Interview on the Today’s Business Leaders Podcast

Manufacturing Urgency and How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur

Check out my new interview with Gabe Arnold on the Today’s Business Leaders podcast.

A few how-to highlights:

  • Making sure you’re always at the right table (in poker and your business)
  • Making rapid-fire decisions using expected value
  • Tightening your feedback loops to increase your implementation speed
  • Rebuilding your motivation when you fall off the horse
  • Reducing friction towards completing your daily habits and tasks

Visit the official podcast page below for the show notes and audio recording (42m). If you prefer reading, you can also find the full transcript below.

Episode Transcript:

Gabe Arnold: Hey, I have Chris Sparks on with me. He is a very successful entrepreneur who has a background in poker which I’m pretty interested to hear about. He’s going to share with us his story. First, how he got started and what brought him to where he is today and then also just some tips and advice for the entrepreneurs that are going be watching this. Welcome, Chris.

Chris Sparks: Hey, guys, it’s good to be here.

Gabe Arnold: Awesome, so give us a brief overview of how you got started, when you realized that you were an entrepreneur or more entrepreneur minded and how that’s led you to where we’re at today.

Chris Sparks: Yeah, I would say the market pulled it out of me more than anything. I was dead set on the anti-entrepreneurial path. I had the dream of making television commercials, so by definition, that requires working at a large company. I was headed towards the Forbes cover. I had this idea that making beautiful art that changed human behavior would be a really exciting field to be in. But what I underestimated is what a slog it is to work in the corporate world. Yeah, everything I did through college was set towards that such as majoring in marketing psychology and doing internships at large companies.

I actually had a job working at Ford working out of school and fortuitous circumstances pushed me in the opposite direction. The week before I was supposed to start at Ford in advertising the whole auto industry collapsed. I was put in hiring purgatory and this whole path that I had laid out for myself got disrupted. For the first time, I had to question whether it was really what I wanted.

Poker had always been a very well-paying hobby throughout college. I said, okay, this is my only way to make income and, honestly, fill my time in the short-term. Why don’t I try to see if I can turn this poker playing into a business, taking it seriously, systemizing it and finding alternate sources of income. Diversify a little bit. Putting my full attention into poker and treating it like I was running my own business. I was able to grow to a point where I became one the of the best online poker players in the world.

Gabe Arnold: That’s awesome. From college to where you became one of the online best poker players in the world, how long did that take?

Chris Sparks: I first started playing poker at the end of high school. Nothing crazy, just freerolls. I’ve always been a gamer. Before poker, I was good at the online strategy games and I was one of the best Gin Rummy players online. Poker was the next iteration of that. It took off when poker was everywhere on ESPN. It was the big thing that we did in the college dorm. I started playing underground games and some paid games online. Paid my way through college. I had that year that I was in Detroit in hiring purgatory with nothing to do other than play poker where I went from I’m going to do this in between classes to I’m going to have a set schedule. I’m more regimented. I built a consulting business around it, hired technologists, outsourced my life, did a bunch of stuff in the vein of building a large business here.

The year and a half that I moved to Los Angeles, I moved in with four other poker players. The “you are the five people you surround yourself with” is really true. All of a sudden, my work hours doubled as the natural thing to do became to dive in and all of my conversations became about poker. The shared house really accelerated my growth. This whole journey for a long answer to your short question was from age 16 until 23. About seven years. That last two and a half years, especially, where that first year was becoming a professional and getting to the point that I was supporting myself beyond paying for my college. The last year and a half was going from a pretty good player to one of the best.

Gabe Arnold: Awesome. What year did you wrap up and stop doing it full-time?

Chris Sparks: Too long of a story for the time that we have. In 2011, an event called Black Friday happened, where the online poker industry effectively got shut down in the US.

Gabe Arnold: Yes, I remember that day. That was curious if that was where you ended. That was a dark day.

Chris Sparks: It was a come to Jesus moment. Made me think about what I wanted to do with my life. Life breaks down into a series of careers or mini-lives, but if you pursue something too long beyond that, it becomes your life’s pursuit. For me, it was do I want to be known as a poker player on my tombstone? No. I want to be doing something that’s a little less zero-sum] and much higher impact. I looked at my other friends, primarily from poker because these are the guys that I knew best at that point. What are the most ambitious people that I know doing? They are creating startups. They’re either working at that or building on their own.

