Multiply Productivity, Maximize Effectiveness

My Interview with Marc Mawhinney on the Natural Born Coaches Podcast

Chris Sparks
Apr 16 · 21 min read

Some topic highlights :

  • Intuition as internalized experience
  • Delivering referable results as a substitute for marketing skill
  • Retaining more of what you read
  • My system for deciding what to read
  • How to find founder/market fit
  • Nailing down your customer persona
  • All customers come from conversations
  • Productivity means staying on the most direct path to our goals

Audio recording below (29 m). Full transcript below.

Podcast Transcript

Note: Transcript slightly edited for clarity.

Marc: Hi. It’s Marc Mawhinney, and Natural Born Coaches is sponsored exclusively by businesscoachfunding.com. Businesscoachfunding.com helps secure funding for business coaches or the clients of business coaches with no upfront fees. They aren’t a bank and they are a great resource for business coaches. To prequalify without a consultation, head over to businesscoachfunding.com. That’s businesscoachfunding.com.

Voice: Welcome to the Natural Born Coaches podcast, the place where smart coaches come to grow their businesses. Ready to take your coaching to the next level? Then you’re in the right place. Here’s your host Marc Mawhinney.

Marc: Hey, coaches. Welcome back to another episode of Natural Born Coaches, the podcast for your coaching business. I’m Marc Mawhinney. I’ve had some really interesting guests on the show over the years. With almost 600 episodes there have been some really cool stories. But today’s coach and guest is somebody who has a really interesting background. He was once ranked one of the top 20 online poker players in the world, and he has shifted to the world of coaching. He’s got a book coming out very soon called ‘Inflection Point’, and he’s all about helping entrepreneurs multiply productivity, maximize effectiveness, and all the good stuff. So I’m pleased to have on the show today Chris Sparks. How are you doing Chris?

Chris: Hey, Marc. I’m doing fantastic. It’s great to be here.

Marc: My background in poker, nowhere near top 20 online poker players in the world, by the way, but being in Canada back in 2004, 2005, I believe it was that winter, we had an NHL hockey strike, and suddenly every man in Canada I think was playing poker, because there was nothing else to do in the winter with all the snow, the cold, and everything else, and there was a huge craze across the country just because of this hockey strike. And I played a ton of poker. I haven’t played much in the last few years, but I’ve always been interested in it because of the mental side of it, and all that stuff. The tells, the bluffing. It’s a really cool game. But I would love to hear a little bit about your background. How the heck do you go from being one of the top online poker players in the world to becoming a coach?

Chris: Thanks for that introduction. I think that poker is so applicable to business and to the rest of life, and a lot of the mental models that I picked up from my career as a professional poker player transfer very well. Essentially when you’re a poker player … in any profession what you’re trying to do is maximize your hourly rate. So when I was a poker player I put a lot of my time into figuring out how to maximize the time that I was playing poker. So increasing my hourly rate by increasing the amount of focus and attention, putting myself into a peak state of flow while I was playing, and then eliminating the other areas of my life that were preventing me from playing more poker or studying poker.

Marc: So were you one of these online poker players that had ten screens going at once and you’re playing at three in the morning or did you focus on just one computer screen?

Chris: So yeah, it’s a Laffer Curve where you add as many tables as you can to the point where your attention is split too many ways. My maximum was playing 30 games at a time, actually. I was playing at the lower levels. A little bit more of a formulaic style. As I moved up to the highest limits in the world, obviously there’s more attention that needs to be applied to every table, so I’d usually fluctuate between nine and twelve, but still, intuition is internalized experience, and the beauty of playing online is that you get to see millions of hands. And every single hand is an opportunity to test your assumptions. Right? The feedback loops are incredibly tight.

So if you’re paying close attention you’re able to improve very quickly. So even though I’m making a decision on average every second and a half, there are so many patterns that I can instantly recognize based on my past experience that I’m able to thin slice and really focus in on what is different in this situation, what’s the anomaly? What’s the opportunity here to find an edge? And all of the other things that I’ve already seen before, it’s basically like an automatic kind of subconscious processing that I can just focus on what matters. Like a signal/noise triage. And yeah, I think that that skill is very, very transferable, particularly these days where the ability to distinguish signal from noise and to maximize the proportion of our attention we put on what matters, right? What affects us directly.

Marc: Yeah, so how different is playing online poker compared to in-person where you’re not seeing the person? What’s that poker quote, that you’re playing the other person, you’re not playing the cards, or something like that? Is there a big difference between the two of them where you’re not being able to see tells and everything else?

