the rain date, okay?

And a rain date, what’s going on here is that the organizers are acknowledging that much can go predictably wrong outside. It is right there in the rain date name, but there is no question whether the event will be rescheduled or for when. Like, it will be on the rain date. And so, if you want to go to this event, you’re not going to put anything unmovable in the second slot.

And by having a rain date, you vastly increase the chances of the original event happening even if not at the original time. And I think, in life, we need a lot more rain dates. When people get incredibly frustrated about wanting to do something, you’ve scheduled special one-on-one time with, say, one of your kids. Like, you’re going to go to this amusement park together on a Saturday, and then it’s like pouring down rain on that Saturday, or the kid is sick on that Saturday, or your spouse is unexpectedly called away to another town and you can’t leave all the other kids to go do this. It gets very frustrating.

These things happen at work, too. You set up a meeting with an employee that you’re going to give that celebratory feedback, tell him he’s working really hard, you’re so proud of him, and this is great, you’ve got his back, and people are quitting left and right. Very important to do that. And then, right before it is scheduled to happen, you have a major client emergency, and, of course, it gets bumped. That seems like the responsible thing to do, but we feel very frustrated.

So, if something is important to you, it doesn’t just need one spot. It needs a rain date. It needs a backup slot. And I know people say, “Well, that sounds incredibly unwieldy. Like, it’s hard enough to carve out one slot for stuff that I want to do, let alone two slots.” But, on some level, if it is truly important to you, then that’s what you need to do. But you can also approximate this by building more open space into your life in general.

So, one solution, many people try not to schedule too much other than they’re planning on Fridays because then they’ve got space for any emergencies that come up. If it bumps something from earlier in the week, it can get rescheduled to Friday. If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s like two afternoons a week that you try to leave mostly open, or an hour and a half every day that is mostly open.

But the idea is that if something gets bumped, it has a spot to go. Or, if something amazing comes up that you didn’t anticipate, some massive opportunity, you have the space to take it. You don’t have to shuffle everything else around or push this opportunity forward multiple weeks, in which case it might be gone. Like, you can actually seize it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very nice. And how about the one big adventure, one little adventure?

Laura Vanderkam
So, I have to say this is probably one of my favorite rules. I don’t really have a favorite rule, I like all of them, but this is probably a special one for me because I do think it is lifechanging to be in this mindset, which is that much of adult life becomes very much the same day to day after a while. Like, you get up, get everyone ready, you work, you collect everyone, go to dinner. If you’ve got kids, it’s like homework and bath and put them to bed, and then TV. You do this over and over again, and every day seems the same.

And there’s nothing wrong with routines. Like, routines make good choices automatic. But when too much sameness stacks up, whole years can just disappear into memory sinkholes, like, “I don’t even remember where the time went.” And you don’t remember where the time went because you have no good memories of it. Like, we don’t say, “Where did the time go?” when we remember where the time went.

So, one big adventure, one little adventure is about making memories. Every week, you want to do two things that are out of the ordinary. One big adventure means something that takes three to four hours, think like half a weekend day. One little adventure is something that takes less than an hour, it can be on a lunch break, weekday evening, just as long as it’s different, memorable.

And this rate of adventure is not going to exhaust or bankrupt anyone. It’s not going to upset the routines that exists but it is going to make life a lot more interesting. You’re not going to be like, “Ah, another week. Where did the week go?” You’re like, “No, no, that was the week we went mini-golfing. That was the week we tried out the new gelato place. That was the week we drove to see the colorful fall leaves at the beach.” Just something that would make it a little bit more different, enjoyable, memorable, and then time doesn’t feel like it’s slipping through your fingers.

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

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, I think these Tranquility by Tuesday rules are all designed to be very practical. They’re not rocket science. They are not difficult to do or get your head around it. It’s more about really trying them and seeing what happens as a result. And the way people did this project in my research is that they learned a new rule each week, and I think that’s a good idea. If somebody is going to read through the book, try each rule one at a time. Try to make it a habit, and then you can add the next one, and see how they sort of build on each other.

But the upside of doing this project is I am pretty sure that when you do these rules, you will, in fact, feel more satisfied with your time. That was the results of these 150 people I measured on these various dimensions of my time-satisfaction scale over nine weeks. Like, they do feel better. The rules helped. So, I’m pretty sure that they will for other busy folks as well.

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

Laura Vanderkam
So, one of my favorite quotes is actually very, very short. It’s attributed to Ovid. I don’t know how you say it, but he said, “Dripping water hollows out stone.” And there’s a lot of variations of that “Dripping water hollows out stone, not by force but by persistence.”

