This was a fun one. In general, I fall really far to the rational end of the spectrum but it turns out I harness my intuition far more often than I suspected. Some really interesting discussion.
Sharing a transcript of our conversation below.
Some conversation highlights:
- Improving our use of language around our desired behavior
- Overcoming our evolutionary defects to break through plateaus
- Using game theory to decide and iterate faster than our competition
- Avoiding existential angst through planned experimentation
- A proven method to quickly prioritize between potential projects
- Predicting our future to simulate mistakes rather than making them
- How to reconcile intuitive insights with rational logic
- Establishing mental habits to activate peak states on demand
- Using emotions as messengers, helping you harvest your subconscious
Michael Light: Welcome back to the show. I’m here today with Chris Sparks, and he is the author of the book Inflection Point, and he is also formerly ranked in the top 20 in the world of online poker. That’s out of 100 million people who’ve played poker, he was number 20 in the world. He is used to playing for high stakes, winning and losing the cost of a car on a single turn of a card, which is pretty intense, I would have thought, and great preparation for high-stakes business deals.
We have a lot of interesting subjects coming up in this podcast. We’re going to look at key insights in achieving your goals in less time, why getting clear on your goals is key, versus just pounding away working at them, and why sprinting as fast as you can in the wrong direction is clearly a bad idea, particularly if it’s based on numbers that have no meaning behind them.
Also, we’ll look at what to do if you know you should be doing something in your business, but you don’t do it. I’m going to raise my hand here. I’ve done that myself, and we’re going to learn how Chris helps people fix that, the importance of speed and intensity of decision making in top poker and business, and we’re going to look at how you can tell someone is bluffing in a business deal, which could be really valuable information if you’ve got a business deal coming up, and how Chris gets messages from his intuition and how he uses his intuition when he’s helping his clients achieve peak performance. Welcome, Chris.
Chris Sparks: Thanks, Michael. Good to be here.
Michael Light: Let’s start by talking about key insights in achieving your goals in less time, because I’m sure every business leader and entrepreneur would love to get their goals achieved faster.
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. Yeah. I think it all begins with knowing where you’re heading. If you’re not sure where you want to go, you can go in any particular direction. It doesn’t really matter. The first thing that I always do with friends and clients is help them get clear on where they want to be, and that begins with, “What do you want to do in your life?” I think the obituaries of any great man or any great woman could be condensed down to one sentence. Once you have that sentence you can work backwards from, all of your actions will fit in line, and you realize that most of what you’re doing from day to day is not really going to be a part of that narrative, and thus may or may not be essential.
Michael Light: Well, what’s the one sentence going to be on your obituary, Chris?
Chris Sparks: I like to think that I’m still writing that. I think my working title is, “Chris Sparks, advancer of humanity.” Luckily, that leaves me a lot of room to work, as far as the specifics.
Michael Light: I like that. You mentioned it’s important not just to pound away on your goals, going fast in the wrong direction. Do you see that happening a lot with entrepreneurs?
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. I think, in this culture, there’s a lot of emphasis on putting in a ton of hours or finding productivity hacks that can help you work smarter, but there’s not enough attention put on, “Are you doing the right thing?” Usually, that comes down to, “Are you doing the thing that scares you?” I think there’s far too much thought on questions like, “How can I get more hours into the day? Should I be sleeping less? Am I spending too much time on my meals? Do I need to cut down on the number of calls I’m doing?”
There’s not enough time or thought put into planning, as far as, “What is the most important thing that I can be doing now? What’s the thing that’s going to really move my business forward? What is the roadblock that’s most limiting me from growing my business and reaching more customers?” There’s not enough of these asking the hard questions and doing the hard things that really drive the business forward, and I think that’s where the real opportunity lies.
Michael Light: Now, I like that. How can I do the task that scares me the most? Why is it important in our business we do that first?
Chris Sparks: Sure. Here, I like the use of the term “the Resistance” where the resistance cues us to what we should be doing. I try to use fear as my guide a little bit, as far as what I do, because I know that I need to over-adjust for that fear. Fear is going to cause me to flinch away, but if I lean into that, it’s going to adjust in the sense of I’m doing more of what I want to do. I think fear causes us to overlook things that need to be fixed. A question that I like to ask clients a lot is, “What are you merely tolerating?” It’s this idea of cognitive dissonance where we can either change our actions or change our beliefs.
We have this internal conflict, and usually, the easiest way to resolve this is to protect the status quo by changing our belief about it. We say, “This is fine.” I really cue into this specific word “fine”, that this is something that probably should be changed. It’s much easier to think that it’s okay, so I don’t have to do anything about it. Usually, when we peel back these layers of fear, this is where the opportunity lies.
Michael Light: What’s your definition of fear then?
Chris Sparks: Definitions are hard. I think my first instinct that comes to me when I describe it is fear is a failure to look closely. I think it’s usually a distortion. I like this concept from cognitive behavioral therapy of a cognitive distortion, that fear causes us to see reality not as it really is, but as we would like it to be, and that by looking past the fear, we can get better in touch with this true reality. It’s something I talk a lot about with clients, is, “How can you have this level of awareness? How can you get past this tendency to avoid the things that scare us and face reality as it really is?”
Michael Light: That reminds me of the fear acronym: false evidence appearing real, which sounds similar to that, that we’re not seeing the real reality. We’ve got this emotion coming up, anxiety or fear, and because of that, we’re not taking bold action in our business.
Chris Sparks: I like that.
Michael Light: You said, “Go towards the fear,” which I think is a wonderful thing, assuming you’re not lost in the jungle and there are lions around. You’re just in a business, and you’re dealing with business situations that you’ve got some fear on. Why is going towards where the most fear produce the best results?