Chris: Absolutely, yeah. I would sum this up by saying there is still a person on the other side of the screen, and due to this internalized experience you can sense small deviations in their emotional and mental state by the smallest differentials in click timing or betting one number over another, or just being able to anticipate when a couple hands go the wrong way, what will send them over the edge. And even though you have less information to go off of, right, you can’t physically see them, just like we are talking now and we can’t see each other but we have a sense there is information passing through the screen to each other, you are able to pick up things that the other person is doing on the other side. So it’s still very much a playing the player, but that psychology is much more inferred. It’s very, very much based on imperfect information, and you use these feedback loops in order to calibrate these assumptions, to be able to extrapolate better on this limited information.

Marc: I got it. So can you tell us where did that transition take place, where you said “You know what? I’m going to make a bit of a shift here, and get in … well, a big shift, and get into coaching instead of online poker play?”

Chris: Yeah, I mean the really, really short version is that I was somewhat forced to. 2011 the government shut down online poker in the US. I had about half of my net worth seized by the government. Didn’t get a lot of that back for years later. Luckily unlike many others, I’d managed to put enough aside that I had enough time to take a step back and think about what I wanted to do in the next stage. Poker is the type of pursuit that can be all-consuming. Right? For five years I had been living, eating, sleeping, breathing poker. All of my dreams were about it. All of my friends were poker players. It was do I dive back in? Do I double down and become a lifer? A lifetime poker player? Or do I take this opportunity to create a new life? Right? It takes seven years to reach mastery in any pursuit. What would I like to master next?

Poker is inherently a zero-sum pursuit. You’re fighting over a piece of the pie, and every piece of pie you take is taken from someone else. I deeply wanted to expand the pie. To do something that was not zero-sum, that would add net value to humanity.

So I took some time to travel, to experience other cultures, people who are less privileged than we are here in the first world, and I kept coming back to this commonality of accelerating those who are looking to change the world, which in a word came out of two entrepreneurs. These are the people who were most ambitious who I thought were most building things that could have a broad-scale impact. And I realized that a lot of the skills that I had developed optimizing my poker career, building periods of really deep focus, optimizing my schedule. You know, I had multiple businesses built around poker. Investment, coaching, et cetera. I was really skilled at teaching these concepts of how to create your own career, how to build your own brand. And it all started with poker players who similarly were kind of exiled from their only career who were forced into entrepreneurship. I just naturally transitioned from teaching poker to teaching productivity.

And this was just kind of phone calls for fun when one of these friends said “What you’re doing here is awesome and so helpful. How can I start paying you?” And it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that this could be a business, a way that I could transform what I loved, what I obsessed about every day, what I would read for hours. How I could transition that to something that had some cultural respectability. So I threw together a one-page Google document saying “This is how I’m going to help you” and you know, picked a number out of a hat and said, “This is what I charge.” And he became my first client, and things went well to the point that he referred me a couple more, and the business has slowly grown. That was two years ago. Mostly by referral, just people who got out of it what they wanted.

I always say that I’m not super skilled at marketing, but luckily as a coach, your product is your marketing, right? If you’re doing a good enough job people will talk about what you’re doing to friends. For me, I think productivity is kind of a dirty secret. No one wants to admit that it’s something that they need help with, right? That it’s a problem that they need to be fixed. But my approach is that this is an opportunity for everyone, right? No matter how effective we think we are, there’s always a more direct path towards our goals, and there are always really strong benefits to having an objective third party observer who can cast light on our invalidated assumptions. And that’s the primary role that I play, is holding people accountable to what they say their long-term goals are. And making sure that they’re taking the most effective path towards those goals. And I’m lucky in that because of my success with poker, what I’ve learned so far, potentially learning by teaching these skills along the way I’ve been able to have enough referrals to that this becomes a sustainable thing.

Marc: So you lost about half your net worth, just bang when the governments … I remember that. They seized a bunch of websites, and bang, it’s gone. It’s vanished. Do you have any of that fear when you started that coaching business, that “Oh God”? I can imagine losing half of your net worth, that’s always in the back of your mind, with like the FTC regulating something with coaching or whatever. Is that something that you think about?

Chris: What’s very interesting to me is that it’s a completely different type of fear, and it’s a much more intense fear, where still like losing five figures in a single hand in poker doesn’t really phase me, I still sleep like a baby, but having a bad client session and tell someone else, or really wanting to sign someone and they say no, or having to put myself out there publicly is extremely scary, and it’s building up this muscle of hitting the publish button, of not being afraid to be proud of the impact that I can have. So that was very surprising to me, is that I thought that I had kind of overcome all of my fears, and this just brought me back into those college “night before a paper is due” states. And really the only way that I have been able to overcome it is through exposure. Having this vision of “Oh, this is going to be terrible.” Becoming a coach, I had all of these fears around what are my friends going to think? Are they still gonna respect me? Is this something that is going to strain my relationships because people aren’t gonna wanna be friends with me because they think I’m gonna try to coach them all the time?

