My Interview on the ManTalks Podcast
A Guide to Productivity with Connor Beaton from ManTalks
I was fortunate enough to have a really deep conversation with Connor Beaton on the ManTalks podcast where I distilled some universal principles about productivity I have discovered during my work with entrepreneurs.
Here are some of my favorite topics we dive into:
- What I did when I realized I could do anything
- How to stop operating out of a position of fear
- Matching skills with opportunities to put yourself at the right table
- Codifying risk and principles to improve daily decision making
- Creating self experiments to increase implementation speed
- Managing your time like an investment portfolio
- Creating contexts where being productive is inevitable
- How to be more objective about ourselves
- How to strike a healthy balance between happiness and fulfillment
Visit ManTalks for the audio recording, links, and show notes (48m).
Chris Sparks - A Guide To Productivity - ManTalks
Chris is a super insightful guy, and someone you should listen to when it comes to productivity. Not one to live a…
If you prefer reading, you can find the full interview transcript below.
Connor Beaton: Welcome guys and gals to the Man Talks Podcast. I’m Connor Beaton, the host and founder of Man Talks. This podcast brings together some of the best thought leaders, teachers and extraordinary individuals to help teach or mentor you on how to be a top performer in life, love and business.
Joining me today is a very special individual who has done some pretty incredible things. Chris Sparks, is a business coach for top performing entrepreneurs, helping them build the systems and habits to maximize their time, energy and focus towards building their business and designing their personal lives. Chris has thought a lot about productivity. He is the author of Inflection Point and regularly writes and leads workshops about productivity.
He’s a former professional poker player and was ranked as one of the top 20 online poker players in the world for a few years. As a growth marketer, he’s successfully helped several early-stage startups reach scale through analytical automatization and cross-channel customer development. In his spare time, he also loves traveling and improv comedy, visiting 65 countries and performing regularly at the Magnet Theater in New York City.
So today, we’re going to talk a little bit about his time in poker but we’re really going to focus in on productivity and being consistent in taking action on what matters most in our life.
So Chris has done a lot of research on productivity, doing an incredible job of mapping out exactly how we can be most efficiently accomplish our goals through the means of psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and complexity. He’s really studied all of these avenues to better understand how we as human beings can set up appropriate systems to have that productivity be effective and consistent.
Now, this is something that I have definitely struggled with in the past and still do sometimes today. I’ve noticed that when things are out of alignment with my priorities, with my purpose, it’s very challenging to get them done.
I also hear a lot of people saying, “Connor, can you please do a podcast on time management? Can you please help me manage my time more effectively?” But the reality is that it’s not time that we need to be managing. So one of the things that we dive into is how to manage your priorities, how to put things in order of making sure that we’re doing the right things first. Chris lays out his system that he uses which he calls Inflection Point and it’s the ultimate guide to productivity. So we talk a little bit about some of those cornerstone pieces.
So before I bring Chris on, just a quick reminder, all of you guys that are listening, please head on over to Facebook, join the Man Talks community. We’ve got a few thousand guys in there and we have some great conversations. We currently have a challenge going on, about 90 to 100 of the guys joined me in a no drinking challenge for 60 days. So that’s pretty awesome. We also have some fitness challenges going on in there. My last ask, I don’t ask for a lot, but my ask, my last ask is please share this podcast with one person. Man it forward. Share the podcast with one person especially if you know that they’re struggling with productivity or you just think this would be a good lesson for them. It goes a long way to getting us into the ears and onto the phones of other people.
Don’t forget to head on over to Apple podcast and leave us a review. It definitely helps us in a long, long way. So thank you very much. Thanks for tuning in today. Without any further delay, please welcome Chris Sparks.
Chris Sparks: Thanks Connor. It’s great to be here.
Connor Beaton: So just like with the rest of our guests, I want to kick things off today with asking you the question.
Chris Sparks: All right. Yes, let’s do it.
Connor Beaton: All right. So tell us a story about a defining moment in your life that made you who you are today.