But the idea being that when you do small things repeatedly, it does add up. And I’ve been seeing that a lot. I’ve been doing a couple of long-term reading projects since I talked to you last. Last year, I decided to read through War and Peace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Laura Vanderkam
So, one of my favorites, just because it’s so practical, it fits with what I think many of us have experienced, and I wound up citing this in rule number three, move by 3:00 p.m., is how much people’s energy jumps when they get tiny bits of physical activity. So, this one particular study, they had, when somebody is…a group of people, they rated their energy as three on a ten-point scale, so they’re feeling really weary and not very energetic when their levels were at a three.

They said, “Go do a couple minutes of physical activity.” So, they could go up and down the stairs in their office building, run around, whatever it was. And after a couple minutes of this, they basically gave themselves like a nine on a ten-point scale. And an hour later, they were still at six. So, five minutes, that’s all it takes.

People spend so much effort, money, unhealthy habits, trying to make ourselves have more energy, like, think of the number of people who reach for coffee or candy or cigarettes at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon because that’s how they’re going to get through the rest of the day. It’s like, well, going for a ten-minute walk is not only free. It’s healthy and it is pretty close to guaranteed to work.

I love that. Just one of those little miracles that’s available to us all the time, and yet we don’t necessarily avail ourselves of it as much as we should.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Laura Vanderkam
I have to say War and Peace. It really is a good one. I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a tool?

Laura Vanderkam
And a tool. I am loving right now the fact that my phone works as a scanner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool.

Laura Vanderkam
In case anyone here has not discovered this yet, if I’m the last person on the planet to figure this out, but maybe I’m not, I’ll share this. When you open the Notes app in an Apple phone, you can click on the picture and then one of the options is scan documents. And you hold up the phone, and it basically takes a scan of the document, and you can do multiple documents at the same time, and then email them automatically to people because it’s right on your phone.

That was such a wonderful time saver. When we were buying and selling our house over the past year because, of course, you have like a thousand documents involved in this that all have to get to the bank and get recorded and such, and I was like just scanning it with my phone, and it was wonderful. It was so much easier than in the old days.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. And a favorite habit?

Laura Vanderkam
So, I also, in addition to my reading projects, do a tiny bit of writing every day, my free writing. And I’ve done this in the past and have been a little bit free-form about it, so every day I write 100 to 200 words of something. And I’m always trying out ideas, thinking what might be interesting. This year, I decided to do it a little bit more focused and intensely.

So, I, every day, write 100 to 200 words about a character in the course of one day. So, it’ll be 365 little vignettes about a person over the course of one day. And I’m just seeing what I’d do with it. It’s been kind of fun. So, that’s one of my favorite habits right now.

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

Laura Vanderkam
“People are a good use of time.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Laura Vanderkam
So, we worry about how productive we are, how efficient we are with our time, and all that is great, but, ultimately, what we have is the people who go through life with us. And sometimes they are slightly less efficient than we would wish them to be, but, generally, if you are investing in a relationship and you feel that you are both growing closer as a result of the time you’re spending, then probably that was a wise use of those hours.

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

Laura Vanderkam
You can come visit my website LauraVanderkam.com, which I have everything about my books there, my podcast, and I’m blogging usually three to four times a week, so you can read my observations on life, productivity, and everything else.

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

Laura Vanderkam
I think anyone can benefit from tracking their time, ideally, for a week, even a couple days is good. Many people have to bill time for their jobs or they get paid by the hours, so you’re somewhat familiar with how you’re spending your work hours. But try tracking all your time because, partly, it helps to see that there is time outside of work. Usually, even the people who are working very long hours have some amount of time, and that can kind of change your narrative of time that is available to you.

But if you aren’t really sure what your work weeks look like, this is helpful, too, because it allows you to say, “Well, how many hours do I tend to work?” And if you know the denominator then you can decide what proportion you want to devote to different things. But if you don’t know that number, it’s a little bit harder to make those choices in a smart manner. So, knowing where the time goes is really the first step to spending it better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Laura, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and lots of tranquility.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me back.

795: How to Stop Being Crazy Busy and Take Back Your Time with Zena Everett

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Zena Everett reveals the time-wasters to drop in order to make time for what matters.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The top things slowing us down at work 
  2. The questions to ask for effective prioritization
  3. How to say no nicely 

 

About Zena

Leadership Coach and Speaker Zena Everett is the author of Mind FlipTake the Fear out of Your Career and the award winning Crazy Busy Cure. 

