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682: How to Boost Your Results through Extreme Productivity with Robert Pozen

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Robert Pozen shares his key tips for effective prioritization and how you can make meetings easier.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The schedule hack for efficient prioritization
  2. The system to make your email work for you
  3. How to say “no” to a meeting 

About Robert

Robert C. Pozen teaches at MIT Sloan School of Management, where he offers courses to executives on personal productivity. He was president of Fidelity Investments and executive chair of MFS Investment Management, and served as a senior official in both federal and state government. His seven books include Extreme Productivity, a top-rated business title that has been translated into 10 languages. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, and was on the editorial board of the Yale Law Journal. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. 

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Robert Pozen Interview Transcript

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

Robert Pozen
Glad to be with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. So, I understand you spent some time doing some sports hall of fame work. Any cool stories there?

Robert Pozen
Yeah. Well, I was a member of the board of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts where we helped raise money to put together a new Hall of Fame, which is really great, a lot of interactive features, and really great stuff that lots of kids really like. Probably the most interesting part of that is when I was in the induction ceremony.

We have an induction ceremony every year, and there was, my wife came to the first one, and she said, “Gee, I’m the smallest person by a long shot here,” because everyone was like 6’6”, 6’7”, 6’9” so that was a lot of fun. The other thing is when we sat as a board, we sat in alphabetical order, and I happen to sit next to Oscar Robertson in a lot of meetings, and he was really fantastic.

He was one of the few players to hit a triple double. So, he was really one of my idols. In fact, I wrote a little poem about Oscar Robertson, which tried to convey what it would feel like if you’re listening to a basketball game with the Cincinnati Royals where he was playing. And one of his teammates was Bockhorn. So, would you like to hear the poem?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Robert Pozen
“Robertson, Robertson, Robertson.
Robertson, Robertson, Robertson.
Robertson, Robertson, Robertson.
Bockhorn, Robertson.”

So, that’s the poem to convey the sense of how dominant he was in the game. So, it’s a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
A poetic master at work. And you’ve also written some prose in the non-fiction world. I want to hear a little bit about Remote, Inc. and Extreme Productivity. Let’s start with Remote, Inc. Can you tell us, what would you say is one of your biggest surprise discoveries as you were researching and putting together these insights?

Robert Pozen
I think one of the biggest surprises was how much more work it takes for managers of remote teams to really manage effectively. A lot of people think, “Well, if you’re managing a remote team, there’s not as much to do because you’re not seeing these people as much,” but that’s just the opposite. You have to work a lot harder to manage your teams when they’re remote. You’ve got to work a lot harder to keep their spirits up, to give them guidance, and to give them regular feedback. So, that’s a very different result than I thought when I started to research the book.

Pete Mockaitis
And are there a couple best practices you’d point to that show folks doing that super well?

Robert Pozen
Yeah. So, one best practice is to have a weekly meeting of your team. Now, a lot of people have that but we want to see that meeting be forward-looking rather than backward-looking. And a lot of weekly meetings are just reporting on the activities that you’ve had so that doesn’t really get you that far. We want everybody to say what are they planning to do for the next week so members of the team can input their suggestions, can give them context, and really help them to be more effective for the coming weeks.

Now, the second practice is we’d like to see team managers have one-on-ones with every member of the team every week. Because when people are remote, they’re feeling somewhat isolated, they’re not that integrated into the team, they’re a little worried. Some of them might be suffering from loneliness or even depression. So, having the manager speak to them, if only for half an hour a week, makes a big difference.

The third thing is performance reviews. I’ve always been against the annual performance review where it’s a formal sit-down and there’s usually a document, which is formulated and then filed and never seen again. What we want to see is to have periodic feedback, not one big performance review. So, you want to have periodic feedback after every large project, and at least once a quarter. And that’s really important when people are working remotely. They really need that feedback, they need that guidance, and having it on a regular basis is really critical.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, how about some tips when you’re not in the position of team leader?

Bob Pozen
So when someone works remotely, they ought to have a different mindset. They ought not to think of themselves as an employee who takes instructions and detailed directions from their boss. They ought to think of themselves as a business of one. And by that we mean that they should think of themselves as if they’re a small business owner, which they own their own resources and time.

And that implies that the relationship with their boss is one of a client, and not an underling, so they ought to treat their boss as their client and agree with the boss on what their deliverables are, and the boss obviously has to set them. But then, once there’s an agreement on deliverables, it’s up to the employee when and where and how the work gets done. And so, that autonomy that really helps people be more productive and more satisfied.

And we try to operationalize this in what we call success metrics. That is when you have this discussion with your boss about what he or she wants you to do, you then try to operationalize it in success metrics, saying, “At the end of the week, or the month, or whatever the project is, how are we going to know whether we’re successful?” So, we want people to agree on those success metrics because if there’s an agreement on success metrics, three really good things happen.

First is there’s a clarification of what we mean by the objectives of the project. If you take a project, say, like improve customer service, people can have very different ideas about what that means. But when you have to take that general idea and make it into success metrics, then the team and the boss get tremendous clarity on what they mean and what they’re supposed to be doing.

Second of all, when you have success metrics, you can avoid having the boss micromanaging because the boss then has comfort that at the end of the period, there’s going to be these success metrics so we’re going to know whether they achieve something. Most bosses are a little uncomfortable with remote work because they’re worried about accountability, and success metrics provides that accountability.

And the third thing is that once you have success metrics, then you have the freedom to work when and where and how you want, because as long as you’re producing those success metrics, then you’re okay. And it’s that autonomy, as I’ve said before, that really produces, that helps people become much more productive and much more satisfied with their job.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. Well, then sort of zooming out beyond just the world of working remotely, you’ve done lots of work helping folks become more productive or even have extreme levels of productivity. Can you share with us, what are some of the most useful solutions that folks in your audiences come back again and again, and say, “Wow, this made all the difference”?

Robert Pozen
Well, one thing we ask people to do is to be very explicit about setting their priorities and then integrating them into their daily schedules. Now, people say, “How do I integrate them into…?” your daily schedule. So, we suggest a two-sided schedule. On the left-hand side, you have the typical schedule where people put their meetings, their phone appointments, their other things. But then, on the right side, we want them to put, “What do they hope to get out of this meeting? What do they hope to get out of this phone call?”

So, people have told me that this is really useful because it helps them focus on what they really should be getting out of all these appointments, otherwise they can go through a whole day, and they come home, and they say to their spouse or partner, “I’ve worked really hard but I don’t know whether I have accomplished anything.” What that really means is they’ve been passive, they’ve accepted other people’s meetings, other people’s emails, they’ve responded to them, and they really haven’t been pursuing their own priorities. So, that’s one big thing.

A second thing that people like a lot is what we call OHIO, only handle it once. We talk about how you handle messages, and we strongly urge that you filter out a large number of messages, and that you skip over a lot of messages by just looking at the subject matter and the person who sent it to you. But then we stress that if there’s an important message, one from an important person, like your boss or your spouse or the IRS, we stress that you need to answer it right then and there if you can.

And that turns out to be a very important practice because if you don’t answer an important email right then and there, you put it in sort of a holding pattern or a holding box, before you know it, you have a hundred of those. And then if you go back to find it, it may take you half an hour or even more to find the important message that you’ve sort of let slip, and worse, you’ll forget about the message altogether and you won’t answer it. So, by using OHIO, only handle it once, that forces you to answer those important messages right then and there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to dig a little deeper on each of these. So, when it comes to that two-sided agenda and, “What do you hope to gain from this meeting or phone call?” could you give us some example articulations of that? Because I imagine, it’d be quite possible to have some answers to that question that are a little bit soft or weak, and not quite as helpful, like, “Oh, we’ll just kind of see where we’re at. Touch base.”

Robert Pozen
Well, those would be good examples of almost non-goals or non-priorities. So, suppose you were a member of a team, and you’re working on a project, and you were a little up in the air as to how much budget you’re allowed to spend in the next month on this project. So, if you had a meeting with your project leader, you might write down in the two-sided schedule, “Nail down exactly how much budget we have for the next month.” So, that would be an example of something where you really were focusing on your priority.

Pete Mockaitis
And what I like about that is when you’ve determined, “This is my purpose. This is the goal. Nail down the budget,” like if that was sort of generally floating in your head, like, “Oh, yeah, that’s probably one of the things we should talk about,” one, you might not get to it, and, two, you might not be nearly aggressive enough to get it in terms of like, “Hey, so what’s our budget?” Like, “Oh, yeah. Well, we’re kind of figuring that out. We’re talking to the finance and accounting guys.”

And then if you said, “Well, no, this is the one thing I want from the meeting,” you’re more likely, I’d imagine, to ask those follow-ups, like, “Okay. So, when will you have that for me?” and/or, “Well, so I’m about to spend a hundred grand tomorrow, is that okay?” And then you’ve got something even if it’s not the entirety that you’re hoping for.

Robert Pozen
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And the other beauty of having to put down your priority, what you’re trying to accomplish in a meeting, is that you might say, “Well, now that I understand this meeting and what’s on the agenda, I shouldn’t go there because I don’t have any priority to achieve,” not, “There’s nothing important happening for me.” And that leads to a whole discussion about how you might go about treating meetings and dealing with them more productively.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really want to talk about effective meetings shortly, but before we lose it, you mentioned filtering out messages in email. Is there a piece of software, or a tool you use, or a protocol? How do you do that filtering well?

Robert Pozen
Well, I use keywords, and unsubscribe is a good example of a keyword. So, if there’s an unsubscribe in the email, then that goes into my newsletter file because those are almost all newsletters. And another keyword is if somebody’s talking about a political contribution, so that goes into a separate file, and those files, I tend to empty and not really spend any time with.

So, you can use Google, you can use any of the typical software, but the key is to figure out the right keywords that will really focus the system and will help allocate the emails to the right folders.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I guess there’s like a split inbox or like an auto-labeling or moving thing going on.

Robert Pozen
Correct. Exactly. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. Okay. Cool. Well, so, yeah, we talked about priorities, I guess that’s a big question. So, how does one arrive at priorities? And I guess this is kind of like, “What’s the meaning of life?” But maybe in terms of like a daily, weekly, monthly basis, how do you recommend guiding the difficult thinking, decision-making process by which you determine, “Aha, yes, this is the priority and this is not so much a priority?”

Robert Pozen
Well, I like to ask people to just start by setting out their annual goals and then writing them into different segments. So, you want to talk about your professional goals, those for your own professional development, and those for your team or organization, and you also want to talk about your personal goals, and you want to write them down and deal with them systematically.

But then I think those goals set a framework and you have to bring them back to your week. So, what I’d like to do is to ask people, on a Sunday night, just sit down, or sometimes during the weekend, and try to think about, “What are going to be the things that I really want to accomplish this week?” and to put a list of must-dos together, and then have other lower priorities. So, that’s the sort of methodology that I think you need to use.

You got to start with the big picture, but then you got to bring it down to your week, and distinguish carefully between the must-dos and the nice-to-dos. And then, every night, I want people to sit down and revise that list in light of what they’ve been able to do, what’s come up new, and what they’ve learned so they might revise that for the next day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very nice. And how do you recommend, when you’re communicating no to someone, either for a meeting that you realized you don’t need to be there for, or for a request? Do you have any favorite ways of saying no?

Robert Pozen
Well, I think in terms of meetings, what I like to do is to ask people, “What’s your agenda for the meeting? Please send me the agenda before I decide whether I need to go.” So, some people will never send you an agenda so that suggests there is an easy way to get out of the meeting because they never sent you the agenda.

Then other people would send you an agenda, and there would be nothing really on the agenda that was really important for them, for you, so you would say to them, “Look, I’ve looked at your agenda, and I don’t think that these are going to really be critical to my priorities, so let me skip this and I’ll be glad to look at the notes of the meeting, and see where there’s anything that’s come up.”

A third possible thing is when people send you for a meeting, to say, “I’ll be glad to go to this meeting but in order for me to be effective, I really need to have a list, for instance, of contractors if we’re going to discuss contractors.” Or, “I really need to see some numbers about this product, or the product launch, before I go to the meeting.”

And so, that’s where you just sort out whether somebody’s really going to be serious about the meeting and help you have an effective meeting, or they’re just not going to respond to you, and then, again, you can sidestep the meeting because they haven’t provided what you’ve told them is really important information.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, Bob, when you use the language, “My priorities…” I’m imagining a response along the lines of being a team player, it’s like, “Well, Bob, this might not be in alignment with your priorities but, really, all of us are altogether trying to accomplish X, Y, Z.” How do you think about that dance and that balance in terms of…?

Robert Pozen
Well, that’s a fair question, and I think you could say, in response, is, “Okay, let’s discuss what the team’s priorities are and how this meeting is going to further them. And then if I can understand how this meeting really furthers the team’s priorities in a way that I can add value, I’d be glad to attend.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good deal. And, let’s say, when we’re actually in the meeting, it is upon us, what are some of your top tips on having those meetings being engaging and meaningful?

Robert Pozen
Well, I think it’s important to distinguish between whether you’re leading the meeting or whether you’re just attending the meeting. If you’re leading the meeting, it’s incumbent upon you to realize that the key to meetings are discussion and debate, and not just droning on with lots of PowerPoint. So, you need to keep your initial remarks down to, say, 10 minutes, and use those 10 minutes to really key up, “These are the issues that we’re going to be focused on today, and this is what we hope to accomplish.” So, that’s how you begin the meeting.

Second is you ought to really promote discussion and debate by going around and asking people for their opinion. I usually suggest that people start with the more junior members at the table because if the most senior person talks, they might feel a little intimidated and not want to talk or disagree with them. So, that’s a second thing.

A third thing is that you got to have good closure in a meeting, and you’ve got to sort of say, “Well, this is what we’ve decided, and here are the next steps. Here are the people who are going to be responsible for the next steps and here are the timeframes.”

Now, if you’re attending a meeting and those things don’t happen, you could say, for instance, if somebody starts on 40 PowerPoints and they’re just taking up all the time for the meeting by going through PowerPoints, you might say politely at some point, “Well, that’s great. We’ve really learned a lot. But are there some issues that you would really like us to discuss, we have some input in?” So, that would be a way to stop somebody from going through 40 PowerPoints.

Similarly, at the end of the meeting, there are lots of meetings that end inconclusively. So, you could say toward the end of the meeting, “Well, this has been a great meeting. I think we’ve decided X, Y, Z but it seems like we still have to resolve A, B, C. Let’s talk about that. Let’s focus on that.” So, that’s how you, as a participant in a meeting, can really move it in the right direction.

Last thing that’s really important about meetings is that they not last too long. There’s a lot of evidence that people who go to back-to-back video meetings, as is true in a lot of people when they’re working remotely, they wind up with Zoom fatigue, they wind up not focusing, they become very unproductive. So, I’d like to see organizations say no video meetings will last more than 45 minutes so there’s at least a 15-minute break in there when people can get away from the screen, maybe have something to eat, go to the men’s room or ladies’ room if necessary, and really relax a little.

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

Robert Pozen
Okay. Well, I want to talk about how people are going back to work in a hybrid environment and what that means and how companies ought to deal with that because that’s really what a lot of them are going through now. So, I think that most people, when our survey say, they don’t want to go, in the future, to be all remote and they don’t want to be all in person. They want a form of a hybrid.

And so, most organizations are struggling now with how to design that for a hybrid. And in the book, Remote, Inc. we suggest a variety of factors that you need to look at, and we have a little acronym called FLOCS, to sort of summarize those factors. So, one, probably the most important is the function. What’s the nature of work that you’re doing? How much of it is collaborative? How much of it involves brainstorming? Those would suggest that you ought to do more in person in the office. Versus, “How much of the work involves extended periods of concentration?” So, that would suggest that you should spend more time at home.

A second factor is location, the obvious thing. Some companies have most of their people around one metropolitan area so it’s a lot easier for them to come back in person. But more and more companies are scattered throughout the United States, so it doesn’t really make sense to come to the office if there’s nobody else there. So, you might have satellite offices or you might have things where people come in just a few days.

A third thing is organizational structure. So, some organizations are built more on individual work and others are built more on teams. If they’re built more on teams, that suggests they ought to be in the office. A fourth factor is culture. So, a lot of the senior executives I’ve talked to are very worried that if people don’t come back in the office enough, they’ll lose their company culture, and I think that’s correct.

And that’s why I think even companies that are spread around the country ought to have several weeks in the year where people come together. And I think it’s especially important for onboarding new people because that’s the way that they learn what the culture is. They can’t just read a mission statement. Every company has a nice-sounding mission statement but they really need to figure out what’s the actual culture.

And a fifth factor is S, scheduling, making sure that the team comes in on the same days. If you have a team, you want them to come in all on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You don’t want some people coming on different days.

So, the other question that people ask me a lot in terms of designing a hybrid is, “Should the individual’s wishes be paramount or it should be organization’s issues be paramount?” And my answer is straightforward, the team is the critical variable.
So, if you look through these five factors, you might come up with a very different answer for each of the teams. So, we should try to recognize individual wants as much as we can but, ultimately, the team’s needs should predominate.

