Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Chris Sparks, Top 20 poker player and peak performance coach, about how to find your bottlenecks and break through to the next level. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here. You can alsofind Chris Spark's personal version of this transcript on The Forcing Function's website.
“If you can improve fast enough in the right areas, then the score will take care of itself.” — Chris Sparks
In the first official episode of Outliers, I sit down with Chris Sparks (@sparksremarks) to discuss why reflection is underrated, why he focuses on holistic performance, and how to spot bottlenecks that hold back progress. Chris Sparks is a professional poker player, high performance coach, and the Founder and CEO of The Forcing Function, a high performance consultancy. During his poker career, he was ranked one of the top 20 online poker players in the world, and he now focuses on coaching others on poker strategy, behavioral science, and game theory.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00):
Chris, I am so excited to have you on the show. There are so many things that we could cover. You're one of the world's top online poker players. You also run one of the world's best consulting firms working with high performers, helping them figure out how to level up. There's a ton of stuff that we could cover. To kick things off, I wanted to share a little bit of a background. I was introduced to you, I think, about three years ago now from our mutual friend Zack Kanter at Stedi. The context that I had then was, because Zack said he was working with a productivity coach, and immediately my first thoughts were, "One, I don't know what that means." Then my second thought was, "But I'm super interested."
Daniel Scrivner (00:39):
I think the thing that stuck out for me is I feel like when people think about coaches, so many people immediately jump to this concept of a life coach, and it's someone maybe to help you in an amorphous way. My experience working with you is very different from that. I would consider it almost like working with a personal trainer that's there to watch you perform, help give you feedback. I took so much away from working with you and there's so many things that I still apply in my daily life. With that, can you share a little bit of a background around the type of coaching you do, the type of clients you work with and how you work with them?
Hey guys. Daniel, thank you so much for that intro. It's super exciting to be here and talk about some of my favorite topics. I'll take a quick step back as far as who I am. I'm most known for being a poker player, as Daniel mentioned. I once was one of the top poker players in the world. I'm still pretty high up there, but it doesn't consume all of my time as it once was. My primary focus for the past three years has been my consulting company, The Forcing Function. I like to think of my day to day role as deconstructing the commonalities of peak performance. I'm privileged to work one on one with some of the most successful founders, executives and investors in the world. I try to both deconstruct and distill down what allows them to be successful into principles that I can share widely as well as try to identify things either from my personal experience operating at the highest levels of poker or just from observations and patterns I've observed across their peers of ways that they can accelerate their performance even more.
As Daniel mentioned, the word coach comes with its own connotations, good and bad. I like to think that what I do is innately quantifiable, where getting on the same page as far as a North Star to head towards and finding a way to track progress towards that goal. I really think that that's a good way to think about the difference between productivity and performance. When I first started back when Daniel and I met, I definitely thought of myself as a productivity person. That led to having a lot of conversations around tactics and tools and habits. I think all of that stuff can be useful, but it is rarely the highest leverage intervention. Now I think of what I do as much more performance, which is there is a goal or a destination that someone is trying to reach, and I see my job as a third party objective observer to help them reveal the most direct path towards that goal. That we can achieve anything if we become the person capable of achieving that goal.
Identifying a more effective path to get there, which sometimes is not the most productive path. It can be quick and dirty. It can require changing what that goal looks like or the paradigms even use to shape that goal, as well as uncovering all of the roadblocks, known and unknown, along the way.
Daniel Scrivner (04:02):
Yeah, it almost sounds like maybe one way to think of it is you've had your own transformation in your own journey of thinking about it maybe a little bit more one dimensionally, and now it's much more like quantum physics, where you're thinking about all these different realms, how they intersect, how they feed into one another.
Absolutely. Yeah, it's means against ends. I think a lot of productivity is almost a gateway drug for people and that there's this fascination of, "If I master this tool, if I acquire this habit, all of my problems are going to go away." I like to say that we're the common denominator in all of our productivity struggles. That no tool, no system, no routine is going to change anything. It's until we, ourselves, change. It became realizing that all of my knowledge wasn't actually changing the results. I couldn't just tell someone step-by-step to follow something. There was an experience that I needed to instill or incept them with in order to instill a new principle that allowed them to make those types of decisions on their own. I see myself as post-productivity, where I look back a few years ago and in my obsession with all of these tactics, maybe is instrumental, but certainly not the way to instill or accelerate change the quickest.
Daniel Scrivner (05:29):
I think that's a wonderful way to encapsulate it. As a little bit of an aside, I feel like my own journey has been very similar, where I feel like for a while just focusing super myopically on productivity and it felt to me in hindsight, like it's almost taken the brute force approach to trying to get more done, where you're just focusing relentlessly on how can you push yourself harder? How can you potentially get more things done instead of going up a couple layers and operating a little bit more strategically or being able to navigate up and down. What I've come to over time is, one way that I try to think about performance personally is almost as a reciprocal loop. Just this concept that there are different things, different skills that you have to master that each feed into each other.