Chris Sparks: I usually think that the best answer to these types of questions is the first answer. I was sitting in a bungalow on a beach in Thailand. It’s always been a bucket list item for me to travel the world, and a three-month trip had turned into an 18 months trip at this point visiting 50 countries. Right now, I was kind of beach bumming with no forward plan in Thailand.
I had played poker professionally for five years, more or less until the government put it to an end in the US in 2011. This is three years later at this point, 2014. A large amount of my net worth had been ceased by the government. I had more or less decided that I would not see that money again or at least I’d come to terms with that possibility. One day, I opened my bank account and the whole lump sum that I thought was gone got deposited to my bank account.
Now, for those of you guys who have been traveling in Southeast Asia, there’s a nice currency arbitrage there, the cost of living is quite low. I did some quick mental calculations and found out that with what I was currently spending per day in Thailand, I could live like a king for the rest of my life with the amount that had hit my bank account for that day. It was the first time that this possibility of just living a life of adventure and leisure became a legitimate option I had to consider.
I think up until this point, a lot of my life was geared around what do I want to accomplish, what do I want to experience, what kind of impact do I want to have. I really key into this idea of doing impact without thinking about what you actually want to contribute to.
Facing for the first time this option of living a completely self-indulgent life of happiness and doing whatever I want the rest of life, is this what I want? Realizing that it wasn’t, that I would kind of consider that a cop-out, in the rear-view mirror a failure. So that became my journey. How can I make the most of the experiences I’ve had and the gifts that I had been given and acquired along the way? How could I live a life that was a bit more meaningful than that?
Connor Beaton: I love it, man. It’s so interesting to hear you talk about this perspective of what happens when all of a sudden you realize that your financial needs are taken care of for the rest of your life. I think very few people have that opportunity to just sit in the space of, “Well, what if I didn’t have to do anything just for money for the rest of my life, then what do I do? Then what do I focus in on?” I think that’s such a unique experience to find yourself in.
So in that space, what were you left with? If you could just do anything and sort of live in any way that you wanted, did you sort of contemplate just pissing out from life and living the rest of your life in Thailand? Did that ever cross your mind?
Chris Sparks: So it did. I’m always trying to extrapolate out. I mean, I think all of life is like poker: making decisions with incomplete information. It’s the question of how would I feel on my deathbed having lived that kind of “most interesting man in the world” type lifestyle? Then it’s, “Okay, how could I change that narrative to be something that I’m more satisfied and fulfilled with?”
I think that people often confuse happiness and fulfillment, they think they’re pursuing one and they’re really pursuing the other. There’s actually some mutual exclusivity and oscillation between the two. I wanted to increase my utility functions weight a little bit more towards fulfillment. I think up until that point, I had been living a life based out of fear. Fearing the things that I didn’t want and finding ways to run away as far as I could from them.
I don’t want to be working in a big company for a boss. I don’t want to be answering to others. I don’t want to be stuck in one place with the same people doing the same things. I don’t want to be fixing up my house with a picket fence and two dogs the rest of my life. How can I get as far away so those options don’t become part of my timeline of possibilities?
I tried to shift my mindset towards what do I actually want. The list got pretty short. I mostly came up with I wanted to work with people who were smart, interesting and doing ambitious things to try to change the world. Up until that point, my life was headed going into the corporate world and then shifted completely into poker. So the few people I knew who fit that description were entrepreneurs. So my new kind of modus operandi became how can I work closely with entrepreneurs?
Just drawing from that lead me to my next few decisions which were moving to New York which felt like it had the largest concentration of those kind of people and then going into startup consulting, both in marketing analytics and doing some venture capital work.
Now, when I’m doing productivity coaching for entrepreneurs, my thoughts are consumed with how can work closely with those people, help them realize their goals and utilize my unique abilities in a high leverage way. But it all started from that shift from, “Okay, rather than just running away from the things I don’t want, how can I make sure that I’m getting the things that I do want and building up from there.”