Originally a recruitment entrepreneur, Zena sold her business in 2007 then studied an MSc in Career Management and Coaching. She then took further postgraduate qualifications in psychological coaching and leadership with neuroscience (MIT Sloan Business School). She has coached on the Executive MBA Programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and is a member of the Associate Faculty at Henley Business School. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Zena Everett Interview Transcript

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

Zena Everett
Delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re talking productivity and time stuff, which is a favorite topic of mine, as well as listeners. And I love your book title so much The Crazy Busy Cure: A productivity book for people who don’t have time to read productivity books. Please lay it on us, Zena, what do you mean by crazy busy? And how is your book sort of distinctive in that it’s for those who don’t have time to read such books?

Zena Everett
Yeah. And I’m nervous about talking about productivity because that sounds like we’re trying to get people to do even more and more, and I’m not sure we are, really. I think we’re getting people to separate the meaningful from the meaningless. But I’m a coach, and my clients kept saying to me, “Oh, yeah, I’m really crazy busy. I’m crazy busy,” and it just was kind of going through our head all the time. And I thought, “This isn’t a good thing.”

You know, the type of person, they’d be late for a session, and everything would kind of be thrown across the table, and they haven’t thought, and they have no time to think, and I’d been asked to coach them because they were causing bottlenecks for everybody else in the organization. And I just thought, “Gosh, this is really interesting. Why are people so crazy busy? Is it them?” and it is to a certain extent, but it’s also a systemic thing. So, that’s what I got really interested in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, your book is for folks who don’t have time to read such books. I’m curious, is there a particular…where my mind goes in reading that is thinking about sort of like a time ROI, and Chris Bailey talks about this, in terms of like minutes spent on a thing will yield more minutes back to you for having done so. Are there some particular insights or tools or tactics that are really transformational along these lines?

Zena Everett
Even when you say things like that, it makes me get a bit stressed because that’s sort of minute ROI and all those kinds of things. What I realized is that I found some great research by Bain, actually, where I know where you were a long time ago. So, what they talked about, this whole concept of organizational drag, so I realized that crazy busyness is a thing and it’s got a name, which I call productivity drag.

And these are all the things that kind of slow down the system, that makes it really hard to get any work done. And that is excessive complexity and collaboration, so we want all organizations to be inclusive, but having too many people around the table just means you’ve got too many competing opinions and competing agendas, and often nobody there who’s strong enough to align those and ask the right questions.

So, there’s too much complexity, digitization – amazing because this is how we’re doing this, but sometimes it can layer a layer of fake work, crazy busy work on top of the real work, and I definitely put messaging and teams and social media in there. And then there’s excessive organizational complexity, where there are just far too many systems and processes.

And then overservicing, actually. That’s the fourth, which I realize sometimes I do. I overservice some clients who actually, in terms of ROI, I don’t get that much back. And that can happen when you’re in a business partnering role. So, I think you’ve got those kinds of systemic organizational factors that slow us down. And then you’ve got our own ability to not say no, possibly, or please everybody, all that stuff that gets us here in the words of Marshall Goldsmith, but don’t get us there.

So, I think you combine the two, and that’s why it’s just so hard to get anything done. And you know as well, Pete, that we are switching all the time, aren’t we? Most of our tasks just take a couple of minutes. We’re switching, switching all the time rather than actually doing deep work. And there’s umpteen things being written about deep work and flow, but that’s the holy grail of this stuff, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. So, that makes sense in terms of a cocktail for crazy busyness if you’ve got some organizational drag things going on, a bunch of complexity and collaboration, and overdoing it, and then our own difficulties internally putting together, and there you go, crazy busy, here we are. So, I’m curious, where do you recommend folks start? If they find themselves in a crazy busy situation and we want to get out in a jiffy, what do you recommend as some of the first key steps that make a world of difference?

Zena Everett
I always think our grandparents could run this kind of work because it’s so obvious. It’s first principles, isn’t it? I think it’s going back to people to say, “Actually, what am I really measured on here? What’s my job description? When I’m next in front of my boss or a promotion board or something like that, what do I want to talk about that I’ve actually achieved? And does how I run my role and spend my days reflect that?” because very often it doesn’t.

You know this, we sacrifice our priorities on the altar of everybody else’s urgent demands. So, I say to my clients, “Right. Actually, what is the difference between you and an outstanding performer? What are they achieving? What’s the gap? That’s where you need to focus your time.” So, all that stuff you say yes to, well, we can spend a lot of time saying yes to discretionary activities, all the other things that come our way, all those curve balls, some of which are career-enhancing because they’re interesting, or we’re learning, or they give us access to new networks but, actually, me making you more crazy busy, because I haven’t finished my work, and I say, “Well, look, Pete, would you mind?” isn’t a good thing.