Chris Sparks: Sure. I love the lion in the jungle metaphor. For those that are listening, I get a lot of my mental models from evolutionary psychology, that we’re an outdated machine. We’re basically programmed on meat, 10,000 years old, haven’t been updated since then. All of these fears that helped us survive in the savanna no longer serve us, that we are outdated to our new environments.
I think it was that the number one fear people have is of public speaking, which clearly isn’t rational, but when you think that we evolved in these hunter-gatherer tribes where having a bad speech in front of the tribe could cause us to be ostracized and sent away into the wild, it makes a little bit more sense. When I say, “Running into the fear,” it’s correcting for these deep-grown biases that have been hard-coded into us, which no longer serve us, because the environment that we were built in is no longer the environment that we live in.
Michael Light: I like that, the idea that we’re running an old human operating system. We’re running human 1.0 and, really, we’re up to 6.7 or whatever the model society requires. You help people to upgrade their way of behaving so they can be way more successful in the current business situation.
Chris Sparks: Sure. I think the metaphor carries a lot of weight. If you think about things like bad habits, things that are super-stimuli, so the dopamine cycles like checking Facebook or having food that’s really sugary and fatty… these habits exist because, back on the savanna, it was hard to find those kind of sources of nutrition, so our body caused them to taste very good so we would seek them out, but now that food is abundant, that’s no longer needed.
It’s something that I talk a lot about, this hesitation around being vulnerable and authentic around your struggles, particularly as an entrepreneur, because there’s this idea that there’s something wrong with me. Why aren’t I able to do this? But when you realize that you’re literally fighting against your genes, you’re fighting against how nature built you and trying to reprogram yourself in this way, it makes a lot of sense why shedding an old, bad habit can be very difficult, because evolutionarily, it was best for this to be so, we’re fighting our genes.
There’s this concept of homeostasis, where the body tries to maintain status quo biochemically. What this means is that any time you’re trying to do a new diet, your body’s going to be very resistant to that because you’re trying to change the status quo in your body, which historically is a negative thing. You have this negative feedback loop that kicks in and tries to restore that status quo. You see these processes, these negative feedback loops, all over in our bodies that try to prevent us from making these changes, and that’s why behavioral change is really hard because this resistance is really ingrained. It’s hardwired within us.
Michael Light: Yeah. Back in caveman society, change could be dangerous, or in village society, change could be socially dangerous. There is that resistance to change, but in modern business and all the technology stuff, the speed of change is so fast these days that if you aren’t able to change fast, you’re going to be not winning in your business.
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. I think a key mental model, as an entrepreneur, is this idea of speed of implementation. How quickly can you make decisions and implement them? In the days of abundance of information on the internet, there’s always going to be more research that can be done. It’s all about getting things out there and creating these tight feedback loops so that you can implement things really quickly.
I love the O-O-D-A loop, from John Boyd, a military theorist. You beat your opponents on the battlefield by running through the loop faster. It’s observing, orienting, acting, and deciding, and the quicker that you can orient yourself to this environment, the quicker that you can make these decisions and act upon them, the faster you will be getting feedback on those new decisions, and you will literally outrun your competitors by going through the loop faster. It’s less about over-debilitating on these really trivial decisions, but rather making the best decision, given the imperfect information that we have, and moving on and, of course, correcting as we go.
Michael Light: I have read about that, OODA loop, and in the military sense, that’s doing two things. One is getting the information quickly. It’s making quick decisions. If you’re two fighter pilots, the one that can turn inside the other is the one who shoots the second pilot down, or if it’s two armies fighting, the one that can create the fog of war and confusion to the other enemy, while they have clarity of information on what the opposing side’s doing, is the one that can win the battle, which is what some analysts said happened in Vietnam, that the American military in Vietnam had all kinds of advantages, but they lost because they were slower on this loop.
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. My favorite metaphor is the metaphor of the map and the territory, where the map is our model of reality. In the example you give, the opponent, if you’re moving faster, is making decisions based upon an outdated map, because their model of you has already changed. Whereas, you’re acting closer to the reality of the situation. This comes up time and time again in poker play, where you have a metagame, which is the game within the game. You have levels of strategy.
If you think about a simplistic example like rock-paper-scissors, level one is I go rock. “I don’t care what you choose. I choose rock because I like rocks.” Level two thinking would be, “I know you like rock, so I’m going to go paper.” Level three is, “I know that you know that I like rock, and so you’re probably going to go paper, so I’m going to go scissors.” You can have infinite levels of this metagame, and the way that you win is by being on a different level than your opponent thinks you are, ideally being one above, but sometimes being one level below, so you can get inside their loop.
Michael Light: That’s referring to game theory, the whole mathematics of how do you win at games, and is there a strategy that is perfect for the game, or is there an imperfect strategy? In a lot of games, like poker or in business, we have incomplete information. There is no best strategy. There’s no perfect strategy, but there are things you can do, like the speed of decisions that gives you a winning strategy and tactics.
Chris Sparks: Sure. The way that I think of intuition within poker is just accumulated experience that’s readily accessible. The more decisions that I make, the more feedback I get on those decisions. So not, “Did I win the hand?” but, “I had these assumptions going into the hand, and this was the result.” Are any of these assumptions that I had invalid, and thus I need to update my model of this player, or of this situation, as it comes up in poker? The closer that my models are to the reality, the better that I can make these future decisions. Each decision that I make improves the quality of my future decisions, in that sense.
Michael Light: Applying this to business, if your company is able to make decisions quickly, even if they’re intense decisions that are totally pivoting the business, and your competitors are deciding stuff slower and implementing stuff slower, you’re going to win the competition.
