My two-part interview with David Nebinski on Portfolio Career Podcast
Some topic highlights :
- Creating systems that ensure daily action
- The power of knowing what you will say “yes” to
- How to ensure your efforts are leading to your desired results
- The implications of time as a power law phenomenon
- Knowing where you are on the measurement/reflection cycle
- Conversations as a funnel step for any major milestone
- Strategies for maximizing your surface area for serendipity
- The critical skills which will require a lifetime of compounding
Audio recordings below (29 m & 31m). Full transcript following.
Note: Transcripts slightly edited for clarity.
Chris: We never know the answers, and if we’re waiting until we have all the information we’re waiting too long. I think that successful people are people who are failing the most. They’re making very calculated risks, and when they win they double down on their winners.
David: Hey, friend. So excited for this Portfolio Career Podcast episode with Chris Sparks. As you just heard in the clip, Chris is a longtime student and master of high-end performance and success for high-end peak performers. Chris himself was formerly a top 20 online poker player. He has also spent over $100,000 in the last five years testing different productivity tools, apps, and more. His company, The Forcing Function, improves the performance, through coaching, for top New York City founders and executives. This is a two-part episode. This first episode we will focus on Chris’ portfolio career, and high-level takeaways on productivity. The second part will dive into his 85 page workbook that just came out in advance of his new book that is coming out called “Inflection Point”. So if you’re interested in all things related to productivity, performance, personal development, and more, this episode is for you. So here we go with Chris.
Cool. Well, welcome to Portfolio Career Podcast. Your host David Nebinski is here with Chris Sparks. How’s it going, Chris?
Chris: Fantastic. Good to see you, Dave.
David: Likewise, Chris. So, Chris, if we were to go to an event tonight, how do you typically introduce yourself?
Chris: I don’t really have a typical way of doing anything. I think my introduction is different every time. I like to talk about how I see my day to day as deconstructing and distilling the habits and systems of top performers. It’s my passion, it’s my work, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I try to translate what the most prolific and successful people do into techniques that hopefully anyone can replicate.
David: Beautiful. So listeners, you’re in for a treat obviously. And I guess, Chris, one place I’d love to start is a quote on your website that says “All of life is like poker: Making decisions with incomplete information.” You’ve been a poker player, well accomplished with that. I’d love to hear you unpack that statement in terms of how somebody could improve their quality of life through a poker lens.
Chris: Oh, man. How do I get started on this one? So this idea of all of life being decisions with incomplete information, I mean something that I have discovered, that a lot of the points that we get stuck are usually decision points, where we find ourselves at junctures, where we’re comparing apples to oranges, and it’s not really clear where to head next. And a lot of what I’ve discovered about solving for progress is always having a direction to head, even if it’s just approximate. And so poker, when you’re playing, is just a series of decisions. When I play online and I’m playing multiple games at once, I’m making these decisions on average every one to two seconds. And so you are forced to quickly size up the situation, determine what are the pertinent variables, distinguish signal from noise, and more or less do the best you can, because time runs out you fold your hand. Your decision has been made for you. That happens a lot in life, where not committing to a decision is the same as the null hypothesis. You’re saying “No, this is not something I wanna do.”
And it’s this split second where these opportunities rise up in front of you, and having done the hard work ahead of time to have that litmus test in place, that you know what you’re looking for, that most decisions are going to be “no.”
I mean, I think that most of productivity comes from saying “no”, and a lot of that comes from knowing what you’re looking for to say “yes” to. We never know the answers, and if we’re waiting until we have all the information we’re waiting too long. I think that successful people are people who are failing the most. They’re making very calculated risks, and when they win they double down on their winners. So the usual rule of thumb via Bezos is if you wait until you have more than 70% of the information, you’re waiting too long. That a lot of the learning is going to come through the experience. So that’s something I really emphasize, is just determining in general where would you like to head, and creating a system that ensures action in that approximate direction.
David: Okay. And you … For listeners, I thought maybe it would be another good precursor to say you spent well over $100,000 over the last couple years testing a lot of different productivity tools, tips, apps, systems, et cetera. I’m gonna share that resource for people if they’ve not already seen it. It’s fantastic. That’s so interesting to hear you say about the people that are winning are actually failing, but yet it’s in a system. So maybe could you talk about how people should think about creating a system that works for them? Let’s say they’re a freelancer. Let’s say they are an entrepreneur. What are some systems that people can create that ensure learning failure, but then ultimately learning from that for success?
Chris: Yeah. Something I like to say is that progress is ensured through measurement and reflection. So anything that you’d like to improve on having some way of tracking progress. And generally having that tracking be input-related, where … So you’re spending a certain amount of time, you have a certain amount of things that you are completing, and then having a way to see is this tracking towards your goal? And just naturally, we can’t resist the power of a rising integer. That as we start tracking something we automatically find ways to improve on that dimension, that it more or less solves for itself. We just want that number to increase. And so someone who’s a freelancer, and trying to make sure that they make progress every day, is first having a clear way to track what that progress is, and what results that progress is leading towards. I think about everything in terms of an experiment. Right? So an experiment requires variables, and requires tracking of that data within that context. So I think about setting like a 30 day time period where my hypothesis is if I take this action every day, let’s say I wanna become a blogger, that if I spend an hour writing every day, I will naturally be led towards the goal of being a blogger. That just putting in that time guarantees that this goal becomes within reach.