I looked back on my personal history. I had never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but I had all this entrepreneurial experience indirectly because I’d never known entrepreneurship was a label to put on hustling and making things happen. I realized that since a young age, I’d always been doing this kind of stuff, I just had never had a word for it. I went about trying to figure out how I could add value to these people who were creating businesses because I didn’t feel like I had a lot to add and certainly didn’t have enough knowledge and experience to create my own company.

I started with identifying pain points and with doing marketing consulting where I had my degree. It was initially too broad, but I was able to isolate the specific pain point of data analytics. I started doing google analytics set-up, and optimization. It was high leverage because I could sit down for an hour with the analytics from anyone’s company and give them three actionable things to improve their business. It was a good gateway into learning about all these businesses from the inside and how they operate.

This led me to what I got really fascinated by and what I’m doing currently. I recognized all these commonalities with entrepreneurs. There’s this whole culture around working harder and working more hours, but that so many entrepreneurs have terrible personal habits, really bad procrastination, too much window dressing at the expense of shipping and over-focusing on the things their good at rather than what actually moves the business forward.

I identified this other pain point and point of leverage of productivity. How can one make the most use of their limited time, focus, and energy? What is the areas of their business at any particular time that they should be zeroing in on? When to take a 10,000-foot view and when to zoom in and push a project to completion. That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the last year and a half through working one on one with entrepreneurs on their personal business productivity.

Gabe Arnold: That’s awesome. I’ll dive that into that more because I have more questions about that. I think that’s a huge struggle or pain point and can be an issue no matter what stage you’re at in business.

One pattern I’ve seen though is you and a guy named Billy Murphy who has a site called foreverjobless.com and the guy I mentioned earlier, my friend Owen Gaines. All of you guys were successful poker players. I think you are probably more successful than these guys, but they made a living and did very well at it for years. I know Owen made it past the Black Friday, is that what it’s called? He made it past that and wrote books and does coaching and does all sorts of things still, but all of you, from the outside appearance, and it could be wrong, easily pivoted into doing business. Now you have this consulting and coaching business and you went and did marketing consulting. Billy Murphy, he helps people. He has an incubator and he helps people start businesses even if they have zero ideas.

It’s been interesting to see a super similar pattern between the three of you because you’re the ones that I know the closest as far as professional poker players. My question is what do you think you learned in poker that you were able to translate and step into business? You mentioned earlier you trying to figure out, oh I’ve just hustled my whole life so I able to shift over to this. Are there things that you learned in that seven-year period that easily translate into business or do you think it’s unrelated?

Chris Sparks: Absolutely, I think it’s completely related. I actually just gave a talk at a group last week on the lessons learned from poker that can be used in entrepreneurship, so it’s fresh in my mind.

Gabe Arnold: Cool.

Chris Sparks: I think there’s so many. One obvious one is that the biggest determinant of success is the table that you put yourself at. This could be the industry that you choose to focus on, the market, the customers you choose to work with, but those decisions have outsized effects on success. Picking something that’s interesting enough to you that you’ll dedicate the time and put in the hard work necessary to make it to the highest level.

Picking a niche that you can be the number one at. This idea of a blue versus a red ocean. If you can be a little leaguer playing t-ball, you’ll do very well. If you’re going to pick a competitive market, you’re going to have to fight for it. Pick a niche you can be number one in.

Knowing your competition very well. Predicting the future as far as being a few moves ahead. For poker, people think that it all comes down to making big moves, outthinking, and outplaying the other guy. More than anything else, it’s discipline. It’s showing up every day. Making the best decisions you can with incomplete information and iterating as quickly as you can.

It’s one long game and it’s one long career. One long business. The results of any given day really don’t matter all that much, but what you can do is treat every failure as a lesson. The awesome thing about poker is you have these extremely tight feedback loops where my assumptions are being tested thousands of times daily when I’m playing. The same thing is true when you’re starting your own business is that you have all of these opportunities to fail and learn from them. You want to be failing as much as possible, particularly in the early going to learn about your customer, to learn about your market, to learn about yourself, and what you do well and what you don’t well so you can plug those gaps.