Connor Beaton: Yeah, I really like that. I mean, it’s interesting because the deathbed thought, “If I was to be on my deathbed and I sort of lived out the life that I see myself living out,” can be a really powerful shift for a lot of people because all of a sudden, you get a very rare chance to play the “what if” game and live out the trajectory that you have your life on and see whether or not that’s actually who you want to be and what you want to do. I love that you did that exercise and took a step back and said, “Maybe that’s not it. Maybe I can take my life in this direction.”
So we’re going to touch on productivity in a bit. I want to definitely get into that because I think the productivity and consistency around our productivity is something that so many people battle on a daily basis and there’s so much information out there. So I’m definitely curious to get your insight on that.
But I want to circle back around to the poker life first because I think your transition from the corporate realm into poker is so interesting where you’re so used to get that bimonthly or biweekly paycheck coming in. I call it the golden handcuffs. I used to work at Apple so I’ve experienced that. How did you shift and how did you know when to transition out of that corporate world and into doing poker on a full-time basis?
Chris Sparks: The super short answer is I didn’t and I was really lucky to be kind of forced out by default.
The longer story answer is that my dream while I was in college to make television commercials. I’d always been really fascinated by human psychology and it seems like if society is telling me I need to run a business and I want to work in psychology then marketing is the way to go. I thought the most creativity happening in marketing was creating these commercials that can affect people on a large scale, tying into both the emotional and the universal.
Where are the places that TV commercials being made? Places with multi-million dollar budgets to make TV commercials, right? So my internships during college and then my job that I accepted after senior year with Ford in Detroit were all geared towards that. I actually got that job offer through the luck of being on a reality show sponsored by Ford my senior year in college. This is 2008.
So the month before I was supposed to start my full-time job, the auto industry collapsed and I found myself in hiring purgatory. But I’ve already moved up to Detroit. I knew a sum total of two people in Detroit who both worked at Ford.
I have nothing to do all day. I’ve just graduated college and I’m kind of waiting for this job to kick in, basically the government telling Ford that they can start hiring again. I’d played poker throughout college to pay my own tuition and it was something that I really, really enjoyed.“Okay well, I’m not making money working at Ford. Why don’t I make money playing poker in the meantime?”
So my 10 to 15 hour a week habit became a 80-hour a week full-time obsession. By the time it became realistic to join Ford, it’s just economically infeasible to go to a full-time company when I’m working on my own, making my own hours and multiples of that salary per month.
So, the short answer was that I might still be in the corporate world if it wasn’t for the bad luck of entering into the job market in 2008, which ended up being a very lucky occurrence in hindsight. I find that so many occurrences are like that. Things that we think are fortunate turn out to be the opposite and more often, things that we think are unlucky end up being the constraints that lead us to come up with a better solution.
Connor Beaton: That’s awesome. That’s really cool, man. I love how sometimes life just deals us the cards that force us to take a shift and provides with the ability to do so. So as you transitioned into poker, what was that world like? You sort of specialized in the online poker side of things. Is that correct? You weren’t really big into the live poker scene. Is there a reason for that?
Chris Sparks: The practical reason is hourly rate. In-person, you’re getting a maximum of 20 to 25 hands per hour. But online, I’m playing, depending on the stakes, between 12 to 30 games at a time so I’m getting thousands of hands per hour. So my hourly rate is, up to 10X playing the same stakes online, even accounting for a lower win-rate per table.
Generally, when you’re playing in-person, you have more context and the players aren’t as good. So maybe you can make five times as much per table. But it takes so much longer to realize your expected win-rate, not to mention being incredibly boring. Whereas when you’re online, the feedback cycles are so tight, you’re getting your assumptions tested thousands of times per hour. You improve so much faster online and it becomes very difficult to have a losing month when you’re improving so quickly.
I think it’s also kind of a skill match thing. I do really well with statistics and meta-game psychology. The amount of information that was available on your online opponents was massive and there were few people who were really taking advantage at the time. It really fit my skillset. I mean, not to mention the convenience of sitting in your bedroom in your pajamas.
