My interview on the Nat Chat podcast
Top 20 Poker Pro to High End Productivity Coach with Nat Eliason
I had a lot of fun in this podcast conversation with Nat Eliason.
In the first half, I go deeper into my background story than I ever have before publically. Forcible removal from the UK, the craziness of the poker boom, waking up in a new country every few days, reinventing myself in NYC and all of the tricks I stumbled upon to stimulate action and keep life interesting.
In the second half, we dissect the universal principles of productivity. How to design habits and systems, ensure daily progress towards your top priorities, and the benefits of treating your life as an experiment. This advice is geared towards an ambitious college student but I think the principles apply to anyone.
Visit the page below for the show notes and audio recording (55m).
If you prefer reading, you can also find the full transcript below.
Find one thing that if you did it every day, would ensure that you move forward, and then make sure that it happens…www.nateliason.com
Nat Eliason: Hey everyone, and welcome to another episode of Nat Chat. I’m Nat Eliason, and as you may or may not know, what we’re currently exploring in this podcast is what to do as a college student who isn’t excited about the typical postgraduate careers, maybe the major that they’re in, they want to go after a life that they’re more excited about.
In this episode, I’m joined by Chris Sparks. Chris has a crazy during and post-college story. He got really into online poker while he was still a student, and that eventually led to him getting flown out to Brazil for an international competition before he even graduated.
He thought he wanted to go into advertising, but when the company that he had gotten an offer with, Ford, basically never followed through on it, he decided to just go all in on poker. After a year, he was living in a multimillion dollar mansion in LA and he and his friends were just living this crazy lifestyle, all in on poker, until 2011 when the US shut down online poker, said it was illegal, and seized all of the money that he and his friends had in their online exchanges.
He went to London, was traveling around Europe so that he could get back online and keep playing, and he eventually moved on into more entrepreneurial projects. Now he actually works as a very high end, high profile productivity coach for entrepreneurs and other people who want to just get the most out of their work.
So we split this interview really nicely between talking about his history with poker, how he got into it, how he became one of the top 20 players in the world, and then what he’s doing now: helping people get the most output they possibly can from their days. So with no further ado, please welcome Chris to the show.
Chris Sparks: Cool, thanks for having me.
Nat Eliason: So we are hanging out in your beautiful apartment here in Brooklyn, and I’m really excited to do this episode today because when we met a month ago, it was obvious that you had a really interesting, fascinating, fast-paced cool story during and after college. And probably one that most people have not met somebody who went through, so I’m excited to dive into all of this more than we could when we met up in Alabama, and I thought we could start with why you won’t go back to the UK.
Chris Sparks: Oh man, diving right into it aren’t we?
Nat Eliason: Yeah.
Chris Sparks: Okay. Yeah so, a minimal backstory: online poker had gotten shut down in the United States in 2011, so I was a refugee. The majority of my net worth was seized by the government and the future of my whole profession was pretty unclear. And all I knew was just how much I loved poker and how I wanted to continue playing it, but didn’t really have a good plan for doing so.
And got some friends together, and we decided we would move to London. We weren’t super adventurous so we wanted to go somewhere where we spoke the language so that it wouldn’t be too crazy of a transition, but also we thought that London would be a really good travel hub for exploring Europe. A big bucket list item for me was to do the whole backpacking thing.
Turns out, it’s very hard to get people to rent an apartment to mid 20s poker players in London, so we ended up having to come up with backstories. So first we would say we were currency traders, but then we kept running into owners of the apartment who were hedge fund traders and that story didn’t hold up too long. We finally found a place that was bought by a Chinese guy sight unseen for $7 million, so he wouldn’t meet or see us so the broker was able to kind of concoct a story that the owner wouldn’t be able to check out.
It took us a month of apartment hunting just find a place that would actually rent to us. The day I signed the lease at the office, I was on my way to the airport and so I still hadn’t unpacked. I’d been staying in hotels so I still had my one bag with all of my possessions in it. I was going to a tournament in Barcelona for the European Poker Tour. Tournament went pretty well, cash games went really poorly afterwards. They were really, really good games, and I’d basically been playing for 30 hours straight right before getting on the plane back to London, so you can imagine how I looked at this point.
And I landed at Stansted Airport in London, and they said, “Hey, what are you doing here in London?” It’s like, “Oh, I’m coming to live for a few months.” They’re like, “How long?” I was like, “Five months.” I was like, “So what are you going to do here?” “Live and play poker.” “What’s your plan in London?” “I don’t know, probably go around, see stuff and eat things.” “Okay, we’re going to need to talk to you a bit more.”
Apparently poker is not recognized as a profession. They decided to go through my bag and they find large amounts of euros, a resume, family photos, winter clothes, this is the beginning of August. Does not look very good. UK has very strong asylum laws where apparently it’s a very popular thing to go the UK and work at a bar for cash and not leave. Because the way the laws are structured, once you’re in it’s basically impossible for them to get you out. So they have very, very strict borders and they a checklist of things that they’re looking for: primarily young men who are looking to move to the UK with no return flight.
I went through the checklist online afterwards and I basically checked every single box of warning flags. After 20 hours of questioning in the bowels of the airport, where there are multiple people in the room transcribing everything I said, playing good cop bad cop, getting very aggressive, making me feel like a total criminal, I was told that I was unwelcome in the UK and that if I try to return in the next year that I’d be arrested on sight. I decided not to test that.