So, that’s why I say, right, just take a step back actually and slow things down to go faster, and actually work out, “What is the top level of my job description?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Zena, can you tie that together for us with an inspiring story of someone who escaped crazy busyness by following such a process?

Zena Everett
I’ve got lots of examples, actually, so maybe I should sort of kind of talk about Captain Fantastic. So, I think my typical client would be somebody who got promoted, maybe they’ve been great at their job, they’ve always been hot on execution, worked harder than everybody else, long hours, just delivered. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, all that kind of stuff.

And then they’re doing really well at the job, and somebody says, “Hey, look, here’s an intern. Take them on. They know nothing. They’re clueless. Well done,” and nobody ever says to that person, “Right. You’re already spending 120% of your hours doing your job.” Nobody ever says, “Right. This is how you need to make your job more efficient to find time for managing those people.”

Anyway, invariably, they do, and then they end up having a team around them, and that’s often my absolute definition of a crazy busy client. It’s somebody on that sweet spot who’s managing their own contribution but they’re running a team as well, and they probably got a team of mixed ability, maybe some people they’ve inherited or they’re brand new and so on.

And those are the people that I would love to coach, and I have a really robust discussion with to say, “Right. You need to go back and talk to your boss about how much time you should be spending on your own work, and how much time you should be spending on management.” And we don’t talk about time in that respect. I think it’s rare.

Our manufacturing cousins would be everything is timed on the production line, isn’t it? We’re really sure about how long it takes to do when, and everything is fairly timed. Whereas, it’s rare that somebody says, “That report should take you 45 minutes. If you just do it once, do it properly, get it done, it’s about 45 minutes, and this is what good practice looks like.”

So, we’re nervous about micromanaging people, that’s what managers say to me all the time, “Oh, I really don’t want to micromanage people” But, actually, I think we’ve got to be about old school about this, and give some people some sense about how to structure their days, how long tasks should take, and get them to put some kind of rigor and discipline in them.

Because, at the moment, what we know is that work is just cannibalizing into people’s personal time. We’re getting our tasks done but we have this low level of anxiety, hopefully, only low level, no worse than that, because we always feel anxious because there’s just so much to do and we never get to inbox zero, do we, or whatever it is, and there’s always more projects, and there’s more things we can be doing, and never mind all the liking and posting and all that kind of crazy nonsense.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s a great tip right there in terms of when it’s knowledge work, it can be super fuzzy with regard to you can do a report in 45 minutes, you could do a report in four hours, and I find those guidelines quite helpful, myself, both on the giving and the receiving end because sometimes it really is essential. I’ve spent all day on an email before, and it was absolutely the right choice. That email was mission critical and involved tens of thousands of dollars, so felt great about that.

And the other times, you can go way overboard on something that is like, “No, you just have to kind of check the box so that we know that’s checked, and then we’re fine,” or, “Well, this is going to be edited by six more people anyway down the road so no need to stress it too much because it’s going to be revised like the Dickens so just go ahead and get the rough outline and structure starter point in play and then we’re good to go.”

So, yeah, I think that is helpful as opposed to micromanage-y. And do you have an idea, or thought, or guideline for when does something become micromanagement versus is it just good wholesome quality guidance that is useful and appreciated?

Zena Everett
I like a bit of wholesome quality guidance but I think once we get people cured from crazy busyness, they’re much better managers, and then they’ve got time to say, “Pete, what can I back off and let you get on with?” I think that’s the thing is to have that continuous conversation. And when people are maybe working partly from home and partly in the office and juggling all that kind of stuff, sometimes we need more help than people expect, sometimes we need less, so you can’t overcommunicate on this kind of stuff.

But my real bug bear that really drives me mad is this whole culture of continuous synchronous working. So, this feeling the need to send you Teams Messenger, or WhatsApp, or something, and you respond to that immediately, and I think that is a thing that really slows people down because, aside those occasional days when you spend a whole day on an email, and you probably need to take a step away and come back and look at it again, and maybe sleep on it, all those things, that’s fine.

But, fundamentally, most of us, as you very well know, we’re just switching tasks all day, aren’t we, because people need us, and people need us now. So, I get my clients to have more meetings, which they aren’t that happy about, but better. I’d get them to put some real rigor into their meetings and sharpen up.

Have you ever said to somebody, “Oh, look, do that meeting for me?” and you think, “Great. I’ve saved myself a couple of hours there.” And then the person comes out of the meeting, and you say, “All right. How did it go? What happened?” and they brief you in about two sentences, don’t they, “Oh, yeah, we did this and Jim is doing this. That’s it.”