The more often that you are encountering the edge of your own capabilities, the faster you’ll grow. It’s this feedback loop that builds upon itself like compound interest that makes the difference in the long run.

Gabe Arnold: That’s an excellent answer. That makes a lot of sense. How would you suggest tightening that loop in business? In poker it makes sense, you’re going to win or lose immediately. It happens very fast. Have you ever been able to show a business owner or see an opportunity where like how do we shorten that loop that so it happens more frequently in a real-life business?

Chris Sparks: Yeah. I try to think of myself as a product. I want to be using an agile methodology where it’s release early, release often. The more often you can get what you’re doing out into the wild, even it’s really crappy, the better because what matters is you want to be getting feedback from customers. You want to be seeing what works, what resonates so you can build upon the things that are working and scrap all the things that aren’t.

The limiting factor when you’re an early-stage entrepreneur is your time. That’s the complete bottleneck. There’s so many potential things you could be doing. There’s big company A potentially might want to do a deal and you run six months down this line but it only has a 10% success rate or one of your clients has this feature that they want you to build in but it’s not really on brand.

There’s all these different potential paths and distractions that all diverge. Knowing which way to go, that’s the tough part. Making sure that your limited resources are deployed like a laser on the most effective path. The best way to do that is by continually getting feedback on what you’re doing. I think it’s having a clear idea of what your mission is and what your values are and where you are willing to compromise.

As a hypothetical example, you’re building a product. How much from this original product vision are you willing to compromise in order to get some early revenue and early customers to get case studies? How valuable are those case studies and revenue if it’s not directly related to your long-term vision?

Deciding these trade-offs up front, makes these seemingly hard decisions become very easy. You do this heavy lift up front of okay, these are the things we’re saying yes to, these are the things we’re saying no to, these are the exceptions that we will make. When all of these opportunities come up, all these shiny little balls, you can easily triage them.

Gabe Arnold: That makes sense. How do you develop a weighting system for the value of something? You mentioned as the example, do we want case studies early on so we’re going to push to get those and we’re going not worry about these features right now. Obviously, it varies project to project, but is there any type of model that you’ve used to start somebody thinking about how to weight their options and to be selective?

Chris Sparks: Yeah, a big concept from poker is expected value. I’m constantly making expected value calculations. I find it helpful to put a number on things that are presumably apples to oranges or subjective. The act of actually putting a number on something helps you decide where your subconscious is leading you. I have a spreadsheet that I use all the time for these types of decisions where I’ll create the criteria had I’ll have all my options and I’ll rank all of the potential options I’m considering on these criteria. Basically, creating a weighted average at the end. Looking at things like: what are the expected chances of success? How long do I think it’ll take? How enjoyable is it? How hard is it? What’s the expected the impact short to long-term? Weighing all of these factors and at the end, I get a score.

It’s not the score at the end that matters, but this act of deciding which criteria are most important. Say, okay, is it more important to have something that’s a guaranteed win up front, or should I be going for a 10X opportunity? Am I looking for something that’s on brand or it would be good to get a case study from a client, even it’s not exactly what we want to do, right?

Making those hard choices up front, again, makes it clear at the end. I try to go through that process anytime I’m stuck and anytime I know that I’m stuck is when I’m taking all of this willpower to slog through. That means subconsciously, I don’t have conviction behind what I’m doing. I find that if I’m not sure what I’m doing, the most important thing I could be doing is to figure it out because there’s nothing more motivating than having a challenging, exciting goal that you’re going to have full conviction on. Everything else takes care of itself.

Gabe Arnold: That’s awesome. How often have you seen yourself do that over the course of a year? Is it all the time, are you doing that on a weekly basis, or just for you personally, how often do you sit down and do that analysis?

Chris Sparks: For me, it usually happens around once a month. It’s been happening more often lately because I feel like I’m reaching a bit of inflection point in my business where I have the privilege of working with people who I respect that I feel like have no business helping them and yet, they want to pay me. It’s a good place to be in but what I do is inherently not scalable. I’m limited to about ten people I can work at any given time.

Thinking about, okay I want to grow the sphere of impact for this, but I don’t want to compromise on the quality of people I’m working with or the quality of the service I’m providing. I’m doing a lot more of this lately, thinking about where are the 80/20’s within this? How can I grow what I’m offering without having to double the amount of time I’m spending or without having to work with people who don’t excite me as much?