Daniel Scrivner (06:14):
Some of them may seem counterproductive if you just focus on just that thing, but if you bring all of them together and if you can learn how to be good at each, you can get to something really special. One way that I think about that is almost as; you take planning, you take performance, you take recovery and you take reflection. I think when you do those things in a reciprocal loop, there's something really special that comes out the other end. What ends up happening is you end up being a better performer on a lot of different levels, as opposed to potentially just getting more "tasks" or more things done in a given day.
Yeah. I love that systems thinking approach. I do think a lot of things can be thought of in terms of loops. The loop that you described, the planning, experimentation, reflection loop, I think is key to the acceleration of any skill acquisition to the treatment of any goal. That the tighter you can run through those loops, where you come up with a plan, you collect data by experiment, you act, you see whether your efforts are leading to your desired results and then look back, reflect, "What did I learn? What would I do differently? What could I have done differently?" The tighter that process of going between planning, experimentation and reflection, that determines the speed of which you do anything.
Speed kills in this sense, not that we're competing against anyone, right? All of life is a single player game, but to the extent that we all have ambitions and things that we want to achieve, and that there are things that we can do, actions that we can take personally to achieve those, that is the hack, that is the trick to constantly be planning, experimenting, reflecting, and the faster that we can iterate through those, the faster that we can do anything.
Daniel Scrivner (08:05):
Going a little bit higher level and not thinking just tactically about productivity, but zooming out a bit and thinking about holistic performances, what I've found, at least in my own life, is a lot of my failure modes were I'm in a moment where I don't feel like I'm making the progress that I would like to make, or I feel like I'm at a roadblock. The thing I found most helpful in that loop I described is specifically reflection, and maybe just to talk about that for a second. I find when I talk to leaders, executives, entrepreneurs that for a lot of people, reflection doesn't come up. It's not even a thought.
Daniel Scrivner (08:40):
I borrowed it initially from the CEO of Front. She shared a little while ago, a framework that she uses, where she spends one day per week and she blocks off an hour, maybe two hours to spend on reflection. When I started doing that, initially it felt like, "Oh, wow, this is a huge miss. One day per week, I'm going to take two hours of my day, effectively a quarter of my day, and I'm not going to be doing and I'm going to be reflecting," but there's a bunch of really counterintuitive, amazing things that come out of that. It's a time to ask yourself questions like, "What opportunities maybe am I aware of, but I haven't recognized and I'm not capitalizing on?" I found that to be one of the most effective, one of the most helpful things I do every single week. How do you think about reflection? How does that show up in your work?
I agree. This is something that is vastly overlooked, and a couple of one-liners that I always like to try to distill this down to. I think that achievement of any goal is a constant iterative process. You're always course correcting. Implicit to that is having that feedback loop that we were talking about before, "Are my efforts leading me to my goals? Not only am I going at maximum speed, but am I going at the crate vector?" But I think many people think more about efficiency rather than like, "Am I actually doing the right things?" I work with a lot of executives who claim that literally every single day, every single minute is booked and there's no time to be extracted whatsoever. The answer is always, "Well, you would if you had prioritized them." But consciously or unconsciously, you've decided to prioritize these things at the expense of these other things.
The way to maximize one uses their time is to make sure that a higher proportion of their time is going to their highest priorities. I think that reflection is the best opportunity to do that. Daniel, I know you being an investor, I'll drop out an investing metaphor on you is, I think time is like an investment portfolio, and that certain times our portfolio becomes overweight towards one part, so we over prioritize to one project at our company because of a deadline or because a client is screaming at us and another part of our portfolio becomes neglected. That reflection allows us to take a step back and say, "Well, how can I rebalance this portfolio? Is the way that I'm spending my time currently in line with my priorities? That's a kind of implicit to performance.
Everything's a cycle of sprint and rest. Really important for that rest is consolidating lessons so that the times that we actually are operating at full leverage are on the right things we can be performing at the best. That it's much better to be operating at 10 out of 10 for a couple hours a day. I honestly think that no one actually can do more than four hours of good work a day. The rest of the day is, "What should I be spending those four hours on and clean up maintenance systems improvement?" I mean, there's a lot of people out there trying to work 12 hours a day at a fairly low level and fairly low leverage things that aren't actually moving the ball forward.
It's counterintuitive, but anytime I work with a client, I have them list out all the things that they're currently doing, and I just put a line through half of them. It's like, "These are the things that you are no longer going to be doing." It's like the more wood-behind-fewer-arrows approach because you have that arbitrage where all of a sudden I'm working on things that are higher leverage. I'm not working more, I'm actually working less, but I'm having more results. That's very hard for people to do or internalize. For me, that's the one hour of the week that I treat as, "This is the most important hour of the week." Every month, I take three hours to step back and say, "Well, of these things that I'm working towards, what's on track, what's off track?" Those things that are on track, "Is there a way that I can double down?" "Hey, this is going really well. Everything that I'm doing is having excellent results. Can I do that more?"
Things that are off track, ask, "Hey, is this actually still a priority?" The easiest way to clear up time is just to decide not to do something anymore. As you said, if you can keep that loop tight, you're constantly improving and that's the only thing you need to solve for. If you know that you are improving in the right areas, you don't have to do everything else, the score takes care of itself. But you have to be in it for a super long run because it's a lifetime process.