It created a very interesting atmosphere and my best friends in the world were people who I never had met. I’m talking to them on AIM everyday. I eventually ended up meeting them in Vegas for my 21st birthday where we get a mansion for the summer and just bet on every single thing for the whole summer.
Imagine the movie 21 where everyone is incredibly nerdy and has more money than they’ve known what to do with. Because the way you’re making the money requires you to have no attachment to it, you basically treat money like it’s unlimited. That’s kind what it was like when a few of us got together, when we weren’t huddled in our basements with all the lights off trying to make more.
Connor Beaton: That’s awesome. It sounds like the best iteration possible for guys that love Dungeons and Dragons in high school, to be able to go onto poker just the way you described it. So that’s pretty funny. But also, I think one of the interesting things that you just said was around skill matching.
I would imagine this not only helps your productivity because you’re matching your skills, but that it also plays a huge factor into the reward, risk equation. So everything that we do has an inherent risk but the rewards can oftentimes outweigh them and that’s what usually propels us forward into wanting to accomplish or pursue something.
So I would imagine that when you did align your skillsets that it started to help incentivize and inspire you towards taking action. So is that something that you stumbled across, was being able to match up your skills that rewarded you? Was that something that you uncovered or stepped across or is that you inherently were pursuing already?
Chris Sparks: You’re touching on a few of my favorite topics and mental models there Connor. The first one, I think the biggest thing in poker that determines who makes the most money is who puts themselves at the right table. Are you getting into the best games that are matched for your playing style against competition that you can beat?
I think the same thing applies in life. Are you putting yourself at the right table? Are you in the right industry? Do you kind of satisfy that Venn diagram of something that you’re good at + that comes naturally + that people value? Are you in a place that you can capitalize on those opportunities?
So much of poker is being disciplined through just extreme amounts of boredom and not changing your overall game plan. Recognizing when that millimeter of opportunity appears right before your face and capturing it. That’s the difference, who can be disciplined and wait? Similar to Warren Buffett’s idea where you only have 20 holes in your punchcard. Recognizing the right opportunity and implementing with urgency.
You talked about that with risk taking. Everything we do in life is a calculated risk. If I could pass on one mental model from poker it would be expected value. Expected value helps you determine where is the best place to invest your resources. This could be in a literal sense in terms of money but anything is a resource: it could be your time, your focus, or your energy. What are you investing and then what is your expected return?
In poker, I was winning about 52% of the time. That 4% delta between 52 and 48 multiplied out over millions of hands allows you to make millions of dollars. The edges are very small but you recognize when the odds are in your favor and put the chips forward with the understanding in the long run that the results will follow. Knowing where the risk-reward quotient is in your favor and having the confidence in yourself to recognize that. These compounding gains are what allow you to leave the rest of your field behind, because you’re taking those small edges in a calculated way. You’re not putting too much at risk at once but each of those gains compound over time.
The winners accumulate more which allows them to reinvest and they pull away from the field. I could go on about this forever but the key idea is knowing where is the right place to be — being able to recognize those opportunities and putting yourself in a position to implement.
Connor Beaton: I love that, man. I think that’s so important. Recently I was listening to Ray Dalio’s book, Principles. I think that one of the things that you’re touching on is somewhat similar. It’s somewhat similar to what he was talking about in terms of stock investment, looking at the risk and the reward and being able to look at the longterm investment of what you’re putting in and really taking a hard look at the truth of whether or not that’s going to yield you the return that you’re actually looking for.
I like that from a career perspective, from a business perspective, whether you’re an entrepreneur or a professional, and even in terms of relationships, I think that that’s probably applicable for those of us that are very analytical. Do you see that this principle that you’re talking about is applicable to all aspects of life?
Chris Sparks: I definitely think so. There’s two aspects to decisions. First, you have your system one, an automatic, habitual, internalized system where you just react. You use your accumulated experience to guide your intuition. You assume that everything that is stored within your subconscious is leading you is leading you in the right direction and you follow that.
