All The Productivity Secrets!
Stever Robbins is a serial entrepreneur, top-10 iTunes podcaster, and productivity expert. He co-founded the early internet success story FTP Software, served as COO of Building Blocks Interactive, CEO of JobTacToe.com, and has been an initial team member of ten start-ups, including four IPOs and three acquisitions. He currently runs Get-it-Done Groups™, which help people make extreme progress on important projects and habits.
Listen to #45 episode to learn everything about bad and good productivity, planning, and starting your own business! All the secrets from productivity geek – Stever Robbins!
- Good productivity vs bad productivity
- Being more productive is not always beneficial
- You need to make sure you have a boss who judges you based on your output, not based on your hours
- Is productivity a good thing?
- How do you set a goal?
- Are goals useful?
- Is it always good to follow your plan?
- Smartphones and how they influence our productivity
- Stever’s way of staying hyperfocused
Connect with Stever!
Stever’s podcast Get-It-Done-Guy
Stever’s Get-It-Done Groups
Kate: Stever, welcome to Stay on Top of Your Work podcast. And thank you so much for joining me here today.
Stever: My pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:11 – 00:05:59]
Kate: Thanks for being here. I think everybody has an interesting story. So would you like to share your career story with us?
Stever: Oh, my career story is highly non-standard and strange. Story of my life is I’m a software engineer and figured out fairly early in my career that I had no people skills so I… I went to MIT undergrad and I got a degree in computer science and discovered that I had no people skills. So a few years into my career I switched over to corporate training. Not because I had any particular interest in training, although these days I do, but I switched over precisely to force myself to learn how to deal with people.
So I became a trainer for a company that did artificial intelligence workstations and sold them to the military and me as a small, skinny, very young-looking 22 year-old got to teach things to army colonels and figured out how to, you know, how to basically get credibility with them, how to non-verbally interact, etc.
I then went from there to Harvard Business School, became interested in business, and in particular, in the question of how come the best product often doesn’t win?, and in fact the products that often win in the marketplaces are mediocre. And best in that let me to learn about corporate strategy and entrepreneurship. I had co-founded a company with some friends of mine as an undergrad. And it became a company that did part of the back mono Internet for PCs once upon a time long ago.
Then after Harvard Business School I joined into it the people who make financial software called Intuit and Quickbooks. At the time Intuit was a very small company. It was about a hundred people. And from there I did a variety of different things. After Intuit I went back to Harvard Business School at their request and helped them redesign the MBA program.
From there, I jumped to being Chief Operating Officer of a startup. From there I went off on my own with a couple of friends and spent a couple of years doing consulting and transferring best practices. So if you have two companies… actually, we would work for large company that might have multiple plans. And if one plan was performing very well and another plan wasn’t, what were the best practices that the plan that was performing well was doing that the other plan wasn’t and how do we transfer them.
From there I joined another startup, internet strategy consulting firm startup; this was back during the first Internet bubble. Rode that for a bit and then split off from that to becoming an Executive Coach. One of the things that was becoming obvious was at this point I had some experience, had some knowledge, and I had grand things to say.
And as an Executive Coach, I could help people who did not have that experience and that knowledge. This actually continues the theme of teaching. All the way from that very first job changed that I didn’t do for that reason but it turns that I love teaching and I love helping people get better at things. And was an Executive Coach for many years and I would jump in and out of different companies and different projects.
I worked with man named Keith Ferrazzi, who was the author of the book Never Eat Alone, I was briefly a president of his training and development company. I worked for Babson College, which at the time, it may still be, was the number one entrepreneurship school in the world. And I helped them with their process to develop a new strategy for the school.
From that I learned a lot about an entrepreneurial research on some of the ways to optimize the business thinking around how you start a new venture. And some friends of mine and I decided to actually test that by starting a business. And we started a job hunting business. It was a job hunting social media business. To this day I think the idea is a great idea. The problems we run into, however, were marketing problems, very difficult to reach people who are out of the job. And even more difficult to get them to pay for a service, even if the service is gonna help them find the job.
And then since then I have done a variety of things, usually around the coaching realm. And then about a year ago, I invented something called Get-It-Done Groups, which are group accountability and support for people who have control over their own time and need to stay focused and on task, make really rapid movement with things.
So they’re groups for people who, like, you know, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book.” or “You know, I started developing this business plan, I wanna finish that business plan” or whatever. And we do 12-week sprints of really hyperfocused productivity and these work awesomingly and amazingly.
So that’s the entire art and you may be the first person I’d ever actually said all of it to. I usually just say, “Oh, you know, I used to be a programmer and now I do productivity stuff.”
Kate: Yeah, that’s a long way for you to come, from a beginner to such a big entrepreneur! That’s amazing!
Stever: I did start early, I’ve walked fast. I moved away from home when I was 14 and supported myself since then. So I have a few years than most other people and also I’m older than I look but… don’t tell anyone!
[00:06:00 – 00:11:28]
Kate: Okay, that will be a secret! So you are teaching people how to be productive, right? And that’s very important in today’s world! But is productivity a good thing?
Stever: And that’s the real question. I teach people to be productive. And what’s funny is I don’t necessarily believe that productivity is a good thing. From a societal point of view, productivity is a good thing, right? We as a society have certain resources; we wanna provide a certain standard of living, etc. The economy that we have created is unbelievably wasteful. You know, what I mean, it’s very interesting, people look and they say, “Oh, but you know, XYZ corporation is so efficient.” I’m like, yes but in order for XYZ Corporation to become so efficient, you have to have a hundred other corporations, which competed against them, and those corporations now are out of business.