Daniel Scrivner (13:09):
You shared a ton there. I mean, a couple of things that just spring to mind for me is it feels like focusing on performance, taking time to reflect is almost this never ending process, at least it's one of the ways that I try to think about it, of becoming the person that will get better opportunities, becoming the person that will be more effective. That is really the meta-goal you're working on. It's not just getting more done at my particular job or taking this thing I would like and taking it from zero to one, it's working at that metal-level.
Daniel Scrivner (13:39):
One thing I have to ask is just a follow up question on that. It sounds like you do some sort of weekly reflection that's a little bit more brief, and then you do some sort of more in-depth, monthly reflection. Can you share what that looks like? Weekly, monthly, and I don't know if you do one quarterly or annually, but just how you think about that, and then maybe give us a sense for some of the questions you might ask or some of the things you might think about at each of those moments in time.
Yeah. So I'll start with the questions, because I think from that seed, you can build out a lot of the structure. I try not to get too specific by my own routines, because I think the temptation is to take something on wholesale rather than build it up from the ground. The three questions that I think all reflection reduces down to is; what's going well? What's not going so well? what did I learn? It's pretty self explanatory. What's going well? The key there is celebrate what's working. We rarely reward ourselves or really acknowledge all the things that are going great. That's a lot of sticking to something and not burning out is recognizing like, "Hey, the things that I'm doing are leading to results. They might not be at quite the speed that I'd like, but it is clear that things are different because I am doing things."
As you acknowledge the things that are going well, the wins, automatically, you bring awareness to opportunities to double down in those areas. I think all reflection is about double down or stop. Things that are going well, "Well, anything I can do to make that going even better. I'm in the best shape of my life. I feel amazing. I work out for 30 minutes a day and is like, 'Oh, I don't have to do much else.'" That's good because like, "Oh, you're getting that with 30 minutes a day. Well, what if you did 40? Or what if instead of doing, you kept 30 and you upped the level of intensity a little bit, right?" There's always something that you can do. A lot of times the answer will be, "No, I'm pretty happy with this."
I think on average, consistency is key. If there's something that you can stay consistent with and you think this is clearly not the bottleneck, clearly it's not something that's holding us back, well, great. Let's put that aside and in a [inaudible 00:15:58]. But sometimes you'll identify, "Oh, I can do this tiny change and I'll have even more results. It doesn't require much effort, but it has a big output, has high leverage." I'll give an example for each of these, maybe to illustrate them a little bit. I've been working on solidifying my meditation practice for a long time. It's been my most inconsistent habit. It's like I rationally, I know that this is something that is going to extend to everything that I do, presence in conversations. As a poker player, my job is to make good decisions.
The extent that I can be in the room and fully mindful of everything that's going on, I make better decisions, I make more money, it clearly ties to my bottom line much less. You don't even get to enlightenment and self-actualization, all that other fun stuff, but I couldn't stick with it. It was like, "Meditation is going well, the times that I do it, it's going well, but I'd like to do it for longer and I'd like to have more intensity with it." What did I do is I just found someone who... he was like a meditation teacher. He talks about meditation. He gives good frameworks. He's a Buddhist scholar. We just sit on Zoom and he watches me meditate in my chair.
That feels weird, but it's like just the aspect of someone watching me my eyes closed, it's like, "All right, I know obviously I'm going to show up, because it's a call, it's on video. I'm going to be dressed and ready to go. But that whole time, that 30 minutes we're on, I'm going to be making the most of that time, and really intensely thinking and reacting in a metacognitive way." Then I'm thinking about my experience and I want to have a question. I want to have something to share. That just simple change, putting that forcing function in place, turned what was already a wind into something that's exploding gains and it was just my best year of poker in a long time. Having all of these just ideas pop into my head and it's like, "It's wild."
Number two, what's not going so well? This has never as fun. That's why whenever someone's doing a longer term review, so you're talking about longer timescales, like a 90 day or an annual review, I'm like, "End of day one, let's celebrate all the things that are going well, and then I'm going to step back and need a little bit more time, different mind space for what's not going so well." This usually bears down to; "What are the things that "should be doing" that I had in my plan, but that for whatever reason aren't happening?" Usually my default decision is, "I'm just not going to worry about that anymore. Don't care. This other thing is not as high of a priority, and so just put it out of my mind, don't worry about it."
Sometimes it's, "Well, this actually is a really high priority and it's not good that this isn't going well." That comes down to, "Well, what's something that I can put in place to make this more of a default." Usually that's some form of calendar blocking or creating constraints around the things that I'd like to do instead, creating some accountability around it. Maybe I'll have a public goal or launch something that creates a deadline, or to the other extent, it's thinking about, "Well, what am I doing instead that's a lower priority. I'm going to stop doing that instead to make space for this."
But just making some change that changes my probability of this going better. This leads into number three, which is, "What have I learned?" This could apply to number one or number two, but this is just like, "Hey, the things that are going well, what are those conditions that allow it to go well? How can I repurpose those conditions towards something else?" If I found this structure of having accountability about meditation works, "Well, can I extend that accountability structure to something else, where, 'Okay, now I do that with workouts, where I do those over Zoom, and all it is is just like I have an appointment that I have to show up for and I work out instead of sometimes skipping.'"