Chris Sparks: Sure. I think there are very few decisions that are true inflection points, and a lot of this drama is self-created, but when you are really at one of these points, say it’s making your first early hire or pivoting the business or taking on a new investor, it’s crucial that you look at things in a rational fashion, that you’re getting all of your decision criteria down onto paper so you can evaluate them and turn.
I have this exercise where I lead clients through, as far as picking which project to focus on first. There’s this existential quagmire we get ourselves into where we take on a new project, and every day ask ourselves, “Oh, should I keep doing this? I should have done the other one. I don’t know how much I’m really enjoying this. Is this going to work out?”
You get around this by picking a set experimental period where you choose one option and stick to it. I like the time period of 30 or, even better, 90 days to give the experiment enough time to run. In order to choose that one option, you need to look at all the options you have available and have some sort of rational calculation on which one is the best one to choose. Knowing what are all the criteria that you’ll use to make your decision, and how important do you think each of these criteria is?
An interesting thing is once you see how well each criteria scored for each option, sometimes the best score doesn’t lead to what you decide, but getting all of those numbers onto the page will cue you into where you’re leaning. Trying to put a number on where your intuition is leading you will help you answer the call and hear above all the internal noise.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the focusing technique. This is from Eugene Gendlin, and he talks about this idea of a handle, having something that you can grab onto. It’s trying to get this decision down to a word or an image, something that all of the other criteria will fit around. Once you decide, “Okay. These are the important things,” you can start to form an image around that.
Michael Light: A few things there that come to me. First of all, you’ve probably come across Taylor Pearson’s 90-day planning cycles that he’s popularized, where you reevaluate every 90 days and have a vague goal, and then you identify tasks that are going to get you moving towards that vague goal. Suppose your task was creating a podcast, and you give it all your best for 90 days, but then, at the end of the 90 days, you reevaluate. “Am I enjoying this? Is it getting results? Do I want to do it again?” And be okay. It’s just an experiment. You don’t have to be locked into going in the wrong direction super fast, like you were talking about earlier.
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. I’m a big fan of Taylor’s process there. I think he’s excellent at systems thinking, and I definitely look at that 90-day model as a good example. You need to separate out the decision and the execution of it, and creating this closed container of an experiment … I really like that word … allows you to separate the information gathering and the testing of assumptions from the making of the decision. This allows you to actually give the decision the chance it needs to win. Whereas, if you’re constantly thinking about whether you should pivot within that 90 days, you’re not going to know whether you gave it its full chance to win.
Michael Light: Yeah, because if we always are going off to the next bright, shiny object, none of the objects have a chance to succeed.
Chris Sparks: Absolutely.
Michael Light: You mentioned putting a number on your intuition. Can you talk a little more about that?
Chris Sparks: Sure. I’m not sure if I was super clear on the exercise, but, in essence, it has two parts. One, what are all of the criteria that I want to use to make this decision? Say I’m considering between marketing projects that I want to do. The criteria would probably be impact, chance of success, exposure. How much will I enjoy it? How hard will it be? Do I have access to people who have done similar? Coming up with different criteria for, let’s say, moving to a new city, it’s all the things you’re looking for in a city, like access to airports, access to entrepreneurs, things to do, cost, et cetera, listing out all the things that could be important to you, and then looking at your options and ranking them on how they do on each score.
The most important part of this exercise isn’t the final score that you get, but in forcing yourself to consider, in turn, how each option does on your criteria, it’s this process of putting a number on it that actually makes this decision much easier. It’s kind of like … I forget which movie it was. It was, “I decide things by flipping a coin. Not by how the coin lands, but when the coin’s in the air, I know which one I’m rooting for.” Now that you have a number on it, you can get a feel for where you’re leading.
Michael Light: That sounds similar to the technique I’ve used, where I put a number, zero to ten, on something, where zero is it sucks for me, and ten is it’s wonderful, and then I play around with the numbers I get. I might put them in a spreadsheet and score the different options if I’m picking a city, but I also might ask, “If a certain city is a six out of ten, but for various emotional reasons, I’d like to go there, what would it take to make it a seven out of ten for me, in this time period?” Maybe I can get inspiration on how to improve the quality of life there. I think there’s a lot of power in using numbers.
Chris Sparks: That reminds me of a similar example. A technique that I use a lot in my coaching is a pre-mortem. Let’s say we’re setting a new morning routine, and the question will be, “Okay. 0% to 100%. We’re talking again in a week, and you say, ‘I haven’t done my morning routine once.’ How surprised are you?” If you say something like, “Okay. I’m 100% surprised,” then, okay, that’s probably a pretty solid routine, and we can move on, but if you say, “Oh, I’m 20% or 30% surprised,” as in, “If I don’t do it at all, I wouldn’t be that surprised,” clearly there’s some more work we need to do on planning that out. It might be like, “Let’s just brainstorm. I’m going to set a two-minute timer. What are some things you could do to take that 30% surprise up to 50%, make it more likely to happen?”
Say the habit is meditation. Maybe you don’t have a good place to sit, so getting a nice cushion to sit. Maybe it’s downloading the app that you want to use and setting the notification now, or having an accountability buddy who’s going to do it with you. Numerous things you can do immediately, in the next two minutes, that’ll increase your chances. You can predict the future in that way, in that you’re simulating scenarios where it didn’t go as planned and thinking about, “Oh, okay. That’s really interesting. How many of these hypothetical scenarios does that occur?” It’s like, “Okay. I’m not surprised that that happened,” and it’s, “Okay. How can we create scenarios where you are surprised when you fail?” Putting a number on that really accesses this like, “How confident are you?”