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

Robert Pozen
One of the favorite quotes that I have is, “Let’s make a new mistake.” And by that, I mean it’s okay to make a mistake, it’s okay to, in good faith, to have something go wrong. But the key is, when that happens, to set things up so that they don’t happen again, to take preventative action. So, that’s what I say, “Let’s make a new mistake,” meaning let’s not make the same mistake over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

Robert Pozen
Well, one of my favorite books is by an economist named Amartya Sen who wrote about famines in the third world. And what he showed was that a lot of famines didn’t come about because there wasn’t enough food. They came about because of the political, social structure which didn’t allow for the best distribution. So, I found it really revealing that these terrible famines, many of them could’ve been avoided, if we had better political and social economic structure. It wasn’t just a question of not having enough food.

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

Robert Pozen
Well, one of the things that I do is I take a nap every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too.

Robert Pozen
I take a short nap, a power nap. And so, I really believe in those power naps. So, some time in the afternoon, when my body temperature goes down, I take a nap. And I find that just by, I carry a blindfold when I travel, so I just put my feet up, put my blindfold on, and before I know it, I take a 20- or 25-minute nap, and it re-energizes me for the rest of the day. So, I’m a strong believer in naps.

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

Robert Pozen
There are two websites. One is BobPozen.com that has all my articles and books. And then we have a new website for the Remote book, which is RemoteIncBook.com. So, that’s another place that they can do that.

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

Robert Pozen
Yeah, I think the real challenge for people is to stay focused on what’s most important to them. And I think a lot of people haven’t really sorted that out. They haven’t really figured out what are the biggest priorities that they have, what are the highest priorities that they have. And then, second of all, to stay focused during the day and during the week on those top priorities.

A lot of people engage in various types of behaviors that, say, procrastination is a good example where they avoid what is really important to them and so they don’t get it accomplished. And I’d say, more generally, people need to think carefully before they start to do things, and spend the time up front in really thinking through why they’re doing it and what they’re doing.

For instance, I teach a course at MIT on personal productivity, and we give people a reading, a diagnostic test, and there’s huge difference. Some people read this article in three or four minutes. Other people take 14 or 15 minutes. And it turns out, the difference is the people who read faster and effectively have thought clearly about what they’re trying to get out of this reading, and then they read for that. They don’t try to read every word. What they’re trying to do is read for their purpose whatever their purpose is.

And, similarly, I’m a speedwriter. I was asked from time to time to write an article for the Harvard Business Review. And when I wrote an article and submitted it, the editor-in-chief said to me, “You’re the only person we have who hands in his or her articles on time and within the word limit, and it seems like you have two jobs. You’re working in the investment industry and you’re teaching a full load. So, we’d like to know what your secret sauce is.”

Bob Pozen
The key is to use outlines so you can think clearly, what’s the logic of your argument. A lot of people try to write without outlines but it’s a big mistake because writing is two different processes, thinking and then translating. And outline is the way in which you think through the logic in your argument. And once you get that down, then you can translate a lot better.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool. Well, now I’m curious. If you’re a huge advocate for outlining, and you are best in class at delivering the goods in terms of on-time and within the word limit and being a hit, any extra detail you’d like to share associated with how you think about an outline really well?

Robert Pozen
Well, if we want to think about writing in an outline, the first thing you got to do is let yourself put down on a piece of paper all the ideas that you have for the article or the memo, whatever you’re going to write, and let yourself just put them all down. A lot of people get stuck because they’re not willing to put those articles, those ideas down. They get some sort of block. So, if you just put them down and you’re not worried about any particular order, that helps.

The second thing you do is you group the ideas into the natural groupings. And so, that helps you in the third thing, which is you order them logically. You take the groups and put them in a logical order. And then the fourth thing is you always want to write for good readers. So, you want to start with an introduction that tells the reader, “Why you’re going to be interested in reading this,” and then gives the reader what I call a roadmap that says what the structure of the article or the memo is going to be. And then you want to write a good conclusion.

So, that’s the key to writing outlines is start with just lots of ideas; group them, number two; put them in a logical order, three; and then, four, put them in a format that’s good for the readers.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you do an outline, kind of what kind of depth are you shooting for in terms of is it simply, “Hey, I’ve got five top-level things and then like three sort of second-level things under each of them”? Or, how do you know when you’re like, “Yup, this outline is sufficient”?

Robert Pozen
Well, it depends on what you’re writing. If you’re writing a two- or three-page memo, which is what most people write in business, then usually if you can just have five points, that will be enough to guide you through. If you’re writing a more academic piece, then you might have to have the same five points but lots of subheads so that you’ll know how to develop it.

But I actually try to write most outlines on one page because you want the line of argument to be really clear, and so you want to have it in a very succinct form on one page. So, that’s sort of the way I’d strongly urge the people do it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Bob, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you all the best in your extreme productivity and your remote adventures.

Robert Pozen
It’s great meeting you, Pete.

655: Building Better Habits via Better Systems with Most Days’ Brent Franson

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Brent Franson shares tactics and tools for building powerful habits based on his experiences of being surrounded by addiction.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How Brent leveraged technology to break his bad habits
  2. The keystone habit of behavioral change
  3. How to stay motivated even when you fail

 

About Brent

Brent Franson is the Founder and CEO of Most Days, an app backed by science, built to help you understand what you need to do to improve your life and achieve change.

Previously, he was on the founding team of Reputation.com, the worldwide leader in online reputation management. Reputation.com was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.

Brent was also the CEO of Euclid Analytics, a leader in retail data and analytics. Under his leadership, Euclid was acquired by WeWork in 2019.

Brent has been named a LinkedIn Top Voice, and has regularly contributed to Forbes, LinkedIn, Inc, Entrepreneur, and other publications. Brent is a father, and an athlete who enjoys his routine, reading, running, skiing, skydiving, and anything that involves pushing his own boundaries.

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

Thank you, sponsors!

Brent Franson Interview Transcript

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

Brent Franson
Yeah, thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I am eager to dig into your wisdom. And you have an interesting backstory that kind of informs, inspires, motivates the work you’re currently doing with your app Most Days. Can you share it with us?

Brent Franson
Yeah, certainly. So, I’m from Boulder, Colorado. I’m the oldest of four, we’re all within five years. And Boulder was this very fertile ground for me when I was young. I was most likely to succeed in eighth grade and I was the Winter Ball King, it’s kind of lame suburban accolades. And then my sophomore year in high school, my parents got divorced, and they were both very distracted with that.

And so, they’re going to be multiple versions of a story like this but, basically, what happened was I started rebelling and a lot of the parental supervision just changed pretty dramatically. And what happened was all of the kids in our friend group and in the neighborhood, who had similar issues, had things going on at home, had parents who weren’t around as much, they ended up spending a lot of time in the home. Some of them actually moved into the home full time.

And so, it turned into a little bit a Lord of the Flies situation where everybody was fending for themselves. And I wish I could say it turned out well; it didn’t. It, ultimately, has a good story but I rebelled in a very, very aggressive way. I ended up being kicked out of the public high school that I was going to in Boulder. I was sent on court mandate, basically, to a boarding school in New Hampshire. My parents had said, “Hey, if he gets sent away somewhere where he can kind of get better in dealing with the things, dealing with the acting up.”

So, I went to this tiny boarding school in central New Hampshire. I was kicked out of that boarding school during my, what was effectively my second senior year, so I was forced to repeat it. And in that group and in my family and kind of as for many of us, what happened around us was there was a lot of coping with the situation and coping with the changing environment.

And so, I’ve seen a lot of addiction, an addiction of all kinds. I’ve dealt with, I don’t identify as an addict, but I’ve dealt with a lot of kind of unhealthy habits that have hurt my life at various points. And then, also, in being surrounded in a bunch of different ways by addiction, I’ve seen the flip side of it. I have a lot of people around me who have many years or a decade or more of sobriety.

And what this whole story, and what this whole set of experiences has really taught me was the power of behavior change. I really became familiar with the behavior change, frameworks and addiction. Addiction is really interesting because the negative consequences of addiction are caused by repeating an unhealthy behavior over and over again. And then the cure, and cure is the wrong word, but the way out of addiction is to change that behavior. So, there are some pills but it’s largely not…you don’t take a prescription for it. It’s not a surgery. You’ve got to change the way that you’re living your life. You got to change the way that you’re coping. You’ve got stop repeating that behavior over and over again.

And so, this set of experiences has led me to the business that I’m running today. But, more importantly, I think, being really focused on understanding how can behavior, or how can the things that we do most days, there are a lot of things that it’s hard to do every day, how are the things that we’re doing most days, how can those improve the quality of our lives, the length of our lives. And then coming off of the background experience in which you see how much it can, you know, doing the wrong things every day can really hurt your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s an interesting sort of backdrop starting point. And I want to zoom in a bit on, so, in between then and now, you’ve had some pretty stellar successes in terms of software business leadership and exits and all that sort of thing. You’re really making it happen in the business world in terms of you were most likely to succeed. The prophecy proved true in terms of you’ve had a great deal of success.

So, can you share where and when and how did you get yourself into a behavioral groove that was really supporting you in such that you were starting to see some really great results in terms of your behaviors and the results that flowed from them?

Brent Franson
I think it took me a long time. Really, the reality of what happened was I was a very heavy pot smoker in high school and early in my 20s. I’m 38 now. And in 2004, I went to rehab. I spent 30 days in a rehab for just trying to stop smoking marijuana.

And the 30 days in rehab was really good for me because I just struggled to stop on my own, and I completely stopped, I learned a bunch of skills at this rehab in Arizona, and then I completely changed my scenery. So, I had actually started a company when I was in high school and it’s still operating today, but I was back in Colorado after I’d dropped out of college and I was running this business and my environment really wasn’t working for me.

And so, I moved to Palo Alto in 2004-2005, which was a very good time to move. At that time, the epicenter of Silicon Valley, really, was Palo Alto, and so things really turned me for me then. This habit that was really plaguing me, I shed that. I still dealt with some substance dependencies after that so that wasn’t completely the end of it.

And then I just pulled myself out of an environment that wasn’t working for me and I plugged myself right into the middle of, basically, the best place you could be as a young aspiring entrepreneur in technology, which was Palo Alto in 2005. So, that was the turning point for my dark period for maybe 15 to 23. It’s been quite a different story since I made that move.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, tell us about the Google Sheets and the behaviors and the habits that you were cultivating. And how did that take root?

Brent Franson
Yeah, so what ended up happening was I picked up a bunch of habits for coping with things, for figuring out how to sleep, for just dealing, generally, with emotions during this tough period of my adolescence. And it became very clear to me that if I did a certain set of things, most days that I was in a good place, I was in a good headspace. When I didn’t do those things, I wasn’t.

And the tipping point for me and really building a system around this was I was the CEO of this venture-backed company I didn’t found called Euclid, and it was a stressful role and I was having trouble sleeping. And so, I started taking Klonopin which is for anxiety. It’s a benzo, it’s very addictive, but I was taking it just for a short period of time. It’s often prescribed similar to Xanax for short periods of time for anxiety.

And I realized it was hard for me to get off of it. It became very difficult to sleep without taking this Klonopin. And so, I went cold turkey. And it was very difficult to do. I lost a bunch of weight. I was really anxious, I couldn’t sleep, and my doctor didn’t really have any good advice for me.

And so, I spent a lot of time researching and figuring it out. Hey, I’ve seen this in my family. I dealt with it early in my 20s, I thought, “Hey, I don’t want to be dependent on a benzo like Klonopin.” And so, I found this thing called the Ashton Manual which is Dr. Heather Ashton is a pharmacologist in the UK who ran these benzo withdrawal clinics in the mid ‘90s. And to get off of benzos, what you need to do is you taper off as you do many of these. So, you reduce the amount that you’re taking very slowly.

But this one, particularly in the Ashton Manual says, “Okay, now, start. As you dial down on the Klonopin, increase something called Valium,” and then you’ll be off the Klonopin but you’re on a higher dose of Valium, and then you come off of the Valium and then you drop off of Valium and you’re off of both of them. And that is the smoothest way, basically, to get off of something that is hard to quit.

And that required this very strict daily regiment of, “Okay, here’s the amount I’m taking of the Klonopin and then the Valium,” and it’s all over a six-week period so I built this spreadsheet and started tracking what I was doing there. And, in addition to that, I started tracking meditating, working out, sleeping, and eventually the system got really crazy. I mean, today I track 45 different things that I do each day and have been for six years now.

Pete Mockaitis
Forty-five, that’s wild. And so then, can you share what are maybe just a few of the behaviors that make a world of difference and that are extra leverage?

Brent Franson
Well, I think getting the basics right. So, basically, the primary categories are going to be, well, we all know these categories: sleep, diet, exercise, community, and mindfulness. I think one thing that’s been key for me, and I don’t know how true this is in other circles, in the technology community for a long time, like bragging about how little you sleep was some rite of passage.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, man. Hustle.

Brent Franson
It’s like, “Yeah, I sleep five hours.” “Oh, I only sleep four hours.” And Bezos is very famous where he credits, hey, he sleeps eight hours every night, and that’s a big part of his ability to be productive. And so, I think over time you realize, “Okay, there are these five categories of things that I need to be focusing on and investing my time in,” and you realize which ones are more foundational.

If I sleep well, basically, I have more willpower. I’m more likely to exercise, I’m more likely to meditate, I’m more likely to engage in productive relationships with my family. I’m less likely to create friction in my relationships, which eats up time and creates frustration. If I have even a small amount of alcohol, it’s likely to impact my sleep which impacts the willpower, and the cycle continues.

And so, I think there’s all of the basics in terms of those five categories. And then there are some things I think that are less obvious. Every day, I have a voice memo that I’ve record, so I record a new one every four to six weeks or something, and it’s four or five affirmations that I say to myself. So, things that I’m trying to work on, things that are getting at me. So, I tend to be somebody who wants to please people, and so one of the affirmations is, “You don’t need to rescue people. You don’t always need to say yes.”

And so, I record myself saying these things, and then there’s a pause in between each statement that allows me to say the statement out loud after I hear it, and I do that four times in a row, and that’s remarkably effective at stomping out those patterns. I end up refreshing those voice memos every four to six weeks because you’re realizing, “Oh, I’m not engaging in the rescuing thing that I didn’t need to be doing or whatever it might be.” So, a lot of them are really standard and there are some random ones like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful in terms of like sometimes that’s how progress feels in terms of it’s not like, “Sweet victory,” but it’s like, “Oh, I guess this isn’t really necessary anymore. Cool.” And it’s just sort of like a quiet victory that happens just like that but something worthy of celebration nonetheless.

Brent Franson
Yeah, I think, generally, for me, one of the key insights, and this is something they talk a lot about in addiction, in addiction they say, “Progress not perfection, one day at a time.” And so, if you’re trying to change something about your life, if you’re trying to adapt a new behavior, you’re trying to lose weight, you’re trying to drink less, whatever it might be, trying to get up early and work out, self-compassion is really important. And the real change comes just a little bit at a time, and that compounds day over day.

And so, one of the things that was helpful for me, in the pot habit or I was a cigarette smoker in my early 20s, is this notion of, “Don’t quit quitting.” And so, you’re going to fail. If you’re trying to get up early and work out, and you’re not normally somebody who works out early, or you’re trying to quit smoking cigarettes or whatever it is, you’re not going to succeed right away. And, often, we fail at the thing, we don’t get up in the morning, we’d beat ourselves up, there’s a bad feeling associated with that, and then we dismiss it and we don’t continue.

And I think actually the skill you want to cultivate is this, “Hey, it’s okay. Tomorrow is a new day. I didn’t get up early this morning.” That’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up for it and see if you get there tomorrow. And if you go from not doing it at all to doing it once a week and then you’re doing it twice a week, and if in a year or two years, you’re now workout in the morning four days a week, who cares that the ramp was slow.

And so, I think don’t quit quitting, and so it’s more about getting back on the horse than it is how many times you fall off. Get good at just getting back on and not beating yourself up. And then the second, which I think is related, is focus on consistency over intensity. So, if you are somebody who doesn’t run and you want to start running, if you walk out the door with your running shoes on, count it. If you go around the block, count it.

And what’s going to happen is if you’re able to go around the block and you weren’t doing this at all before and, now, you’re doing it two times a week, three time a week, you’re going to start going two blocks, you’re going to start going three blocks. The length is going to come over time. The consistency is the hardest piece. And this is what we know about habits.

Really, a habit is kind of defined as something that you do subconsciously, that’s just automatic and you’re not thinking about it when you do it. So, when we try to adapt new habits, they’re hard because you’re going to proactively think about them. And so, if you build it in and you’re doing it consistently, even at a low intensity, the intensity will grow over time, they’ll become more and more automatic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And we talked about the self-compassion, I think that’s one thing. As soon as I saw your email, and your app is called Most Days, I was like, “That’s the perfect name.” So, what is the big idea behind Most Days?

Brent Franson
We’re building a platform where we’re trying to take everything that we know about behavior change and put it into one place. And so, there’s two primary pieces. So, no matter what you’re struggling with, and something like 97% of people have at least one health ailment. We all kind of have something.

And so, no matter what it is, there’s a set of things that you can be doing most days to improve the quality or length of your life.

And so, in Most Days, you can either create a routine or you can subscribe to an existing routine. So, we have routines for anxiety, depression, OCD, relationship, loneliness, stress and a whole bunch of different categories that are written by psychologists and neuroscientists primarily from schools here in California, from Berkeley and UCLA and Stanford. So, it’s a set of things you can do most days that are rooted in science to improve the quality of your life.