Then you have system two. How do I want to make these types of decisions in the future, what type of decision criteria should I be using, what are my values, what should I be looking for? Taking that step back to the meta level to how would I like to be making these decisions in the future, what should I be thinking about when this comes up again?
This is obviously relevant when you have a large decision, one of these inflection points, but it’s also relevant for a decision that comes up hundreds of times throughout the day. Those gains compound if you can make a small improvement to how you approach those frequent decisions.
What I like about the approach that they have in Bridgewater is thinking about codifying these principles so that every decision has an easy litmus test taking human emotion out of it. The hard work comes in codifying the values and principles that inform your regular decisions. Afterwards, decisions become very easy because the hard work has already been done.
There’s definitely a balance that needs to happen. I remember one time, I got told by a friend, “Chris, you’re just so incredibly rational when it comes to making decisions about relationships.” I said, “Oh, thank you. That’s a really nice thing to say.” They said, “Well no, that’s not a compliment.”
I think sometimes we can overthink things and we can extrapolate out too often. I think there are times that you need to wait for more information, that you need to trust your instincts a little bit more and not overthink it. But I think overall, the more that you can do the hard work “off the tables” so to say, whether that’s in business or in life, you more you will be able to trust your intuition in these situations.
Connor Beaton: Yeah, that’s great. I love that you brought intuition into it because I do think that that plays a huge factor even when it comes to these principles. I’m just going to keep using the poker analogies because it’s such a great tool. I’m curious as to how this might play into knowing when to fold.
I’m not just talking about in the game of poker but knowing when to fold in life, on a project, on a relationship, on a business, whatever it is. Because I think I’m not too sure if you’re familiar with the sunk cost rule, but I think that a lot of people struggle with being able to know exactly when they should let go of something, when they should fold. I’m curious to get your insight into how you built a sort of system around knowing when to fold whether it was in poker or whether it was in life and learning when to walk away from something.
Chris Sparks: Yeah, absolutely. I think the largest costs are always hidden. I think another hidden cost that people rarely have internalized is this idea of opportunity cost. That what you’re doing right now which hopefully is listening closely to this podcast comes at the expense of literally everything else you could be doing. So what you’re doing in this very moment better be important.
The same thing kind of goes towards half-assing anything or constantly doubting what you’re doing is the right thing. That lack of commitment comes at the expense of what it could be like if you actually committed. So I think this hidden cost of constantly doubting whether you’re doing the right thing is the hidden cost that drives so much of what people consider to be productivity issues, is that they lack conviction in what they do. I would include myself here sometimes, by the way. That lack of conviction leads to self-sabotage, an over-reliance on willpower and doing things in a very inefficient way.
The way that I tackle this challenge before existential angst becomes an existential crisis is I try to treat everything as a closed experiment. Like I said earlier, every decision is doing the best you can using incomplete information. If you’re waiting for complete information, you’re waiting too long.
I create an experiment where I say, “Okay, of the options that I could do, it looks like this one is the best one. I’m not sure it is but I think it might be.” So for the next 30, for the next 60, for the next 90 days, picking a time interval, I’m going to act as if I’m 100% sure that this is the right thing to do. I write out all of my assumptions. This is what I’m doing because I think this is true, this is true, and this is true. During that period, I’m trying to test whether those assumptions are right.
In the past, every single day, I’d be questioning like, “Well, writing this book is really useful but maybe I could be doing something else instead.” This solves that paralysis. Instead, I focused on just writing this book for the full 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, okay, were these assumptions right? Is this something that I should continue doing? Should I double down? Should I fold? It gets rid of this daily questioning of “am I doing the right thing?”
When you create those closed experiments, those big decisions become much easier and much more straightforward because you’ve created these planned checkpoints where you can look back and reflect. I think that the combination of heads-down, muddling forward, testing assumptions, periods coupled with the yang of reflection, lesson-extraction, re-evaluation periods works really well.