I find it ebbs and flows, but historically it’s been about once a month when I reach these decision points. I’ve gotten better at recognizing them, where in the past it would take me two or three weeks of going through the motions. Showing up and feeling this subtle, “I don’t feel sure about what I’m doing today” but not really taking action. It is important to recognize those signs of defensiveness up front. Saying, “that’s really interesting. The last time I felt that way, I didn’t do anything for a week and I got stuck. Maybe I should sit down, even if it takes ten minutes, and think about this.”

Like I said, this iteration process, treating all those failures like lessons. Thinking about okay, how can I not make that same mistake twice?

Gabe Arnold: When you’re using this decision-making process of weighing your options and assigning dollar values, you’re putting clear definitions on what you’re feeling in your subconscious and then you move forward. So, it sounds like almost like your subconscious is telling you what to do, but you don’t have it 100% worked out logically in your conscious thought and so this tool brings your conscious out and guides where your subconscious was trying to tell you to go anyway. Is that accurate?

Chris Sparks: I think that’s a part of it. Talking about subconscious, I’ve been deep into this productivity game for a couple years and it’s been my full-time thing for a year and a half and all the systems and tools in the world won’t help somebody who’s self-sabotaging. Right?

At the end of the day, it comes down to inner game. I have this belief that life is a single player game, that we create our own scorecard. At the end of the day, we decide whether we’ve been productive or if we’re not. What’s been a good day? The constraint becomes deciding what makes a productive day? What would make today great? What at the end of the day would make me feel good about what I did?

I find that this inner game comes up so often because things that we will label as tiredness or procrastination, are more these conflicts where I’m trying to push through this indecision. I think I *should* be doing this, but lacking that conviction, it feels way harder than it is.

Rather than continuing to hit my head against the wall, maybe stepping back and say, okay why is it important that I’m doing this? What is the intended result? Are there in other ways to get this result, right? Resolving this conflict, this idea from theory of mind where I have all these modules within my brain that have conflicting beliefs, ideas, and motivations. How can I create this mutual compromise so we can have all our energies moving forward?

I think that’s what I’m talking about when I do these exercises like the decision matrix is that I want to make sure all these internal voices are heard and we can get some sort of consensus. Rather than it’s a democracy, it’s hegemony. Okay, we’re not super excited about this path, but let’s try this for a month and see what happens. Can we all agree to that? At the end of the month, using these closed container experiments. We have these assumptions we’re testing.

Using an entrepreneurial hypothetical for me. I was considering this new addition to the coaching of what I call The Board, where I create a board of directors for every client and, I have a board meeting for them every month. I bring in all these experts on areas that I feel my own knowledge is lacking. I have the benefit of being in the room. All the attention is on this person.

I’m not sure whether this is a great idea. There’s a lot of coordination problems. It sounds good on paper. If it’s such a good idea, why aren’t people doing it? Etcetera.

Rather than kicking the tires of it and debating it internally, why don’t I try it out for a month and see what happens? What’s the minimum viable product of it? The minimum viable product is I talk to five of my friends who are experts and have my clients get on a call with them and sit back and see what happens. They said, “Wow. This is a super useful hour of my time.” Attention is curative. Having five people pay attention to you for an hour, regardless of whether their experts is going to be useful, but the fact was that they were giving really good advice that would not have occured to me.

I proved the minimum viable of this concept. I could have sat there for weeks and said should I do this? Should I not do this? Getting on one call for an hour resolved so many of these previously invalidated assumptions that I was able to move forward to the next phase.

Gabe Arnold: Fantastic. That’s a great example. Like you said, getting your MVP out there and seeing if it sticks or what problems it has, gives you proof of concept to say, “Okay, this is good.” Or “Man, that was a disaster. I obviously don’t want to go down that path any farther.”

Chris Sparks: That’s potentially the best possible result is avoiding these unseen traps because the worst thing is to be sprinting as fast as you can in the wrong direction.