All of these sort of irrational fears that the only way to persevere through them was to do it, and to realize that it was all in my mind, mostly because no one’s really paying that much attention and the people who really love you will support you no matter what. And it’s been a really cool journey in that I’ve grown on dimensions that I didn’t even know were important.

Marc: Yeah, that’s interesting. Like you said you were dealing with some really big hands, don’t break a sweat, but then the other side of it which is natural when you’re in business for yourself, but to have some hesitation there. It’s interesting. Now I know you’re a really big reader, like myself, ’cause when I was on your website I noticed that you have a reading list for every year and you give ratings and tons of great books. I recommend people check it out at theforcingfunction.com/reading. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you incorporate reading into your personal development, and what’s one book that people should definitely read?

Chris: Man, you’re making me pick just one. That’s impossible.

Marc: It’s like picking your favorite kid. You’ve got hundreds there, but.

Chris: I’ll start with the easier question, as far as how do I incorporate, and then I’ll stall for thinking about the one to recommend out of all of them. So I’ve always been a huge reader as long as I can. I think only the autodidacts are free, that we live in such a glorious age where everything that we are looking to do has already been done before, and there’s no reason to make new failures. Right? The fastest way to grow is by learning through other people’s failures and kind of standing on their shoulders. So I have always seen books as gateways to another world, to build this circle of mentors around me, like a council that I can consult on anything that I need to do because everything that I want to do has already been done before. And I started sharing the reading list because I found that it was a good way to bring other people into my life who had similar interests and to start conversations on a higher level. Right? If I know that someone else has enjoyed another book, we have a common vocabulary, common concepts that we can draw upon. We’ve automatically dived deeper into our conversation because we have a lot of information that’s compressed.

So as I’ve started sharing those recommendations, other people would give me theirs based on what I had read, and it created a kind of positive feedback loop in that the average quality that I was reading kept going up because I had more high-quality options to choose from, and other people were reading the same things as I was, so we were having conversations about what we were reading, we were both getting more out of it. I found that the best way to really get value out of books is through highlighting and underlining. So if I’m on a Kindle, I highlight what I find interesting, export those to Evernote, and those become searchable, where every time I wanna write about something or I’m curious about what I’ve saved before I can search for a term. Let’s say I’m writing a post on habits. I can see all the highlights that I’ve made from books that mention habits. And that becomes the repertoire that I can draw upon. If I’m reading a physical book I just have a pencil in my hand and I underline things that are interesting, and the simple act of deciding “this is important” increases the chances that I’m going to remember them.

Now that I’m sufficiently stalled for long enough, I would say the number one recommendation that I would make for this audience would be the book ‘The Goal’. So ‘The Goal’ is a business novel which looks at a fictional factory and how to optimize operations in the factory. Now before your eyes glaze over and you switch, hear me out. So think about every process we have is taking raw material and turning it into a finished product that’s sold. So think about writing as a simple example. We have these ideas that are floating around in our head. How can we get that into a medium that can be consumed by others, or ideally how can we repurpose that content into a product that others will value and pay us for? And along this way are all those discreet steps toward this raw material. These ideas are processed and converted into something of higher value. And along the process, for every process, there is what’s called a bottleneck.

The bottleneck is the limiter of throughput for that process. And the broader implication here for personal development, for building a coaching business, for life, is that any improvement that we make that does not address our bottleneck is wasted effort. And that means that most of the things we do to improve, to grow our business, to grow personally, are wasted because they don’t address that bottleneck. So this is what my whole coaching philosophy is built around, is that at all times we should be looking to identify our bottlenecks, the things that are most holding us back from our goals, and placing all of our effort on remediating and removing those bottlenecks. And yeah, the only way to really internalize that concept I think is through that narrative of seeing how these transformations happen. And it creates these escalations to the next level, that we continually level up. And that’s what growth is as essentially our problems become more difficult, and we become the person that we need to become in order to solve these problems. That growth is instrumental rather than terminal.