It's like, "This thing that's working in this other area of my life, how can I export or repurpose that?" It's interesting that we find these patterns once they keep popping up in our life, both good and bad. What we do in a previous context we tend to repeat in other contexts. The nice thing is that if we learn something that works for us, all we have to do is just find other contexts and wish it will work. The muscle that I find really valuable here, it's almost like a cheat code. It's like a mental time travel is the way that you save maximum time is to make mistakes and simulation rather than reality.
Once you discover a pattern and say, "Well, that's interesting." If all I do is just say like "Today, I'd like to have a workout and well, what are the chances I think that's actually going to happen? Well, based on past experience, maybe that's a 50% chance. It depends on how I feel, what I ate, how I slept," all these other outside factors. It's like, "Well, what can I do to get that from 50% likelihood to 70% likelihood?" It's like, "Oh, well, I set an appointment where I'm meeting with someone or even I choose the time or I have everything set out, like my workout clothes, et cetera." All of a sudden it's 80% likelihood of happening.
That time didn't have to elapse. I didn't have to go another month to discover that work. I just had that simulation in my mind and just my confidence level. This works is like investing as well. If I get above that 70% threshold of, "I'd be really surprised if this doesn't occur," then I'm like, "Okay, good. I can move on to the next thing." That's how you identify what's the core cause or what's a really key intervention that we can put in place to ensure that our future actions are in line with our present goals?
Daniel Scrivner (21:33):
One thing I think that is not talked about enough in productivity or just any area of life is that we are all wired incredibly differently, from we're motivated by different things, we're driven by different thing, we have things that excite us, we have things that repel us. I think that so much of performance, as opposed to just productivity is, a lot of that is just this never ending experiment to figure out more about yourself and put that into use.
Daniel Scrivner (21:59):
What I love just about that as well, too, in my own experience when I had that aha moment was achieving more became... no longer was it about beating myself up for all the things that I wasn't doing well and all of the things that were going poorly, but it was much more of this exercise of like, "No, I'm not broken, there aren't all these things that need to change with me. I just need to listen and take in a lot of information, do a bunch of experiments in the areas of my life where I really want to move the needle in, know and understand what works well for me and then embrace that." That becomes a process of; one, it's much more compassionate, you're actually loving yourself in that process. But I think the other thing too is it just seems so much more effective.
Yeah. I mean, the emotion driving not only is it, let's say, curiosity versus guilt or judgment, not only is it more effective, also makes life a lot more fun. That habits, goals, our companies, ourselves, all these are instrumental and it's good to remind that. The longer the timescale, the more that we can excuse short-term lapses as inevitable and try to extract the lessons from them so hopefully we don't pay tuition over and over again. We've already had the lesson, once let's try to put it in practice.
Daniel Scrivner (23:13):
When it's no longer pass or fail, which is another thing that I find that I just love about that is you're just playing a different game.
Yeah. All these dichotomies are false dichotomies and it's converting this finite game of "I'm trying to accomplish the school, I'm trying to build this habit" into the infinite game of "I want to live a good life," and all of these are steps towards that. These are all lessons that we use towards that, that infinite game. The notion of not paying tuition multiple times, I think is really useful because like you said, in a certain way, there's prescriptions or principles that tend to generalize across people. Generally starting with your most important thing tends to work really well. Doing deep work before doing more reactive work tends to work really well.
There's certain principles that you can use and adapt to make your own, but a lot of performance versus productivity is, "What are the conditions that work really well for me? How does my best self show up? When I've gotten things done in the past, what are the commonalities there, and can I put those back into place?" That's one of the trick questions that I have that has a lot of mileage is I ask up front, it's like, "Think back to the time that you were most 'productive' in your life. What did that feel like? List out five things that you were doing then that you're not doing now."
Maybe you were waking up earlier. Maybe you worked on this project first before other projects. Maybe you had friends who you were working on it and collaborating with. Just identify any... You know those games where it's like, "Spot the difference." You have the two pictures and you're circling in one of the pictures where there's something in one of the photos. Just like, "What was different at the time?" That's the low hanging fruit. That's the place to start is you already know what was working well for you. Start there. You don't need to find a solution outside of yourself, read another self help book, scan Twitter.
Those are things that are working for other people. All of their advice, even everything that I'm saying today comes from my own personal experience. Knowing thyself starts with knowing what works well for yourself. Starting there.
Daniel Scrivner (25:26):
One the thing that I wanted to come to, the overarching concept of thinking more about second and third order consequences or second and third order impacts and not first, and maybe try to tie a couple of things together. I have long neglected exercise in my life, and I've tried to make a massive course correction there over the last year. The whole thing just seems really silly to me. Now in hindsight that I've got it working, my overarching thought is like, "Wow, there's no reason this couldn't have happened sooner." But I think the couple of things that unlocked it for me is just changing the way that I thought.