Connor Beaton: Yeah, I like that man. I think that that’s a really great insight in terms of supporting people to look out when they need to let go. So let’s shift to productivity because obviously the listeners that are out there are starting to get a definite sense that this is something that you’re definitely an expert in and know what you’re talking about. I would love for you to just maybe unpack what you think good productivity looks like. Let’s start with the myths. What are some of the misconceptions and myths around productivity because I think that that would be good to tackle first.
Chris Sparks: I’m not a big fan of the word productivity despite using it as my job title. I just haven’t found a better one to describe what I do. With language, there’s so many fuzzy boundaries. What I consider productivity is making progress on what I want to accomplish in my life in an efficient manner.
So I don’t just attach productivity to “did I create more widgets today?” I really blur the line between life and work, and I think ideally, they should be the same thing. I think the biggest time waste that people do is they treat productivity like an entertainment business.
Everyone is out there looking for the new systems, the new tool, the new book that’s going to completely transform their entire productivity baseline. But what they’re missing is that they are the common denominator in all of their productivity issues. In fact, they are the productivity issue. I really dial in on this inner game aspect of productivity and I eschew all of the shiny tools and hacks that riddle the internet atmosphere.
There’s three ways that you could become more productive, right? One is working smarter. So there’s plenty of places on the internet talking about how can you be more efficient, how can you eliminate interruptions and distraction, that’s all good. Second way — how can I work more, putting in more hours. That’s energy management, that’s increasing focused work hours by using Pomodoros, basically extending the window of which you can be productive.
The third, which I think it’s the highest leverage and the most overlooked, is am I working on the right thing? The emotion that I really cue into is fear and trying to transform that fear into courage. What I am most afraid of doing, what I feel the most resistance towards, is most likely the thing that is most important for me to do.
I believe tasks operate off of a power law which says that the most important thing that I should be doing is worth more than all the other things that I could be doing combined. So I’m always trying to figure out what’s the most thing that I could be doing right now and how can I create space to make sure that that gets done. In that frame, everything else that I could be doing, getting back to opportunity cost, becomes a distraction because they come at the expense of that most important thing.
So in a nutshell, I think what people are missing with productivity is not, “Okay, how can I get more done?” Or, “How can I get more done in less time?” But, “Am I doing the right thing? If not, how can I make sure that I’m doing the right thing?”
Connor Beaton: Yeah, I like that. I mean, I like to say it’s not about time management. It’s about priority management. What landed from what you just said is like focus in on what matters most, when it matters most and you’ll get better results in terms of your productivity. So in terms of how you break that down for people, can we go a little bit deeper and maybe share like a best practice?
Like you said, there’s an inundation of information that’s out there in terms of what people can do to actually be more productive and how they can get their work set up. There’s productivity planners. There’s all these different tools. I’m curious to get insight into where do you start, how do you start to map those things out?
Before we go on, I just want to say to all the listeners that are out there, if you’re wanting to dive into some of Chris’ work a little bit more, you can check him out on Medium. He’s got a great following. He’s sharing chapters from his book called Inflection Point, a practical guide for growth. So if you’re wanting to dive into his work a little bit more, you can definitely go check that out. But Chris, in terms of where people should start outside of that and how they can start to break this down into practical sense, where do you recommend that they start?
Chris Sparks: I always tell clients that if they take one habit away from our work together, it should be the weekly review. I think a period of a week works great for avoiding the myopia of, okay, this is what I’m doing in a day. You can take a little bit of a step back. But it’s also tactical enough to look rationally at the constraints I have this week, all the things that I have to work around, what time do I have and how can I make the most of that, how can I feel good about the week. I build my whole productivity practice around that weekly review.
There’s three critical questions that are part of every review which is basically what went well, what didn’t go well, what can I do differently. So the what went well is like celebrating the wins and always, “Okay, what made that go well? How can I do more of that?” What didn’t go well, “So what didn’t I accomplish that I set out to do? What were the reasons for that and what’s one thing that I could do now to increase those chances in the future?” Everything is a gift or a lesson so treating every failure as an opportunity to improve. Then, “What can I do differently? Looking at the week ahead, what’s one thing that I can do to ensure that this week will be a good one, even better than the week previous?”