However, they used an incredible amount of resources in that competitive fight. So from a societal point of view, I think productivity is important. And we certainly haven’t found any better way to spur technological development than this kind of competitive system that we have now. So it’s not that I don’t have any better idea.
But from a personal point of view, productivity may or may not be useful. If you work for someone else and you figure out a way to get your job done in half the time than it would normally take you, and so you put your feet up on your desk, and you get out a graphic novel and you are sitting there reading about super any… I don’t know any graphic novels off the top, but whatever that you read about in graphic novels, there you are reading about it. And your boss walks by. And your boss sees you, kicking back at your desk, with your feet at the desk, they’re not going to think, “Oh, look at that person, they’re so productive.”
What they’re gonna think is, “Wow, they’re really lazy!” Or they’re gonna think, “We obviously didn’t give them enough work. So we’ll give them more work without giving them more pay because we obviously didn’t give them enough work in the first place.”
So in fact, on the personal level, if you work for someone else, being more productive, you wanna be just productive enough to keep your job and whatever advance that you want but you don’t wanna be much more productive than that because all that will do is get you more work and generally no promotion and no additional money.
Because it will not be perceived as you being very productive. What it will be perceived as is you wasting a bunch of time. And then not having giving you enough work for your current pay rate. Which is a bizarre paradox. You need to make sure you have a boss who judges you based on your output, not based on your hours.
And I discovered this at my very first job when it turned out, I was one of those computer… Computer programmers are not all created equal. And there is a particular category of programmers that is about 100 times more productive than other programmers measured as lines of debugged, well-written code, you know, per week or whatever. I’m one of those.
And this is one of the reasons I left the industry. Because what I discovered was I could be a hundred times more productive than other people. And it didn’t matter because at most I was paid 5 or 10 % more of them. And I was like, this is,.. I’m not interested in this deal. This is a crappy deal.
I enjoyed coding but only if I could guarantee that I would have an incredible amount of fun doing particular things I was working on. Or get incredible compensation or whatever.
But what I found was, my propensity to be extremely productive simply resulted me being given more work for roughly the same pay as everyone else. And I was like, this is crazy, why would I wanna do this?
Now, you know, maybe that’s not the case for most people, maybe most people are not that productive. But if you’re going to be productive, think about that. Now, if you’re self-employed, being more productive potentially does translate directly into dollars for you. So in that case productivity is great. With the provision that you get productive things that matter. Because there’s two different concepts.
There’s efficiency and effectiveness. And what I have found is that a lot of people in the productivity world and the self-improvement world and stuff, they really, really wanna get efficient. I have a podcast, Get-It-Done Guy, episode 540 is going out this week, and the podcast is all tips. It’s all “Here’s the thing to do to become more efficient.” And that’s what people want. The problem is, and that’s the podcast so that’s what I’m continuing to do, but the real key is not being more efficient. The real key is being more effective.
And effectiveness is about doing the right thing. If you are efficient at doing the wrong thing, you will get to where you don’t wanna go faster. That’s actively can be a bad thing. so what you wanna do first is make sure that you’re doing the right things, the right tasks and then make sure that you’re doing those tasks as efficiently as possible.
So that’s a very long answer to the question of Is productivity a good thing?
So the answer is yes but not all productivity has to be pointed in the right direction. And if it’s pointed in the right direction and if you’re the one who can rip the benefits or at least part of the benefits from it, then it’s a good thing. But otherwise, you know, no, don’t go for it.
[00:11:29 – 00:16:15]
Kate: Yeah, so productivity is very often related with hard work. What do you think about hard work?
Stever: You know, I watch these YouTube videos people saying, “If you wanna succeed, you have to work so hard that your hair falls out!” And I look at this and I go, “That’s not true.” Now, it’s true in sports maybe because sport is literally physically about hard, physical work. And the harder you work, the more you win. But in knowledge world and in a lot of jobs hard work is… Again, first of all, it has the same, effectiveness vs. efficiency problem. If you’re doing hard work, you want to do the hard work and make sure it’s the hard work that will make the difference in moving your business forward or whatever your thing is.
Personally, I’m a perfectionist; this is horrible because I will spend 30% of my time making some aspect of the business perfect. But it doesn’t matter if that’s not the aspect that is holding the business back. So maybe I have the best-looking handouts any human being has ever created in history of the human race and it doesn’t matter because I don’t have any people buying the product to give the handouts to. Whereas I could have crappy handouts, and if I put all of my time on sales and marketing, then I would have all these people and they would look at my crappy handouts and be paying me money.
And you know what, that’s fine. Then I would have money and I can hire a designer to make the handouts look perfect, if I even decided it was necessary.
So when it comes to hard work, I am much more in favor of working smart. And working smart means making sure that what you’re working on is the right thing. So it means a lot more time up front to make sure that the thing you’re doing is the thing that needs to be done and understanding the requirements of that work.
And then figuring out any way you possibly can to reduce the amount of time and effort the resources take. This is the efficiency thing.
So hard work… I used to ask audiences, when I do public speaking, I say, “Define hard work.” Like, when you say, “Work hard and you’ll get a hand” or you tell a child, you know, “Oh, you just need to work hard.” What do you mean by hard work?