So yeah, I can’t recommend that one highly enough. The other one that I’ll recommend as a sort of second is this book “Work Clean”. So I develop a lot of my coaching philosophy around productivity by looking at top performers in other fields, and along this same theme of optimization of the process is high-level restaurant chefs. They’re making the same dishes dozens of times a night, and they need to be completely perfect in terms of the same quality every time but done very quickly and reliably. And so “Work Clean” looks at these work habits of top Michelin star level chefs and what can be distilled from what they do as far as providing a high-quality product quickly, reliably, accurately every time.

Marc: Okay. Well full disclosure, I bought ‘The Game’ many years ago. Or ‘The Goal’, sorry. I think that-

Chris: Quite the recommendation.

Marc: I actually will say that. Anyone that wants to pick up Neil Strauss’ ‘The Game’, where he infiltrated the pickup community years ago, is a great interesting book. But we’re not talking about picking up people. ‘The Goal’ is, I bought that book and I admit it sat on my shelf. I just didn’t get to it. You know when you get a lot of other books in the way? And when I say you recommend it on your website, I thought “‘The Goal’? That sounds familiar.” And it didn’t click with me what that book was until I clicked on it, and then I saw the cover with the, oh God. I’m gonna butcher his name. The author.

Chris: Eliyahu Goldratt.

Marc: Eliyahu Goldratt. Yes. And then I’m like “ah, that’s that book.” So you’ve convinced me to go back to ‘The Goal’, and I probably should be reading ‘The Game’ too, by the way. But anyways, ‘The Goal’, I have to go back to that and go through it now, ’cause I didn’t start it. It got put on the back burner and I never got back to it. And that must have been at least ten years ago, maybe more.

Chris: Well that’s the system working is when someone you trust and respect recommends a book, it just gets moved up the queue. And we have this Purgatory of things that we want to read, right? Our to-do list, our reading list when we die is gonna be completely full. But luckily there is an abundance of opportunities of things we can do, an abundance of interesting things we can be reading and that our hope is that we’re doing the most important thing that we can do at the time, right? Whatever we’re best positioned to do, or that whatever information we most need at the time for wherever we are is what we’re most likely to be reading. There’s just way more than anyone could ever hope to consume, right? An infinite buffet of options. But this concept of opportunity cost is really, really near and dear to me. That what we’re doing at this very moment comes at the expense of everything else that we’re doing. Right? The book that you’re reading now comes at the expense of the world’s library of books that you could be reading. So the most important thing that we can do is to make that choice wisely, right? To know what’s important to us, what we need at any given time, and to be very intentional about what we do and consume.

In poker terms, we talk about this as you can only play at one table at a time. Right? Online I’m playing at a bunch. But let’s say you’re in a casino playing live, you can only sit at one poker table at a time, so the most important decision you can make is which table do you sit at because you can only sit at one? The same thing like as a business owner. You can only choose one industry to focus on. As a coach, one type of client to work with. So I think that’s the most important choice that we can make as coaches, is who can we help the most, or who can derive the most value from what we have to teach? And if we have the right persona, if we have the right product founder fit, everything else becomes downhill. And a lot of the coaches that I see struggle, it’s because they haven’t taken the time to sit down and think about “Who do I wanna work with? Who can I best help? How can I best help them?” That’s it’s usually … In startup terms, everything you do is derived to get to product-market fit. And then once you find this product-market fit, then you take steps to scale.

But I see a lot of coaches like trying to scale, spending on ads, going crazy on content creation, but they don’t know who their audience is, and they can’t speak to how they help their audience accurately enough. So I mean that’s been a big focus for me this year, is to really nail down the persona. And now that I think I have it pretty well nailed down, now I hire the team around me. Now I start to create a content strategy. Now I’m starting up a newsletter. But until that point, like why shout into the ether if you don’t know who you’re talking to?

Marc: Exactly. So one of the big things on my mind now is productivity, and I just finished reading a book. ‘How To Break Up With Your Phone’, by Catherine Price, I believe, which has completely changed how I’m considering my smartphone, ’cause I didn’t realize how, I hate to say, sinister the smartphone is. There are great things with smartphones and apps and all that, but also there’s a dark side to that where it can really kill your productivity. Now I know you just finished writing a book that’s being released soon, so you had to beat procrastination and be productive to finish that book. What’s one tip that you can give people listening to maximize their productivity?

Chris: Ah, just one. So I’ll cheat. I’ll give one around the phone and I’ll give one around productivity. So with phone and with tools in general, the mental model you wanna be thinking about is a net benefit rather than just benefit. Alright, so you look at things like phone, social media, et cetera, there are clearly benefits to being on there. But if you deconstruct that thinking about “what is the net benefit of doing this”, that ties into my number on productivity tip, which is based around this concept of opportunity cost, right? That everything you’re doing comes at the expense of everything else. That if you have your top priority in mind, that means that everything else, including priority number two, is a distraction. Right?