So, I’m always curious by how my clients can spend so much time in really rubbish meetings that they shouldn’t be in, but they don’t have time to say to you, “Really liked how you write that report. Actually, you can try and make it quicker now,” or whatever it is. So, there’s definitely something about communicating properly once rather than having this continuous stream of consciousness where we feel we should be connected to our teams, well, almost 24/7 in some cases. This drip, drip, drip of Teams messages.

So, I think if we can kind of eliminate that and get people to work away on their own, do some deep thinking, work in flow, all the kind of basic productivity stuff that we’ve all been reading about, and then come back, and then connect and have proper rigorous meetings, life would be so much better. But there seems to be a lot of wasted time in inefficient meetings that we could do something about.

And I think that we need to use technology better so that it’s just a kind of briefing rather than a discussion, or a celebration, or a brainstorm, or decisions to be made, obviously, then there is no reason for that to be a meeting. Our manufacturing colleagues would never get everybody to down tools at the same time because it’s such an expensive investment of time but we’re frivolous with our time. That’s a very long answer, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was agreeing with you with regard to that manufacturing analogy. It does feel kind of silly to say, “Okay, hey, everyone, stop. Stop things you’re doing, put down the chainsaw or kind of whatever is going on there, and we’re going to chat about this thing.” It’s just sort of a head scratch, like, “What? Why? What’s happening right now? And why? This doesn’t seem so critical. Is there an emergency? Like, is something catastrophic occurring?”

It’s fuzzy and yet, in professionals, that world is still plenty expensive to have whatever, six, ten people in a room all at the same time, and there is that interruption of flow factor in there as well. So, that really puts in the context that, “Yeah, those meetings are destructive.” So, I’m curious, when you mentioned people-pleasing and not saying no, do you have any pro tips on how we professionals can do that better? How does one decline a meeting politely, diplomatically, effectively in a none career-limiting fashion?

Zena Everett
Well, how do you do it, because you must do it all the time?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I sort of have the luxury of being the owner/CEO, and so there’s nobody above me to ask me things. So, then it’s like this great mass of the external world which I have license to engage or disengage as I please. So, in a way, I’m spoiled and I don’t have that much of a problem.

Zena Everett
Do you ever feel guilty if you say no to people?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, my wife, I would.

Zena Everett
You should never say no to your wife, ever. What are you saying no to your wife about? Let’s talk about that. Let’s get your wife on.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess when I was an employee, I did, it’s like, “Oh, shucks, I’m invited to this meeting. Oh, I don’t really think it’s viable for me to be there? How do I say this just right?” so I did have those consternations and worries. So, what do you recommend to folks inside organizations?

Zena Everett
I hate that word stakeholder. It’s really kind of cliché, isn’t it? But I think you have to work out who your best stakeholders are. Everybody in this kind of field of time management, we’ve got Pomodoros, or frogs, or something, and I love that antelope and field mice analogy. Do you know that one?

So, you’ve got to know who your main stakeholders are. And I love the analogy of the lions who only chase antelopes. So, they know that they can’t spend their whole day chasing after little furry critters because it’s not worth it. The calorific intake that they need, they wouldn’t get from lots of small things. It’s not worth it. They just let them go.

Whereas, we love to chase anything, don’t we? We love the dopamine hit of crossing something off our list, and our brains can’t distinguish between whether that’s a significant thing, an antelope that we can feed off or if it’s just a load of small field mice. And I am as guilty as anybody of writing small stuff down just to have the pleasure of crossing them off.

So, we’ve got to know who our antelopes are, and so that can be significant tasks, when we’ve got some big goals and we’ve broken them down, yes, sounded stuff, but, actually, we also need to know who those antelope people are as well. Apologies to any vegans who are finding this distasteful. But I think you got to know who the important people are.

And you can’t just jump and overservice people, and you’ve got to know who to say, “Yes, great. I’d really love to get involved,” and go through that thought process, “What’s good for my career? What am I trying to achieve? Where do I need to increase my visibility? If I do this, is this going to give me a new skill? Is this going to give me access to new networks?”

Does that sound calculating? I think we’ve got to be sensible about this, and some people are better than others. There’s so much about saying no, isn’t there? You just say no nicely. Don’t over-explain. Our Royal Family have got an expression of saying, “Never explain. Never complain.” And I think that’s really good. So, the more detail you go into about why you haven’t got five minutes, clearly, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. But you can just say, “Look, I can’t do it.”