Daniel Scrivner (25:57):
As a couple of examples, previously my whole idea was like, "I just need to make it to the gym for an hour. That's the only thing I'm going to focus on. I need to make it to the gym for an hour." Then my goal is to try to do that as many times per week as possible. I would just fail at that again and again and again. I would try to think about like, "Okay, well, what is it? Do I need to wear my gym clothes to the office? Do I need to have a time on my calendar?" One thing that I love, that I've just been thinking a ton about, and it relates to exercise is there's a concept of exercise if this minimum effective dose and those words I love. There's a whole other body of research that's just around, "What is the least amount that you can do to still see the benefits?"
Daniel Scrivner (26:37):
I think that's just an amazing exercise, but the way I took and latched onto that was just this notion that I don't need to go to the gym for an hour. I focus on little things. Some of the things I've been practicing is every hour, I'll try to stop and do 100 jumping jacks or 40 air squats. Then I have a dumbbell or barbells or a kettlebell in the office and I'll try to do that. If you just literally do five to 10 minutes at a time and you space that out throughout the day, you get an amazing workout, you show up more energized to your next meeting. What are some of the common pitfalls you see of people getting stuck at that first order analysis phase and not moving on or viewing things from that second or third order?
Oh, man. I mean, there's so much good stuff there. I just want to underline a couple of concepts, which you highlighted there. I think, as first as you introduce, this binary outcome, either success or failure, when there's a whole lot of gray in the middle, and that a lot of us, especially high performers, I think the higher the performer that you are, a lot of what makes us have outlier type outcomes, If inversed, leads to outlier negative outcomes. We turn inward and become judgmental. Our greatest strength can be our greatest weakness sometimes. Knowing that a lot of us have this dichotomous black and white thinking, I think an easy way to get around it is making so we cannot fail. Making the bar so low that we can't say no.
This is something that's commonly talked about in habits. I think a lot of behavior comes down to building a habit. You stick with something for long enough or just start internalizing the benefits to the point that it becomes part of your identity and you no longer have to try to do it, you just do it. But that's a long process. As we were saying, thinking of this as an infinite game, thinking of wanting to get and stay in shape and be in our bodies for the rest of our lives is something we're going to be continuously improving upon. It takes a lot of the pressure to have immediate results. I think in a figurative sense, these expectations become a prison for us because we are constantly judging, "Well, I should be having more. I should be doing more. Why am I not having the results that I like?"
Instead, we trust the process. We think about, "How can we get started? How can we take one more step?" There's this notion, especially in Silicon Valley, of these quantum leaps 10Xs. I think when it comes to the self, it's incremental, but all the time. This 1% every day. You never underestimate the power of compounding. I think with working out, it's much harder to go from zero pushups a day to one pushup a day than it is to go from one pushup a day to 100. It's very easy to add on once that initial micro habit has been built. Floss one tooth, do one pushup, five minutes. Start super small to the point that you can't say no, because a lot of the internalization of the benefits takes a long time and it takes consistent input, where you start to build correlations like, "When I do this habit, this is how my day goes. When I work out or I don't work out, when I get eight hours of sleep versus when I don't eight hours."
It takes a while to internalize that difference. It's important to stick with it long enough in order for that difference to be apparent, and that means really starting small. In an actual sense, this is the heavy lift that I think a lot of people fall prey to. Say, January 1st 2021, half the world is like, "This is the year that ever everything changes." This is the classic. We fall to the structure of our systems. We always will take the path of least resistance. If all that we've done is just draw up this store of willpower, which is sure to expire as soon as the context isn't perfect, then we're never going to stick with something.
That means rising above the level of our system. It's like, "How can we create supporting structures so that this thing that I want to add into my life can become a default, can become trivially easy?" And releasing this expectation of short term results, because we're thinking on such long time scales that having results right now really doesn't matter. Full on transparency is, I had never even seen the inside of a gym until... let's see 2011. Yeah, at the age 21, never even been inside a gym. It was a big leap for me. What finally got me over that hurdle, other than meeting other professional poker players is when I started my ramp up the ladder where, "Oh, me sitting all day in a chair, drinking two liters of soda every day, eating pizza, and these guys are jacked and they're actually able to play long sessions and make good decisions and not tilt."
I was like, "Oh, this would be worth a lot of money for me to go into the gym." But that wasn't enough to get me there. It's seeing that, "Well, if I do this over the course of a lifetime, what am I going to look like at age 80? I might actually add decades of high quality of life onto my life. I want to be peaking when I'm 80. I don't want to be at my peak now." That's what really hit me is like, "The sooner that I can install this habit, the results now are great, but results in 50 years of compounding, that's going to be insane."
I think having that longterm mentality really helps because you're going to miss days, you're going to travel, you're going to have things that come up, and if you have that all or nothing approach, that's when people completely fall off. That's the difference between a sprint and a marathon is if you're in it for a marathon, sometimes your legs are going to cramp, you're going to have to slow down to a walk, you're going to get off course, but you just pick up where you left off.
Daniel Scrivner (32:38):
Next I'd love to try to get a little bit more tactical, come down a couple of levels and just cover the idea of planning and why planning is important. What that prepares you for. If we just think about type A personalities, they think about planning and they are like, "Absolutely a waste of time. Why would I plan when I could just jump right into action? At the end of the day, it's all about the action and that's how I make progress." But I don't think that's the case. What is your take there and how do you think about that and frame that up?