And about 80% of the people the definition of hard work, the definition is, work I don’t wanna do. Work that takes too many hours. And work that does not play to my strength.
So when you say, “You just need to work hard.” What you’re saying to somebody, based upon that definition is “You just need to do more stuff you’re bad at, don’t enjoy and do it for more hours.”
And I’m like, that’s insane advice. Number 1 it’s insane advice for living your life, just in the first place. But number 2, the research that’s been done on actual productivity results creativity, all of it says that if you play to your strengths and do it with sufficient rest times, so you’re not doing it 80 hours a week, you’ll be way, way, way happier. The research also shows you’ll be more productive, that you will in total get more done. So when people say, “Oh, you just need to work hard.” I look at them and am like, “you mean I need to do stuff I don’t like for longer? No, I wanna do stuff that I like that plays to my strengths.”
And, at least in America, and I know we’re in different countries, but in America, especially in the last several years, I’ve noticed this weird thing where people seem to think that if someone enjoys their job, that means that person shouldn’t get paid as much.
You know, “Ohh, they don’t get paid that much but they have one of those jobs that you love.” But I think that’s an insane attitude. Like what, we should say that we should penalize people financially for enjoying their jobs, seriously?
Number 1, that’s bad for the business ‘cause I’ve just said, the research shows that the people who enjoy their jobs, they’ll do better. And number 2, okay, so let’s go through all of the investment banks and management consulting firms and see suits, let’s ask all of the CEOs of the Fortune 500, “Do you enjoy your job?” And any that say “yes”, we take their salary away.
Kate: That’s not a good idea!
Stever: Right! That’s the thing. The people who say this, they don’t think this all the way through. Like, this clearly is absurd. If someone enjoys their job, and if their job is good for… it’s working and it’s producing value, reward them more for goodness sake because then they’ll do more. Maybe, I mean there’s also this research that says that if you pay people too much people for doing something, it reduces their creativity. It’s very complicated. Money ruins everything, unfortunately except Lamborghinis. Money doesn’t ruin Lamborghinis, it buys more of them.
[00:16:16 – 00:24:51]
Kate: Yeah, that’s true. So what I’m thinking about is, let’s say I work in a corporation and I do a lot of hard work but I want to start my own business, how to do that? I’m like, I want to do that but I have so many things I need to do, I’m working so hard, so I don’t have time to start my own business… And people do all these excuses. How to overcome that? Because I think it’s possible?
Stever: Okay, so first of all, if people are using excuses, you know, at some point people just have to decide to do it. So there’s the psychological piece which is at some point you just decide, “Okay, I’m gonna just sit down and make a goal of it.” But the question is how do you practically speaking make a goal of it?
And again, I’m speaking from an American perspective, I don’t know what the economy situation is like in other countries. But from my perspective, first of all, a lot of people start ideas for a business by building a website or by getting business cards or you know, whatever. And I also wanna draw a quick distinction. There’s multiple kinds of businesses, I would call small business…
If someone said I wanna start a launderette, I would call that a small business. You’re not inventing something new. This is a well-understood business. You’re probably not going to be trying to make to the Inc 500, you know, it’s a different kind of business than if you say, “Wow, I’ve invented this new technology that lets me build drones that can hover over a city street and figure out what the trending fashions are and then come back and produce a fashion and come back and it’s going to sell most next season.”
That’s never been done before, we don’t know if it’s gonna be done before, that’s a high risk venture that you’re probably gonna get out and raise money for, etc. Those are two different cases.
So in the first case, where you want to start a small business, for that I think there’s reasonable infrastructure. Go out, get a small business loan, if you’re in a country that gives those, talk to people that have started that kind of business, find out what it takes to succeed in it because a lot of times, again, these are tried and true businesses, you can find out most of that information. Find out how much money it takes to start it, how much income you can expect, what the expenses are and you can just kinda go do it.
Now, at some point you still have to make the decision to do it and to say, “I’m gonna quit my day job and go do this other job.” Lets you something like a venture business or a launderette as an example, you can’t hold a full-time job and also do one of those. Just because you have to be present at the new business during work hours.
But for something like, “I’m going to make some widget in my living room and then sell that over the internet and package it up.” For those, you could for some period of time, trying to run that from your living room, while carrying a full-time job. It helps if you can find a way to work remotely.
If you’re employer is willing to help you make this transition, maybe you can work remotely and then start your home business there, you might be able to hire someone, either a family member or a neighborhood kid or someone who’s inexpensive enough that you could pay them to handle the packaging widgets and sending them out from your living room once a day, or something like that, untill the volume gets big enough that you can quit your full-time job.
If you’re talking about other type of business, the type of business where it hasn’t been done before, where you really breaking new ground, you can’t go and find a model for, you couldn’t easily get a small business loan necessarily for your new fashion drones because the small business administration would just look at you and go, “Excuse me? Why don’t you open a launderette instead? Those we understand.”
For something like that, I think the key there is to start off figuring out, is there even market for this? A lot of people start with a product or service but developing a product or service before you have proven a market, and again, this is, I’m very sensitive about this because this is my personal blind spot. I come up with all these product over the years and I go and I build something and then discover that I gave no thought at all to whether will anyone that wants this or will pay for it. And how do I get them to pay for it.