But I try and get, I run these “Crazy Busy” sessions, and I teach people, just say, to sequence, “I can’t do that now but I’ll do it, don’t worry. The first available space I’ve got is 8:00 o’clock tomorrow,” or whenever, “Wednesday week and I’ll do it then,” whatever. Hopefully, they’ll disassociate themselves by then. So, I think we need to get into the habit of pushing back, and I think we just need to say, “Yes, I can, and this is when I can fit it in.”

Again, our manufacturing colleagues, if I came to you, and said, “Look, I don’t know, here’s my test tube. Test it in your testing laboratory,” you wouldn’t say, “Of course, I’ll stop the whole line, all those other test tubes will go crashing off the sides.” You just say, “Yes, of course. We start again at 3:00 o’clock, and yours will be the first on there.” So, we’ve just got to approach our work in the same way, and say, “Yeah, I can schedule it in then. How’s that?” And if that doesn’t work, then find somebody else to do it the nicest possible way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we got that great clarity associated with who the people who really matter, and what is the work, and the projects that really matter, and the things you’re being judged or graded upon. Cool. And so then, I’d love for you to elaborate on the just say no nicely. Do you have any favorite phrases, scripts, verbiage?

Zena Everett
I’ve learnt, one of my clients taught me to say, “I’ve noticed…” so that’s a very nice way of dealing with things because I think the people that cause the greatest problems, actually, are the ones we can’t say no to. We soon learn to say, “Yeah, I can’t do that now. I’ll do it later,” or, “Actually, I really can’t get involved in this. I don’t have the capacity.”

But the ones that are the real problems are the, “You sending me a message, say, at 7:30 every morning when you wake up, saying, ‘I need this for a meeting at 9:00,’ and you’re my boss, and I’m terrified of you, and so I don’t know how to deal with it, and I’m hardwired to do it straightaway.” So, “I’ve noticed…” is a really nice way to start a conversation, to say, “Pete, I’ve noticed that you’re often sending me emails at 7:30 asking for information. Oh, that’s no problem. I love doing it for you, but…” okay, maybe not quite as revolting as that.

“But how about I have sight of your diary. Once a week, you can show me what meetings you’ve got coming up and then I can make sure I schedule time to get all that information from you?” So, “I’ve noticed…” is a really nice way to talk about someone’s behavior and how you want it to change rather than making it personal.

So, I think that’s a conversation-starter to say, “How can we do this and get a bit more organized?” because crazy busy people are a real problem for everybody else, because they’re multitasking, they’re always missing deadlines, everything at the last minute, they’re perfectionists often so that slows things down because perfectionists are more likely to procrastinate. They cause problems for everybody else, so we almost need to learn how to have conversations with crazy busy people so we’re not crazy busy by default. It’s not pushed down the chain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, let’s say we’ve done all those things masterfully in terms of we’ve gotten clarity on what’s important and who’s important, and pushed back effectively on, “I’m not going to that meeting. I’ve noticed this behavior. I’m going to schedule some time to do these things.” If we’ve tamed the external world, what are some of the top things we got to focus in on with our internal world?

Zena Everett
Okay, I’ve gone on the external world. Often, when I talk to people about what sucks up their time the most, they talk about emails and messages; so emails, meetings, and messages, systems, processes, inter-team communication, networking, so I just add to your list. I would usually encourage people to have a talk about internal communication, like, “Can we stop emailing each other? Can we just talk? Can we go and have lunch and get all this dealt with rather than, again, this kind of James Joyce stream of consciousness all day?”

I think our internal world is often that people-pleasing, those messages we’ve internalized, “If you work harder than everybody else, you’ll do well,” the stuff. We look at maybe our parents, caregivers, people from our early lives that we’ve observed, they worked incredibly hard, they’ve done well. Actually, the world is slightly different now. It’s the thinking that makes the difference. It’s the creativity, it’s the innovation, it’s the space to lead, it’s time to think for us.

So, I think we’ve got to realize that, actually, the whole MO for getting us to a certain level in our careers has to shift when we want additional responsibility because we can’t run around like a headless chicken looking stressed. So, I think it’s some real self-talk about, again, like I said, Marshall Goldsmith is, “What got me there,” I love that expression, “won’t get me here,” thinking, “What does a high-performer in my organization look like? What are people saying about me? Am I giving off a vibe that I take it all in my stride, I’ve got capacity for other people? And have I got time to network?”

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I think that’s so important for career success, and I’ve heard you talk about this. I think people who got their heads down in their job and not networking, they’re not saying, “Pete, what are you working on? That sounds really interesting. Let’s have a chat about it. Let’s grab a coffee,” they’re not just reaching out. They’ve got their heads down, and, actually, in most organizations that I work in, those aren’t the people that do well.

The people that do well have got their heads up and they’re visible and they’re picking very carefully the projects that they get involved in because they want to be seen to come up with the gamechangers. But our brains fight against this, and it can be in our DNA just to do lots of busy stuff. And then there’s all the real kind of mother hen managers, I talk about in the book, that are the ones that are…they remember everyone’s birthday, they do all the emotional labor, they’re collecting the cups after the meetings.

They’re doing other people’s work for them because they don’t want to share out across the team because they’re worried that their colleagues are too busy, all that kind of stuff. And, actually, they’re the ones that crash and burn. They simply don’t get promoted.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Those are some good flags and watchouts there. Yes, I think I’ve noticed that as well as those with their heads up and around and aware, being thoughtful and selective, and networked and building relationships, do often seem to be advancing better than those who have their head down. And, I guess I’m an extrovert, but it sounds like more fun to me as well in terms of how you’re operating. So, you mentioned self-talk, are there some key mantras or I guess maybe cognitive distortions to tackle head on or how do we get our heads right?

Zena Everett
Well, I’m a bit of a “Just don’t do it” person. I think people really have to learn to say no to stuff, and that’s a big…like, we’ve just talked about. But, actually, even if they’re not saying no to somebody else, just think, “It’s really tempting for me to read that, get involved in that, but, actually, that’s not a priority. My time is finite,” so I think that’s important.

The voice that I want my clients to hear from me, “Why am I doing that? What’s my highest and best use here?” And the way that we manage our money, that idea of best use of treasury, is the same thing, “What is the highest and best use of my time? What is it that only I can do?” It’s a great question if you’re a manager, “Out of everything I can do, what should I be doing? What is it that only I can do on my team? And that’s where I should be adding the most value because that’s my greatest contribution to the business.”

So, I think those are the kind of reflective questions that we need to go through, “And why am I doing this? If this is my hourly rate, why am I doing this? Shouldn’t somebody be doing it?” We know when people are supposed to be more strategic and not get involved in the weeds. Sometimes that’s a bit scary because they think, again, I’m talking about guilt a lot.

But that can almost feel indulgent, couldn’t it? I’m really thinking about this kind of stuff where it’s actually, “Should I just be on the phone or getting involved in this kind of bring stuff to show that I’m willing,” but, actually, businesses want people they develop to spend more time being strategic and more time thinking. So, that can be something that people really need to talk themselves into to think, “Look, this is okay. I might be right at the top of my comfort zone and really enjoying it, and it feels good.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, we’ve got some good tidbits here. I guess I’m curious, having worked with so many different coaching clients, can you share a couple of the approaches, tips, tools, interventions that have been just the most transformational and yet also easy?

Zena Everett
Okay, I’m thinking about this. I love the whole towering strengths exercise which, again, is from Marshall. I’m doing PR for Marshall Goldsmith, it seems like.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we had him on the show recently. He’ll appreciate the reverberation there. So, let’s talk about that.

Zena Everett
So, he has a great exercise where you work out what your towering strengths are. So, that could be, “I’m a really hard worker,” and then what happens when that goes into overdrive, “Right. Well, actually, I’m a complete control freak. I really don’t like to leave anything not done exactly right. I don’t want any loose ends.”

So, when my towering strengths have been super hardworking, when it goes into overdrive, means that I just throw myself at everything in. I don’t stop and think, “I think hard work is going to get me through.” So, the towering strength versus overdrive exercise is really helpful because our towering strength is often what creates a kind of glass ceiling for us later on in organizations because that becomes the problem.

So, maybe, I mean, you and I work for ourselves. I know my towering strength is that I’m pretty strong, I’m very independent. When, actually, that towering strength goes into overdrive, it means that I can be a little bit slow in saying, in asking for help and getting support because I always think I can figure everything out on my own. So, that’s an exercise that I think can be really interesting for people.

And then I do love all those magic questions. If you went back into work tomorrow and everything was fantastic, what would be different? I think that tends to shift people because they say, “I’m stuck and I don’t know,” but you just kind of take them to the sunny opens and get them to look back, then they come up with ideas.

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

Zena Everett
Yeah. So, any kind of Productivity 101 is about scheduling. If it’s not scheduled, it doesn’t happen. So, I get people to pimp their calendars because our calendars are full of meetings, and full of calls but they don’t have tasks in there. So, I get them to understand their priorities, which is the P, to insert into their schedules, it’s got to be meaningful, the M in PIMP, because otherwise they’ll let somebody bump up their tasks and take priority.

And then the final P in PIMP is for prompts, which we know that people have got to have a prompt so that they don’t have…to remove the element of choice, “So, I finish doing this meeting. I’m going to put the kettle on, make a coffee, and then I’m going to go straight in and do that, write that bit of report, or whatever it is, for an hour. I’m going to set myself a timer and do it,” to remove as many options as possible.