I think the other thing that any freelancer really wants to solve for is taking action every day. It’s something that I find with a lot of clients, that the structure that ensured that they made progress on things when they were within a corporate environment, now without that structure when they are accountable only to themselves, it becomes difficult to have that consistent output every day. So I’m thinking about what is the system that ensures that my best self shows up? I refer to these as “forcing functions.” It’s apparent in the name of my company, The Forcing Function, that I think this is a clear prerequisite to consistent productivity. And what these forcing functions are are externalizing your goals to get other people involved. This could be through accountability, this could be through collaboration. Sending someone an early version for feedback. This is something I really recommend, is getting everything to the point that it’s just barely good enough to show someone else, so that you have these really tight feedback loops, and the next dimension of progress becomes obvious. Right? You don’t go too far down the road toward perfectionism, because you might be sprinting in the wrong direction. It’s this constant getting of feedback, of “are you on the right track?”
And this becomes a perpetual motion machine, that this momentum from hearing others saying that what you are doing is useful provides that energy needed to propel forward. And yeah, I think having these two things in place … One, some way of knowing that your efforts are leading in the right direction, and second ensuring that these efforts happen on a daily basis. That’s the most important component.
David: And for your clients that are … Let’s say if they were a freelancer. What types of goals do you think are, or do you see with those clients and what they’re trying to achieve? You mentioned like a blogger, but what are some things that maybe just on goals in terms of people that are balancing multiple projects and stuff, what types of goals do you think they could be thinking about and then working towards?
Chris: So it’s in the name of this podcast, right, that someone has a portfolio career, and this is really consequential for me as far as my vision for the future, that we know of as jobs, and particularly where we’re mastering a single skill for our whole lives, will very soon cease to exist. This is an antiquated notion. We are a collection of skills, all of which have differing values to the market at differing times. And I think the first thing is deciding “What do I do that is most useful?” The classic Venn Diagram of “What’s the intersection of what am I good at, what do I enjoy, what do other people value?” And I think life is a continual iterative process of finding that intersection, and obviously it becomes a moving target as the environment that we live in shifts. What becomes valued, what skills are most in demand, continually shifts. And we are a verb, a work in progress. That we leverage our ability in the direction of what is valued, however we define that. Impact, dollars, et cetera.
And so I see that any freelancer should be constantly asking themselves “What do I want my days to look like?” At a higher level, “What do I want?” I think that that is the biggest bottleneck to progress, is that we don’t actually know what we want. What values are we optimizing for? What type of life do we want? And once you have those answers firmly in mind, it becomes just a “spot the difference” type scenario, where what is it that you’re doing now that doesn’t put you on that trajectory to be where you want to be? And those become the instrumental skills that you need to build in order to realize this future vision of yourself. So that’s always where I have clients start with, is getting a clear vision of where they’re heading and identifying those skills that are prerequisites to realize that vision, and in the process of developing these skills, right, taking on projects that stretch ourselves, we automatically become aware of opportunity to leverage these skills in more productive directions.
David: Hmm. Hmm. Okay. So getting clear in terms of what do we actually want, which I think is really hard. I think it seems like you know, people’s perception on having money is rapidly changing. That vision of a nice white picket fence house and stuff like that, I think people are moving away from that. So I think that’s a really great point, to focus on “What do you really want?” You know, what type of lifestyle do you want, what types of freedom do you want, what types of conversations and relationships do you want, and impact do you wanna have? And you were talking about also, each day. I love this one quote that you have, is … And correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s “The most important thing of the day is the thing that you have to do, and doing that is better than or more important than everything else combined”?
Chris: Yeah. “The most important hour of your day is worth more than all the other hours combined.” At a high level. So as you said, the most important thing you have to do, doing that and ensuring it gets done, protecting that space, is more important than all the other things you have to do. At a high level I think about time in terms of a power law, in this sense. That our hours of the day are not created equal. You think about the activities that you’re doing on a day to day basis, right? Growth activities as far as having a conversation with that client who could transform your business versus the admin, you know, sending invoices, sending emails type of stuff. You have thousand dollar an hour activities and you have ten dollar an hour activities, where the easiest way to be more productive is to addition by subtraction. Spend less time on the low-value activities. And so you create space to expand your higher value activities. So a key exercise that I recommend everyone do is track their time for a week, or even a day, and identify where is your time going. And put a value on that time. Recognize “What am I doing that is very high value, and how can I find a way to do more of that?”
All productivity decisions are tradeoff decisions. The idea of opportunity cost, that what you are doing at this very moment, hopefully paying close attention to this podcast, is coming at the expense of literally everything else that you could be doing. So think about what you are doing very intentionally, because the true cost is everything else that you could be doing instead. So this is something that’s very near and dear to me, is if I only had an hour of work every day, how would I spend that hour? And a lot of my focus is protecting that hour and being intentional around it, creating the conditions for success. And using this portfolio analogy, I think about time a lot like an investment portfolio, where with investments you’re regularly rebalancing. So you have an allocation that you’d like to have. Let’s say for life, it’s, “Okay, I want to be spending 30% of my time on my primary business, and 20% of my time building a secondary income stream, and 25% of my personal time on health or relationships, and 25% of my time on adventure and fun.” And one month comes around, and let's say you decide to go backpacking in Thailand for the entire month, and your “fun” component goes up from 25 to 100%. That’s totally cool. All that matters is that you regularly rebalance to bring the way you’re spending in time back in reflection of your priorities.