Michael Light: I love how you do that and how you can use the number you get, and then play around with it to see how you can bump it up, and that you’re reading your surprise level in the future by doing a pre-mortem.
Chris Sparks: It’s pre-hindsight or using your inner simulator, the idea that you don’t need to make mistakes in real time. I think your future behavior is somewhat deterministic, in that water flows downhill and you can shape the river, so thinking about, “Okay. I know myself. I know what it’s going to be like. Is there a way to get my future self to do what I want them to do?”
An interesting finding from neuroscience is that we think about our future self as if we’re thinking about a stranger. It could be difficult to be very empathetic towards yourself in the future, but it also means that you can take the outside view on your behavior, for example, “Oh, well, that idiot, myself in the future, he’s going to be tired, or he’s going to have this excuse, or he’s going to wake up too late and not have enough time.” It makes it easier to be objective about your future behavior because you’re not tying in your identity with it. You’re allowing yourself to take that outside view, and what that allows is you can simulate some of these mistakes without actually making them.
Michael Light: I love that way of looking at it, and it reminds me of a quote from Yoda, that Star Wars character, where he said, “There is no try. There’s only do or not do.” Often, when we make changes to habits, we say, “Oh, yeah. I’ll try and meditate,” and that’s nothing as powerful as saying, “I will meditate,” and then thinking through that exercise that you just said, where you’re like, “Well, what percentage do I believe I’ll be surprised if I don’t meditate in a week?” And that’s taking away the try option.
Chris Sparks: There’s a lot of power in language, demonstrated in the idea of try. There’s no try. There’s only do. Catch yourself when you hear this weasel language that gives yourself an out, such as “Oh, well, it’s okay that I didn’t do it. I tried to do it.” Paying attention to the way that you describe things, you can get at this internal resistance that might cause you not to be able to do it in the future.
We like to think that in our minds we’re this prime minister sitting above a board of directors, and we’re just directing all of our actions, but, really, our consciousness is just this creepy yes-man sitting next to the king saying, “A very judicious choice, sire.” Richard Feynman said, “We must be very careful not to fool ourselves because we’re the easiest ones to fool,” that a lot of our actions are geared towards protecting our ego. Creating a narrative of “Oh, we tried. It’s okay. We’ll get it next time.” But if we listen to ourselves and the language that we use and the patterns of our thought, we can prevent this, because we can catch ourselves rationalizing or weaseling out in advance and can take some steps to prevent that.
Michael Light: I totally agree about the power of language, and I’m going to double down on that thought and say not only do I want to catch using the word “try” and other weasel words in my own languaging, I want to catch it in my staff and my clients. If a staff person says, “I’ll try and get that report to you for Thursday,” are you going to do it, or are you not? If it’s not likely to happen because other stuff’s going on, let us talk about that now so we can either re-prioritize your other tasks, or I can pick someone else to take care of this task that I need for that date, or I can shift the date because Thursday doesn’t actually matter to me. It’s arbitrary.
The same with clients. “I’ll try and get your payment to you this month.” I don’t know how many of us have heard that sentence, which goes along with, “The check’s in the mail,” if you’re still getting checks and not electronic payments, and just being sensitive to that and then gently questioning. It’s incredibly powerful.
Chris Sparks: I really like that. Specifics drive communication. A lot of miscommunication comes from failures to be specific, that one person thinks the context was such a way, but without this being specific, so saying, “Okay. By the end of Thursday, unless such and such … ” giving very specific 1/0 type criteria for if something is going to happen. It reminds me of Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice what can be contributed to laziness or stupidity,” just that we will find a way to get out of anything if we can, that incentives are meant to be gamed. Making things very clear can prevent some of these fires from taking place in the future.
Michael Light: Yeah. I’m thinking out loud here. The competitor in the World Series of Poker, who was trying to win, how did they do in the rankings compared to someone who was actually … they were committed to winning?
Chris Sparks: In poker, mental game is huge. You need to have this mindset that you’re going to win every time you sit down. Rationally, you know that this can’t be the case. In my example, in my online play, 52% of the times that I sat down, I won, but that means almost half the times I played I lost. All of the money that I had made is in this 4% delta. Maximizing the amounts when I win, doubling down metaphorically when things are going well, and when I’m losing, limiting my losses and not chasing after them. In my mind, I have to compartmentalize this discrepancy and sit down every time expecting to win, treating every decision as the opportunity to make the perfect decision, not taking any of them off.
I think this applies in entrepreneurship as well. As I mentioned, I’m writing a book right now, which has been a very interesting meta-process, particularly when I’m writing chapters on procrastination and I’m trying to prevent myself from procrastinating. Writing is trying to harvest the subconscious, and I don’t know what’s going to come out when I sit down. Trying to translate into language these concepts that I’ve really internalized into terms that everybody can understand, as I’m doing in this conversation right now.
Some days, it just flows really easily, and I can write five pages in an hour or two, and it’s great. Other times, I’m just staring at the page, and I get out a paragraph in a few hours, and it’s just complete garbage. The problem is when I sit down, I don’t really know, so I have to treat every day as, “Okay. I’m going to be brilliant. I’m going to come up with ideas that no one has ever said before in productivity, which is pretty hard, and it’s just going to be marvelous, and take whatever comes as a learning experience.” That’s what every setback is, is a lesson.
Tying it back to poker, the days that it doesn’t go well, not looking at it as a failure, because you need to absorb those lessons, using them to become a better player, and get back into the mind state that you’re going to sit down the next day. It doesn’t matter if you’ve lost five or ten days in a row, but you’re going to sit down as if there’s 100% chance you’re going to win. It’s that separation that I think really separated the good players from the great players, is this idea of showing up.