Asking myself those three questions takes like a half hour to an hour for the week. I think I get a kind of an extra turn on that time because it answers those two key questions of what are the important things to work on and when do I expect to get those done.
I love what you said about managing your priorities. You need to be thinking about your priorities on a more global level and looking at where your time is going. So I think of where my time is going as a portfolio that needs to be rebalanced over time. I have an ideal allocation, showing where I’d like to be spending my time. Spending the most time on my top priority and then proportionally down. But occasionally, this time portfolio is going to get out of balance and I need to take steps to bring them back to my desired allocation.
I don’t want to be spending way too much time on my low priorities or things that aren’t a priority at all. Rather than beating myself over it, I treat time like a financial portfolio and just take small steps to bring that time portfolio back into balance. So that applies to the weekly review when you look at “where was your time going for the last week?” and “how would you like for that to change?” Then the extra credit is “what’s one thing you could do now to help rebalance that portfolio?”
Connor Beaton: Yeah, I like that. I like the idea of the time portfolio, something that puts things into perspective for people and allows them maybe to let go of some of the guilt that we have oftentimes around have I been doing the right things or if we get off track or we get distracted by useless tasks or to just doing all of the wrong things for a few days, we can start to look at how do we actually rebalance that weekly portfolio of time and makes it a little less emotionally charged, I would imagine. Is that part of the reasoning around your take on it?
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. I think with productivity, the tendency is to beat ourselves up, that we have this idealized model of ourselves and we continually fall short. Rather than saying, “Well, when is the day that I’m finally going to get my act together?” we need to treat our behavior as fully deterministic by the contexts that we put ourselves in. What I mean by that is it wasn’t that we failed to do what we set out to do, it’s that we failed to create a context where what we wanted to do became inevitable.
My business, The Forcing Function, is built around that concept. A Forcing Function is how can I make what I want to do the default? Putting some structure and accountability into place so that there’s never any decision or willpower required to act, our top priority just becomes the obvious thing to do.
I find that it helps to step aside and not identify with your failures. I ask, “Okay, how could I have changed my environment, my situation, my context, to have made it more likely for that to happen?” You think of productivity as something that you’re continually approaching by removing failure modes over time. No week is ever a failure in itself, it’s just learning, it’s an opportunity to get better.
Yeah, I think it’s very important to try and be an objective observer of ourselves. I always try to think of it as “what is the obvious advice that I would give to a friend if that friend was me?” or if I was reading a fiction book and I was the main character, where would I be saying, “Wow, why aren’t they doing that obvious thing?” It’s so hard to be objective about yourself and that’s why we have to unidentify with our past behavior.
It comes down to not having a personal history. The past needs to be set aside, it’s our best guess of what we’re going to do in the future but it’s just a guess. Our behavior can be completely altered by putting ourselves in a context that is more conducive for our goals.
Connor Beaton: Yeah, man. It’s so powerful. I love the Buddhist concept of being the observer. Removing ourselves and looking objectively and then being able to almost elicit advise for ourselves. Just the other day I was working with a client. He’s a very successful guy, incredibly smart, runs a few companies and he was really stuck in one area of his life and he’s asking me, “What do you think I should do?”
As a coach or as a therapist, you never really want to say, “Well, this is what I think you should do with your multimillion dollar business,” because then you could be liable for the downfall if anything goes wrong. I said, “If you were your friend right now and you unpack the situation, what is the advice that you would give your friend?” He was able to remove himself from the situation and become objective. Knowing exactly what advise he would give to a friend, he could take that advise and implement that.
So it’s so interesting to hear you say that because I think that’s such a powerful tool. I’m curious in terms of productivity, how do you schedule in personal time? I know that you like doing some improv once in a while. Do you bring in personal priorities and leisure into your prioritization and optimization when you’re building your week or is it predominantly segregated into different buckets of work and then extracurricular and then relationships? How do you manage that part of it?