So I’ll use the Get-It-Done Groups as an example ‘casue these are what I’m working on right now. So with Get-It-Done groups, I keep being tempted to do all of these things like, “Wow, I’m gonna add all these structures to it so people can use it for this type of project and that type of project, then I’m gonna team up with an online education company so that we can give people drop it educational modules about whatever the kind of thing is they’re working on so if they’re an author trying to finish a book, we can give them a course on how to write books.”
No. No, no, no. Solve them. Get some people into the program and then find out what they need and how to current program falls short, which of course, it doesn’t, it’s perfect as it is so it’s only upwards from here. And then I can develop a program which instead of being everything I think is interesting, it will be the things that the market, that the people who actually show up, they actually wanna pay, actually need.
And, you know, if you develop a pen, you decided to create a new pen and you have this, this… for those of you who are listening, I’m holding up a pen and shaking it very authoritatively. Let’s say you wanna develop a pen. Instead of developing ten different colors of a pen and then going out and trying to sell them, you develop a pen, you take it out, you try to sell it to ten people. And eight of the people say, “Wow, that’s a really nice pen, unfortunately, the ink is fluorescent orange, not really the pen whose ink is mahogany.”
And so you can go back, and, great, I can save myself all the effort of developing that fluorescent orange pen, and I have eight people who want mahogany and I can instead, come back with mahogany pen.
Now, there’s an actual body of research called effectuation and it comes from a woman named Saras Sarasvathy, professor of the Darden School of Busines, and she has documented all of this. It’s similar to what people talk about in lean startup methodology but it’s more lean startup applied to business as opposed to lean product applied to product development.
But one of the keys is, you basically allow your market and the other shareholders or stakeholders in it, so maybe your manufacturer, your product designer, whoever’s involved in creating this product. You let them all influence what the product turns out to be. However, the test is, you only let them influence it, if they go over some sort of money or commitment.
So when you take your fluorescent orange pen out of interview ten people and eight of them say, “We’d really like mahogany,” what you say to them is, “Great, would you like to put down a pre order, right now and I’ll give it to you for 75% or 25% off. Put down preorder for the very first batch of mahogany pens.”
And if you say that and they say, “Uhh, well… I don’t actually wanna mahogany pen that much.” Then you don’t change the color to mahogany because that really doesn’t constitute, or maybe you would do a test where you ask people. But you’re looking for what are people really willing to put money over for? And once you have those ideas, that’s where you start putting your time and effort in building your business.
Now the practical level, since we’re extensively talking about productivity and time management. If you have a full-time job, what that means is that whatever work you do on your business, outside of your full-time job, start with the product design integrated with sales and marketing. Because that’s gonna be your higher leverage piece. Because if you can’t sell it, you’re never gonna get… you’re not gonna need to continue the next steps.
So start with the minimum amount that you need to be able to test the sales proposition. Hopefully even, just doing it with ideas and the level of ‘here’s a mockup’ or ‘here’s a conceptual idea,’ if you can get high enough quality feedback that way, rather than actually manufacturing something and producing something in China and having it come over and taking around, and people saying, “No, we don’t want that.”
You know, you’ve just invested an awful lot to just get information.
[00:24:52 – 00:32:39]
Kate: You know, what comes to my mind is, when you were talking about all these things which are very interesting and we don’t have that much time to talk about them, unfortunately, what I think about is setting goals. Because when you start a business, and you’re still working in a company full-time, how to set goals and how to achieve them? It’s so difficult when you have so many things to do?
Stever: Sure, okay so there’s two, there’s actually two hidden questions there. One is, how do you set a goal? And there’s difference between practical goals and life goals. And then the other is are goals even useful?
So, first of all, what a goal is? It’s something that directs your behavior. That’s all it is. If you have a goal, then when you’re faced with a choice between doing two different things, you’ll do the thing that takes you closer to your goal. That’s what a goal does. A goal just helps you make decisions. And maybe it motivates you a little bit. But that’s the only function of a goal, that’s what’s magical about them. They’re just serve that aids your thinking.
When it comes to how do you set a goal for what to do this week, if you have a full-time job and you have a part-time, you know, you have this thing that you do on the outside, is that I think you need to partition up your time, and decide for yourself how much time you’re gonna spend on each job in any given week.
So, I’m gonna spend 40 hours this week on my day job and then 10 hours on my after-day job office. And then just ask yourself, “What needs to be done that’ll move the business forward?”, and that can be done in 10 hours. So given that I have 10 hours to commit, what can I do in that 10 hours that will move the business, the maximum amount forward and that becomes my goal for the outside business and then I have whatever work goals I’m given at work.
And if you have a work goal that’s gonna require 70 hours worth of work, you’re not gonna get anything done on your secondary job that week. So that I think is almost a fairly straightforward goal setting process. It’s how much time I have for each job, what goal can I get done in that time that will move me forward the most.
When it comes to life goals, and this is the thing I think, I certainly never thougt about this. This is the way I’m about to describe, this kind of came to me in a flash like seven or eight years ago. And I’m still kind of boggled by it. There’s the journey and the destination. And we are taught to set goals by identifying, “Here’s the destination I wanna reach.” And then, figuring out what journey will get us there.
The problem with that is that a lot of journeys suck. A lot of journeys… I met this guy who’s CEO of not just a Fortune 5 companies but CEO of a Fortune 5 Company. So very, very… like, this man has been one of only five people in the world to run an institution of that size.