We've been talking a little bit about meditation. I like the phrase; meditate for 20 minutes a day. If you don't have 20 minutes, do it for two hours. It's like the fact that you don't have time to do something means that it's actually more important. You have a bigger problem. You should be spending more time on it. That's a common thing when I work with executives is not doing this planning, and that could be at the micro level of, "What am I going to accomplish today before the world catches on fire? I need to respond to these other things that are coming at me." Or at the more macro level, "What's our 90 day North Star. What are we trying to accomplish? What our key objectives and how do we track progress towards those?"
I think first, is just treating that time like it's the most important, that other things come second. Where you have limited time, it becomes even more important to decide where that time goes because by definition, you're having to say no to some things that are good, that have positive expectation in order to have opportunities which are better and have even higher expectation. Those won't always be obvious in the moment. It requires taking that step back. That's a lot of where I start is trying to force someone to slow down, to create slack in their schedule. It always takes a client off guard when I mandate that they take a day off. No phone, find a cabin in the woods, just bring a journal and jus write, just get things out of your head. It's so easy to get tunnel visioned as an executive because there's all these things that are screaming for our attention.
Just like our ancestors on the Prairie were very geared toward change, things that are yelling at us to be done, all of the urging, that's that's where our attention is always going to be drawn if we don't know what we're looking for. Because I've done that planning, I'm able to know what to look for and thus handle a lot of things coming at me at once. The same is true for every executive. By deciding what's important, you're implicitly deciding what's not important and what's okay to be ignored. What to hand off, what to delegate, what to put off until next quarter. The less that these trade offs, because there are always trade offs, you're giving off something that you want in order to get something you want more, are made in advance, you're always going to be going towards the newest, shiniest object.
In my brief time in the startup world in New York, where I led marketing for a startup that will go unnamed, the founder had this classic shiny object syndrome where the latest article that he had read or the latest campaign that we had run on the marketing side, we have days of results and all of a sudden, "This is the new thing. This is where we're going to drive all of our focus towards. Everything we were doing, we can forget about that. This is the new thing." Imagine that this is happening on an everyday basis, and this is the way a lot of us live our lives, and every day is a new priority.
It's very easy to fall into this ping pong mindset as an executive where whatever is happening is the most important thing at the time, rather than being deliberate and slowing down. The question that I would say to him is like, "Cool. That does sound like a great idea. That does sound really important. This is what my top priority was. Is it more important than this thing that I was already doing?" Usually that question is like, "Well, no, I guess what you were doing is more important." It's like, "Good, let's put that to the side. We stick it in someday maybe in GTD terms, and we keep our eyes on the prize."
A lot of focus is seeing the object of your focus and everything, because you know what to look for, you're tuned to that signal, you're aware. The way that we improve our focus is we put our blinders on, we have constraints. This is what we're focused on, and by definition, everything that's outside of the circle is not things that we're concerned about, and thus we can ignore them. There's a lot of power in moving very quickly by knowing what to ignore. I think that's the biggest benefit of planning is not only are you deciding what you're doing, but you're deciding what you're paying attention to.
Daniel Scrivner (37:30):
That's an amazing encapsulation of it. One of the most helpful things that I find just for myself is making sure that even if I only have two minutes or five minutes to dedicate to it, because when you become a certain age, you have family, you have other responsibilities, you don't always control your time, and there's more things that can pop up. My mornings, I'm not always able to sculpt my mornings maybe the way I would like, but the rule of thumb I try to follow is, "I have to spend some amount of time putting together a plan for the day." It feels like the two things I'm really doing there is one, it's almost this mental act of setting a goal and almost rehearsing in my mind how the day's going to go, which I find super helpful later on.
Daniel Scrivner (38:11):
But then you alluded to the second piece, which is, I think all of us need constraints. My take is, the more driven you are, the more energy you have, the more of a go-getter that you are, I think those people need tighter constraints, not looser constraints, because there's just more... they see almost an infinite number of places they can put their energy and attention and focus. It's this natural act of constraining, but one way I might draw that out... Ray Dalio a really interesting principle that I love in his book, Principles, where he talks about just this notion that you almost want to think about making progress just like a funnel. At the top you have your overarching goal, then your have your strategy, then that breaks out to individual tasks. One sentence that he says, but it's just so powerful is he's like, "When you think about it in that context, your strategies to change less frequently than your tasks and your goals should change less frequently than your strategy, which should change less frequently than your tasks."
Daniel Scrivner (39:05):
It's really helpful to think about it in that context too, that your goal should be changing pretty infrequently. That should be a pretty hard constraint. It should take a lot for you to be able to move that. To me, it just stood out as like, "Wow, it's a really powerful way to frame up what you're trying to do there and how those pieces interconnect."
One of my favorite Dalio quotes is, "Life is a big giant buffet. You have to give up some things you want at the buffet in order to eat some things you want more." I think that what you talk about encapsulates a few other very important principles. The first one is another benefit of having a plan is you have something to compare to. It's hard to know how the day went if you didn't know how it was supposed to go. Something that we will find is that it's easy to backwards rationalize anything. A lot of our cognitive functioning is dedicated towards reminding ourselves how great we are, how we made great decisions today, we were so productive. Look at this big list of things that I crossed off. It didn't matter if any of those weren't our top priority, but look at all the things we've done. I did eight hours of work today, rather than, "Well, if I could only accomplish one thing today and have the day be great, what would that thing be?"