Nat Eliason: And when was that? That was …
Chris Sparks: That was in 2011, so I haven’t been back since. My theory is that I wouldn’t have any trouble going back if I didn’t check any of those boxes this time and had a plausible reason to be there. But I hold a bit of a grudge and I wasn’t really blown away with UK in the first place, so I’ve been happy to kind of cross it off my places to visit.
Nat Eliason: But you did end up getting to do some of that backpacking journey, right?
Chris Sparks: Yeah, so they shipped me back to Barcelona, so I landed back in Barcelona with no plan. I took stock of my situation. Originally I wanted to move to London to travel Europe a little bit. Well, this is my opportunity. I have no responsibilities, I have all of my stuff, there’s no real place I need to be at any point soon. So I just started kind of visiting friends around Europe, and realized that my appetite for poker waned with the opportunity to just wake up and go anywhere I wanted that day. I ended up doing that three months of hostel backpacking that I’d always dreamed of.
Getting introduced to new ways of life that I had no idea existed. There were people who were living on $15 or $20 a day who were some of the happiest people I’d ever met, and it really kind of threw a wrench into my whole model of the world.
Nat Eliason: Yeah, how long did you end up traveling for?
Chris Sparks: That trip was for three months, because the longest you can stay in the EU is for three months. I came back home for a bit, and basically lost a year. I puttered around at home trying to figure out what my next moves were. Finally, I had the idea to move to a place that would force me to live at a higher level, so I made a spreadsheet of all the places I wanted to live someday, ranking them across 12 different attributes, and New York came up on top.
All of my poker friends who I really respected and ambitious were getting into startups and starting companies and I decided I want to be an entrepreneur. That seems like the cool thing to do.
New York came up top in my spreadsheet, and I booked a flight to New York for the next week. I showed up knowing only two people who were college acquaintances of mine. I took them out to a steak dinner and somehow convinced them to move in with me and introduce me around. I proceeded to go to two or three startup events a night for four or five months to try to meet everyone in the startup scene and get a feel for the opportunities that were out there.
I stumbled upon doing Google Analytics consulting, because it seemed like it was a common challenge that a lot of my startup founder friends were having, and a really high leverage way to help them out. I could spend an hour looking at a database and give them three recommendations for their business they could go an implement. I started doing Google Analytics consulting, first free for my friends in exchange for referrals to paid clients, and I built a small business that supported my lifestyle in New York.
But I felt my progress of growth was too slow so I ended up going on full-time doing analytics with a fashion startup called The Cools. This was my first real exposure to how a startup worked from the inside. I mostly learned the ways not to go about running a business which was probably more valuable.
I ended up moving up to running marketing in four or five months, mostly through default because everyone else was too expensive to hire. Because of poker, I was able to work for below-market and thus be able to get by with below-market skill. That was my six month MBA working there, learning the ins and outs of startups, wearing many hats.
But answering to a boss, encouraged to not speak up or share ideas, to kind of stick to my little corner didn’t really sit right with me. I did what I had done before when I was stuck and couldn’t figure out what else to do: I decided to travel.
The impetus for this was a friend was putting together a food and whiskey tour of Japan, which was two and a half weeks long. I did a quick mental calculation and that with two weeks of vacation, I’d be unable to make this trip work. So I asked for a sabbatical to go on the trip, and three days into the trip I decided that I was not going to return on sabbatical and I quit. So yeah, I was supposed to be gone for just a month or two, and I ended up traveling for almost two years.
Traveling around the world, visiting 50 countries. A lot of it was on my own but I did some group traveling with or met up with friends. I basically tried to cross everything on my bucket list in a couple years and do all the things that I thought I wanted to do with my life but never had the time.
Nat Eliason: What were some of the big things that you managed to get to do in those two years of traveling?
Chris Sparks: I think a big part of personal growth is doing things you didn’t think you were capable of, so I would go on long multi-day hikes up a mountain. I would try to find pretty remote villages that I had heard whispers about. My biggest thing was going to festivals, I think festivals are a great way to experience local culture, and people are always very friendly at festivals. So I found a list of the top 20 festivals in the world, and I kind of systematically started going to all of them. So Carnival, Running of The Bulls, that kind of stuff. Yeah, it was fantastic.
As the trip started to come to an end, I was sitting in Thailand. As I’d mentioned before, most of my money had been seized by the government. After three years of red tape and foot shuffling the whole amount ended up as a lump sum into my checking account.
So I’m staying at a little bungalow on the beach in Thailand, no next flight, just kind of beach bumming it. I did a quick mental calculation that with the money that had hit my checking account that day, I could live on that beach like a king for the rest of my life. For the first time that I encountered this question of, “Is this what I want out of life? Is this all there is?” Because before, that hadn’t really been an option that I considered.
“Okay, what if I lived here on this beach for the rest of my life? How would I feel about my life?” And I decided that maybe I would be happy, but I would be very unsatisfied and I thought that there’s a lot more meaning and a lot more things I could do in the world. So I cut my trip short, I mean …
Nat Eliason: After two years.
Chris Sparks: As much as you can cut a two year trip short, and I came back here to New York.
Nat Eliason: Okay, so that is so much to unpack … But it’s such an amazing story. So let’s go way back to everything that you did to end up in London and with the government taking all of your money and everything. So obviously you were a very highly ranked professional, mostly online correct, poker player? I think you were what, top 20 in the world?