Or, you can just create your own. Like, my routine is I’ve got four or five routines on Most Days. I’m a father, I’ve got a parenting routine. I’ve just created them from scratch. I’ve been hacking on myself, trying to improve myself for the last 20 years. That’s then nested within a social network. And so, each day you mark “Yes” or “Not today.” We got feedback from our members that they didn’t feel good about saying “No,” and so we say “Not today,” which I think is great.

And then your yes responses are posted to a feed of people who follow you so you can be in single-player mode, you can follow other members of our community, you can invite a sibling or whatever, but it’s creating this peer-to-peer accountability, and we’re trying to drive the shame out of the product. So, celebrate the wins, let’s not shame anybody for the things that they’re not doing, and then tomorrow is a new day. And if you have a down day, you can improve the next day.

And then the final piece of the platform is just analytics to understand progress over time. So, one of the things we ask you each day is kind of “One to 10, how are you feeling?” And so, that gives us the ability to understand “What are the habits? What are the inputs? What are the things where you are investing in your own happiness and quality of life?” And then the output is like, “Oh, is it working?”

And so, the analytics allow you, “Okay, how are you doing on your habits? What percentage of time are you completing these?” And then we can start to connect the dots and show you, “Okay, here are the habits that are most tightly correlated with high quality of life, etc.” so you can start to get an understanding from the data of how those things are working.

And this is all modeled, I mean, loosely, off of what we see in addiction. And so, if you walk into an AA meeting, there’s going to be a plan, so there’s 12 steps in AA, you’re going to have a sponsor who’s telling you to do a certain set of things. That’s then nested within an environment that creates, that’s safe, and where you’ve got a lot of people who are on the same journey, who can share their experiences on the same journey, who can hold one another accountable, and that would be the meetings.

And then you’ve got an understanding of progress over time. Ask anybody who is kind of really active in their sobriety, and they’ll tell you down to the day how many days they’ve been sober. Even if they’ve been sober for 10 years, they’ll often be able to tell you down the day. And then they get little chips after 24 hours or 30 days or 30 years.

And so, we’re really trying to take everything that we know about behavior change and put it into one place. We’re early in our journey but that’s the basic thought behind what we’re trying to build.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And it’s cool. I use it, I dig it, and so, it’s a beautiful thing so thank you for putting that into the world. Well, so then let’s zoom in then in terms of when it comes to behavior change, we have a couple principles in terms of self-compassion and having some support and accountability, having a clear plan and tracking it. Can you maybe bring this to life with perhaps a couple case studies, stories, examples in terms of, “All right, hey, someone is looking to do something, and here’s what they did and how it worked”?

Brent Franson
One of the common things that we talk about and we’re hearing, if we’re talking about New Year’s Resolution. New Year’s Resolutions are interesting because they’re an interesting example of this because we’re starting with a goal and we’re not thinking about the system. So, I think the first key to think about in behavior change is, like, “What’s the system? How are you going to change the system of your life, the system of your behavior to support whatever the change is?”

And so, I’ll give you some simple examples. Like, for me, I had always heard this stat that you’re supposed to brush your teeth two minutes twice day, you’re supposed to be brushing your teeth for two minutes straight. And with a traditional toothbrush, for me, personally, that was hard. I just get bored. I have a short attention span and I just get bored after 30 or 40 seconds, if that.

And so, for me, and I’ve been doing this for a decade now, go buy a toothbrush with a timer and just walk around the house until the thing turns off. And so, I’ve got a Sonic here, the thing, it just buzzes for two minutes and then it turns off. And you almost immediately go, if you’re tracking the data of this brushing your teeth for 30 seconds to brushing your teeth for two minutes consistently.

Another example of this is addiction to the phone. One of the things that I spend as much time as I can is thinking about, “How am I a present partner? How am I a present father? How am I a present sibling?” etc. And the phones are just so crazy addictive, and so there’s a product called the kSafe which you can put your phone in a little like Tupperware container that has a lock with a timer that you can’t disable.

And so, for me, really the hardcore family time is 5:30 to 7:30. My daughter is four and a half, she kind of starts going to bed around 7:30. I put the phone in the safe, I can’t access the phone, so I’m not sitting around drawing on willpower at the end of the day to not grab the thing. I can’t unconsciously just pick it up and start looking at it. The thing is locked away. And I’m telling you, there’s something. As soon as it goes into that safe, that desire to look at it or the phantom buzzing that you can hear, all of that goes away because there’s just not a choice. The phone is locked away.

And so, I think another one that people talk about is if you want to get up and workout in the morning, put all of the clothes out and put your shoes right outside of the bed. Like, lower all of the friction to walking out of the door. And this is going to be different for everybody. There’s no one-size-fits-all. But I think it’s about thinking, “Okay, what system can I put in place that’s going to either make it easier for me not to do whatever behavior I’m trying to stop or it’s just going to make it easier for me to do the things I’m trying to do more of or to start doing?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot in terms of having a resolution alone isn’t very actionable, like, “I’m going to run a marathon this year.” Oh, that’s great, but you’ve got to break that down into the particular behaviors of running, and then think about your particular resistance or friction that’s making it tough, and do what you can to eliminate it. And so, it’s really fun when there’s a technology like a phone safe or like an automated toothbrush.

And so, what are some additional ways we can make it easier beyond buying things? And, hey, buying things is fun, so we can talk about buying things too. But I’d love to hear a few more in terms of like, “Well, there’s, indeed, there’s not a technology that will just zap me with motivation juice.” So, what are some other ways to make things easier?

Brent Franson
So, I’ll give you a couple examples. So, if you read any book on behavior change or how-to tracking, you’ll see common techniques like habit stacking. And so, okay, what is something that you know you’re automatically going to be doing? And then attach something that you don’t automatically do to that.

So, there’s a great book on this by a professor at Stanford named Dr. BJ Fogg who, the example he cites for him personally is he does a couple of pushups after he goes to the bathroom. So, he knows he’s going to go to the bathroom regularly, that’s not going to stop. He’s trying to adapt the habit of strengthening his upper body, and so he stacks those habits together.

And I’ll give you, from my own personal life, is, like, if I really go through the core parts of my routine, primarily my mindfulness and journaling routine, so that routine includes, most days, I’m trying to meditate, I listen to the voice memos, I try to spend 10 minutes learning something new. I journal. As part of the journal, I do a little gratitude practice. I read a little nonfiction. I try to read nonfiction and fiction each day, and that’s it.

So, if I just sat down and do all of those things, it’s 30 or 40 minutes. And the key for me that’s related to habit stacking is if I just get started, so sometimes I drag my feet and I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t want to do it.” I pick up the phone and I’m looking at Reddit or something or whatever we do when we distract ourselves and we procrastinate. But if I just get into that meditation, everything else is actually pretty automatic. It’s very easy for me to roll out of the meditation into the next activity. It’s rare that I would start that set of things and not finish it. The hardest part is getting myself started.

And so, I think either stacking a habit on top of something you automatically know you’re going to do, or finding a little bit of time and stacking those habits together. And then on the days when I just do the meditation, I just do one or two of the pieces, fine. That’s okay. I don’t beat myself up. I’ve got the next day. So, that’s number two, kind of grouping the habits together.

The third thing I’d say is physically a mental framework. So, I think often we perceive something being harder or worse than it actually is, and I think exercising is a very good example of this. The person you are, for me it’s I’m running in the pandemic because there’s nothing else to do, is the person I am when I walk out of the house is very different than the person I am a mile into a run, for me about a mile up – running stops just being just torture and just terrible – and it’s very different from the person that comes back. When I come back from a run, I am on top of the world. I’m not really fast on a run, crazy distances.

And so, I get into a mental state of really trying to focus on how I’m going to feel after I do something as opposed to before you do it, because there’s so much dread sometimes getting into something like a workout and you kind of play it back and forth in your head. You never regret it. You never come back and say, “Why did I do that?”

And so, I think reminding yourself of where you’re going to be, and one of the tricks I use for myself is, “I’m just going to run a mile. Like, from here I can run to Stanyan Street and it’s not that far. It’s mostly flat and I’ll turn around when I get there.” I never turn around. I’m just a different person. I’m in the zone. There’s a little bit of that runner’s high. And so, focusing on kind of how you’re going to feel afterwards as opposed to before can be helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, let’s think about a professional who has some challenges associated with entertaining distractions on the computer, be it Twitter, be it Reddit, the news, shopping, checking emails more than is optimal, that’s come up a few times. What will be some of your top tips for someone looking to make that kind of a behavioral shift?

Brent Franson
It’s similar to what I would say with the kSafe, with the putting the phone away. So, I use something on my computer called BlockSite and it blocks the websites. So, I block Twitter and Reddit and Instagram, I block all of those. So, if I go to them, there’s an additional step I can say, “Hey, unblock,” and you can block them. Put your phone in a different room while you’re working. Close the tabs that are not relevant to the work that you’re doing.

And so, a lot of this, at least for me personally, it comes down to, like, “Hey, I’m my own worst enemy. And so, how do I build little fences around myself to keep me focused?” Right now, we’re recording this, we’re having this conversation, and I took a moment before this call to just close out everything, or else I’ll look at my Slack, I’ll be looking at an email that pops up. And the neuroscience behind that is very straightforward. There’s a powerful little dopamine hit.

And so, I think as soon as you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to have the willpower. I’m just going to be really focused because it’s a really important thing,” I think a lot of that is fantasy. You’re going to fall back into the same habits, and so you’ve got put some guardrails. So, if the phone is distracting you, put the phone out of arm’s reach. Use something like BlockSite. Block out the time on the calendar for the head’s down work.

So, I think one of the things that we do, that a lot of people, and I’ve done a lot of this, fail to do from a time management perspective is you’re only scheduling… there’s only the things on your calendar that involve, “Okay, I’m talking to Pete at 3:00 o’clock, and then I’ve got a Zoom with my boss or with an investor,” whoever it might be. Block out the time you need to catch up on email first thing in the morning and block it out again later in the afternoon, and then focus during the day. You’re not going to be more than a few hours behind.

Close Slack, spend some time getting some work done. Open Slack back up. So, being very intentional in the work that we do. If you’re somebody who’s got a hundred different tabs open and you’ve got every app open all day long, of course, those things are going to distract you.

Pete Mockaitis
And to the point about self-compassion, can we like zoom way into, “All right, these are not helpful things to say to yourself after you’ve not performed what you wanted to perform, and this is what a more compassionate response is”? I think some folks might think, “Well, if I’m too easy on myself, I’m just not going to go through it. Like, if ‘It’s fine’ is my response to a failure, well, then, will I ever kick it into high gear?” So, can I hear some internal dialogue samples of helpful, self-compassion responses to failure, and not so helpful responses to failure?

Brent Franson
Yeah, I think there’s a difference between beating yourself up and being honest with yourself. And so, one of the tips that I heard that’s been helpful for me that I think is interesting is when you’re going through your email, start at the bottom of your email. Start at the email that it’s been the longest time since you’ve responded to. I’m not a total email-to-zero person but, okay, start on the most important thing. That email has been sitting there the longest, if it’s something you need to respond to, it’s probably more important than the one that just came in, even if the content of the one that just came in is more important. You have more time on that.

And I think the same thing is true for important projects. Like, work on the project that’s the hardest if you have a little time that you’re putting off the most first. And so, if there’s a really important project that you’re procrastinating, you got to be honest with yourself about the fact that, “Hey, I have to get that done. And if I don’t get it done, there’s going to be some consequence.”

But I think the, “I’m always this. I’m never that. I should be doing this. Somebody who’s good at their job wouldn’t procrastinate this in the way that I do,” so and so, you’re actually manifesting a particular person. Those kind of feedback loops are going to be actively negative. For me, personally, I got to a place of, like, “Screw it, I’m going to give up. If I can’t win the game, I’m not going to play at all.”

So, honest dialogue about yourself, with like, “Okay, if I keep procrastinating with this, here are the consequences of that. Like, the world is not going to end, but there will be consequences and I’d rather not have to deal with those consequences.” But I think the “shoulds,” and the “comparing,” and the “always” and “nevers,” I think that’s when you know you’re getting to a place where you’re probably not making progress. An honest and empathetic dialogue with yourself and really looking like, “Okay, why am I procrastinating this? What is it about it?” that’s actually going to increase the odds that you complete it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then if you aspire to, yeah, the New Year’s Resolution, run a marathon, and you didn’t get up for the run, “It’s not like I always do this. I’m never going to be a runner. I should really be better about getting up early. Brent runs amazingly well with consistency. Why can’t I be a winner like him?” So, that’s in your not-so-great column.

But then your honest conversation about consequences might sound like, “You know, well, Pete, this marathon is something that you’ve been looking forward to. You’ve got some buddies who are signed up and jazzed for it and it’s going to be a really cool experience. If this keeps happening, you’re just not going to be ready for it and you won’t be able to do it and it’d be pretty disappointing to have to cancel it.” Okay, so what next? That’s like the honest consequence conversation.

Brent Franson
Yeah. Well, then what next is have an honest conversation with yourself about what to do, “So, okay, I didn’t run today. When is the next running group? If I make that, if I make it to that running group, am I on track? Am I falling too far behind? Do I need to be in a different running group? Am I trying to run early in the morning and I’ve never been a morning person and I should actually be doing these runs in the afternoon or the evening or whatever it is?”

So, I think there’s an honest assessment of, “Okay, I might not be in shape to run this marathon if I keep missing these. Is there a way that I can make this easier for myself? Hey, I want Pete to give me a call in the morning,” or whatever it might be. So, I think it’s the honest assessment of consequences. The beating yourself up is not going to help.

And then the second piece is how do you change the system? What about the system needs to change? You need to go to bed earlier. Do you need somebody to give you a ring? Do you need to run at a different time of day, whatever it might be?

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

Brent Franson
No, no. As somebody who has a lot of personal experience with this, I think there’s a lot of people who will say, “Behavior change is hard. You can’t change. You’re not going to change.” And I would just say that’s just not true. You can. It is hard but it is possible. And so, whatever those things are you want to change about your life, as hard as that can seem to see in the moment, it is possible. It takes time and you got to focus on it but it’s very possible. I actually defy people the opposite. I defy you not to change. It’s just a question of how you’re going to change.
Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Well, now can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brent Franson
Oh, I like “The Man in the Arena” quote, so I think that’s the Teddy Roosevelt quote and it’s too long of a quote for me to remember off the top of my head. But it’s basically the substance of the quote is I’d rather be among the cold, tired, and bloody among us who are in the arena and who are trying and who are striving for something, and maybe I’m defeated, than among the cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat. So, I think putting yourself out there and kind of striving for whatever you want, that’s where the glory and the greatness is, and victory or defeat is secondary.

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

Brent Franson
The things that are top of mind for me right now, it’s just been so shocking to me as I dig in. I’ve seen this in my own life and then looking at attribution, basically, of behavior change and health outcomes.

And so, like 15% or 20% of health outcomes can be attributed to medical care and it’s 50% plus to behavior, and that’s been so striking to me because I think, in a perfect world in the future, you get a prescription for a drug that’s going to help you, and then next to that you’re getting a prescription for things you need to change that you can change in your behavior, that can help you improve. And so, a lot of the stats and kind of the impact of behavior change has just been, they’re top of mind for me right now, obviously, as I’m spending so much time thinking about this.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Brent Franson
This changes for me a lot. My favorite book are adventure books. And so, The Spirit of St. Louis is a book about Lindbergh and his flight across the Atlantic. It’s just really well-written.

But if you like the adventure stories, there’s a story of called Endurance which is about Shackleton and this crazy survival story down in Antarctica. And so, I love those adventure survival stories.

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

Brent Franson
Currently, my favorite tool is I have two phones and I have one phone that’s just totally dialed down and doesn’t have any apps on it and I’ve grey-scaled the background. And the more I’m carrying that, because you can just swap the SIMs. I have on my keychain, basically, a little kind of needle, it’s a SIM swapper, it’ll pull your SIM out. And that’s been remarkably helpful for me having a phone that’s just very basic. I’m a dad so I’ve got to be reachable but it just doesn’t really have much. It allows me to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit, you’ve got so many?

Brent Franson
Heat therapy. It’s sitting in a sauna, it’s sweating. And so, that, in my own personal dataset has the highest correlation with me feeling good. And so, there’s a whole bunch of interesting science around the health benefits of sitting in a sauna, in a hot dry room basically, and sweating, and so I think that’s my favorite. I also think just top of mind for me now because I haven’t been able to do it, I don’t have a sauna in my home.

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

Brent Franson
I think one of the things I spend a lot of time talking about is that there aren’t that many real rules in life. And so, I think there are a set of ethics that we all want to live by. I want to be honest. I want to be ethical. But a lot of the rules, “You got to take XYZ path if you want to do this or you want to do that.”

Like, there are a bunch of different ways to skin a cat, and so I think a lot of the “rules” are self-imposed. And so, I think thinking creatively about multiple paths to the same place has been really helpful for me, and I encourage others to do the same. I haven’t had the most amazing career, I haven’t had the worst career ever, but I took a different path. I can’t tell you whether or not I graduated from high school, and here I am in Silicon Valley running technology companies. And so, don’t impose unnecessary rules on yourself.