You spend, I'd say, the first 60 to 90 minutes of your day working on that thing. You could treat the whole rest of the day as a bonus. That the most important thing on your list is more important than everything else combined. Items numbers two through 10, aren't nice to haves, they're distractions. There's a famous Warren Buffet story where he is like, "What are your top 20 goals?" People are like, "Dah, dah, dah. Oh, goal number 19, I want to learn how to swing dance," or whatever it is. He's like, "Okay, these five," and I will say it's probably one to three, "these are the things that you're doing."
[inaudible 00:40:46] like, "Oh, number five through 20, these are the things that we do when we're not doing one to five." He's like, "No, that's your not-to-do list." That those are the most dangerous things at all, because those are the things that you can justify in hindsight is, "Oh, we redesigned the website," or like, "Oh, now we have a new recruiting page." "Well, was that in your most important thing, was that attacking your bottleneck?" Well, no, it was literally a waste of time." Most of the things we do as work are a waste of time because we don't just take a single minute to say, "What would move us forward the most? What's the most effective path?" Yeah, that's why planning is so critical because the more rational we are or the better we are at rationalizing, we can look backwards and justify anything that we do.
Third, we'll say pillar of the loop, the experimentation and why I think it's so critical. We've danced around a little bit, but I think it would be nice to make explicit. We just talked about planning, deciding what we're going to do and how we're going to do it. We talked about reflection. How did that thing we do go, can we make it go even better? Can we do something different? But in between the doing of the thing I like to frame as experimentation is that we're curious, we're constantly paying attention to like, "Is what we're doing leading us to the place that we want it to go?"
I know a problem that I used to have, and a lot of the founders that I work with have, is this shiny object syndrome is dramatically shifting the business model or the marketing plan they have today. I find that this experimental approach solves for that. It eliminates a lot of these daily extension crises and pivots in the opposite direction because you choose an experimental period. For me, I default to 30 days, where every month is that general North Stars, things I want to work towards, things that I'm going to try and see what happens. I sprint as fast as I can, for that 30 days, trying to have this mental superposition of, "Even though I'm only 70% sure, I'm going to act like I'm 100% sure." That like, "This is the goal that I want." This avoids me changing the goal every single day, because as we know with systems thinking, if you change the goal, the whole system realigns itself in that goal. That's very dangerous because if you're changing everything, how do you know what's working?
At the end of the 30 days I have the power to say, "I can scrap that entirely." That gives me the freedom to act as if I'm fully confident. So much of this comings down to having the conviction that what you're doing is leading to the place that you want to go. That allows you to remain consistent. I love the William James quote about habits because I think it extends to so much in life. "A single lapse is like letting a whole ball of string unfurl." You're doing all this work to build this string, just wrapping and wrapping and wrapping, and you fall off course, you lose confidence in what you're doing, you're starting over. You have just a big piece of string all over again.
This ability to know that you can course correct at a designated time allows you to experiment and try things in a low risk, fun, curious way. If everything is this willpower, force yourself to do things, that's a sprint, that's not a marathon, that's not a longterm approach. I find in combination, deciding what I'm going to do, doing it, being curious, "What happens? And then, "How did that go? Do I want to keep doing it or I want to do something else?" When that loop is closed, it allows for exponential growth.
Daniel Scrivner (44:19):
I want to now transition a little bit. One of the things I love about working with you is you had a few simple, cheap tools that you recommended that at the time I was like, "This sounds so silly." I've shared this in many times now with many other people and I commonly get the same reaction. People are like, "That sounds really silly." But one of them was something super simple, which is literally a $20 cube timer that you can get on Amazon. That is still something I use and something that's core to the way that I work is just... yeah, you've got it right there, is just this notion of either time boxing, saying, "I want to do this thing. It's a potentially an open ended task, so I'm just going to give myself this amount of time. I'm going to work on it for 30 minutes. I'm going to work on it for 60 minutes and then I'm going to stop."
Daniel Scrivner (45:03):
Or the other one is trying something where it's more of a sprint, where it's like, "I don't have a ton of time to work on this today. I want to challenge myself. I may do one or two of these in a day." It's a nice change of pace, but it's more just like, "I'm going to sprint on this and see how much I can get done in 15 minutes or 30 minutes." Or just challenge myself and say like, "I know, realistically, it might take me 25 minutes. I'm going to see if I can get this done in 15 minutes." But it's so simple and so powerful. Do you have other tools like that and what are some of the, either software or physical, tools that you lean on in your life?
Yeah. First, the cuber timers. I'm sure a lot of listeners are familiar with Pomodoros, and the power of time boxing is that time conforms to the space that we give it. Classic Parkinson's law. Task expands to the amount of time that we have to work on that task. If anyone has worked on a team project, knows this. Things miraculously get finished at the deadline, no matter when the deadline is. It goes back to how we were talking about habits, making it so low that you can't say no. So much of procrastination is a failure to get started. How do you write an essay? You write the first word, and then you write the first sentence, and you write the first paragraph. I'd like to talk about it as a verb change from what's the smallest possible step of going from, "I'm going to do this thing" to "I'm doing this thing."