Something I always liked to say in my poker coaching days is that I never was one of the best players but I played my A game a very large percentage of the time. I was very disciplined. It’s not the quality of your A game, but how often you’re playing it. As an entrepreneur, how often are you showing up? It doesn’t work if occasionally you just have a crazy peak day, performing at a 10/10, but the next week you’re operating at a 2/10 to recover from that, or coming down from that high. Or: “Oh, I had an amazing day on Thursday. I can just take the rest of the weekend off,” but can you show up and be consistent day after day? Because any given day, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to create that opportunity for magic to happen.
Michael Light: Well, and I think it was that famous quote by Woody Allen where he said, “80% of success is showing up.” He’s a very successful movie maker, author, jazz clarinetist, goodness knows what else. I think most successful people, whether they’re poker players, entrepreneurs, sports people, you’ve just got to show up and practice, a lot of the time.
Chris Sparks: There’s a lot of wisdom in common wisdom.
Michael Light: Yeah. The other thing that I’m curious about … When you say harvesting your subconscious, it implies that the words you’re writing in the book or the business ideas you’re coming up with, they almost existed ahead of time in your subconscious, and you just have to access them.
Chris Sparks: Yeah. A lot of writers talk about this, and I had never experienced it until recently, of just being a conduit, where I’m trying not to judge what I write, but just write what comes to mind. I think, particularly in productivity, there’s so much content out there that’s of very low value, these tips and tricks, which anyone who’s consumed all this productivity porn knows that it doesn’t really lead to results. My question is, “How can I generate unique insights in a field that is so littered with noise?” A lot of that comes with not judging what I think is important, but just writing what comes to me, and then editing it later.
I think the tough part about this is a lot of these things are just assumed and abstracted away. I’ve so internalized these mental models that to put them into words is very difficult, but I know from experience that it’s extremely rewarding, both personally and to others. A huge part of my poker success back in the day was that I was coaching players who were one level below me. I don’t know if we talked about it, how many tables I was playing at a time. When I was playing lower stakes, I was playing up to 30 tables at a time online. Even at high stakes, it was usually 10 to 12. This means I’m making a decision every one to two seconds for up to eight to twelve hours on end. That means that I need to have my models of these situations super accessible in my mind.
I’m talking about these same situations and concepts day after day to my students so that I can access them really quickly. I can chunk these trivial decisions into smaller periods of time so that when a unique scenario comes up, I have more time to dedicate to it. The same thing is true with this productivity coaching, that I’m talking about a lot of these best practices to my clients using lateral thinking. I’m applying the concepts in a lot of different ways to a lot of different businesses because everyone’s doing different things. This creates all these different ways of looking at the same problem of, “How do we set goals? How do we create habits and routines? How do we maximize our focus and energy and time every day? How do we break out when we inevitably fall into a rut?”
Approaching these problems from all these different ways has made all of these concepts really accessible to me, and then it’s just a matter of translating it, being that conduit to get it onto the page so that, hopefully, I’m distilling some universal principles that people can use, regardless of what business they’re in, regardless of what their day to day looks like. Hopefully, there’s some actionable ideas for everyone.
Michael Light: I definitely had that experience when I was writing my book. Some days, I was writing the book. Other day, the book was writing me, and the material just flowed out and whatever I could do to identify, “Okay. Does that more likely happen in the morning or late at night? Is it better when I’m alone or in a café?” We can both go through the intuition route and channeling the information, but we can also use our rational mind to study, “Okay. When do we get the easiest creation in our business, whether it’s writing or creating ideas for our business?” or whatever it is.
One book I got that from was “2,000 to 10,000”, which is about how to write 10,000 words a day instead of 2,000 words a day. A lot of that is about analyzing those kind of factors, and also planning out the writing ahead of time. We don’t have to just listen to the muse. We can have the muse talk to us ahead of time, outline the section, and then come back and write it, which is similar to the idea on getting things done. There are multiple versions of ourselves. There’s the robot person that just churns out words, but there’s the planning person who decisions what tasks we’re going to do, and then there’s the creative person who comes up with brilliant new ideas. These are all different aspects of our personality, and they all operate best in different environments and different times of day.
Chris Sparks: Well said. I think this is definitely one of the paradigm shifts that we see happening in productivity now, where the realization that all these different moods, all these modes of thinking are parts of us. Realizing that our emotions guide what’s going on, and that true productivity comes with internal coherence when all of these different voices feel like they’re being heard. You’re utilizing all these different parts of yourself, different styles and recipes, that you need all of these different viewpoints in order to create a coherent story. I like this idea that you’re talking about, that you need to incorporate all of them to have a finished product, no matter what you’re doing.
Michael Light: This ties into the work you do, which is so important, helping other entrepreneurs to achieve their peak performance and how to shift their habits. When you want to shift a habit, you talked about thinking about how you could be not surprised that it failed or didn’t fail in the future. Are there any other visualizing things you do to make habits happen better?
Chris Sparks: Real briefly on the science of a habit. The habit loop is where it’s all based off of. I think about everything in terms of leverage. This means you have three points of leverage in a habit. I’ll use the three Rs. You have your Reminder, you have your Routine, and you have your Reward. Reminder is what starts the loop off. It’s what literally reminds you to start it. The routine is the habit itself. The reward is what reinforces the habit. It’s what gets you coming back to do it time and time again.
We don’t stick with our habits for our long-term benefits. We stick to them for our short-term rewards, like the feeling of accomplishment that we get. Literally, after a workout, we feel better. It’s this feeling and internalizing it. Let’s say you’re meditating, and you feel more relaxed and focused afterward. That’s what keeps you coming back to the habit time and time again. You have these three levers. You can make your reminder stronger, more prevalent, more salient. You can make your routine easier and more streamlined to do. I think that comes into play when we were talking about the level of surprise, and how can you make yourself less surprised that you make it through the habit?