Chris Sparks: Yeah, at my peak.
Nat Eliason: And you were living in LA with these other guys in this absolutely amazing house, and playing poker full time. How did this start? It started when you were in college right, that you first got into poker?
Chris Sparks: I look back in terms of compounding probabilities, there was so much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time that went into it. I don’t know if you guys remember when poker was just everywhere on ESPN, that was basically my freshman year of college when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker. I don’t know about you guys, but everything we did socially was geared around poker whether it was watching it on TV or playing it with friends, and I’d been lucky to play a little bit before getting to college.
I came from a gaming background. I played some early ‘Age of Empires’ type games, and then I moved into becoming one of the best gin rummy players online. My gin rummy friends started playing poker, so I’d been playing basically freeroll poker tournaments my senior year of high school.
When I get to college, I already have a small leg up on all these guys in terms of poker skill. Poker is so big, so I’m just playing in college basements and dorm rooms and doing really well. I mean, relative to my lifestyle, I’m making beer money and food money in college. A couple of these guys who I think are really bad at poker start talking about how much money they’re making online, so I say, “Okay, I’m going to start checking this out.”
To put it into context, I was just such a way over ambitious college kid, ambitious in I think in the wrong directions. I was really set on making TV commercials for a living, so I was in all these college organizations, I was running the advertising at our school’s newspaper, taking on the max amount of credits available so I didn’t have that much free time, but the amount of money that could be made at online poker that time was just undeniable, especially if you’re in college.
I’d started paying off my college before I graduated by playing poker, first by tournaments and then I switched to cash games my senior year. By the time that I graduated in 2008, I had not only paid off my college but I had enough savings that I could go a couple years without working. But the thought of doing this for a living just never struck me as an option, I was still so set on this corporate path.
I was on a reality TV show my senior year with Ford that led to being offered a management track position in advertising, so I’d actually get to work on making TV commercials which was my dream, and I was just dead set on that. This whole making money at poker felt like a sideshow while I actually got off into the real world and got a real job and did what real adults do.
I had two very fortunate events that kind of threw me off of that path, the path most traveled. The first one was the end of my senior year, I misclicked with my mouse, I accidentally entered into a tournament where the first place prize was an all expenses paid trip to Brazil to play in a live tournament there where you got $2,000 in airfare, all your expenses paid, five star hotel, and entry into the tournament. I had entered into the tournament by mistake, but once I was in there I couldn’t unregister and I ended up winning the whole tournament.
I looked, okay, when is this thing happening? Oh, it’s during finals week. My senior year of finals, and I don’t even have a passport, and Brazil visa is just absolutely notoriously hard to get. So I had two weeks to get a passport, a Brazilian visa, and take my senior year finals, and I somehow managed, to just go all out, get all these things done, take my finals, graduate early, get a passport and a visa. The visa came an hour before my flight.
I fly down to Brazil. To make it clear, I had never left the country before, and I show up in Rio de Janeiro on my own, and I walk into the hotel lobby and it’s full of just super nerdy, pale white guys on their laptops in the hotel lobby. And this is a beautiful five-star hotel, we can look out the window and see the ocean, and all these guys are just sitting on their computers in the lobby. And my first thought was, “Wow, what losers, the beach is right there, why don’t you guys go outside and chill at the beach?”
Then it hit me. For these guys, this is so normal for them to be in a five-star hotel on the beach that they can afford to just sit and play poker because this is just another day for them.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realized… these guys, they look like me. I can do that, I can be sitting on my laptop at the beach. That was the first moment that I actually considered oh, maybe I’ll do this poker thing for a living.
But that wasn’t enough. That whole experience wasn’t enough for me. I still was set on going into Ford, and I move up to Detroit right after I graduate-
Nat Eliason: Wait, back up. So how did you do in Brazil though? Did you win that as well?
Chris Sparks: So this was my first major live tournament, and I was just way overexcited, there was so much adrenaline that I lost the tournament in the first hour.
Nat Eliason: Oh god. But you got the free trip to Brazil.
Chris Sparks: Free trip to Brazil, and the players were so bad. I couldn’t believe how bad the players are, but I was just so excited, there was so much adrenaline, I just flamed out. But I mean, yeah, the nice thing about playing a tournament in Brazil is you lose the tournament and you’re still in Brazil.
Nat Eliason: Yeah, you get to go hang out on the beach for the rest of it.
Chris Sparks: Yeah. I was only on a chicken finger diet, and I got dared by one of my new friends to hang glide off of Sugarloaf Mountain. I was terribly afraid of heights, and I thought okay, all these new friends are looking at me, I have to do this. I land on the beach and I’m like, “Oh my god, I’ve cheated death! I’ve made it off there. What are some other things that I’ve been super afraid to do that I should do now that I haven’t died? And I decided that maybe I should try fruits for the first time. And I started eating-
Nat Eliason: For the first time?
Chris Sparks: And I started eating fruit. And yeah, that started getting me off the chicken finger diet and eating more sophisticated things.
Nat Eliason: So you really were like some of the other guys hanging out in the hotel lobby, unhealthy, behind a computer most of the day.
Chris Sparks: Oh, it was so bad. I didn’t even get into the whole Ford thing, but the auto industry collapsed and I basically was put in hiring purgatory for six months where every week Ford would call me up and say, “We’re going to bring you on next week,” until I finally realized that they were never going to bring me on.