A lot of that is just lowering the bar for how far I need to go before I can take a break, before I can celebrate. For me, I default to operating in 25 minutes cycles following a break. But a lot of times I will set a timer for five minutes and say, "For the next five minutes, I'm only going to do this thing." That works, it's like, "Oh, I'm really stuck between these two options. All right, for the next five minutes, I'm going to write down all the arguments for both. In the end of five minutes, I want to make a decision." Because most decisions are like, "Am I having chicken or steak for dinner?" I'm like, "It doesn't really matter all that much, but eventually I get hungry, so I need to make a decision." It's like minimizing that time to allocate to something, creating that constraint, but I just need to do anything to get started. It's like setting that bar as low as possible.
The opposite part of time boxing, which I like to think a lot of people miss, goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning as far as sprinting the wrong way as fast as they can is if you limit the amount of time that you're sprinting with this interval, "Okay. Now I'm going to take a step back and say, 'I'm going to continue this.'" I think for me a classic one recently is I'm working on a new webpage, and it's very easy to get in the weeds with the new webpage as I'm sure you know as a designer, Daniel. Every 25 minutes, it's like, "Oh, okay, was this actually the best thing that I could be doing? Do I really need to rewrite this paragraph?" It creates that that rail where things don't go off the rails.
That being said, other kinds of tools are cheap things that I think are pretty interesting. The reason that I think they're interesting is because by experience, they install these principles. Like you were saying, a simple timer that helps you internalize these principles of creating time boxes. I point everyone listening... I assume there's going to be a show notes-
Daniel Scrivner (48:07):
I have a popular post, last year called top resources for productivity and performance. That's the list of everything that I use with the rationale and how I use it. Definitely check those out. Themes that come to mind. One, anything you can do to track, especially passively, is super useful. Never underestimate the power of a rising integer. You have a sleep tracker on there, time trackers, tracking where your time is going online. All these types of things that help make things that are subjective more objective and they can you make better decisions, I think are always very high leverage tools. Very into capturing ideas. I'm a super analog guy. It's like I have literally a yellow pad next to me that I'm just writing down any random thought that comes up during the day.
The key is I want to minimize the amount of friction between having an idea, thinking of something I could do, and capturing in some form. Then I just go back and do what I call a sweep, go through these notes and see if there's anything actionable. A $1 yellow pad. For me, I wouldn't sell this pad for a 1000 bucks. Another one that I'll talk about, especially for those who spend a lot of time online, are blockers. If you just starting with one, I really recommend Freedom. That's just during the hours that you're doing your work, especially your deep work, blocking all the things that could be distractions.
One interesting correlation that I found with the executives that I work with and their productivity is the first time that they check their email is the strongest negative correlation with how much they get done in the day. The earlier they check the email, the less that they get done. It will blow someone away to discover the world will not catch on fire if you don't check your email for a couple hours, but that if you spend a little bit of time on your most important thing of the day before you flip over to the world, you'll just feel so much more sane, your most important projects will move forward. It's an amazing what that tiny shift will make.
Daniel Scrivner (50:12):
Do you have any final words you want to share, and can you give people a few places where they can find you online and be able to follow you and work with you?
There's a couple places that I would direct you. I have a workbook that I think encapsulates a lot of the concepts that we were talking today in a form that anyone can implement. It's called Experiment Without Limits, and it's available for anyone to download for free online on our website. That's theforcingfunction.com/workbook. It's also available on Amazon at cost. I highly recommend the paperback version. Having a physical thing that you can write in tends to increase your odds of putting the things into practice. But the other place I'd say that... We talked about so much today. There's always all these places that you can improve yourself, and so it's easy to get overwhelmed and thus not take action.
We created a little quiz that we called the Performance Assessment, which asks you a few questions about what's going on in your life, what's holding you back, the things that you have in place. Through that quiz, little reveal, we think is your biggest opportunity to improve your performance. You can also take that for free theforcingfunction.com/assessment.
If you are interested in accelerating performance, we do have an opportunity... I generally only work with a handful of executives at a time, but for the first time I'm opening up to a group for what we call team performance training. I'm going to be leading this group for 12 weeks, that's going to be executives, investors, founders, through my system for achieving peak performance. We're going to do lots of fun, peer masterminds and uncovering each other's blind spots and just pushing ourselves. That kicks off at the beginning of September. Applications for that are opening up in mid August. If you want to receive more information or want to know what all that's about, you can go to teamperformancetraining.com.
Daniel Scrivner (52:08):
I would just reiterate, I've gotten a tremendous amount out of working with him. Obviously we've talked to you about a lot of concepts, but in a very general broad sense, if you're interested in just seeing what this could do for you, could do for your performance, I guarantee you would take away some things that I'm sure are obvious, but a lot of stuff that's counterintuitive and a lot of stuff that's highly tailored to just things that would help you specifically. I can't recommend working with Chris enough. Thank you so much, Chris.
On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge — in business, investing, science, and so much more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. Listen to past episodes for free, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe to Outliers on your favorite podcast platform.
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