And that’s what I mean by measurement and reflection. If you know where your time is going and you regularly reflect, “Is where my time going reflective of where I would like it to be going?” You can take steps to rebalance, to bring your portfolio back in line. That’s really all life is, is just a series of iterations towards a goal.
David: And you mention conversation in terms of that being a high-leverage component, and I think it’s often underrated. And so I’d love to learn a little bit more about how you came to that conclusion, and maybe share some examples of that.
Chris: Yeah, that’s a great one. I think we tend to undervalue things that are intangible. We tend to overweight things that are very easy to measure and underweight things where the value is a little bit more abstract and unclear. And I think relationships clearly fall into that bucket. But what I’m thinking about is what are the steps that are common to all of my goals? And it’s something that I realized recently, is that all of the major successes that I’ve had have come as the result of a conversation. So conversation with a potential client, with a potential partner, a potential friend who has become a collaborator or given me the breakthrough idea, and that time that we often try to minimize on our schedule … It’s like, “Oh man, I have so many calls today I need to get through.” It’s more a function of, “Are you having the right conversations?” Or like “Could these be conversations? Could this be to the client, to the breakthrough?” And that we’re sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
It’s like just because meetings are unproductive on average doesn’t mean that conversations are all unproductive, right? And it really comes from having the intentionality, right, in knowing the types of conversations we wanna have, the types of people we wanna build a relationship with, recognizing those who are high trajectory and have the opportunity to help us, and vice versa. It’s really been a major shift for me to treat conversations as my most productive activity, and sometimes that means creating the space where things are going well, something goes on for two, three, four hours. And where the previous kind of bean counter version of me is saying, “Okay, well how can I get this conversation down to thirty minutes,” it’s more as, “How can I create the space for as much magic to take place as possible?” And in thinking in terms of systems, it’s really, really powerful when a paradigm like that shifts, that everything trickles down from that. And so something that I would challenge you to do would be to say, “What if conversations were the best use of your time? What changes in your day to day, how do you prioritize differently?” Definitely would make a big impact for me.
David: Clearly this is a high leverage conversation for me and for listeners. That’s pretty wild, to think about that being such a powerful thing. I mean I think a lot of times people say, “I don’t wanna have this call, I don’t wanna have this meeting.” But to know that’s where the magic can happen, and that’s pretty wild. Hmm. Gonna have to implement that into my system. And so that’s the most important part then, right, Chris? Is like once you have these new ideas or new breakthroughs, is what do we then … You have to have the system to then incorporate it, right? So maybe on a … Let’s say you and I have a breakthrough conversation. What should I do after I have this spark?
Chris: Yeah, I think the conversation is only the first step. I recommend anyone who’s having a conversation to be taking notes. I always try to follow up after a conversation with what my key takeaways were, and if I committed to anything, and if someone said anything that was insightful, to really close that loop. Otherwise you tend to have the same conversations over and over again. And I always, with the other person’s permission, try to follow up. I usually set a thirty-day window, and say, “Hey, those things we talked about last time, that idea you were interested in pursuing, how’s that going? How did that end up working out for you?” And it’s funny, the hoops that we will jump through to remain consistent in other people’s minds. Where if we commit to something and we know that they’re going to be looking out for it, it’s something that they expect from us, that’s a really powerful intrinsic motivation for us to follow through. It goes along with what I was saying in terms of forcing functions, is that the more we can externalize our goals, to get other people involved, the more likely we are going to create that default. Right? That that becomes something that we naturally want to do. We don’t have to force ourselves to sit down.
And yeah, so I see all conversations as building off each other. I want to continue to go in depth. So when we start to scratch out a topic that’s really interesting, I wanna try to go even deeper next time, right? That seems like fruitful ground. I really emphasize this depth aspect. It’s something that’s come clear to me. When I first arrived in New York, my system had been optimized for meeting as many people as I could. Many days were me having five coffee meetings and then going to two meetups in the evening, and I measured success by “How many people did I meet today?” Right? “How many conversations did I have?” And on average that was a really big waste of time, because I didn’t have the intentionality behind who do I want to meet, and why. And there was very little structured follow-up. These were like one-time meetings that I never saw them again. And the way that I approach this now is I have a list of the thirty people in the world who I most want to build a relationship with, and I regularly am looking for ways to check in and add value to these people. And the way that I see it is these people aren’t my best friends—yet. Like, I am creating the opportunities for this to happen so that with enough time, with enough exposure to each other, with enough proof that we can add value to each other, it will just happen naturally. And that just requires a level of depth. That it’s not having more conversations, it’s working up to having The Conversation.
David: “The Conversation.” That can be the breakthrough. Hmm. Hope I’m on that thirty list. But I guess one other thing that I was thinking about was breaking it down for people in terms of the sense that everything is compounding, right? I know that you’re a big proponent of that and advocate for it, and that there’s certain keystone habits that we can have for every single day. Maybe just walk us through some examples of what, maybe, what does a good day look like that compounds over time?