Gabe Arnold: Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely I like what you talked about all the modules coming together. Years ago, I drew a picture of the way sometimes I feel like it’s in my head and it’s called the committee in my head. There’s all these people. Some people are paying attention. One guys smoking and drinking a beer in the corner because he doesn’t care. Other people here’s the attention side, here’s this little picture and my partner, who’s my girlfriend laughed and thought I was hilarious. That’s the noise that I think everybody has, especially as an entrepreneur, I think you have idea after idea or you see opportunities. When you view the world as a big opportunity that you can solve problems than it’s more chaos.

Great correlations of how poker has helped you to think clearly about ideas. When you talk about expected value and I’ve read a lot about that and I think I have a decent understanding, not as much as you do for sure, but give me a simple example of how you would assign that to the board example idea. Do you arbitrarily throw a number at something or do you make your best guess? How do you bring that into play and explain expected value a little bit, at least in simple terms?

Chris Sparks: Sure. Expected value, I think is one of the core mental models from poker. The idea is that humans are inherently results-oriented when the correct orientation is process orientation. We tend to look at, it went well, we must have done well instead of looking at what were our efforts. Given what we knew at the time, which was imperfect information, how did we do? Did we prepare effectively? Did we do all we could based on what we knew? Things are going to come up that are out of our control that we try to take those out of the model and say, of the things that we had control of, how did we do?

Expected value is a way of measuring that. It’s a simple calculation. You’re looking at how do we do when we win? Basically, percentage that we win times amount that win when we win, versus how do we do when we lose? Percentage of the chance that we lose times how badly do we do when we lose. When we’re looking at different options and trying to find the biggest expected value, it’s not necessarily the biggest win that has the highest expected value because it’s both the percentage chance of it working and how good it is when it works.

There are times to go after a 10 X opportunity. Let’s say there’s a 100% chance of a 1 X gain, but a 20% chance of a 10 X gain, going after the 10 X. I think that’s my general philosophy when I talk to clients is doing what you can to break the business rather chasing these incremental gains. What could you do to transform it overnight so that you need to run and hire somebody?

In a business context, when I’m looking at an opportunity like The Board, it’s a mental calculation of what are the chances that I think this is going to work? What does it look like when it works? Trying to extrapolate out. If it’s successful, how much am I going to enjoy coming every day? What are the intangible benefits? What other opportunities does this lead to? Does this create a bigger platform for myself? I could open up more optionality in terms of opportunities.

There’s trying to think about these second and third order effects in that the benefits are not always directly tied to the bottom line. Every opportunity opens up more opportunities. As an entrepreneur, there’s a million directions we could be going in. It’s both what are the chances of success of this? What does success look like? Trying to pick whatever that multiplication is the highest and at any given time.

In poker, they are going to be times where we think something is a very high percentage chance of working and but it fails. We will say, were any of our assumptions invalid? Updating our model of the world and saying, based on what we know now, what’s the next step? Always looking at reality as it is and going from there. I find that expected value is helpful in terms of we don’t know what is going to work, all we have is our best guesses, but if we’re constantly waiting for perfect information on what we should do, opportunities are going to be flying by. These quick back of the envelope calculations help inform what is the best use of our time, right now?

Gabe Arnold: That’s excellent. It sounds like it’s tied into your estimated revenue opportunity and also your estimated happiness level because that’s going to affect revenue and productivity down the road as well.

Chris Sparks: Absolutely. To the single player game idea, a big mistake that I see in a lot of entrepreneurs in my peer group is doing businesses purely for monetary reasons. We have the joke of the coconut cowboy where it’s an affiliate marketing business for cosmetics or rehab or for dentists and they have no passion for it. They saw an article one time that said it was a good business opportunity and decided to dive in.

I have this belief that intrinsic motivation is the only true motivation, so doing something that you’re excited to do and show up every day makes everything you’re doing downhill. It makes it flow. The more that you’re solving a problem that you think needs to be solved, that you’re passionate about it, that you’re working with people that you like and that you enjoy, the more that you’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to grow. That original idea of picking the right table to sit in is such an important concept.