But I was happy to have an excuse to keep playing poker. I could still kind of cognitive dissonance justify by way of I’m still doing what I’m supposed to do, I’m still going to be a successful guy, and I can still continue making money playing poker.
I was so miserable, man. I didn’t know anyone in Detroit, I was just sitting in my apartment building. The only live person I would see is the guy delivering my pizza every day. Just ate my entire pizza and drank my two liter of soda.
I put on weight, got really unhealthy, and took years off my life. Since I had no responsibilities, no friends, nothing to do, I could put all of my energy into poker. And it was that year that I was in Detroit that I went from being pretty good to being one of the best poker players in the world.
It’s hard to say whether it was worth it to live that kind of lifestyle, but I don’t know if I had been in another situation where I had a life with friends and things to do that I would’ve gotten as good at poker as I did.
Nat Eliason: Yeah, so how were you improving? How were you learning to play poker so well, what did that process look like?
Chris Sparks: I think it’s like a lot of things in life in that there are people who are practitioners and are doing the thing, and that are people who aren’t as good who are selling how to do the thing to people who aren’t very good, and I think the best way to learn how to play poker is just by playing a lot of it.
I had figured out a hack that the best way to learn something is by teaching it, so I began coaching other really really good poker players for money. The hidden benefit of this is that they were almost as good as I was. It was an opportunity to see what are all of the other best players in the world are doing. I was able to adopt some of those things, and make what I did so concrete and accessible that it became second-nature to me. I knew how to play like the back of my hand, it was so instinctual.
I coached 120 players and I also built a side business where I was investing in players. Because I became the best in my niche, I always recommend picking a niche that you could be number one in and expand from there.
I became the go-to guy for coaching poker in a very specific set of cash games. I was able to not only learn from them, but have a piece of all of their action. So if anybody in these games won, I profited. I think that was my biggest secret was that I had access to what all of the other poker players were doing and so I became an X-man mutant where I could adopt all the best parts of everyone else’s game.
Nat Eliason: Was there no conflict between all the players getting coached by you? Wouldn’t they end up playing against each other and then … Or was it just such a big market that that wasn’t a big concern?
Chris Sparks: That’s a controversial thing as far as coaching. I think like frequent flyer miles or a lot of these kind of race to the bottom things you see in industry where the best thing for everyone is to have no poker coaching.
There were training sites that the top players would get paid $2–5,000 per video to share all their secrets. I thought about doing that, but as crazy as it sounds to me these days, getting paid $2,000 to make a video and talk poker strategy was a negative investment for me because the information was that valuable. I’d rather share it one on one than one to many.
The best thing would be for everyone to just sit in their rooms by themselves and play poker and not share anything, but the individual incentive is to talk to other players to get better and to sell your knowledge to other players looking to get better too. Poker’s a very risky endeavor, there’s a lot of variance, so your earnings from day to day vary greatly. If you can get some guaranteed and ideally passive income, that was the ideal.
Everyone would prefer that I didn’t coach every single player, but because I did, if you weren’t getting coaching from me you were at an extreme disadvantage and that made you want to get coaching even more.
Nat Eliason: That’s fantastic. So when did LA happen? Did you go straight there from Detroit?
Chris Sparks: So I’d been kind of languishing in Detroit for almost a year, I’d moved there after college and this was October at this point, and it was about to be my 21st birthday. So I had all of my online friends, my best friends in the world at this point are guys who I’ve never met. I’m talking to them on AOL Messenger and online forums.
Nat Eliason: Wow, so all of this, becoming an expert poker player, going to Brazil, coaching these people, and you couldn’t buy a drink yet?
Chris Sparks: I think being around people who are a level higher than you is just such a crazy life hack, where I was forced to mature really quickly because people around me were older and experienced, and I think that’s been kind of a theme throughout my life, is to surround myself with people who I think are one level beyond where I am.
So I got my 15 closest online poker friends all together to Vegas, and we rented a set of suites and just balled out for the weekend. Got multiple bottle services, all the five-star restaurants, absurd amounts of very large random betting. A future roommate in LA lost $80,000 flipping coins one night at the club.
Nat Eliason: Just betting on the success of coin flips?
Chris Sparks: Betting thousands of dollars on, “I can make this three-pointer,” that kind of stuff.
Nat Eliason: Oh gosh.
Chris Sparks: Really absurd stories there. I mean, the craziest one I ever did was I tried to walk down the Las Vegas strip in women’s high heels for five grand and I could not do it, but I did get three phone numbers.
Oh yeah, moving to LA. So we had this amazing weekend in Vegas, a couple of the guys were living in their parents’ basements, literally, and I am miserable in Detroit by myself in my depressing apartment. Okay, we need to keep this going, how can we get a place together? We can create this coalition of coworking, where we all get better at poker together.
So we’re like okay, what’s the closest beach to here? We look at a map and it’s Los Angeles, so we drive to Los Angeles. We call some guy on Craigslist on the way to show us around houses the whole day. The last house we see is this $7 million mansion in the Hollywood Hills, and we just fall in love. That became a whole thing, because the owner was a total crook but it was a massive upgrade in living situation.
I felt obliged to work hard to live up to this lifestyle that I created for myself. where I had a hot tub and a sauna and a steam room and a gym for myself in my bedroom. It gave us something to live up to. And for the first time, I was surrounded by poker players who were actually treating it like a profession.