Chris: Yeah. First, just say that the power of compounding is beyond what you can even comprehend. A good rule of thumb is “Is this a skill or a habit that’s going to be important for you the rest of your life?” And if so, you need to be building it now, because the true cost of not building it now is all of the compound interest you could be building between now and the rest of your life. That all of these things continue to build off each other. So for me, off the top of my head, some of these skills and habits that I discovered that I will literally be building for the rest of my life, hopefully it’s a very long one … So, focus. This generally is both, “How long can I focus on a single task?” So doing a Pomodoro type of thing, right? Time-boxed work. And it’s also a meditation. “How aware am I of my environment?” And my control of my level of engagement with the world. Sharing ideas. So I see my core value to the world as learning as much as I can and translating that into forms that are useful to other people. So, writing. Speaking. Conversations. These are all skills that every day I’m constantly looking for opportunities to use and improve, because they will be useful for me the rest of my life.
Hiring. It was something that I discovered, that you reach diminishing returns with productivity at a certain point, where one person can only do so much on their own, and that the scale of the vision that I have is going to necessitate recruiting and managing other people. Collaborating. Identifying what my core skills are, and what I am not so good at, and finding people who specialize in that area. And so it was one of my biggest goals last year, where I had no … I had never hired anyone before, I had always been very concerned with maintaining full autonomy, where I could do everything I wanted every day. But I wanna make these mistakes now. I’m okay sucking with like hiring and managing now, because every attempt I have at it I will get better, and as my vision expands the people in my circle who I could work with continues to expand. My ability to leverage each other’s talents continues to expand.
Obviously exercise, movement, whatever form that takes for you. They looked at the brains of sixty-year-olds who regularly did cardio, and they were indistinguishable from the brains of twenty-year-olds. I plan to be in this game for a very long time, and I more or less had never seen the inside of a gym until a couple years ago. And that was a huge breakthrough for me, was just realizing that adding this simple habit … It’s literally, all I have to do every day is break a sweat. So that’s probably like thirty minutes, or less. Whatever that is. If I break a sweat every day, I will add on decades of usefulness of life. And life is gonna get so interesting. The word “singularity” gets thrown around, but we have no idea what the future is going to bring, but I know it’s going to be super interesting, and I want to be in a position to take full advantage of it. So, daily movement.
I’ll take a step back. So every single day, what do I try to do? It all starts with that first hour. So my morning routine. Movement. I mentioned before, journaling. Right? Working up to sharing my ideas. The more that I capture my ideas, the more ideas I have to share. Meditation. Planning out my day. Right? Every minute that I spend planning is a return of ten minutes. If I take the time to think through what will make this day successful, I can create that success. Right? Treating every day like it could be a perfect day and planning it out ahead of time. And then I spend one hour doing my most important thing every single day. If I do that hour, the whole rest of the day is a bonus. My opinion is that if I spend one hour every day moving forward the most important thing, everything else takes care of itself. And really, with the momentum from those five activities, the whole rest of the day just flows downhill, where I’ve guaranteed myself an eight out of ten. And once you’re at an eight, like a nine, a ten is very achievable. But guaranteed an eight, you will continue to propel forward. The flywheel is going.
So those are the high-level ones for me, and I find that everything else in my life builds off of those, because I’ve created the capacity to do whatever I want.
David: Created the capacity. Okay. All right. So for this part one of podcast, Chris, maybe could you tell us a little bit of kind of what’s next and how people could follow up with you? In the second part we’ll dive a little bit deeper into some of your work, but for those that are listening to just this part one episode, what are some things that you’re working on that people could follow up with?
Chris: Yeah, thanks. So I work with a dozen entrepreneurs who I see as shaping the world, and so if what I said today resonates with you, I encourage you to check out my website to see if we might be a fit to work together. I would love to have a conversation where we talk about your bottlenecks and how I could potentially reach your goals in an accelerated fashion. I basically open source all of my knowledge. So all of the techniques that I teach to these top performers is publicly available on the internet. So there are chapters available from my book, which is publishing later this year, “Inflection Point,” on the website theforcingfunction.com/inflection-point. I have published all of my favorite tools and resources. So everyone is constantly asking me like “What is the best tool for x?” It’s a list of all the things that I use every day for peak performance, and how I use them. So you can easily implement them yourselves. And what I’m most excited about right now is I have taken my system, that I work with clients, and transported it into a workbook that anyone can work through. It’s more or less like a textbook for maximizing performance. There are exercises and prompts there, where you can take a hard look at your life and find ways to immediately implement these recommendations we’ve been talking about today. So that’s available to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter. All of that can be found on the website theforcingfunction.com. I’d also love to continue these conversations on social media. My handle there is @SparksRemarks.
David: Awesome. Thanks so much, Chris, and really appreciate it, and hope everyone else can check out part two of this episode as well.
David: Thanks again for tuning into another exciting episode of Portfolio Career Podcast. As a reminder, this episode with timestamped notes to follow along is also available on my website, portfoliocareerpodcast.com. There you can also record and ask a question related to all things related portfolio career to potentially be included in a future episode. Really excited for you to use these insights to build and grow your portfolio career, and as always let me know what you think.
Chris: It’s really funny in that these “What do I want?” questions become “What do I want to want?” All right? We can create the system and choose to want and desire and be motivated to do anything we want, but first we need to create that capacity to do so.
David: Hey, friend. So excited for this bonus podcast episode with Chris Sparks. This podcast is focused on a new workbook of Chris’. It is a precursor to his book called “Inflection Point.” I attended a workshop led by Chris and the Forcing Function team in 2018, and I loved it. The principles and work behind it are now in his new workbook. Please make sure you’re a subscriber to Chris’ newsletter at theforcingfunction.com to receive the workbook. This episode is meant to be a standalone episode, and it’s even better with the workbook. Think of it kind of as an audio guide. This episode is also available on my website at portfoliocareerpodcast.com. In building and growing your portfolio career, it is so important to focus on productivity and knowledge systems, with habits and rituals for compounding improvement to lead to new and better opportunities and growth. Trust me, I’m not perfect at this, but listening to this podcast and taking small and regular action with reflection is what I’m trying to do. So I’m on this journey with you too. So here we go with Chris.
Cool. Welcome to Portfolio Career Podcast. Your host David Nebinski is here with Chris Sparks. How’s it going, Chris?
Chris: Fantastic as always.
David: So great to have you back for this bonus part two episode. And for this episode, I thought it would just be a great idea to use this conversation here as a way to work through the workbook, in addition to the amazing prompts and exercises that are in it. So what I thought we would do is starting in kind of chapter six it’s a little bit more prescriptive, and that we would start there. The chapters one through five, we hinted at some of those in the prior podcast episode as well, so definitely check out the prior podcast episode for more information and more context related to chapters one through five, but this six through ten we’re gonna dive a little bit deeper on that. So starting with chapter six, it’s on time. What does time mean to you, Chris, and how do we maximize our time?
Chris: So I think most people think about time all wrong, where … There’s three dimensions we can improve our time, right? One is that we have more hours of work. And that’s where you get the people who are doing silly things like trying to sleep less hours or you know, they’re at their office for sixteen, right, which clearly has diminishing returns. The other one is you think about efficiency. How can I get more done in less time? And that’s where you get all of these productivity hacks where people spend a bunch of time doing keyboard shortcuts, relatively surface level improvements to try to extract more out of time. I think the highest leverage way that we can improve our time management is treating our time like a portfolio and making sure our time is spent on the most important things. So the highest leverage habit for time is planning. Where is the best use of our time? And regularly reflecting, “Where is my time going, and how reflective is that of my priorities?” By spending our time on items of higher average importance, we will automatically be using time better. Think about it. It’s like, presumably you could do one hour of work worth a thousand dollars an hour, or ten hours of work worth a hundred dollars an hour. And in our day to day, all the time, we see these activities that have very deferring levels of value, but that we treat equally. Where we say, “I did eight hours of work today.” Which is absurd. No one actually does eight hours of work. But those hours aren’t equal. It should be, like, what was the value of the work I did today, irrespective of how long it took?
David: Okay. So as you’re working through this workbook, Chris, and thinking about time, what resources should people … Or apps, or processes should people implement to get a better sense as to where they’re spending their time?
Chris: Yep. So I think there’s three steps to better utilization of time. First, knowing all the things that you could potentially be doing. So I call this a project menu. A place where you store all the things that your time could be going. And secondly, prioritizing that list. Right? So determining of all the things you could be doing, which is the most important? All right? So first we have a menu. You think about going to a restaurant and ordering. Here are all the things you could order. And prioritizing is essentially cutting down on the menu, where instead of twenty things you could be doing, here are the three that are actually important, and these are the only three we’re going to think about. So in the workbook, I detail my processes or generating all of these potential projects you could be working on, and then identifying which of these projects is going to be the best use of your time. From that the next step is to plan when these things are going to happen. So I say if someone takes away one habit from this workbook, it’s curating their weekly review. I love the timeline of a week, because it’s zoomed out enough so that you can make decisions as far as what is actually important, but it’s tactical enough in that you can look at the constraints you have and decide “Given where I am right now, what makes sense? What can I do?”
So this is essentially the three-step process to maximizing your time. First, knowing where your time could go, then deciding where the most important places are where your time could go, and then third, given you know what you want to do, when are you going to do it? Working around your current constraints, making sure to maximize the time that you have given what is happening.
David: And I think that’s really interesting, that you said (related to time and planning) that people always think planning has a negative impact to their actual performance. “I don’t wanna plan because then that pulls me away from the output or the performance.” Maybe talk to us a little bit about how planning actually helps you going forward.
Chris: Yeah. Because of opportunity cost, the biggest cost we could have is doing the wrong thing. I like to think about planning as having 10x returns, in that every minute I spend planning returns ten minutes. Because the most important thing we could be doing is more important than everything else we could be doing, taking the time to decide what that most important thing is and having a plan in place that makes sure that our time goes toward that most important thing, that’s the highest leverage thing at any given point. Right? If we aren’t sure what the most important thing is, that is the most important thing. To decide what it is. So I really encourage people to give planning the time and space that it deserves.
David: Perfect. Okay. All right. Now, let’s move to chapter seven. Attention. You’ve got everybody’s attention in listening to this podcast. How should people be optimizing their attention in a day?
Chris: Yeah. So the metaphor that I like to use here, you think about if you’ve ever opened up your task manager on your computer, and all the different processes running, and for every process running it’s taking a non-zero fraction of the computer’s resources. In the same way, thinking about your mental RAM, your mental bandwidth, everything that you are thinking about, every open loop you have, every process that you’re considering, every decision that’s on your mind, is taking a non-zero percentage of your attention. And so I really try to help people internalize this idea of operating in serial rather than parallel, where the notion of multi-tasking is a complete misnomer. We can only do one thing at a time. When we think we’re doing more than one we’re just rapidly switching back and forth. Most people listening to this podcast are probably aware of the cost of context switching, where every time we switch from one activity to the other, it takes us twenty minutes just to get back to the point where we were before. Right? We have to reload this mental RAM just to get back to where we were. So it’s really, really critical to avoid distractions, because these distractions … It’s like, switching and checking Facebook for a minute doesn’t cost you a minute, it costs you twenty-one minutes, because that’s how long it takes to get back to where you were before.
I find that attention comes from constraints. Right? With time we were talking about the menu, constraining the number of items that are available for you to do. In the same way, once you decide what is important, where you wanna direct your attention, we maximize our attention available by putting constraints around the other things that can come up. Right? The often-told Warren Buffett story of somebody writes down their top twenty goals, and the first five goals are your to-do list. And someone asked like “Okay, so like number five through number twenty, that’s what you do when you have extra time.” And Warren says “No, that’s your Not To Do At All Costs List.” Because of opportunity cost, right, your number six item on your list is not a to-do, it’s a distraction. It is distracting you from doing the most important thing. So in this chapter I talk about some of my very tactical ways to eliminate these distractions that get us off task so that we can focus on one single task in serial for a longer period of time, and that this is a muscle that we continue to build.
And counterintuitively, the easier we make it for ourselves to pay attention, the better our attention will be. Right? We create this expectation in ourself that when I sit down to do something, I will do it for the time allotted. I will singletask.
And so there’s many different distractions in our day. People. You know, digital. I think phone is a really big one. And there’s very easy science-proven ways that we can reduce these distractions so that we can focus for longer. And the very interesting and similarly counter-intuitive takeaway is that if we can improve our ability to focus, we don’t need to spend as much time working. Because you think … Someone says “Oh, I’ve been sitting in the office for eight hours working”, how long have they actually been focusing on a single thing. I’ve found that … We’ve talked about the power hour. If I focus on a single task that’s very, very important to me for an hour, I can get more “done”, quote/unquote, than it would take a lot of people eight hours, because they aren’t actually focusing for longer than a few minutes at a time. So this is a really, really powerful way to work on that efficiency that we talked about, in terms of time management, is just putting more of our resources to the task at hand. And so yeah, I recommend checking out this chapter for tactics that anyone can set up. Systems in their environment to create these constraints that will allow you to focus more intensely for longer periods of time.
David: Okay. And after we’ve figured out where to put our attention, how do we go into those tasks and those opportunities with having our best self and the right energy to execute on them? So love to talk about chapter eight, energy, which is always a really interesting topic. I feel like it was maybe a couple years ago, when people say you have high energy or low energy, I always thought it was like the most interesting comment, but it makes a lot of sense, and it’s hard for you to pick up on the energy that you’re representing, but I think it’s so important to have peak energy when you’re doing peak work. So maybe talk to us a little bit about how we can optimize our energy.
Chris: Yeah. I think everyone talks about not having motivation. And really motivation is solved by having high energy, where we are mistaking that we are doing something we don’t want to do for not having the capacity available to do it. Energy is very straightforward to understand, but a lifetime of habit installation to master and solve. So there’s three dimensions of energy that I like to highlight. First is increasing your baseline. So how much energy do you have available in the day, right? How large is your gas tank, sort of to say? Secondly, reducing energy leaks. There’s a lot of things we do that drain energy. Think about … We were talking about conversations. Having a conversation that’s going nowhere, that just being around this person you can feel your energy draining. There’s all of these activities in our day to day which drain energy faster than others, and if we can eliminate these leaks we can have our gas tank go longer. And then finally it is reducing the activation energy. We’ll touch on this when we get to procrastination, but the hardest part of doing anything is getting started. Right? The hardest yoga pose is the first pose, the hardest part of your post is the first word that you write. Right? It’s getting started, this activation energy.
Think about water boiling, where once you get to that point everything goes downhill. The more we can make the things that we want to do easier to do, the less energy that will be drained. I think people are so funny when it comes to energy, and this is where today’s shortcut mentality is so obvious, is that everyone wants the shortcut. Right? That’s how we have an exercise industry, that’s how we have a diet industry, when the best practices for energy basically haven’t changed in thousands of years. Right? 99% of your energy capacity is “Are you exercising? Are you eating well? Are you getting enough sleep?” And then I would add the corollary there is “How’s your relationship with caffeine?” And so it’s not really hard. You don’t need nootropics, you don’t need these crazy fad diets, you don’t need to do Uberman Sleep Schedule. Really it’s “Make sure that you’re getting outside and exercising every day, make sure that you’re eating healthy food that makes you feel good.” Right? Any time you eat something and you don’t feel good afterwards, just don’t eat it again. Right? That’s what the elimination diet is, is if you don’t feel good just don’t eat it. And then get eight hours of sleep. Which means nine hours in bed. This is how you maximize your energy baseline.
And so in the chapter I give my recommendations for making small, sustainable improvements that compound over time in these three areas. You know, how I’ve found to install healthy habits of diet, sleep, and exercise. And the last thing that I would say is like your energy changes throughout the day. Usually we have a bimodal distribution, a twin peak, where we have an initial peak early in the morning, this is where we’re most creative, where we have our most willpower, where we can do the hardest things. And so just shift your hardest and most important things to the beginning of the day. Most people talk about “Oh, this afternoon dip after lunch.” This is basically built in by nature. Right? This is hard coded. So shifting the things that are very easy- managerial, calls, emails, to this afternoon period. And then often we’ll find that we have a second smaller dip in the early evening right before dinner. And so like this is like a nice period of time to do some other kind of finish-the-day-strong type activities. And it’s less that we are trying to eliminate this afternoon dip and more that we are shifting our most important activities to the periods of higher energy.
David: I love that one point. I just wanna reiterate that one. “Motivation is solved by high energy.” That’s fascinating.
Chris: You had Tiago on this podcast, and something that he talks a lot about as far as mood as engine, right? So one of the key findings in psychology coalesces around this idea of self-signaling. That we infer our state based on our behavior. You can extend to we infer our values and beliefs based on what we do. And so if we are low energy, right, we’re slouching, like “Oh, I don’t feel like getting out of bed.” Our brain is looking for a reason why we are behaving in such a way. And so what is actually caused by low energy we will actually attribute to “Oh, I must not like what I’m doing, I must not be excited by it.” So counterintuitively, if we increase our energy we will increase our motivation to do what we want to do. Right? We will think “Wow, this is just so easy, I must really like doing it.” And by affecting our energy we can choose to like anything we want to like. Right? Just by doing something regularly the brain will say “Oh, wow, I do this all the time, I must really like doing it.” It’s really funny in that these “What do I want” questions become “What do I want to want?” Right? We can create the system and choose to want and desire and be motivated to do anything we want, but first we need to create that capacity to do so.
David: What do I want to want. Love that. And I’m grateful for Tiago Forte being on this podcast. His work, particularly around The Rise of the Full-Stack Freelancer, has been a big motivation to Portfolio Career Podcast, so definitely check out Tiago’s work at Praxis, and the podcast as well if you’re interested in Tiago. “What do I want to want.” Fascinating. I think that’s a really good transition into chapter nine, which is around accelerated learning. Right? So once we maybe have a breakthrough and you figure out what do we want to want, maybe you know, new fitness goals, relationship goals, business goals, skill goals, how do we start achieving that quicker? How do we learn how to do that, Chris?
Chris: Yeah. It’s really important to internalize that with enough knowledge and experience we can literally do anything, right? That there is no box. The box is self-created. And I create these extremely ambitious versions of my future self, and I know that with enough iterations of improvement I can get there. But it just becomes like “What are the skills necessary to achieve what I want to achieve?” And so this chapter is my system for learning how to learn, that everything we want to do is learnable, and pretty much everything we want to learn has been studied and deconstructed by someone else. So given the multitude of information out there, clearly information is not the bottleneck. It’s our ability to process, retain, and apply it. So the step by step here is first deciding what are the instrumental skills. What are the steps along the path necessary? Think about your hero’s journey, right? What do you need to learn in order to become the person you need to become to achieve your goals? Identifying these instrumental high-leverage skills. And then the core practices of learning, right? Optimizing for mastery. Optimizing for retention. Improving your signal-to-noise ratio.
These are principles that I introduce, and then show you how I do it, where I wanna maximize the time spent reading or listening to podcasts, watching interviews. And not only am I listening and watching and reading the right things, am I able to extract that information, right? Am I able to convert it into something that’s actionable, that I will be able to retrieve when I need it. Are the things that I’m learning … Am I consuming, or is this actually changing the way that I think about the world, the way that I think about myself and my work? There are ways that we can ensure that we get the most out of our time spent learning, so that it’s always a productive activity. And then once we decide what we want to learn, I talk about how we can sculpt our environment to make it what I call “downhill.” A metaphor here, you’re riding a bike and it’s the difference between riding uphill, you know, super effortful, and going downhill, where you can just coast. And you can transform your environment so that it’s supportive of your learning goals, so that the learning just happens automatically. You’re surrounded by it. This is how learning becomes relatively effortless, in that you’re constantly exposed to new dimensions that you wouldn’t even have known about before, for improvement. That you never hit points of diminishing returns because everything that you learn alerts you to new frontiers, new ways that you can apply and expand upon your learning.
This all really builds up to the concept of deliberate practice, which is specifically knowing what is in the way of your goals and creating a plan to overcome these bottlenecks so that you can achieve what you want. Right? Having the end goal in mind, identifying what are the steps necessary to get there. And I outline how anyone can create a learning plan so that they maximize their time spent learning and get to what they want to achieve with their learning faster. Right? All learning has a purpose. Knowing what that purpose is and finding the most direct path there.
David: Deliberate practice. Okay. Taking action, learning, everything just goes downhill after we figure out what to learn and just keep going. Okay. Last chapter. Chapter ten. This is an important one. Overcoming procrastination. We all do it. We all procrastinate on everything until it starts to become pressure in our mind, in terms … We have our own kind of forcing function apply to ourselves, and then we take action. But how do we plan ahead? How do we overcome procrastination and execute quicker?