Usually, that’s removing these trivial inconveniences or potential excuses that can come up that we anticipate in advance, and then getting really in touch with the rewards. How does it make us feel afterward? Why are we doing this? What’s the choice that’s driving it? All of these levers come into play, and when we’re not doing a habit, we can use this framework to see which part of it we want to emphasize first.
Michael Light: I just love how you’re using reminder, routine, and reward to habit reinforcement there, Chris. So many of us in business don’t use rewards when we’re working on habits ourselves. We instead punish ourselves, which is so counterproductive in forming a habit.
Chris Sparks: I try to stay away from punishment whenever possible. I think all goals should be framed as approach goals. Even something as bad as taxes can be framed in a really positive way, as far as, “Okay. I want to get clarity into the finances of my business. Am I paying too much? Are there places for opportunity here?” and looking at it as an opportunity to gain knowledge and perspective on your business and where your money is going, rather than this is a mindless task that you have to do. How can you frame everything you’re doing into something that you want to do?
In the context of habits, willpower is going to be drained any time that you’re relying on this compliance attitude, that you’re doing this because you have to. I try to come at everything as if I have a choice. I have the option to sit on the beach in Thailand for the rest of my life and be a beach bum and just hang out. I freely have that choice, but doing taxes is part of my current reality because I choose to build a business, and I choose to try to expand my reach and have it professional and streamlined, and I accept the costs of the tasks that aren’t fun and aren’t enjoyable, that aren’t as cool as sitting on a beach all day, because they’re a part of this larger vision.
It’s asking, “What do I want? How do I approach it?” and then accepting the costs that come along with it, because they’re part of this larger vision. I think framing and, in that context, reframing negative things is really important, as far as maintaining momentum over time.
Michael Light: I love that reframe to, “I choose,” and eliminating any, “I have to. I must to. I ought to. I shoulds,” from our business, because they are just total energy drains thinking, “I must do my taxes.” It puts me off of wanting to even start it.
Chris Sparks: Yeah. I think motivation is lost all the time when we’re beating ourselves down for our setbacks and for things that we fail to do. I think that everything in life can be framed into two categories, gifts and lessons. I mentioned before, every setback, every failure is a lesson, and anything that happens to us is a gift. How can we accept this gift? How can we celebrate it? How can we take any setback and turn it into a lesson that we only pay for once? We don’t want to be double or triple paying our tuition, and in the same way, every setback is an opportunity to improve, and that’s a gift in itself.
Michael Light: It is a gift, and seeing it from gratitude is. There’s something I remember reading in a book on procrastination, and I’ll have to look up the name of the book later, but instead of saying, “I must do this really terrible task that’s going to be a struggle and hard,” it’s like, “I choose to get started in an easy way on this task, and I’m just going to experiment and play with it.” It’s just total change in energy I have for doing the task, whether it’s taxes or firing a staff member who’s not a fit, or whatever it is that we’ve been putting off.
Chris Sparks: I talk about procrastination a ton with clients, mostly because I used to identify as a perpetual procrastinator back in the day. Like many, I would just wait until the very last minute, particularly on essays. I normally felt like I got away with it, which was the worst part because I never faced the consequences, but obviously it was never as good as it needed to be. I didn’t give my ideas a chance to marinate, and it was just shipped out at the last minute.
I think anyone who’s listening to this would really benefit for looking at what’s called The Procrastination Equation that comes from Piers Steel. The summary is that you have these four points of leverage any time you’re procrastinating. The equation is that motivation equals, on the positive side, expectancy times value. Expectancy, how can you make it more likely that you’re going to succeed, as far as your perception? Anything you could do now to make success more likely. Then value, how can you increase the value of what you’re doing, either long-term, as far as connecting into your long-term goals, or short-term, as far as how can you make it more enjoyable? Usually, that’s increasing difficulty rather than decreasing difficulty.
On the inverse side, it’s impulsiveness times delay. Delay, again, with reward. This usually comes down to breaking a large project into smaller pieces, into milestones, so you can enjoy and celebrate these small wins. Let’s say while I’m writing the book, I celebrate every section that I write, or I celebrate every paragraph I write. I try to build in this reinforcement that builds momentum along the way.
With impulsiveness, I think so much of productivity comes down to creating constraints. A lot of people think constraints as negatives, but you decide what you want to do, and you create constraints which prevent yourself from doing the other things. All things that are impulsive, like internet distractions, interruptions, not being able to focus, usually these are failures to set boundaries and constraints more than anything else. If you eliminate your other options, generally you’re left with the option you want to do.
The best example I can give of this is when I wanted to meditate in the morning … This applies to writing as well … I eliminate all my other options. I sit in a room with just a desk and my journal, and there’s nothing I can do for that half hour other than write. I can sit there and just stare at the blank page and daydream for a half hour, but I don’t have access to my computer. There’s nothing else I can do. Eventually, I get bored enough that I might as well write, and I think the same applies, is how can you eliminate the other options so you can focus on the important one?
Michael Light: I think that’s so important. I learned that, or relearned it, at a Focus 55, which, for those who haven’t come across it, is 55 hours of focusing on one project or goal together with another group of people who are all focusing on their goals. One of the things I learned is I need to close my email, close Facebook, close any other programs on the computer, and just have open the things I need to get the task done. The other thing that’s helped me a lot is playing music that doesn’t have words, techno or some other music that’s upbeat, and it just keeps that monkey part of my brain that wants to be distracted occupied. Definitely important.