And he hated his life. He’s like, “I wanted to make a big change in the world so I joined this company 35 years ago, worked my way up, I hate the industry, I hate the company, I hate the people. I’m not interested in it, I think the people are horrible unmoral, unethical, and disgusting people and. And I worked my way up figuring, once I was CEO I could make a difference and it turns out now that I’m an CEO, I am beholden to the board of directors, I am beholden to the financial markets, and if I do anything that makes any significant change in this company, I’ll be fired and instantly replaced by someone else. So I’m just clocking in time to get my multimillion dollar payoff and then I’m gonna go and retire to my beautiful castle in Arkansaw.”
And it was fascinating because he had basically committed to a journey that he didn’t like. And he got to the goal! He made the goal! And it turns out he hates the goal either!
And I was listening and I was like, “Huh? Yeah, okay, great life.” Very comfortable life, mind you, I mean, you know, financially he was well off. So after having that conversation I’ve realized that when it comes to life goals, you can either set a life goal and then figure out what journey will take you there or you can think about what journey you wanna have and based on the journey you wanna have, you wanna as which goals, remember, goals are just decision devices, you can ask, “Which goals could I set that will result in me having the kind of journey that I wanna have?”
So, for example, let’s say your journey, so there’s a physical element to it, you wanna do a lot of stuff outdoors, so you wanna have an outdoors journey. The kind of people you wanna interact with is, you wanna interact with curious people who are always challenging you about things and like challenging you to think outside your box. And I’ll just go with those two things right now,
So the journey is outdoors with curious people. Well, you could become a tour guide for the island of Galapagos where Darwin has all the species that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, for people who have interest in zoology or something. And you could run special tours and try to attract people who know a lot about arcane things and they’re gonna engage with you in questions about and so on and so forth.
So again, we have outdoors and we have challenging people. You could become a travel agent in the range adventure travel for nerds and be like, “This is gonna be the astrophysics adventure travel and we’re gonna go wide water rafting in the day time and at night time we’re gonna take our telescopes and identify constellations or something.”
Those are both kind of teaching things. You could, um… boy, my brain is really stuck on a teaching track here because I said the thing about curiosity
But hopefully you get the idea. The basic idea is for the same journey, might be able to be heads many different ways. And so, if instead of spending your time, choosing one goal quickly and then spending lots of time brainstorming different journeys, if instead you choose one journey and then spend lots of time brainstorming different goals and what are different things that will give me that journey, it’s almost like you’re flipping the role of a journey and the goal.
I think you might come with the more interesting goals and much more non obvious goals and things that you talk to people on a cocktail party and they say, “What’s your goal in life?” and you say, if people ask at the cocktail parties, I do which I don’t get invited that much, but if someone asks you that, you can say, “Oh, I’m aspiring to put together a touring company for the Island of Galapagos.” And I guarantee you, people will remember you because that’s a lot more interesting than, “Well, I’m looking at getting my next actuary accounting certification and my goal is to be able to drop actuarial papers 10% faster than the average.”
Which, I mean, God bless actuaries, without them we wouldn’t have insurance companies but it’s not necessarily gonna produce the same journey as doing the tour company with the island of Galapagos.
[00:32:40 – 00:41:39]
Kate: Yeah, and I think it’s one of the myths that goal is only about the goal. It’s about the journey. So what are the other myths and maybe truths about productivity, and setting goals, and that kind of stuff?
Stever: Oh boy, so one of them is that hard work is a myth, that’s a big one. Another one, I will say there is a degree to which planning is a myth. Planning works really well for small projects that are well understood that you know how to do. But people try to plan all kinds of big projects in life with absolutely no basis for their plans.
Like, someone will… I used to do career counseling a couple days a month and I would have someone come in and say,
“Oh, you know, I wanna be the CEO of Fortune 5 company.” And I’d say, “Really? How are you planning on getting there?” And they would say, “Oh, you know, first, I’m gonna go work for managing consulting firm so that I learn everything there is to learn about management. And then I’m gonna go and become an investment banker so that I have all the financial connections. And then I’m gonna go get a job in the stock room and work my way up in this company.”
And I would be listening to this plan and I would be going, “This is bizarre.” Like, there’s no reason to believe this would work. And I’d say, you know, have you ever seen anyone who’s done that? Have you ever heard of anyone who’s done that? Have you ever talked to anyone who’s actually been at the head of Fortune 5 Company and ask them how they did it? Maybe you should start with the stock room job or maybe you should get an MBA and start with the middle management job? Or maybe you should marry the CEO’s spouse and have it given to you, you know?
People seem to forget that the reason that Thomas Watson Junior was the head of IBM for so many years was because Thomas Watson Senior was his father. And we pretend that things like that don’t exist but you know, I’m looking at America, we currently have a government that is being headed up the President and his family.
You know, to pretend nepotism isn’t real, is just blinding yourself to the way the world actually works. Or at least actually works in some cases with some people.
So when it comes to planning, like goals, plans are for useful function. Creating a plan, if you actually do a good job and do a research, creating a plan is a way to learn a lot about the thing you’re trying to do. And in the course of learning about it, you may learn that you’re using the work approach, you may learn that you don’t want to do the thin after all. At one point I wanted to be a professional actor and then I talked to some professional actors and learned what their lives were like and decided I do not wanna be a professional actor.