Even though I had literally nothing to do in Detroit, because it was such a depressing lifestyle, I could barely get myself to play. Instantly, the number of hours that I worked despite all the play we were doing in LA doubled. I mean, it’s such a cliché that you are the five people you surround yourself with, but it’s so true. That was the best year and a half of my life in terms of growth was that that time in LA. Things just went gangbusters.
Nat Eliason: That’s crazy. So why were some of these guys living in their parents’ basements if they were at the same time blowing $80,000 on coin flips? Was it just part of the mentality or …
Chris Sparks: That’s a tough psychoanalysis right there. I think it’s just because the money was not real to us. See, because we’re playing online poker, we’re playing for such large amounts of money, but if you treat it as real you can’t make the moves you need to do. You need to just treat it as a number on the screen. Where if I’m betting a car on a bluff, I can’t be thinking about what I could buy with that money instead, it just needs to be a very objective investment.
I don’t think it had hit any of us just how ridiculously rich and privileged we were until that weekend in Vegas. We’d been living very menial lives, basically there was no external change in our lives while we were on our computers playing poker. But once you get all of us together in a room in Vegas feeding off each other’s energy, letting all this gambling out that had been closeted up for so long, because you can’t talk about this kind of stuff with your real life friends, it was like, wow, we can do anything we want.
Then it becomes: well, what do we want to do?
Nat Eliason: That’s great. So how long did the LA house continue for?
Chris Sparks: For a year and a half. It would’ve gone on for longer I’m pretty sure because it was such a good situation. We actually did a pilot for a reality show towards the end that was getting close to picked up. But yeah, April 2011, April 15th 2011, the day that will live in infamy. The same day that I wrote a six-figure check to the IRS, the government shuts down online poker in the US and that kind of put the online poker dream to an end.
Nat Eliason: Yeah, so what was going through your head on that day? What was that like?
Chris Sparks: I was at Coachella, I picked up my phone and I had 50 missed texts which is really unusual because I just hate texting, and I thought wow, something big is going down. Oh okay, poker is done, it’s shut down. And I kind of played it off because there’s always been rumors around this, but because you’re doing so well, you’re so invested in the status quo. Cognitive dissonance, I was like, “Well it’s going to be fine, it’s going to sort itself out.”
It became clear that it was not fine, that it was possible we would never get our money back and that poker as we knew it, and that was all we knew at this point, would be done. I became like a deer in headlights, where I was just glued to my computer for a couple months reading everything I could and not taking action.
It really kind of made me assess how I would do in an actual crisis, because if you guys have heard of a black swan, it’s something that I knew was always possible but I had never considered the possibility. So when it actually happened, I was just completely unprepared and just stuck in place. I couldn’t figure out which way to go.
Nat Eliason: And you said that a lot of you guys kept your money in the poker online systems right?
Chris Sparks: Yeah.
Nat Eliason: And so the government was able to just grab all of that?
Chris Sparks: We treated the poker sites like a bank. I mean, it was the way that we paid each other, I ran my business through the sites through poker transfers, and it was just assumed that it was just as good as cash. And because we were doing so well, we didn’t have time to think about where to invest it, we just let it sit there and accumulate.
Nat Eliason: So a lot of guys, I guess you-
Chris Sparks: A lot of guys got wiped out, where they had kids and bills to pay and they had just gotten used to keeping 100% of their worth in this site, so yeah. At one point, people were selling the balance in their accounts for 20 cents on the dollar because they were so desperate and there was no idea when or if they would get this money back.
Nat Eliason: And it took you said three years for you to finally get it back?
Chris Sparks: Three years, yeah.
Nat Eliason: That’s crazy. And in that time, you went off and had all these other adventures that we’ve covered, and eventually ended up back in New York. So you said that you started doing some of this marketing, Google Analytics type work with these startups. How did that get started and how did you build up that skill set?
Chris Sparks: I think the same way I did with the poker coaching with the secret of learning by teaching. I discovered that entrepreneurs as an audience, their biggest constraint was time, so if I could open up their time that they were spending on something, it was worth it to them even if I wasn’t an expert. So even if I knew 20% more about Google Analytics than they did, it was worth it for them to pay me.
I would get hired to do jobs and then I would learn, use that as an excuse to learn how to do the things that I was getting paid for. Where this idea of a forcing function really struck home for me is having this precommitment to do something as a way to force myself to get good at it and learn.
And as I didn’t want to disappoint the people who had hired me, particularly those who had become my friends, so I worked really really hard to become an expert in this thing. I don’t think I would have if it had not been for that extra push of, people are expecting something from me. It was awesome, I got a lot of exposure to entrepreneurs and the way that they work and the challenges that they face day to day.
What informed what I was doing now is that I would witness that these guys worked crazy hours.I always liked the joke that you become an entrepreneur to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week, and it’s so true. These guys, they were putting in so absurd hours, pouring themselves in the business, and I just saw much inefficiency in that they weren’t delegating very well, they were spending a lot of their time with things that were not that valuable, they were not seeing a lot of ways to become more efficient.
It just kind of occurred to me, that I could help these guys become a lot more productive and I started doing it informally.
When we were playing poker, because we were just making so much money per hour, the incentives were so high to basically cut all other unnecessary parts out of our lives so we could spend as much time as possible playing poker. I got very good at becoming very efficient in all my parts of life so I could maximize that time I had, and I realized that a lot of those skills that I learned applied themselves to entrepreneurship as well.