I think as far as those subjective values, for me, I place a high value on my happiness and well-being. I know that because of the emotional weight of what I’m taking on from clients I’m working with, all of their problems become my own. If this is not someone that I care about and that I genuinely want to do well, that I’m thinking about their problems while I’m going to sleep or I’m in the shower, it’s going to be hard to bring my best self to our time together. I know that if I optimize the things that make me excited to show up and work every day, that’s going to show up in the bottom line as well

Gabe Arnold: That makes a lot of sense. We’ve touched on this a little bit so far, but why don’t we dive more into what you offer through your consulting and coaching at TheForcingFunction. What are the habits that improve productivity and personal growth and what mental mindset frameworks do you use? Share a little bit more about that.

Chris Sparks: Sure. What can I share?

Gabe Arnold: When your typical client comes in and they want to work with you, where do you start or how do you identify where they’re at and map out a plan for growth? What’s a common scenario?

Chris Sparks: I think the most valuable thing that I do for any prospective client, I always do a free consultation because I love nerding out about this stuff, is ask them about their goals. I ask about absurdly long timelines that are uncomfortable like, what do you want your obituary to say? What do you want to accomplish with this? What’s the end game? Unsurprisingly, most people have no idea. By forcing people to actually sit down and ask themselves these questions are probably the most valuable thing that I do for them.

Once I know where someone is going, first I can decide is this a path that I want to join with them? Is this something that I can get excited about? Also, great, now that we know where we’re going, let’s create a timeline. What are the steps towards getting there and creating these shorter-term goals. For these, I usually like to think on 90-day timescales.

Let’s say, we’re looking 25-years out. Next 90 days is 1%. What would guarantee you get 1% of the way to these lifetime goals? Then breaking that down. In the next 90 days, we have 12 weeks. What could you do this week to get you 10% of the way to that 1%? Systemically, a huge goal like I want to be a best selling author or I want to sell my business for eight figures becomes I need to talk to five clients this week. I need to find one person to help me write content for my website. It becomes an actionable task.

I help to create these habits and these systems around making these actionable things happen every day. That’s all it is, identifying what’s the most important thing I can do every day and creating constraints around everything else. That’s the process that I basically repeat with every client. Obviously, the tactics vary quite a bit based upon what the specific goal is but the strategy remains the same. Figure out where we’re going, break these goals down into the smallest component actions or habits, and make sure that these habits are happening every single day.

Gabe Arnold: If somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, I want to write a book and I want to be a bestseller.” It makes sense in your process that you would say, “Okay, in the next 90 days, here’s what we need to accomplish. You probably need to write an outline. You need to start writing content or chapters.” I would assume that you would get down to the point where you would say, “Every day, you need to write for 30 minutes or 15 minutes, or an hour.” That would be an oversimplification of what the process.

What happens when you’re a week later and you meet with the client and they didn’t do it at all? What’s the root of that? Was their goal not realistic or something they didn’t want? I feel like that would happen, maybe it doesn’t.

Chris Sparks: No, it happens a lot. I really try to avoid being the taskmaster because, doing something to avoid getting scolded, being a bad boy, that will work for a sprint, but life is not a sprint, right? It’s a marathon. Trying to tap into where intrinsic motivation comes from.

My biggest belief is that every failure is a lesson and we don’t fail the same way twice. I would be completely sympathetic and ask, “Hey, why do you think it didn’t happen this week?” Trying to come up with reasons why it didn’t happen and immediately doing one thing for each to help make sure that failure mode doesn’t happen again next week. If takes five minutes or less, I’ll wait until they do it on our call to make sure it happens.

For writing, the failure mode could’ve been, “I didn’t have a good place to write.” Or, I know this one for me as I’m starting to blog is, “I didn’t get out of the house in time, and I got distracted writing from home.”

Tomorrow I want to work on a new blog post and I don’t want to fail the same way twice so I’m going to have everything packed and ready to go by the door. The alarm is going to go off and I’m going to walk out the door and by the time I know it, I’ll be halfway to the café as a zombie. How did I get out here?

I don’t even need to know what I’m doing. I eliminate all this unneeded thought. So, looking at these different failure modes, basically treating future behavior is deterministic with systems and environmental changes can we put in place now so this doesn’t happen again.

It is also a good time to revisit your original motivations. Why are you doing this? What could get you more excited about writing this book? Who are you writing it for? Who’s the one person you’re trying to help?