Chris: I don’t even like the word “procrastination”, because it brings up all of these negative thoughts, right? Everyone can think back to a time where they were procrastinating. I mean for me I know it was like in college where I would pull all-nighters where I just did anything but work on my project, and then oh, an hour before it’s due, “All right. Gotta do this. Aaaah. One hour. Go.” And we self-sabotage in all of these ways because of our fears. And what this chapter is about is looking our fears in the face and finding ways to work with them, to listen to them, to acknowledge them. And we can systematically overcome these fears that are holding us back from taking the risk that we need to take. Right? The biggest risks are the risks not taken. We talked about it in part one, how successful people are the people who are failing the most. We need to build this muscle of failure is instrumental to success. I think people too easily identify themselves as procrastinators, and I would let you in on the secret that I work with some of the most successful people in the world, and they think of themselves as procrastinators. Right? This is clearly something that everyone has troubles with.
And fortunately, there’s so much psychological research here to support that procrastination can be overcome. Right? We take a breath. We sit in it. And the formula that I use, I call it the procrastination equation. So visualize this. Motivation equals on the top (Expectancy x Value), on the bottom (Impulsiveness x Delay). So expectancy. How likely is it do we think we’ll receive a reward. Value, how much is this reward worth to us. Right? If we increase our odds of success, or increase how much success is worth to us, we will naturally become more motivated. On the downside, right, so the denominator. Impulsiveness. What are the other alternatives that are distracting? What are the shiny candy mountains that we would rather be doing rather than this thing that’s important? And then the delay, how long do we think it’s going to take until we get rewarded. We find that all of these things that we continually put off, it’s because we have other things we’d love to do instead, and this thing like “Oh, it’s gonna take so long to get a reward.” Right? That’s why writing a book is so hard, because I’ve put in this effort now and I don’t get the reward for years down the line.
And once we know what these four levers are, the algorithm is identifying which of these parts is preventing us from getting started and acting directly on that part. Right? And so I outline some specific steps that anyone can do once they outline that part. So for example, increase in expectancy. Anything you can do to make yourself believe that you have a better chance of success. The simplest one is just talking to someone who’s done it before, and having them give you advice. Increasing the value of it. Right? Reviewing your goals, creating some external accountability, raising the stakes, where it is more painful for you to not take action than to take action. Decreasing impulsiveness. We talked about this before in the attention chapter, creating constraints around the things that you would want to do instead no longer are options. And then finally delay. Simply just breaking down any large project into the next component step. This is why in getting things done it’s always “What is the next action? What is the thing that I can do right now?” And I literally recommend spending five minutes and saying “I’m going to work for the next five minutes, and at the end of five minutes I’m going to stop. And if I don’t know how I’m going to start it, all right, I’ll spend the five minutes with a pen and paper just brainstorming ways that I could potentially get started.”
Right? It can be anything, but it’s just getting over that initial hurdle. It’s the verb change of “I’m going to do this” to “I am doing this.” And the hack is like you can give yourself full permission to stop after that five minutes, but once you start you are likely to continue. So this was such a huge breakthrough to me. I think about how much time I delayed getting started on something out of my fear, and that I take a step back, I step outside myself, and say “What am I afraid of? What is preventing me from taking action?” I can immediately do something that makes taking action the obvious thing to do. Right? I change the equation from acute pain of “Oh, this is not going to be enjoyable” to “Wow, if I don’t take action here what are the consequences, or what are the rewards that I am missing out on?” Right? Taking advantage of loss aversion.
So this chapter is really where all these techniques we’ve been talking about come together in that you can create a motivation engine where you can do anything no matter how difficult if you eliminate the things that are in the way of your action.
David: Beautiful. All right, Chris. This has been a treat. Thank you so much for being a part of this bonus episode. Can’t wait for people to dive deep into this workbook. What are some other ways that people can follow up and support?
Chris: Yeah. I’d love for anyone who was interested in what we had to say to download the workbook, pick one of the chapters that really resonates with you right now, set timer for thirty minutes, and take a shot at it. Right? I believe very strongly in this, and I would love for you to prove me wrong. The offer I would make is anyone who spends a half hour working on this, send me results, send me questions, and I will respond to everyone personally. I check every email I get. It’s email@example.com. Let me know how it’s going. And my offer is I will make sure that you get more out of it. I will help you ensure that you install these new habits and systems into your life. That’s my only ask, is to give it a try. And I would love to make sure that you get the most out of it.
David: Thanks so much Chris for the bonus offer and your time.
Chris: My pleasure. I said this has been a pet project of mine, is these patterns that I have recognized in top performers time and time again, how can I convert them into a format that anyone can take action? And my hope is that no matter where you are in your journey, there is something here that will propel you to the next level.
David: Love it. Thanks so much, Chris.
Chris: Thank you.
David: Thanks again for tuning into another exciting episode of Portfolio Career Podcast. As a reminder, this episode with timestamped notes to follow along is also available on my website, portfoliocareerpodcast.com. There you can also record and ask a question related to all things related portfolio career to potentially be included in a future episode. Really excited for you to use these insights to build and grow your portfolio career, and as always let me know what you think.
I’m Chris Sparks, founder of The Forcing Function, helping entrepreneurs multiply their productivity by designing the habits and systems which maximize personal effectiveness.
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