Nat Eliason: So what were some of those first things that you started working on with these entrepreneurs, what was your initial foray? And we’re talking now about your latest work, which is The Forcing Function right, doing productivity output systems coaching for entrepreneurs. Where did that start specifically focusing on?
Chris Sparks: Yeah, it’s a funny thing, I love helping friends, I love having high-level conversations, and I hadn’t really planned on making a business out of it. I was just enjoying the conversations. It didn’t actually become a business until a friend was over here for tea and said, “Oh, I love that productivity stuff you’re doing, I heard you were really helpful. How do we get started?” And I’m like, “What? Well, let’s just talk about it,” and he’s like, “No, I want to hire you.” He’s like, “How much does it cost?” I was like, “I don’t know,” and I just came up with a number that was way too low in hindsight, and he was like, “Cool, well what do I get?”
And I just made up some things in a Google Doc “Well we’ll talk this amount, this much per month and I’ll help you do this and do this.” and emailed it to him afterwards, and I was in business. I had my first client. I think that’s a really good thing to look for is if the market is pulling something out of you that I hadn’t even asked for a sale or put my shingle out to start a business, and somebody asked to hire me.
That was a really good indicator to me that I had stumbled onto something that was both high leverage and universally useful, this idea of becoming more productive.
So it started with him, my first client. My biggest thing that I helped him with was making the most of his time outside of his day job. He had a side hustle that he was trying to build outside of his job. I think kind of the same thing would apply if you’re in classes all day and you want to start to build some side income and some skills outside your classes.
How do you create a separate context to be productive when you have no need to do so? The biggest things there are prioritization, goal setting, having deadlines, and holding yourself to the same standard and structure that a boss would. That’s how it all started. I basically would help people set up the structure for themselves as if they were working for a company, but they were their own boss.
From there, I started talking to my old poker friends who had since gone on to become entrepreneurs. I had a really established credibility there with that audience, I knew how to speak their language. Some of them I had worked with before in a poker coaching context. I think that’s always the best way to go about it is start with the people who know you well and you’ve already worked with, you have a good chemistry. They were nice enough to give me referrals to other clients.
I’ve tried a lot of things for marketing, and I think the vast majority of them were a waste of time. The only thing I’ve really found that works is doing a really good job, that my marketing is the product. I find that the more that I help people become productive, the more they want to tell their friends and help me get more clients. So I basically stopped all of my work on marketing, I just focus on how can I be there for these guys?
And it’s not just, okay, we’re going to talk this much per month, but thinking about them when I’m in the shower. Not in a weird sense, but just always be looking for ways to help them without taking up time. Like oh, I know they have this big event on Saturday, I know they’re going to be really busy, what’s something I can surprise them with that’ll take it off their plate? Treating it as if I’m their right-hand man.
That was a year ago that I started doing the productivity coaching, it’s just kind of grown from there.
Nat Eliason: That’s great, and if you don’t mind us soliciting free help very briefly here, what-
Chris Sparks: I love nerding out about this stuff.
Nat Eliason: I feel like this is such a common challenge, it was definitely a challenge for me when I was in college starting, and it’s a lot of, it’s difficult for people after school too obviously. Setting aside time for these things you want to work on and these things you want to learn when you have this other big commitment taking up most of your time.
And so you talked a little bit about how you help people kind of become their own bosses in that way, create that structure, what does that look like on a high level? How could somebody start building that for themselves?
Chris Sparks: Yeah, I think that the two key components there are priorities and schedule. And so as a college student, you’re really lucky in that some of that skeleton of a structure is already created for you by your classes, but that means taking the extra effort to create space to work on your own thing. There’s so many temptations and distractions of things to do when in college, but you can use those classes as a skeleton to set aside time to work on your own thing.
If you identify those gaps in your schedule and go to a place that’s quiet and you won’t be disturbed and work on that, even if it’s just for an hour a day, you will start to run circles around your classmates. I look back at my work habits in college, and despite how busy I was, it was really bad.
One of my favorite studies is looking at the best way to perform on a paper. And they had two different formats where in one version of the class you just have a final exam on the end and in the other you have checkpoints along the way, like a weekly quiz type of thing. They found that the more checkpoints you have the better that you do, because you break up the work into chunks rather than doing it all at the end and trying to cram.
Cramming has been scientifically proven to be a very bad way to study for a test, you want to do spaced repetition, so studying in small bursts over time, let it sink in. In the same way, you want to set that up for your classes or for your business by creating regular checkpoints with somebody so you make sure you’re making progress rather than trying to do these big sprints at the finish.
So if I were doing it again and I was in college and starting a business, I would partner up with somebody who was on a similar path as me and try to hold ourselves accountable, show each other what we’re working on on a regular basis. I would create a schedule and a structure for myself where if I wasn’t in class, I’d have certain dedicated hours at the same time every day or every week that I was going to the library or going to a café and working on the business.
The way I structured it when I was in college, because I was trying to set time for poker, was I had all of my classes on two days, generally Tuesday and Thursday, and I would treat Monday as getting all my work done and then Wednesday and Friday as my poker days. The same way you could do that is if you batch all your classes together effectively, you could create full days that you can focus on your business, where everyone else is in class and you won’t have as many distractions.