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

Brent Franson
Oh, look, you can email me on brent@mostdays, you can come join us in the Most Days community if you’re trying to change your behavior. We’ve got a supportive community of people who are trying to do this. But, yeah, reach out.

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

Brent Franson
Yeah, the challenge I would give anybody is change something about the structure of the way that you work, change something about the structure of the way that you live your life, and see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Brent, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you and great luck with Most Days and your adventures.

Brent Franson
Yeah. Thanks, Pete.

647: Cal Newport: How to Break Free from Your Email Inbox

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Cal Newport says: "You don't need advice for how to deal with your overflowing inbox... You need to change the structure of your business so that your inbox is not overflowing."

Cal Newport reveals how the rise of email led to a productivity disaster and what we can do to change that.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How email changed the way we work for worse 
  2. Simple strategies for cutting down the email back-and-forth 
  3. Why we feel guilty when we don’t respond—and what to do about it 

 

About Cal

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to researching cutting­ edge technology, he also writes about the impact of these innovations on our culture. Newport is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller, Digital Minimalism, which argues that we should be much more selective about the technologies we adopt in our personal lives, and Deep Work, which argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace. 

Newport’s work has been published in over 25 languages and has been featured in many major publications, including the New York TimesWall Street JournalNew YorkerWashington Post, and Economist, and his long-running blog Study Hacks, which receives over 3 million visits a year. He’s also a frequent guest on NPR. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Cal Newport Interview Transcript

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

Cal Newport
Well, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I got to hear one of the most noteworthy things about you, which is an interesting comment to make in this day and age, is that you have no social media accounts. Can you tell us why and how it’s going for you?

Cal Newport
It’s true. I think I’m the last person under the age of 65 and above the age of 12, for which that’s true. I don’t know. I’ll tell you what, this has not been that bad of a period to not be on social media, I think, if you could measure cortisol levels and graph it somehow, you would have all of American culture, all American society, and then me, probably a good 50% below it because I’m just not exposed to the up-to-the-minute fretting and doom-scrolling. So, it’s been good.

So, basically, it turns out it’s allowed. Just for idiosyncratic reasons, a long time ago, I’m talking 2004, I just decided, “I think I’m not going to use social media,” which at that point that was not a fraught decision in 2004 because there was not that much social media but I just sort of stuck with it because, why not? And it’s given me this really interesting vantage point. I’m like an anthropologist able to look around me and watch the impact the social media on everyone’s lives with a little bit of distance. I mean, I’m the last people who’s actually never had an account who can actually study it with some distance.

And here’s what I’ll say, I know what’s going on in the world, I still have friends, I still find ways to be entertained, I still manage to sell books and run a business, so it might not be as bad as people fear.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’ll take it. And have there been any downsides, any regrets, anything you miss? Maybe you can’t miss it if you’ve never had it.

Cal Newport
No, not really. I’ll tell you what happened that helped reduced regret is the big social media platforms, they had initially had this claim that, “We’re valuable because of network effects. We’re the best way to connect with friends and family and we’re the platform where all your friends and family are, so if you’re not on Facebook or if you’re not on Instagram, you can’t connect with your friends and family.”

But they basically gave that up about five or six years ago, and said, “No, no, what we’re really about is entertainment. We’re kind of leveraging your social connections to learn the type of stuff you’re interested in but what we are is a stream of things to look at,” and most of these digital interactions with friends and family began to shift from social media over to tools like text message, or Zoom calls, or other types of tools like that which I do use.

And so, I’m not missing out on the original promise, which is, “This is how you keep up with friends and family,” because that is largely moved off of social platforms. Now, they’re just a highly addictive form of entertainment and, I don’t know, I think I found other ways to entertain myself so, so far so good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s talk about your latest work, A World Without Email. Provocative. Could you kick us off maybe with one of your surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made as you’re doing your research there?

Cal Newport
Well, I was surprised to discover the extent to which how we work today, which I call a hyperactive hivemind workflow, which is, put simply, work unfolds with a constant unstructured stream of ad hoc messaging, whether that’s delivered through email or Slack or whatever tool you want to use. I was surprised by the extent to which that way of working is basically arbitrary.

So, we assume all of this emailing and Slacking, like we do this because it’s a pain but it’s more productive, or this is how work gets done. If we didn’t always communicate with each other, if we weren’t constantly, “Here’s a message,” “Here’s an email,” “Here’s a reply,” “Here’s a CC,” that we’ll somehow be less productive. And it was rationally decided by managers and consultants, and at some point, people figured out this is a better way of working. It turns out that’s not true.

It largely emerged somewhat haphazardly, more it’s just a side effect of what this new tool made available and it interacted in an unpredictable way with just human nature, and you can document this. But, basically, we stumbled into this world of sort of constant, ongoing, unstructured conversation. And then we look backwards and try to justify it and live with it.

And one of the big claims in this book is that there’s nothing fundamental about, “Let’s put an email address, associate it with every person. Let’s put everyone on a Slack channel and just rock and roll to figure things out.” There’s nothing fundamental about that being the best way to do knowledge work. And, in fact, when you really look closely at it, it’s actually a pretty terrible way of doing it for a lot of factors. There are many other ways you could approach it. So, I think that degree to which this is just, in some sense, email is decision that we work this way and not our own was definitely a liberating discovery for me as I got deeper into this topic.

Pete Mockaitis
That is intriguing. All right. So, we just kind of fell into it. And so, lay it on us, so why is it terrible? What makes email so detrimental to knowledge worker productivity?

Cal Newport
Well, the first thing I’ll further clarify, just so we have like a foundation for the discussion, is the title is sort of provocatively succinct when I say A World Without Email, but what I really mean, and this would be a less sexy title, is a world without the hyperactive hivemind workflow that email introduced. So, when I say a world without email, what I mean is a working world in which constant unstructured unscheduled conversation is not at the core of how we get things done.

The problem with that workflow, that hyperactive hivemind workflow, is that it forces us to switch cognitive context constantly. Say that four times fast. Because if you have to be maintaining dozens of these ongoing asynchronous, unstructured, unscheduled conversations, all these different threads, because that’s how everything gets figured out, from figuring out how to deal with a new client, to scheduling something, to pulling together bullet points, I mean, all this is happening on asynchronous threads, unstructured, unscheduled, just messages going back and forth, the only way for work to move forward is you have to constantly be monitoring and tending these threads.

That’s why when you look at the data, you see that people check their email inbox, on average, something once every six minutes. It’s not a rational behavior, it’s not a lack of willpower, it’s the only way you can keep up with so much ongoing concurrent communications is you have to keep checking. The problem is every time you check an inbox, you check a Slack channel, you induce a context shift within your brain. So, you’re switching your attention from the primary thing you’re working on to an inbox full of messages, most of which you can’t address right there in that moment.

And then you’re trying to bring your attention back to the main thing, that creates a huge pileup within your brain that reduces your effectiveness, that stresses you out, it makes you anxious, it makes it harder for you to think. So, we basically designed an approach to work that accidentally really reduces our ability to actually do work. We just cannot maintain these two parallel tracks of constantly monitoring communication while also trying to work on other things. We’re not wired for that, it goes against our sort of fundamental neural architecture, and I think it’s been a real big hindrance to both productivity but also people’s happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then I’m curious. We had Dave Crenshaw on the show recently talk about the myth of multitasking and talked a bit about switching costs. Can you dig into that a little bit sort of just how costly is it when we do that? Do we lose a few seconds or something much greater?

Cal Newport
I would say it’s much greater. It’s hard to exactly quantify but every time you’re doing one of those email checks, you might induce 10 to 15 minutes of notably reduced cognitive capacity, where one-half of your mind is still trying to figure out, “Well, what about this message from our boss?” And we’ve all had that experience of writing emails in our head, which is like a real indication of our mind. It sees these open loop social communications. It wants to have to deal with that.

Now, the issue is if you’re checking your inbox on average once every six minutes, that means you never escape that effect. So, the typical knowledge worker is basically spending the vast majority of their time in a significantly reduced cognitive state. It’s almost as if every 30 minutes, you walk by and gave everyone in your office a shot, “Here, take some whiskey,” right? It’s less fun but it kind of has a similar effect. So, we’re talking about not, “Oh, I’m wasting a few minutes.” We’re talking instead like maybe you’re at 50% of what you could produce.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in that ballpark of 50%, okay, that’s striking. And could you share, is there any provocative studies or experiments or bits of research that can put an exclamation point on this?

Cal Newport
Well, the idea that there are these switching costs goes is something that goes back to research from even the early 20th century. But there was a researcher named Sophie Leroy who more recently really applied this idea of switching costs to exactly the context of working in an office. And she had a really interesting background.

I tell her story in the book because I spent some time interviewing her. She had actually been in academia, she had been working on her degree, and then she went and worked in industry. And then when she came back to academia from industry, she said, “Man, there’s this thing going on out there that wasn’t like it was before with all of this messaging,” this was the early 2000s, “We have to study that.”

And so, she had this dual background where she had a business background, she was an organizational management but she’d also trained in psychology so she understood the brain, and she exactly was quantifying what happens when you do this context switching and you’re trying to do actual office work. So, she had subjects come in to do this research, and they were giving them office work style tasks like reading resumes and trying to summarize and rank candidates, like the type of stuff you would really do in knowledge work, and they would interrupt them.

So, the researcher would come in and they would interrupt them. They had various ways of doing it but it would be, “Hey, you forgot to fill out this form that we need for our research.” And they could really precisely measure the impact on their performance, so the groups that got interrupted and the groups that didn’t. And you could just see that performance, you can see it drop, and you can just watch the numbers as it drops.

They recall less information. When they’re working on puzzles, they make more mistakes. And so, Sophie Leroy’s research really makes clear the degree to which these switches, boom, you just watch performance graphs just drop.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then tell us, what is the superior alternative?

Cal Newport
So, once we understand the issue is the workflow, the good thing about that is that it takes off a lot of sort of common responses off the table. So, when you understand, like, “Oh, the hyperactive hivemind, this fundamental way that the way we organize work and identifying and assign and review tasks, the way we do this is just messaging back and forth.”

Like, when you understand that is the underlying way you do work, then you realize that superficial fixes won’t get you there. Let’s say, “Let’s talk about etiquette, let’s talk about norms, let’s talk about turning off notifications, let’s talk about checking your email in batches, let’s talk about having a rule that says don’t expect you to answer emails after 5:00 or whatever.” None of that is going to solve the underlying problem so long as the underlying way that you organize work is unstructured ad hoc messaging.

So, in the book, what I really push is forget those superficial fixes, forget the etiquette, forget the norms. You got to actually replace, you have to replace the underlying workflow, “This is how we do this type of work. This is how we identify, assign, and review tasks.” You have to replace it with something better than the hyperactive hivemind. You don’t need advice for how to deal with your overflowing inbox more efficiently. You need to change the structure of your business so that that inbox is not overflowing.

And, basically, two-thirds of the book gets into principles for how to redesign whether it’s in your own life as an employee, or if you’re an entrepreneur that runs your own company, or if you’re an executive of a big team, “How do you begin this re-engineering process? How do you begin seeing your work in terms of these different processes?” And we can actually talk about each process, “This is how we’re going to do this. This is how the information is going to flow. No, we don’t just figure this out on email. For this, we have weekly status meetings. We have a shared document. We have this…” whatever it is.

There are tons of examples that you begin to explicitly engineer how work happens in a way that minimizes all this ad hoc unscheduled messaging, stops all the context shifting, and makes work much more sequential, “This then this, then this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s really beautiful in that I personally had some experiences with that, it’s like, “It seems like I was sending a lot of emails back and forth about this. That needs to stop. How would I go about stopping that? Well, I guess we’re going to make a standard process associated with boom, boom, boom.” And it’s worked. It’s so funny, like you and I, that we have this podcast interview, like we could’ve had a lot of emails between us. We had zero which makes me feel pretty cool, I’m talking to the no-email guy.

And we pulled that off because of the systems and the processes and the automation. It’s sort of like there’s an invitation, you pick a time, and then you get all of the info. And then, on my end, me and my team are thinking about, “Okay, what do we want to ask Cal? Okay, and then you’re going to send me the draft of some things, and I’m going to edit those things, and then I’m going to study it up the day of, and away we go.”

So, lay on us these principles and some examples for, hey, before we’re emailing about this thing, and after, here’s how it gets done.

Cal Newport
Well, let’s make it really proximate to what we’re doing right now, right? So, I’m doing a book launch, so there’s a lot of podcasts to be done, and I have someone at my publisher that I work with to help sort of schedule the podcasts and keep that calendar, or this or that. We had to figure out a process. So, the very easy thing to do would be she could just email me, like, “Oh, here’s one. Does this time work? Here’s another podcast. What do you think about this?” But I said, “Okay, that’s not going to work. There’s going to be so much back and forth emailing that I’ll constantly be context shifting.”

So, we created a process where I thought about the problem. And I had tried before with a previous book. Just to be concrete, I had tried giving the publisher access to a calendar, or I had made open, like, “Okay, here’s times I’m available,” and they would schedule things directly. I didn’t quite like that because I wanted more control over when I schedule things because I have a more nuanced understanding of my calendar.

So, what we did this time is we have a shared document and it has different sections. And what happens is I check it a couple of times a week. She’ll put into the top section, like pending, “Okay, here’s a podcast,” or, “Here’s the link to schedule it,” or, “Here are some time you’re available. Which one works for you?” And I just go into that shared document and just annotate it, like, “This time works for me. Okay, I went to the link and set up this interview. Here’s a question.”

So, I basically go into this shared document twice a week, spend about 20 minutes in it, and all of this happens. Now, it might seem like, “Well, what’s the point? Is it really that hard to just have figured this all out on email?” And one of the big principles, to argue from the book, is, yes, that matters. So, to take those two checks that are 20 minutes and to spread it out over 20 emails is a huge difference in terms of the impact on your cognitive performance because those 20 emails are unfolding throughout the week. It’s a conversation you have to keep tending. To tend it means you have to keep checking your inbox, and it’s a thread that’s kind of an open loop in your mind. There’s a huge drag to having you go back and do those back-and-forth communications.

Which brings me to a larger point about this type of process engineering is that it’s annoying, it’s almost always less flexible and convenient than just emailing that’s why this hyperactive hivemind is so entrenched because it’s easy and it’s flexible and it’s really convenient. But flexible, easy, and convenient in the history of business and technology rarely is the formula for getting the best work done or getting the most work done.

And so, example after example in my book come back to the same point which is it’s like often a pain to say, “Let’s actually think about the right way to do this in a way that minimizes all these messages.” It’s a pain. It might generate some hard edges. There might be some exceptions where bad things happen. Still worth it. Still almost always worth it because, again, the way to get the most value out of your brain is almost differently going to be something different than what would be the easiest way to organize work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I dig it. So, we think through it. And do you have any particular prompts or guidelines or steps associated with how we might do some good structured thinking and collaboration about, “Hey, what is the process by which this thing gets done?”

Cal Newport
Well, one thing I talk about is when you’re trying to optimize a process, think about context switching as being something you’re trying to minimize. So, just like if you’re optimizing a manufacturing process, you might try to minimize like the time required to produce a car. In knowledge work processes, you want to minimize context switches, “So, how many times am I going to switch my attention to this thing in order to get it to completion?”

And so, if your process involves back-and-forth emails and there’s going to be a dozen back-and-forth emails to figure something out, you’re now context shifting a dozen times to complete this process. So, if you could come up with an alternative where maybe, “Okay, I spend some time in a shared document for 20 minutes twice,” you’ve now reduced the amounts of times you have to shift your attention to this and back significantly, and that makes a big deal. And then the other thing to try to optimize is the degree to which you have to keep track of things in your mind or you feel like things are somewhat unscheduled or out of control.

So, the more you can actually have a sense of comforting structure, “Oh, I know how this works. It’s in the system. It’ll come up automatically. I don’t have to keep track of it in my mind. I don’t have to hope that I’ll just wait to get an email at some point, that’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this thing?’” That you feel like, “This is controlled. It’s not just in my mind. I don’t feel overwhelmed by various things,” that’s another thing to optimize.

So, those are the two general metrics you want to push people: less context shifting, less sense that things are just up in the air, in your mind, or ad hoc, or out of control.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got it. So, those are the things that we’re optimizing for in terms of let’s minimize those bits. And so, I guess there’s probably a million different ways we can make a process to get something done. But could you maybe share a few of your favorites in terms of, “Wow, these are maybe pretty flexible. They cover a wide array of stuff, work that needs to get done, as well as they’re pretty darn time-leveraged when you do it”?

Cal Newport
Well, one thing that seemed to come up a lot was making task assignments more transparent. So, we often use email to assign tasks and to check on tasks, we keep track of tasks just because they’re messages in our inbox. That’s where we keep track of everything on our plate. When you look at companies or groups that have moved all these tasks out of just people’s individual inbox and onto shared like task boards or project management systems, there’s often huge wins to be had.

And you can go and look at a Trello board for your team, or a Flow board, or an Asana board if you’re more techie, and you can actually see, like, “Here are all the things we’re doing, and here’s their status, and here’s who’s working on what.” Once a day you get together and you all look at it, and say, “Okay, where are we? What do you need? Here’s a new thing. Who should take this on or shall we leave it over here?” That seems like a basic thing but it makes a huge difference.

I profiled a guy who runs a marketing company and when they shifted. I talk about how they shifted from their inbox, just everything was kind of in there, to these Trello boards, one per project. And I actually had them show me the Trello boards, and I go through them, and I kind of go through, “Okay, here’s specifically what the columns are and here’s what’s under it.”

The relief they got when now their workflow is not about, “Open your inbox and rock and roll with messages,” but, instead, “Go to the Trello board for the project you want to work on, look at the status of things, take what’s assigned to you, make some progress on it, update the information. All the information you need to make progress is here on the Trello board attached to different cards. You don’t have to go find it in an inbox.”

Just the relief they got from that being the workflow, “Oh, I’m working on this project now. Here’s all the information on this project. Here’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Here’s everything I need to know to do this. Let me work on this. Let me update this board. All right, I’m done. Next project.” You switch over to that board. It was so much more relieving than, instead, just having this inbox open where, “Yeah, you’re hearing about that project but also other projects, and everything is coming in, and the whole thing is riled together.” So, task boards come up a lot in groups and teams that have moved away from a hivemind.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’m wondering if we zoom into the individual contributor, if they don’t feel they’ve got a whole lot of power or influence to restructure the fundamental processes of how stuff is flowing, do you have any pro tips on how to navigate those conversations or bring it up?

Cal Newport
Well, one of the things I actually talk about is running your own shadow processes individually and having basically an invisible interface to everyone else. So, let’s say you’re at a big company and your boss is a jerk, he’s like he’s not going to want to hear this. He’s like, “I don’t care. I want you to answer my emails. It makes my life easier.” You can internally have these processes. And I talk a lot about this, like personal task boards or personal communication protocols where you really work out your various processes and how information comes in and out of them, how you keep track of things to try to keep yourself out of your inbox.

And instead of actually trying to explain it to everybody and say with autoresponders, like, “Here’s how I’m doing it now and this is how it’s going to work,” you just do it internally. And they don’t even maybe realize that you have these processes, they don’t even really realize that, “Oh, I was ready to just send a bunch of messages back and forth with you to, whatever, set up this meeting or pull together this report. Andfuiltwhen you replied, it was actually there’s a list of times, you had a Calendly schedule app, it was like ‘Choose one of these times and I will have this information ready, and it’ll be in this folder. Look it up before. We’ll meet at this time.’” You’ve described some process in an email. They don’t even realize it’s a process, they go, “Okay, whatever. Great. That saves me some messages.”

But internally you have it all processed, or you have different Trello boards internally for your different roles, and you’re keeping track of who you’re waiting to hear back from, and things you need more information on, and what you’re working on this week. I talk about how I ran a stealth ticketing system for a while when I had an administrative role where I had to answer a lot of questions from students in my department at Georgetown for an administrative role I ran. I didn’t make them use a ticketing system but I was moving all their messages into a ticketing system so I could much better keep track of them with my program manager, we could see what was going on where, who we’re waiting to hear back from, we can annotate them with notes, and then we’d just email people to get back to them again.

So, that’s one of the things I talk about just how to basically structure all of the process in your own life. Even if all the people around you aren’t restructuring how they do it, even if they’re still bothering you without constraint, if all that incoming goes into internal structured processes, you can still have a massive win in terms of how much context shifting and email wrangling you have to do.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I don’t know about all the listeners, but as I think about this, I’m super excited, like, “Heck, yeah, let’s get processes up and going for everything.” How do you recommend thinking about where to start or how to zero in on your first couple wins here?

Cal Newport
Use your inbox as a guide. So, you’re in your inbox, you’re overwhelmed, that you’re annoyed at all these messages. Start asking the question as you’re answering these messages, “What is the underlying process that this is a part of and that this message is trying to help advance towards completion?” And so, you just let the messages you’re getting be a guide. Then you can start saying, “Okay, this process kind of comes up a lot. Like, a lot of these messages have to do with whatever, like pulling together the weekly client memo. Or a lot of this have to be like answering questions from clients about the status of the project.”

So, now, you’ve let your inbox be the guide, “Oh, a lot of my communication is about this.” Then you can ask the key follow-up, “What would be a better process for accomplishing the same thing?” So, then if you see a lot of your messages in your inbox or your clients asking you questions kind of ad hoc, “What’s the status here? What’s that?” you might realize, like, “Maybe what we should do…” and this is just an example from the book, “…is like schedule a weekly status call with each client, we let them know where things are, we listen to them, and we immediately send them, after the call, a record of everything we committed to during that call, and they know that we are going to be on the phone the next week.”

You do that, for example. You may reduce your back-and-forth emails from a client down to basically none. Just the same thing done. The client wants to know what’s going on, to make sure the ball is not being dropped, to make sure that you’re actually doing the things you said you’re going to do, that’s a lot of what client emailing is, it’s just that they’re not sure, like, “I don’t know. Are you really doing this? Do I need to keep bothering otherwise I don’t know what’s going on?”

That’s just a case study but now that you’ve seen that’s what a lot of your emails were, you could actually come up with a better process that has a lot less back and forth. So, let the messages in your inbox influence you, “What is this message about? Is there a better way to get that general type of work done?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. And how about some of the internal emotional guilt stuff in terms of, if folks, they have incoming messages and they feel, from habit or compulsion, the need to frequently check the inbox? You say, “Well, hey, part of it that’s kind of how it has to be done because your processes are so unstructured, what alternative do you have?” But if we’re starting to move in this direction and there are some emotional guilt or resistance or trickiness, how do you recommend folks address that?

Cal Newport
Well, that guilt is really important because it’s at the core of why email makes us so miserable so I really get into those studies where basically the way we’re wired as social beings means it is really hard for us to see an email message in our inbox from a person we know and to not answer it. And it’s a deeper part of our brain. So, if you feel guilty about these things, as a general notice to your audience, that’s not a flaw. That’s a deeply human reaction because there might be, let’s say, a prefrontal cortex part of your brain that says, “I know I don’t have to answer that email right away. We have norms, they’re not expecting an answer right away. It’s okay if I write them back next week.”

That’s fine but there’s a deeper part of your brain that says, “Someone in my tribe is tapping me on the shoulder. If I ignore them, that’s a problem. If I ignore someone in my tribe who’s tapping me on the shoulder, what’s going to happen when we come into the famine? They might not share their food and I might starve.” We have a huge genetic compulsion to take otherwise communication very seriously. So, email really contradicts that instinct because, again, our paleolithic deep brain knows nothing about email etiquette. It’s just like, “Here’s a person I know, they want something from me, I’m ignoring them. Danger! Danger! Danger!” and that’s why we feel this anxiety about our inbox and the fact that it’s always growing.

So, that’s a really real thing and it’s a problem. It’s also a problem because this guilt is not equally distributed among people. So, there’s research I talk about in the book where they could look at how you scored on the big five personality scale, and based on how you scored on various attributes of that scale, they could measure real differences in how stressed you get about batching email.

So, for some people, your personality type is naturally such that you get incredibly stressed if you say, “I’m going to wait to check my email till the end of the day because all these people need me.” Other people have personalities in which they don’t mind it that much. Now, the issue is the people who are probably more willing to ignore their inbox till the end of the day are probably going to get more important things done, which means they’re going to move ahead probably faster than other people.

And what you’ve now done is accidentally selected for in your company that people that are essentially more jerks from a personality scale, less conscientious, are going to do better in your company. And so, now you’re selecting for the executive ranks to be less conscientious and more like jerks, which is not what you actually want to happen. It’s an unintended consequence.

So, I think that is also an issue and so, I don’t know, this is probably not the most optimistic answer but this is why I’m saying until you fix the underlying processes, this is going to be a real problem and it’s going to apply unequally. As long as there’s a lot of messages that you’re not answering, you’re going to be stressed, and that stress is going to vary dependent on your personality. So, your best bet is to figure out how to reduce the number of messages that end up in that inbox. It’s just not the right tool for doing a massive amount of communication.

Pete Mockaitis
So, lay it on us, where and when is email appropriate, when it’s something sort of new, one time, different, undefined, uncharted? What are your thoughts?

Cal Newport
Well, it’s a fantastic communication protocol, so if you need to asynchronously deliver information from one person to another, from one place to another, it solves a lot of problems. Before that, we had fax machines, memos, and voice mail, and those were all pretty ineffective and pretty high-friction ways of communicating asynchronously. So, for the delivery of information, for the delivery of digital files, for the broadcasting of information, email is a fantastic tool. You would not want to get rid of it.

Where it is a problem is where it becomes the primary medium of collaboration. So, if the primary unit of you working together with people to solve things, just back and forth messages, that’s where you get into the problem. If you want to email out, whatever, “Here’s the new parking policy at our company,” that’s a great use of email. It’s better than printing it out and having to put it in people’s mailboxes.

If you need to deliver a contract to someone, or let’s say I want to send you a headshot or something, yeah, email is great. Better than putting the mail or using the fax machine. So, it’s a great medium for asynchronous delivery of information and files but it’s a terrible medium for being the primary tool by which you actually interact and collaborate with people.

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

Cal Newport
I would say, more generally, when it comes to email and when it comes to the shift, at least the way that I see it, the less that I’m trying to convince people that they should move away from this type of hyperactive hivemind, everything is just back and forth messaging, it’s more giving the message that that shift is inevitable. There is a lot of money on the line.

Just like when Henry Ford figured out the assembly line, no one made cars the same way again after that. The same thing is just beginning to happen in knowledge work. There’s no way ten years from now we’re all still just going to be plugging into email inboxes and checking every six minutes. There’s just so much productivity and value and human happiness on the line.

This transformation to a world in which we have more sophisticated ways, less convenient maybe, more annoying, more overhead, but more sophisticated ways of actually collaborating, that means we get a lot more done and we’re a lot happier in general, that’s going to happen. So, the only question is, “Are you going to be ahead of the trend or not?” And that’s the way I like to see it.

So, I’m kind of prognosticating that we’re in a very early stage of knowledge work in the digital age. The way we work today is just our very first rudimentary attempt to figure out how we should work in an age of computer networks. The history of commerce and technology tells us that transformations take a long time, but then the phase shifts can be pretty rapid. We’re going to have a rapid phase shift away from this world of constant communication. So, again, hopefully, this is a book that’s predicting the future, more so than it’s trying to convince people that we need a better future.

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

Cal Newport
A favorite quote that came up kind of in the context of this work came from Neil Postman who was a really well-known sort of philosopher and social critic and technology critic. And he had this really important quote for at least my own thinking about technology and the world where he was saying, “Technological changes are not an addition; it’s ecological.” It’s not addition, it’s ecological. I’m a little bit messing that up but the basic point is when a new technology comes along, it’s not just like, “Oh, you’re in the world you were before, plus the addition of this new technology.”

Instead, a lot of technologies tend to change the entire world, change the whole ecology. So, he famously said that when the printing press came along, it wasn’t like you had medieval Europe plus a printing press. Like, no, you had a whole different Europe. It just changed the way everything worked. I like that quote. That’s the way I see a lot of technologies.

In 2001, we didn’t just have the 1991 office plus email; we had a completely different type of office. What worked meant the ecology of work completely transformed once this tool is here. And so, that quote is important to me because it tells us we got to be pretty self-aware of the way that new technology can completely change things often in ways that no one planned or no one intended. And once you realize that, then you might say, “Maybe we should step back and push back a little bit.”

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

Cal Newport
There’s a bit of research I enjoyed in the book because it was devious where they’re trying to understand exactly what we’re talking about, how communication is something that’s really deep in us, we get really anxious when we can’t communicate, when we know someone wants our attention and we can’t give it to them.

And so, there’s this great study where they brought people in and they hooked them to heartrate monitors, and they told them it’s a study about something unrelated. And then they had a confederate come in and say, “Hey, your phone is interfering with our machines and we’re just going to move it to get the electromagnetic radiation.”

And when they moved the phone to the other side of the room, they turned off the silent mode. So, they could only do these with iPhones because iPhones have the switch on the side. And then they would call it. So, you’re in the room, you’re doing this experiment, you’re all hooked up to all these heartrate stress monitors, thinking you’re supposed to be working on this computer screen, and you hear your phone ring.

And it’s a really cool experiment because, obviously, they did not expect to be able to communicate, they didn’t need to communicate, they had turned their phone on silent so they’re completely comfortable with the ideas of, “During this experiment, I will not be communicating with people.” But, still, hearing the text message buzz on the phone, their heart, their galvanic response, all the indicators of stress jumped up because they’re all hooked up to these things and they could measure it.

So, I just love that experiment because it meant they were calm even though they knew rationally, “Oh, yeah, I turned off my phone. I’m not going to hear from anyone who calls me. It’s fine.” They knew rationally that was fine, “I’m doing this experiment. It’s fine.” Still, hearing a text message come through made the stress response go up.

That’s all day every day in the world of email. It’s like no matter how you tell yourself, “It’s okay. I don’t have to answer all these emails. We have expectations. We have norms,” there’s a deeper part of you that when it just sees or hears that person’s name and it’s in bold and you can see they want something from you and you’re not answering it to them, we get stressed. And so, I thought that was a beautifully designed experiment to try to capture that real effect.

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

Cal Newport
One I like to recommend is Amusing Ourselves to Death, also by Neil Postman who I mentioned. It’s short and it’s brilliant and it’s really original. And, basically, it gets at that ecological notion. His argument is when you change the technologies with which we communicate or send information, you can actually change the way our brains understand the world, that there’s this impact between the medium and the message being delivered.

Postman studied under Marshall McLuhan who actually said the medium is the message. Simple idea, beautifully delivered, but it completely changes the way you see technology. It moves you away from this notion of like, “Heck, it’s just tools and it can do some things well, so use it in the way that it does things well. And if you’re having a trouble with the tool, you’re just using it wrong.” It’s like the typical nerd, engineer, or like our typical response.

And Postman comes in and says, “No, no, it’s way more deeper than that.” This was before email but basically you could extrapolate from him. Like, the mere presence of email can change the very structure of what work means, and his work was about television. The presence of television changed the way we understood the world. He’s really smart, really accessible, and I recommend it, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

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

Cal Newport
I’m a big believer in time blocking where you actually schedule out what you’re going to do with your time as opposed to going down a list. And so, having a good notebook in which you’ve schedule out what you’re going to do. Give every minute of your day a job. Don’t just go from a list and say, “What’s next?” Instead, say, “From 1:00 to 2:00, I’m working on this and I have a meeting from 2:30 to 3:00.”

Having a good notebook in which you do that is a complete gamechanger. So, in the fall, I put out my own planner called a Time Block Planner that helps you make these plans. But whether or not you use my planner, I have used notebooks and I’ve built these analog plans for my day for whatever it’s been, about eight years now. So, that simple of a piece of a paper in which I see the whole plan drawn out is, by far, one of the biggest impactful things I have in my professional career.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Cal Newport
I do a shutdown ritual and I’m a big proponent of this, that when you’re done with your workday, you have a shutdown ritual where you basically close all of the open loops. So, you look at your inbox and make sure you’re not missing something, you look at your calendar, you look at your plan for the week. If you’re captured like notes or ideas on scraps of paper, you get them into your system. So, you close all the loops, “All right. There’s nothing else I need to do for work tonight. I have a plan for tomorrow. I’m not forgetting anything.”

And then you have some sort of phrase or ritual you do to indicate that you’re done with that routine. So, like I used to actually say the phrase, “Schedule shutdown complete,” which was like purposefully nerdy. I talk about this in my book Deep Work, and there’s a whole subculture of people who, when they see me now, are like, “Schedule shutdown complete.”

But it was weird on purpose because what happens is that later in the evening when you begin to feel some work anxiety, instead of going through it, instead of…

Pete Mockaitis
A schedule shutdown has been completed.

Cal Newport
You say, “Why else would I have said that stupid phrase unless I had actually gone through the whole thing?” Now, in that planner, I actually added a checkbox that says, “Shutdown complete.” So, instead of having to say that out loud and risk the mocking of everyone within earshot, you can put a checkmark next to the phrase. But the whole point is you have something really weird and clear you do to indicate you’ve done the shutdown ritual. So, if you get anxious, you just say, “I did that weird thing, which means I did a ritual, so I’m not going to get into the particular anxiety. I’m just going to trust myself that I would not have said something so dumb unless I’ve actually gotten things under control.”

I love that ritual. I’ve been doing that since 2007. I started it as a grad student and it’s incredibly effective.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you say or have written that people quote back to you frequently? It sounds like “Shutdown ritual complete” is one of them. Any others?

Cal Newport
Yeah, I get “Shutdown complete” a lot. For some reason, so I have this podcast Deep Questions where I answer questions from readers. And, for whatever reason, we went down a rabbit hole of…I don’t know how I encouraged this. It’s just like one of these cycles of superfluous references to Greek mythology. So, I do these mini episodes once a week where people kind of call in with questions, and now it’s become kind of a competition to see who could work in like the most superfluous reference to Greek mythology in trying to set up their question about workplace productivity. So, I get a lot of that from people now. I don’t know how that started, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
“How could I soar like Pegasus to new heights of productivity?”

Cal Newport
Oh, yeah, Hydras. Earlier today, I had a Bacchus reference. That’s a good one. I had a question from a classicist recently, a classicist professor, so that was intimidating because she actually knew the whole canon. So, yeah, I don’t know, but I get that a lot. I get a lot of Greek mythology.

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

Cal Newport
So, you can go to CalNewport.com if you want to find out about the books and sign up for my newsletter. I’ve been writing a weekly essay there since 2007. If you want to hear me instead of read about me, Deep Questions is my podcast. If you want to find me on social media, as we’d mentioned, you’d be out of luck.

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

Cal Newport
It is a hundred percent possible for almost anyone or any job to get to a place where your email inbox is something like it was in 1995. It’s something you check maybe once a day, “Hey, here’s this file I needed,” or, “Here’s a reminder. Let me look at it,” and that’s the only role it plays in your life. This idea that you have to constantly be checking and communicating to do your job, that might be true about your job as constructed right now, but it can be reconstructed.

So, my challenge is do not give up on this utopian dream of a world without email by which I mean not a world in which you don’t have an email address but a world in which email does not play a central role to how your work actually gets done.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cal, this has been a treat. Thank you so much and keep on rocking.

Cal Newport
Yeah, thanks. It was my pleasure, like Icarus flying close to the sun on wax wings, I think. I’m trying to make the reference work. I’m trying to make it work.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe not afterwards.

638: How to Build Unhackable Focus with Kary Oberbrunner

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Kary Oberbrunner says: "The victor, the one that is unhackable, says, 'I happen to the world.'"

Kary Oberbrunner shares expert strategies for bringing your attention back to what matters most.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The wrong and right ways of dealing with task overload 
  2. The three components of deliberate magnetic focus 
  3. The two triggers of flow state

About Kary

Kary Oberbrunner is CEO of Igniting Souls. Through his writing, speaking, and coaching, he helps individuals and organizations clarify who they are, why they’re here, and where they should invest their time and energy.  

Kary struggled to find his own distinct voice and passion. As a young man, he suffered from severe stuttering, depression, and self-injury. Today a transformed man, Kary equips people to experience Unhackability in work and life and share their message with the world. He believes the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire. His vision is to ignite 100 million souls by 2030. 

Kary lives in Ohio with his wife, Kelly, and three children: Keegan, Isabel, and Addison. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Kary Oberbrunner Interview Transcript

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

Kary Oberbrunner
It’s great to be here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I‘m excited to dig into so much of what you’ve got to say. First of all, though, I want to hear about your connection to the Shawshank Redemption movie.

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yes, that is a fun tip. So, I was in a day job for a long time and it felt like a prison, and I remember watching Shawshank one evening, thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I relate to that.” So, quick story, basically, I was writing on the side and I finally did get out of that day job, and I said, “You know what, lots of people are asking me, “How?” so I’m going to write a book called Day Job to Dream Job. And the Shawshank prison is the day job. Zihuatanejo, where eventually, Andy goes at the end of the movie is the dream job, and I’m going to write the book.

And so, I started Googling where the heck was Shawshank prison. And I’m not from Ohio originally but it was The Ohio State Reformatory, and I said, “Man, I’m driving 90 minutes up to nowhere.” I found it and, basically, told the workers what I was doing and that I wanted to write a book in Andy’s prison cell on Day Job to Dream Job, and they’re like, “Sweet! Here’s the wi-fi password.”

And so, I ended up writing a good amount of the book in Shawshank prison. And then, a year later when we launched it, they heard about the story, the celebrities came back, and, sure enough, the warden, Bob Gunton, we launched Day Job to Dream Job at Shawshank prison together.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s wild. Well, so…

Kary Oberbrunner
It’s pretty crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
“So, I want to work out of a prison cell,” and they’re like, “Yeah, you got it.” So, there’s no fees or protocols. It’s just like, “Yeah, sure thing,” but…

Kary Oberbrunner
Exactly. Well, it’s no longer like a functioning prison. It’s more of a museum now but, evidently, they trusted me. And now I actually train their board of directors once a year on leadership, so it’s a crazy full circle.

Pete Mockaitis
That is wild. Well, I’m excited to talk about one of your latest works, Unhackable. Great title. What would you say is perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made about us, humans, and how we pay attention these days when putting together the book?

Kary Oberbrunner
I’ll tell you what, I wrote a fiction book called the Elixir Project in 2016 about a future society where people’s brains get hacked, and that was my first stab at fiction. And when the book came out, people said, “Man, this is not just a fiction book. Like, this is happening.”

And so, they kind of said, “Turn this into a nonfiction book for people in the workforce, in business.” And so, basically, I did a ton of research and found out that a hack is basically when someone or something gains unauthorized access to a system or a computer. And think back to biology class, and sure enough, we were made up of pulmonary, circulatory, respiratory system so our bodies are like systems and our brains are like supercomputers. So, in a real way, humans are getting hacked anytime we get distracted from our ultimate destiny, our dream. And the distractions are crazy big these days, and I’m sure we’ll get into it. It’s a pretty fun topic.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, unauthorized access, that’s sticking with me here.

Kary Oberbrunner
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that almost implies a hacker or a…Actually, I love the podcast the Darknet Diaries, it’s all about hackers.

Kary Oberbrunner
Sweet.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what do they call it, a threat actor, I think is the term they use a lot, whether that’s a nation or a company or an individual, kid in the basement. A threat actor is kind of getting unauthorized access into our heads, but sometimes it’s us.

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, what’s a universe of threat actors that are kind of the big culprits of hacking our systems?

Kary Oberbrunner
It can be a lot of things. Unsexy hacks are just laziness or Netflix or these types of things, but, in a real way, the human species is now wired to crave distractions. We know from all the psychology that distractions produce a break from stress, and we know that smartphones create dopamine and addictions. So, I’m all for technology; I love technology.

However, human knowledge, once doubled every thousand years, so think about that. It took, essentially, from the years zero to 1500 to double human knowledge. And then the next time was 250 years, and it kept going and going. And, now, we live in a world today where every 12 hours human knowledge is doubling, and so we can no longer keep up.

Our ancestors made a handful of decisions a day back not too long ago. Today, we make 35,000 decisions. And so, we literally wake up with this limited attention, and throughout the day we dip into that and we create what’s called decision fatigue so that, at the end of the day, we’re saying things like, “I’m burnt out. I’m running on fumes. I’m on empty.” And, in a real way, we can no longer keep up with the amount of stress and distractions that are in front of us today.

Pete Mockaitis
When we talk about human knowledge doubling, is that kind of like the printing press or like unique content published? Is that what you mean by knowledge?

Kary Oberbrunner
Everyone has become a publisher. Everyone has become a content creator. We used to have gatekeepers where you would try to get a record out, you would try to get your thoughts out and be printed in the paper. We now have YouTube. We all are our own TV station, press release system, newspaper. We’re literally producing mountains and mountains of information not to mention computing, AI, I mean, you name it. It’s just an exponential curve.

And our brains haven’t upgraded. So, technology has upgraded but our brains have not. And not only that, Pete, but we now have new terms. Digiphrenia. So, schizophrenia was multiple personalities, this type of thing. Well, digiphrenia is a legit term that basically means that we exist in multiple places at once in the digital space.

So, most people have a Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn, and so now, not only am I existing right now, Pete, but online I have a persona that’s existing that may be getting tweets and maybe getting comments. Not only that but you have the stress of trying to be consistent on all platforms at once. And so, there’s a tearing of the mind that happens. It’s literally a stress.

And not only that, the average person touch, clicks, taps, swipes their smartphone 2600 times a day according to dscout. We now have five hours a day but this is on screens, but it’s in 30-second bursts, so, not to mention COVID and kids now doing online school. Again, technology is not the enemy, but I’m saying technology used to be a tool that we used. Now, we’re the tool that technology is using.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s heavy stuff.

Kary Oberbrunner
It is heavy. It’s kind of like The Matrix, only real.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned psychological research. Could you share some striking stories or studies or evidence, bits, that kind of lay out – well, you dropped the numbers already, which is intriguing – in terms of like the state of play right now? And then what’s really possible if we take on some practices to become unhackable?

Kary Oberbrunner
Absolutely. So, right now, we have so many things going at us that a lot of us have adapted the lie of multitasking. And people get confused about multitasking, they say, “Surely, I can mow the lawn and listen to an audiobook. See, that’s multitasking.” Multitasking, we’re actually talking about doing two cognitive things at the same time. And so, therefore, it’d be like me trying to do a podcast with you right now and checking email and check my Instagram. When we do that, it’s not multitasking; it’s switch-tasking, our IQ drops 40 points, so it’s literally like being stoned.

And so, most of us, throughout the day, let’s be honest, we walk through the day stoned. And we do what’s called attention residue where part of my brain is still on the Instagram, part of my brain is on the email, part of my brain is with you. And not only is that productivity destruction but it’s relationship destruction. There’s a new term now called fobbing, not snobbing, where you’re trying to talk to me and I’m blowing you off or whatever, you’re blowing me off.

Now, when we’re talking with people, we’re looking at our smartphones. And this presence of relationship is now a thing of the past, and you can tell. I’ve got to do business on Zoom. You can tell when someone is watching or you can tell when someone is checking something else and something else, and it’s literally redefining the way we do relationships.

Kary Oberbrunner
But there is good news. There is good news.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us then, sort of, ultimately, how do we become unhackable?

Kary Oberbrunner
How do we become unhackable? I love it. So, here’s the thing, in the book, I break down unhackability into three things. I’ll give you the three easy-to-remember words and then we’ll bump it out a little bit. But it’s literally idea, focus, and flow. That’s what unhackability is: idea, focus, and flow. Notice it’s knowing, being, and doing.

So, to stress that a little bit more, it’s flawless idea anatomy, so we talk about, “How do you create flawless ideas?” and there’s four components. Then we go into deliberate magnetic focus, and there’s three focus filters. We’ll get into that. And then optimal human performance – flow. And so, certainly people will have read books or heard books on just flow, like Steven Kotler is kind of the grandfather of flow; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist. There’s been books on flow, there’s been books on focus, and then there’s been books on ideas, but, truly, an unhackable person is one who leverages all three.

And I’ll tell you why this is so important, because, as kids, we grow up saying a weird word; we said, “Abracadabra” anytime we wanted something magical to happen. We didn’t know what the word meant but we said it. The word actually means “I create as I speak.” I create as I speak. People who have faith, very interesting, it even gets crazier. It’s made up of three Hebrew words. Abba, which is father, and so it’s Father-Son-Spirit, Abracadabra. Really crazy interesting stuff.

In the faith tradition, it says that “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” In other words, Abracadabra. I believe that we’ve been created to dream and do, ideate and implement, and that is our divine destiny. And when we’re doing that, we’re actually living out our calling. But, unfortunately, most of us dream, then we get hacked. We ideate, and then we get hacked; we don’t implement.

So, to your point, let’s talk about focus filters. Yeah, focus filters is one component of how to become unhackable. I, basically, break down focus filters into three of them: urgency, agency, and energy. So, most people, your great listeners, they probably have a dream, they probably have a desire, but, unfortunately, we always get hacked until we apply those focus filters: urgency, agency, and energy.

So, just to give you an example, it’s a beach example. If I go out to the beach, I got a bald head, I can burn in about three hours, or I can burn in about three minutes. What’s the difference? A magnifying glass.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, sunscreen.

Kary Oberbrunner
Yeah, that’s right. A magnifying glass. So, same sun, same skin, but a magnifying glass, or what I call a focus filter, it amplifies the energy. So, it takes all that energy from the sun and puts it into a laser beam where you burn a whole into your skin. Or, in the metaphor we’re using, you burn a whole into your dream. You take that dream that you have where you keep getting hacked, and you, essentially, narrow your focus.
Urgency is that focus filter. So, what I mean by that is we need a deadline. Every dream needs a deadline. And think back to school days, Pete, remember when the professor assigned something on day one? When did most people actually do the assignment?

Pete Mockaitis
The night before.

Kary Oberbrunner
The night, Pete, you nailed it. A deadline amplified the energy. In other words, it said, “We’re going to get so focused. We’re going to get laser-focused.” Why? Because there’s a cost. If you don’t complete the assignment you get a bad grade. Well, what I’ve realized is that urgency is one of these amazing things, just like physical healthcare, what makes it super important? You put the word urgent in front of it. Urgent care. Now, all of a sudden, you get rushed, you get seen fast. Why? Because there’s a cost. Most of us do not have a cost attached to our dream, or a deadline. Those two components – deadlines and costs – make urgency work for us and become unhackable.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m intrigued then, I think of deadlines, they are often associated with other people in terms of it’s like closing a house or whatever. It’s sort of like the lawyers, the realtor, the somebody said, “This is when this has to be in.” And so, when you think about our own dreams, how do we effectively harness a deadline so that there does seem like there’s a real cost? Like, if I do some work on a project tomorrow, I could do it the next day or the day after. How do I get urgency to be real and the cost to be real?

Kary Oberbrunner
Just to give you some client examples, I had one client who kept blowing off his weight dream, like, “I want to get down to a certain weight. I want to get down to a certain weight,” and he just struggled and struggled and struggled. Finally, he said, “Okay, I’m going to put a real cost behind this.” And I won’t tell you which political party he hates but he hates a certain political party so much that he said, “I will write out a check right now for $1,000 to the political party that I hate. I will put it in an envelope, I will put a stamp on it, and it will sit on my desk, and if I do not lose…” and this guy was a pretty big dude, “…if I did not lose 50 pounds by this day, that check is in the mail.”

I’ll tell you what, first time in his life he ever did it. He lost the weight because it, suddenly, was a real cost, which not just was a $1,000 but a “$1,000 to a political system that I do not like,” it was big enough. And I don’t know what people’s cost is but it needs to hurt. In other words, Pete, it needs to hurt so much that doing the dream is easier than paying the cost.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. There’s an episode of Nathan For You, it’s a comedy show, it’s kind of ridiculous that kind of explored this concept. You might enjoy that episode if you haven’t seen it.

Kary Oberbrunner
I might. I might, after you quote that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s intriguing. And I wonder if people are like, “Oh, I wouldn’t trust myself to actually do it.” I mean, you could sort of entrust that with a friend who happens to have the opposite political party affiliation.

Kary Oberbrunner
He did. He did. He told me.

Pete Mockaitis
And they’ll be eager to give it to that side. But then, also, they’re your friend so they’re not going to just sort of make a $1,000 of yours disappear without your consent.

Kary Oberbrunner
Exactly. Exactly. But that’s one example. But here’s another thing, Pete, it really becomes a mindset change. Unhackable people are victors, and hacked people are victims. And this is not my own but I love it, it’s a great illustration. Victims say, “The world happens to me.” Now, I’m not talking about victims of trauma or this type of thing, but I’m saying a victim mindset. So, a victim says, “The world happens to me.” And what happens is they often lie in bed – blame, excuses, and denial.

The victor, the one who’s unhackable, says, “I happen to the world.” These are people that put their quote “Oar in the water,” O-A-R, ownership, accountability, and responsibility. So, they literally take accountability for their lives. They literally are responsible. They take ownership. It’s not just a nice acronym. This is the difference between Capt. Sully on the flight. He didn’t ask the Canada geese to hit the propeller, but when Jeff, his copilot, was flying the plane, Sully said the magic words, “My plane.” And Jeff said, “Your plane.”

In other words, he took ownership, accountability, and responsibility. He took over that bird strike because he was unhackable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so that’s one way to make a deadline real. Let’s hit the agency and the energy. How do we crank that up?

Kary Oberbrunner
Yeah. Agency, I’ll give you an example. When I get my oil changed at the dealer, I suddenly walk into their agency. Let me explain.

Chairs, magazines, Donahue is on the TV, or something crazy. In other words, I walk into their space and it’s their agency. Many people have that reality. In other words, no judgment, but when I fly on an airplane and look to the person next to me, they’re bored as heck, they’re flipping through the magazine, they’re busting out their phone.

Listen, if you got a dream, you’re not chilling like that. And I’m not saying you always got to be working, but I’m saying that, in the book we talk about what’s called your boon. Your boon is your deepest desire, your greatest ache, your truest longing. It comes from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Luke Skywalker, Neo, Katniss Everdeen, Hunger Games, Star Wars, you name it, Matrix. The hero’s journey is all about leaving the ordinary world, meeting a mentor, refusing the call, going into this special world, facing the giant, we think it’s external, it’s really ourselves or the ones who hack ourselves most of the time. But then, after we defeat the giant, we essentially get the boon. The boon is the holy grail. The boon is the elixir.

Let me say this, Pete. We don’t care if we get hacked until we know our boon. So, in other words, when I don’t know my boon, I’m like, “Hey, come on, Netflix, come on, XBOX, come on, all distractions in the world. What’s going on, on TV?” In other words, I actually purposely try to distract myself because it gives me this pseudo-purpose. But a someone who knows their boon, man, they are fighting for that. And that’s what really kicks us into unhackability, is knowing our boon.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so how do you recommend we get some clarity and specificity on our boon, our deepest desire and calling and such?

Kary Oberbrunner
Well, I do have a free download, no email opt-in required. It’s at UnhackableBook.com, and if they click Resources, there’s 83 questions that gets you started, and these questions are fun. One question is, “What’s one thing you would regret not doing before you die?” It’s deep questions. It’s questions that you don’t just address every single day, but these are deep questions.