Chris Sparks: I think everyone is different and I think it depends on your respective portfolio. For me, I like the approach of having really clear boundaries and delineation between work and leisure. As far as when I’m working, I want to be completely heads-down and focused on work. When I’m hanging out with friends, doing something creative, or reading, that becomes my focus. Not thinking about work or about what I’d rather be doing but trying to maximize the presence that I bring to each of those. A hidden way of creating time is by building more seconds within the minutes that you’re focused.
I’ve worked with clients where I need to actually have them schedule in their leisure because if not, they’ll work from 8AM to 2AM and never see their kids. I think that is an archetype of an entrepreneur but it’s probably not the most common one.
I think the more common scenario is how can I avoid all these activities that feel relaxing but don’t actually recharge me. This is solved by having a list of activities that you enjoy doing, drawing from that menu when you have free time. It becomes less friction to uncharge and unwind. You can do it in a more productive way. Rather than watching Netflix or playing video games, when you have previous options chosen you’ll be more satisfied because you can make more enriching activities more accessible.
For me, I never have a hard time taking time off work because I have lots of other things that I enjoy and make me feel really fulfilled to pursue. I think it’s very, very important to have that balance. I’m probably pushing this portfolio analogy too far but I think that if you’re overweighted in one area of your life, you become very fragile. If that area of your life isn’t going well, it becomes an emotional drain.
I try to have multiple burners on the stove going so if one of them goes out, I have the others to lean on. So if I have a really tough day of coaching, I can talk to my friends. I can pursue one of my hobbies. If I get into a fight, I can really lean into my work with my clients and the fulfillment I get there. Each of the areas is part of a scaffolding which supports each other.
Happiness and fulfillment are overlapping but also counter to each other. Burnout comes if we expend ourselves too far on the side of purpose. Happiness from outside pursuits brings us the gratitude and appreciation for what we have which allows us to bring our full selves to our work. Long answer to a simple question but I think about this stuff quite a lot. You need both happiness and fulfillment and this is represented by the natural oscillation between leisure and work. While they need to be sharply delineated, each becomes a supporting structure for the other.
Connor Beaton: Yeah, that’s some really, really, really powerful insight, man. I love that you’re talking about bringing one to the other and really having it be a both-and situation. Being able to look at your personal life and your professional life and realize all sides of the spectrum are connected. You can’t have success and fulfillment in one without being able to provide that on the other side.
So just to wrap up here today because we’re running out of time. Where can people learn more about you, find more out about your work, where should they go?
Chris Sparks: Sure. I appreciate the plug of the book earlier. I’m putting up chapters of my book called Inflection Point which should be published later this year on my Medium page /SparksRemarks which is also my social media handle across the major platforms.
My website if you’re interested in learning more about my coaching is theforcingfunction.com. I’m happy to have deeper conversations about any of the things I’ve talked about. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to me. Email, email@example.com.
I love talking about this stuff. I could go on forever. It’s been an honor to be on the show and to share some of these lessons I’ve learned with you.
If I you take one thing away from this I would say: know what your priorities are and constantly work towards spending more time on them. Treat every failure as a lesson and always be experimenting.
Connor Beaton: Awesome, man. Thank you so much. I think that’s some really, really great wisdom and insight to end on. So everybody out there, definitely go check out Chris Sparks. We’ll have all the links for you on the website to his Medium account and to his personal website.
Just a quick reminder to all of the guys to head over to Facebook and join the Man Talks community. We’ve got a few thousand men in there from around the world. We’ve got some great conversations going on in there. So whether you are focusing on health, fitness, finance, fatherhood, whatever that looks like, definitely go check that out. Please don’t forget to leave us a rating and a review. It goes a long, long way to getting us on the phones and into the ears of the people.
Lastly, don’t forget, don’t hesitate to hashtag, man it forward to somebody else. Share this episode with one person that you know has struggled with productivity, has really been struggling with consistency, or is just looking to integrate a more healthy sense of productivity. I think that Chris has a lot to offer with serving people in this space. So until next week, this is Connor Beaton signing off. Join me next week for another inspiring conversation with another inspiring individual.