Nat Eliason: That’s great. And what are some of the really bad habits that you commonly see with clients when you’re trying to help them set up those structures and get started? What is usually the thing that is impeding someone’s progress or impeding someone’s output that they might not have identified already or might be surprising to them to have you point out if anything comes to mind?
Chris Sparks: So many … Yeah.
Nat Eliason: It can be multiple things too, yeah.
Chris Sparks: I think we get in our own way a lot. I think there’s a lot of opportunity with working more hours or working smarter, but I think at the end of the day it really comes down to this inner game and understanding what’s important, and creating the habits to make progress on that.
In this productivity coaching I come back often to the idea of system. How can you make progress on your priorities automatic where it’s going to happen no matter what? That comes down to measuring, by having a way to measure progress you can improve anything. Whether it’s your diet, your sleep, your habits, your revenue, you will improve just by measurement. Just by paying attention to something. Attention is curative, you will fix or improve anything by measuring it, and then creating the habits.
Try thinking about this: what is one thing that if I did every day would ensure that I moved forward? Then making sure that thing happens every day.
The way I think about it is: if I spend an hour on my most important thing every day, the rest of the day is a complete bonus. My priority becomes creating the space to make sure that that hour is undisturbed and then to make the most out of it.
There’s a lot nested in there. I think that the big thing is one, know what’s most important for you, two, treat it like a priority so that it becomes the most important thing for you to you create the space to move it forward, and then third, building habits around that priority t so it becomes automatic It’s not something you need to force to do, but just becomes part of your identity, who you are.
I think that’s the biggest mistake that I see, being unclear about priorities, or not creating the space to move forward on them.
Another mistake is relying too much on motivation and willpower rather than systems and habits. We have this culture in the US, you look at weigh lifter types or motivational speakers, where all say: “just do it!” All you’re missing is just suck it up and get to the gym, or oh, this is not important to you? Why aren’t you doing it? I think this fallacy is really insidious on our society. I think that true success comes from small improvements every day.
Put that system in place, that check to see how you’re doing. Pay attention to reality, and then make sure that you’re doing slightly better every day. A 1% improvement every day is a 3,000% improvement in a year. Don’t underestimate the power of small bites of progress every day. I think that’s the biggest thing I see.
Nat Eliason: What is your personal, daily, weekly, or larger scale routine look like? Or maybe not routine, but your system for reflection and making sure that you’re focusing on these things and improving those systems instead of just responding to the latest thing that’s come across your desk, inbox, computer?
Chris Sparks: Wow, there’s so much there. I come back to feedback loops a lot. A feedback loop is taking in feedback, so how did I do, and then implementing that. And the tighter I can make those loops, the more often that I’m checking with myself on how I’m doing, the faster that I’ll grow.
So I’m trying to create the habit of reviewing my measurements, reviewing how I’m doing, whether that’s objectively or subjectively through journaling, and implementing things that I can do better for next time that no setback is a setback, it’s a lesson, it’s an opportunity to improve.
The way that I do that is through daily and weekly reviews. What I’m trying to do is be a little bit less myopic in what I do. The temptation is to put out the fires constantly that we’re getting, especially with social media and messaging. We’re so used to just getting all of our time spent on other people’s priorities rather than our own.
So first, it’s knowing what’s most important to me, and that starts on planning on a quarterly, yearly, even lifetime level on what I want to achieve with my life, what I want to achieve this year, what I want to achieve this quarter, and thinking about ways that I can make small, tiny amounts of progress on that every day and every week. And it’s just breaking down those giant projects into the smallest possible steps, and thinking about what’s the very next thing that I can do to make progress on that.
So every week, I sit down for a half hour and think, okay, what would make this week successful? Let’s time travel a week ahead of time, predict the future. If I did this this week, how would I feel? What if I did this instead? And thinking about okay, what would make me happiest about this week, what would make me feel most fulfilled? Great, okay, that’s the thing I’m going to do. Now, how can I make sure that that actually happens?
I treat everything like a habit. The things that I want to do, how can I make them easier to do in the future? How can I reduce friction towards them? How I can I make them the more natural thing to do? The things that I don’t want to do that are distractions, and that could be the second most important thing I want to do at the time, the third most thing I want to do, those become, how can I make those harder to do? How can I make them less accessible?
If I was in college, I’d be like okay, what are all of the distractions? Okay, well Thursday night all the guys are going to want to do a case race, I don’t know, man, I’m so out of touch. Well, how am I going to feel on Friday, which is my day to work on my business, if I drink 24 beers? Probably not so good. So okay, so how can I create a constraint around that so I set myself up for success to move my goal forward on Friday?
I am constantly predicting the future. If I know the context, the environment that I’m going to be when I sit down, I can predict how I’m going to do. So I first figure out what I want to do, and then I figure out what is the future scenario that I can put myself in that maximizes my percentage chance of that actually happening.
Nat Eliason: So obviously we’ve covered a ton with the productivity stuff, which is awesome and I know I definitely appreciate it because I didn’t get to drill in on some of this stuff with you, and there’s a ton more beyond it. So what have been the biggest sources for you for learning a lot of this stuff? What has been the most helpful for figuring it out and teaching yourself?
Chris Sparks: I think there are a couple of good books on productivity. I think the most of the stuff you read, particularly online, is really really bad and I wouldn’t waste your time. I think productivity is kind of entertainment business and it’s easy to learn a lot about things that you could do to improve and not actually improve anything. So I would focus any of your efforts on productivity on specific issues that you’ve noticed and looking for actionable things to do, and then actually putting them into action.