Also, I just want to echo that thing about rewarding ourselves when we’re doing some project that may be big, like writing a book or creating a new product for our company or whatever the thing is, that rewards are so important. That’s one of the reasons Masterminds work so well. If you’re in a Mastermind with other people doing similar things, whether it’s an entrepreneurial Mastermind or it’s a health/weight loss Mastermind or whatever the group is, getting those small rewards as you take steps in the right direction is important. I don’t know if you have a Facebook group for your book, Chris, but I did that. I’m just telling people, “I wrote so many words today,” or, “Here’s the challenge I overcame.” That was really motivating.
Chris Sparks: Yeah. That’s a key part of the book offering, is that I’m creating a private community where everyone can share what they’ve gotten out of it, and I can go in there and answer specific questions, hopefully apply the concepts to their businesses in particular. Something I found with the coaching is that a lot of the best solutions don’t come from me, that my role is more as a facilitator and trying to spark a conversation and get it going.
I’ll echo the Mastermind endorsement. It’s been absolutely huge in my growth. I think with this concept of swimming downstream, of making things easier to do, the best thing you can do to sculpt your environment is to surround yourself with like-minded people who are heading in the same direction. It becomes much easier and more natural to do the thing that everyone around you is doing. It’s crucial to have people around you who you respect, who you can bounce ideas around, that you’re not doing it alone. I think that bouncing ideas off other people is a real hack, a real shortcut to avoiding making mistakes the hard way, because generally everything that you’re doing, someone else has done it before, and there’s no reason that you can’t learn from them instead.
Michael Light: Oh, I think there’s very few things on this planet, whether it’s writing, athletics, entrepreneurship, anything, someone else has always done something either exactly the same or very similar. One of the catchphrases I learned last year was, “If she can do it, I can do it,” which basically means find someone else who’s done the same thing, copy the exact steps they did, but then experiment with them and modify them to see which steps work for you and which ones need tweaking for your individual setup.
Chris Sparks: Yeah, I like that.
Michael Light: You help out people get to their peak state and to get beyond where they thought they could go. How do you achieve that? That sounds so difficult to do.
Chris Sparks: I think it starts with beliefs. I try to expand this circle of what a person thinks they can do. I’ve experienced this really powerfully in my life, as I do a lot of things that seemed really scary, but seemed much less so after I’ve tried them. Probably most notably, I spent a year and a half traveling around the world to exotic places on my own and just generally doing things that I never thought I could. More recently, I started performing improv comedy, and every time I get onto the stage, I feel like my heart’s going to leap out of my chest. I’m an introvert and tend to stay behind the scenes, so it’s quite a bit out of my comfort zone
A lot of improv is just reacting and having whatever the first thing that comes out, come out, which sometimes can be very scary and embarrassing if you’re not used to it, because who knows what we’re going to say? It’s expanding this range of what we’re capable of, what is possible, and that has to be done slowly by shifting beliefs. A big part of that, for me, is helping clients start to measure their output. One easy exercise that I recommend everyone do is just to measure where all your time goes in a day. Some limiting belief on, “I’d like to try that, but I just don’t have the time,” disappears after you find all these pockets of time that you didn’t know you had just by keeping track of it.
Michael Light: If you look at other entrepreneurs who manage to do whatever that thing you don’t have time for … First of all, either they have time for it, or they figured out a system or a delegation to someone else who gets the task done for their business.
Chris Sparks: Another really easy one … and this is something that anyone can do … is trying to think back to past peak states. Everyone’s had a moment in their lives where everything was firing on all cylinders. For me, that was when I was at the peak of my poker career, where I was firing on cylinders because I had to. Going back to that time, where you’re operating at your peak and trying to. Essentially, what were you doing then that you’re not doing now, any obvious things?
For my example, a lot of the things that I implemented from that time had the format of, “Oh, wow. I was delegating all of these things that I’m now doing myself. Maybe I should treat my time as if it’s valuable and start delegating these things.” or “I was being very clear about my time and my schedule and saying no to things that I wasn’t really excited about. Maybe I should be more intentional about that,” et cetera. The most obvious advice is the advice that’s already worked for you in the past.
Another way you could look at that is there are already activities in your life that you’re operating at your peak. If you play sports, taking aspects of getting into that state of mind you need to perform sports and applying it to your work. If you love cooking, how can you get into that really process orientation where you’re just drowning out the world and single-tasking, focusing only on cooking? How can you apply that to your day-to-day work? Taking what you do really well and what works for you in other pursuits and applying those lessons to your job, to your work, and to other aspects of your life that don’t feel like there should be a one-one relationship, but all of these lessons are transferable. In essence, taking what already works or has worked and applying it elsewhere.
Michael Light: That is pure genius, because everyone is good at some area of their life, and anything we want to improve in another area, we can see, “Okay. How do I do well in this area, whether it’s health or work or relationship, and how can I apply that in the area I want to improve? I love that idea, Chris.
Also, you mentioned, with improv, that you’re on the stage, and you’ve just got to speak the first thing that comes to your mind, and then everyone goes with it. There’s some structure there, the, “Yes, And,” other things so you don’t stop the flow of the improv. I think that applies to intuition, too, that when we’re first learning to hear our intuition, it’s difficult to just listen or get the messages from our intuition and not criticize them or not stop the flow. Is that what you found when you’re listening to your own intuition?
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. The concept that applies from improv is, “Yes, And,” where you don’t deny what’s come up. You say yes, and then you ask, “If this is true, what else is true?” When you have an idea pop up from your intuition, which feels out of tune from the rest of the story, rather than denying it, looking at, “Okay. Well, let’s say hypothetically this is true. This is something to investigate. What else could be true? What else is this related to?” This is how you marry rational thought with intuition, is you look at intuition as potential inquiries for rational thought.