So planning can be useful exercise. But once you’re on the ground, doing stuff, use the feedback from the real world to modify or even abandon your plan. Because one of the things is that plans become blinders as well as becoming enablers.
And this is a paradox. I do not know how to resolve this paradox.
Sometimes, let’s say that your plan says, “Oh, go down main street to reach the downtown area.” And you’re driving down main street and then there’s this sign that says, “New shortcut do downtown, turn left here.”
Well, should you take that? Should you take that shortcut and go downtown? Maybe it doesn’t go downtown? Maybe it will be a complete disaster. But your plan says, go forward. So you know what? I’m just gonna stick to the plan. Because I made the plan, I’m gonna stick to the plan, you go forward. And later it turns out that the actual shortcut would got you ten times faster and you would magically arrived into a beautiful carriage drove by horses and you would have glass slippers and your life would become a fairy tale.
And this is not hypothetical if you take a look at most of the people who have lives that you look at from the outside and go, “Oh, that’s amazing.” And you talk to them and this is how I came to this conclusion, by the way, so I started talking to these people.
What you will find is, they virtually always at some point deviated from plan. At some point, something happened that they weren’t expecting and they just decided to risk deviating from plan and doing something else and it turned out that it worked. And of course in retrospect, they’re gonna tell the story that, “Oh, I was a strategic genius.” But most of the time people have some small number of turning points which were major turning points and they just say, “You know what, I’m gonna abandon my plan and go for it.”
Now, the problem with this is it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t always abandon your plan and go for it. Because what we’re not hearing from is all the people who abandoned their plan, failed. Because no one’s asking them to come be speakers at conferences. They’re not writing books, etc.
So there’s this thing called survivorship bias which is very, very strong in the self-help world and world of figuring how to do stuff people say, “Oh, you know, have you ever seen these things; here’s the 10 habits of billionaires”, I’m like, “Yeah, but how about the 9 hundred million people who also have those habits who didn’t become billionaires. They never talk about that side of the equation.
And in fact, maybe the habits of billionaires have actually dysfunctional habits but it turns out that if you’re a billionaire, you can have that habit and it won’t be a problem because you have million dollars to cover for it.
So that’s backwards thinking. It’s just most people don’t realize this backwards thinking. So that’s the same thing about sticking to a plan versus not sticking to a plan. So the myth is, planning is biolomindal because for large goals, things you’ve never done before, you may or may not even be able to come up with a plan that makes sense.
And even talking to people who have done it before doesn’t mean that their plan will work for you. You cannot do what Bill Gates did not being Bill Gates today. The world has changed. He did what he did at a very specific time in a very specific context. And it worked. Doesn’t mean that it will work for you.
And it also doesn’t mean, even if you were back at that time and that context, it will work for you because he’s a different person and he makes different decision than you do and he thinks about things differently.
So it’s hard to do plans that you have a high degree of confidence in, number one. And the number two, let’s say you do do a plan you have high confidence in, probably sure the plan will work, well, you know, when it turns out that your roommate is starting a little online bookstore and he’s decided to call it Amazon and would you like to leave your high paying safe corporate job that pays you six figures to join this little startup that, you know, where you’re putting books, you’re wrapping books up in your garage, you know, the rational decision based upon the information you have at that point is no, I’m sticking with my corporate job.
Of course, in retrospect, the decision that probably would have led to a certain different level of outcome is would be take the risk. And the problem is you don’t know in advance. And I think one of the downfalls of living in modern, industrialized society with all the information we have is we love the myth that we can predict the future.
And the reality is, we’re really bad at it. And in cases where we’re good at it, we often doubt it, you know, I’m just thinking about the global warming. The global warming quote and quote debate at this point. I’m sitting here going like, Wow, you’re willing to spend your life savings go a hundred thousand to debt under the ‘plan’ and the prediction that getting a college degree is going to result in you having a secure financial life.
And by the way, a coursery, you can do the numbers at the back of the piece of paper, loans cost etc., etc. At least in America it is no longer clear at all. It is not clearly a smart decision to get a college degree, unless you can get it from a small number of colleges are interested in particular set of fields.
But by and large a college degree is not a great investment measured in financial terms. I mean, that’s a broad, broad statement. But it’s taken its gospel in many places that, of course, that will lead to that.
And then you have things like 97% consensus in a world scientist were curveting ourselves into oblivion 50 years from now and people are gonna come just like, “Oh I guess it’s a problem. But maybe they’re lying.” I’m like, “Wait, so you believe that disapproval things about student loans and you don’t believe the thing that we have like reams of data going back decades to support?” You know, it’s kind of interesting.
So when you make a plan, you have to believe the plan, hope it will be the right plan and when that weird little offshoot happens in your life, you need to decide, is this worth deviating from plan? And you never know.
I actually happen to know someone who did do the thing of he left high-paying corporate job to go work at a little bookstore whose name begins with “A” back when it was founded and my friend did very, very, very well.
But there were people who thought his decision was insane.
[00:41:40 – 00:43:44]
Kate: Yeah, wow, I don’t think they think it now. So I wanted to ask you about apps and tools and smartphones. I’ve read somewhere in the article about Steve Jobs that if he saw how people use his creation today, I mean, iPhone, he would not be glad because he wanted people to use it differently.
What do you think about it?