I think the go-to book is ‘Getting Things Done.’ I think we’ve talked about ‘Motivation Hacker,’ the two of us, I think that’s a really cool one. I think Cal Newport’s work, particularly ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You,’ particularly written for college students. I highly recommend that one.
I really do think that the best way to learn though is from other practitioners, so I’ve picked up the most by talking to other people who I respect and get a lot done and kind of shadowing them in a way. See the things that they take for granted that they find very obvious that aren’t really obvious, and ask “Oh, that’s interesting, why do you do that?” “ Oh, okay, that’s a really cool thing that you’re doing, maybe I should adopt that as well.”
On the same concept, I was talking about the poker coaching. Getting access to what all the other top performers were doing and deconstructing that. The best things aren’t written in books. By the time it makes its way into a book or a textbook, it’s already outdated information. So yeah, talk to friends, and then I find as I said before that if you measure something, you will improve it.
I just try to treat everything like an experiment, and I’m constantly looking for ideas for things I could potentially implement or experiment with on myself and see what works. So the more things that you try, the more things you’re going to find that works. They all compound and build upon themselves.
Nat Eliason: And what were you sharing when this first friend/client asked you for help, were you blogging about the stuff that you were reading, were you just sending it to your friends? Because you mentioned that he had seen some productivity stuff you were doing, right? And that’s kind of a cool way for you to stumble into a business, that you’re just putting this information out there and then suddenly people want to pay for it. So how would you have been doing that?
Chris Sparks: Well I think if I was doing it the right way, I would’ve been writing about it and sharing what I learned. Something I think about a lot now is how can I convert all of my consumption into production, sharing my work. So anything that I’m learning, not being selfish with it, sharing the gold. Anything I find really useful, others are going to find useful as well, and trying to be less perfectionistic about how I share that.
At the time, it was just having conversations with friends, and I was lucky enough to have good social capital and proof points available with them, where I wasn’t really signing anybody in the early going who didn’t know me personally because there was no way for them to be exposed to me and there was no proof that I could do what I said I could do.
That’s another big recommendation that I have for college students as far as learning from my own mistakes in hindsight, is as early as you can, be starting to build a portfolio around what you’re doing. And whatever that is, so just putting work out there that people can find you.
I think success really comes down to two dimensions. It’s one, having proof that you can do what you say you can do, that’s the portfolio. That could be blogging, it could be sharing your photos, that could be case studies if you’re doing work for a client. And then two, it’s being top of mind. So writing, blogging, talking to friends, being active on social media in the right way, all those things help you be top of mind that you’re very referable.
And I think when those two factors combine and there’s some activities, like writing and blogging that achieve both, success becomes very downhill and it’s a very good place to be. As I said before, when people are coming to you, you can have your pick of opportunities rather than having to go out there and find them for yourself.
So yeah, the best time to start writing is yesterday. I finally started writing a book earlier this year, and I’ve been putting that out on my Medium page. But man, it’s like something I wish I had been doing for years. I let my fear kind of run the day. I was worried what people would think, that they wouldn’t like it, that it wouldn’t be up to my usual standards.
And fuck all that, sorry about the swearing, but fuck it. No one’s really paying that much attention, and if anyone finds it useful it’s selfish to not share it. So yeah, do that today if you can.
Nat Eliason: I think there’s also that myth that a lot of people hold in their head, I definitely did for a while too, which is that you’re never quite good enough to put the ideas out there. But it’s really something about that explanation and sharing process that, like you’ve said a few times now, actually clarifies the ideas in your head and helps you figure out more about it, and then you have to go out and do research and you’re learning more about it and connecting these ideas.
I know we were talking about this a bit before too, that part of why you like doing these podcasts is that even that is a good way to clarify your own thinking.
Chris Sparks: Man, that’s such a great point Nat. Yeah, I think you said it much better than I could. I’m always thinking about opportunities to force myself to expand my capabilities, so I find that with my writing, I’m discovering along with the reader. The process of writing, exposes gaps in my thinking and kind of leads me to do more research or a combination of ideas that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, that it’s the forcing function to level up in a way. And yeah, I recommend it to anyone.
The biggest thing you can do, particularly in college where you will never have as much serendipity and exposure to people from all over who have all this free time and opportunity to do things, is to just to work on projects together. Do things that scare you, take advantage of the massive amount of resources at your school you’re already paying for, and take on opportunities to expand your skillset through projects and activities. The fastest way to level up is by necessity.
Nat Eliason: Yeah, I think that’s a fantastic note to wrap up on.
So if people want to find all this writing that you’re now putting out and your other work, where should they go online?
Chris Sparks: So my all buttoned up professional website is TheForcingFunction.com. I occasionally do the twittering thing, more active on Facebook. You can friend me on there as well. That’s SparksRemarks on both Twitter and Facebook.
I’m also putting out chapters of my book Inflection Point where I talk about all of this productivity stuff including how to decide what you want to do with your life, how to create habits, how to get yourself unstuck, how to create time in your life, all that good stuff.
Nat Eliason: Perfect. So we’ll be sure to link to all of that in the show notes. And Chris, thanks so much for coming on today.
Chris Sparks: Well this was a lot of fun, thanks for having me on.
Nat Eliason: All right.
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