I think of emotions as communicating with my System 1, where unconscious thought is happening, and accessing it in a way. It’s like a pathway to it, if you will. But it’s like ideas where if you don’t implement your ideas, you’ll stop having them. If you don’t listen to these thoughts and emotions that have come up, you’ll stop having them, and you won’t have that access. It’s important to address them and treat them as real in order for them to keep coming.
Michael Light: I think that’s so true. I sometimes think that intuition is like a quiet friend sitting in the car with me, and she is whispering clever ideas and insights to me, but so often we have the radio turned way up, and we don’t even hear what she’s saying, and she’s actually telling us, “You need to turn left at this road here, because we’re getting lost,” or, “We need to reexamine this person we hired because there’s something off here.” Definitely good to create that space.
The other thing is, just like you said, the more we take action on our intuition, the more … and that action could be as simple as deciding to make a phone call to investigate it further. It doesn’t have to be, “Move halfway across the world tomorrow,” but it could be, “Phone a friend who lives halfway across the world to check it out.”
Chris Sparks: I love that analogy of the radio being turned up, because we have this mental chatter when we’re meditating or when we’re just sitting there in the rare time that we aren’t stimulated. The tendency is to drown it out, to think about something else, to flinch away, but rather if we turn into it and listen to what this chatter says, usually there’s an important message, even if the message is just that we’re anxious or afraid or something and that there’s things that need addressing.
On literally turning this radio down so you can hear your intuition, I recommend anyone who hasn’t tried it to float at a sensory deprivation tank. It’s something I love to do to brainstorm ideas or to try to get at a really tough, important decision where I’m having a hard time getting a handle on all the criteria involved, because there, literally you have nothing but you and your thoughts, and you’re forced to confront these things that pop up, rather than flinching away.
Michael Light: Just for people who’ve never been in a sensory deprivation tank, it’s basically a large tank filled with warm, salty water that you float in, and your eyes are covered, and your ears are plugged up. You can’t hear anything. You can’t feel anything. You can’t see anything. All you’ve got is what’s going on in your mind.
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. It’s just an exploration of inner space.
Michael Light: And maybe somewhat analogous to what I know some entrepreneurs have done, which is that Vipassanā meditation retreat, where you go off for a number of days, usually 10, and all you do is sit and meditate and deal with the crap that comes up or the inspirations that come up.
Chris Sparks: Yeah. I think it’s a theme. I’m sure you’re very much in agreement on this, but as we move forward into the future, a key differentiator with people will be not the level of their output, but the quality and uniqueness of their thought. A lot of knowledge work comes down to being mindful and generating unique ideas. I think the “trend” of meditation isn’t going anywhere soon.
Getting in on this understanding of yourself and this ability to listen, the analogy I like to use with clients who are very right-brained is, “You’re building this muscle of focus that meditation isn’t about focusing. It’s about bringing the focus back,” and that’s a skill that will become increasingly useful and differentiated as our attention is increasingly infringed upon. I won’t go down that rabbit hole too much, but this ability to have self-control and to direct your thoughts is extremely crucial and becomes even more so we move forward technologically as a species.
Michael Light: I just want to echo that. You were saying meditation is not about being able to, of course, meditate well or silence the mind. It’s the ability, when your mind goes off track, that you gently bring it back to whatever the focus of the meditation is, whether it’s breath or something else.
Chris Sparks: Yes.
Michael Light: I love that. Coming back to that car analogy where you’ve got the radio turned up, and you’ve got the little voice from your young friend, who’s the wise voice of intuition, is quietly whispering. Often, in the entrepreneurial mobile, we not only have the radio turned up, with the distractions of Twitter and Facebook and email and whatever else we have going on, but we also have our best buddies Drive and Determination in the car, who are very loud, and it can be hard to hear our own intuition when we’re so focused on where we’re going and not so focused on, “Are we going in the right direction?”
Chris Sparks: That’s the importance of unplugging and stepping away, having a very clear work-life separation. If you’re constantly listening to this drive and determination, you can easily be driving at top speed in the wrong direction.
Michael Light: You’ve probably read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, or heard of it. He has a quote in there where the drive and determination are sharpening the knives as they cut a path through the jungle, and they’re really efficient, and they have great management techniques, and they’ve got all these hacks and whatever for cutting the roadway through the jungle fast. Then the person who is a little more meditative climbs up a tree and says, “Hey, guys. We’re in the wrong jungle.”
Chris Sparks: That’s a good analogy.
Michael Light: Yeah. Anything else you want to share with our listeners before we wrap this up, Chris?
Chris Sparks: Wow. We covered a lot of ground today. That was fun. No. I think I’ve gone on long enough. Let’s see. How would I summarize what we were talking about? I would say if you could take one thing away from our conversation, it’s to truly listen to yourself when it comes to understanding what’s most important and to go about the problem of, “How can you do this important thing? or How can you move towards your goals?” come at it from a lot of different approaches and don’t be afraid to listen to your intuition, because it has very valuable things to tell you.
Michael Light: If any of our listeners’ intuitions are telling them that they should check you out further, how would they find you?
Chris Sparks: Yeah. I’d love that. I love talking about this stuff, so please, if anything I said today resonated or was completely ridiculous and you want to continue the conversation, I’d love to hear from you. My site is The Forcing Function. You can also find me on all the various social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Yeah. I’d love to hear from you.
Michael Light: Well, I really appreciate you being on the show. I’m so looking out to your book coming out, and it’s been a pleasure exploring peak performance with such an expert.
Chris Sparks: Thanks, Michael. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate you having me on today.