Maybe have a conversation with a potential client or reader and learning what their current struggles are. Re-identify with that. Maybe getting some feedback on what you’re working on. Tapping into the why behind it. It’s a combination of those. Why are you doing it? How can we make it easier to do? Less friction, always. It’s an iterative process. It’s not something that can be solved overnight.

If it were that easy, everyone would do it. Productivity, being productive is a lifetime of effort. I think of perfect productivity as a mathematical asymptote: it’s something that you can approach, but you never actually reach it. You never solve this stuff. All you can do is get slightly better every day. Two steps forward, one step backward.

Coaching is just having a deeper conversation. The biggest change for me in my coaching is listening more. I used to be arrogant because I had read all the books and knew all the techniques. I thought that it was a matter of giving clients the right tool or advice. Clients already have the answers. Most of the sessions I now spend listening and trying to socratically help them discover what works for themselves.

I believe that with the right lever, we can move the world. All it takes is figuring out what is the lever that works for us personally as unique snowflakes to get us moving, to get us out of inertia. I tweeted something today that I thought was profound. The key to a life of productivity is manufacturing urgency.

Gabe Arnold: I love it.

Chris Sparks: Having a long-term reason to do things and constantly creating these short-term incentives that force us to show up. I think that’s one of my value adds as a coach is to help manufacture this urgency that someday projects would sit on our bucket list forever become today projects. Write a book, okay, that sounds cool, but what can you do about that today? What’s the next step you can take towards the book right now?

Gabe Arnold: That’s excellent. I think good advice and good perspective there, like you said, productivity is a continual improvement. I’m relatively productive. I’m trying to improve it and get better at it, but you’ll hit your stride and then life changes and you have to re-engineer everything that was working or you hit your stride and you’re successful and then you have this good problem of too much business or need to hire more people and then you have re-engineer the whole thing again.

It’s a constant art form, it’s not an arrival point, for sure, which is a great point. What you said about manufactured urgency really rang true because my most productive strategy is having a face to face call or sit down meeting with somebody and showing my work. It could be a client, it could be a coach. I have two different business coaches that I work with on a monthly basis. If I sit down and I haven’t done my work, I don’t like showing up like that, so that alone motivates me to show up. It’s that urgency.

The interesting takeaway that I learned in this conversation is if I can manufacture more urgency on a daily basis, not just for the once a week meeting or the every month meeting, then I should be able to pick up my pace because I’m objective and realize that a huge portion of our days is screwing around. If I had 20 minutes to get ready for a presentation that I didn’t want to miss out one and it was tonight, I would take the opportunity. I would go speak and I would figure something out on the drive over there. I could do that because it’s important to me.

Whether or not people realize that, I think you can always tap into your creativity and everything you’ve learned and read. If you’re good at your craft, then you should be able to extract something in that short amount of time. I always think about that. How can I compress as much productivity into a short amount of time, but during the day, despite my best efforts, I get distracted and screw around with things I probably shouldn’t even be looking at.

Chris Sparks: You defined a Forcing Function right there. That’s the concept behind my productivity philosophy. How can I create something in advance that forces me to show up, like these artificial checkpoints? Everyone has their lever for action. Self-understanding is the key. If you know that your lever is that you’re not going to show up for a call or a meeting unprepared, you can put these checkpoints in place to force yourself to continually implement and continually iterate. Think back to college, those classes where you only had one final exam versus the classes where you had a weekly paper. We tend to get motivated by deadlines, so creating these false deadlines can work really well.

Gabe Arnold: Yeah, definitely. That’s awesome. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with the audience? How they can connect with you, how they can work with you? Any other tips or advice? I love your quote, by the way, we’ll definitely put that in the show notes, but is there anything else that you’d like to share?

Chris Sparks: I could go on about this forever, but I feel like that’s a good stopping point. I’m putting chapters of my book out on my Medium page: Chris Sparks if you want to subscribe there, easy to remember because it rhymes. That’s also my Twitter and Facebook handles, SparksRemarks, if you want to connect with me there.

You can learn more about my productivity coaching at my website theforcingfunction.com. If anything I said today connected or resonated with you, or if you have further questions, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to reach out.

Gabe Arnold: All right. Thank you so much, Chris. This has been an awesome episode. Super helpful. I know everybody’s going to enjoy it and we’ll have you back again soon.

Chris Sparks: Thanks, Gabe. This was great.