And what we begin to see is this melody line. It often doesn’t come just in one lightning bolt. It often comes with, I say, dream recovery, not dream discovery. In other words, your show is great and it probably talks about how we need to recover our dream. In other words, if you ask most kids, I’ve never met a young kid who said, when you ask them, “What do you want to be when you get older?” “Oh, I don’t know. I have no clue.”

I think we are born with this innate sense, maybe not exactly, but in the ballpark. Like, some people just say, “I know I was born to be on the stage.” Now, they might’ve thought the stage was one thing. Or, “I was born to always care for animals.” We lose sight of who we are along the way because we start listening to the voices of others. In other words, other people’s advice hacks us, “Pete, you won’t make money out of that,” or, “That’s not a well-paying job,” or, “That’s not a respectable job.” And, suddenly, we start listening, and that’s another way that we allow other people to gain unauthorized access to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, 83 questions, we can do some exploration, reflection, rediscovery there. And then how about energy?

Kary Oberbrunner
I think clarity…

Pete Mockaitis
What was that?

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yeah, yeah. I was just going to say clarity comes with action. I think that we don’t just sit in a room and wait for the clarity to come. A lot of times we have to work it out, we have to try, we have to experiment. But back to your phrase about energy. Energy is that last focus filter. And energy is super cool, super exciting.

Are you familiar with Twenty One Pilots? Have you ever heard of them? A band?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know.

Kary Oberbrunner
Okay. So, it’s a band, and there’s tons of bands out there so I don’t expect you to know, but the Twenty One Pilots are a band, and I’m just going to use…I like to tell stories to make a point. They come from my hometown Columbus, and they won a Grammy. But, well before they won a Grammy, nobody knew about them. And what’s interesting is you can actually go on YouTube and you can find one of their very first concerts, and it’s pitiful. There’s 12 people and it’s in a basement.

And the craziest thing in the world is that the lead singer is so enthusiastic. Oh, my gosh, like the guy is on fire, and you’re kind of like, “What the heck, man? There’s 12 people in the basement.” He had what’s called an enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the word entheos, God within. This is part of becoming unhackable.

What gets you on a bigger stage is enthusiasm. Most people say to the universe, they say, “Once I’m on a bigger stage…” “Once I have a big platform…” “Once I have a big show…” “Once I have a big business, then I’ll be enthusiastic.” No, no, no, you have enthusiasm, and that’s what gets you on the bigger stage. So, just like you, Pete, just like me, I mean, you’re successful, I’m successful. Why? Because we treated those first five listeners like rock stars. We didn’t say, “Hey, I’m going to overlook those first five listeners. And, some day, when I have a big tribe, a big showing…” No, no, no, this is what unhackable takes. It takes that energy where energy is E-motion. Energy in motion.

Like passion. I love the word passion. I’m into words. I’m a word nerd. But the word passion, very interesting. The ancients define passion not by how much love you had, but by how much you’re willing to suffer. So, that’s why I never understood, “Why was it called ‘The Passion of the Christ’? and there was talk about a cross? What the heck?” It’s because He was willing to suffer for it.

And so, I just want to challenge your listeners. Your boon is something you’re willing to suffer for. I mean, you look at any great person, they had to suffer for their dream and it had a cost. And so, energy is that focus filter where that’s what really helps us become unhackable when we focus urgency, energy, and agency.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the energy is comparable to passion and the willingness to suffer? Is that the key there? And then, I suppose, we get that by successfully tapping into the boon.

Kary Oberbrunner
Absolutely. It comes with clarity. Like, Rosa Parks, she was unhackable, man. Like, you look at her, she says, “I’m not getting up off this seat. Like, I’m not going to,” and she suffered for it. There’s people all throughout history that suffered for their dream. And being unhackable, let’s face it, choosing not to binge on Netflix every day when it’s in front of you, that takes some suffering. Whatever your dream is, we can go through the list, but whether it’s physical, spiritual, mental, relational, this type of unhackability does require a suffering.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so in your book you talk about a 30-day elixir. And so, we’ve talked about a number of things that are important along the way. So, can you maybe share what are some particular real practices or interventions that help us get to, let’s say, the superhuman focus?

Kary Oberbrunner
Yeah. So, here’s an example for Day 17. So, right now, there’s a lot of open loops inside your brain and mine. These could be open loops, like, right now, mine is, “Call the plumber because we got a leak upstairs.” It could be, “Mulch the yard.” It could be, “Mail the letter.” It could be, “Buy the birthday gift.” In other words, most of us have this subconscious program that’s running all the time in the background.

Now, we don’t think about it but just like your computer has multiple tabs on it, the more programs, the more browsers, the more tabs, the more time and energy sucked, the RAM goes down. Actually, the available RAM goes down because the RAM you’re using, it goes up. And what I’m saying is that any open loop, any indecision that you and I have, is grinding on our productivity.

So, one of the exercises I have people do, my clients, I say, “Grab a stack of Post-it notes and, literally, write down one per, one task, one open loop, per Post-it note.” And so, what people do is they begin to lay out all these Post-it notes on their desk everything that we just talked about, all the open loops, all the undecided things, because it’s literally leaking their lifeforce, it’s leaking their energy. They’re getting hacked by it.

These are the things we get up in the middle of the night and say, “Oh, my gosh, I forgot to get the dog immunized,” or whatever. Then what we do is we write on a piece of paper, “Do, delegate, and dump.” So, I encourage people to do this, like, literally in their house – do, delegate, and dump. You don’t put delay. Delay is what we always think about, “Ah, I’ll just delay it. I’ll just delay it.” Do means you’re going to do it, delegate means someone else is going to do it, and dump means no one is going to do it.

And what we do is we do this on purpose, this exercise, because what it does is it clears the mind. It literally frees up your RAM. In the book, we talk about the unhackable impact equation. And, sure enough, when you go through this exercise, you begin to free up your brain, and you allow it to have more usefulness for what you’re boon is rather than chewing up all these open loops. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it’s the act of categorizing these that unleashes it or do we actually have to get them all done?

Kary Oberbrunner
First of all, by seeing them written down automatically takes them from being internal to external. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed and I don’t even know why I feel overwhelmed. I’m just like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a lot to do.” And if you actually slow down and say, “Well, what are those things to do?” this is the exercise. We stop, we slow down, and we allow ourselves to unload this, first of all. It goes from internal to external. Now, I’m looking at it.

The moment something is external, now I can make a decision. The word decide is a Latin word caedere. It has the same suffix as suicide, pesticide, insecticide, genocide, homicide. Decide means to cut off and kill. And so, what does a gardener do to a tree that’s unhealthy with sap going into all of its branches? He cuts them off. He prunes them. In other words, that’s what we’re doing. We’re deciding that, “I’m going to do it.” Or, we’re deciding that someone else is going to do it, delegation. Or, we’re deciding that no one is going to do it, dumping. And you, literally, open up your subconscious mind to focus on your boon. It’s a very cleansing process.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is nice and I’ve done variants of it and it sure does feel great. Let’s hear a piece about flow.

Kary Oberbrunner
Oh, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
How do you recommend or what are the sort of your top perspectives on how to get more flow flowing?

Kary Oberbrunner
Flow is amazing. Flow is the optimal state of human performance. It’s the place we all must be in to win a gold medal, but not only that. For those of us who aren’t athletes, it’s where productivity skyrockets up to 500%. It’s where we begin to see pattern recognition. It’s called lateral thinking. So, how do we get into flow? There are flow triggers.

One of the flow triggers, believe it or not, is a deadline. Another flow trigger is novelty. Interesting, novelty. So, what that means is that when we are stuck in a rut, we go through the same route every single day, with the same menu, and the same restaurant, and we sit in the same table. What happens is we begin to go on autopilot. And when we’re on autopilot, the brain is an energy hog and it wants to essentially map out everything through our day so it can conserve energy.

When you are on autopilot, you don’t experience flow. So, how do you interrupt the autopilot? By novelty, by doing things, by going places, by having experiences that you’ve never had before, because the brain has to engage, because there’s an element of surprise, there’s an element of unpredictability. And so, many times people feel in flow when they go travel somewhere.

And so, Pete, to get really philosophical here, we’re in a pandemic. There’s a lot of people that haven’t been able to travel. They’re not experiencing novelty. What’s the result? They’re getting hacked. And then what else is happening? Not to be a downer, but mental health. And in Japan, a few months ago, more people died of suicide than all of COVID the whole year in one month. Why? Because all of this relates.

In other words, unhackable people are people who have flawless idea anatomy, deliberate magnetic focus, optimal human performance. And one of the byproducts is that we get neurochemicals. And so, the neurochemicals are endorphins and norepinephrine and anandamide. All these neurochemicals that are supposed to be happening in our brain don’t happen when we’re not in flow, and that’s why depression is on the rise.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, noted and, yet, there are some simple thing that we can do to fix that.

Kary Oberbrunner
Exercise, yeah, all kinds of good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, why don’t you give us the quick bulleted list here? Exercise. What else?

Kary Oberbrunner
So, exercise, sleep, okay? When we starve our brains of sleep, I mean, I get it, but we’re actually not allowing, just like back in the day, all day, I’m older than you, a long time ago, but defragging your computer. Literally, the brain repairs itself in sleep. Margin, where you’re not just blowing out your adrenal glands and cortisol. Eating the right way. Think about it. We call it carb crashes, sugar rushes, caffeine fixes. All of these are essentially altering the chemistry to create a certain type of feeling. Well, we can do that naturally. Community. Having good discussions where time seems to go by like that. Why? Because you’re in flow. And when you’re in flow, there is a time dilation that occurs where it either slows down or speeds up.

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

Kary Oberbrunner
I’ll tell you what, I mean, I think people’s eyes are open now. More and more my clients are saying, “Man, I got hacked last weekend.” And people who don’t know the vocab, they’re like, “What? What do you mean you got hacked?” They’re now aware of it. So, awareness is really the first step. Just, for all the listeners to realize, like, “When did you get hacked? When did you just blow through five hours and you don’t even remember what you did? But you scrolled, these types of things.” And we do have an unhackability assessment. Again, all my stuff to help is free in this area because I just have a passion. I believe that when we are living our calling, when we’re fully alive, that’s our greatest contribution.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Kary Oberbrunner
Carl Jung said, “What’s the most damaging thing in the life of a child? it’s the unlived life of the parent.” And that’s a negative, but I view that as a very inspirational quote because it makes me want to live the lived life not the unlived life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Kary Oberbrunner
The current one that I’m digging is, believe it or not, The Psychology of Money. I just finished that. I like it. It reframes the way we think of money.

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

Kary Oberbrunner
Audiobooks, man. I love them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Kary Oberbrunner
My Peloton.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate and folks quote back to you frequently?

Kary Oberbrunner
“Show up filled up.” It basically means that you are doing the work internally before you ever step foot into the world every single day, and you attract people, you get clients. Why? Because they’re like, “Something is different about this person.” You show up filled up.

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

Kary Oberbrunner
I would say go to UnhackableBook.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?

Kary Oberbrunner
I’d say, look, even if you’re not in the right job, your ultimate calling, don’t waste the time. Back to our original thing with Shawshank and Andy, that dude didn’t just sit in prison. He was very resourceful, digging a hole on the side of the prison. So, I just want to encourage people, like, whether you’re in the right job or the wrong job, be all there because it matters.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kary, thanks for sharing the good word. I wish you many, many fun unhackable adventures.

Kary Oberbrunner
Thanks for the amazing interview, Pete.

636: How to Advance Your Most Important Priorities with Eric Papp

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Eric Papp says: "Preparation begets confidence."

Eric Papp shares foundational perspectives on saving time and prioritizing effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The one question that cuts your tasks in half 
  2. The strategy that makes plans stick 
  3. The key to starting off your week right 

About Eric

Eric Papp has a successful history of delivering proven strategies to increase productivity and performance in a complex world. 

Before becoming the success he is today, Eric earned his B.A. from the University of Notre Dame. He founded Agape leadership, LLC, an intellectual capital firm focusing on leadership and sales for business performance, with the sole purpose of driving leaders and their teams to success.

As a successful author and public speaker since 2010, he has worked with thousands of managers to aid teams toward success.

Eric Papp has been evaluated as one of the top management trainers in North America for his expertise in leadership effectiveness. His books Leadership By Choice and 3 Values of Being An Effective Person — published by John Wiley and Sons — are both top sellers and recognized for their unique impact in the business world.

Eric now lives in Tampa, FL with his wife Brieann and their daughter Elliana. In his spare time, Eric frequents his local church, engages the community, and practices the kettlebell.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Eric Papp Interview Transcript

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

Eric Papp
Hey, Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I am excited to dig into your wisdom and I know one thing you’re excited about is the Kettlebell. I like your shirt. Could you read it for the audience who’s listening?

Eric Papp
Oh, man. It says, “I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Kettlebell,” which, of course, is a play on the SNL skit with Will Ferrell where he’s talking about more cowbell.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That’s right. And what do you love about the Kettlebell and what should we know if we’re at home and not going into the gym, thinking about workouts?

Eric Papp
Oh, man. It combines all three: strength, endurance, and flexibility. And it is probably one of the most effective pieces of equipment, bar none. Kettlebell swings to build endurance and flexibility, Turkish get-ups to build overall strength, and it’s incredible in terms of you do a 10, 20 minutes and the return on it on time is phenomenal.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, now you got my attention. The return in terms of energy, in terms of strength, they’re feeling amazing. What kind of return are we talking about?

Eric Papp
Yeah, all of the above in terms of returning. And they’ve done some studies, like when someone is doing a Kettlebell swing based upon your metabolic rate and all that stuff, it’s like equivalent to running like a six-minute mile.

And then one of the great things, obviously, in the situation that we’re in now is you can do it from the comforts of your own home. And that’s also, by the time it takes you to go in your car and go to the gym and come back, you can already be done with your training.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I like effective, I like returns, and we’re talking about just that productivity, and “Better Thinking vs. More Effort” is a title of one of your keynotes. That sounds right up our alley. So, tell us, what’s the big idea there?

Eric Papp
Yeah, better thinking versus more effort. You know, I think so often than not, as knowledge workers, and especially being here in America, there’s always a pressure to do more, get in there early, stay later, climb the ladder. And that is good in a sense, and even for companies too, “I’ll take on more projects. Let’s do more initiatives. Let’s get more joint ventures going.” And that can be good to some degree but then also, it breathes a lot of complexity, it breathes a lot of, “Okay, we got our hand in a lot of different things. What are we really focused on? Where are we really moving the needle?”

And better thinking is really thinking about taking a step back and identifying the two or three projects that we can really move the mile as opposed to trying to move a hundred things an inch. And that’s really where it comes down to, is to be able to subtract and to simplify and then get to a higher level of performance or productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds great. And so, by doing better thinking, you’re able to exert less effort and get similar or superior results. Could you paint a picture of that for us, maybe the case of a particular person or client or study? Like, just how much is possible if we could go down this route?

Eric Papp
So, on a macro level, on a company personal level that everybody knows, Apple, Steve Jobs, right? Listeners out there, probably 70% or 80% of your listeners have some form of Apple product whether it’s an iPhone or MacBook Pro, whatever it is. Steve Jobs, in a sense, was forced out of his own company that he creates. He comes back right around 1996-1997. In that timeframe, Apple is just on the ropes. And, once again, they were trying to do too much. They had their hand in everything: scanners, printers, you name it.

And he comes back, and a family friend asked him, they said, “Steve, what desktop computer should we buy? You’ve got 17 of them that Apple offers.” And he says, “Shoot, I don’t even know.” So, he cut down all the desktop computers and only did one. He says, “Okay, we’re going to cut everything out, all the desktops, and we’re just going to produce one.”

He really did a great example of better thinking versus more effort, and it requires that ability to take a to step back to really do the hard thinking, and that’s a lot of times what we don’t want to do because we want the quick fix, and then we want to just kind of stay busy, and then that kind of consumes us, consumes our time. And then look what happened to Apple. If you had stock, if you bought Apple stock in the early 2000s or even late 1990s, it’s incredible. My father-in law had Apple stock, he still does, and it’s just mind boggling the return he’s made on that. And then a large part comes from Steve Jobs coming back, applying better thinking versus more effort.

Pete Mockaitis
And that does resonate in terms of whether it’s a business with their products or an individual with the to-do list, just what you can accomplish there.

Eric Papp
Oh, yeah, I was going to say, on a micro level, so a colleague of ours, James Clear, he wrote the book Atomic Habits.

Eric Papp
He started off 2011-2012 just writing a newsletter. Would write one on Monday, I think, would write it on Thursday. From the first year, he had, I want to say, around 100,000 subscribers, and then that’s all he did. And I think he had a day job at the same time and just kept building on that, building on that, then writes a book. And then his newsletter just went over one million subscribers, and it’s absolutely mind boggling, right? So, that’s a great testament to, okay, sticking with the one thing and really getting good at that and staying the course.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so I’m into that. And tell us then, with this better thinking, are there some key questions in terms of identifying what is the stuff that makes the impact and what is the stuff that we should cut?

Eric Papp
First thing I look at is subtraction, right? One of the questions we ask ourselves is, “Hey, if I stop doing this, would anything happen? Would anybody notice?” because a lot of times we do things out of obligation or we do things because, “Oh, that’s what the person did before me,” or, “Oh, that’s what I’ve always done.” So, that’s the great question to ask ourselves, “If I stop doing this, or these activities, what’s the impact?”

And a lot of times there’s not an impact. And so, that’s a great way because we want to start to allow ourselves that room, that space. It’s kind of like I think it was Claude Bristol who said, “It’s the space between the notes that creates the music.” And I think we really need more of that, that ability to not fill our day up with everything and anything because we really need…things are going to come up as they naturally do, but also we need that time to just going for a walk, let that thinking time to take a step back.

And by not filling our calendar up with everything, it allows that room for us to really start to process and analyze, “Okay, these projects, are they really important? Are we really making progress or are we just kind of going through the motions?” So, the first part I would say is to subtract. The second part would be really good to look at is to simplify and to see, “Okay, of all the complexity, how can we make this simpler? How can we make this easier? How can we reduce the friction to get the result that we want?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I love that. And that’s intriguing in terms of, “Would anybody notice if I stopped doing this?” I guess, how do you get to the answer to that? One, you could just try it, try to stop doing it and see if anyone reaches out to you. Other ways you’d recommend in terms of, I think if you’re in organizations and collaborating with folks, there can be some resistance in terms of, “Well, that’s just what we do. This is what we’ve always done,” or, “This is how this works. That is the process”? So, any thoughts on how when there’s other stakeholders and people in the mix, you interact with them to get things moving?

Eric Papp
I use a couple tools that I created. One the effectiveness process. Another tool called organizing, clarify your thinking to really get the goal, impact and focus down, because a lot of times in organizations, people just launch into projects and they don’t know what’s the desired outcome. They don’t know what success looks like. They don’t know what’s the time involved, “Who else can we collaborate with?” things that you think that are basic. And then the person gets tasked with something, and then they’re not fully doing it, and then the manager gets upset or the director gets upset. That’s where we get back to, like I was saying earlier, moving a hundred things an inch.

So, I think right from the start of it, it’s just for all of us to spend more time in the asking ourselves a question, “Okay, what’s my desired outcome? What does success look like? What’s the impact if I do this? What’s the impact if I don’t do this? And then, do I have the bandwidth right now to carry this out? What level of a priority is this for me? Is this a top three or is this just a good idea?” Because the key thing we always have to remember as human beings is we will always generate more ideas than there is the ability and our capacity to execute them.

And that is where I see kind of the downfall. Even as entrepreneurs, managers, it doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur or it doesn’t matter if you’re inside of a company, but we’ll always have good ideas. But always remember that our capacity to execute all of them, we don’t have that. And so, we really have to be diligent of selecting just a few and then really going deep with what we’ve selected.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, we’ve zeroed in on what to eliminate. And then I’d like to get some indicators then on, let’s just imagine, okay, we had a hundred ideas or there’s a hundred things vying for our attention. And, hey, great job, we successfully eliminated half of them, which is cool. And so, we are twice as clear as we were before. Nonetheless, how do you recommend that we zero in from, I guess, the semi-finalists to those top three?

Eric Papp
Yeah, great question. And it goes with what is our desired future. What’s the future that we’re living into? At any point in our lives, we’re always thinking, we’re either in three different mindsets. We’re in the past, we’re like, “Oh, man, 2019 was such a great year, and we were gathering and we did this, and our company I did this,” or we are in the present, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What’s important right now?” That acronym WIN, “What’s important now?” Or, we’re in the future, we’re thinking about. “Hey, where do I want to be?”

And sometimes we have to be very mindful of how we’re thinking because sometimes we’re dominated by the past, we’re, “Oh, my gosh, this is so bad. I can’t. I wish it was this time. I wish it was…” And so, asking ourselves, “Okay, what’s the desired future that I want?” and then just backtracking it. It’s, “Okay, what’s the desired future? And then now what are the projects that I think will get us there?” And a lot of times we overestimate what we can do in a day but yet we underestimate what we can do in a year.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s true. And, well, talking about those timeline horizons with the day and the year, you’ve got something you’ve created called the Weekly Strategy Sheet. Tell us, how do we think about that and use it to plan priorities?

Eric Papp
Yeah. So often than not, where this kind of came from, Pete, is when you ask people, you would say, like, “Hey, what did you do last week?” “Oh,” they’d look at you and it’s kind of like, “Oh,” they really couldn’t give a definitive answer, it’s like, “Oh, I got a lot of emails done. I was in a lot of meetings.” And so, this is really to give people a high-level overview, a high-level strategy of, “Okay, what’s most important this week?”

First of all, there’s three parts. There’s past, present, and future. And the idea is, okay, we celebrate our past, we connect with our present here, and then we commit to the future. And so, the idea is, over time, as we’re planning our week, is to see some synergy between the past, present, and future. And we identify, so in the past, celebrate the past, “Okay, great. What are the top three or five accomplishments I accomplished last week that were very meaningful to me in my business or in my role? Okay, great. I’m going to list them down,” because that’s going to give us confidence.

Our confidence comes from seeing the progress and what matters most to us, and whether that’s personal or professional. So, great, we can see that. When you write it down, it helps us keep moving forward. But a lot of times, in our culture, we don’t. We focus on where we are and where we want to go. And I call that, you got to be careful because that’s kind of frustrationville, right? That’s comparison, that’s, “Oh, man, well, I see this person on social media. Oh, I see this.” So, I get people to take a look back and to see all the progress that they’re making and have this on a weekly basis.

And the middle part then is we’re looking to really kind of connect with the present, “Okay, what are my top three weekly priorities this week? If everything goes to H-E Double Hockey Sticks, what’s the three most important things I want to get done, I want to accomplish?” and then the future. And I need to future-plan it, I use the OKR Method, Objective and Key Results, “What do you want accomplished and how you’re going to get it done?”

And, like I said, the whole idea of using the Weekly Strategy Sheet, it takes under 20 minutes to plan it out but it’s so important because a lot of times, as knowledge workers, we don’t plan our weeks. We just go from one week to the next, and we kind of kid ourselves that, “Oh, something will be different,” or, “Oh, this will turn around.” But if we don’t really get a handle on the planning aspect, then the execution kind of falls short.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious, so we got the Weekly Strategy Sheet, and so then you can reference it at the end of the week. It’s written, it’s there, you see, “Hey, this is what I accomplished. That’s cool.” And you zero in on those top three priorities. How do you think about it in terms of, I guess, scheduling or calendaring or putting time against those things within the week?

Eric Papp
Well, you got to have a day where you actually spend time to plan. Having a planning day, I like to do mine on a Friday. Sometimes I do it on a Thursday late afternoon. But when you have that time to really devote to the planning, and you’re not trying to fill up your week either. You’re not trying to. You’re just saying, “Okay, what are the three most important things?” And, also, too, those three most important things, you might get those done in two days, and that might very well be, and that’s okay. But it’s really to give you a better sense of clarity and organization.

Pete Mockaitis
So, within that planning time, and so it sounds like this isn’t a 10-minute operation but it’s a bit more in-depth. What are you doing with that planning time?

Eric Papp
Yeah, you’re going from left to right: past, present, and future. So, I’ve got my Weekly Strategy Sheet, it’s sitting right here on my desktop, and this is the week of January 4th or the 8th, and, boom, okay, I celebrate the past, I write down my top five accomplishments, and I make some personal or two personals in there as well, and then I check in with the present, “What are my top three weekly priorities? And then, what’s for the future, my objective and key results?” And that can change as well.

But you’ll see when you ask people, “Hey, do you plan your week?” A lot of people don’t and then some people that do kind of quickly plan their week. The more that we spend time planning our week and really being diligent about that, and we’ll get better. A, you’ll get better at it, and, B, you’ll be able to get your priorities done and things done with a lot greater intention. And that’s kind of the cool thing and you’ll actually have more time. You’ll be accomplishing more and you’ll have more time when things come up that you’ll be more able to more flexible.

I think one of the things it gives people is it helps relieve some of this, the pressure of time that a lot of people are faced with nowadays.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you maybe do an hour with the Weekly Strategy Sheet planning process? Or, roughly how long are you doing there?

Eric Papp
Yeah, I’d say it’s about an hour. Sometimes I’ll go…what I’ll do is I’ll take two cracks at it. I’ll look at it Friday, and then I might look at it again on Monday and just make some adjustments just to make sure that, okay, I’m on track for this week. But it really gives me that structure and it really gives me that guidance. Because the other thing too is, as knowledge workers, our confidence, we have to protect that, right?

And so, if we know, as human beings, if I’m making progress, that I’m feeling good about myself, and so that’s so important. And knowing that I’m progressing towards where I want to go. And so, by doing this, it really helps us with that. So, yeah, it’s about an hour or some people have done it under an hour. I’m typically around that dependent upon how detail I get with it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re saying that that hour you spend there ends up saving significantly more than one hour during the course of executing the week.

Eric Papp
Tremendously, yeah. And I don’t remember who said it or where I read it, but it was something like, “For every minute you spend planning, it gives you 10 additional minutes,” or you save 10 additional minutes, or something like that, so, yeah, it’s kind of like that 10-to-1 ratio, yeah. And so, that’s why the planning is so important. And you get better at it too as you go on.

A lot of times we just start our day very reactive, right? When I say reactive, we just start our day, we watch the news, listen to the news, or we start our day reading emails, checking emails. And so, we’re not really proactive. We’re just responding to whatever is in our inbox, whatever is most pressing. And often what’s a priority gets masked with a hundred different other things.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks have a hard time letting go, because I think what could be perhaps a mistake, and you tell me about the biggest mistakes you see when folks are trying to manage their time, is you say, “Okay, these are the really critical priorities, and so we kind of go after those.” But we don’t really subtract, we don’t really let go of the other things, and then we’re just sort of get stressed because it’s like, “Well, no, I really identified and I’m totally clear that these things are critical but I’m still doing everything else.” So, if there’s an emotional hurdle or a hump or resistance, how do you recommend we get through that?

Eric Papp
You’re spot on, Pete. It’s absolutely right because I’ll see people are like, “Oh, I need more time,” or, “Oh, yeah.” Like, I’ll recommend or something, and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t have time to read this now.” It’s like, “You’re not planning, you’re not prioritizing, that’s what it really comes down to because you’re trying to do everything, and you’re regarding everything has the same level of importance when it doesn’t. So, then you can’t multiply your output and you can’t leverage what you’re doing.”

So, one of the things I share with people is come at it with like a spirit of experimentation, experiment of like trial and error. A lot of times we want certainty as human beings, we want to know, “Hey, if I do this, is it going to give me this? Or, if I don’t do this, this will alleviate this problem.” And so, it’s like, “Hey, just test it out.”

And then, also, I share too the idea of when you give yourself less time, we tend to be more productive. A little story, a little sidenote on this, is when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when he was President, he had an advisor, Harry Hopkins. And Harry, due to some health issues and such, could only work three to four hours a day. However, he was one of the most effective advisors for FDR. Winston Churchill went so far to call him like Lord Heart of the Matter. And the reason why is, hey, he only had three, four hours, so then, therefore, it really caused him to think deliberately about, “Okay, what am I going to do in the time that I do have?”

Because there’s that whole Parkinson’s Law, right? And work expands to fill the time necessary for its completion. So, if we give ourselves eight hours a day, we’re going to fill it with eight hours. If we give ourselves 10 hours, then we’re going to fill it with 10 hours, and so that’s a very interesting thing. And you’ll see this not only from a time standpoint but you’ll also see this from like a storage standpoint. Like, when somebody has a house, they went from like, let’s say, a thousand square foot house, or 2,000 square foot house. Well, over time, they’re going to fill that house up with stuff. Why? Because they’re just going to fill it up with stuff.

So, it takes a deliberate level of discipline and just mindfulness, too, of, “Okay, hey, we don’t want to be over cluttered. I don’t want to be overwhelmed. Just because I have the capacity doesn’t mean I need to buy more stuff.” So, that’s kind of the idea on that. But yet, somehow, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot by adding more and doing more.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And I know you’ve also zeroed in on some key habits of super achievers. Can you tell us what are they and how do we go about developing them?

Eric Papp
Yeah, I’d say some of the habits of super achievers, number one, is to get a real clear sense, and we’ve talked about this a little bit earlier, of what your future is. Knowing what it is that you want in your future, that’s a key thing. The second thing I would say is knowing what are some of your unique talents. Super achievers are very good at knowing what their unique talents are, and then spending time working on those talents.

And then, after a while, people take a step back and, “Wow, that’s a master at work. Wow, that person, they’re at the top of their field.” So, that’s a big thing. Knowing what you want and then knowing your talents, what you’re good at or what you like to do, and then really spending time learning more every day, and getting better. Just getting 1% better, reading more, talking to people. And then when you take a step back, then you see, then you’re kind of regarded as a super achiever. People are like, “Wow, that person, look at the gains they’ve made.”

And it’s not anything that they’re extraordinary. In some cases, talent is there already but other cases it’s the talent that has been cultivated over and over. It’s kind of like water dropping on a stone. It’s just that over and over and over, that repetitive nature, eventually it changes the stone and it forms the stone into something unique.

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

Eric Papp
No, I think we’re right on track. We’re doing great.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Eric Papp
Well, one of them I already mentioned, and it’s a quote that’s just been top of mind. Our capacity to generate ideas will always be greater than our ability to execute.

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

Eric Papp
A lot of what I’m saying is in alignment with Richard Koch, his idea on The 80/20 Principle. And what I’m talking about is kind of from Pareto and going back and looking at that. So, a lot of that is if somebody wants to explore more or go deeper into being able to identify priorities and such, that’d be good to look at.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great one and I think a lot of people have heard about the 80/20 rule, but he’s just like, “You’re not taking it nearly far enough.” Like, that’s the theme that hits it over and over again at each chapter. It’s like, “All right, man. You got it.” And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Eric Papp
I would say a notebook that I have. I’ve got the Priority Planner that I use. It’s something that I created. It’s in its third edition. And this keeps me focused because it’s the way I’ve created it. It’s three wins from yesterday so it causes me every day to write down what are my accomplishments from the exact day before. So, this helps keep my confidence high, and that’s one of the top things I need to protect as a knowledge worker.

And then it says three priorities for today. So, it’s asking me, “Okay, what are my three priorities?” And sometimes I just only identify one or two, and then in that way I feel great about accomplishing that. And the next part I have, “Stay curious, stay creative.” I ask questions throughout the day. I think that’s important, too, is write down questions.

When questions come up, just write them down if you don’t know the answer to them because a lot of times we get stuck with, “I don’t know how to figure that out.” And it’s very easy to kind of throw up our hands or say, “Oh, that’s somebody else’s responsibility. That’s somebody else’s department.” But just write down the question because there’s a great chance that you just kind of sit with it, you’ll get the idea, it will come to you later on.

Pete Mockaitis
And any other favorite habits for you personally?

Eric Papp
Spending time, taking care of yourself physically, whether it’s going for a walk. I go for occasional morning walks. I also cycle. I’ve got the Peloton here, so cycling. And that’s great because it’s low impact on the knees. And then, obviously, the Kettlebell, so alternating between cardio and strength. So, exercise is such an important part. And not so much just from like a vanity standpoint but so much from it clears your mind.

I can’t tell you, Pete, how many times where I‘ve just gone for a walk or I’ve gone on a bike ride, and then I’ll come back with like three great ideas that I’ll write down just of different things, or an email to ask somebody or a question. And then spending time in scripture with the Bible, just reading some of the New Testament. I do a little thing called Lectio Divina, and I’ll read a little small passage of the New Testament, and then just kind of ask questions, just journal from there.

And then, also, every day in the morning, I usually just start to write. I just kind of start typing or writing just to kind of empty, purge all the stuff in my head, whatever it is. It might be questions, it might be concerns, it might be what I’m excited about, just whatever it is, because I find that to be a wonderful clearing process so I can start my day be in the present moment.

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

Eric Papp
Well, I would say preparation begets confidence. And that comes from planning your day, right? When you’re prepared, when you’re planning your day, kind of know where you want to go, then when things do come up, then you have the flexibility to adapt. Oh, here’s something that I say, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall never be bent out of shape.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Eric Papp
And I think 2020 was a great reminder that we all had to have flexibility. It teaches us a lesson, flexibility. And, also, a lesson in resiliency. I think resiliency is such a wonderful, wonderful quality to have whether an entrepreneur or manager. The capacity to overcome difficulties quickly because there a lot of challenges that we experience and there’s a lot of challenges that we’re going to continue to experience as well.

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

Eric Papp
My website EricPapp.com. I’ve got some videos on there, the Weekly Strategy Sheet is on there so they can download that for free, and they’ll get the PDF version of that. And that’s just E-R-I-C-P-A-P-P.com.

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

Eric Papp
Hey, we’re starting off the year here in January. Ask yourself, how is this year going to be different for you? Not just from what are you going to do that’s going to be different? How are you going to get to your goals? How is it going to be different? And then, when you’ve got that planned, work it and get your outcome that you want.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Eric, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and success in your productivity and adventures and priorities, and keep on rocking.

Eric Papp
Hey, thanks, Pete. It’s been great, man. And thank you for doing what you do. Having this, doing over, what is this, episode 600 and something. Yeah, that’s incredible, man.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. I appreciate it.

Eric Papp
Yeah, that’s a lot. So, that’s great. We need more of this in the world.