So, I make people pimp their schedules, and actually schedule tasks in so that we feel that we have some greater sense of control because what I’ve noticed with people is they’ve got no time for actual work. They’ve just got so many meetings, so many different demands that they’re doing. They don’t have time to actually stop and think and do some deep work, so that’s going to be scheduled. So, your antelopes have got to be scheduled and also your field mice.

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

Zena Everett
Well, I have to say I like, “Just don’t do it.” That really works for me. And I tend to think about that first, “Why am I doing this?” Yeah, so just don’t do it. That’s the opposite of “Just do it” that we attempted to do. I think a lot of brain, just doing it, causes organizational drag, “Why are we actually doing this?”

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

Zena Everett
I love Dunning-Kruger. Shall we talk about Dunning-Kruger?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Zena Everett
I love the Dunning-Kruger Effect which is a cognitive bias. So, a hapless criminal, I think in the ‘90s, went and robbed two banks with just lemon juice on his face. And he robbed one bank and then another one thinking that he’d never get caught because lemon juice is an invisible ink. And, of course, he was arrested swiftly.

So, Messrs. Dunning and Mr. Krueger, psychologists, thought, “How can somebody so hapless have so much confidence?” So, they discovered this thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, they did various research on students and realized that the people with the least ability had the most confidence, and vice versa. So, they call it Dunning-Kruger effect, so the less you know, the more confident you are.

And, of course, the opposite of Dunning-Kruger is that when somebody becomes an expert in something, sometimes they can have a bit of a confidence wobble because then they’re worried that, actually, they realize all the stuff that they don’t know because they’re benchmarking themselves against their peers who are other experts.

So, I see in mid-life that sometimes people have confidence wobbles, or they call it impostor syndrome, “All of a sudden, I was great at my job. And now I’m feeling a little bit hesitant and losing confidence.” So, I love telling them about Dunning-Kruger, “Actually, that’s really good because you just realized you know what you don’t know.” So, I’m a bit anti all this stuff, particularly, thanks to all kinds of stereotypes, but there’s lots of coaching for women around the impostor syndrome, “Oh, just relax about that. Don’t put yourself in those situations.”

I say to my clients, “That’s great if you’re feeling like an impostor. That shows that you’re really pushing something, you’re doing something new, but it’s also that you’re just realizing that maybe you need a little bit more preparation time to really feel confident. You need to put some more hours in but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep on going.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And a favorite book?

Zena Everett
Okay. So, I’m a big fan of Alan Weiss. I love his Million Dollar Consulting book, I love his Money Talks, I love his kind of raw ambition and confidence and aspiration. I think it’s great. I recommend his books frequently. So, he’s talking about this whole idea about charging for what you’re worth.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool?

Zena Everett
I don’t think I have a favorite tool. In fact, I’m quite nervous about people who like a software for everything because I think a whiteboard, where you map your projects with some really good Sharpies and some great Post-It notes so you’ve got visual management is a fantastic tool. So, there you go, an old-fashioned whiteboard where I can actually see it. That really works for me. I’m neurotypical. I’m much more visual than I am, so give me a whiteboard and a spreadsheet any day, though I think that works.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Zena Everett
I’d like to come up with some great productivity habit. I’m very motivated by a great cup of coffee, so that’s my favorite reward. Rewarding myself with a good cup of coffee.

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

Zena Everett
“Why am I doing this?”

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

Zena Everett
My website is ZenaEverett.com, and I send out a monthly article on productivity and career success. So, if people want that, they can either sign up for my website or just drop me an email and we’ll add them to our system.

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

Zena Everett
Work out what your antelopes are and make sure that your diary reflects your priorities, not other people’s.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Zena, it’s been a pleasure. I wish much luck and very little crazy busyness.

Zena Everett
Thank you. You, too.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Donna

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

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

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

Resources Mentioned

Donna McGeorge Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Six hundred percent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
You’re really selling Australia, Donna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study?

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right. A favorite habit?

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

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

Donna McGeorge
Just a piece of paper.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Thomas

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

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

Resources Mentioned

 

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Thomas Curran Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Neither good nor bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Maura

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

 

Resources Mentioned

Maura Thomas Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, fun.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Maura Thomas
All of us, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
OmniFocus is my favorite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maura Thomas
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Five cues? Tell me more, Maura.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Synergize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
The inbox is not for storing.

Maura Thomas
The inbox is not for storing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maura Thomas
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Good. How about a favorite quote?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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