Stever: Well, so first of all, I think the peak of productivity tools was the PalmPilot, back in the 1990s early 2000s , because it gave you things that genuinely made you more productive, which is calendar, contact list, a to-do list, and a memo pad. And it had no distractions on it. And, importantly, it didn’t really multitask so it didn’t tempt you to multitask.
What modern smartphones are, they’re not productivity tools. Not even remotely. In fact, for most people they are number one obstacle to productivity.
They’re interrupting, which is bad. If you wanna become highly productive in something, at least if it’s not like a interactive task being retail clerk. In fact, even highly interactive task, having interruptions is not… throws you off your game, right?
These things are interruption devices. I don’t wanna get too deeply into the cognitive science of it ‘cause this is something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. But they make it harder to context-switch, interestingly enough. Your brain works best if you have completely separate contexts and environments for different kind of tasks.
So if you have a writing table where all you do is write, you go, sit down at your writing table and, boom, your brain will go right into writing mode. If you have a place where you exercise in your house, like, Oh, I put my yoga mat down there and I do my yoga every day, personally I don’t do yoga, but if I did do yoga, I would have a place where I would put my yoga mat down. And I put my yoga down in that place and that’s a signal for my brain that say, boom! yoga mode!
[00:43:45 – 00:46:38]
Kate: Right! So isn’t that connected with multitasking? That doing couple things at the same time is not good for your brain.
Stever: Yes, multitasking causes the same problem as smartphones. Which basically is, you have one context which is this physical device that your brain associates with multiple things so as a result, you pick up the device at a brain level. At a brain level it triggers multiple associations.
If you put your yoga mat down, what is gonna trigger in your brain, is, it’s time for yoga. When you pick up your smartphone, at least for me, what it triggers in my brain is, “Oh, it’s time for…” and this is just my notifications screen, “It’s time for some combination of calendar, phone, email, plague, which is a game I guess I own and I’ve never played, Plague Inc. Slack, Skype, and, oh, there’s an update.
So even if I was picking up my phone with this specific intent, like, oh, I want to read the message that Chris sent me and respond to it. By the time I’ve looked at the lock screen, my brain has now had five different topics activated and I may even not remember that Chris is the reason I picked up the phone.
So this is an inherent problem with the way they’ve designed the device in the first place.
In the second place, people now go to their smartphone when they have any free time at all. Well, that’s under the assumption that free time is meaningless and is useless. Well, guess what, we’ve researched that and it turns out that the free time when you’re standing in line and your bored, is when your brain does a lot of creative thinking. It does a lot of thinking about big-picture stuff and so on and so forth.
So what you’re trading is a level of creativity and a level of contemplation and a level of depth of thought in exchange for constant stimulation.
It doesn’t help that the people who design these are actually literally designing them to be constant stimulation instead of designing them, I mean productivity is nowhere on the list of features that anyone is developing in these devices, I mean, no one cares about that. Google cares about tracking you with Android, and Apple, I don’t know what they care about but, you know, the iPhone 10, they were like, “Oh, the iPhone 10, most amazing thing ever!”
Every single new feature of the iPhone 10 was related to taking better selfies. And I’m looking at that and I’m going, okay, so you’re basically making a camera. And I don’t want a camera. I want a productivity device, thank you. And I wanna be productive at something meaningful and let me be honest. You know, when I was growing up, and I think we’re a period of different generations, when I was growing up, anyone who spent their time taking pictures of themselves, that would’ve been considered something mental disorder.
[00:46:39 – 00:52:12]
Kate: Yeah! I’m a millennial and it was the same in late 90s basically.
Stever: Yeah, and I’m like, okay, so now we have a thousand dollar device whose goal is so you can take more pictures of yourself and post them for people to see. I’m like, that’s just seems creepy to me. And it certainly is not gonna help me send email any faster.
One of the things with smartphones apps is that people assume that if something is made complex, it somehow makes it easier or better. Well, being a productivity geek, I measured these things. And so I would do things, like I would try just using online just an app for a period of time, then I’ll try using different app, I’ll try using pencil and paper.
And I have found, for example, for me at least, I do way better with a to-do list that’s written down versus one that’s online. Is the online one easier? Yes, but that’s the problem. The goal of life is not to make everything maximally easy. At the end of your life, you’re going to die. If you want to make life maximally easy, throw yourself off a building now, and boom! that is the most efficient way to live your life possible. Don’t do that, by the way.
But it turns out that wiring my to-do list down, I remember things better because you remember them better if you write them down using handwriting instead of typing them.
But also, when I have to copy my to-do list over a new page, it forces me to think, “Are these things really important?” So it keeps me more focused on the things that are important as opposed to just this long list of stuff I’m never gonna look at anything except the top 5 things ‘cause that’s all that fits my screen anyway.
- a) smartphones are distraction devices
- b) the assumption that an app is superior to a pencil and paper system – that doesn’t hold for everything. For some things, that’s true, for other that isn’t. You have to find it out for your brain, your style and your life which works better.
And it’s the, literally, there are many things on smartphones that are simply non-efficient. So typing on a smartphone. I’ve never seen… Yes, I’ve seen people who can type fast, guess what, so can I. I can touch type 720 words per minute on a computer. And on a smartphone, you know, I’m lucky if I can get to 30 words per minute.
So in terms of efficiency, if I’m going to be reading and responding to an email on my smartphone, I’m going to be going at 30% the speed and I’m not even talking about the thinking part literally, I mean literally, just to be able to type the sentence, “Yes, I’d love to meet with you next week” is gonna take me way longer on my phone than on a keyboard. And by the way, both of those will take long if looking at the phone instead of , “I meet with you next week.”
And you know, I hear people say things like, “Oh, but if I make a phone call, it will go on for hours.” No, no it won’t! You pick up the call and you call the person and say, “You know, I just wanted to tell you, I’ll meet with you next week, is that okay? Great, thanks, bye.” Done.
If the phone call for you is less efficient than typing, that’s the statement about you, not the statement about the media because in terms of natural, physical medium, you cannot type anywhere nearly as fast as you can talk. And you cannot type on the smartphone anywhere near as fast as you can type on the keyboard.
If the issue is, you don’t know how to not be chatty well I can teach you, many people can teach you that. You just need to learn how to call someone and have a very quick conversation about something. And besides, no one answers their phones anyways so just leave them a voicemail.
So that’s my reaction to smartphones and apps, is I actually think that on the whole, smartphones make you less productive. I am as addicted to mine as everyone else is to theirs. I have considered getting a flip phone before. I haven’t ever quite had the courage to pull the plug because just like everyone else, I’m addicted because they are made to be addictive, however, that said, I also, even though I have like two hundred apps on my phone, I don’t actually use it for very many of them.
For most of what I do, I choose whatever system works best for me, so for things that work best on computer, like my calendar I find works best on computer, I use my desktop for that, just consistently. For my to-do list, there’s a list you can’t see but my to-do list is on paper. I have tried hundreds of to-do apps over the last 15-20 years, I have tried different systems, and at the end of the day, this is the one that actually works best for me.
And it’s not perfect in the sense that I do not get everything on it done heaven’s know! I mean there’s stuff that’s been here for ages and there’s stuff that I finally drop. But it forces me to look at the pages and to decide what to drop on a regular basis. And that actually turns out to be a good thing. It forces me to be deliberate about my life so that I can be effective.
So when I look at this page, I say, “Oh, here’s a to-do item but now that I understand more about my business, I realize this to-do item isn’t actually going to move the business forward. It might be efficient but it’s not gonna be effective so I’m not going to do this to-do item. And it gets dropped off the list.
And I could do all of that with an electronic to-do list but for me personally, when I have an electronic to-do list, I don’t do all of that. When I have an electronic list things just accumulate until I have ten thousand things in it and I never look at any of them except the top five anyway so for me the paper list just works way better.
Kate: I think productivity apps and tools are very personal things. We all use it differently so it all depends on who we are and how we work. So what else helps you stay on top of your work? Do you have any tips and tools, methodologies?
Stever: Oh goodness. So let me give you one of my favorite tips. So by the way, I actually have a podcast which is the Get-It-Done-Guy, itunes.com/getitdoneguy and I have 540 tips up there. But this where I use myself ona regular basis. I have an 8 timer, and external timer that is not my phone because I don’t want it to remind me of anything except the time. I set it for 10 minutes, I make a list of 5 things I wanna work on that usually is something that I’ve been procrastinating, I set it for 5 minutes, start the timer, start working on the task 1.
When the timer goes up, immediately switch to task 2, do not reach your breaking point. If you reach your breaking point, you brain will feel like it’s had closure, you do not want to have closure. Immediately skip to task two. Do this until you’ve done five tasks so that will be 25 minutes, turn it on again, take a 5 minute break so that’s been half an hour.
Now, do it a second time with 5, again, I do it usually twice with 5 minutes so now I’ve done a total of an hour, I’ve had 5 minutes of a break, I’ve done 5 minutes of work on each of five task. Then, shift it to 10 minutes and do 10 minutes on each task, which will make you another hour and then take 10 minute break. And I usually just stick with 10 minutes at that point.
I guarantee you, you will make so much progress on all 5 tasks, even though you’re only doing 5 minutes at a time. You’re really get going.
And, you know, if there’s something you really need to get done because you’re working on a deadline and you wanna just keep going after the 5 minute, you can do that. But this is a way… this is not multitasking cause you’re not working on them simultaneously but it’s very rapid context switching through a very, very limited number of things that you decide in advance.
And there’s a number of reasons why I think it works as well as it does but among them, you stop distracting yourself by thinking, “Oh, I’m working on my report when I really need to be reading my email and when your reading email you start thinking I’m reading email but I have this report that need to be done.” Your brain knows it’s only five minutes to I get to read my email so I’m just gonna hyperfocus on my report and then 5 minutes later it’s like, “Okay, I know I’m gonna get back to the report in 10 minutes so now I’m gonna hyperfocus on the email.”
So you do like progressive hyperfocus. It’s really kind a cool.
Kate: Awesome! Stever, because you need to go, I wish you all the best and thank you so much for joining me here for this podcast. It was an amazing conversation and I wish we could do it next time.
Stever: Well, yes, you know, feel free to reach out, I love doing these ‘cause I’m a teacher at heart. And again, people can reach me at… my podcast is itunes.com/getitdoneguy and you can find my Get-It-Done groups at getitdonegroups.com, really hard to find, and you can find me at steverrobbins.com. So those are all of my electronic addresses.
Kate: Thank you Stever!
Stever: Thank you so much for having me and hope to talk to you soon.
Thanks for listening!