We’ll stick with the phone example. While engaging on social media and texting friends and checking your e-mail and your phone is useful, are they the most useful thing that you could be doing right now? Probably not. I mean my opinion is that in general as a coach the most useful thing you can be doing at any given time is in conversation, whether that’s with a client or a potential client or with someone who has the potential to refer you a client. My marginal minute is always best spent in conversation. So any time that I’m doing something that’s not leading to a conversation, that’s a distraction. Right? That’s like window dressing. Checking our numbers, going through and editing out our website for the five hundredth time. It’s stuff that makes us feel productive, but it’s not really leading to the bottom line. It’s a very indirect path to our goal, right? It’s like we wanna become a professional comedian so we go about that by watching Seinfeld reruns. Right? You’ll probably get funnier by watching Seinfeld reruns, but it’s perhaps not the most effective way to become a professional comedian.

In the same way, that’s a very good way to think about our phones, the internet in general. All of these interruptions and distractions that happen in the Internet Age is that they are useful, but are they net useful? Which I’ll lead up into my number one productivity tip, is that most people think that they need to manage their time, which means you know, “I need to be more effective in my use of time” or “I need to be able to work more hours”. And that’s useful, but I don’t think it’s the highest leverage, right? I don’t think it’s the highest bottleneck. The most leverage is on working on the right things. So that doesn’t mean managing your time. That means managing your priorities. And I always treat priorities like an investment portfolio. That having what I want to do top of mind, these are the most important things to me. I’m regularly going back and reflecting. How closely does my time reflect my priorities? Am I spending a lot of time on things that aren’t in my priorities, or inversely is all of my time going toward my top priorities?

And as life happens, right, this is a constant oscillation. I’m constantly rebalancing my portfolio and bringing my priorities back into where I’m spending my time. And through that cycle of reflection and implementation, that’s how we make progress. These positive feedback loops. So yeah, if you’re not getting the results that you want in your coaching business, look at where you’re spending your time and bring those back in line to your priorities.

Marc: No, that’s awesome. Well, that’s a great way to end it, Chris. So if people wanna check out more about you and the book that’s about to come out, where can they do that?

Chris: Thanks, Marc. This was a lot of fun, as always. My website for the coaching business is theforcingfunction.com. I have all my posts from things I’ve read that I find interesting. All the books. I’m also putting out chapters of my book ‘Inflection Point’ which is coming out next year. So check that out. Chapters up on how to set goals, how to build habits, how to create systems in your business, how to optimize your time, energy, and focus. I’d love to hear from you if anything I said today resonated. Any questions, comments, disagreements I can reach by e-mail at chris@theforcingfunction.com. I’m also on all the usual social media channels at @SparksRemarks.

Marc: And if anyone wants to play against you online, what’s your handle?

Chris: I mean if you are a poor poker player and have a lot of money, I’m happy to teach you poker. All I ask is that you let me keep the winnings. All kidding aside I love talking poker as well. Happy to address poker questions. I mean I coached hundreds of students back in the day, so generally, if you have some poker experience I can help you, or at least help point you to resources that were instrumental in my growth. I wouldn’t recommend playing against me, but if you’re interested in playing against one of the former best I’m happy to tell you where to find me.

Marc: There you go. Well if I ever give up coaching and I get into poker I will let you know, ’cause I’ll need some help. A seven/two is the best hand, right? Off-suit, no?

Chris: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah.

Marc: Awesome. So we’ve had Chris Sparks on the show today. Go check out theforcingfunction.com, and his upcoming book as well. I’m Marc Mawhinney, and I will see you next time on Natural Born Coaches.

Voice: Thanks for listening to the Natural Born Coaches podcast at naturalborncoaches.com. See you next time!

Marc: This episode was brought to you by our exclusive sponsor businesscoachfunding.com. If you’re a business coach who needs funding or you have clients who need it, businesscoachfunding.com can help. Check them out, and we’ll see you on the next episode.



I’m Chris Sparks, founder of The Forcing Function, helping entrepreneurs multiply their productivity by designing the habits and systems which maximize personal effectiveness.

Thanks for reading! If you found what I said useful, hitting the 👏 button below (a bunch of times!) will help others discover these techniques.

You can sign up for my newsletter or follow me below to get new chapters of Inflection Point straight to your inbox.

Chris Sparks

Written by

Author of Inflection Point | Performance Accelerator for Entrepreneurs and High Stakes Poker Pro | Founder of http://TheForcingFunction.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade